It’s easy to flip through television channels today and see a wasteland, from the redneck voyeurism of “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” to forgettable crime shows and bad suburban comedies. Critics gush over the latest high-budget network drama, while the real heavyweight ratings battle is duked out between the likes of Merv Griffin, Judge Judy, and Dr. Phil. There’s a temptation to view television, as well as most movies, as too compromised to commercial pressure to be a legitimate artistic medium.
The critical establishment generally adopts some version of this pose. As Paul Cantor puts it in his new book, The Invisible Hand in Popular Culture, critics inside and out of the academy tend to “treat culture as a realm of unfreedom, dwelling on the constraints under which would-be creative people necessarily operate.” Or worse, they hold the view—inherited from poststructuralists or the cultural Marxists of the Frankfurt School—that pop culture is actively deceptive, giving people a false sense of satisfaction while “producing forms of debased entertainment to numb the American people into submission to their capitalist masters.”
All that is what Cantor—by day a Shakespeare scholar at the University of Virginia—seeks to refute. In addition to his literary scholarship, he’s harbored an enduring interest in Austrian Economics and libertarian thought, ever since as a young man he attended lectures by Ludwig von Mises in New York City. His latest project has been to draw these literary and libertarian pursuits together, first producing a book on television entitled Gilligan Unbound and then co-writing the more highbrow Literature and the Economics of Liberty. The Invisible Hand in Popular Culture is the next step, an episodic libertarian history of film and television.
American pop culture both celebrates freedom and is an example of it. Many of the films and television programs Cantor examines as case studies “in upholding freedom as an ideal, present what appears to be disorder as a deeper form of order.” But classical liberalism isn’t the only sort Cantor discovers in American popular culture—the paternalistic variety also rears its head.
For example, in Paladin, the protagonist of Gene Rodenberry’s Western “Have Gun, Will Travel,” Cantor sees a premonition of the enlightened Kennedy liberalism that would be more fully expressed in Roddenberry’s later work on “Star Trek.” By virtue of Paladin always playing the role of outside arbiter in crimes, water disputes, and various cultural misunderstandings, “Have Gun, Will Travel” betrays a skepticism toward local or individual autonomy. The show “asks us to believe that every rich man in the West is corrupted by money except Paladin.” Moreover, “in all his travels, Paladin never seems to come upon a functioning community, with a set of political institutions that make it capable of self-government. The local authorities he deals with are almost always corrupt or too weak to handle a crisis.”
Several of Cantor’s chapters pair a film or television program with a thinker whose ideas best explain it. There’s Tocqueville somewhere in the way “Mars Attacks” celebrates the persistence of ordinary people and Aeschylus in John Ford’s “The Searchers.” The TV show “Deadwood” holds to a Lockean conception of the state of nature, in which markets precede formal political order. Most major Enlightenment figures are represented in these chapters, as are less iconic yet still indispensable thinkers like James C. Scott, whose The Art of Not Being Governed—an anthropological volume that suggests stateless hill people in southeast Asia were not primitive but had chosen tribal anarchy over oppressive governments—is mentioned in relation to Deadwood’s post-political South Dakota community.
There’s a delightful eclecticism to Cantor’s writing that stems partly from the serious analysis of what are sometimes very lighthearted topics. Applying Bakhtin’s “carnivalesque” description of Rabelais, he deems Eric Cartman of “South Park” the “pint-sized Falstaff of the cartoon world.” In one episode of that show, gnomes who steal underpants become a symbol of capitalist production and the failure of most people to understand it:
We know two things about these strange beings: (1) they are gnomes; (2) they are normally invisible. Both facts point in the direction of capitalism. As in the phrase ‘gnomes of Zurich,’ which refers to bankers, gnomes are often associated with the world of finance. In the first opera of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, Das Rheingold, the gnome Alberich serves as a symbol of the capitalist exploiter—and he forges the Tarnhelm, a cap of invisibility. The idea of invisibility calls to mind Adam Smith’s famous notion of the ‘invisible hand’ that guides the free market. In short, the underpants gnomes are an image of capitalism and the way it is normally—and mistakenly—pictured by its opponents.
