Dead Men Walking: Consumption and Agency in the Western
- Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies
- Center for the Study of Film and History
- Volume 33, Number 1, 2003
- pp. 41-46
- View Citation
- Additional Information
Loren Quiring | Special In-Depth Section Dead Men Walking: Consumption and Agency in the Western by Loren Quiring University of Wisconsin Oshkosh The gunfight in a western film is a riveting climax. A single man re-shapes society in a flash of will and lead, and America has loved him for that power to make the world rather than to be made by it. In his book Modern Times: The Worldfrom the Twenties to the Eighties, Paul Johnson laments the widespread sacrifice ofthat power during the Sixties and Seventies to Marxist and Structuralist determinism. "Man," he says, "was imprisonedin structures: twentieth -century man in bourgeois structures" (695). From Jacques Lacan's post-Freudian psychology to Roland Barthes's semiology to Noam Chomsky's "deep" grammars, human behavior and identity were made by rhetorical and sociological forces operating far beyond the reach of individual will. Robert B. Westbrook, however , in "Politics As Consumption," points out that, despite the political or marketing lust for "attitude engineering," social science has in fact been "unable to deliver law-like generalizations" about how people choose to construct themselves in the material world (164). Deterministic "laws" have butted against the reluctance that Jean-Christophe Agnew says every consumer feels whenever connecting himself to "the vulgar and debased symbolism of needs" (67). People strain to think ofthemselves as individual agents, not as passive cogs in a capitalistic machine. "The impulse to deny complicity" in the subjugation of individuals is "almost as strong in the world ofgoods as in the world ofsex." Ifwe are governedby deterministic structures, we are always hunting for a way out of them, for a flash of individual will and lead. That very denial of subjugation to "the world of goods" is the basis of American individualism. A man makes himself by denying or transcending the conformistpressures ofWestern commerce . According to psychologist Sandra Bern, the modern male has the most at stake in such a denial, precisely because it allows him to mark himselfas an "agent" upon the world. Male identity, Bern argued in 1974, hinges on this perceived agency, on the apparent ability to manipulate the material of the world according to a coercive will. Admitting subjugation is, for a man, effeminate . For Bern, male preoccupation with agency cuts out the feminine self, which is "expressive," "intuitive," and "nurturing" (Trice and Holland 172-73). This gender division, and Bern's advocacy of the "androgynous " self, found a receptive audience in the early Seventies not because it was new (such divisions are centuries old) but because it was part of a modern disaffection with the Western male, a retreat during the counter-culture era from the traditional Man of Power and Progress, that masculine "agent" who, resisting subjugation and integration, wielded his technology like Slim Pickens broncobusting a nuclear bomb. Because, of course, the will to force the world into Western shape did not magically vanish in the DavidBowie androgyny of the early Seventies, American culture found itself torn between feminine and masculine paradigms. Neither one offered a secure basis ofpolitical or psychological power; neither offered a sustainable model of social accommodation amidst Cold War intrigues. Control at the individual level was more slippery than ever—no less for the new feminists than for traditional men and women—even as the laws of the market failed to cohere into an instrument ofsocial engineering. Choosing oneselfin reality was as fraught with illusion as were the fictions in the media. As Christopher P. Wilson explains about the growth of the magazine industry throughout the twentieth century—an industry catering largely to women, from readers of McClure 's to Saturday Evening Post to Ladies Home Journal—the "real life" portrayed in their pages was "a world of illusory power and participation that masked delimited options and prefabricatedresponses" (44). Consumerism gave women as many illusions of authenticity and potency as it gave men, promising, asTodd Gitlin reports, "to uncover authentic selves" in the midst of "encounter groups, therapies, and mystical disciplines" marketed by the feminist revolution (424). By the time the anti-establishment culture ofBob Dylan and Roe v. Wade had arrived, the woman as nurturing domestic icon, bound to hearth and home, was at war with the...