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: http://www.salon.com/2012/06/12/what_might_cause_another_911/singleton/
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.