American dreamtime

Folklore Present: Secret Agents, Football Players, and Rock Stars


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Folklore Present: Secret Agents, Football Players, and Rock Stars
If the themes of human-machine identity and Individual-State relationships are integral to the structure of our culture, to the American Dreamtime, then the stories of Bond and John Henry should feed into social institutions other than those we (often derisively) describe as “folklore” or “myth.” To understand how the Dreamtime temple of the movie theatre empties out into the street, into the highways and byways, the hearts and minds of us all, it is necessary to examine how legendary heroes of folktale and movie are related to living, breathing folk heroes who every weekend dazzle tens of millions of Americans watching them in coliseums and TV rooms across the land. Two categories of popular entertainer spring to mind here: football players and rock musicians.

To invoke our Martian anthropologist once again, a short time spent among us natives of America, watching our TV or wandering our streets, would suffice to alert it (certainly not “ him” or “her”) to the mass appeal and, not infrequently, collective hysteria of two distinctively late twentieth-century rituals: the football game and the rock concert (or, increasingly, the MTV video). The phenomenal numbers of people drawn to those rituals and the intensity of their involvement in them would indicate to our extraterrestrial visitor that the natives of this peculiar land find them essential to their enjoyment of life. Inquiring into the cultural significance of football and rock is, therefore, a means of identifying basic organizing principles in American society. If nearly every American has heard of James Bond, Joe Montana, O. J. Simpson, Elvis Presley, John Lennon, Mick Jagger, and Michael Jackson it must be because they represent areas of experience and states of conscious­ness (some definitely altered!) that are fundamental to us all.

But in the spirit and program of cultural analysis, we need to ask what specifically does James Bond have in common with such diverse personalities as Joe Montana and Elvis Presley? Clearly all are cultural heroes of a sort, but apart from that general affinity how are their several stories specifically linked within a cultural structure? How do they map out some of the twisting contours of a particular domain of semiospace?

In “Professional Football: An American Symbol and Ritual,” William Arens argues that the tremendous surge of interest in football since the end of World War II is linked to the emergence and phenomenal growth of a corporate culture in the postwar United States. As chagrined owners of major league baseball teams can attest, football has steadily gained ground in attendance and, far more important, TV ratings over our formerly undisputed National Game. As Arens cogently observes, baseball is a pastoral game, played on an irregularly shaped field (any pasture or sand lot will do) by relatively few players, all of whom need to perform several functions well: batting, running, fielding, throwing (we will not talk about the American League’s desperate effort at specialization, the designated hitter). Arens claims that baseball, as a free-wheeling, bucolic game of summer, suited a younger, less complicated America. The compatibility or fit between ritual and society thus helps explain baseball’s exalted status during the early decades of the century, when the Sultan of Swat held court on the diamond. That postulated compatibility also helps explain the decline in the game’s popularity as the century wore on and it became increasingly difficult for sports fans to see anything of their own high-pressure, high-stress lives in the languid game.

In sharp contrast with baseball, football is played on a rectangular, lined grid of unvarying dimensions by players who clump together around the ball (even a wide receiver plays in the middle of a crowd in comparison with a center fielder). And football players have such specialized functions that it is something of a fiction to refer to them as a “team” at all, since they are divided into offensive, defensive, and special units that take the field at different times. Many veteran team members have never been on the field together during a season, which makes their “team” a rather abstract entity.

Arens maintains that the incredible specialization involved in a game that pays men huge sums of money to be full-time nose guards, tight ends, and running backs betokens a transformed and immensely more complex America. In the postwar era corporate giants like IBM and General Motors have expanded to the point that each occupies dozens of skyscrapers in as many cities around the world and employs tens of thousands of workers. And, like professional football players, each of those workers is locked into a specialized corporate structure bristling with highly technical job descriptions, a business climate that would have been difficult to imagine when Babe Ruth (who started out as a pitcher!) was thrilling the Saturday afternoon crowds at Yankee Stadium.

