Anodyne Lite comments on an evident trend of excessively passionate fanaticism for entertainment commodities and the way many young leftists seem to mistake their personal, capricious tastes in music and videos for political commitments and moral virtues.
I would offer as especially vivid specimens of this infirmity Dominic Fox (a gifted writer) and Owen Hatherley (a knowledgeable commentator on architecture). They exhibit the extreme of the principal element - the certainty that their personal preferences in art and entertainment are political and moral virtues, giving rise to an almost tearfully disgruntled pedantry, based in the most superficial kind of erudition, about the objects of their obsessions - but also display an additional symptom of the syndrome, which is that they have convinced themselves that they discover everything they like, and hasten to plant their flags in canons and bestseller lists like Colombus discovering the New World. It brings to mind a comedian whose routine involved the line, delivered in a Bimshire lilt, "Ay, get your flag out me roses man." They assert - ludicrously, because they prefer only the most popular mass culture and the best known high culture works - that everything they like was underrated and unknown before they resurrected it with their admiration and uniquely intelligent and sympathetic understanding. This then acts as a kind of explanation for the absence of any commentary on the reception history and scholarship of their favourite stuff (they are unfamiliar with this and can provide no account of it), but also permits them to become midwives to their idol's divine creativity in fantasy, almost like auxiliary authors of their favourite artworks and culture commodities. Both Fox and Hatherley seem to believe they have, for example, rescued Samuel Beckett - canonical nobelist, more frequently analysed by US academics and students than Shakespeare, and almost uninterruptedly performed - from obscurity.
From Hatherley's Militant Modernism:
Beckett’s Late Review devotees seem to have an idea of him as some sort of amalgam of Zeno the Stoic and Father Ted, yet one can’t imagine Tom Paulin or Bonnie Greer relishing being assaulted by the panic attack of Not I or wading through the thick, impenetrable tangle of repetition and horror of How it Is.
I know for a fact that Bonnie Greer has a far deeper and broader knowledge of Samuel Beckett's oeuvre than Hatherley, and also is capable, which he is not, of engaging in interpretation of the work, informed by knowledge of history, genre, medium, institution, and existing scholarship, which Hatherley could not even begin to produce, having simply no acquaintance with Beckett scholarship or with any method of literary criticism or performance theory whatever. He produces a kind of commentary on art and literature (always stressfully sincere but often insightful and despite common diction errors - he doesn't know what "replete" means but uses it often, and other awkward tics of this type - engagingly written) relying solely, as in his popular remarks on architecture, on the elaborately displayed intensity of his opinion and the forcefulness and insistence of the mock aristocratic rhetoric with which he expresses his personal tastes and prejudices. And in the passage above, he does not quite assert, but clearly implies, that the heroic, self-sacrificing acts of recognition and appreciation required for the true Beckett devotee's progress to enlightenment (which nonetheless produce from Hatherley only vague, bland, obvious description without even a hint of interpretation - horror, tangle, repetition, panic) can be accomplished only by his little clique of narrowminded, chauvinist, parochial mutual admirers. Dominic Fox similarly suggests that only these possessors of a "British" national character are capable of giving Samuel Beckett the "approval" - that white ball of clubbability that is evidently the only reaction Fox is capable of having, apart from the black ball of ostracism, to anything - that Fox, perhaps psychotically and certainly wrongly, perceives Beckett to be suing him personally for with his novels. Without their courageous unsentimentality and hyper refined aesthetic organs, these two suggest, Samuel Beckett’s genius would have gone forever unrecognised. They barely stop short of congratulating themselves for making the works of Samuel Beckett what they are today.
Anodyne Lite asks if I have anything to recommend to read on this topic - because these two are just examples of a widespread phenomenon - and I don't. It's something I wish the EC would fund me to study. I would ask Jonathan Beller's advice, as I feel sure his already published observations imply something yet to be said explicitly about why this kind of irrational attachment, this commodity fanaticism (sedulously ignored by the legions of pundits advertising a new age of fanaticisms) has become so widespread and yet remains imperceptible to its victims even when someone takes the pains to point it out with meticulous specificity.
When The Wire, sold as something like "to blaxploitation what the Sopranos is to gangster films", failed to attract an audience, HBO and the producers/creators devised a thoughtful promotional campaign that showed an acute sensitivity to fashions in the trendsetting sectors of the culture consuming public, lifting the terms and themes of its branding effort not from Esquire but from The Nation. It measured some distance travelled between the age of a substantial oppositional dissident critical intellectual culture and that of a dominantly delightedly and gratefully complicit one.
