Stephen W. Carson interviewed Paul Cantor, author of the highly recommended Gilligan Unbound: Pop Culture in the Age of Globalization, at Washington University in St. Louis for Washington Witness, just before his January 30, 2003, lecture on "Cartoon Anarchy: From the Simpsons to Southpark," sponsored by the Conservative Leadership Association at WU.
A: I’ve always been conservative as long as I can remember. I come from a middle-class Jewish family in New York and my parents were sort of FDR liberals. Perhaps in rebellion against that my brother became a conservative, he was 8 years older than I so I followed him. I was living in New York in the u201850s. It was the age of William Buckley and the National Review and Ayn Rand. There were all sorts of conservative resources in New York. I used to go to hear these people speak. That’s how it happened.
Q: Did you do some time in the Rand circle there?
A: Not really. I suppose you could say I’m another case of "it all began with Ayn Rand" because I read Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged pretty early in life. It had a big influence on me. I used to go hear her speak but I never met her or participated in any institutional Randian thing.
Q: Was [Ludwig von] Mises an important influence on you?
A: Oh yes. Again, it came through my brother who was studying at NYU Law School, specifically with a man named Sylvester Petro who was the great conservative Labor Law figure. The man who wrote the book on the Kohler strike and the only conservative voice in the area of Labor Law. He knew Mises and had his students read Mises. I picked up Human Action that way and read it, about age 15, maybe 14 come to think of it. Eventually I attended Mises’s seminar.
Q: You were 17 then?
A: No, I was a child tragedy. You know, I was a child prodigy then I ended up being a tragedy [laughs]. I was 16 when I showed up at college.
Q: Seems like conservatives have often ignored popular culture, except to do passing belittlements of it. I read your book. You’re taking popular culture pretty seriously. Why are you different?
A: First let me say that I think conservatives are making a big tactical mistake by ignoring popular culture. They really are losing a whole generation of students or are severely impairing their ability to speak to them by not being able to speak to students in their own terms. If for no other reason, conservatives ought to take interest in popular culture, along the lines of the cultural literacy argument, that to be able to relate conservative ideas meaningfully to today’s students, you have to know where they’re coming from and where they’re coming from is popular culture.
But I’ll go deeper than that and say that another mistake that conservatives make is: If they truly have faith in the free market, how can they not have faith in popular culture? That is, one of the chief remaining arguments of the Left that has any resonance is that capitalism debases culture. The Left has lost the economic argument; it’s very hard to say that capitalism impoverishes people’s material lives anymore. The Left has basically retreated to a cultural argument, that capitalism debases people’s spiritual lives and that the culture produced by capitalism is base and degraded.
Q: Sounds like Russell Kirk.
A: Yes! There’s a certain way in which the extreme Left and extreme Right meet in their criticism of the middle, and the middle is where people live, and that’s popular culture. It actually behooves people who believe in free markets to defend the free markets on cultural grounds and that’s one of the things I’m doing. Quite frankly, I’ve always like popular culture selectively. I grew up with television, to some extent with popular music. I’ve always thought there were good things in popular culture and bad things in popular culture. I feel our intellectual duty is to sort that out.
In fact, what is called high culture is, not always but very often, yesterday’s popular culture. I don’t have to rehearse it all but Shakespeare was popular in his day, Dickens was popular in his day. In general, the two most popular forms in the 19th century were the novel and the opera. Today they’re regarded as bastions of high culture. In their day they were looked down upon, scorned. People were told not to go to the opera, not to read novels… They’re morally bad for you. There’s a long enough history of this to realize that when very well meaning conservative critics condemn popular culture they’re making a mistake. In my own lifetime, movies moved from a situation where they were not taken seriously to a situation where now they’re regarded as an art form. I’m convinced the same thing will happen with television, is happening. My own prediction is that the video game is going to be the major art form of the 21st century. That what we now scorn and look down upon… The Shakespeare or the Dickens of the video game will come along, probably is already here. We just don’t know, or I just don’t know it.
