It Came From L.A.
SCENE I: The Questioning
Yet another bizarre murder. Lured from their dank office at the FBI, agents Mulder and Scully arrive in the flat Florida sunlight of a town called Gibsonton. They watch as a man wearing a white tunic hammers an iron spike into his own chest and as another man—tattooed head-to-toe like a jigsaw puzzle—bites into a wriggling cockroach. Before the opening credits disappear, they’ve befriended Jim the Dogfaced Boy, also known as the Gibsonton sheriff.
Clearly this will not be a typical case of protecting unwary townsfolk from the mysterious, the mutant, the deadly. On the contrary, as a sort of retirement village for the circus freak set, Gibsonton may be the one place on earth where mysteries, mutations and deadly tricks are the norm. Mulder and Scully must recalibrate their instincts to see through all the sideshow hoaxes, the sleights of hand. Here, they find uncertainty—a distortion of the real, intended to shock and to entertain, intended to make people question.
Keith Booker is a relatively tall man with a full beard and round, wire glasses. He looks outdoorsy and intelligent. Sitting down for an interview, he props his elbows on the arms of his chair and folds his hands in front of him. He leans slightly forward. Beware that attentiveness. In his 12 years at the U of A, Booker has published more than 24 books. He’s a voracious reader, a prolific scholar, a devourer of knowledge. His attention can be unsettling, if only because there’s so much appetite in it.
“Keith’s insatiably curious. He gobbles whole fields of information,” said Debra Cohen, a colleague in the English department. “He’s written so many books and worked in so many fields that he’s probably preempted dozens of scholars on as many different subjects. He just ranges farther and faster than anyone else I know.”
In fact, Booker began his professional life as a scientist. He worked 14 years as a materials engineer at Oak Ridge National Laboratories before returning to graduate school to pursue his true passion—literary studies. But breaking free from the progressive specialization of science, Booker’s interests have continued to expand until, now, even the field of literature seems unable to contain him. His latest books delve into social history, film, even television. To Cohen, this transformation from literary critic to cultural critic is perfectly natural for a mind as capacious as Booker’s.
“It makes sense that Keith’s curiosity has led him into popular culture because there’s so much there to digest. And things keep getting produced voluminously. He may never catch up with it,” she said. “Maybe he’s finally found an inexhaustible interest.”
Booker, himself, doesn’t see his move into popular culture as a transformation so much as the logical extension of his work. He’s a Marxist critic, which means that even the study of literature gets embedded in a cultural context—each work analyzed for its reflection of lifestyle and class, the questions it raises about the status quo. And Booker believes questions ought to be raised.
As he sees it, the dominant force of American life—that which drives our economy, fuels our society and shapes our culture—is neither beneficent nor humane. It is a system designed to amass power and wealth through the purposeful exploitation of other people. Worst of all, it is a system so familiar in its operation, so comfortable in its execution, that most Americans spend their whole lives without giving it a second thought.
That system, of course, is capitalism, and since World War II, it has been responsible for securing America’s position as a world superpower as well as raising quality of life for millions of people, creating jobs, promoting convenience, rewarding ambition and creative thought. But maintaining such a system comes at a cost.
Over the past several decades, more and more of that cost has been paid by distant strangers—workers who labor in foreign sweatshops to feed the American market. They suffer personal, social and financial oppression to sate our hunger for cheap goods. But Booker believes Americans also suffer oppression for the sake of our precious system and that those oppressions—though no longer keenly perceived by most people—have become the central themes of Western art and culture.
He defines those themes as alienation—the sense that individuals are no longer connected to society, the people around them or even their own identity—and routinization—the dual concern that one’s life is becoming more and more regimented, more and more scheduled, while the world itself transforms into a repetitive, homogenous globe. According to Booker, both can be traced back to the conventions of capitalism, which disconnect consumers from the production of goods that shape their everyday lives and which require a nearly hive-like synchronization of people’s activities.
“Our economy is so complex, so sophisticated, that it has to be highly scheduled to run smoothly. Imagine the sequence of events that has to be set in motion just for one person to walk into a store and buy a ball-point pen,” Booker said. “That’s convenience. But there’s something a little sinister about the way we regulate our lives. We almost unthinkingly go where we’re supposed to go and do what we’re supposed to do, when we’re supposed to do it.”
