Entertainment's Disciples

Where does entertainment lead us?

Posted Oct 25, 2009

I have done a few media interviews in connection with my book on entertainment, and at times I have been pressed to offer a judgment on whether the entertainment that is prominent in our culture is a good or a bad thing. I resist making such judgments, in part because that's not my job. As a social scientist, my task is to study entertainment, not to pass moral judgments. In addition, it seems to me that the category of entertainment is too broad to be judged good or bad. Entertainment is like the weather-sometimes good, sometimes bad. But nobody makes a global judgment of weather like "weather is bad." I don't think global judgments of entertainment make much sense either.

That doesn't mean that it's impossible to generalize about the effects of entertainment on our lives. For example, we should be aware that participating in any sort of entertainment is a form of discipline. It seems odd to say this-watching TV doesn't seem like discipline at all. That's because we usually use discipline to refer to rigorous training, and sitting in front of a television does not seem like training at all, much less rigorous training. But our word discipline is derived from disciple, which as you may know means "follower." To participate in entertainment like novels or movies or TV, you have to follow what is going on. You must become a disciple, a follower of the entertainment.

Those who have followed a course of rigorous training-to master a profession or a sport or a skill such as carpentry, for example-will probably be able to describe the payoff of this sort of discipline. Rigorous training makes demands, and because of that the person who goes through it is changed, something is added to the self. The disciple follows the tradition, and whether the tradition is becoming a physician or a member of a religion, the disciple is transformed.

The discipline of entertainment is not rigorous, it is fun; that's why it is entertainment. But that does not mean we do not follow it. Entertainment can take us to relaxation and to pleasurable experiences, and it too will transform those who engage in it. Virtually everyone (including me) enjoys some entertainment. But some disciples of entertainment-like some followers of religion-become fanatics. When talking about entertainment, we use a shortened version of the word: fan. There are always some dangers with fanaticism.

At the end of the day, what people want to do with their lives is none of my business, and not something I have anything to say about. But I do feel comfortable saying this: What you follow is a pretty good guide to where you will end up.

To learn more, please visit Peter G. Stromberg's website. Painting photo by Sharon Mollerus.