It’s nice to have someone making the case that one’s favorite television show also advocates a free society. But at points I wondered if Cantor wasn’t engaging in the critical equivalent of cutting butter with a chainsaw, especially in the case of “South Park,” whose creators are explicitly libertarian. Still, his elaborations are always interesting.
Cantor’s most direct attack on the critical mainstream comes in his discussion of Edgar Ulmer’s noir classic “Detour” in relation to the Frankfurt School, the group of German academicians who formulated the concepts of cultural Marxism. Ulmer himself, as well as Theodor Adorno and several other members of the Frankfurt School, emigrated to the United States and harbored a deep unease about the egalitarian consumerism of this country. Cantor draws connections between the movie’s portrayal of Hollywood success as a mirage—the protagonist is perpetually waylaid on his way there—and the Frankfurt School’s notion of the movie industry as a dream factory manufacturing the whims of the masses. Encoded in the Frankfurt School’s opposition to recorded music, mechanical reproduction in general, and “commercial” art was a nostalgia for the old European aristocratic order in which only the privileged had access to high culture.
Cantor offers a useful corrective, to be sure. Yet there may be something to the Frankfurt explanation as to why there is demand for overtly authoritarian entertainment. I recently watched a movie theater full of young people cheer this year’s movie adaptation of the British comic Judge Dredd, a sheer totalitarian fantasy set in a dystopian future in which the title character plays jury and executioner as well as judge. The movie seems to glorify a monolithic law-enforcement state prepared to go to any length and accept any collateral damage to accomplish its goals. Without indulging in a lengthy discourse about manufactured desire, we might nonetheless concede that fascist art is in relatively high demand. Is the anti-authoritarian strain of American pop culture really the stronger one, especially since 9/11?
The 1990s saw an unusual number of movies and television shows suggesting a skeptical view of government, perhaps none as telling as “The X-Files.” Through most of that decade it was the marquee show on Fox. If you doubt that current events can have a dramatic impact on the public’s taste in entertainment, consider that after 9/11 the next Fox show to achieve comparable success was “24.” The two programs have substantially different attitudes toward the state. FBI agent Fox Mulder in “The X-Files” is a plucky eccentric hell-bent on exposing an alien conspiracy within the upper echelons of the U.S. government, while his superiors continually try to thwart him. Jack Bauer of “24” kills, tortures, and maims without restraint in the name of national security.
Yet Cantor proves that the style of “The X-Files” won out in the end. In Gilligan Unbound, he analyzed how the show reflected Americans’ hopes and anxieties about globalization in a quintessentially ’90s way. Here he examines several post-9/11 television programs—some, like “Fringe,” more successful than others—to demonstrate how “The X-Files” also “pioneered a model of what post-9/11 popular culture would look like.”
The final episodes of “The X-Files,” in which Fox Mulder is subjected to a show trial, aired in May 2002. Watching them today, they seem like a clear indictment of the national-security state. Their suspicious attitude toward government is the opposite of what was expected by those who predicted that the 9/11 attacks would lead to an upwelling of patriotic triumphalism and the “end of irony.” Yet “The X-Files” was ahead of the critics—in more ways than one.
Cantor delves into the most eerily prescient moment in “X-Files” history, the pilot episode of the spin-off show “The Lone Gunmen,” named for a trio of Mulder’s three conspiracy-minded friends. The episode debuted on March 4, 2001 and centered on a plot to fly a commercial jet into the World Trade Center. The government, as is often the case in “The X-Files,” turns out to be behind the scheme, motivated by weaponized Keynesianism. As one of the Gunmen’s fathers explains: “The Cold War’s over, John, but with no clear enemy to stockpile against, the arms market’s flat. But bring down a fully loaded 727 into the middle of New York City and you’ll find a dozen tin-pot dictators all over the world just clamoring to take responsibility and begging to be smart-bombed.” And the episode itself fueled conspiracy theories about the attacks.
For the case that American film and television not only celebrates self-government and freedom but stands as an art form undiminished by its commercial associations, you can do no better than Paul Cantor’s new book. Though he has written in this vein before, The Invisible Hand in Popular Culture is by far his most original and comprehensive effort.
Jordan Bloom is associate editor of TAC.