Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
The Invisible Hand in Popular Culture

The Invisible Hand in Popular Culture: Liberty vs. Authority in American Film and TV

Paul A. Cantor
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 488
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    The Invisible Hand in Popular Culture
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-4084-1
    Subjects: Political Science, Sociology

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xxvi)
  4. Introduction: Popular Culture and Spontaneous Order, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Tube
    (pp. 1-22)

    In studying popular culture, especially when working on my bookGilligan 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. I was interested in how a sequence of television shows expressed changes in the way Americans perceived their place in the world and, more specifically, the way their attitudes toward globalization evolved. This project involved making statements such as: “The Simpsonsportrays the national government negatively and celebrates a turn to the local...

  5. PART ONE Freedom and Order in the Western

    • Introduction to Part One
      (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. In the American imagination, the Western frontier has always been the place to which people go to achieve freedom and escape the shackles of society. Accordingly, the Western as a genre has traditionally been associated with the American spirit of rugged individualism. The Western hero is typically a loner, standing apart from the crowd, sometimes because of something shady...

    • 1 The Western and Western Drama: John Ford’s The Searchers and the Oresteia
      (pp. 31-58)

      When critics praise John Ford’sThe Searchers(1956), they frequently reach for the wordsepicandtragicto 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. They suggest that Ford is working on a Homeric scale, and captures the spirit of Greek tragedy in the way he shapes his characters’ encounters with elemental forces and a cruel destiny. But few have systematically comparedThe Searcherswith a particular...

    • 2 The Original Frontier: Gene Roddenberry’s Apprenticeship for Star Trek in Have Gun–Will Travel
      (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, particularly appropriate when he was looking forward to his cherished space program and specifically the race against the Soviets to land a man on the moon. But the concept of the New Frontier extended to every aspect of Kennedy’s presidency. His foreign policy also centered on the...

    • 3 Order Out of the Mud: Deadwood and the State of Nature
      (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—everything we fear when we speak of lawlessness? Or are we willing to give up our freedom so that law and order will prevail in society, under the aegis of a strong government? The abstract dilemma of freedom versus law is concretely embodied in many...

  6. PART TWO Maverick Creators and Maverick Heroes

    • Introduction to Part Two
      (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, one of which deals with a single genre (the Western), another with a single figure (Edgar Ulmer), and the last with a single historical moment (9/11 and its aftermath). Nevertheless, the chapters in this part go right to the heart of this book’s subject: the...

    • 4 Mars Attacks!: Tim Burton and the Ideology of the Flying Saucer Movie
      (pp. 137-166)

      Tim Burton’s wacky sci-fi filmMars 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 ofBatman(1989). Moreover, critics generally did not reviewMars Attacks!favorably. Speaking for many of his colleagues, Kenneth Turan of theLos Angeles Timeswrote, “Mars Attacks!is not as much fun as it should be. Few of its numerous actors...

    • 5 Flying Solo: The Aviator and Entrepreneurial Vision
      (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 howThe Aviator(2004) fits into the impressive body of work Scorsese has created in his long and distinguished career as a director. At first glance, the billionaire aviation tycoon Howard Hughes would not appear to be the sort of subject that would attract Scorsese. As a rich and powerful businessman, a handsome playboy, and a media celebrity, Hughes seems to be the archetypal top dog. He is exactly the kind of person a typical Scorsese...

    • 6 Cartman Shrugged: The Invisible Gnomes and the Invisible Hand in South Park
      (pp. 189-212)

      The first few times I watchedSouth Park(1998–) I thought it was the silliest show I had ever seen on television. But my students were finding my references toThe Simpsonsgetting old (this was in the late 1990s), and they insisted thatSouth Parkwas on the cutting edge of television comedy. So I kept watching the show until I began to realize that there is more to it than its relentless obscenity and potty humor. It can be brilliantly satirical, and, perhaps most important, it consistently defends freedom against its many enemies today, on both the...

  7. PART THREE Edgar G. Ulmer:: The Aesthete from the Alps Meets the King of the B’s

    • Introduction to Part Three
      (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. Like Welles, Ulmer made a splash with his feature film debut in Hollywood.The Black Catis noCitizen Kane(1941), but it is an impressive movie, and, like Welles, Ulmer uses the techniques of German expressionist cinema to tell a tale of psychological obsession. Again...

    • 7 The Fall of the House of Ulmer: Europe versus America in the Gothic Vision of The Black Cat
      (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 To be sure, the horror movie seems at first to be a quintessentially American phenomenon—a rite of passage for American teenagers and a genre in which America has come to dominate the world. It is due to American movies that the faces of Dracula and the Frankenstein monster are known all around the globe. Yet...

    • 8 America as Wasteland in Detour: Film Noir and the Frankfurt School
      (pp. 243-268)

      In the history of film noir, Edgar G. Ulmer’sDetour(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. AlthoughDetourwas famously made in six days and on a low budget, Ulmer delivered a professional piece of work, showing why he came to be known as the King of the B-Movies.² Despite some signs of haste and cheapness in the production,...

  8. PART FOUR 9/11, Globalization, and New Challenges to Freedom

    • Introduction to Part Four
      (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. The difficult moment generated all sorts of anxieties about the future of America. Still, it was surprising how quickly the media commentators turned to the question of the future of popular culture. Within a day or so, the experts were speculating about how 9/11 would change the course of movies and television. They were all sure that...

    • 9 The Truth Is Still Out There: The X-Files and 9/11
      (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. The terrorists who planned the attack no doubt were counting on media coverage to magnify its impact and thus to achieve their sinister purposes. With the media rushing to cover such a shocking event, their commentary quickly turned into meta-commentary, as they began to discuss not just the event itself,...

    • 10 Un-American Gothic: The Alien Invasion Narrative and Global Modernity
      (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. To see Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, KFC, and other U.S. brand names wherever one travels around the world today can easily lead one to believe that Earth is rapidly being made over into a gigantic American strip mall. But if one looks at a typical American strip mall these days, one might begin to...

  9. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 349-352)
  10. Notes
    (pp. 353-434)
  11. Index
    (pp. 435-462)