Did any book ever have a better title? And the motive behind the book is almost as good ~ to do some justice, for a change, to the study of American popular culture.
For too long, popcult has been the restricted grazing land of the politically correct. The largest herd on the range bears the “cultural studies” brand. These are people – almost always academic people – who hold to quaint Marxist notions and spend their time hunting for ways in which culture embodies and ramifies the allegedly oppressive structure of capitalist institutions. And their categories of “oppression” are as fixed as their methodology. What counts for them is racial oppression, class oppression, and gender oppression. The oppression of boredom never occurs to them.
As for” globalization,” the key term in our author’s subtitle, the cultural studies folk know all about that, of course. At least they know how evil it is, since it is a product of the capitalist system. The logic is straightforward, though the intellectual result, from a historical point of view, is a bit peculiar. Since the time of Marx himself, the left has expended enormous energy excoriating nationalism and particularism of every kind, demanding world peace and improved communications among peoples, and just generally raising cain about the desperate need to globalize the globe. The left now finds most of its fondest dreams fully realized. Barriers to trade have fallen on every hand; enmities among nations are at an all-time low; the peoples of the world are united as never before by instantaneous means of communication that exceed the ability of any government (or predatory capitalist corporation) to control them. But because this globalization happened largely as a result of capitalist processes of profit-seeking, the reaction of the left has not been to rejoice but to wring its hands and mourn. Also, on occasion, to scream and shout and hurl rocks and bottles.
So globalization, which was always heralded as a solution to every problem, is now regarded as a problem in itself, or even as a kind of cultural disease. Once globalization is defined as a disease, of course, any cultural tissue that bears it will be subjected to the type of treatment appropriate to disease: It will be dissected, not enjoyed. All over this favored land, there are college courses being taught about the “McDonaldization” of the world, but I can’t imagine that any of these classes are anywhere near as enjoyable and stimulating as an order of burgers ‘n’ fries. The same might be said about all the academic prosecutors who refuse to let Elvis, Snow White, and I Love Lucy (which are, no doubt about it, global phenomena) escape from accusations of racism, sexism, and hegemonism by pleading guilty to the lesser charge of simple-minded entertainment.
The New Puritans
The humorlessness of the cult studies elite – the “New Puritanism,” in our author’s phrase (p. 214) – has done much to discredit all analysis of popular culture, not to mention all use of the term “globalization.” What Cantor proposes to do, however, is to demonstrate that both the term and the pursuit can have value, that they can actually help us to identify interesting features of the kind of world we live in.
Cantor, a distinguished professor of literature at the University of Virginia, knows that popular culture is basically entertainment, and should be analyzed as such. He also knows that some types of entertainment will bear more analysis than others, because they are more carefully organized, more mentally challenging, more capable of projecting complex intentions. Yes, popular culture is often a collaborative enterprise, but there are individual intentions involved, nevertheless; it wasn’t just the Spirit of the Age that named an episode of Gilligan’s Island “Our Vines Have Tender Apes.”
Ranking the four television shows with which he is principally concerned, Cantor says that The X-Files “has genuine artistic merit,” Gilligan “is television at its most average . . . simply mass entertainment,” and Star Trek and The Simpsons “fall somewhere in between these two extremes” (xxxviii). This, it seems to me, is a significant undervaluation of The Simpsons, America’s finest work of satire, but never mind. Cantor recognizes that there is something else to consider besides economic and political isms; there are also the marks of artistic intention that lead one to attend to certain cultural objects in ways that one does not attend to others. In attending to The Simpsons, indeed, Cantor shows that he does perceive the subtlety and complexity of its satire.
Throughout his book, he allows his method of analysis to respond to the nature of its objects, rather than insist- ing, as the practitioners of cultural studies routinely do, on applying the same reductive method to every work. He also maintains the sense of humor that constitutes, one would think, a minimum qualification for the analysis of anything at all in the world of
All over this favored land, there are college courses about the “McDonaldization” of the world, but I can’t imagine that any of these classes are any- where near as enjoyable and stimulating as an order of burgers ‘n’ fries.
human beings, but particularly for the analysis of popular culture. With great comic propriety, he dedicates Gilligan Unbound to Sony SLV-420, his VCR, “Without which this book could not have been written.” His “Notes on Method” begin in this way:
As a professor, I am expected to give an account of my methods. My general readers, who are mainly interested in what I have to say and not in how I am going about saying it, may feel free to skip this section. My academic readers will probably conclude that I am epistemologically naive no matter what I say. Now that nobody is reading, I feel ready to proceed. (xxix)
Common sense and a sense of humor go a long way. with Cantor’s subject. But this author has another rare quality. He is one of the few academic humanists in America who actually understands economics. Libertarian readers will be especially interested to know that he participated (as a high-school student!) in the seminars of the great free-market economic theorist Ludwig von Mises. Cantor is a leader of a small but energetic avant-garde that is bringing literary people the news that the study of economics did not cease with Marx and Veblen.
Cantor understands that globalization is the logical extension of the economic principle of division of labor, without which cultural progress – culture and civilization themselves – could not exist. He also understands that the global expansion of markets and communiations represents an enormous economic benefit, an enormous expansion of wealth, for the billions who participate in it – not just the wealth that can be counted in dollars, but the unquantifiable wealth of knowledge, freedom, and self-expression.
Economics of The X-Files
And Cantor sees the debits as well as the credits. No economic development is all for the best. Economics is not a branch of morality; it does not teach us that a good economic system will produce nothing but good results. The Misesian brand of economics, which emphasizes individual choice, contingency, and risk, allows Cantor to see the many sides of the cultural phenomena he examines. He fully appreciates the fact that The X-Files’ obsession with international (and interplanetary) conspiracies represents a ridiculous development of globalist anxieties; yet he also appreciates the fact that there are no unmixed economic blessings, that one person’s practical benefit may be another per- son’s psychic hardship. The cultural costs of globalization are as worthy of analysis as its cultural benefits, even though the benefits, to Cantor’s mind, as to my own, greatly outweigh the costs.
