AMERICAN DREAMTIME A Cultural Analysis of Popular Movies, and Their Implications for a Science of Humanity
Lee Drummond Center for Peripheral Studies Palm Springs, CA www.peripheralstudies.org
Bradenton, Florida 1951. Joe Steinmetz
This work is dedicated to the memory of my stepfather, Walter Lenore (Lee) Corbett, a true Master of Machines, who taught me that words are not everything — or even most of it.
This work is also dedicated in memoriam to Baby Fae and Barney Clark, recipients respectively of the first baboon heart transplant and the first artificial heart transplant, pioneers and martyrs who have pointed the way to . . . Something Else.
The [Australian aborigine’s] outlook on the universe and man is shaped by a remarkable conception, which Spencer and Gillen immortalized as the “dream time” or alcheringa of the Arunta or Aranda tribe. Some anthropologists have called it the “Eternal Dream Time.” I prefer to call it what the blacks call it in English –– “The Dreaming,” or just “Dreaming.”
A central meaning of The Dreaming is that of a sacred, heroic time long, long ago when man and nature came to be as they are; but neither “time” nor “history” as we understand them is involved in this meaning. I have never been able to discover any aboriginal word for time as an abstract concept. And the sense of “history” is wholly alien here . . .
Although . . . The Dreaming conjures up the notion of a sacred, heroic time of the indefinitely remote past, such a time is also, in a sense, still part of the present. One cannot “fix” The Dreaming in time: it was, and is, everywhen . . .
Clearly, The Dreaming is many things in one. Among them, a kind of narrative of things that once happened; a kind of charter of things that still happen; and a kind of logos or principle of order transcending everything significant for aboriginal man . . .
The tales are a kind of commentary, or statement, on what is thought to be permanent and ordained at the very basis of the world and life. They are a way of stating the principle which animates things. I would call them a poetic key to Reality . . . The active philosophy of aboriginal life transforms this “key,” which is expressed in the idiom of poetry, drama, and symbolism, into a principle that The Dreaming determines not only what life is but also what it can be. Life, so to speak, is a one-possibility thing, and what this is, is the “meaning” of The Dreaming.
–– W. E. H. Stanner, The Dreaming
1. Introduction 1
Beginning at the Beginning 1 An Anthropologist Goes to the Movies 2
Cultural Anthropology and the Movies 7
Which Movies? 12
An Anthropologist Goes to the Movies, Take 2 19
2. The Primacy of Myth 25
What Is Myth? 25
The Nature of Myth 30
The Foundations of a Cultural Analysis of Myth 32
A Semiotic Approach to Modern Culture:
Myth Today, Totemism Today 39
Myth and Language 48
3. A Theory of Culture as Semiospace 55
Before and Beyond Language: Cultural Anthropology,
Quantum Mechanics, and Cosmology 55
Metaphor, Quality Space, and Semiospace 60
Dimensionality in Nature and Culture 64
Processual Analysis and Cultural Dimensionality:
Liminality, Social Drama, and Social Field 78
Intersystem and Continuum 83
Cultural Generativity 96
The Semiotic Dimensions of Culture: 105
4. The Story of Bond 139
James Bond: An American Myth? 139
How to Do — and Not to Do — Cultural Analysis:
The Novel-Bond and the Movie-Bond 143
Gadgets and Gladiators: The Master of Machines 150
Low Brows and High Stakes:
Bond Movies in a World of Consumer Capitalism 163
Folklore Past: James Bond, Wild Bill Hickok, and John Henry 168
Folklore Present: Secret Agents, Football Players, and Rock Stars 177
The Story of America 185
5. Metaphors Be with You: A Cultural Analysis ofStar Wars 187
A Bookstore Browse 187
Inside the Theatre: Semiosis in Star Wars 190
Outside the Theatre:
Luke Skywalker, James Bond, and Indiana Jones in the
Not-So-Lost Temple of the Technological State 204
Gone to Look for (Post-Literate) America 216
6. It and Other Beasts:Jaws and the New Totemism 219
The Fish: An Anthropologist Goes to the Movie Studio 220
Totemic Animals in a Technological Age 222
The Fish Takes a Bite:
The Myth of Ecology and the Ecology of Myth 226
The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea: The Story of
Chief Brody, The Great White Shark . . . and Flipper 240
Animalistic Machines in Jaws and Jurassic Park 252
7. Phone Home:E. T.as a Saga of the American Family 265
From Creature Feature and Saucer Saga to E. T. 265
What is E. T.? 267
Machines at Home:
The Suburban Family in a Technological State 272
Monsters at Home: E. T. and Poltergeist 278
Ambivalence at Home: The Myth of Family 281
8. Conclusions 287
Understanding Our Movies and Ourselves:
Cultural Analysis and Film Criticism 287
The Logic of Things That Just Happen: The Sandpile and
Cellular Automaton as Models of Cultural Process 291
Something Else 310
Note on the Author 354
A conventional self-image Americans hold of themselves and their society in these final years of the twentieth century is that of a practical, realistic people engaged in building an ever larger and more complex technological civilization. At the same time, however, we spend countless billions on activities and products that fly in the face of our supposed commitment to a down-to-earth realism: Our movies, television programs, sports events, vacations, fashions, and cosmetics seem to be the pastimes of a whimsical, fantasy-ridden people rather than of the stalwart folk of our national stereotype. How are these conflicting images to be reconciled? Are we really a practical, self-reliant people who simply like to escape our busy lives occasionally by retreating into a fantasy world? Or is our vaunted practicality and common sense actually a mask for a frivolous, wasteful nature intent on partying while Rome burns and the national debt ratchets up another trillion dollars?
