Hi. My name is Alex, and I’m a consumer.
I like the easy way: the wide path, the road more travelled—does it make all the difference in the end? I’m not sure. Or maybe more precisely, I’m not sure I care. It’s easy going here. Comfortable.
In music, I want to feel what the songwriter feels; I don’t want to take guesses. In visual art, I want to be told what I’m supposed to see. I may want a good one-sentence summary of a poem. Don’t be too abstract.
I like clear rights and wrongs and clean resolutions. I want to be entertained more than I want to think. Is that so bad?
I’m an addict to ease. What can save me from myself?
David Foster Wallace on Entertainment Addiction
Entertainment consumerism was one of late novelist David Foster Wallace’s favorite subjects. During an extended interview with the journalist David Lipsky, Wallace describes the seductive nature of entertainment: “There’s nothing sinister (about entertainment),” he argues, “the thing that’s sinister about it is that the pleasure that it gives you to make up for what it’s missing is a kind of…addictive, self-consuming pleasure.” Wallace is talking about specifically television, but these words can apply to the many things we love here in the world of Christ and Pop Culture: movies, music, etc. Entertainment is our jam. But Wallace suggests that behind this indulgent pleasure lies an insatiable desire fueled by distraction.
Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with shows or movies that vie for our attention. The device that bombards me with notifications is the same device that gives me directions. (I’m grateful for the latter, a little more bitter about the former). But here’s the heart of Wallace’s contention: the pleasure that entertainment gives us is an illusion of healing for the brokenness and void that sits in our gut. The distraction gives us a momentary break from reality where we don’t have to think too hard or feel too much (unless that’s the sort of entertainment you’re into).It’s one thing to be distracted when you want to be distracted…It’s another thing to not even know that your life has been turned into a continual stream of distraction.
The sinister cycle continues and demands more distraction to maintain. What was once an episode before bed has turned into “binge watching.” And that’s interesting language: a “binge.”
At another point in the interview, David Foster Wallace compares entertainment to candy. When someone eats their fill in candy, they know why they feel sick at the end of it. Wallace goes on: “So TV is like candy in that it’s more pleasurable and easier than real food. But it also doesn’t have any of the nourishment of real food.” And here’s the sinister part about pop culture distraction: when I eat candy, I know why I end up feeling sick. When I distract myself with whatever the latest hype happens to be, the feeling of discontent is less tangible. We binge on Netflix and at the end of our sweet fix, there’s still a strange hunger and uneasiness we can’t quite pin down. It provides a faux-productivity. We finished something! And we did nothing. The longing satiates for a moment but abandons us to boredom. The binge was meant to satisfy. But there’s a lingering longing; I don’t know why. Entertainment was supposed to fill me.
This malaise occurs in the church, as well, when mission is sacrificed on the altar of entertainment. This experience can be a bewildering one. The church is founded on the Bread of Life—nourishment and sustenance—but it’s twisted into the effect of candy: momentarily tasty with no nourishment. The place meant for purpose, wisdom, and meaning turns into a vacated space of emptiness and disillusionment. We sing songs that are meant to sink deep into our bones, but they sound a lot like the pop songs on the radio. We come with an aching sense of guilt and shame that we yield for “fun” and “excitement.” Confessing, after all, is uncomfortable business. A rocking tune I can clap to will distract me from that. Five years down the road we find ourselves stuck with the same people who we may see every Sunday but who have no clue how much we hurt. “Relationships? I came here for the music!”, so we thought. There are entertaining things going on that attract consumers, but there is minimal formation of the soul. It’s like a daily diet of candy that results in a slow decay of the body. It’s a faux relationship of showmanship rather than a bearing of broken souls to one another. The church rarely asks anything of us; commitment is unnecessary. We can show up and passively observe the show.
It’s one thing to be distracted when you want to be distracted. One could argue for the merits of an occasional Netflix binge like an occasional indulgence of ice cream. It’s another thing to not even know that your life has been turned into a continual stream of distraction. Years go by without even noticing the aching inside because we’ve been re-wired to ignore it. Everything is background music.
You may be wondering, “Why is this guy writing against pop culture in a pop culture magazine?” I guess that would be like lamenting the ills of eating meat in a hunting magazine. But I hope to say two things. First, I am one of you. I love pop culture and the world resident in it. It is not pop culture I am lamenting. Which leads me to the second: pop culture can and does contain beauty. It may not be as common or intentional, but there are all sorts of movies and television and music that challenges and jars—many examined in the articles on these pages. What I want to avoid is turning to pop culture as a means to cure our anxiety, to distract us long enough so we can stop caring. If we only fill ourselves with what is easy like candy, then we end up with a stomachache like an overindulgent child. The question we have to ask in our consumption is, “What am I paying attention to?”
Wallace suggests an audit of our attentional commons in his famous commencement speech at Kenyon College. In speaking on the value of a liberal arts education, he suggests that one of the major features of a liberal arts education is simple awareness—not so much teaching students how to think, but learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. What is our default setting that we may not be aware of without reflection? What are we paying attention to?
Beauty as Antidote
Beauty is one of those things that can cause us to pause from our default setting and into the world of contemplation. “Only beautiful things can lead us out to join the world beyond our heads,” writes Matthew Crawford. Beauty gives me a way out of my own head to pay attention to something beyond myself, to see a world beyond individual interest and utilitarian purpose.