As an analyst, however, Cantor is principally concerned with America’s movement from the preglobalist to the globalist phase of popular culture. He examines four television series in-depth, a pair from each of those historical phases. The earlier pair – Gilligan’s Island (1964-1967) and Star Trek (1966- 1969) – express a pre-globalized “ideology of the American nation-state” (xv). In Star Trek, it’s liberal America versus the totalitarian Klingons, and liberal America always has the stuff to win. Indeed, as Cantor. points. out, the Prime Directive (don’t interfere with the beings you visit) always has a way of yielding to the intrepid voyagers’ desire to remake every culture in their own liberal-democratic image. “These people aren’t living,” the ineffable Dr. McCoy .announces in one episode, “they’re existing…. They should have the opportunity to choose – we owe it to them to interfere” (43). And the interference is uniformly successful. It is as if America actually had the power, which leftists always assert it has, to remake the globe in its own image.
Gilligan’s jungle isle may seem radically different from the command
Nobody ever was that smart, not even John F. Kennedy or Mr. Spock, but Americans somehow survived. They did so by means of individual, self-interested choices, not because of their genius for democratic social organization or their skill at operating a command economy.
deck of the Enterprise, but a similar ideology prevails. As Cantor shows in hilarious. detail, the island is a goofy idealization of the American political landscape, a place where people are always learning the right lessons about how to behave in a liberal-democratic society. Gilligan himself is the perfect representative of democratic man: “Unlike the other characters in the show, he has nothing to distinguish him and .that constitutes his form of preeminence in the context of a democratic regime” (5). Other characters – the Skipper, the Professor, the
Millionaire – have qualities that ought to ‘give them authority, and would automatically give them authority in any but a modern-liberal society; yet they always lose out to the incompetent but lovable Gilligan. And the loss is harmless: As a group, the castaways survive and flourishing.· Cantor argues that the salient image is that of a group of liberal American democrats who can land on any spot in the globe Gust as Capt. Kirk and his friends can land on any spot in the galaxy), take it over, and make it work.
The Death of James T. Kirk
This flattering self-image of American democracy was, .of course, subjected to withering attack in the 1960s and 1970s. Cantor’s other two examples of popular culture. The Simpsons (1989- ) and The X-Files (1994-) – show what remains after the assault. Here is an America that no longer reaches out confidently, with the solution to every problem on the planet. Here is an America that is goofy, instead, with fears about “alien” influences (The X- Files). Here also,. to go to the other extreme (The Simpsons), is the America that makes the Kwik-E-Mart (the local franchise of a multinational corporation, operated in Springfield, USA, by the amazing Apu Nahasapeemapetilon) the focus of its social existence. The two programs represent opposing visions of the same globalizing process. According to the X-Files’ vision of America, people are now faced with tragic choices of loyalty between the traditional community of family, friends, and nation, and the larger, more potent, and much more dangerous world that impinges on them from the outside, psychically as well as economically. According to The Simpsons’ vision of America, however, it is definitely “possible to have your global cake and eat it locally, too”· (205). Homer Simpson sees a lot of the world, but it never affects his appetite, or his ability to satisfy it.
This comic vision, Cantor senses, is much closer to the truth of our world. The Simpson family, that platonic form of fecklessness, always manages to survive into the next episode, despite the fact that its members never really take anything very seriously, whether it’s the United States government or the forces massing across our borders – and it all seems a lot more realistic than The X-Files’ images of a world that is out to get us, and probably will, because nobody, even Mulder and Scully, is smart enough to figure it all out and do all the right things about it. Well, nobody ever was that smart, not even John F. Kennedy or Mr. Spock, but Americans somehow survived. They did so by means of individual, self-interested choices, not because of their genius for democratic social organization or their skill at operating a command economy.
Cantor’s book was published just before the events of Sept. 11 and of course was not informed by them. But I doubt that anything happened on that date that is outside the scope of his analysis. The story he tells is the story of the decreasing cultural potency of the nation-state when measured against the new economic and technological forces that now disseminate not only information but also power, of a kind, throughout the planet. We no longer live in a world where, as Cantor aptly recalls, all the computers that Capt. Kirk was likely to encounter were brontosauruses operated by some central government,
Gilligan’s jungle isle may seem radically different from the command deck of the Enterprise, but a similar ideology prevails.
agencies of conformity and delusion that could nevertheless be dispatched by a single thrust of Kirk’s liberal- democratic mentality, or phaser. (The fact that Kirk’s own by-no-means-democratically-operated spaceship was itself controlled by such a computer is an irony that apparently escaped the creators of Star Trek, which is redolent throughout, as Cantor shows, of the Kennedy era’s innocence of its own ironies.) We live in a world in which either a terrorist or a heaven-born scientist can use a laptop to transform reality, and the nation-state will have a hard time stopping him.
That may seem tragic, in an X-Files way, especially in the light of Sept. II. If it does seem tragic to you, however, you might think a little more about
what the terrorists (and the antiglobalists) are trying to do. They are trying to use the technology of a globalized world in order to destroy globalization. They want to go back – back to a regime of nationalism, particularism, and statism, back to a world in which only one kind of voice had the power to make itself heard. Merely to state this intention is to show how ridiculous it is. We do not know exactly how such intentions will fail, but they will fail. We know that, compared with Osama bin Laden, even the Simpsons are political geniuses.