This book sets out to explore those conflicting self-images by focusing on the intimate ties our daily activity and thought have with a world of myth. Written from the perspective of a cultural anthropologist, American Dreamtime approaches modern culture as an anthropologist does a “primitive” society, seeking in its myths and rituals clues to its fundamental nature.
The theme of the book is that myth is alive and well in America, and that its temples are the movie theatres across the land. Movies and myths, I argue, issue from the same generative processes that have brought humanity into being and that continually alter our lives, our societies, and the ultimate destiny of our species. The “Dreamtime” of the title is taken from a concept documented for certain Australian aboriginal groups, according to which the origins of everything — plants, animals, humans — both occurred and are occurring in a kind of waking dream that is at once past and present. The candidates I propose for Dreamtime status are recent movies whose phenomenal popularity signals their resonance with the modern psyche: James Bond movies, the Star Wars trilogy, Jaws, and E. T.
Inquiring into the status of myth in American culture leads, for an anthropologist, to fundamental questions about the nature of myth and culture generally. In discussing particular movies and particular American social institutions, the agenda before me is always to combine the specific findings of an ethnographic study with a theoretical inquiry into the nature of culture. If a signature of our peculiarly American brand of humanity is the movies we flock to, then a thorough analysis of those productions should contribute to our understanding of what it is to be human, should contribute to a science of humanity. That is the project I undertake here.
As the “science of humanity,” anthropology should be the ideal discipline within which to conduct the kind of inquiry pursued in this book. Curiously, though, cultural anthropologists themselves are sharply divided over the issue of whether anthropology is a science at all, or what kind of science it is. As the end of the century and of the millennium approaches, we find ourselves drawn up in opposing camps over these very issues. “Positivists” or “materialists” espouse a deterministic credo rooted in a vision of humanity as a product of political, economic, and ecological conditions. “Interpretivists” or “postmodernists” renounce any approach that smacks of science in favor of a vision of humanity as a literary-like ensemble of texts or messages.
A major purpose in writing this book is to dismantle that dichotomy, which I believe to be entirely false, and to replace it with a cultural analysis that does not shun a scientific orientation to mythic and ritual texts. In my view, anthropological positivists and postmodernists alike have seriously misconstrued the enterprise of “science,” converting it into a hollow image of itself that serves, on the one hand, as a cult emblem, and, on the other, as a demon to be exorcised. Intent on waging internecine warfare, we have largely ignored the fascinating and profound developments in branches of science that, if their subject matter is very different from our own, bear directly on anthropological thought. An innovation of this book is to search for answers to general anthropological questions in the fields of quantum mechanics, cosmology, and chaos-complexity theory. I do not pretend for an instant to have a working knowledge of those fields or to make rigorous comparisons between them and aspects of anthropological theory. But I find the play of ideas in those fields so intriguing and suggestive that I think it essential to incorporate them, however crudely, into my cultural analysis of myth. I believe I will have succeeded here if I convince you, not of the correctness of my application of physical and mathematical concepts, but simply of the need for you yourself to explore the scientific and mathematical literature with an eye to its culturological implications.
Following the Introduction, Chapters 2 and 3 take up general questions of myth and culture, attempting to situate an anthropological discussion of them in the context of contemporary scientific thought. Chapters 4–7 then explore the mythic realm of the movie oeuvres of James Bond, Star Wars, Jaws, and E. T., focusing on their significance for diverse areas of American experience — from popular music and sports to family life, the ecology movement, and global economics. Chapter 8 returns to a discussion of the relevance of cultural anthropology for an understanding of modern life, and to the quest for a science of humanity.