Yet over the years, Americans have come to accept these oppressions—have become so accustomed to the conditions of capitalism that they no longer realize they’re paying for it. Where once people felt threatened by the sameness of fast food franchises, commercial chains and déjà vu suburbs, they now accept them as standards of quality and convenience. While routinization once struck people as a loss of personal freedom, a new generation has adjusted to the pace of a rapid economy. And the once troubling sensation of alienation has become so common as to be almost chic, a corrupted form of our prized American individualism.
So why does the most innovative, the most thought-provoking literature, film and art of our time invariably draw our attention back to those themes? As Booker suggests, it may represent a hidden knowledge of the cruelties of capitalism, perhaps even a latent longing for a more compassionate system. And if that’s the case, then the seeds of change, the very roots of subversion may rest in the sometimes frivolous, often sensational and largely overlooked material of everyday entertainment.
SCENE II: Seeing, Believing
A dark workshop behind the local funhouse. Grotesque rubber masks peer out from the shadows, their eyes hollow sockets. Mulder, Scully and the Gibsonton sheriff have come to question the funhouse proprietor about a strange illustration they’ve noticed around town.
Proprietor: “It’s the Fiji Mermaid.”
Scully: “What’s the Fiji Mermaid?”
Sheriff: “It’s a bit of humbug Barnum pulled in the last century.”
Proprietor: “-Barnum billed it as a real live mermaid, but when people went in to see it, all they saw was a real dead monkey sewn onto the tail of a fish.”
Mulder: “A monkey?”
Proprietor: “A mummified monkey.”
The trouble with subversive ideas is that, to have any impact, they must first reach the widest possible audience, then convince that audience that the conditions of their everyday lives—with which they are probably largely complacent—must somehow be thrown over or otherwise radically changed. It’s a tricky business, subversion, and therefore best conducted on the sly.
Literature has long served as a haven of subversive suggestions, and Booker has devoted much of his career to analyzing the messages and themes in genres ranging from third world novels to science fiction. But even the most successful book sells only around a million copies. The movie industry boasts a long radical tradition as well, and may reach several million people with a popular film. But neither books nor movies can match the impact of a single successful television series, which draws millions of viewers—not once, but week after week.
Booker’s latest work, slated for publication in October by Greenwood Press, is a book titled Strange TV: Innovative Television Series from The Twilight Zone to The X-Files. It represents one of few scholarly criticisms to examine the content of specific television programs and assess their commentary on American culture. Following television’s own chronology, the book features four series: The Twilight Zone (which aired 1959-1964), The Prisoner (1968-1969), Twin Peaks (1990-1991) and The X-Files (1993-2002).
Among the inane sitcoms and melodramas that constitute much of TV programming, these four shows stood out for their innovative styles and thought-provoking content. And because they stood out, each in its own time came to be viewed as a challenge to the status quo. As the popularity of each series grew, so too did its reputation for subversion.
But there’s a hitch. The triumph (and the trick) of using television as a subversive instrument is that it represents the very vehicle of modern capitalism—the core of commercial marketing. Television exists to deliver product enticements directly into the homes of consumers. Within that function, Booker claims that television series act almost like carnival barkers, drawing viewers in for the real show—the commercials. In other words, these programs participate in the system they purport to overthrow.
To overcome such an automatic bias and be truly subversive, programs must be stylistically innovative and thematically critical, but they also must go one step further. They must promote an attainable alternative to capitalism and show how that alternative creates a better reality for their characters.
“Mere criticism of the negative consequences of capitalism cannot strike telling blows against capitalism,” Booker writes in Strange TV. “To be truly effective, any critique of capitalism must also contain a utopian dimension that gets beyond the capitalist order and thinks thoughts that are, within the confines of capitalism, unthinkable. Aesthetic innovation, in itself, can certainly never do this.”
Within these conditions, Booker concludes that the television programs featured in his book fail to live up to their radical reputations. In short, these shows just don’t live up to the hype.
For example, The Twilight Zone represented one of the first television shows to employ cognitive estrangement, a favorite device of science fiction literature. Cognitive estrangement operates by luring audiences into unfamiliar territory—be it a futuristic setting, faraway planet or alternate reality—to give people a new perspective on their daily lives. Though it placed characters in unfamiliar and outrageous settings, The Twilight Zone played out many of the real and present fears that plagued its original viewers.
