Amid the tumescent number of academic books on popular culture, there is very little of genuine interest. The books are mostly attempts to make philosophy or literature seem relevant by juxtaposing scenes or quotations from films with quips from the great thinkers. Paul Cantor’s work is of a much higher order. A Shakespeare scholar who teaches at Virginia, Cantor is the author of the very well received Gilligan Unbound: Pop Culture in the Age of Globalization (2003). A careful reader of literary texts, Cantor is also an astute observer of contemporary media. His work at the intersection of popular culture and the great books not only sheds light on the former but also makes you want to read or reread the latter.
Cantor’s latest book is a collection of wide-ranging essays that brims with brilliant insights on particular movies and TV shows but is not quite as compelling when taken as a unified argument about liberty. Cantor’s book is an antidote to the common assumption on the right that our popular culture is saturated with progressivist, socialist stories; yet it sometimes falls prey to another common assumption on the right, namely, that of an overly simple opposition between ordinary folks and elites.
This thesis can be remarkably illuminating — in, for example, Cantor’s examination of the genre of the western. John Ford’s The Searchers lays bare the tragic tension between the solitary hero, whose sacrifices preserve the community, and the political community itself, which, once established, has difficulty making a place for the hero. Through a trenchant examination of Ford’s vision of the tensions inherent in civilized life, Cantor detects echoes of the ruminations on civilization in Aeschylus’s Oresteia; he also observes parallels between the contemporary western and Homer’s lament over a lost world of heroes. Often considered a fundamentally conservative genre, the western is, as Cantor ably demonstrates, amenable to adaptation and expansion, even to becoming a vehicle for the articulation of progressive convictions. The TV series Have Gun — Will Travel (1957–63) portrayed progressive elites in a positive light as forces necessary to counter the prejudice and bigotry endemic to small communities, and suggested that the big city, with its diversity of types, is a better model of democracy than is the small, homogeneous town. The discussion of the western offers the most nuanced examination in the book of the complexity of freedom and of the “tradeoffs between order and liberty.”
But Cantor’s thesis is less about the balance between progressive elitism and local initiative than it is a defense of the latter. He speaks of “two visions” of America. One sees American citizens as “helpless victims” in need of assistance and guidance from elites; another detects in ordinary Americans the capacity to band together to solve problems. According to Cantor, many of the best films and TV shows pit a “bottom up” vision of American initiative against a “top down” bureaucracy, to the detriment of the latter. Cantor weaves into his explication of popular culture an ambitious understanding of the role of the invisible hand and spontaneous order. He cites Adam Smith on the way in which an invisible hand seems to direct private interests to public advantage: In bargaining, Smith observes, we address ourselves not to the “humanity” of another but to his “self-love.” Acts motivated by self-interest often bring about a greater public good than do acts that purportedly intend the social good.
Cantor also argues very convincingly for the presence of spontaneous order not only in the content and themes of contemporary Hollywood productions, but also in the very production process of films and TV shows. Against the auteur theory, which ascribes the result of a film to the unified intentionality of a master director, Cantor recognizes that much of what is produced in Hollywood is the result of a combination of the intentions of many individuals, sometimes even the intentions of viewers who have responded positively or negatively to plots and characters. Consider, for instance, the happenstance decision on how to frame the concluding scene of Casablanca — rightly considered one of the greatest endings in film history — or the decision of the writers and producers of The X-Files to retain and increase the role of the Lone Gunmen on the basis of favorable audience response. As Cantor observes, something like this has also been true of great works of literature. Novelists, for example Dickens and Dostoevsky, have composed under an installment plan or in serialization, often under the pressure of financial necessity and arbitrary deadlines. Writers have altered plots as they wrote in relation to feedback from readers, and produced works that were the result of collaboration (most notably, in Ezra Pound’s large editorial role in the final shape of T. S. Eliot’s Waste Land).