Conservatives are always saying take a lesson from history. Well, here’s a lesson to take from history: Don’t scorn popular culture. Everyone who bet against the dominant form of popular culture at any point of history has lost the aesthetic bet. Conservatives of Shakespeare’s day hated the theatre, they wanted to close it down and eventually succeeded in doing it in the 1640s. But, again, there’s almost no form of what we now regard as high culture that was not, in it’s own day, condemned. The reason is simple. When a cultural form is popular and alive and vibrant it produces lots of stuff and the majority of it is bad. It is, again, a familiar market argument. What popular culture does is to produce lots of stuff and it has to be sorted out in market fashion over time. You look at products in the marketplace. Most new products are bad and they lose. They lose in the marketplace. At first, it’s easy to criticize them. So, indeed, popular culture is a form of marketplace and, over time, the cream comes to the top and that becomes the source of our great art.
Conservatives… This is the one aspect of their conservatism I quarrel with. Kind of "old fogeyism." They sit back and condemn the popular culture of the present in the name of the popular culture of the past! There’s a little debate on this that broke out on the Internet… I won’t name names. But what’s particularly interesting about this recent little scuffle was that somebody was condemning younger conservatives for embracing popular culture and talking with interest about current movies and television. The guy criticized them in the name of 1950s movies and television. One of the younger generation pointed out: we’ll allow you to hold up Greek tragedy and Shakespeare to criticize us, but don’t try to tell us that the u201860s was the Golden Age of Television and Radio and that by those standards we are shown as being tasteless. All this means is that you’re old and you like those television programs and those movies and you don’t like our television programs and our movies. But your television and movies are no better than ours.
Thomas Hibbs wrote a book called Shows About Nothing, which is a very good and intelligent book and I praised it in print. But the one thing I didn’t like about that was it condemned Seinfeld in the name of I Love Lucy. Again, condemn Seinfeld in the name of Aristophanes, condemn it in the name of Ben Johnson, but not in the name of I Love Lucy! Which was a fine show but is nowhere near as intelligent as Seinfeld, nowhere near as well made. I suspect that a thousand years from now Seinfeld will still be archived and I Love Lucy will be a kind of curiosity. Anyway, there’s a certain old fogey aspect of conservatism that is it’s weakest point. And its weakest point with students is where you take yourself out of the discourse by not realizing what the reference points of students today are. It’s just a major mistake to abandon popular culture to the Left. It’s what makes the Left appear cool to students. It makes it appear "with it," hip. It’s amazing how much currency you can get with students if you can show familiarity with the culture that means something to them.
I got an e-mail just yesterday from a former student desperately trying to convince me to give Eminem a chance. As it happens, I’m not impressed with Eminem, but several of my graduate students have made good arguments for him. I happen to know Greil Marcus and he’s a great defender of Eminem. But it just doesn’t work for me. But I was at least able to say to this kid, not "Who’s Eminem?" I was able to say, "Hey kid! I tried already. It’s not that I don’t know who he is, I happen not to like it." In general, I don’t like rap music. Some people that I very much respect do. I don’t embrace popular culture indiscriminately.
I have always felt that there are very good things coming out of popular culture. I truly believe that if you took the 100 greatest movies of the 20th century they stand up to any form of artistic achievement in the history of humanity with the exception of Shakespeare’s plays. There’s something called the "Shakespeare Fallacy" that nothing stands up to Shakespeare. If you tell me that Shakespeare’s greater than the X-Files, you’re right. But Shakespeare’s also greater than Greek tragedy, he’s greater than Dickens, he’s greater than Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and there’s nothing that can stand up to that standard. But if you tell me that the plays of Euripides, Sophocles and Aeschylus are simply better than the films of Ingar Bergman, Federico Fellini, Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, Francis Ford Coppola… I’m not sure of that. I’ll argue that one. Sit back and think about it, a list of the 100 greatest movies of the 20th century would be an extraordinary body of artistic achievement. And, again, I truly believe that the 100 greatest Victorian novels are not as great as the 100 greatest films. The 100 greatest Italian operas are not as great as the 100 greatest American films. One of the problems you’ve got to recognize is that great achievements occur in new media.
Q: Culture’s happening and it’s passing the conservative movement by.
