By Kim Uslin
Elm Staff Writer
Professor John Beckman delivered a lecture chronicling the history and nature of fun in America. The lecture, entitled “American Fun,” was co-sponsored by the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience and the Sophie Kerr Committee and took place in the Hynson Lounge.
Beckman, an accomplished novelist, was introduced by friend and fellow writer Peter Manseau, the C.V. Starr Center’s Patrick Henry Fellow. In his introduction, Manseau related Beckman’s study of fun with his own survey of religion in the United States, referring to fun as what could be considered the “true American religion.” In this case, Manseau said, Beckman may well be referred to as the “high priest of fun.”
Beckman’s interesting and informative lecture delved into the nature of fun: what it is, where it comes from, and why it matters. He began with an anecdote about a young woman who participated in a dance marathon, dancing nonstop for 69 hours against opposition from the authorities. At the marathon’s end, the woman claimed that nothing had motivated her more than “the fun of it all.”
Throughout the lecture, Beckman focused upon this rebellious nature of fun “Conflict is an active ingredient in fun,” he said. “Fun is a studied rebellion, flaunting pleasure in the face of authority.”
The literature professor, as an example of this rebellion the literature professor cited acts by the sons of Liberty, a notoriously mischievous group of pre-Revolutionary Patriots. It was groups like these, in fact, that sparked Beckman’s interest in fun.
“I was in graduate school and doing a lot of psychoanalytic and political theory work on radical democracy, how the nexus of pleasure with radical democracy played into the reading of modern American literature. From there, I expanded the topic into a culture study.”
Despite its origins in conflict, Beckman argues for the peacekeeping powers of fun. Often involving some element of risk, fun exists as a generally harmless exertion of freedom, a way to rebel without taking drastic action. It allows a taste of liberty and personal expression without overturning society. Beckman provided the example of the punk movement, a counterculture which spoke out against “the man” while still adhering to some type of convention.
Beckman’s own idea of fun is a slightly tamer one “I like to go out dancing with my wife,” he said. “That being said, I will gladly fall into any prank that’s happening nearby. Pranks are an honorable thing.”
During the question-and-answer session following the lecture, a question was raised about the legacy of fun that current college students will leave for the future. Beckman was enthusiastic, expressing excitement over the mobilizing effects of technology for the spontaneous occurrence of fun. His position toward the current and future state of American fun is optimistic.
“I’m so psyched by the imaginative displays of public pleasure among today’s teens and twenty-somethings, not just in America, but all over the world. I truly believe that the international forms of pleasure have clear origins in American fun. That’s a cool form of cultural imperialism. That’s something we should be proud of.”