In Strange TV Booker discusses how themes of alien invasion revealed a fear of the “other”—a burgeoning us versus them mentality incited by the start of the Cold War. Further, he relates how the menacing role of robots in certain episodes expressed an underlying fear of mechanization and technology—two essential components of capitalism, just gaining momentum in the 1950s.
Many Twilight Zone episodes also addressed themes of alienation and routinization. In “The Lonely,” a man convicted of murder must serve out his sentence on a desolate asteroid. Separated from society, stripped of meaningful activity or identity, he faces the mind-numbing routine of his imprisonment with growing catatonia. When a female robot is delivered to ease his isolation, the prisoner falls in love. Alienated from humanity, he forgets the robot’s “otherness” and attaches his emotions to an object.
Though innovative and insightful, The Twilight Zone failed at several points, according to Booker. First, its episodic structure reduced the program to a variety show of the fantastic and weird. Lacking narrative continuity, the show launched a piecemeal attack at capitalism. More significantly, in Booker’s opinion, the show failed to portray a hopeful outcome for its protagonists or for society at large. The gimmick behind The Twilight Zone was the trick at its end—the twist that trapped characters in their own nightmares.
This, according to Booker, constituted a lack of utopian vision, and The Twilight Zone was not the lone offender of its time. In fact, in The Post-Utopian Imagination—published earlier this year by Greenwood Press—Booker devoted an entire book to exploring the rampant pessimism of this seemingly halcyon era.
“We think of the 1950s as an exciting, optimistic time, when capitalism was growing at an unprecedented rate, when the United States was poised to become a major world power, when people gained far more affluence than ever before,” he said. “But when you look at the culture of that period, it tends to be unremittingly pessimistic in terms of being able to imagine things ever getting fundamentally better.”
The Prisoner, airing less than a decade later, shared The Twilight Zone’s concern with alienation and routinization as well as its discontinuous narrative. The opening sequence of each episode depicted the main character resigning from his position as a British spy. He returns to his apartment only to be drugged and abducted. When he wakes, he finds himself in a strange village, entrapped by anonymous forces who wish to assimilate him into village society and elicit information from him. The protagonist, called Number Six by his captors, resists their efforts, proclaiming himself a free man who “will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered.”
With its captive protagonist and its surreal portrayal of life under an all-seeing technocracy, The Prisoner explicitly illustrated the damaging psychological impact of alienation and routinization—what Booker refers to as “the dehumanizing consequences” of capitalism. Yet when Number Six finally escapes and returns to London, he finds some of the oppressive conditions of the village infiltrating the ordinary world. This ending implies no escape from the modern dystopia, no alternative whatsoever.
Compared to the stringent criticisms of The Prisoner, Twin Peaks appears relatively mild. But what the show lacks in subversive content, it makes up with style, Booker claims. In fact, Twin Peaks did little in the way of criticizing capitalism, except perhaps that its unbelievable strangeness distorted the conventions of commercial TV.
Alienation represented one of the show’s key themes and added much to the program’s strangeness. But Twin Peaks framed the theme in an unusual way. Rather than portraying the alienation of its characters, Twin Peaks alienated its viewers. Booker explains that through sophomoric camera work, campy settings, unpredictable plot twists and overtly bad acting, the series intentionally distanced its audience from the story—forcing viewers to become voyeurs of a bizarre and self-mocking tableau.
That’s not necessarily a new approach, Booker stated. In the early 20th century, Bertolt Brecht—a playwright, poet and fierce critic of capitalism—pioneered such techniques to urge audiences toward a reevaluation of their beliefs. But Twin Peaks failed to achieve such an effect, mainly because its alienation of viewers was wholly stylistic. The series itself lacked the philosophical content to convert such a trick into meaningful subversion.
“The kind of intentionally induced estrangements that appear in Twin Peaks just illustrate the importance of content,” Booker explained. “Style alone doesn’t convey any particular ideology. You have to associate it with genuine criticism and alternative solutions.”
With its unconventional detective story and its fix on the supernatural, The X-Files bears some comparison to its predecessors. But unlike The Twilight Zone, The X-Files sustained a continuous storyline, capable of suggesting long-term corruption in the American system. And unlike Twin Peaks, it encouraged viewers to relate to its protagonists, to share in their outlook and escapades. Further, the dual plotline of The X-Files opened an opportunity for true subversive impact. The supernatural/science fiction episodes in the series generated a cognitive estrangement that required people to rethink their concept of reality. Meanwhile, the conspiracy episodes posed the potential for a critical assessment of corrupt national policy.