A: Yeah. The funny thing is that the movie argument is over. Some of the most conservative people I know have gotten together to write a volume about the great movies of Whit Stillman, the genius of Barcelona and The Last Days of Disco. When that happens, you know that that argument is won. So now it’s television. 50 years from now when the video game is the dominant artistic form of the world, they’re all going to be talking about the glory days of Seinfeld and whatever. I’ve seen enough of this in my own lifetime. You’d think that people would start to learn this lesson.
Now, again, when I worked on my book I started with an appreciation of the Simpsons and the X-Files, for example. The more I studied them, the more that appreciation increased. I’m now convinced that the X-Files is one of the great artistic achievements of the 1990s. That’s pretty strange to anyone who doesn’t know the show, even stranger to someone who’s slightly familiar, seen one or two episodes. Again, if you took the 30 best X-Files episodes, they hold up against movies!
Q: It’s like Twin Peaks. There’s this level of quality where you’re like, "is this television I’m watching?"
A: In fact, the X-Files is very much modeled on Twin Peaks and stole a lot of stuff from it.
Q: I’m a huge Twin Peaks fan.
A: You could actually become an X-Files fan then. The star of X-Files was in Twin Peaks.
Q: Yeah, I still see him and think of him dressed up as a woman.
A: Well, let’s hope Tea Leoni doesn’t. Quite frankly, most conservatives who argue against popular culture are arguing from ignorance. Often, admittedly so. That’s no way to make an argument. When William Bennett made his negative comments about the Simpsons, he had to admit that he’d never seen it.
Obviously, the difference when we’re talking about popular culture is that we’re in the process of sifting it out. So it’s always easier to talk about Shakespeare, because we know now that he was the greatest playwright of the English Renaissance. There were a couple of other great playwrights: Christopher Marlowe, Ben Johnson. But when you go down below that rung. When you get to people like John Webster, John Ford, Cyril Tourneur. Those guys are hacks. They’re very similar to violent, semi-pornographic 20th century movies.
Q: The Jerry Bruckheimers of theatre.
A: Yeah, Sam Peckinpah who just loved violence for it’s own sake. We now safely know who was Shakespeare and who was Cyril Tourneur. At the time, people were still sifting that out. Thought it’s interesting, Shakespeare was so great that people began to notice the difference even then. I’ve spent most of my life working on Shakespeare, people who were centuries gone, we’ve been able to sort out what’s good and what’s bad. At some point, I’m abdicating my function as a critic. It’s all very easy to say Shakespeare was great. If I’ve got these talents as a critic, I ought to apply them to my own time. Not be so safe as to say, "Gee, Francis Ford Coppola is a great filmmaker, he made The Godfather, he made The Conversation."
You know, it’s much tougher and riskier to plunge yourself in to something like the X-Files. I have to admit that there were days I wondered if 5 years from now I’d look back and say, "You idiot! You thought that show was good?" It was particularly awkward writing about a show that was still in process. Especially in that case, where at the time I was writing about the X-Files it was clearly in decline. It was a question of how much longer it would last. Soon as my book came out, the show died. Hegel said, "The owl of Minerva takes flight when dusk is falling." Meaning you can’t get wise until the fat lady sings. It was a little tough. I remember there was one person who wrote about the X-Files very early, at the end of the first season I think. He said, the great thing about the show is that it takes itself seriously and they’ll never get post-modern, they’ll never do comedy. The next season they introduced their first comedy episode. I was actually very pleased that I finished the book with about a month left in the 8th season and the 9th season to go and they never did anything to contradict what I’d written. That was very nice of them. To be honest, they confirmed some of my theses even more by the last season. But it is much more risky to confront the culture you live in.
Q: You’re really describing a more entrepreneurial thing and there’s a risk to that. But you’ve already pointed out the risk to NOT being entrepreneurial. Spending all your time praising the safe things. The conservatives have seen the entrepreneurial risk of getting in there and getting muddy with culture as it’s happening but they’re not seeing the other side of it.
