A review of The Invisible Hand in Popular Culture: Liberty vs. Authority in American Film and TV, Paul A. Cantor

For Paul Cantor of the University of Virginia, a familiar name to readers of this and many other journals, seemingly escapist entertainments reflect a people suspicious of power and frightened by individual vulnerability. The Invisible Hand in Popular Culture, a companion to Gilligan Unbound: Pop Culture in the Age of Globalization (2001), collects essays on such works as The Searchers, Deadwood, Star Trek: The Original SeriesMars Attacks!The Aviator, South Park, and the films of Edgar G. Ulmer. Cantor's method in both books, primarily sociological, is to explore what television and movies might tell us about the America that produces them.

Such an approach, wrote the late critic Robert Warshow in The Immediate Experience (1962), treats films "as indexes to mass psychology or, sometimes, the ‘folk spirit.'" Cantor interprets Star Trek: The Original Series (1966-69), for example, as embodying the optimistic and expansive liberalism of the New Frontier and Great Society. South Park (1997-present), which "criticizes political correctness in the name of freedom," is understood as a protest against contemporary social attitudes and conventions. "The sociological critic," Warshow added, "says to us, in effect: it is not who goes to the movies; it is the audience." So, Cantor asks, what's the audience thinking?

Seriously scary stuff, he reports. What Invisible Hand suggests is that the collapse of the Soviet Empire inaugurated a new cultural era in which American audiences flocked to negative portrayals of global convergence. Cantor's findings present a challenge to the familiar story of globalization's triumph, which goes something like this: after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, capital began moving freely across the financial landscape, erupting in periodic crises in Mexico, Southeast Asia, Russia, Argentina, and most recently in the United States. Products became as liquid as capital. In 1993, a Democratic president relied on Republican votes to pass the North American Free Trade Agreement, and the World Trade Organization (WTO) was established in 1995 to police global trade. And with capital and goods moved labor. According to the 2010 census, of the 39 million people born outside the U.S. and living in it that year, more than half—mostly from Central and South America—arrived after 1990.

President George H.W. Bush famously said that the end of the Soviet Union marked the beginning of a "new world order." He was echoed by President James Dale (Jack Nicholson) in Tim Burton's 1996 farce Mars Attacks!, who says, "We have become one world." That Dale's remark precedes a Martian invasion—which destroys the legislative and executive branches of government, national landmarks in Washington, D.C., Las Vegas, and Mount Rushmore, and the lives of millions of people—suggests to Cantor a divide between elite and popular attitudes toward globalization.

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Globalization, after all, has winners and losers. The ascendance of supranational forms of authority such as the WTO, multinational corporations, and sovereign wealth funds has weakened the ties between national governments and "their" people. Economic integration may have enriched many, but it also has flooded American markets with cheap and sometimes hazardous products, contributed to wage stagnation and widening income inequality, and eroded communities as factory jobs depart and low-skilled immigrants arrive. Americans once feared nuclear-armed ICBMs from above, launched by a sovereign nation. They now fear shoe- and underwear-bombs smuggled into the country by terrorist networks.

For Cantor, The X-Files, a television series that debuted in 1993, mirrors our postmodern society. In the course of investigating paranormal phenomena, FBI agents Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) are drawn into a government conspiracy to impose extraterrestrial control over the United States. The protagonists, Cantor writes, "are presented as heroic, but only because of their independence from the government." They are mavericks unable to trust their superiors in a federal bureaucracy, presented "as alternately incompetent or sinister."

The disappearance of the only military rival to the United States turned out to be more unsettling than reassuring. The world of The X-Files, Cantor says, is a place where "the American Empire appears to be imploding, as alien forces unleashed in the course of imperial expansion now strike back, subverting and replacing the duly constituted government of the United States." The characters in The X-Files are victims of—or rebels against—the gigantic regulatory and national security apparatus that America constructed to prevent the Soviets from crossing the Fulda Gap, but which America maintained, and in some cases expanded, after the Warsaw Pact was dissolved and Soviet tanks left Eastern Europe.

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"The whole invasion/conspiracy plot connecting the aliens, the syndicate, and the U.S. government," Cantor writes, "symbolizes the way that America's military and imperial aspirations led to its being caught up in a system of international power relations in which it came to resemble the enemies against whom it claimed to be defining and defending itself." This lack of national definition in the global arena led to a parallel situation in which the relation between an American and his government became similarly undefined. Americans in the globalized world found themselves estranged from Washington, D.C., which alternately ignored or antagonized them.

Fans of The X-Files would not be surprised to learn that 53% of Americans recently said the federal government "threatens their own personal rights and freedoms." The 1992 Ross Perot insurgency, the 1994 Republican Revolution, the 2006 and 2007 rallies against an immigration amnesty, the 2009 Tea Party, and the 2011 outbreak of Occupy Wall Street were all expressions of this alienation and suspicion. "The X-Files became famous for offering a remarkably negative portrait of the American government, but really its point is that the government is no longer American in the traditional sense," Cantor writes. "It has been taken over by alien forces and no longer represents the will of the American people."

The absorption of authority by intrusive outsiders is a recurring theme in the popular culture of the last two decades. In the 1996 blockbuster Independence Day, elements of the national government are aware of the existence of extraterrestrials, but keep the information secret and do nothing to prepare for the onslaught that destroys civilization. And in the remake of Battlestar Galactica (2004-09), the inability to distinguish between aliens and human beings results in nothing less than the annihilation of humanity.

