23 October 2021

Stephenson, PTMC—Postulates

William Stephenson
The Play Theory of Mass Communication
(1987 edition)
(orig. 1967)

1. Play is distinguishable from work.
Play is disinterested, self-sufficient, an interlude from work. It brings no material gain. (Prizes are for show; amateurs play for fun, professionals for money.)
Work is not disinterested, is not an interlude in the day for most people. It produces goods, services or ideas, etc., by application of effort for a purpose.

2. Much work and play is subject to social control, and some, instead, is a matter of convergent selectivity.
Social control is the way in which cultures function from the standpoint of involuntary, categorical imperatives. (It is said that everyone must work, that idleness is sinful, that work is a duty and one's salvation, and so on.) Social control induces conformity, consensus, and established custom or is an outcome of such cultural conditions.
Convergent selectivity is relative freedom from social control, tending toward individuality of choice in behavior. The behavior is more voluntary. Convergencies may be chaotic, as in a gold rush; or they may be ecstatic, as in mountain-climbing. All are directed toward individuality and self-existence.

3. Work and play which are subject to social control are supported by inner belief systems, that is, latent or inner beliefs of individuals, formed by childish introjections and early internalizations in primary group (home) situations. One's religious, political, economic, and other important values and beliefs are fixed early in life and are thereafter largely immutable.
Conditions of convergent selectivity are of a more superficial nature and concern fads, manners, fashions, taste, and the like. Moral and ethical sanctions are largely bypassed, no issues are involved, no deep controversies, but only more or less acceptable difference in taste or minor matters of opinion.

4. Public opinion is subject to social control; advertising, drama, art, and so on involve convergent selectivity.

5. The self is differently involved in conditions of social control and convergent selectivity. I distinguish self from ego. The former is overtly attitudinal, and the latter a matter of mental structure.
Self-attitudes are developed largely in interactions under social control. (The boy who wins a prize at school adds to his self-stature thereby, and almost all that we are in selfhood respects is given to us in relation to social controls.) But the self so put upon us is to a degree false—a façade only. The person has to be what custom or status demands of him.
Convergent selectivity is an opportunity for the individual to exist for himself. Such existence is experienced as enjoyment, contentment, serenity, or the like. Certain free aspects of self are possible outcomes of convergent play.
The mass media, plays, art, and the theater generally offer opportunities for convergent selectivity. The self so involved is enhanced. There is an increase of self-awareness—typical, for example, of the mountain climber. There is no gain in social or material respects but much gain in one's self-existence.


7. Ordinary life would be impossible without communication, in school, church, business, on the farm, and so on. ... It is important, however, to distinguish between that part of communication supporting social control and that part of it offering opportunities to convergent selectivity.
... Communication in conditions of social control is a "mover" in national and individual development: it informs a nation of its work, its five-year plans; it teaches literacy and technology; it develops industry and extends markets. Further, it is involved in all urbanization, industrialization, and educational growth.
Mass communication, literature, drama, and the like serve instead for sociability and self-existence. These are vehicles for communication-pleasure—directly in the enjoyment they enjoin, and indirectly in the social conversations they support.

8. Convergent communication, being communication-pleasure, serves mainly as a "fill" in mass communication. The "important" communication concerns social control matters. The "fill" serves to maintain status quo position, since it serves no "work" purposes. It pleases, entertains, and projects fashions and fads. It is basically aesthetical, and amoral, a-ethical. Its function is not to relieve anxieties but to increase the sum total of self-existing possibilites.
(The "human interest slant" given to popular "news" put the reader in the position of a confidant, reflecting inner-experience, inducing reverie about himself and so on—all pointed toward more existence for oneself.)

9. Culture develops in play, and play enters into social control and convergent selectivity situations alike. But the play in religious practices, the armed forces, the law courts, in diplomacy, professional practices, is always more or less subject to internalized belief systems; deeply held values, loyalties, needs, and ethical matters are everywhere evident.
The play in convergent selective situations is at best indifferent to such values, needs, and beliefs.