A: I’m happy to say that I think I’ve had a very good effect on the conservative movement. I really think I’m the one that went out on the limb and I’m now giving shade to all these young people. I’ve seen several examples. One of the first places I gave papers on popular culture is the American Political Science Association. It went from my giving one paper to having whole panels and now there’s almost a little subset of the American Political Science Association that does popular culture. The book on Stillman came out of that. They never would have done that if I hadn’t given them the example. Similarly, with the Mises Institute I’ve done a couple of papers there, I’ve done things for their web site. I see more and more things coming out on LewRockwell.com. I was very glad to see the debate about Scorsese’s Gangs of New York which just stunned me when I saw it. Here was Tom DiLorenzo’s new Lincoln book put on the screen. It actually happened on Malcolm in the Middle a couple weeks earlier. Dewey is trying to get out of homework… He’s supposed to play Lincoln in the school play. So he says, "Mom, don’t you know he was a dictator and he only issued the Emancipation Proclamation for political reasons?" I can’t believe one of the writers hasn’t been reading Tom DiLorenzo’s book.
Conservatives are afraid of popular culture. In part because they don’t know it. They have a vague sense, largely justified, that it’s more or less left wing. They know that Hollywood’s left wing. They see on every possible cause Hollywood stars generally coming out on the wrong side. They figure this whole thing has got to be wrong. But that’s typical of trying to make a blanket judgment and how that goes wrong. It’s true there’s only one Arnold Schwarzenegger for a hundred Barbara Streisands. Still, there are some conservative people in Hollywood. M. Night Shyamalan, this guys who’s done Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Signs is not only conservative but religious. Or at least he has great respect for religion.
Signs was a deeply religious movie, it’s about how only religion can defeat evil in the world. The reviews were negative because the Hollywood press sensed there was something wrong with this guy. Mel Gibson is conservative, so the combination was too much. When you see that film, how can Hollywood deal with a film where the cure for the world’s ills is baptism. Dipping evil people in water. The whole film is about somebody’s loss of religious faith and how he has to regain it and restore his family. I think he’s the greatest young filmmaker to come along since Tim Burton. Unbreakable is so extraordinary the press wouldn’t even touch it because it’s a parable about race relations in America and no one would even formulate what the film says about race relations. It’s a big attack on the victimization mentality.
Here’s a case where if conservatives would watch the film they’d like it. I dragged a conservative friend of mine to Signs who thought he would hate it. He loved it! It’s a great film about family values, the need for religion. That’s the thing. Even within a generally demoralized and demoralizing world of Hollywood films, you find some really positive things like these Shyamalan films. One thing I try to show is that even if the work isn’t intentionally conservative or libertarian it can be used for those purposes. Or at least to open up questions. The Simpsons is my prime example of that. I know it’s mostly written by Harvard graduates. You can tell that the creators of the show are largely left-wing, or at least liberal, in their sympathies. Nevertheless, they are equal opportunity satirists. They can’t resist satirizing everybody so they attack the first George Bush for many years, eventually they went after Clinton. So, in just needing to be even handed it ends up skewering a lot of left wing pieties. I analyze that at length in my book. I tried to show that many of the issues the show raises are issues, particularly that I think libertarians are interested in.
The show ends up debunking the nation state and defending the local things. The most positive lesson of the show is that small is good. The family is good, the small town is good. It even shows that the church is good. Its general message is: the bigger government is, the worse it is. Even though it makes fun of the small town, clearly the small town institutions are preferable to all these distant bureaucratic arms of the state like the IRS and the FBI.
Q: They’re more stupid than evil.
A: Yeah, the local is more stupid than evil. The national is evil. An interesting thing is that you can get students talking about important issues by getting them talking about the Simpsons. I was particularly struck by how much students can articulate about their feelings about the nuclear family and the threats to it by talking about the Simpsons.
Q: That’s just what conservatives have been talking about.
A: Yes! My first lesson to conservatives… You are condemning this show for undermining the nuclear family. It’s the last bastion of the nuclear family on television. At the time it came out, it was after a decade when all sorts of alternatives to the nuclear family were being held up on television. The Simpsons marked a kind of return to the nuclear family. It turned out to be a significant portent in that sense. Now the Simpsons has been embraced. One of the things I pointed out is that it showed that religion has a place in average, daily, ordinary American life in a way that television had been denying for years.
Q: My father’s a pastor. My parents always talked about that. If you just watched our TV and movies, you’d think that no one in this country goes to church… Except to do something terrible.