Thrilling as the series was, however, Booker makes clear that it never fulfilled its potential. In Strange TV, he argues that The X-Files misdirected its focus: “One of the problems with The X-Files is that the evil people are either aliens or operatives of the U.S. government,” he said. “From the perspective of contemporary global capitalism, that’s not really subversive. It points criticism at the government and not at capitalism, where the real power lies.”
In addition to misdirecting its critical attention, The X-Files made another mistake. Rather than proposing an alternative system with which its protagonists could replace the corrupt institutions they fought, the series strove toward a different, less daring idea of utopia. As the characters developed over the nine years of the show, their utopian vision veered away from society at large and manifested as a highly personal longing: the desire of Mulder and Scully to be united through the truth—through knowledge, respect and (one assumes) long-sublimated passion. It was a longing that the audience intuitively recognized and felt. But even at this personal level, this most human of all utopias, the show failed to follow through.
SCENE III: Remote Rebellion
Mulder approaches the funhouse owner, peers over his shoulder at the rude sketch of the Fiji Mermaid—its monkey hands curled in twin gnarls, its fish tail outlined beneath it. From the shadows, the sheriff says, “It supposedly looked so bad he had to exhibit it as a ‘genuine fake.'”
At this, the proprietor looks up, catches Mulder’s eye. “But that’s where Barnum was a genius,” he says. “You never know where the truth ends and the humbug begins. He came right out and said, ‘This Fiji Mermaid thing is just a bunch of B.S.,’ and that just made people want to go and see it even more. So, I mean, who knows? Maybe for box office reasons, Barnum hocked it as a hoax when in reality…”
Mulder looks at the drawing, finishes the thought: “…The Fiji Mermaid was a reality.”
In Strange TV and throughout much of his research, Booker works to distinguish between innovations and criticisms that genuinely undermine capitalism and those that inadvertently support it. The line is not as clear as it seems.
One of the difficulties of challenging capitalism is that it thrives on innovation and growth. It is a resilient system with remarkably few requirements—mainly just the maintenance of a stratified class structure. Because of this, criticism tends to strike at inconsequential parts of the system and ends up serving capitalism rather than tearing it down. By identifying flaws in the system’s operation—rather than in its foundation—critics enable the system to fix those flaws without altering its fundamental purpose: to make money at the cost of the working class.
“Capitalism is not by nature a stagnant, static system,” Booker explained. “It has to keep innovating to survive. Challenges and new ideas feed it. That’s true to such an extent that some people have suggested Marx, himself, made a greater contribution to capitalism than almost any other person. He pointed out its flaws, many of which the capitalists then fixed.”
This ability to absorb criticism is the reason that proposing an alternative to capitalism is crucial to fashioning an effective challenge, Booker said. Without demanding a better system, criticism just reiterates the status quo. And that’s where the television programs in Strange TV failed. For all their stylistic tricks, their emphasis on the effects of alienation and routinization, they simply restated the realities of capitalism and in doing so, reinforced them. Nevertheless, Booker considers these shows an important part of the modern dialogue on capitalism.
“The messages in television aren’t especially effective. But at least they reach out to huge numbers of people with the suggestion that capitalism has flaws,” he said. “If television, the most capitalist of all art forms, can suggest that, then there must be some credence to the idea.”
It is television’s ability to attract such a vast audience that makes it a powerful medium. But perhaps the audience is as responsible for the weak content of television as any capitalist plot. The watered down criticism that television delivers may be all the American public can stomach at this time, Booker suggested. By billing its weak challenges as “subversive TV” the medium probably gathers a larger audience than it would with true subversion.
After all, coming face to face with the ugly side of reality can be too overwhelming, too uncomfortable for many viewers. People want the shock without the impact. They want the ideas without the attendant obligation of actually changing their way of thinking, let alone their way of life. In Booker’s opinion, television possesses enough innovative momentum to one day produce a true challenge to the system—a program that not only asks questions but delivers answers. But that day is yet to come. Until then, grasp your remote control with confidence. It’s still the safest of all rebellions. It’s entertainment.