Presentation of Self

One of the most striking aspects of living in Scandinavia is to realize that the level of paranoia one is used to, as an American, is no longer relevant. I experience this dislocation daily. I can observe myself in social interactions, with strangers, preparing for the defensive self protective reflex to be called forth. I think it’s hard to grasp the degree of paranoia and anger in US culture.

I think part of this is both reflected in and created by the culture industry. There is almost not a single US TV show in which the narrative does arrive at a moment in which someone apologizes…and this apology then refused.

“I’m sorry” is usually, almost always, met with “that doesn’t cut it”, or “that’s not enough”. For US culture is predicated on punishment. Americans want their neighbors to fail. There was a joke in Poland, told by Poles, that went like this: A man’s next door neighbor buys a new expensive car. The man prays silently, please God, have someone come steal it.

The prayer was not “please God, let me have a new car just like that”. Its the same but worse in the US. In the US, its please God, let me have a new car, AND have someone steal HIS new car.” The US TV culture has made the cop show a staple of its programming. Second would be lawyer shows. Third, medical dramas. The standard though is the cop show. Something happened in the early 1950s in US popular culture. The classic age of film noir — the films of, mostly, German-Jewish emigre directors; Wilder, Siodmak, Lang, Preminger, et al, produced films, in a fortuitious marriage with pulp crime writers like Cornell Woolrich, Jim Thompson, and David Goodis, that were expressions of deep anxiety and suspicion of the state and all authority. The work of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, among others, portrayed offical institutional corruption as almost a given. The private eye was the Knight Errant on a mission for his grail…the truth. Sam Spade wasn’t driven by professionalism, but by a desire for the truth. This changed in the early fifties. The watershed film was probably Jack Webb’s Dragnet. A film that morphed into a decades long cop franchise on TV. It marked the turn from narratives in which the p.o.v. was that of the everyman caught in official corruption and the menace of a new post war urban landscape to the p.o.v. of the cop. The inner lives of police were now the starting point for crime narrative. Private detectives certainly remained a staple, but they too changed…and in ways rather complex and not so easy to track. Still, authority was seen as noble and even pure. In Los Angeles the real life transformation of the LAPD under Bill Parker was underway and Parker’s vision was of an elite corps of morally pure soldiers of social order heading out into the dangerous corrupt world of, well, the citizenship. Distrust was a given….for the populace lied. The police didn’t. The nasty ham fisted old time corrupt cops of 1940s noir had given way to a new breed of policeman. Joe Friday, the character Webb played in the Dragnet series, was the template. A man with no private life, only his duty to the job. Single minded, and puritanical. One can trace this template and arrive at the Bochco franchises, Hill St Blues and NYPD Blue. In the interim the case of Dirty Harry warrants mention. For the Don Siegal film was the first to really suggest that the police must, are even obligated to, go outside the law to perform their duty. It was the rise of the vigilante meme. (Batman may be the ultimate expression).

But what interests me here is more the performance of self as its been effected in these popular culture products. Goffman’s classic 1959 sociological study, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life remains a useful tool for examining this trajectory. Coupled to all this has been two other trends: one is “reality TV” and the other the growth of official surveillance. The ‘performance’ of self takes a theatrical metaphor (in Goffman’s book)…and applies it to daily social interactions. But over the last thirty years the influence of popular culture, especially television, has changed the way people play the role of themselves. The Bochco shows in particular developed an acting style based on emotional withdrawal and authoritarian demeanor. This brings us back to the “that doesn’t cut it” phenomenon. The performative aspect of these shows was fairly consistent. The shows were there to explore, on one level anyway, the inner lives of the police (and one might argue cops don’t have inner lives and thats precisely why they became cops) and in so doing perfected a certain emotional deadness reminiscent of Joe Friday. There is a discussion to be had on how these acting styles bled into “indie” film acting via the portal of “realism”. I will return to that in a later posting.

The old trope about the emotional withdrawal of classic Western heroes is worth noting as well. The cowboy who would choose his horse over any woman. This is a proto-American style code developed out of the Puritan/Protestant work ethic of an expansionist Imperialist country. There are so many side bar issues one could explore here. I’m reminded of the classic scene in Hawk’s Red River where John Ireland and Monty Clift share a homo-erotic moment of closeted tension while examining Ireland’s revolver.