A: Yeah, religious people are either total saints or they’re completely deranged, fundamentalist maniacs. And here’s Homer Simpson, absolutely average Joe, and he goes to church and it’s meaningful to him. He’s not the most pious guy, yet…
I really took the lead on that. I think I was the first person to go into print and now Mark Pinsky from the Orlando Sentinel [and Tony Campolo] has written a book called The Gospel According to the Simpsons. Christianity Today had an article on the X-Files on how Christian that show was. Lo and behold, the absolute last shot on the last episode of the X-Files was the camera coming in on the cross around Sculley’s neck. I was introduced to the X-Files by a Methodist minister… He said, "You’ve got to watch the show." He thought it was really good but he was also interested in it as a minister and the problems of faith that it brought up. I called him up in Orlando after the last episode and I said, "Jack, you’re right! There it is, the last shot absolutely vindicates you."
Q: But it was going right over the conservatives’ head, even though in a sense this was what they were all hoping for. A return to understanding the value of the family and religion.
A: The central thesis of my book, comparing two shows from the 1960s to two shows from the 1990s, is that the u201860s shows, Gilligan’s Island and Star Trek, really centered around the American nation state and the projection of national power. The u201890s show, the Simpsons and the X-Files, reflected the era of globalization, the decline of the nation state. The decline in the centrality of American lives and the fact that people turned increasingly away from the national and turned, at the same time, to the local and the global. That we see in the Simpsons that these people in a little American small town are in touch with India and Albania and have been all over the world and all the world comes to them. I think that actually captures something about the texture of American life in the 1990s, actually something very positive.
I’m one who thinks that by and large globalization is a liberating process. I think we can talk about that by looking at these shows. The X-Files looks at the sinister side of globalization, it presents in the light of a kind of alien invasion. A lot of conservatives are worried about immigration and how immigration is changing the character of the United States. That’s what the X-Files was about. When aliens weren’t invading from outer space, they were sneaking across the border. We were getting episodes about Chinese Americans and Mexican Americans and African Americans and Haitian Americans.
Q: I felt encouraged by some of the things you saw in your book. What are the signs of hope in the development of popular culture?
A: One aspect of my book that no one has picked up on in any of the reviews is the argument I made about the television medium itself. The switch from what I called the "national era" to the "global era" of television. One of the things I feel encouraged by is that the ’60s was the high point of the centralization of American television. IT was controlled by essentially three networks: NBC, ABC and CBS who at that time had 90% of the prime time audience. I talk about the technological developments that broke the oligopoly of the networks. It’s no accident that my book is based essentially on the Fox network, the two shows I discuss, the Simpsons and the X-Files, are both on the Fox network. That’s an incredibly important point when a fourth network came along which people said was impossible.
Now we have six networks, but we have all these alternatives. One of my points is that this an increase in the free market. All these countries that had nationalized television, they produced very little. Cultural conservatives and elitists drool over the one or two BBC Masterpiece Theatre. They should be forced to watch British television on a 24-hour basis. The best thing ever produced in Britain for television was the show The Avengers and The Prisoner. And they were ITC, they were private network shows. It’s very easy to do Masterpiece Theatre, you get stage actors and you do a script based on Dickens. And, yeah, it turns out to be high culture. But that’s not the point, that’s just television just aping some earlier form. What television is, is the X-Files and The Prisoner… Things that are done for television. One of my points in my book is that there’s a unique form that television created, namely the ongoing series which is in some ways like the Victorian serial novel. People forget how Dickens was read. The books came out over a year or year and a half period. They were written in 3 chapter installments that had cliffhangers. In a way they were rather like American TV serials in the way they were produced and received. I try to show that there are things you can do with this television form that other genres have never done before.
