Thursday, July 16, 2009

Peter Stromberg's "Caught in Play"

Peter Stromberg is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Tulsa. His books include Symbols of Community (University of Arizona Press, 1986) and Language and Self Transformation (Cambridge University Press, 1993).

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Caught in Play: How Entertainment Works on You, and reported the following:
I wrote Caught in Play to address an intriguing disparity: there is so much entertainment in our society and so little serious discussion about entertainment. To take an example that is appropriate to the moment I write this (July 3, 2009), currently there is overwhelming public concern with the death of Michael Jackson and comparatively little public concern about the obvious question of why people care so much about the death of Michael Jackson.

Turning to page 99 of the book, I encounter a discussion of anthropologist/psychologist Gregory Bateson’s thoughts on play among otters. This doesn’t look promising, does it? How do we get from otters to Michael Jackson in the space of one blog post?

Bateson, watching otters play at fighting at a zoo, asked himself how the otters knew that the bites and cuffs they were delivering and receiving were not real fighting. He concluded that they must be sending and receiving signals that allowed them to understand something along the lines of “this bite isn’t a real bite, it’s a play bite.”

That even non-human animals are able to engage in what might be loosely termed “pretending,” and that they are able to communicate this “pretend” stance to one another, alerts us to the fact that play is a very basic social mechanism, far older than our species. Play is built into us, and we play for some of the same reasons that animals do, above all to regulate our social relationships. Those playing otters are creating a certain kind of relationship, and the far more complicated play of human beings can create far more complicated relationships; in fact, such play helps to build and sustain our social groups.

So, I’m OK, page 99 really is relevant. The tremendous volume of entertainment in our society is a form of play that accomplishes some elemental cultural functions: it helps us to create a particular sort of community. Entertainment does this by sustaining and strengthening certain values, often the values of consumption.

Back to the otters. They can sort of pretend, we can really pretend, so much so that we can become so caught up in a book or movie that we lose track of time and place. It is in these powerful bodily experiences--experiences that often happen as we engage entertainment--that we learn and indulge the values of consumption. But at the same time, we tend not to take these experiences seriously because, after all, they are not real. Can you think of a better way to ensure that certain of our values and practices—such as treating the death of a popular singer as a world shattering event—remain largely outside the realm of public discussion?
Read an excerpt from Caught in Play, and learn more about the book and author at the official website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue