Television rots your brain. Thats a refrain many of us grew up hearing, but it isnt
true. So suggests Paul Cantor in The Invisible Hand in Popular Culture, his second
book about American film and television.
Cantor has become a celebrity within libertarian circles. He is Clifton Waller
Barrett Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Virginia
and recently became a visiting professor at his alma mater, Harvard University.
Whats remarkable about his appointment at Harvard is that it is in the Department
of Government, not the Department of English. That doesnt surprise those of us
familiar with his breadth of knowledge and range of interests.
Recognized as an interdisciplinary scholar, Cantor attended Ludwig von Misess
seminars in New York City before establishing himself as an expert on Shakespeare.
Besides publishing extensively on literature of various genres and periods, he has
been a tireless advocate for Austrian economics, even though Marxist theories and
their materialist offshoots dominate his field. In 1992, the Mises Institute awarded
Cantor the Ludwig von Mises Prize for Scholarship in Austrian Economics, and
his work at the intersection of economics and literature resulted in Literature and
the Economics of Liberty (Auburn, Ala.: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2010), which
he edited with Stephen Cox (while contributing nearly half of the books contents).
Like that work, The Invisible Hand in Popular Culture owes much to the
theories of Friedrich Hayek, in particular the concept of spontaneous order. It is
a reflection of spontaneous order that the most beloved films and television shows
did not spring perfectly from the mind of some genius working in complete isolation.
Rather, they emerged out of the complex interactions between producers and
consumers and the collaborative efforts of scores of diligent workers. Viewer feedback
facilitated modifications and improvements to films and television, which
advanced in meliorative stages.
Hayek discusses spontaneous order to refute the belief that government intervention
and central planning ought to force order onto the marketplace. Cantor
discusses it to refute the belief that artistic creation stands outside of commercial
exchange. Examining depictions of freedom and coercion in a wide variety of films
and television shows, he highlights the disparity between elitist and populist understandings
of American culture, which he links to top-down and bottom-up
models of order, respectively. His position is that the popularity and artistic appeal
of film and television appear to be proliferating despite the objections and insults
levied by the cultural elite, who, it should be added with not a little irony, nonetheless
probably watch a great deal of television.
Against the cultural elite and their promotion of patricianand mostly
Europeanstandards for the arts, Cantor maintains that the marketplace enables
creative and experimental forms of expression that arent so different from earlier
aesthetic media such as the serialized novel or popular plays. He reminds us that
nineteenth century critics tended to look down on the novel as a popular form,
thinking it hardly a form of literature at all, and adds that it was not viewed as
authentic art, but rather as an impure form, filled with aesthetically extraneous elements
whose only function is to please the public and sell copies (p. 7). This once
vulgar medium has lately been celebrated as one of the highest and most impressive
categories of art. The form and content of great American novelswhether by Twain
or Cooper or Salinger or Pynchonshould remind us that popular novels have been
elevated as canonical even though they have rejected the standards and conventions
that highbrow critics insisted were necessary for a work to constitute literature.
Twain and Cooper recognized that highbrow presuppositions and expectations
for novels derived from influential Europeans, so they set out to forge a uniquely
American literature free from Old World constraints.
Because film and television are commercial, they allow ordinary Americans
(as opposed to academics and the cultural elite, including and especially the neo-
Marxists) to determine aesthetic standards and trends by indicating what does and
does not interest them. Authors and television producers, in turn, become responsive
and attuned to the demands of their consumers; they become, in short, entrepreneurs
who must struggle against the status quo, defy the odds, and push the
limits of artistic acceptability.
The elite disparage this process and advocate for aesthetic criteria divorced from
the tastes and pleasures of the general public. As Cantor explains, Elitists who profess
to believe in democracy nevertheless have no faith in common people to make sound
decisions on their own, even in a matter as simple as choosing the films and television
shows they watch (p. xiv). The elite would have film and television removed from
the marketplace, but without the marketplace there would be no film or television.
Films and television shows might just become the masterpieces of the future;
they might have already provided us with canonical texts. It is too early to say
whether they have contributed substance to what Matthew Arnold called the best
that has been thought and said. Greatness, after all, takes time to ascertain.
Orwell, Dr. Johnson, and Hume adhered to the test of time measure of
greatness by which a work of art or literature is evaluated according to its ability
to compete and survive in the literary marketplace over the course of generations.
This measure requires the sustained consensus of consumers as opposed to the
esoteric judgments of elite critics. A works ability to attract vast and diverse audiences
and to do so long after its production is what makes the work great.
It might seem odd to think of Cantors subjectsSouth Park and The X-Files, for
instancealongside important literary works of the Western canon. And yet the
groundlings who paid a penny to enter into the pit of the Globe Theatre, where
they would stand and watch performances of Shakespeares plays, probably didnt
think they were witnessing greatness, either. Harold Bloom once said, Cultural
prophecy is always a mugs game, and Cantor is wise not to prophesy about the
enduring merit of any films or television shows. Cantors point is not that the products
of film and television will be considered masterpieces one day, only that they might be.
For the record, I consider it extremely unlikely that South Park or The X-Files
will achieve classic status, but I would not extend that speculation to such films
as Casablanca or the Star Wars trilogy. Cantor himself takes pains to distinguish
first-rate works from run-of-the-mill entertainment by invoking traditional criteria
for artistic excellence (p. xxii). We should not take him to mean that film and
television are media superior to that which came before them; instead, he considers
them as substantially similar to their artistic antecedents, except that their
features signal an evolution in artistic preferences. The allure of art comes not
from its alienation from popular culture, but from its ability to incorporate popular
culture in ways that do not impede its power to speak beyond its moment.
To be sure, American film and television have produced an overwhelming
amount of trash, but so did novel serialization. Not all novelists who published
their work in contiguous installments in magazines and periodicals held the stature
of Charles Dickens or Henry James or Herman Melville. Cantor points out that
we forget about the thousands of bad novels from the Victorian era and extol only
around one hundred novels from that period, which supposedly represents a
zenith in culture. Among the thousands if not millions of films and television
shows that have been produced over the past century, perhaps a few will rival the
works of Dickens, James, and Melville.
If Cantor werent such a generous and careful scholar, he might have become
the bete noire of sophisticates and lambasted in the pages of The New Criterion
for his embrace of the purportedly lowbrow. His command of economics and
literary history, however, has spared him from such condemnation and even gained
him a devoted following. To do justice to his latest book would require a more
comprehensive treatment of his arguments about the figure of the maverick in
film and television or about the value of collaborative work and coauthorship in
generating exceptional products. Yet these arguments demand more attention than
a review can give.
The incomparable Cantor has blessed the libertarian movement with a literary
voice. He has expanded the study of Austrian economics into the fields that need
it most. He himself is a maverick, reading and writing industriously to break up
the habits of thought and monopolies on ideology that mark literary scholarship.
Would that we had more Cantors to show us how literature flowers when freedom
flourishes. There is hope in the idea that artists can turn to the market to cultivate
their talents and supply us with the arts we demand. No English department or
cultural guardian can rob us of the entertainment that we enjoy.
Buy The Invisible Hand in Popular Culture at Amazon.com for $31.50 (Hardcover)
Buy The Invisible Hand in Popular Culture at Amazon.com for $19.25 (Kindle)
Volume 18 Number 1
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