My optimism would come from the fact that the more that gets on television, the more likely it is that great things will be produced. The thing I show is how the three networks really functioned as a gatekeeper and kept a lot of good stuff off the air. The producer of Gilligan’s Island came to my aid with something that he wrote in his autobiography that makes a very Mises Institute—like argument. He claims that what really lowered the quality of television in the 60s was the intervention of the FCC chairman, Newton Minow. By the way, the boat in Gilligan’s Island, the Minnow, was named as a left-handed tribute to Newton Minow. Minow was the man who gave the famous "television is a wasteland" speech and actually maneuvered or forced the networks to assume control over their own programming. Through the 50s, you may remember this, it was the Texaco Milton Berle Show, it was the Boraxo Death Valley Days. Sponsors simply purchased time from the networks and filled it with whatever they wanted to fill it with. The networks were just brokers for time, they were not involved with production of shows. Obviously, there was some level of censorship going on, you couldn’t put just anything on TV. But you had a sort of free market since it was the sponsors who were betting the money.
Q: Essentially, the companies were competing with each other rather than the channels.
A: Yes, and you had more players. Essentially, the networks felt under threat from Newton Minow so that’s when they assumed control of it so sponsors bought time but could no longer put programming on. Schwartz said it was much easier to make a sell to a sponsor, and you had more alternatives. If you didn’t sell it to one sponsor, you found another. But now, to get a show on TV, the decision came essentially from three men, the guys heading programming at ABC, CBS and NBC. There’s a little section in his autobiography on this blaming the decline in programming in the 60s, the increasing uniformity of television on government intervention. That’s a very interesting lesson. I’ve never seen anyone else make the argument. Sherwood Schwartz knows as much about television as anybody. He created Gilligan’s Island and The Brady Bunch.
Several parts of the book I make a libertarian argument like this. The Left does not like cable TV. I found these British so-called cultural materialists. They really dislike the proliferation of channels. They see it as the loss of a center in the culture. Very interesting to see that, you’d think that anyone would recognize that this increases the creativity of television. But, no.
Q: Or even "power to the people" or something.
A: It’s a very interesting lesson in what they really think "power to the people" is, it’s their power over the people.
One of my themes in the book is that technology is liberating. The X-Files is interesting because it stages the Orwell debate. Orwell claimed that technology was going to be the power by which the State enslaved everybody. 1984 was the great warning signal against this. Orwell was right about many things and certainly the great tyrannies of the 20th century have employed technology, even so-called democracies have. The X-Files shows many episodes about that, many Orwellian episodes about the use of technology for control. But, on the other hand, the X-Files is very much the first show of the Internet and of the hacker culture and the World Wide Web. One thing it shows is that technology is also a weapon against the State. In some ways, the central debate of the show is whether technology going to be the tool by which the State finally achieves total control or is it the Achilles Heel of the State, the means by which people will take power back? For every time the State finds a new way of spying into bank accounts, people find a new form of offshore banking, and so on. The X-Files portrayed that well.
I felt I covered enough material in the book to stage this debate. I often didn’t agree with what the shows were saying about globalization, particularly the X-Files. But I felt that by the time I was through, I had actually covered this debate and, very cautiously and with many qualifications, I conclude that freedom is winning the battle. I’m not utterly confident, very worried about some trends, particularly some trends that have increased since I wrote the book but, by and large, I thought the lessons to be derived were that the more technology becomes the issue the more the State is at a disadvantage because the State is slow by comparison with entrepreneurs. It’s always fighting the last war. If technology is really going to be the battle point, I have a great deal of confidence in the side of freedom. Freedom has always produced better technology than unfreedom. Mises used to say that, in one of the most memorable lines I remember him saying was, "on the battlefield, the arms of Krupp will always prevail over their opponents." [The Krupps were the great German arms manufacturers.]
Q: I’m struck by how much you’ve made a conservative move in your book, but it’s really economic insights that are driving a lot of how you’re seeing things in a fresh way. Again and again as I’m listening to you, you’re seeing how the State is intervening, the interventionist argument, the role of competition, etc. Russell Kirk probably didn’t think like that very much.
A: I’m a trained economist and an English professor. I studied with Ludwig von Mises. I’ve read a great deal of Austrian economics. I almost became an economist. I’ve always regretted, in a sense, not becoming an economist. I had felt that I wasted all this training. Now I feel that I’ve actually made up for it, I’ve opened up a new front. There are people like Tyler Cowen who are doing this sort of stuff, that wonderful book In Praise of Commercial Culture. I see that a lot of free market economists, not necessarily Austrians, are coming around to cultural issues. I write for Reason magazine, which is not strictly speaking Austrian, though libertarian and free market. I have no doubt that the fact that I was raised on Austrian economics means that when I look at these problems I think that way. What is interesting is that I certainly did not set out to illustrate these ideas in this material. Gilligan Unbound was not going to be a book, simply a collection of essays.