Twenty five years before The Wire's inauspicious first broadcasts, it was still unusual for people to admit liking, much less admiring, the television programmes they watched. Fifty seven channels and nothing on. But the mainstreaming of pomo irony launched a reversal of this attitude by at first introducing the (consoling, reassuring) idea that mindless shit could be watched with an attitude that transformed the activity of watching it into politically subversive cultural sabotage.
Audience fragmentation had to advance considerably before this pomo posture could really be widely exploited, since it belonged to an elite not the majority. ABC, under the guidance of an inexperienced hip former development executive Jamie Tarses, foolishly and without the confirmation of scientific study launched a re-branding campaign expressing this Nick at Nite, Harvard Lampoon irony at an extreme (TV is Good. and Watch TV. You have plenty of brancells to spare. or It's a beautiful day. What are you doing outside? Watch TV) which was a disastrous failure. For HBO's then tiny subscription base, upscale and confident that its consumption expressed its entitled and free "choice", this campaign might have worked, but for a major network still in the days of national airwaves broadcasters' dominance, aiming at a broad general audience, the tone was severely ill-judged.
Year after year, however, the posture steadily conquered television, in typically softened and veiled versions. From there, it was an obvious and easy step to the creation of programmes which absorbed this suggested audience irony and could be themselves perceived as critical or subversive, "quality" television vended as a traditional rich dramatic experience, but not spoilt by any pose of sincerity which would imply an insulting assumption of audience gullibility, and liberated from some difficult traditional requirements for dramatic writing by post-modern gimmickry, updated with irony and reflexivity. With these new programmes which collapse the relation pomosity established between the viewer and re-runs of Donna Reed, the audience participates in the programme's own sensibility with a newly justified reversion to passivity and endorsement. Mad Men is the most complete case, and unsurprisingly is set in the period which was the contemporary setting for many of the programmes on Nick at Night for which the suggestion of subversive, ironic consumption was originated by Harvard Lampoon veterans.
Those tasked with puffing the ailing cop-soap-blaxpolitation series The Wire decided - how very cannily would become evident after a couple of seasons - to claim for their show qualities which specifically academic, intellectual fans of The Sopranos (that programme it was trying in a sense to supply the "black" version of) - qualities defining serious dramatic art with lofty aims, socially responsible and intellectually nutritious rather than violent sensational junk - had attributed to HBO's first series to get a network sized audience. The influential culture critic and celebrated 2nd wave radfem Ellen Willis was the one to provide inspiration for the elements of The Wire's future branding for the newly active niche of culture industry and academic viewers who considered themselves critically sophisticated connoisseurs of an underappreciated art form they would rescue from its status as unjustly despised:
The richest and most compelling piece of television--no, of popular culture--that I've encountered in the past twenty years is a meditation on the nature of morality, the possibility of redemption and the legacy of Freud.
To be sure, The Sopranos is much else as well. For two years (the third season began March 4) David Chase's HBO series has served up a hybrid genre of post-Godfather decline-of-the-mob movie and soap opera, with plenty of sex, violence, domestic melodrama and comic irony; a portrait of a suburban landscape that does for northern New Jersey what film noir did for Los Angeles, with soundtrack to match; a deft depiction of class and cultural relations among various subgroups and generations of Italian-Americans; a gloss on the manners and mores of the fin-de-siècle American middle-class family; and perfect-pitch acting, especially by James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano; Edie Falco as his complicated wife, Carmela; Lorraine Bracco as Dr. Melfi; and the late Nancy Marchand as the Sopranos' terrifying matriarch, Livia.
Cumulatively, these episodes have the feel of an as yet unfinished nineteenth-century novel. While the sheer entertainment and suspense of the plot twists are reminiscent of Dickens and his early serials, the underlying themes evoke George Eliot: The world of Tony Soprano is a kind of postmodern Middlemarch, whose inhabitants' moral and spiritual development (or devolution) unfolds within and against the norms of a parochial social milieu.This era being what it is, however, the Sopranos' milieu has porous boundaries, and the norms that govern it are a moving target. In one scene, the family is in mid-breakfast when Tony and Carmela's teenage daughter, Meadow, apropos a recent scandal brought on by a high school classmate's affair with her soccer coach, declaims about the importance of talking openly about sex. Yes, Tony agrees, but not during breakfast. "Dad, this is the 1990s," Meadow protests. "Outside it may be the 1990s," Tony retorts, "but in this house it's 1954." It's wishful thinking, and Tony knows it.
