Wednesday, May 21, 2014


Being "entertaining" is another of the catch-all dismissals of criticism. "So what if it didn't follow through on its themes? It was entertaining!" If something is "entertainment" and it is "entertaining" then it succeeds in its purpose: that's the argument. It's connected to the other refuges: "You're just being negative," and "Can't you appreciate what it is?" But what is "entertainment" and what does it mean to be "entertaining"? Let's be trite and use the Oxford English Dictionary.
Here's "entertainment":



  • a.The action of occupying (a person's) attention agreeably; interesting employment; amusement.

  • b.That which affords interest or amusement.

It seems fairly straightforward, does it not? Here's "entertaining":


2. Agreeable; interesting; now chiefly, amusing.

Let's put aside whether or not "entertainment" is a high virtue. Entertainment is an enjoyable pastime. If something is "entertaining" it is enjoyable. The problem is, what we find enjoyable is highly variable. People who try to shut down criticism of media simply on the grounds that the media was "entertaining" and therefore fulfilled its objective are making the mistake of assuming that entertainment is one thing to all people. According to this idea, everyone is entertained by the same things, a notion which is patently untrue.

What characterises a typical description of something being "entertaining," then? Hollywood films and Triple-A video games occupy this generic "entertainment" space: rapidly delivered bursts of sensory engagement, usually featuring motion and violent action: fast vehicles, explosions, combat, intense romantic passion and emotional experience, usually of anger or heartbreak, quick-fire humour. I won't go so far as to describe it as "shallow" but it is only a singular definition of "entertainment." "Entertainment" in this context is in fact referring specifically to a culturally dominant, and yet precisely engineered, form of impulse-driven sensory stimulation. I say "precisely engineered" because it is constructed as a profit-creating corporate model of consumer psychology: it is appetite-focused.

Yet this is hardly the only definition of what constitutes "entertainment." I do not always find chase scenes, explosions, gunfights, sex and witticisms to be entertaining. In fact I sometimes find them utterly dull. I am not a machine, and am perfectly capable of finding entertainment in certain kinds of this impulse-driven input, but I also find entertainment elsewhere. "Entertainment" according to the OED above also finds "interest" and "amusement" in its purview. "Entertaining" things are "agreeable." If that is the case, I find thinking to be entertaining. I derive entertainment from being introduced to new ideas, in seeking answers to questions, in trying to find connections between things. A difficulty already arises in the fact that "entertainment" in this context comes across as flippant: if something is entertaining, you do not take it seriously. The cultural connotations of "entertaining" suggest that something cannot be both enjoyable and meaningful, that if one finds enjoyment in meaningful activity they are in a sense not doing it correctly. It is, of course, more complex than that. I can simultaneously seek an answer to a question because I believe the answer will be enlightening or have practical benefits in some area and because it is enjoyable. Kant was critical of this view, arguing that any work which was simultaneously pleasurable was therefore selfish, but I don't believe that - in addition to the fact that that's only a problem in an outdated value system which sees self-interest and altruism as mutually exclusive. I rather see it as an added motivation.

The question of entertainment, then, I think refers back to what I was discussing in my previous post: insecurity. Insecure people are desperate for a sense of identity and a sense of belonging. They want everyone to find the same things entertaining as they do, so they give "entertainment" a single, simple meaning and expect everyone to conform to it. The safety of the herd diminishes the experience of fear. Why, then, do they find this particular impulsive form of "entertainment" so appealing, then? Other forms seemingly do not cross their mind. I would argue that it is because insecurity and absolute satisfaction with impulse-entertainment are both rooted in the instinctive mind. Insecurity is defensive, and related to hyperarousal, or the "fight or flight" response. Impulse-entertainment, as I am terming it, associates itself with similar emotional responses, albeit displaced through representation. Thus the audience fears for the life of a character in danger, thrills in fight-or-flight scenes of combat and chase, ponders with desire the romantic and sexual liaisons of attractive people, and generally experiences chemical, hormonal stimulation of an instinctive kind. It is entirely related to the stimulation associated with insecurity. Other forms of entertainment, which tend to involve themselves with more abstract levels of consideration of human experience than the immediate (and I stress here immediate) kind of stimulus regarding life, death, procreation and so on, operate on a less impulsive level than that of insecurity also. Hence the insecure mind is more likely to find entertainment in seeing characters in a fierce battle than they are in, for example, considering the situations in which war is justified. On the other hand, the latter form of activity can itself be an engrossing pastime to certain people.

My argument, therefore, is not to dismiss this kind of entertainment, but to reject the notion that this entertainment is the extent of entertainment, or that something being "entertaining" in this sense is thus objectively "entertaining" in the only sense that matters, and that therefore one ought to give a work a free ride for conforming to this rather specific and narrow definition of entertainment. There is more than one kind of entertainment, and just because something conforms to a particular mass-market or consumer-culture definition of "entertainment" does not mean that it is going to be equally entertaining to all people. It also means, importantly, that criticism cannot be shut down just by something being "entertaining," because if something is only "entertaining" according to one specific set of criteria, it is in fact not fulfilling the objective of being entertaining at all - what about all the other ways of being entertained?

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