I’d done work on the Simpsons over the years, on Star Trek and Gilligan’s Island and I was just going to put the stuff together into a loose collection of essays and then the editor asked for 30 pages on the X-Files. I started work and before I knew it I had written 140 pages on the X-Files and I suddenly realized that I couldn’t follow the original plan and maybe I could only have 5 or 6 essays instead of 14… Which essays should I use? I began to sort it out and the key thing was that the X-Files became about globalization and I realized I had a central theme here. I had not intended to write a thing about globalization. The title Gilligan Unbound came to me and I thought it was the coolest title I’d ever heard of. I eventually made the title work for the book. When I first had the title, it meant nothing. In a way, the strange process was creating a book to fit the title. As I worked on the material, it began to fit together into patterns, and that’s where my Austrian training kicked in. Now, as a great accident while I was working, the Mises Institute had scheduled their conference on The End of the Nation State.
Q: On Martin Van Creveld’s The Rise and Decline of the State.
A: Yeah, I started to work on the X-Files chapter in July, the conference was scheduled for October. I put myself down for it, told them I’d do something on the X-Files on television and globalization. I did end up reading the van Creveld book while working up the X-Files chapter and then a couple of other books, the Jean-Marie Guehenno book, The End of the Nation-State, and a couple other things with similar themes. I had tucked in the back of my mind this phrase, "the end of the nation state," and I knew it meant something but I hadn’t read any of the books. As I was writing on the X-Files, I said, "Hey! This series is about the end of the nation state, I’d better find out what this debate is all about."
I did not start with the van Creveld book or any of the other books and impose these ideas. They grew out of the X-Files and they got me interested, which I then was able to use to analyze more fully and in more analytic detail what was going on. There was this marvelous convergence of that Mises conference coming together with my work and it really helped me, along with meeting van Creveld. He was kind of tickled to hear that this was revealed in American television… Completely baffled by it but he thought it was the cutest thing he’d ever heard. In that sense, the book took shape, and then the shaping it up naturally engaged my own impulses to think of things in Austrian terms and economic terms. There’s basically one little page in Sherwood Schwartz’ book about the Newton Minow problem, I think it would go right by most people and they wouldn’t see it was an issue of government intervention. But I was ready to pounce when I saw that.
Q: You talk in your introduction about how your style is in contrast to typical academic pop culture analyses. Your style is pretty different. I don’t know how much you’re a first in this.
A: I’m certainly not the first. Let me say, for example, that Greil Marcus is a magnificent stylist. He’s written Lipstick Traces and Dead Elvis, one good book after another from a rather liberal to left-wing perspective. He’s just a superb stylist. He’s a columnist for Interview magazine and writes for Rolling Stone. He’s actually a real journalist. He’s not a professor but he’s a scholar.
Q: You might be a first coming from academia.
A: I would never claim to be a first in this regard. There is a vast amount of writing in cultural studies that is in very bad prose. Part of it is that the movement was founded out of Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno in a book Dialectic of Enlightenment which was written in Hegelian prose and very badly translated into English. The founding text of this movement is a bad, turgid English translation of pretty bad German prose to begin with, but better than the English translation. So much of it reads like a bad English translation of German. It’s quite extraordinary in that sense.
Raymond Williams writes very well and he really is the founder of cultural studies. Some of the English write well. There’s an amazing amount of bad writing and writing that is completely out of touch. There’s a hilarious passage where Horkheimer and Adorno attempt to describe Donald Duck. It’s like when Hegel tries to describe anything. You read this impenetrable paragraph and then you realize that was Don Quixote he was talking about. Then you read this thing, "and that is, of course, the problem with Donald Duck." Oh is that what it was about?
Q: You don’t write in an academic style.
A: The book actually became heavier than it was originally intended. You think it’s not academic. Some people have never seen a footnote before. It’s actually more academic than you think. My academic instincts did kick in.