Nice post by Alan today (which Johnnie pointed out to me) on the mental health implications of a book I’ve been reading on and off for the last few weeks, Barbara Ehrenreich’s Dancing in the Streets: a history of collective joy. In essence, the theory is that the rise of mental health problems such as depression are directly correlated with our suppression of collective ecstacy…
I’ve really enjoyed the book but the thing that talks most powerfully to me is what it has to say about the audience and how our notion of audience has changed as our cult of individualism of grown. Essentially, the argument goes like this:
Mankind has always danced and sung and made music together (many African languages have difficulty distinguish these, allegedly). However, in the late Middle Ages, we in Europe started to suppress this unpredictable and uncontrollable mass behaviour (which often scared those in the elite with most to use). First, dancing was banned in churches (yes, they had to ban it), then on church property, then on holidays, then on Sundays, then totally (NB both Catholic and Protestant leaders shaped this). They turned christianity from a participative collective religion into one of passive individualist.
And the same thing happened with our other gatherings. Slowly but surely we made the audience passive, motionless and silent. Like a stuffed-shirt classical one all too often still is today. And we tried to impose the same thing on other cultures (like the “savages” we met in the colonial era). And in doing so not only open ourselves up to all kinds of mental health issues but also removed what Ehrenreich calls the “biotechnology for the formation of larger groups” and shared agendas and action.
Curious thing today is there are clues to how things really are all around us: the football (American and Real) crowd, the fancy-dress cricket crowd, the exuberant rock audience and the online world. Even in the company or team meeting, while we expect the passive, silent, motionless thing (and all conspire to give the appearence of this) we all know that as soon as the speechifying stops, etiquette falls away and reality emerges…
We pretend, they pretend, we all pretend that audiences are passive.
That they are orderly.
That their listening to us.
That they’re paying attention.
Whereas we all know it ain’t so.
To paraphrase Adam Morgan, the Audience isn’t