Excerpt

“Romantic Realism” refers to the many images and experiences we encounter that are like life, but just a little bit better.  The people in a television commercial, for example, look like people you might see on the street, except they are usually better looking, probably happier, and they are surrounded by perfection and beauty.  In the following excerpt, taken from Chapter II of the book, I discuss advice as an example of romantic realism.

From CAUGHT IN PLAY: HOW ENTERTAINMENT WORKS ON YOU, by Peter G. Stromberg. (c) 2009 by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Jr.  University, all rights reserved, by permission of the publisher, www.sup.org.

Now consider a second example, something that is so much a part of our everyday lives that it is very likely to pass unnoticed.  This is advice.  I have before me as I write this an insert from my Sunday newspaper . On the cover of this insert, I am informed that it reaches 41.7 million readers each week.  The cover story is a compendium of advice, comprised of pointers from–among others—a natural healing expert Andrew Weil, a fitness coach, a therapist/relationship expert, and a ubiquitous lifestyle consultant cum felon.

Most of what I read is unexceptionable, sensible, hard to argue with. The natural healer advises me to take time for myself:  “One afternoon or evening a week, resolve to do something just for you: Take a drive in the country, listen to music you love, get a massage.”  That sounds good, I’d love to do that, although I’m not sure my employer will be completely supportive of my taking an afternoon off for a drive in the country.  The fitness coach suggests a minimum of 3-4 days a week of strength training with weights, “combined with 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise.”

The relationship expert insists that I take at least 20 minutes every other day to give my partner my undivided attention, as well as stressing the importance of a monthly “romantic overnight getaway.”  Let’s see, so far we’re running, with showers after the exercise, around 11 hours a week out of my normal schedule, plus a couple of full days a month gazing into my partner’s eyes at a bed and breakfast. Then there’s the advice about things to accomplish.  The lifestyle consultant suggests that I restock my pantry with “pastas, cooking wines, wasabi, [and] dried spices,” that I create my own cookbook “by organizing [my]…recipes in a loose-leaf binder,” and that I experiment with table decorations.
I could go on, but the point is probably clear.  There is little possibility that any of the 41.7 million readers could actually follow all this advice, or even a small part of it.  The situation becomes especially clear in light of one of the natural healer’s stress-beating recommendations: Downsize your life.  “This is a good time of year,” he counsels, “to think about what you can get rid of.” Okay, I can do that, and probably the best place to start is the 20 or 30 things I’ve just been advised to add to my life.

So, if there is no possibility, and no serious expectation, that anybody is actually going to do all this, why is this the lead article in this very popular magazine?  The reason, of course, is that it’s enjoyable to read about doing these things.  The “advice” is in fact a form of entertainment that presents images of an improved existence—a realistic fiction. Yes, I believe I’ll take a deep breath and spend the morning reorganizing my pantry, then take the afternoon off just for myself.  It’s not going to happen, but it’s pleasurable just to think about it.

In general, advice is not to be followed; its purpose is to present fictions about what life could be like.  And notice that, precisely because the advice is quite reasonable, those fictions are not outrageous, they are quite conceivable and therefore more believable and enjoyable.  Taking an afternoon off, that could really happen, couldn’t it?  Thus the fictions of the advice are but a step away from my life, a familiar but slightly improved version of my experience.  As such, they are a particularly effective means to stimulate my imagination: They are believable enough to provide me with emotional stimulation, yet sufficiently separated from my day-to-day reality that I do not rationally regard them as actual plans for life. (We would regard the person who actually sets out to do all the things recommended by Martha Stewart as a comic figure, or perhaps as insane).

Thus, note the extent to which advice operates as play.  Specifically it is a form of pretend play, like pretending to be a cowboy. As I engage in this play, I remain aware that I am fantasizing about the pleasures of stocking up on wasabi, impressing my guests by having it on hand, etc., as opposed to actually doing these things. As with daydreaming about being a rock star or acting like a cowboy, however, it is more fun if I can at least partially forget my awareness that this is all pretending.  That is, the emotional stimulation I get from the play will be greater if I can become somewhat caught up in the activity.  As I mentioned in the previous section, players have the capacity for extended imitation, for placing themselves in a particular imaginary position and working from there.  Further, doing so can produce behaviors, thoughts and feelings that are rooted in the world of the fiction.

In order for these manifestations of becoming caught up to occur, players must become engaged in a feedback loop that utilizes their own cognitive, emotional, and imitative faculties.  For example, as one becomes more absorbed in a fantasy about taking time off just for oneself, one begins to relax just imagining this.  As one becomes more relaxed, one may well seek to play with this feeling, to enhance it by becoming more deeply absorbed in the fantasy.
Such activity may sound trivial, like meaningless reverie, but I doubt that such a judgment is correct.  In playing the game of advice, I may very well formulate some actual plans. “It’s true!  I would feel better if I were getting more exercise, but I don’t need a gym membership.  I could just get one of those fitness balls.”  More broadly, deriving emotional pleasure from advice play helps to sustain our faith in an idea that underwrites both our economy and our culture, the idea that we can transform ourselves in ways that will bring happiness.  Were this to begin to seem like an implausible idea, think of how economic activity would slow down, as people stopped buying products and services that they believe may improve—even transform!—their lives. The sales of fitness balls would plummet. Thus playing with advice is one way, among many, that one of our key cultural values is sustained.

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