Friday, July 31, 2020

The Use and Abuse of Blockbusters for Life: Movies and Memes in the Age of Viral Collapse

Lately, I have been considering a hopelessly naive question, namely: What is popular culture for? Or, more to the point how does it function for us as culture, as a way to make sense of the world and express our desires. I have been prompted by this question by two unrelated events. First, I am currently preparing a Freshman Seminar on Politics and Culture which has me reviewing some of the classic arguments about the use and abuse of culture from Williams to Adorno and De Certeau. Second, and more immediately, when I am not working on this course or doing anything productive I am doing what nearly everyone is doing and that is trying to figure out what movie or TV show might pass the time of lockdown.

Or, more to the point, I have tried to ask myself how to best past the time. Sometimes I just want to be distracted (I watched the entire run of  The Prisoner and some old Star Trek), and sometimes I want to think a little about this current moment but a distance, through the safety of mediations (I guess The Plot of Against America counts as the latter, but I have avoided any attempt to really think about pandemics and apocalypses in the present moment. I can't bring myself to watch Contagion right now). It is hard enough to stumble into some plot line that brings me crashing into the present. The viral infection subplots of The Host and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes were a bit difficult to watch at this moment, especially the opening credits of the latter which depicts a virus leading to large scale social collapse. All of which is to say that I found myself asking a question that usually goes unasked when just watching a movie to pass time on a plane or to pass an evening; namely, what do I want from popular culture? Is it just a matter of distraction? Or should it be something more, something that helps us confront all of those things that are coming at us faster than ever--fear, anxiety, social upheaval, loss, and even death. 

To put things rather simply, one aspect of Horkheimer and Adorno's critique of the "culture industry" is that the imperatives of mass production and profit produce a "culture" that is not one, does not offer us anything that nourishes us. As the following passages illustrate,

The pre-digested quality of the product prevails, justifies itself and establishes itself all the more firmly in so far as it constantly refers to those who cannot digest anything not already pre-digested. It is baby-food: permanent self-reflection based upon the infantile compulsion towards the repetition of needs which it creates in the first place.” (The Schema of Mass Culture by Theodor Adorno)

“Culture, in the true sense, did not simply accommodate itself to human beings; but it always simultaneously raised a protest against the petrified relations under which they lived, thereby honoring them. Insofar as culture becomes wholly assimilated to and integrated in those petrified relations, human beings are once more debased. Cultural entities typical of the culture industry are no longer also commodities, they are commodities through and through." ("The Culture Industry Reconsidered" by Theodor Adorno)

“What might be called use value in the reception of cultural commodities is replaced by exchange value; in place of enjoyment there are gallery-visiting and factual knowledge: the prestige seeker replaces the connoisseur. The consumer becomes the ideology of the pleasure industry, whose institutions he cannot escape. One simply "has to" have seen Mrs. Miniver, just as one "has to" subscribe to Life and Time. Everything is looked at from only one aspect: that it can be used for something else, however vague the notion of this use may be. No object has an inherent value; it is valuable only to the extent that it can be exchanged.”(The Dialectic of Enlightenment by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno). 

If this seems too extreme, which is almost always the accusation when it comes to Horkheimer and Adorno, then think of the commonly used phrase "[Blank] holds up" when revisiting some old film or show, the surprise that there was something there, some use, long after a given film circulates as the "must see" event of the moment. Culture becomes not just a commodity, but a kind of currency something that is exchanged every time we make small talk, or log onto social media. We use it only in exchanging it, and if we lack currency, if we do not know the latest bit of culture, we are cast out of the marketplace, left for broke. This circulation, the exchange value, comes at the expense of any use value, any taste (to use the baby food analogy). It is in turning to social media that we see a different use, something other than just circulation or exchange. I am thinking specifically of the memes and other jokes that repurpose plot points from films in order to do something other than just circulate the currency, they debase it, or at the very least puts it to use with a different value. 