For the purposes of this entry though, I’m more interested in the way the average American has come to embrace this compassionless authoritarian style in everyday life. Again, the fact that in reality people ARE being watched, that surveillance is everywhere, coupled to reality TV shows means that the cues for behavior are manufactured by the culture industry. Now, the ruling class, the heads of studios and networks, are going to reflexively stand with the integrity of institutional authority. Reactionary franchises such as “24”, have become a staple in terms of presenting the “other” as a threat. Of course in reality this perception is often, if not usually, transferred to neighbor or brother, or husband or wife. The violence of American society is directed to whoever is handy. A society that feels powerless is going to be angry, and popular culture instinctively finds symbolic targets for that anger. So the invented terrorist threat becomes a wife or son…. and here we get into masculinity codes in late capitalism. Masculinity in popular culture is usually connected to violence. The portrayal of violence is now so coded as to require several tomes to unravel. The knee jerk violence on TV is almost never ending. The consequences are always non-existent because of the need for constant reproduction of these simplistic narratives. Its kitsch melodrama. The narrative is barely existent actually, but there is always violence. A nation so drenched in blood, and one so without compassion for the other (and hence for its neighbor or sibling or spouse) is by definition pathological.

There was a film, Pacific Heights, (1990) with Michael Keaton. The premise was a yuppie couple buy a new house and remodel it, but have to cover costs by renting out the basement room. Keaton rents the room, and turns out to be a psychopath. This bit of neo-noir is illustrative of the shift in p.o.v. I’m speaking of. Had this film been made in 1947, the house owners would have been the psychopaths I suspect, and working class renter the protagonist. The establishment reinforces and actually creates the terms of class perception. The degree of its effectiveness is obvious, in that even as a housing crisis grips the country, the sympathies will lie with authority. That is how propaganda works. That the US as a country can display so little compassion, collectively, for the victims of drone attacks (as a recent example) speaks to the internalizing of this ‘presentation of self’.

Here is a good place to link to Glenn Greenwald’s latest:

I now live in a culture that exhibits none of the paranoia I am used to, and grew up with. None of the constant police presence or the looming prison system. Nobody stops you and pats you down, and daily interactions with strangers is uniformly polite and friendly. Those studio execs, and politicians and military leaders who are tantamount to genuine sociopaths have infected the culture of the US. There is resistance and many great small movements and organizations, but their biggest obstacle is their invisibility. The media, the culture industry, sticks to their script. Its a script that valorizes violence and paranoia, that ennobles emotional distance and portrays compassion as weakness. One of the prevailing tropes in the US is that of winners & losers. The world is bifurcated into those two camps…(cue scene from The Hustler, Rosen’s masterpiece of the 1960s, where Burt Gordon calls Fast Eddie, “a loser”). There is nothing worse in US society than to be seen as a loser. I remember when I was without a car for a while in LA, and had to ride the bus. I remember the looks people gave you as you waited at the bus stop. Loser. And those looks were hostile, not compassionate. As the populace feels ever more powerless, the violence against each other will only increase.

Just the facts.


  1. Stephen Birch says:

    Good one John. Like the thought about “Invisibility” of other movements. Been thinking about that myself.

  2. Joanna Perry-Folino says:

    Excellent and very sad and true. Being poor in America is, like growing old, not for sissies, as Ms Davis might have said. We are a sick and diseased country. Those invisible movements must now become visible and strong in virtue if we are to ever survive. Fine writing, Mr. Steppling.

  3. The changing POV in Hollywood can not be separated form how deeply entrenched privileged voices are in the culture industry. The voices of the marginalized rarely, if ever get to speak. Lina Dunham’s “Girls” was a good example of the POV of the rich kid, minus any critical reflection of their own disconnect and alienation.

    I don’t think this is indicative of ALL Americans though. The culture industry of course would have you think different. One of the main things I see happening in Reality TV is the clear message to the poor and working class to worship authority and materialism. From the Kardashians, to “Undercover Boss”.

  4. john steppling says:

    Well, I agree Lex….but I had hoped that was clear. I said there are groups out there….but as stephen mentioned too, they are invisible to the culture industry. And the culture industry casts a long shadow on behavior and values etc. So does both reality TV and the surveillance industry. There is probably a discussion to be had just about how images of CCTV are used in narratives….and what people perceive within that. But boy, you are so right about the messages in Reality TV. Its astoundingly nakedly obvious. Lifestyles of the rich and stupid. Thats the point, though — the elite voices, their pov is what you get to see…and learning to ‘read’ that is important. Learning to de-code cultural product as it were. I suspect a lot of working class young women love “Girls”….would argue its about female friendship etc (much as was argued re: sex and the city)….and I know you touched on this in your blog. Its an interesting discussion.