#page#It is not surprising that Cantor finds ample support for his thesis in South Park, a show created by self-professed libertarians that skewers authority figures on both sides of the political spectrum. In its crass mockery of religion, government, and Hollywood, South Park echoes classical comedy from Aristophanes to Rabelais, although Cantor strains a bit in crediting South Park with creative insight for its depiction of children as “wiser than adults” — a cliché that permeates nearly every Hollywood film in which adults and children are paired.
What may be surprising, particularly for those inclined to think of Hollywood as moving in lockstep with liberal Democrats, is that Cantor finds richly articulated libertarian themes running through mainstream Hollywood films, most notably in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator (2004) — which offers a positive portrait of Howard Hughes as an entrepreneur who finds himself in opposition to the powerful forces of old money, big business, and big government. The sometimes opposed forces of big government and big business actually conspire in the film to undermine individual initiative. Cantor quotes a terrific bit of dialogue from the film, an exchange from a dinner party at the home of Katharine Hepburn’s old-money, aristocratic family, when Hughes was having an affair with her. Faced with the Hepburn attitude of insouciance toward money, Hughes counters: “You don’t care about money because you have it. And you’ve always had it. My father was dirt poor when I was born. . . . I care about money, because I know what it takes out of a man to make it.” In its celebration of alternatives to government subsidies, The Aviator celebrates the virtues of earning, investing, and spending one’s own money.
The antithesis of Cantor’s view of American democratic art can be found in the theory of the Frankfurt School of criticism, articulated most pointedly by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, German émigrés who, in speaking of a “culture industry,” likened American popular culture to a fascist regime. Their target is so-called mass culture, which renders audiences passive victims of an ideology; they see capitalist civilization as a barbaric trap from which there is no escape. Cantor detects such a vision of America in film noir. Even as he admits that American noir is rooted partly in the American hard-boiled detective novel, he sees noir as basically a European import, a vision alien to authentic American sensibilities — as American as apple strudel, he quips. Of all the noir films, Cantor chooses to focus on the low-budget Detour (1945), directed by the European émigré Edgar G. Ulmer. Cantor sees in Detour a dark vision of rootlessness, one in which there are no families, only atomistic individuals, and in which the movement west undermines rather than fulfills the aspiration of the American dream.
Whether Detour is the paradigmatic noir is questionable; indeed, the noir genre has proven to be as flexible as the western Cantor praises for its adaptability. Quintessentially noir elements can be found in a remarkably wide variety of films and TV shows, including some Cantor praises for their insight into American culture, such as The X-Files, 24, and Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. Cantor notes the tension in The X-Files between local agents in the field and a vast and intrusive technological and medical establishment. Modern medicine, in The X-Files, involves the manipulation of individual bodies by unfeeling strangers, even as it relocates reproduction away from the family and to the laboratory, where elites can create a “population made to order.” Sounding a bit like the culture-industry philosophers from whom he distances himself, Cantor goes so far as to cite Foucault’s notion of modern society as a world of pervasive and minute surveillance. Certainly The X-Files embodies noir-like suspicions that behind every smiling face is a malevolent will and that the American dream is always in danger of becoming a nightmare. Moreover, modern science and progressive technology would seem to be paradigmatic examples of progress through spontaneous development, yet they lead here to alienation and bureaucratic control. The increasing function of the laboratory as replacement for the family arises not so much from the imposition of centralized power as from the desire of very ordinary folks for increased autonomy and control, whether that has to do with reproduction, physical appearance, or decisions concerning the extension or end of life.
The reason that the fears at the heart of The X-Files and increasingly popular sci-fi films from Blade Runner to The Matrix are so compelling to contemporary audiences is that they suggest a self-knowledge we usually avoid, the knowledge that the monsters of the modern world are creations of our own wills and our strongly felt desires. We may also fear that in opting for technological control, we are simultaneously losing our grip on any sort of natural order, and have half a sense of the moral and cultural vertigo that could ensue.
That is a vision of our culture that should discomfort libertarians as well as centralized planners and social engineers.
– Mr. Hibbs is dean of the Honors College at Baylor University. An updated and expanded version of his book Shows about Nothing was published earlier this year by Baylor University Press.