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Entertainment and Communication Theories, Essay Example

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According to it’s the social usage of the term, entertainment suggests a form of leisure that is radically divorced from the normative obligations of the individual as determined by the dominant social discourse. In other words, entertainment is precisely the space in which one may retreat from their socially determined obligations. However, such a view seems to presuppose a false dichotomy: is the realm of leisure and entertainment not entirely also a part of the social realm, such that forms of entertainment have an effect upon the greater social space, whereas the latter also has an influence on the former? Already with Plato, we see an account of entertainment that critiques the view that entertainment possesses no greater social value. Hence, in The Republic, he writes “And so we may at last say that we should be justified in not admitting him [the mimetic poet] into a well-ordered state, because he stimulates and fosters this element in the soul, and by strengthening it tends to destroy the rational part… Precisely in the same manner we shall say that the mimetic poet sets up in each individual a vicious constitution by fashioning phantoms far removed from reality…, but calls the same thing now one, now the other.” (Plato, 473b) In this quote, Plato is directly speaking about poetry and how it can bear a negative impact upon the state: insofar as the state possesses a particular foundation for its norms (in Plato’s case, logical and rational thought as he understands these terms), entertainment that is normatively opposed to this foundation can be viewed as a threat to the state. But Plato’s quote contains a further meaning. The prohibition of certain forms of entertainment also implies that insofar as other forms of entertainment may be encouraged by the broader social discourse, this entertainment is complicit with hegemonic social normativities. In other words, entertainment is not entirely distinct from the greater social order, but rather can reveal fundamental issues about what constitutes this order, either in the form of the critique or acceptance of the latter. Entertainment thus may designate either a variant of ideology or ideology critique. In the case of the latter, entertainment is ideology critique when it opposes the dominant social norms; in the case of the former, entertainment is ideology when it is homogeneous with these same norms.

In order to develop this provisional theory of entertainment, a more in-depth analysis of the aforementioned quotation from Plato is required. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates and his interlocutors begin their dialogue with the question of “What is justice?” This somewhat abstract question dovetails into a more practical investigation, as the participants attempt to respond to this query through the construction of an imagined city-state: what would be the ideal structure of this Republic? As the above citation notes, the Republic is one that preserves a sense of “order”, where here the order of the city-state itself corresponds to a particular account of reason and rationality: reason is essentially an ordering mechanism. Yet the pre-condition of this ordering mechanism is reason’s own intrinsic rules: to think rationally, in the case of Plato, is essentially to think realistically, that is, it is to avoid illusions. Rationality is inherently bound to reality precisely because rationality is a certain critical instrument that allows one to disperse with prejudices and superstitions that ultimately possess no logical foundation. The poet as a form of entertainment becomes dangerous to the city to the extent that he does not utilize the same form of rationality that the Socratic interlocutors promote as ideal to the city-state. Rather, in the Platonic reading, the poet simply produces illusions, such that his or her art as entertainment is radically at odds with the particular society founded upon rationality and its opposition to forms of illusion.

From the perspective of a theory of entertainment as advanced above, the basic point of Plato’s account does not lie in the extent to which he is correct in proposing that a rationally founded state is the best mode of political existence. It also does not lie in the accuracy of the definition of the poet as producing irrational illusions that are somehow less real than the “well-ordered” state of the ideal Republic. Rather, what is crucial to unpack from this remark is that every state or social space is governed by some precise normativities which have been decided upon by those who have the hegemonic position to enact these normativities, be they religious figures, political depots, the democratic masses or traditional cultural institutions. Accordingly, Plato expands the definition of the community of political life, by realizing the importance of every aspect of human social practice, irrespective of how trivial it may appear at first glance. In essence, the Platonic model introduces a radically inclusive greater social space, however a social space that is also constituted by microcosmic areas of tension, in which there are struggles for the appropriation of the normativities that govern the social space. Certainly, a dominant set of normativities or values may exist. But there are also undercurrents of normativities which may differ from the hegemonic normativities. In short, Plato does not overlook any aspect of the social space as being trivial or quotidian, such as entertainment, and radically thinks a greater system. In this sense, referring back to the original thesis, entertainment is either that which is homogeneous to the norms that structure the social system (i.e., an ideological entertainment) or is heterogeneous to the norms that structure the social system (i.e., entertainment as ideological critique, or in the specific case of Plato, the irrational verbiage of the poet).

