A review of Gilligan Unbound: Pop Culture in the Age of Globalization, by Paul A. Cantor

Every book should have a thesis, and this one most assuredly does. Stated in every chapter (almost on every page) are three ideas: 1) Since the early 1960s the world has gone "from the Americanizing of the globe to the globalizing of America"; 2) Globalization has all but rendered the nation-state obsolete; and 3) The broader ramifications of these historic changes are significantly, even profoundly reflected in American popular culture, specifically in four long-running TV shows: Gilligan's Island (1964-1967); the first Star Trek series (1966-1969); The Simpsons (1990-present); and The X-Files (1993-2002).

Cantor, who teaches English at the University of Virginia and is known for his scholarly work on Shakespeare and Romanticism, began in the 1980s to look seriously (though not, as he would insist, too seriously) at popular culture. He's hardly the only professor to have done so. But unlike his peers in the social sciences, Cantor does not study "media effects" such as the correlation between media violence and crime. And unlike his peers in the humanities, he does not take a heavily theoretical approach. While conceding a certain legitimacy to "the theory of subversion/containment associated with Foucault," he is concerned less with "the effect of particular TV programs on society" than with seeing TV shows as "artistic forms that embody and express distinctive views of the world." In other words, it is choice, not naiveté, that prompts Cantor's free-hand linking of popular entertainment with larger literary-philosophical themes.

To trace these connections well is to carry off a high-wire act. Cantor succeeds best when the intellectual baggage he brings to bear is in fact related to the popular material he writes about. For example, when discussing the use of Shakespeare in the feature film Star Trek IV, he shows persuasively how the Star Trek concept of Earth-based republicanism colonizing warrior-aristocratic planetary empires is enriched when lines from Henry V and Julius Caesar issue from the lips of a doomed Klingon general. At the same time, Cantor warns that the motley manner of quoting the Bard threatens to reduce him to "postmodern pastiche."

Cantor is most irresistible when his lightly worn erudition leavens our appreciation of truly brilliant entertainments, such as The Simpsons. If Aristotle was right in relating comedy to democracy, then it should come as no surprise that the best show on Cantor's list is an animated sitcom. Reading Cantor on The Simpsons, one feels he could easily go native and start spit-balling ideas in Studio City (I mean that as a compliment). His own wit scintillates in this account of his "methods":

"My general readers, who are mainly interested in what I have to say and not in how I am going about saying it, my feel free to skip this section. My academic readers will probably conclude that I am epistemologically naïve no matter what I say. Now that nobody is reading, I feel ready to proceed."

One wishes to trust Cantor, even when he stretches one's cultural prejudices by quoting Nietzsche and Kant in connection with The Simpsons: "In The Gay Science, Nietzsche felt he had put his finger on Kant's joke: 'Kant wanted to prove in a way that would puzzle all the world that he was right—that was the private joke of his soul. He wrote against the learned on behalf of the prejudice of the common people, but for the learned and not for the common people.' In Nietzsche's terms, The Simpsons goes The Critique of Pure Reason one better: It defends the common man against the intellectuals, but in a way that both the common man and the intellectual man can understand and enjoy."

But regrettably this is the high point in a book that elsewhere uses Procrustean methods to sustain what amounts to anidée fixe. For example, Cantor contrasts Gilligan's Island and the first Star Trek series in the light of "the end of history" as projected by Hegel, Kojeve, and Francis Fukayama. To repeat, it is provocative to view the starship Enterprise as devoted to the intergalactic export of un-heroic American democracy. But when Cantor piles the same world-historical baggage atop the bumbling Gilligan and three fellow castaways (the skipper, the millionaire, and the pointy-headed professor), the argument falls with a thud.

* * *

It would be unfair to compare Cantor to a cultural theorist grinding away at the late-capitalist-imperialistic-hegemonic ideology inscribed in a Donald Duck cartoon (to cite one eminent example from the literature). For one thing, Cantor is fun to read. But like the cultural theorists, Cantor tends to become smitten with his own abstractions to the point of using them as a standard of aesthetic value.

Cultural theorists eschew "value judgments," of course. But that doesn't stop them from making them, usually on the basis of how well a given "text" exemplifies their theory. Cantor doesn't go this far astray; he knows better than to strike the pose of Marxist-Freudian pseudo-scientific detachment. But in the chapter on The X-Files, his enthusiasm for grand abstractions overwhelms his good taste.

"The X-Files is an unusually thoughtful and thought-provoking television program," begins Cantor. "The more I have studied it, the more I have been impressed by the consistency of its engagement with and exploration of a set of serious and central concerns." Thus girded, Cantor plunges into a lengthy account of The X-Files that soon becomes as tortuous and (after 90 pages) as tedious as the show itself.

The X-Files had a curious birth: when first presented to the Fox network in 1993, it was summarily axed, only to be hastily revived after a programming executive noticed that a test audience had given it a record high rating. Especially in the beginning, the program had a novel and distinct allure: its shadowy look, its haunting soundtrack, its cold stylized acting, and the hints of profundity glinting through its famously convoluted plots, attracted viewers and, over time, a cult following. But to treat this confection as a thoughtful, consistent exploration of any serious topic is to abandon argument for augury.

Along with globalization and the end of the nation-state, Cantor would have us believe that The X-Files is about immigration. After all, the show's original conceit is that aliens (meaning extraterrestrials) are conquering Earth with the help of the U.S. government. Noting that "alien" also refers to non-citizens, Cantor launches into a series of assertions about the nature of the immigrant experience and the definition of American nationhood and citizenship that sound embarrassingly like something an undergraduate might say when trying to impress a politically correct professor.

For example, we are told that "like an extraterrestrial being, an immigrant is perceived to be alien to the American way of life and hence a threat to its preservation." Indeed, The X-Files is praised for sympathetically linking the extraterrestrial with the immigrant, thereby revealing the degree to which the latter appears "a monster, or at least monstrous in the eyes of ordinary U.S. citizens."

Continuing in the same hyperbolic vein (and, I might add, with remarkable indifference to the way an immigrant reader might feel about being equated with a little green space critter), Cantor praises The X-Files for focusing on "the hybrid character of the immigrants" and for including a plot line "centered around a scheme to create an alien-human hybrid." This is good, in his view, because it "rejects conventional nationalist ideologies"—and after all, "nationalism rests on simplistic polarizations between us and them and above all develops a notion of distinct national identity, often based on ideas of cultural homogeneity, monolingualism, and even racial purity."

One wonders what country Cantor has been living in all this time. And it doesn't help that a few pages later he refers to America's "ideal of open borders." Not sharing his taste for suggestive incoherence, I will venture no further than to ask why a country that regards immigrants as "monstrous" and defines its nationhood in terms of "simplistic polarization between us and them" would have an "ideal of open borders."

In the end, Cantor's attempt to link these four TV programs to the themes of globalization and the end of the nation-state feels contrived, not to mention repetitive. By flogging these hobbyhorses to excess, he loses track of what makes him a refreshing exception to the rule of academicians writing about popular culture: his willingness to treat its better products as artistic expressions in their own right, rather than as barometers of this or that social-economic trend.