Religion & Liberty Online

Disney and Human Flourishing

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A new book on cinema and wellness says more about the state of academic inquiry than it does the contributions of film art to human wholeness.

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Sometime in the last decade, the collegiate class were led by their dedicated sophists to start talking about “the narrative,” which hadn’t concerned them before. Soon they also started complaining about propaganda, “misinformation, disinformation, and malinformation.” I take that to mean that elites who were pro-tech at the beginning of the 21st century later panicked that it was, in fact, out of their control. Few try to understand digital technology, but more and more want to control it, censor it, and use it to enhance the police power of the state.

In this context, it is a welcome relief to see some academic attempts to understand without hysteria our digital technology, dominated by visual social media that have engulfed cinema and TV, so far as users are concerned. The Human Flourishing series published by Oxford University Press is one such attempt. Behold the Cinema, Media, and Human Flourishing entry in the series. This is its introduction, by editor Timothy Corrigan:

Whatever their different narrative trajectories or conclusions, whatever their stake in positive representations, one touchstone for all these movies (and other related media narratives) is value, a broad textual and cultural indicator that aligns questions of well-being and flourishing with a shifting but persistent marker in film and media history.

The entire introduction, as well as much of the volume, is written in this silly jargon that mangles the terms of art of various intellectual disciplines and the preferred terms of important thinkers without allowing the intelligent reader to understand anything. Human flourishing would then seem to be reduced to the flourishing of academic jargon, justified, humorously enough, by concerns for inclusiveness. The reader who is at least vaguely aware of academic trends will also begin to smell the rotten odor of therapy replacing the proper concern of academics, which is knowledge.

Things get much worse for academic claims to special insight. The volume begins as it should, with the first chapter Aristotle’s Poetics, the first treatise on poetry, specifically on tragedy. Yet the author of the essay calls Aristotle’s inquiry “techno-utopian” and explains it as “a technology engineered from narrative inventions,” which “can plug into our psyches to regulate our emotions,” leading “towards eudaimonia.” The clever reader will have already guessed that this is going to be a TED Talk sort of pep talk about how Aristotle can help you. And yet—he doesn’t care for Aristotle. He rejects interest in what Aristotle claimed and whether it was true in favor of ways in which it can be useful, if instead of Aristotle and tragedy you look at modern visual media and modern psychology. The travesty is complete with this claim for openness that would make most con men blush:

There are endless possible next pages for the Poetics. Pages for every inventive script and dramatic production in history. Pages for every one of life’s emotional difficulties and opportunities. Pages for every different viewing mind and community. Pages for every form of mental health and flourishing desired by someone on our planet.

The result of looking at a philosopher’s work, still famous after 2,300 years, is a recommendation for more Disney blockbusters, because we “seek out the dramatic storytelling technology that would be most beneficial to the greatest number of people in our world today,” and they are the “story devices that nurture optimism, because optimism is a source of psychological flourishing that goes beyond even” what Aristotle discusses in the Poetics, since “optimism is ongoing belief, a lifetime of possibility.” Hence, “we would want to look for these optimism-generating story devices in a corpus of dramatic literature that draws the greatest possible audiences in our here and now.”

Such astonishing ignorance and vulgarity coming out of academia damns any claim academics can make to be heirs to Plato and Aristotle. But they don’t seem to be aware they are also ignorant about the effects of pop culture or the problem of happiness. Such essays are strange for another reason, too. They are advertising for corporations like Disney: “In 2019, Disney’s global box office exceeded $10 billion, making it the largest distributor of entertainment in the world.” This is not the job of academics! Strange as it may seem, Disney is innocent in this corruption of intelligence, scholarship, and public spirit; it did not pay for this or request it. It is a completely willing debasement of the adult intellect to the level of the entertainments for children. Hence, this leads to embracing the happily-ever-after endings and chiding Disney for departing recently from them.

Chapter 2 begins to reveal that this optimism is nevertheless built on despair:

In arguing for cinema’s value to encourage human wellness, however, a paradigm shift is required—imagining the medium (to put it most crassly) as part of the “health care system.” Purists (of either camp [entertainment or avant-garde]) will reject this notion. Certainly, one of the reasons that this topic is now being considered is that the arts and humanities are in crisis in an era in which STEM education and vocation are in ascendancy; and, if the former fields are to survive, a thought revolution is required of them. Whereas in the past the value of cultural transmission was largely assumed, it is now contested, and the disciplines must prove their societal “worth” and “practicality” to endure.

This leads to nothing more ambitious than a survey of the old liberal platitudes about being well-adjusted. On the one hand, that’s the science of laughter, that is, the neurological benefits supposedly associated with it; on the other hand, Freud and Bergson on the social therapy leading to “releasing inhibitions and expressing one’s true feelings.” The author of the essay goes on to survey a number of mediocre movies across a few genres, including horror, before concluding sensibly that cinema therapy might not work after all, but having sprinkled along the way the typical feminist complaints about privileged white people (excluding, apparently, white feminists).

Far from elevating popular pleasures like cinema or TV to the level of academic inquiries, the entire nobility of the academic pursuit of knowledge, which is not reducible to profit or fun, is surrendered by such attempts. Some are amusing, like chapter 3, which mostly deals with The Talking Heads’ Once in A Lifetime. Others, contemptible, like the chapter about an angry critic, Almena Davis of the L.A. Tribune, who hated Hollywood:

But for Davis, ironically it was through the act of debunking and countering Hollywood’s toxic white placidity and plasticity that her own selfhood could flourish and emerge. Her loose play with Hollywood constructions opened a place for the noir, the avant-garde, and the satirical. And in her interpretive writing, which mixed consideration of film, politics, her children, her dogs, and her “premenstrual tension,” it was precisely her embodied unmasking of the screen that made her own liminal, gender-porous self-hood legible.

In the end, it’s not merely Aristotle that’s parodied but all the learning to which these scholars have dedicated their lives. Their example contradicts their teaching, this much they realize, but which way? Is it that despite their professions of aspiring to do therapy for society—which they might also reproach in others as brainwashing or propaganda—they in fact prefer the comparative reclusion of academia? Or that despite their credentials as academics, they do not believe in rational inquiry and are failures? Such unfortunate people look around at the temple of Enlightenment they mismanage and look around for opportunities to pawn it off while they turn the pieties they inherited into timely slogans. This, of course, includes Diversity Inclusion Equity. It doesn’t include the humanities, however, or anything Aristotle might call education.

Titus Techera

Titus Techera is the executive director of the American Cinema Foundation.