The Invisible Hand in Popular Culture: Liberty vs. Authority in Film and TV
By Paul Cantor
University Press of Kentucky, 2012
Reading an essay by Paul Cantor is a bit like having dinner with someone who has read thousands of books, and can speak enlighteningly for hours on everything from Greek myth to Marxism to Star Trek VI. By the time it’s all over, you greatly wish you’d actually read all those assigned books you were too drunk to finish reading in college.
Cantor, an expert on Shakespeare and a professor of English at the University of Virginia, has again returned to the topic of television and film with his new book The Invisible Hand in Popular Culture: Liberty vs. Authority in American Film and TV, and further expands on the topics of globalization, markets, and state power first presented in his 2001 book Gilligan Unbound.
This new volume is even more substantial than the previous one, featuring ten essays on film and television ranging from UFO movies to Westerns to South Park. In addition, the introduction provides an extensive discussion on the very nature of pop culture, how it is produced, and how it should be interpreted.
Written in clear language for the curious layman, but carefully footnoted for the scholar, Invisible Hand helps us look in a new way at the images on the screen that undeniably have an enormous effect on the viewer’s notions of history, government, freedom, and the human experience.
Cantor begins with The Searchers (1956) and looks at its themes of revenge in light of another revenge cycle, Aeschylus’sOresteia. In the frontier of the Western genre, the lawlessness of the new lands is reflected in the words of Aeschylus, written millennia before:
Go where heads are severed, eyes gouged out, where Justice and bloody slaughter are the same… castrations, wasted seed, young men’s glories butchered…
In the Western genre, this is so often the nature of the American frontier neatly summarized, and we can only ask ourselves: who shall impose order?
Cantor goes on to note that this question is answered in a variety of ways in Westerns, with two distinct and opposing options offered by the television shows Have Gun – Will Travel (1957-1963) andDeadwood (2004-2006).
Have Gun provides the (conventional and authoritarian) view offered by Westerns, and as Cantor notes, the show’s hero Paladin imposes order on a frontier composed largely of racist rubes, petty tyrants and superstitious fools. Every town, it seems, has a lynch mob, and the “unending sequence of tyrannical rich men” in Have Gun sets the stage for many showdowns between the enlightened and refined hero Paladin and his backward enemies.
Paladin, Cantor notes, looks remarkably like the members of the ruling class in Washington D.C. and New York at the timeHave Gun was made. Sophisticated, highly educated technocrats were the heroes of the day (at least among people making television shows) and Paladin fit the bill. Everywhere on the frontier, Paladin’s intervention is necessary for “Paladin never seems to come upon a functioning community, with a set of decent political institutions that make it capable of self-government.”
At the other end of the spectrum is the HBO series Deadwood, in which the people of the town of Deadwood are perfectly capable of self-government. If the “enlightened” people show up in Deadwood, it’s usually to steal something.
Cantor examines Deadwood in light of the debate between Hobbes and Locke. Cantor concludes that Deadwood is in many ways explicitly libertarian, condemning government and praising private property as a civilizing force in numerous ways. Is the state necessary for order or do property, peace and prosperity pre-date the state? Deadwood, it seems, comes down firmly in the latter camp.
The people of Deadwood – uneducated, foul-mouthed, and unsophisticated – explicitly reject rule by far away and refined elites. They’ll take freedom instead.
A similar theme comes through in Cantor’s chapter on Mars Attacks! (1996) in which the wealthy elites of the American establishment are naïve, stupid, incompetent, and corrupt. As Cantor observes, the elites, in spite of all their massive machines of war, and blinded my their devotion to “diversity,” are unable or unwilling to defend Earth from the vicious and murderous Martians. In the end, the earth is saved by a ragtag gang of has-been athletes, scumbag capitalists, and gun-loving trailer trash who defeat the aliens after learning that their heads explode when exposed to the sounds of a Slim Whitman song.
Cantor details how the Mars Attacks! narrative, in which common men and women save humanity, is a complete inversion of the Cold War-era flying saucer movies in which government soldiers, experts, and intellectuals save humanity from invading aliens. Indeed, “the people” in the traditional Cold War films are rarely pictured as anything other than a panicking and hapless mob, while the sophisticated and virtuous people of the U.S. Government do their jobs with admirable precision.
Although today taking many forms and exploring many themes, the alien invasion motif, Cantor notes, is alive and well in American popular culture. At this point, Cantor returns to a topic he knows well – The X-Files (1993-2002) – and notes how numerous modern television shows have carried on the legacy of government conspiracies and alien invasions.
And here again, we find the conflict between “the experts” and the ordinary individual straining against an authoritarian order so stacked against her. The victimization of Scully in The X-Files reflects one of the central fears dramatized in the series. Cantor explains:
Although conventional despots like Saddam Hussein are occasionally mentioned in The X-Files, the “tyrant” in the show is more likely to take the form of a man in a white coat, calmly asking you to submit to an examination or an inoculation. The underlying fear in The X-Files is that the world is now being run by experts, who lay claim to rule based on their scientific and technological know-how, not their political and military victories…Among the most ominous words a character in The X-Files can hear is “this is for your own good.”
All of these shows explored similar themes to the X-Files and examined the role the state has in failing to protect citizens from alien invasions. The underlying fear these shows, capitalize on, Cantor contends, is not just the fear of foreign immigrants, but also a fear of powerlessness in the face of forces beyond our control. Immigration, terrorism, disease epidemics, and culture wars are all addressed through the lens of these shows. Often, the victims include the traditional family, freedom, and most of the institutions we hold dear. In these shows, the triumphalism and deference to experts of the Cold War years is long gone.
In 2008, Fox introduced Fringe (2008-2013) which closely resembled The X-Files in a number of details, although instead of offering aliens, the show featured interactions between our own world and a mysterious dystopian parallel universe.
Furthermore, as Cantor noted in a recent interview with the Mises Institute, “Fringe became overtly libertarian in its fifth and final season, even changing its ‘flash cards’ in its opening credits to emphasize libertarian themes. Can you believe that the show spotlighted ‘ownership’ in its opening catalog of the fundamental principles of human existence?”
The endurance of shows like Fringe, Cantor theorizes, illustrates that in spite of events like 9/11, institutional corruption, conspiracies, and the betrayal of the American people by its own government, remain a popular theme in television.
I’ve only managed to touch on some of the many topics Cantor covers in this wide-ranging book. In the chapter on film noir, for example, Cantor looks at capitalism, the open road, and the Marxian Frankfurt School’s effects on American pop culture, while his chapter on South Park illustrates how the show’s creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, speak libertarian truth to power “Out of the Potty Mouths of Babes.”
In a world of government-subsidized “fine” art that virtually no one looks at or cares about, capitalist pop culture is the real art today that reflects the prejudices, hopes, fears, and ideologies of our time. Paul Cantor offers us a helpful guide in navigating the pop culture of our own age, while illuminating it with history, philosophy, high academic theory, and even the epic poetry of ages long past.