Grateful acknowledgment is made to the following:
Greg Mahnke, M.A. (Martian Ambassador), Ph.D. (Piled higher & Deeper), whose zany profundity inspired it.
Mike Bisson, whose zeal for “cave man” and “bug-eyed monster” movies fueled it.
Anne Brydon, whose insights into the nature of boundaries illuminated areas of darkness in it.
Michael Herzfeld, whose probing critiques, generously provided over a period of years, made it, if not quite ethnographic, then perhaps at least anthropological.
It’s a dream. That’s what we live on. That’s what this country’s all about.
— Robert Crane, Director of the Massachusetts State Lottery
(on the eve of the $41,000,000 New York State Lottery, August 21, 1985)
Beginning at the Beginning
On a Tuesday or Wednesday afternoon in the spring of 1977, I was driving along a street in downtown Seattle, Washington. On making a turn I discovered that the sidewalk of the next street was thronged with people, all waiting in a line that stretched up the block and around the corner. I was just visiting the city for a few days and had no idea what had attracted the crowd. If I could retrieve the first thoughts I had after catching sight of that queue, they would have to do with a sale or, possibly, a demonstration (although 1977 was not a good year for demonstrations). My curiosity aroused, I forgot my destination for the moment and turned at the next corner, following the line to discover what had brought all those people onto the sidewalk in the middle of a weekday afternoon.
They were waiting to buy tickets at a movie theatre, and the theatre was showing Star Wars.
At the time I did little TV watching or even newspaper and magazine reading, so the sight of all those people lining up to see Star Wars caught me completely off guard. Why had they turned out in droves to see that movie? The question intrigued me, and in the months and years that followed I have searched for an answer. It is probably more an index of my own compulsiveness than of the sheer impact of the movie that the search has led me to formulate ideas about the nature of culture, particularly its modern American variant, as a means of explaining what Star Wars and other popular movies are all about. This book offers the explanations I have come up with, and attempts to place them in the framework of a general inquiry into the nature of culture.
An Anthropologist Goes to the Movies Having seen the queue, I had to see the movie. Circumstances prevented my joining the line that afternoon in Seattle, and it was only several weeks later that I found myself seated in a theatre waiting for Star Wars to begin. As the credits scrolled horizontally across the screen into the galactic void and the action started, I felt the first stirrings of a puzzlement or ambivalence that has by now become my lasting impression of the movie.
My first reaction was the intellectual’s predictable scorn: I found it incredible that so many people would spend their time and money on a movie whose dialogue is easily surpassed by the Sunday comic strips. Then the space operatic effects began to work on me, and I discovered a realm of curiously stirring fantasy that enveloped the characters and made their banal exchanges less awful. Clearly, the popularity of the movie was tied to its imagery and not to the sparkling repartees of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Princess Leia — not to mention Chewy’s grunts and moans. The imagery was so powerful, in fact, that Star Wars actually seemed to dispense with the dialogue of human actors, who, with the exceptions of Alec Guinness (Obi-Wan Kenobi) and Peter Cushing (Grand Moff Tarkin), were unknowns anyway, and thereby excuse their narrative flatness. Instead of people, the camera throughout much of the movie was trained on mechanical or monstrous characters acting in otherworldly scenes that included people only as a kind of prop.
Even if I had been steeped in film criticism rather than cultural anthropology, I don’t know how I would have come to terms with these first reactions. The purposeful strangeness of the movie, coupled with the audience’s emotional involvement, actually made me think I was on more familiar ground in this theatre than a film critic would have been: I was an anthropologist who had happened onto an important myth/ritual of an exotic tribe known as “Americans.”
Observing both performance and audience as an anthropologist, it seemed that the real stars of the movie were R2D2 and C3PO, sophisticated machines or “droids” who displayed a far wider range of emotions than the wooden characters of Skywalker and Leia. Action and dramatic tension were provided by an assortment of beings of all descriptions. In addition to the droids, there were Jawas, Tusken Raiders, Imperial Guardsmen, Wookies, bizarre insectean forms in the Mos Eisley cantina, the sinister Darth Vader, and an array of technological gadgets ranging from the immense Death Star to Luke’s hot rod landspeeder. While much of the minimal plot was built on a damsel-in-distress theme — Princess Leia’s captivity aboard the Death Star — the audience seemed most excited and empathic when R2D2 made an appearance: we were alarmed at its capture by the Jawas, delighted with its gleeful beeps, amused at its electronic put-downs of the effete C3PO, distressed by its injury while serving as Luke’s copilot.