Ellen Willis, Our Mobsters, Ourselves, The Nation, 2001
The first thing one notices is that Ellen Willis has lost her mind. At least, she has lost the critical capacities which once operated in, or were operated by, her mind alongside the functioning of sensual and aesthetic responsiveness. Here we see an unmistakable case of rationalisation, but one so frantic and excessive it's laughable. Or ought to be. A once sharp and curious culture critic devotes herself now to concocting a truly risibly exaggerated encomium to her favourite show, probably to alleviate some anxiety about the intensity of her own attachment to it. In the period known as the post-modern, consensus became difficult and even suspect with regard to the evaluation of aesthetic and entertainment products. But it is worth asserting the continued obviousness and intelligibility of aspects of discourse and symbolic artifacts. And it is obvious, not contestable, that The Sopranos is not particularly like Middlemarch, and that it is rather very much like other, earlier television, all the television Willis once pretended not to be watching and therefore must not now seem to recall. Tony Soprano declaring it 1954 at his table is a strikingly exact echo of Archie Bunker at his. The patriarch champion of Tradition, disconcerted by modernity and its disruption of hierarchies and order, is a beloved topos of popular culture - before Archie Bunker and George Jefferson's celebrated comic versions there were dozens upon dozens, in varying styles and temperaments, notably Yul Brenner's Siamese King, Topol's Shtetl milkman, and yes, of course, most relevant here, Don Corleone who resists 'the future' and its messenger the narcotics trafficking Virgil Solozzo - but it is not found in Middlemarch.
Where the culture critic who remained critical and serious should sense the obligation to interpret the representations and symbolic material, as for example the change from All in the Family to The Sopranos involving the erasure of any unpleasant acknowledgements of the discomfort of real class stresses (working for a living), Willis abdicates or evades, shields her eyes from signification which might distress a fanatic devotee of the programme invested in its virtue as a confirmation of the innate instinctive virtue of her tastes. Instead of interpreting the programme's content, in context of history, genre, tradition, medium, instituion, etc, Willis, spaniel-like, sniffs out and feasts on the bits of bloody meat that are the pomo references (to Freud, for example, or Queer Theory or Billy Budd), these mere flashes that, as Jameson explained, create an illusion of content without the substance, empty passing mentions scattered through the otherwise formulaic dialogue and scenes precisely to distract, delight and defang the submissive critic who has lost her mind.
Tony Soprano is the entrepreneurial Archie Bunker, criminalised for glamour and fashionable intertextuality, but also for ideology's sake, for television's purpose is to disguise the reality of social life in the guise of exposing it, and among the things television must, and the Sopranos does expertly, conceal is the distance between the mythic condition of the small businessman/entrepreneur in the US and the real situation.
But putting Willis' particular case of commodity fanaticism and the details of the individual commodity which has provoked it aside for the moment, clearly much had changed in both mainstream and progressive dissident attitudes toward corporate mass culture since the days (beginning in the 70s) when feminist, anti-racist and anti-imperialist critics, radical and reformist, began seriously (in the academy and in a growing field of hip journalism) to look at both popular culture and mass culture commodities in search of an understanding of the symbolic and ideological aspects of class rule and the reproduction of social relations of inequality, opression and exploitation. At some point - not so long ago, perhaps 1999 - a rival function of cultural criticism, disguised as the perfection of this critical, emancipatory project, arose, and now we see that the dominant production, in both academia and hip journalism, is purely promotional, a branch of marketing. Culture critics who have lost their minds and succumbed to commodity fanaticism have reverted to the deployment, on culture commodities, not of the arsenal of critical practises developed by the radical criticism of the 70s, 80s and 90s, but of scarcely updated criteria of literary criticism and art appreciation established in the 19th century, from various formalisms to moral functionalism which in its current incarnation proposes to evaluate television programmes and movies almost solely with regard to the mass media's imagined social function of delivering democratic representation.
This latter position holds - reasonably enough - that one must welcome something like Queer Eye for a Straight Guy if only because the increased visibility of likeable gay men on television seems to reduce expressions of homophobia and violence against gay men. Not every claim of this kind is true, but the type of claim and its argument is undeniably valid, though not as a defence against full interpretation and critical exegesis of the culture commodity which has this positive trait. Unsurprisingly, however, the logic is rarely accepted thoroughly by those who deploy it, but is usually deployed opportunistically (a characteristic of commodity fanaticism is this opportunistic shuffling of criteria, axioms and critical practises) - programmes are not open to criticism, usually, on the grounds that they fail to perform such positive functions. It is a merit but not after all an obligation for television "art". And worse, the criterion can, under the influence of passionate enough commodity fanaticism, be called upon in a distorted way to justify programmes and movies which actually demonstrably incite or aggravate prejudices, hatred and violence against people conforming to a type presented as such, on the grounds that the type derives from and reflects "reality" and that real people referred to by this fictional type (say, clockers) benefit from being visible on television even if presented as terrifying, heartless, dangerous and needing to be incarcerated or annihilated, so best to be down with from the safety of the other side of the fictional bullet proof flat screen of the tv.