Tote that Barge, Lift that Bale

The wave of cultural criticism about how “Star Wars” changed American popular culture is now flowing at full tide, if not quite up to full tsunami intensity yet. There is not much new to say amid that flood.

There’s been tremendous attention to the changes in production models, the business of cultural production, visual aesthetics and so on. There’s also been a fair bit of writing about the underlying generational shift involved, but here I think there’s a bit more to be said. Along with a shift in the generational identity of the mass audience came a dramatic shift in overall assumptions about the nature and purposes of popular culture.

I’m really struck looking at American popular culture in the 1950s and 1960s, both films and television, at how much of it was quite programmatically doing some kind of “work”: the work of defining and reinforcing models of family and domesticity on one hand (sitcomes of various kinds in particular) and the work of defining national identity on the other (the Western, most acutely). It’s not that this work was being done in any simplistically instrumental or monolithic fashion. Westerns were a capacious genre, making all sorts of diverse statements, but even spaghetti Westerns or anti-Western Westerns were making statements about the nature of American identity and history. It seems to me that it was something of a given at that point that popular culture had a job to do, and even subversive work took that as its starting place, as the thing which it rebelled against.

“Jaws” and “Star Wars”, on the other hand, seemed to flatly lack that sense of carrying a burden besides entertaining their audiences. This is not to say that they are not both absolutely filled to the gills with potently meaningful social content: Jaws has a lot to say about suburban family life and masculinity; Star Wars has an iconography of heroism and villainy that can and has kept cultural critics humming ever since 1977. Neither film, nor much of the popular culture which has descended from them, carried a sense of being on a general, shared mission, a common understanding of the purpose of cultural work. Even when popular filmmakers or television producers have proclaimed a social agenda (say, the professed desire for a strong female protagonist that appeared in the making of Aliens) it generally seems a personal or individual aesthetic rather than a systemic imperative.

There’s a lot that lies behind that (the disintegration of the studio system, for one), but I think this is one of the things that sometimes befuddles Baby Boomer cultural critics about the post-1977 moment. Both left and right, they expect popular culture to be doing certain kinds of explicit work, to have a function which one might either defend or assault. When that functionalist sensibility is not there, many of them look for it all the same–hence the cultural right’s constant assertion of popular culture’s “liberal” agenda, and the cultural left’s perpetual assumption of a consciously instrumental and persistent use of representation in popular culture to do the work of political and social domination.

I think the cultural property which brings this out most clearly for me is not Star Wars but Lord of the Rings. Here’s a book which ascended to its popularity privately, through word-of-mouth and intimate discovery, mostly among audiences born after 1960. When it finally became a series of successful films (after various lesser animated versions), some observers were left puzzled, reading the tea leaves of the zeitgeist for an explanation. What “work” were the books and films doing? The work of supporting the “war on terror”? Identity work, in the casting of heroes as Nordic and pure and villains as dark, black, racially Other? The work of moral absolutism? Of aestheticizing violence?

What a lot of this sort of cultural criticism missed was that the main story of the ascendency of LOTR was rooted in a more interior kind of sociology. One of the major satisfactions of a great deal of fantasy literature since 1960 has been compensatory: a chance for readers carrying a sense of intimate persecution by or exclusion from the cultural mainstream as constructed in the 1950s and 1960s to embed themselves in narratives where true worth and value had social meaning. Medieval fantasies–and for that matter, fantastical science fiction like Star Wars–frequently trafficked (and still traffic) in imaginary worlds where hierarchy and inner merit have some correspondence. Fans are slans; much of the work we read avidly and dreamed constantly allowed us to imagine universes where our intelligence, our insight, our moral character, our will, our skill, made us knights or wizards, Jedi or Deryni, superheroes. If those worlds were worlds were our dopplegangers were persecuted or had to fight to redeem the true social order, so much the better: it made the correspondence deeper and richer still.

I think this aspect of the shift is also reasonably well understood, especially among critics who focus on science-fiction and fantasy. But I do feel somehow that at the general level of our society, the connection still has not been made, the shoe has still not dropped. We went from a Baby Boomer popular culture that shared a common sense of its function to a popular culture devoted to the interior identities of closet meritocrats, to a rising generation of men and women who were less interested in films, books and TV shows that did “nation-work”, “family-work” or “gender-work” and much more interested in popular culture that was about the cultivation and protection of the self, about what was perceived as highly personal “imagination-work”.