Rather than detract from the movie’s dramatic impact, the insipid human characters and dialogue actually seemed to highlight complexities in the personalities of droids. Star Wars was a fairy tale in which the fairies were robots, machines raised to a level of characterization superior to their human associates and presumed masters. People were flocking to the movie to watch R2D2 go through its endearing displays of beeps and flashes and to agonize over its fate. R2D2 was the Tin Man of The Wizard of Oz, but with significant differences: he had completely upstaged Dorothy, or Princess Leia, and pretty much replaced Toto (for a thorough and insightful analysis of the mythic nature of The Wizard of Oz, see Paul Nathanson’s Over the Rainbow: The Wizard of Oz as a Secular Myth of America). Tin Man’s appeal rests on his human form and feeling in mechanical guise; he is the Nutcracker, who wants a heart to validate his human emotions. R2D2, however, evokes strong audience response in spite of the fact that it resembles an animated trash barrel more than a person. Although we do not remotely suspect that it has, or even wants, a heart, R2D2’s gait, electronic “voice,” and agitated displays somehow invest it with the humanity Tin Man so fervently sought. And R2D2’s “humanity” definitely eclipses that of the anthropomorphic and English-speaking C3PO, whose human form and cultivated voice merely serve to emphasize its stiff, “mechanical” nature in contrast to R2D2’s spontaneity.
Why should so many people be so taken with the doings of a mobile electronic cylinder? Are Americans so disgusted with their lives, so alienated from the world they inhabit, that they seek release by pouring emotion into a machine that exists only in a movie? And, if we find a strong undercurrent of alienation or disorientation in popular movies, is it a vague, diffuse feeling or is there an identifiable cultural framework or pattern to it, something that sheds new light on the events in our lives? These are the kind of critical questions that a cultural anthropologist doing a cultural analysis of American movies must ask of his material, questions his more traditionally oriented colleagues politely (and, I think, wrongly) refrain from asking of the exotic performances they study in Amazon villages and New Guinea valleys.
I think it is undeniable that Star Wars and other popular movies contain and communicate large doses of alienation or, perhaps more precisely, what Gregory Bateson called schismogenesis: the representation of irresolvable dilemmas that lie at the heart of a cultural system, a representation that makes life bearable only by disguising its fundamental incoherence.1 Recognizing the schismogenic features of our own cultural productions and those of the “primitive” or exotic peoples anthropologists typically study (and normally exempt from a searching critique) can only be the beginning of a rigorous cultural analysis, which must ground its moral discourse in the signifying details of particular cultural productions that appear at particular times and are enjoyed by particular people. Why is Star Wars the movie it is, and not some other piece of “escapist” fare? That is the question a cultural analysis of the movie must address.
In taking up that question, it is immediately apparent that if Star Wars viewers were just looking for a harmless cotton candy adventure, a fairy tale to take their minds off the grim reality of life, then a little melodrama featuring only Luke, Leia, the paternal Obi-Wan Kenobi, and the villainous Grand Moff Tarkin would have sufficed. Dress the story up in futuristic garb if you like, even throw in loads of special effects. But why introduce and give star billing to robots, Wookies, Jawas, insectoids, and other exotics? Unless, that is, the presence of that unearthly menagerie has a great deal to do with the primary message and popularity of the movie.
That is what I would suggest. The space operatic world of Star Wars, with its formulaic “long ago in a galaxy far, far away,” is not mere window dressing for a syrupy handsome-country-boy-rescues-beautiful-princess-and-they-live-happily-ever-after fairy tale. It is the fantasy world itself, specifically the peculiar “mechanicals” and “organics” that inhabit it, that accounts for the movie’s resonance with American audiences.
Star Wars provides Americans an opportunity to work out and to explore their relationships with an extremely important, ever-changing reality in their daily lives: the machine. As I sat watching R2D2 beep and twinkle, Darth Vader rasp through his (its?) voice synthesizer, and the Death Star dispense annihilation, I began to realize that here was material fantastic only in a special, mythic sense. The movie’s escapist stereotypes came to seem a cushion or palliative for an American public having to face up to some crucial facts about its coexistence with an immensely large and complex population of cars,2 tools, computers, heavy equipment, appliances, lawnmowers, bicycles, and their secondary products in the built environments that provide the universal background and staging area for human consciousness and social life. And the machines I have named are only the good guys, the ones made, as they say, “for domestic consumption”: many would say that the problem of coexistence really begins with the tanks, bombers, nuclear submarines, guided missiles, and, that machine of machines, The Bomb.3
Machines, I concluded, were the key both to the plot of Star Wars and to its tremendous popularity. But the movie was decidedly not a rehash of that dreary old daytime TV staple “Industry on Parade,” updated for Cinemascope and Dolby. What struck me during that first, fateful encounter with what would become a trilogy stretched over six years was that Star Wars deliberately turns away from mundane relations between people and machines to explore the extramundane basics of their coexistence. I began, in short, to think of machines in Star Wars as I believe a cultural anthropologist should think of myth: as questions or areas of puzzlement basic to the elaboration of human identity, which get asked and pondered in the course of narration.
