On Amusement

My friend James Shelley recently posted a quotation from R. G. Collingwood’s The Principles of Art, a work on aesthetics that was first published in 1938. This is one of the things that I love about James: I can never predict what he will be reading. It might be theology. It might be politics. It might be a more or less obscure work of aesthetics by an idealist thinker better known for his work on the philosophy of history. James reads with an admirable promiscuity.

I have never read anything by Collingwood myself. I ran across some of his work (The Idea of History and Essays in the Philosophy of History) when I was doing research for a course on the language of history, but I had neither the time nor the interest to read them at that time. What James has quoted from Collingwood, however, interests me very much in connection with the kinds of arguments that I have been reading in Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death and other texts. I am very curious about this idea of amusement.

The word ‘amuse’ comes to English from Latin through French. The English word initially referred to the act of cheating or deceiving people by distracting their attention to something else, even to the act of physically throwing dust into the eyes of shopkeepers so that their goods could be stolen. Its application to the function of entertainment, therefore, was at first intended to be derogatory. To call an entertainment an amusement was to suggest more or less explicitly that it was distracting people in order to cheat them. To have been amused was equivalent to having been beguiled or deluded.

At some point, however, the negative associations of amusement began to fall away, becoming applied cynically by the leisured classes to their own entertainments, and then passing into common usage as virtually synonymous with entertainment and recreation. Interestingly, a similar transition can also be marked with words like ‘diversion’ and ‘distraction’, which were once but are no longer necessarily derogatory when used to describe entertainment.

These changes in usage, I think, reflect how fully our society has become a society of amusement, has subordinated what Collingwood calls “practical life” to the consumption of entertainment. We have inverted the relationship between entertainment and practical life. Rather than understanding practical life to be of primary value and entertainment to be a necessary distraction from the routines of this life, we understand entertainment to be of primary value and practical life to be an unfortunate distraction from entertainment. Anything that is not amusing, anything that is not created explicitly to be consumed as entertainment, has become something to be endured until the next opportunity for diversion. In this way, entertainment actually devalues and cheats society of its practical life. It becomes amusement because it distracts us in order to steal our lived lives.

Our society is, in this sense, clearly a society of amusement. We value the sports hero over the parent, the movie star over the cook, the supermodel over the teacher, the pop singer over the farmer. We value the practical life only insofar as it produces the financial resources that allow us to consume our amusements. Our primary goal is to consume amusement as entirely as possible, with every dollar and every moment.

What is most alarming, as our changing use of the word ‘amusement’ indicates, is that we increasingly accept this society of amusement and natural and desirable. Whereas we once used the word ‘amusement’ critically to describe how entertainment was blinding us, we now use it affirmatively to describe the value of entertainment to us. We no longer recognize how we are blinded and robbed of our lives by entertainment as amusement. We have become blind to our blindness.

This is why, as Collingwood suggests, the majority of society’s members now have the conviction that “amusement is the only thing that makes life worth living.” They have accepted wholly, to the point of belief, that amusement is more valuable than practical life, that it is desirable to have their practical lives cheated from them in exchange for a more and more complete saturation with amusement. It is not merely that they consume celebrity gossip rather than develop real relationships. It is that they believe this situation to be normal and good.

It is for these reasons that I decline to be amused, to be distracted, to be diverted. I will celebrate the festival and honour the holiday, but I decline to let these things cheat me of my lived life. I will live in a way that values the family and the community and the garden and the kitchen and the workshop. I will live in a way that values the rhythms of practical life, with its own celebrations and entertainments, but I choose not be amused.

  1. Your final paragraph is exactly why I couldn’t enjoy “The Picture of Dorian Gray” with its insatiable desire for amusement.

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