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In a 1951 essay called “The Emergence of Fun Morality,” social scientist Martha Wolfenstein called attention to signs of a new morality displacing traditional concerns with doing the right thing. The advent of fun morality—and the cultural institutions and artifacts that enabled it—soon meant that not having fun was an occasion for anxiety. As Dr. Wolfenstein observed: “Whereas gratification of forbidden impulses traditionally aroused guilt, failure to have fun now lowers one’s self-esteem.”
As this moral inversion has gathered momentum, cultural institutions previously unconcerned with promoting fun gradually succumbed to the assumption that unless they could be entertaining, they would be be left in the dust. By the time of the last two or three decades of the twentieth century, numerous cultural institutions—once committed to being sources of moral meaning, definition, and authority—had surrendered. Political candidates felt compelled to appear on Saturday Night Live and on jokey talk shows. University professors emulated stand-up comics. Many clergy supervised the overhaul of worship services to make them more like variety shows. Art museums (and many artists) outdid one another in seeking to make art fun. Journalism—first on TV then in print—traded depth and moral seriousness for flashy superficiality. The idea of cultural authority and the sorts of limits and disciplines it would promote capitulated to the claim that all of life is market-driven, a claim that makes sense in a purpose-free cosmos.
It’s not that good things couldn’t still happen within these institutions. But they increasingly saw themselves not as exercising authority but as begging for attention. They could no longer articulate “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots,” they could no longer sustain taboos or offer exhortation about duty and obligation. In short, these institutions effectively abandoned the task of articulating the contours of a purposeful and morally ordered universe within which individuals might seek to conform their souls. Modernity’s sovereign individuals were best understood as consumers not as disciples, apprentices, or heirs.
The advent of fun morality was not simply a displacement of seriousness. It represented the institutional loss of confidence that there was anything worth being serious about. It was (in Allan Bloom’s memorable formulation) the confirmation of nihilism without the abyss.