Most “primitive” myths are about people’s relations with animals or, more precisely, with totemic ancestors that are both human and animal and that exist in a kind of World Dawn.4 It is this world of simultaneous past and present, of the origin of all things and contemporary events that Stanner, translating from the Australian languages, calls The Dreaming or Dreamtime. It makes perfect sense that members of hunting and gathering groups should focus their efforts to understand the world on the animals and plants around them, for their lives are intimately bound up with other species. How human and animal groups came to be and the nature of their present relationships are the subject and substance of their thought. Because those questions contain profound enigmas, they can never be answered in a once-and-for-all way, but the process of asking them and trying out possible solutions is an absolutely vital aspect of existence.
That process, as I argue in Chapter 2 and throughout this book, is what we term myth. The fact that many of us have never even touched a wild animal, and certainly never hunted down, killed, and butchered a kangaroo or emu, places our lives and our reflections on our lives in quite a different context from that of the Australian aborigines. It does not, however, mean that we give up thinking about and relating to animals, or that we abandon the relentless questioning that is the essence of the myth-making process as I describe it here. We simply change the terms of the process, or have them changed for us by the forces of circumstance. The principal change of this sort, and the one much of this work is devoted to, is the prominence of artifacts or machines in our lives and thought. Star Wars did not just fall out of the sky and somehow manage to captivate hundreds of millions of people around the world. The movie, which I maintain focuses on the critical question of the coexistence of humans and increasingly “smart” machines, holds a powerful attraction for audiences because they somehow sense that it deals with issues that lie at the heart of their daily concerns. Machines are increasingly important in our lives. They may determine whether or not we are born and when we will die, and they are with most us through virtually every waking moment in between. And Star Wars is a myth about machines.
Until my professional interest in Star Wars was kindled, I had thought a lot about “traditional” myths the cultural anthropologist typically studies — those told by exotic people in exotic places — but very little about movies (and the idea that the latter had much in common with the former had never crossed my mind). The myths I had been concerned with were mostly those told at one time or another by South American Indians, particularly Arawak and Carib groups of Guyana with whom I lived and worked for over two years during the seventies. What intrigued me about their myths of clan origin and of bizarre sexual liaisons between people and dogs, monkeys, and serpents was the persistence of these tales in the face of centuries of social change that had completely transformed indigenous society and made contemporary Arawak and Carib into persons many of us might run into on the street in the course of our daily lives. While some folklorists and anthropologists would be inclined to minimize the relevance these Indian myths hold for the everyday concerns of the Arawak and Carib who tell them, viewing them as irrelevant leftovers of an indigenous past, I found that the narratives speak directly to the burning social issues engaging Guyanese Amerindians today. The myths’ obsession with problems of identity (tribe vs. tribe, human vs. animal) meshes perfectly with present Arawak and Carib fears, desires and, most of all, ambivalences about their place in an emergent (read declining) multiethnic nation of the Third World.
In looking back over the long process of composing the topical essays collected here and of fitting them into the framework of a theory of culture, it strikes me that this project derives its inspiration and direction from my earlier studies of Arawak and Carib myth. The spatial and social gulfs that separate the anthropologist in a South American Indian village, huddled with his aged, trusted informant over transcripts and translated texts of fantastic stories few Westerners have ever heard, from the anthropologist back home, lined up with the masses for a screening of the latest supergrosser, are not as extreme as they might appear. The differences between the two situations are offset for me by the lessons a first-hand encounter with “traditional” myth teaches someone about to embark on a cultural analysis of popular folk productions of his own society. In the village of Kabakaburi, perched uncertainly between the populous coast and the desolate rain forests of Guyana, I discovered that tribal narratives which should have long since lost their appeal for individuals who were thoroughly “detribalized” and “Westernized” still spoke compellingly to them as they sought to find their bearings in a confused and turbulent national society. I believe that realization prepared me to take seriously the improbable and shallow tales that comprise the bulk of our own popular culture: if seemingly antiquated myth exerts a strong force on the lives of Guyanese Amerindians, might it also be true that the apparently inconsequential productions of the Hollywood “dream factory” have a significance beyond their self-imposed aesthetic limitations? That thought is the genesis of the present study.