As a dominant ritual of American culture, football derives its compelling appeal from its ability to organize and choreograph both the nagging com­plexities of daily life and the elemental dilemmas of existence into a tight, dramatic presentation that can be comprehended as a whole (and ideally in a single sitting, although the notorious “TV time-out” has made a mockery of the sixty-minute football game). The anxiety-ridden junior executive at IBM knows he has to perform in a highly competitive and complex corporate jungle, and yet usually does not know just how well or how poorly he is doing. How is his work being evaluated on the upper floor? How much damage is that s.o.b. who wants his next promotion doing behind his back? Will the Japanese clobber the whole American computer industry over the next few years and put him in the unemployment lines?

These imponderables of corporate life, together with the unnerving cer­tainty that decisions will be and are being made about one’s personal fate, impart an ill-ease in corporate America that cries out for resolution and release. And so we watch and, in a way, worship football, particularly the Sunday afternoon NFL professional variety.

The high-powered, high-priced NFL game brings our disguised corporate anxieties out into the open for all the world to see, pitting highly paid and trained specialists against one another in a public, TV-saturated arena. And the beauty, the fascination, the sheer power of the game, is that it is so much more vivid and real than the murky doings of life itself. After all, there are referees, a clock, endless video images with instant replay, and, most important of all, a final score (which itself comes buttressed with a veritable spreadsheet of instant statistics on first downs, yards rushing, yards passing, etc). The game unfolds in the compressed temporal and spatial dimensions of ritual and yields a result with a definitiveness that acts like a balm to the frayed corporate psyche of modern America.

The ritual costumes of American sport, particularly the old favorites of football and baseball, reveal something of the changing culture they represent. Even in today’s media-saturated big leagues, baseball uniforms remain almost the same casual garments they were a century ago. And the men who wear those uniforms retain their individuality: they are easily recognized by sight and not just by position or number. Television brings the faces of Reggie Jackson, Jose Canseco, and Gary Carter into our living rooms and makes them familiar, makes them personalities. Football is a different story. Players’ bodies are grotesquely distorted by their gear: they are padded, helmeted, visored, face-masked, and mouth-pieced to the point of being unrecognizable even in TV close-ups. From the distance of the bleachers, all that signifies their personalities on the field is a set of numbers. Like the corporate executive and worker, the football player is virtually faceless; his individuality has been consumed by the voracious demands of his function.14

If the football player is a helmeted gladiator who embodies the peculiar mix of self-effacement and in-your-face competitiveness that characterizes corporate America, then the rock musician is his antithesis. Glorying in the wildest displays of egotism, the rock star screams for the death of the corporate State. In “Football Games and Rock Concerts: The Ritual Enact­ment” Susan Montague and Robert Morais portray football players and rock musicians as contradictory “models of success” in American society. Artic­ulating the principal theme of this work, they suggest that American society does not operate with a single, internally consistent image of success, but continually struggles to embrace mutually incompatible goals. From our earliest years we are inculcated with the value of teamwork and led onto the football fields of childhood. But at the same time we are urged to achieve as individuals in competition with others: report cards, honor rolls, who has a good job, who has more money, who is more attractive all are hierarchical devices that instill in us a strong sense of ourselves as self-determined, driven individuals in a world of other similarly motivated persons.

Paradoxically, the rock star appears to trample on all these social hier­archies and yet achieves for himself a degree of success denied the humdrum multitudes that dutifully peck and scratch their way up the social ladder. As a star, he is a kind of individual in the raw, whose appetites and excesses only enhance his reputation as one who drinks life to the dregs. He is part of no institution; his stature is determined solely on the basis of popular appeal. The coliseums fill up, the records sell, and the money pours in. Formal acknow­ledgement of his stardom consists simply in appearances on television and in the popular press; in the words of Dr. Hook’s song, he gets his picture on the cover of Rolling Stone.