This idea of attention and awareness struck me as I watched and then assigned A Hidden Life directed by Terrance Malick. Typical to Malick, the film isn’t easy; it’s not sweet like candy. As I was reading student reflections, students had a hard time “getting it.” They are so used to the “it” that they are supposed to get. One doesn’t watch an Avengers movie and really wrestle with who are the good guys or bad guys or the main point. Those questions are clear. Critiquing recent popular movies, Martin Scorsese argues that modern cinema has lost its art form. Nothing’s at risk; there’s no mystery or revelation or emotional danger. Everything is audience tested and approved. It’s crafted to be easy.
In Brave New World, Aldous Huxley calls this state of affairs the “feelies”: short cuts to what real beauty entails—things like awe, fear, wonder, joy. Some pop culture provides addictive circuits that keep our emotional levels up without anything of sustenance to sustain them. The late philosopher Roger Scruton writes, “Lovers of beauty direct their attention outwards, in search of meaning and order that brings sense to their lives.” However, when meaning and order have gone by the wayside as in today’s world, “Addiction, as the psychologists point out, is a function of easy rewards. The addict is someone who presses again and again on the pleasure switch, whose pleasures bypass thought and judgment to settle in the realm of need.” Addiction isn’t such a bad description of our uses of pop culture. After all, the movie needs to fit my instincts and feelings; I shouldn’t be challenged to meet it.
Scruton goes on to call this development the rise of “kitsch,” where people prefer the sensuous trappings of belief to the thing truly believed in. “The Disneyfication of art is simply one aspect of the Disneyfication of faith—and both involve a profanation of our highest values. Kitsch, the case of Disney reminds us, is not an excess of feeling but a deficiency. The world of kitsch is in a certain measure a heartless world, in which emotion is directed away from its proper target towards sugary stereotypes, permitting us to pay passing tribute to love and sorrow without the trouble of feeling them.” There’s that word “sugary” again: sweet to taste like a delicacy, but without any nourishment. An “addictive, self-consuming pleasure.”
Beauty provides another path to feasting. Rather than gorging oneself on the sweet taste of candy, perhaps it takes some training to enjoy premium dark chocolate. Or maybe beauty can be compared to a fine wine or glass of bourbon. At first, they all taste the same. Then, with some time, you note the complexities. The drink didn’t change. You did. In the same way, beauty can operate the same way in our consumption—our taste can be, maybe even need to be, refined.
What Wallace laments, Scruton diagnoses. We live in a world devoid of beauty that challenges us to pay attention to something that may challenge us or to see the world in a new way. And if we’re not challenged, we’ll never be changed. We can be sustained for a bit with faux feelings. But when pain or discomfort come, we self-sabotage with more faux feelings. And like a binge of sugar, we’re sick. However, the antidote to the addict is not an absence of feeling but a properly directed feeling. The addict must not forsake pleasure but turn his pleasure higher. Addicts must learn to love—and one central way to love is to pay attention.
Lady Bird (2017) features a young girl with the given name of Christine and the chosen name of Lady Bird. It’s a coming of age tale as she wrestles with limits and leaving her dull Catholic high school Sacramento for the greener pastures of elite New York college culture. At one point in the film, she’s meeting with a nun over a disciplinary matter. The nun mentions her college essay. She says, “You clearly love Sacramento.”
A statement that jars Lady Bird. “I do?”, she responds.
The nun continues, “You write about Sacramento so affectionately and with such care.”
LB: “I was just describing it,”
Nun: “Well, it comes across as love.”
LB: “Sure, I guess I pay attention.”
Nun: “Don’t you think maybe they’re the same thing? Love? Attention?”
An aesthetic life, a life lived toward beauty, teaches addicts like myself to love. Whereas the world of addictive pleasure teaches us to feel, the world of beauty teaches us to sacrifice: to go beyond attention to the self and give attention toward another. In the Christian world, sacrifice is the highest virtue, because it is the way Christ shows His love. Beauty is a gateway to set one’s eyes higher to the sacred and sacrificial. However, in the Disneyfication of the world, we don’t want movies to be arduous; we’re trying to take a break from thinking. Music should be easily accessible; we’re trying to feel something. When my whole world revolves around comfort and entertainment, why would I want to sacrifice? In essence, what our modern world teaches us to ask is, “Why would I want to love?”
This is displayed in the entertainment options, as well as in education. As I spend most of my life teaching, I’m regularly confronted with students who lament assignments or required reading. At the heart of the complaint is “This is hard.” But if I regularly give my students what is easy, I’m training their hearts to what the world will readily give them: self-medicated candy overdoses of ease and comfort that will lead to sickness and malaise. I need to ask something of my students if I expect them to care. And here’s something else I hear often: students equally lament the “easiest” professors with the complaint, “It’s like they don’t care.” What students need, what I need, is to be led out of my comfort-driven life and into a life of sacrifice.
True beauty does not distract us from the world but allows us to more fully see the world and be attuned to it. Beauty requires a shift away from the self and to the other; it’s retraining of our attention. We can’t unsee beauty. Beauty offers continually refreshment whenever we experience it: in the theater, in nature, on Netflix.
What I’m suggesting isn’t a pompous defense of the opera or poetry or classical music against pop culture. But it is a check of our diet. Even in pop culture consumption, is it leading us to higher loves, contemplation, and attention? Is it nourishing? Or is it like a corn-syrupy substitute—filling us with sweetness and delight but without the good nutrients that life needs?
By realigning ourselves with the beautiful, we can imagine the world as sacred reality: that there is more than meets the eye. And by doing so, far from the delicate delights of sugar, we, hopefully and prayerfully, can find ourselves seated at the banquet table of love. It may be easy to dull your appetite with snacks, but pulling up to a table set for fine dining, spread with complex flavors and textures, reminds us that what is easy and immediate is not as satisfying or delightful as the well-made courses of the feast.
We were made for feasting.