By Peter Stromberg
Over the last century, anthropologists have often chosen to study exotic symbolic systems — rituals, myth, art — and frequently managed to illuminate the cultural logic underlying what seem initially to be “irrational” practices.
So why haven’t anthropologists leapt to study one of the most exotic and powerful symbolic systems in human history? I’m talking about the Western (and predominantly American) system of “entertainment”. Not only is this system central to contemporary Western culture, it has arguably played a major role in the breakdown of the cultures of many indigenous communities.
Entertainment should be a significant focus of anthropological inquiry. Alas, it is not.
Admittedly, some interest in the topic has emerged in the last couple of decades. Much of this material is promising; often authors pursue the insight that in some ways entertainment activities are similar to rituals. This is not only an accurate observation, but it points to the possibility of beginning to map how entertainment works to establish some of the central meanings of contemporary life.
I have usually been disappointed, however, by the level of insight provided by such studies. Much of this work turns out not to have a lot to say when it comes to explaining the specifics of how these entertainment rituals undergird our social order. This is one of the reasons I have urged an alternative approach, namely, considering entertainment activities as forms of play. Another reason is that for the most part those who participate in entertainment regard it not as ritual but as play.
Students of play have often pointed to the importance of the experience of becoming deeply immersed in play. We can become so caught up in a game or a narrative or an episode of pretending that we become entirely focused on the activity and to some extent lose track of our everyday co-ordinates.
In my new book Caught in Play: How Entertainment Works on You (2009,Stanford), I argue that such experiences are akin to Durkheimian episodes of collective effervescence, they are moments of ecstasy wherein the importance of key cultural powers and values is palpably felt.
What has this to do with neuroanthropology? Plenty, it turns out. These ecstatic experiences, which seem to be especially likely to occur in play, ritual, and intense social interaction, are built (at least in part) from automatic neural processes such as imitation, emotional contagion, and attentional absorption.
To take a single example: Increasingly, neuroscientists argue that a mirror neuron system in humans is implicated in our enormous capacity for imitation and “mind-reading,” the ability to grasp what our conspecifics are up to. And this ability to adopt the perspective of another is evident not only in social interaction, it also underlies our imaginative play and by extension our understanding of narratives. In other words, recent findings on imitation and mirroring help us to begin to understand why we should be so easily and powerfully “carried away” into imaginative situations.
There is still much to be learned here. However, it is now clear that the play of entertainment is not a sociological triviality. Rather, entertainment is a privileged site through which some of the key values of consumption are fused with emotional power through experiences that seem to transcend the everyday. Neuroanthropology can play a vital role in building a theory of the culture of entertainment, a symbolic system that is at the very foundation of the contemporary political and economic order.
Let me end with one example – Michael Jackson. He shows how powerful modern entertainment is as a symbolic system that catches us up in play, absorption and mimicry. Thriller became popular through MTV, a music video that caught us up in a playful story and dance moves many tried to match. It has even been acted out on large scale by Philippine prison inmates!
Drawing on the enormous wealth built through his music, Jackson built a theme park for a home, but when his actions crossed from play to something more threatening and damaging for children, his legal troubles started at Neverland Ranch. The changes in his appearance were discussed endlessly for their symbolic value about modern identity, race, and more. With his recent death, right before a London comeback concert tour (already 50 sold-out dates), entertainers of all sorts have moonwalked, sung, danced, and worn a sequined glove for all of us to watch. This is modern entertainment.
Peter Stromberg is professor of anthropology at the University of Tulsa. If you want to read more, you can see our coverage of his new book Caught in Play: How Entertainment Works on You.
You can also access his 2008 article (pdf), Symbolic Valorization in the Culture of Entertainment: The Example of Legal Drug Use, which uses the examples of smoking and drinking to discuss how modern entertainment works as a symbolic and emotional system through transformative experience and play as a social practice.