"This fictionalized situation," Cantor writes, "reflected an increasing sense among Americans in the 1990s that they were no longer sure who was running their lives—their own government and institutions, or mysterious forces from beyond their borders." Not only did we not know who was in charge. Increasingly, we did not know who "we" were.

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Cantor notices, for instance, that the invasion shows seem fixated on alien-human hybrids. The Borg, a hostile race of cybernetic beings, assimilate Captain Jean-Luc Picard into their hive mind by grafting machinery onto his body in "The Best of Both Worlds," a two-part 1990 episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994). The space invaders in Mars Attacks! surgically attach Sarah Jessica Parker's head to the body of her pet Chihuahua. The Cylons in the Battlestar Galactica remake, in the 2005 episode "The Farm," go to horrifying lengths to mate with human women. The mad scientists of Fringe (2008-13) attempt to create a new species out of unsuspecting Bostonians. The monsters of Prometheus (2012) invade and infect human bodies and impregnate the female protagonist. Director James Cameron's Avatar (2009) reverses the convention by having humans invade an alien world, but features hybrids nevertheless, with the soldier-of-fortune protagonist remotely controlling and eventually fusing with his alien host.

"The fear of hybrids in The X-Files" and elsewhere, Cantor says, "reflects Americans' concerns that, in an era of globalization, they can no longer count on any kind of cultural homogeneity in their country." Globalization may have brought affordable Thai, Indian, Mexican, and Ethiopian cuisine to the United States, but it also has brought 27 million immigrants, and resulted in cultural conflict and confusion as Americans struggle to: protect the nation's borders; define what it means to be an American; and locate the "real America." The situation, Tom Wolfe writes in his latest novel, has become so confusing and contentious that individuals have gone Back to Blood (2012)—not to the American idea—to find identity and meaning.

The panic over hybridity and globalization found political expression in 2008 after the election of Barack Obama, the self-described "son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas." As a candidate he declared himself a "citizen of the world," and called in his Second Inaugural Address for a "world without boundaries." Conspiracy theorists argued falsely that Obama was not born in the United States and had forged his birth certificate. He was, in the view of these Hercule Poirots, precisely the alien hybrid depicted so terrifyingly on high definition television and in IMAX theatres.

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Not every invader comes from space. The X-Files, Cantor writes, "predicted a new age of international terrorism with uncanny accuracy." By dramatizing how "the increasing dissolution of national borders is unleashing new and terrifying forces in the contemporary world, forces that threaten to undermine and destroy the American way of life," the show reflected the federal government's inability to prevent terrorist attacks such as the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, the Khobar Towers bombing in 1996, and the bombing of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.

The American response to 9/11 heightened the relevance of infiltration, conspiracy, and government surveillance and incompetence. The show 24 (2001-10) was filled with war-on-terror analogues for The X-Files's aliens: terrorist cells, secret agencies, presidential subterfuge, and a maverick protagonist who has to violate the rules in order to prevent evil. Starring Kiefer Sutherland as agent Jack Bauer, 24, Cantor writes, "goes just as far as The X-Files ever did in showing how bureaucratic incompetence and infighting hamstring government efforts to deal with terrorism." And beginning in 2002 withThe Bourne Identity, a series of films described the government's war on a group of super-soldiers it had created. The antagonistic intelligence bureaucracy in the Bourne movies is omniscient—it is able to trace Bourne's every move across the globe, with agents in D.C. watching his actions in real time—but it is also impotent. Bourne always manages to escape.

Director Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy—Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008), and The Dark Knight Rises(2012)—deals with similar themes. The plot of all three movies turns on Batman's conflict with terrorists whom the Gotham Police Department cannot apprehend. The Major Crimes Unit is corrupt, the police commissioner and mayor have covered up the truth about the death of the district attorney, and members of the Gotham elite are involved in a conspiracy to destroy the city. Batman, who operates outside the confines of the law, and who was trained by the terrorists themselves, travels overseas to capture criminals and render them to Gotham, beats up the Joker during an interrogation, and develops and operates a surveillance program that allows him to listen in on every single phone conversation within the city limits.

Examples abound. The idea that shadowy figures observe our every move also influenced the CBS hit Person of Interest(2011-present). The Showtime series Homeland (2011-present), yet another non-science-fiction update of The X-Files, is set in the contemporary United States, with terrorists "reprogramming" a soldier who was kidnapped on the battlefield and returning him to America with instructions to kill. The CIA agent who uncovers the plot suffers from mental illness and is ignored and abused by her superiors. President Obama is said to love the show.

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None of these narratives of government surveillance and counterterrorism seem preposterous in a world of unmanned aerial vehicles, data mining, traffic cameras, closed-circuit television, and Edward Snowden. Indeed, they are part and parcel of the popular cultural response to globalization, in which a borderless and feckless America is seen to be under constant assault from outsiders, in which American citizens fracturing along lines of class and ethnicity are befuddled by and distrustful of a bloated government that tries to do everything but succeeds in nothing.

"Paradoxically," Cantor concludes, "these programs, with flying saucers, mad scientists, and alien-human hybrids, nostalgically look back to such old-fashioned phenomena as small-town America, religious faith, and, above all, the nuclear family—forces that foster personal independence by creating local centers of gravity to counteract the pull of the giant nation-state" and of the immense and awe-inspiring global economy. What audiences are telling us these days is that the shows and movies they enjoy are not just entertainment. They are laments for a vanishing world.