  5. Stan West says:

    Wiretapping, drones, surveillance. Reality is much worse than anything envisioned on TV or in film.

  6. Anonymous says:

    John ,another example of this Reversal in the Noir Meme would be Bullitt,which I think started the next phase of the cop on the job ,replacing the Detective Anti-hero process.

    Bullitt and Harry Callahan are characters that fuse the two ,through the brilliant handling and lense work of Peter Yates and Don Siegal. It is very deceptive,but it is there nevertheless. Both men are cops and both men are anti-heroes fighting the “System.

    But here is the change over from the Joe Friday Meme. Both are mercilessly and brutally violent,both go outside the law,and both begin by torturing their suspects
    and then become their judge,jury,and executioner. Friday just delivered them to jail and trial.

    Lastly they both have a final scene that predicts the descent into the policeman as Uber Mensch. Callahan after executing Scorpio (brilliantly played by Andy Robinson),
    balefully throws his Badge (and I belive his gun) into the river. Abandoning the rule of law with contempt,and Bullitt,after his Own act of violence,goes home to his apartment,hangs up his holstered side arm ,and stares remorsefully at it.
    A mans gotta do what a mans gotta do!

  7. John,Anonymous is Me! Still haven’t figured out all the Vagaries of this computer thing.
    Fucked Up! My Bad! Tommy

  8. Hi John…As you’ve observed in this very tight piece of writing, the experience of paranoia and the hostility one faces in everyday life has everything to do with what one takes in (media) and then puts out (re-presents). The man in my office who takes in a steady diet of testosterone-fueled “mens” radio shows and “news/opinion” programming has problems with his neighbors, problems with his daughter, and always a new report of motoring conflicts(just this morning he layed on the horn for 30 seconds when some clueless bitch cut him off), considers his wife to be a harridan, and harbors feelings of resentment about his job. He is an everyday American guy, slightly overweight, sort of angry but basically decent, and deeply clueless. It’s like, his identity is taken up in conflict. The Buddhists talk about the Asura realm…the jealous gods who are constantly on the attack or on the defense, never resting from rage and fear…a karmic result of excessive pride… We Americans–even more since 9/11– are on this feedback system of rage and retribution that has overtones of sadism and fetish, especially in the rightwing, driven largely by a strange combination of exceptionalism and insecurity. It’s a cliché to even state that American “justice” is all about revenge and payback–but constantly proves true. The rape survivor/veterans in my husband’s new film (The Invisible War) would love nothing better than to have the opportunity to do serious damage to their attackers and openly wish the worst for them. It is the frustration of their desire for justice that drives them to self-destructive rage…almost all have attempted suicide. Worse than the rapes was the lack of “justice”, punishment, for the perpetrator. These women are true believers in the military…which is the uber purveyor of vengeance. What I would never have said in my review of the film is that they are not just victims of rape, nor are they just victims of a fucked up military that is too twisted to prosecute these cases; they are victims of a system that teaches retribution as the equivalent of honor, rather than compassion and no-self. It is difficult and painful to be wronged, yes, but much worse to harbor hatred–which is the greatest damage done to these women, by none other than themselves, with more than a little help from the culture, and the culture industry.
    I’m not advocating people roll over and get criminally assaulted, but just to take a longer view, a deep breath–justice can be about protecting the innocent and equalizing society…but it’s been hijacked by revenge, which is all about protecting the (illusory)self and its (even more illusory)projections.
    Another classic American trope is the case of road rage…which is everywhere on the freeways and the surface streets of at least the westside in L.A.(you really don’t honk here on the eastside–bad form and plain stupid.) And if you say, it’s quite natural for people who have been wronged to want payback… is it? In nature, I recently observed a bluejay darting at a crow and nipping its wing. You would think the crow, a large, intelligent and powerful bird, would give chase and attack the bluejay, but it didn’t seem to care to engage. The crow doesn’t have a self to be offended, because there is nothing in the crow’s experience to have taught it to be a big self-important crow who has to have payback in a non-life-threatening situation–another bird’s tree perhaps. Capitalism lesson 1 is to fetishize the self…create an identity, support it, protect it, extend it to what is appropriate (state, team, ‘hood), and hate accordingly. No getting around this…well there is, but it involves some serious dropping out…

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