The curious and interesting part of this to me is that much of American popular culture today is still recognizably my culture, the culture I grew up with, cherished privately, was sometimes ashamed of (and still am sometimes ashamed of: I get very uneasy when my non-geek neighbors or colleagues happen to see my study full of action figures, comic books, SF and so on), but it is also now everyone’s popular culture, the whole world’s popular culture. The triumph of superheroes, fantasy, and so on, isn’t really the triumph of the private worlds of those of us who consumed all those things avidly. My mom has seen and liked Star Wars but there’s still a big gap between the ways in which she is entertained by the film and the epiphany I had in a theater in 1977, the intense shock at seeing my interior, private, vaguely shameful imaginary spaces suddenly realized on a movie screen, and the disorienting sense that those fantasies were well-liked by most everyone. Much of what has happened since still does various kinds of interior “work” for me, but I don’t think it’s doing that work for anyone but me and all the other people in my tribe. For everyone else, it’s just fun and entertaining and perhaps sometimes a little odd, and for those older Americans who expect their popular culture to be doing other kinds of heavy lifting, perhaps also perpetually disappointing and lightweight. They’re wrong, but I’m not surprised they feel that way: the heavy lifting being done is done on landscapes inaccessible to them.

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10 Responses to Tote that Barge, Lift that Bale

  1. Ayjay says:

    Tim, I don’t think you’re right to say that LOTR “ascended to popularity . . . mostly among audiences born after 1960.” It was surprisingly popular from its first release in the mid 50’s, and became enormously popular in the U.S. in the mid 60’s, when Ace Books sold a zillion copies of a bootlegged edition. It was Boomers who “made” LOTR as a phenomenon, and then, when they had come of age and wanted more of the same, created simulacra, in various degrees of close approximation, of the LOTR world: Dungeons & Dragons being a fairly close approximation texturally, though not narratively, Star Wars being a more distant cousin, and the LOTR movies being — whatever they are in relation to the original. But all of these are Boomer productions.

    I think it’s fair to say that LOTR could only have been written by someone whose mind was shaped by a pre-20th-century (or at least pre-Great War) culture, and would probably only have been turned into a phenomenon by people culturally situated as the Boomers were.

  2. back40 says:

    [slipped Ayjay]

    “Lord of the Rings. Here’s a book which ascended to its popularity privately, through word-of-mouth and intimate discovery, mostly among audiences born after 1960.”

    That’s not how I remember it. It was people born in the 40’s that popularized the series.

    “fantastical science fiction like Star Wars–frequently trafficked (and still traffic) in imaginary worlds where hierarchy and inner merit have some correspondence. Fans are slans; much of the work we read avidly and dreamed constantly allowed us to imagine universes where our intelligence, our insight, our moral character, our will, our skill, made us knights or wizards, Jedi or Deryni, superheroes.”

    Like cowboys. I suspect that’s why such stories are often called space westerns. They use light sabers like six-shooters, and have better horses.

    I don’t see it Timothy. Only the details have changed. Hauberk westerns, horse westerns and space westerns do the same “work” as Homer’s heroes.

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    Good point on LOTR’s audiences–it did have an earlier popularity. Though I think there’s a big sociological gap between the kind of discovery of it that Peter Beagle once wrote about and those of us who found it in the 1960s-1970s. I think the Gen Xers who discovered it found it without knowing of an earlier readership.

    Gary, I agree that Star Wars has some of its ancestry in the Western–but it’s no longer doing the work of the Western. It also has some of its ancestry in SF prior to 1970, and that was doing its own kind of work (several kinds) for quite a while in American culture. (For example, the obvious connections between postwar American experiences of globalization in the 1950s and the figure of the “alien” in a lot of SF during the same era.) SF on TV in the 1950s and Westerns were often very closely mapped on one another.

    But I would stick to my guns (so to speak) and say that when Star Wars rolls around, something happens, the work of popular culture becomes unmoored from some of its most urgent or obvious functions. There’s a deferral of the social meaning of popular entertainments from dominant public discourses about what society “needs” from its popular culture.

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    It occurs to me that Star Trek (the classic series) is an interesting bridge: it had all the didacticism of 1950s popular culture, the sense of doing some kind of work, but the shift to doing the work of (liberal humanist) civil society from doing work of “nation” or “family” was underway. Trying to make Star Trek into the kind of “total world” entertainment that LOTR or Star Wars offer, their own enclosed mythologies that increasingly eschew referentiality to anything outside themselves, has always been a fool’s errand, because Star Trek was never made that way. It required extensive geek punching of its square peg into the round hole of “total universes”, a tremendous amount of ancillary cultural work, to get Star Trek away from the mode of culture that does functional “work” into the mode of culture that’s about induction into fully realized fictional worlds or simulations.

  5. back40 says:

    It’s your field of course, and this is not an expert opinion, but it seems to me that the Lone Ranger was a superhero; even had silver bullets. It seems as if you are selecting data points, choosing only those from the past that were explicitly focused on tribe, and excluding the simultaneous efforts that were focused on the interior issues that are timeless and universal. It also seems that some of the implicit content is being overlooked. As the poet said, every generation throws a hero at the pop charts and discovers sex.

    It may be that younger eyes see different things in old works than those whose eyes were young in the day. Even when the actors lacked skill the viewer was able to read the meaning of a pregnant pause by a stone faced hero, understanding the unspoken interior meaning implied by the situation even if it was poorly performed. Perhaps young eyes miss this and interpret it as a blank look on a blank mind?