This notion of ideological contra ideological critique as two forms of potential entertainment in the social space is also recapitulated, although in a different theoretical language, by Daniel Boorstin, with his concept of the image. Boorstin succinctly defines the image as follows: “an image is the kind of ideal which becomes real only when it has become public.” (193) From within the context of entertainment and the contemporary production of images (i.e., public images, fashion trends, etc.), the image is precisely intended for the social space: it functions as a reality that structures and controls this public space. As opposed to entertainment merely being a distraction from everyday reality, entertainment becomes the reflection of this everyday reality itself, by imposing itself upon the public. In other words, the notion of the image within a theory of entertainment would coincide precisely with the usage of entertainment as a production of ideologies: images intend to structure the social reality of the public. Certainly, Boorstin’s definition of image appears flexible enough to incorporate it as a form of entertainment qua ideological critique: Namely, could the poet of Plato not be considered as someone whose works becomes real to the public, insofar as the poet’s words are received by the social audience around him? This approach also certainly seems to hold. The importance of Boorstin’s definition is therefore precisely in the sense in which it recapitulates how images or entertainment can be used to shape the public consciousness: taking Boorstin’s definition of the image to its radical conclusion, entertainment is only entertainment to the extent that it does attempt to shape the public consciousness, either in the forms of support for dominant ideology and social norms or in the forms of their subversion.

Accordingly, this notion of entertainment may be developed by directly opposing it to Huizinga’s concept of play, which bears a similarity to the presupposed socially detached nature of entertainment noted at the outset of this paper. Namely, Huizinga conceives of play as “a well-defined quality of action which is different from “ordinary” life.” (99) Hence, Huizinga immediately opposes the Platonic viewpoint: he views play as causally undetermined by so-called ordinary life, insofar as play by definition is a break from ordinary life and its conventional normativities. Huizinga thus seeks to approach play or entertainment from a phenomenological position, whereby “we shall try to take play as the player himself takes it: in its primary significance.” (99) But this is the exact approach Plato criticizes. For play or entertainment can only be defined in relation to what Huizgina terms “the transcending” (99) of social rules, which entails that play/entertainment is still determined by these rules. By taking the phenomenological perspective, Huizinga overlooks the greater social structure which determines what constitutes play and entertainment. He is therefore unable to identify the sense in which play or entertainment is itself the product of a form of social causation, another link in the causal chain. That entertainment or play is a link in the causal chain, however, does not mean that it must conform to the hegemonic rules of the social space. In this case, Huizinga is correct that play potentially may transcend “ordinary life”, but this transcendence takes a form of presenting an opposing set of values to the dominant set of values. This, however, remains only the ideological critical form of entertainment, whereas the ideological supportive form of entertainment also exists, as Plato clearly observed in his simultaneous construction of a greater social space and his identification of the potential tensions that may reside within this same space.

An example which supports this reading of entertainment can be discovered in contemporary American television, and the comedic program The Daily Show, hosted by Jon Stewart. In a particular episode broadcast on March 12, 2009, Stewart interviews the financial analyst and television host Jim Cramer. Stewart is especially critical of the content of Cramer’s show, in which he offers financial advice, as Stewart attempts to expose the contradictions conveyed by Cramer. Stewart critiques Cramer’s justification of hedge fund selling, insofar as Cramer justifies it as legal, despite its potentially negative economic effects. The comedic format of Stewart’s show, as the host acknowledges in the clip in question, is clearly a form of entertainment: Yet at the same time, Stewart utilizes the comedic form to expose some of the inconsistencies of the dominant social discourse. In particular, Stewart endeavors to demonstrate the self-destructiveness of a capitalist system that permits the manipulation of the market at the expense of its own citizens. Against the dominant capitalist ideology, Stewart uses entertainment to show the negative effects of this same system, thus turning the comedic art form into a form of ideological critique. Insofar as a host such as Cramer also dresses his financial advice in the guise of an entertainment, with his grandiose carnivalesque gestures, it is this type of entertainment which does not question the social norms of late capitalism, but rather conforms to them. Stewart vehicle’s, in contrast, critiques the validity of these very norms, thus showing two potential forms of entertainment. Both forms are defined in relation to social norms, however one rejects them and one accepts them.

Plato’s account of entertainment allows us to move away from the common sense definition of entertainment as a distancing from everyday social acts. Rather, Plato locates entertainment itself within the Kampfplatz of social discourse, showing that there is nothing innocent about it. Entertainment is a part of the social realm, and as such can be used to either buttress or transgress the particular social contexts in which it emerges. What authors such as Plato and Boorstin note is the very reality of the apparently unreal world of entertainment. The separation between reality and fantasy is viewed as a misnomer, for in fact everything we perceive and everything that affects us possesses a reality. Perhaps in this sense, entertainment is the most crucial aspect to the social space, since it determines the subject in precisely those instances when the subject feels he or she is escaping the dominant social space. In other words, entertainment is an example of ideology (or ideology critique) at its finest.

References

Boorstin, Daniel. “From Ideal to Image: The Search for Self-Fulfilling Prophecies.”The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America. New York: Vintage, 1961. pg.181- 237.

Huizinga, Johan. “Nature and Significance of Play as a Cultural Phenomenon.” Homo

Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture. New York: Beacon Press, 1950 pp. 97-120.

Plato. The Collected Dialogues of Plato, eds. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns. Princeton, NJ: Princeton, 1963.

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