I am thinking specifically of memes that have used Hollywood blockbusters, specifically Alien and Jaws to make sense of, and comment on, the government response to the COVID-19 pandemic. With respect to Alien some of these memes, such as the one directly above, just cite original dialogue and plot points that take on new significance in an age of lockdowns and quarantine. While others, like the one at the top of the post, begin to suggest a different reading of the film, one that focuses less on the alien of the film's title as the villain than the corporation that sends the crew of the Nostromo after it. The assertion that the "crew is expendable" takes on new meaning and relevance at a time when people are returning to work in the midst of a pandemic. We are all onboard the Nostromo now, worried about the bonus situation and considered expendable in the eyes of our employers

While Boris Johnson labels Mayor Vaughn a hero, in the most bizarrely on brand misreading of popular culture, the rest of us see the Mayor as the embodiment of every politician that puts the maintenance of profits and capital above the preservation of life, which is to say every politician. The focus on the mayor as the figure of evil in the film offers a different reading than the more ideological one that Fredric Jameson initially argued for in his interpretation. Jameson, reading the film against the novel, focuses on the way in which the survival of Brody and Hooper at the expense of Quint posits a changing version of America. As Jameson argues

"Now the content of the partnership between Hooper and Brody projected by the film may be specified socially and politically, as the allegory of an alliance between the forces of law-and order and the new technocracy of the multinational corporations:an alliance which must be cemented, not merely by its fantasized triumph over the ill-defined menace of the shark itself, but above all by the indispensable precondition of the effacement of that more traditional image of an older America which must be eliminated from historical consciousness and social memory before the new power system takes its place. This operation may continue to be read in terms of mythic archetypes, if one likes, but then in that case it is a Utopian and ritual vision which is also a whole—very alarming—political and social program. It touches on present-day social contradictions and anxieties only to use them for its new task of ideological resolution, symbolically urging us to bury the older populisms and to respond to an image of political partnership which projects a whole new strategy of legitimation; and it effectively displaces the class antagonisms between rich and poor which persist in consumer society (and in the novel from which the film was adapted) by substituting for them a new and spurious kind of fraternity in which the viewer rejoices without understanding that he or she is excluded from it."

Jameson sees himself as offering a dialectical corrective to Horkheimer and Adorno's point. The culture industry has to have some use, offer us something useful other than the references we exchange in small talk. We would not eat even baby food unless it offered us something to taste or digest, some utopian content, in the form of a resolution of existing contradictions and conflicts. That utopian dimension is itself distorted and reified to the point where we find ourselves cheering for the sacrifice of Quint in the face of the new Hooper/Brody alliance, the technocratic and police order. 

The focus on the Mayor is a figure of the brutal insistence on the profit motive is a less sophisticated reading, but it is also one with a different political aspect. It is no longer about the alliance of technocracy and police becoming a new force of order, but the way in which the alliance of business and politics is the order that we all live under even in the good old days of small town America (something that becomes all the more clear as the film drops the book's subplot about mafia corruption)

These memes (and videos) are less a detournement of these films than a change of emphasis, since the anti-corporate message was always there in the first place defining the conflicts that made up the plot. Jaws and Alien in some sense were always both more "man versus man" in the form of corporation than "man versus animal" especially as the corporation is necessary to push humanity into a conflict with an animal that just ultimately wants to eat, live, and survive. One could also argue that both these films were at the cusp of a certain transformation into the contemporary blockbuster form, and are in some sense richer in narrative, character, and even subtext than the latest string of corporate tie ins, but it seems that part of the way that the contemporary culture industry functions is by constantly creating nostalgia for what seems like a earlier, better version of itself. This is perhaps something that not even Horkheimer and Adorno saw. Despite all of these caveats I am more interested in the way in which the memes draws out the anti-capitalist content that was always there. In this context, I am interested in the way in which the meme produce and reflect a new sensibility one that is not so much pacified by the culture industry as it is able to poach it for its latent critical potential (to use De Certeau's terminology). (Of course this is not limited to these two films. Jurassic Park has also been joked about and memed in this context and one could imagine an entire rereading of Hollywood films for corporations that are more interested in profits than preserving lives. It wouldn't be hard. It even seems unavoidable.)

This does not seem like much of a point to make, but I guess the real point is that when I recently rewatched both Alien and Jaws inspired by their new viral life as memes critical of the response to the pandemic I thought for a second about writing a blogpost arguing for their anti-capitalist stance, but I did not need to do that. That was already done for me by the various memes and jokes. The films seemed to already have been rewritten by the new context and the new use they had been put to as commentary on this context. Our popular culture might not offer us much to work with, might be baby food after all, but even baby food can be flung against the wall in rage, and that rage is going to be necessary for us to not only get through the current political moment, but on building something new. As Mark Fisher argued about the anti-capitalism of the Hunger Games, it is sometimes useful to just remember who the enemy is, to take the anti-corporate nature of popular culture at face value. Even the products of the culture industry can be used to not just reinforce existing ideologies, but build new myths. I know that I will never look at Jaws or Alien the same way again. 

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