    When Star Wars rolled around we old children took it right in stride, seeing the same old story told in an entertaining, though childish, new way. . . again. The implicit content became more explicit, but a glimpse of feminine ankle or calf no longer titillated either. The same thoughts were expressed in burlesque ways, as if the audience was assumed to be a bit culture deaf and so unable to read more subtle presentations.

    It may be that the dominant institutional discourse changed gears, but the public discourse simply absorbed a new fashion for saying old things, and was comforted a bit that the wheel had turned again and was still on a familiar path, even if the kids were a bit gross and shouted what was once said in a normal speaking voice, spoke what was once whispered, and showed what was once implied.

  6. Timothy Burke says:

    I think you’re right, Gary, that some of 20th Century American popular entertainments have a continuity thematically and otherwise, that there is less of a post-1977 break than it might appear. That’s a comment I’d make myself in many contexts.

    I suppose what I’m concerned with here is why so many cultural critics of a certain age and orientation (both left and right) regard the “Star Wars” watershed as a bad moment, as the decline or evacuation of what American culture should be. They don’t always blame “Star Wars”–sometimes it’s superheroes they hate, or something else. I’m not talking here about high culture snobs, but critics who seem to expect that popular culture be something other than what it has become. In this particular case, I feel I’m right to suggest that it has something to do with an expectation that popular culture should have a functionality that these critics do not perceive in post-Star Wars entertainments, that there is some relation between our mass culture and some kind of social “work” which is going unfulfilled or has been neglected.

  7. repearwo says:

    Don’t know much more than when I saw Star Wars in 1977 I knew that the movie world had changed when in the opening scene I saw the Battleship enter from above and it just kept coming and coming. With the sound it was one of the most astounding visual movie moments of my life.

  8. emschwar says:

    I find it interesting, reading this, that I flash back to the major problem I had with English (read: literature) classes in high school– it seemed to me, as someone who grew up with Star Wars (my parents tell me I saw it 7 times between the ’77 and ’79 releases) that teachers were only interested in stories for what they meant. It was never about “Is this story any good?”, but “What is the author trying to tell us?” It made me want to scream, “Who CARES? If it’s well-written, we’ll figure it out, and if it’s poorly-written, then it doesn’t matter.”

    At the time, I had no referent for this, but it seems to me now the dichotomy was clear: my teachers were approaching literature for what it meant, and I was trying to approach it in the same way I approached Star Wars, as a vehicle for my imagination.

  9. Doug says:

    Can we take your thought and run with it, T, and posit that this unmooring is precisely one of the main reasons that Hollywood and some other parts of American pop culture have become global culture? Tied to a place — doing the “work” that you talk about 50s pop culture doing — it’s naturally limited in the scope for export. Untied, referring only to itself, it can travel anywhere.

  10. waxbanks says:

    Two quick things:

    1) David Thorburn (a beloved teacher of mine in college) has written about ‘consensus narrative’ systems, the sites of cultural values-rehearsal – oral-formulaic ancient poetry/performance, Elizabethan theatre, the (serial) novels of Dickens’s time, American film up to the 50’s or so, then American TV, and so forth. As Thorburn explains it, these systems are aesthetically conservative and socially slow-moving in order to do the cultural ‘work’ you’re describing, Tim – so you get one Hamlet but not ten. When film passed from its position as the ‘water cooler’ medium, it was free to do other kinds of work; so you get Altman, Lucas, Scorsese, Coppola, making more personal pictures, perhaps more radical in one way or another, but no longer commanding the central position in the ongoing cultural conversation. (Look at Star Trek: the Original Series vs. the films, or Altman’s remake of The Long Goodbye vs. the book and earlier film version(s).)

    Atop which: the birth of the computer/video game/arcade game (the screen you talk back to, the movie you direct), right around the time of Star Wars itself, might play into the shift that emschwar is talking about. Games are, to a degree, stories/worlds explicitly for imagination-liberation. I was born in ’79, so I don’t remember life without video games (I can’t imagine how you people survived), and I imagine my generation conceives of its relationship to pop culture very much through that ludic lens. (Look at the popularity of Saturday morning cartoon-related or -derivative fare like !)

    2) Today’s sitcoms still do this cultural ‘work’, but in a family- or work-centered way, as you say. But you also see similar work done in something like The X-Files, which was only an aliens show in look and feel. (Really wasn’t it a military-industrial-complex gov’t conspiracy show, the exorcism of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan? Those are the ‘big event’ episodes anyhow – though you could watch some of it as Mulder rebelling against the world his gov’t-connected G-man father made for him, i.e., well, the exorcism of Nixon and Reagan. ;v)

    Then again, not that many people watched that bloody show. Maybe you have to look to ‘reality TV’ (what a stupid term) for the populism you seek.

    (There’s a comment or post brewing in my head about learning-by-playing, as in games and Internet entertainments and the marketing tie-ins for Star Wars etc., vs. learning-by-watching, and how the degree of ‘interactivity’ of a text/world has some effect on its cultural portability and the amount of ‘work’ it can do. But yeah, very half-baked at this point.)

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