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The Invisible Hand in Popular Culture

Liberty vs. Authority in American Film and TV

Paul A. Cantor

Publication Year: 2012

Popular culture often champions freedom as the fundamentally American way of life and celebrates the virtues of independence and self-reliance. But film and television have also explored the tension between freedom and other core values, such as order and political stability. What may look like healthy, productive, and creative freedom from one point of view may look like chaos, anarchy, and a source of destructive conflict from another. Film and television continually pose the question: Can Americans deal with their problems on their own, or must they rely on political elites to manage their lives?

In this groundbreaking work, Paul A. Cantor explores the ways in which television shows such as Star Trek, The X-Files, South Park, and Deadwood and films such as The Aviator and Mars Attacks! have portrayed both top-down and bottom-up models of order. Drawing on the works of John Locke, Adam Smith, Alexis de Tocqueville, and other proponents of freedom, Cantor contrasts the classical liberal vision of America -- particularly its emphasis on the virtues of spontaneous order -- with the Marxist understanding of the "culture industry" and the Hobbesian model of absolute state control.

The Invisible Hand in Popular Culture concludes with a discussion of the impact of 9/11 on film and television, and the new anxieties emerging in contemporary alien-invasion narratives: the fear of a global technocracy that seeks to destroy the nuclear family, religious faith, local government, and other traditional bulwarks against the absolute state.

Published by: The University Press of Kentucky

Front cover

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xxvi

This study of popular culture focuses on the most American of all subjects: freedom. America is known as the land of the free, and “liberty” has been its rallying cry throughout its history, from the Revolutionary War and the Founding down to the present day. ...

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Introduction: Popular Culture and Spontaneous Order, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Tube

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pp. 1-22

In studying popular culture, especially when working on my book Gilligan Unbound, I quickly ran into hermeneutical difficulties. I wanted to discuss television shows as works of art, to demonstrate how they present a meaningful view of the world in a skillful and sometimes even masterful manner. ...

Part One: Freedom and Order in the Western

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Introduction to Part One

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pp. 25-30

Anyone dealing with the subject of freedom in American popular culture has to come to terms with the Western. No genre is more closely associated with the celebration of freedom, and yet no genre does more to portray it as problematic. ...

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1. The Western and Western Drama: John Ford’s The Searchers and the Oresteia

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pp. 31-58

When critics praise John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), they frequently reach for the words epic and tragic to describe it.1 In the documentary that accompanies the film in the DVD Ultimate Collector’s Edition, director John Milius says of Ford: “He’s a storyteller, like Homer.”2 Critics rightly sense an affinity between the film and the literature of classical antiquity. ...

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2. The Original Frontier: Gene Roddenberry’s Apprenticeship for Star Trek in Have Gun–Will Travel

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pp. 59-96

Speaking these eloquent words on July 15, 1960, John Fitzgerald Kennedy accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination for president and set the tone of his coming administration in terms he would return to repeatedly. In his use of words like “frontier” and “pioneers,” Kennedy’s rhetoric was saturated with the idiom of the American West, ...

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3. Order Out of the Mud: Deadwood and the State of Nature

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pp. 97-128

The Western, with its setting on the frontier between civilization and barbarism, has throughout its history provided a vehicle for exploring a fundamental American problem: the difficult choice between freedom and law. Do we want to live free of the shackles of the law, even at the risk of society descending into anarchy and violence ...

Part Two: Maverick Creators and Maverick Heroes

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Introduction to Part Two

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pp. 131-136

This part deals first with flying saucers and a trailer-trash family in Kansas, then with a billionaire aviation tycoon and his conflict with a U.S. senator, and finally with four potty-mouthed children from Colorado. Thus, at first sight its unity may not be entirely obvious, especially when compared with the other parts of the book, ...

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4. Mars Attacks!: Tim Burton and the Ideology of the Flying Saucer Movie

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pp. 137-166

Tim Burton’s wacky sci-fi film Mars Attacks! (1996) is not considered one of the highpoints of his career. Although the movie took in over $100 million worldwide in its initial release, it was judged a box-office failure, given that it was budgeted for roughly the same amount and its backers were hoping for another blockbuster from the director of Batman (1989). ...

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5. Flying Solo: The Aviator and Entrepreneurial Vision

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pp. 167-188

Martin Scorsese is the cinematic champion of the underdog, even when that person happens to be the richest man in the world. That explains how The Aviator (2004) fits into the impressive body of work Scorsese has created in his long and distinguished career as a director. ..

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6. Cartman Shrugged: The Invisible Gnomes and the Invisible Hand in South Park

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pp. 189-212

The first few times I watched South Park (1998–) I thought it was the silliest show I had ever seen on television. But my students were finding my references to The Simpsons getting old (this was in the late 1990s), and they insisted that South Park was on the cutting edge of television comedy. ...

Part Three: Edgar G. Ulmer: The Aesthete from the Alps Meets the King of the B’s

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Introduction to Part Three

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pp. 215-222

Edgar G. Ulmer is a fascinating, if minor, figure in the history of American popular culture. Although his work as a director was almost forgotten during his lifetime, he has come to occupy a respectable place in film criticism. In terms of achievement, I would rank him somewhere between Orson Welles and Ed Wood. ...

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7. The Fall of the House of Ulmer: Europe versus America in the Gothic Vision of The Black Cat

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pp. 223-242

The horror story is one of the many exotic goods that Americans have traditionally imported from Europe. This was already true in American Gothic fiction in the early nineteenth century; the situation persisted even in the twentieth century and the new medium of cinema.1 ...

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8. America as Wasteland in Detour: Film Noir and the Frankfurt School

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pp. 243-268

In the history of film noir, Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour (1945) occupies an honored place, appearing on many short lists of the classics of the genre, and frequently cited as the director’s best work.1 At the time Ulmer made the movie, he was operating on the fringes of the motion picture industry, virtually as an independent producer. ...

Part Four: 9/11, Globalization, and New Challenges to Freedom

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Introduction to Part Four

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pp. 271-276

The terrorist attacks of 9/11 tested the resilience of America in many areas, even in popular culture. The heavy loss of life at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon evoked a complex reaction of grief, anger, and bewilderment in the American people. ...

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9. The Truth Is Still Out There: The X-Files and 9/11

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pp. 277-298

From the beginning it was difficult to separate the significance of the events of 9/11 from the significance of the media representation of them. The impact of what happened that day was bound up with the fact that it largely took place on live television, with the whole world watching. ...

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10. Un-American Gothic: The Alien Invasion Narrative and Global Modernity

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pp. 299-348

Many critics of globalization discuss the process as if it involved only the Americanization of the globe. Given the United States’ position as the only global superpower today, this view is understandable, especially since American military might undergirds various forms of political, economic, and cultural influence as well. ...


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pp. 349-352


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pp. 353-434


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pp. 435-462

E-ISBN-13: 9780813140841
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813140827

Page Count: 488
Publication Year: 2012