10. There are correspondences between social character and social control and convergency. Traditional and inner-directed forms of social character, such as Riesman describes, are formed in relation to social controls. Other-direction, instead is fashioned more by convergent selectivity; it is characterized by communication-pleasure.

11. The mass media, in much that pertains to social control as well as convergent selectivity, do not communicate truth or reality but only a semblance of it—of a fictional, representational, or charismatic character. Reaching the truth is a matter for science, technology, reason, and work. Charisma, imagery, and fiction are characteristic of convergencies.
But this is not to be despised. On the contrary, reality is so complex that its symbolical representation is essential to give it meanings that ordinary people can appreciate. Politics is conversation about freedom, democracy, liberty...issues which need bear little relation to ongoing real conditions or legislative actions. But all these can be good fun, that is, good communication-pleasure.
(pp. 192-195)

What is a bit bizarre about all of this, despite Stephenson having prefaced it with seemingly every available caveat, is that it seems not so simple to really draw the line between communication-as-mover and communication-as-fill. Or, perhaps it is not possible to draw this distinction generally, but it is (potentially) possible to draw it with respect to particular individuals, and just maybe groups too, based on their apperceptive profiles, i.e. what they are apt to notice and what they are apt to ignore.

That being as it is, who could deny that music education now takes place almost exclusively in contexts
supporting social control
The final victory of access over elitism cannot be merely to carve out a place for the arts in amongst the elite social control mechanisms.

Rather, arts education must at some point take in the realm of
convergent selectivity
of the
serves no work purposes
which is
basically aesthetical, and amoral, a-ethical
and most of all indeed, whose
function is not to relieve anxieties but to increase the sum total of self-existing possibilites

If Stephenson is so much as in the ballpark here, then one obvious implication of his theory is that the education system (the whole thing, not just music) is a social control mechanism through and through, one which was designed by and for the internalized belief systems of people who are long dead; this then would explain a good deal (not all) of its present dysfunction. Of course we have been hearing this for almost as long as there has been public education, and usually not from the most reliable or disinterested sources. But that doesn't mean it cannot be true now.

Where I personally really start to have trouble here is with the statement that
reality is so complex that its symbolical representation is essential to give it meanings that ordinary people can appreciate
First off, from the bird's eye view, the main reason that social reality is now too complex for even extra-ordinary people to grasp has nothing to do with media per se; rather, it is that we today suffer from towering edifices of, in Talebian terms, connectivity without responsiveness. When it is impossible to know the consequences of your actions, it is impossible to act ethically. Not even an ideal media can resolve this problem in its present complexity, and so media is ultimately just another sideshow to the far broader (ultimately broad) issue of recovering humane conditions of scale, materially and psychologically. (No, I'm not holding my breath.)

Moving to the level of national and regional institutions, and notwithstanding the above, I do think Stephenson underrates how the mass media intentionally withholds great swaths of reality which are in fact rather simple and easy-to-appreciate but which conflict, one way or another, with the media's commercial imperatives. If you've grown skeptical or numb in the face of such statements as this, Matt Taibbi's recent book Hate Inc. is worthy of your attention, even if he does gild the lily just a bit.

Finally, considered on the local and microsocial levels, the statement is really just a slightly dressed-up version of the lie that tells the truth trope which prevails in middlebrow literary circles, and as such is subject to all of the same critiques. (See this massive thread for a head start.)

Stephenson is correct that play is essential to a humane existence; but he does not adequately consider that playing with social reality is inherently distorting of that reality and that this cannot, no matter how much fun we have or how hard we try to be mindful about it, truly be free from ethical and moral ramifications. Playing with social reality is playing with fire. It's much safer to play with, say, artistic abstraction or low-stakes athletic competition. Perhaps Stephenson thought he was being pragmatic here. I would contend that such a statement is only truly pragmatic in service of elitism itself.

Stephenson's caveats:
None of these [postulates] is axiomatic. The postulates are not analytic propositions, capable of precise definition. All instead are synthetic complexes with excess meaning. Theorems or hypotheses cannot be derived from them in any logical order.
(p. 192)
Well, okay. But it's not too sporting to offer up such a detailed analysis while maintaining that none of it is axiomatic.

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