Given the stylized, idiosyncratic identities of rock star and football player, what possible affinity can either have with James Bond? I believe the answer lies in the power the story of Bond has to bridge or mediate the contradictions generated by the antithetical images of American life embodied in rock star and football player. Those contradictions in turn are the very stuff of the semiotic polarities we have been considering throughout the last two chapters: the continuous, culture-generating tension between our disparate identities as animal and machine, self and other. Bond is obviously neither football player nor rock star, but possesses attributes of both and so serves as a powerful synthesis that knits together incompatible, irresolvable elements of The Dreamtime.

The rock star, for instance, is not so independent of the corporate State as his behavior would indicate. Although the embodiment of all that is wild and free in the human spirit, he is inextricably tied to modern technology: his artistic expression, the essence of his public image, requires truckloads of electronic equipment manufactured by large corporations and operated by a small army of technicians. Elvis Presley’s and Mick Jagger’s primal energy would die a few yards from their bodies were it not for the microphones they hold, the banks of amplifiers and speakers surrounding them, the mixing labs, the television cameras, stations, satellites and sets, the cassettes, CDs and video tapes, the myriad factories where all this equipment is manufactured, and the stores that sell all the products.

And like Bond, the rock star’s ties to technology are more than a passive dependence. If there is any implement besides the gun and car that permeates American culture, it is the electric guitar. How many video, photographic, and concert images exist of the rock musician on stage, gyrating, howling, and clutching his guitar-cum-penis as the instrument and totem of his raw sexuality, his primal energy? The gun and the electric guitar are easily the two most popularized hand-held instruments of American culture, which has somehow managed to impart a similar function to these utterly dissimilar artifacts. The similarity is recognizable at any rock performance, where the guitarist cradles his instrument like an automatic weapon, which doubles also as a penis, and projects his music as though it were a burst of gunfire or semen. He is animal and machine, creation and destruction in one frenzied packet of energy.

The rock musician uses his instrument as if it were a weapon; Bond uses his weapon with the finesse and precision of a musician. American culture is obsessed with this conundrum of the simultaneous creativeness and destruc­tiveness of machines, and that obsession more than any other factor calls into being our culture heroes, the secret agent and the rock star. The two rep­resent modes or, to continue the quantum analogy, “amplitudes” of the human-machine relationship that alternately oppose and complement one another. Those amplitudes build and sustain the tremendous tension that runs through the seemingly flaccid institutions of our popular culture.

We think, whether we recognize it or not, so often in riddles, and we do so because the reality we experience is itself enigmatic. James Bond, Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, and the rest are part and parcel of our everyday experience because they help us frame implicitly the questions we struggle to articulate: How is it that we are so intimately bound to such dissimilar beings as animals and machines, as families and the State? And why, if those beings are so utterly unlike one another, do they seem to fuse to become a single entity that embraces all the animate-ness and meaningfulness of existence?

I submit that the puzzling resemblance between the secret agent and the rock star consists in both being Masters of Machines, virtuosos whose power to fuse human flesh and metal or plastic into a dazzling synthesis of form and motion transforms our habitual conception of the machine as something apart, to be picked up and put down and used, in a word, mechanically.

Like Bond, the rock star is a Master of Machines. But unlike Bond, the rock star in exercising his mastery utterly alienates himself from the State that provides his equipment and audience. His electric guitar and the lyrics it accompanies are weapons aimed at the heart of the State, an organized medi­ocrity and sobriety that represent everything his Dionysian spirit opposes.

There is an intolerable dilemma here, one of several that make The Dreamtime an unending battleground of ideas. The rock star takes up the sophisticated product of the State, but he continues to fight John Henry’s battle against the Company. Although its message is far more ambiguous, rock’s ties to southern blues are no historical accident, for both confront the perpetually vexing question of how men are to deal with The Man. And while Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson have certainly won far more acceptance from society than the old blues men, they have still had to walk a fine line.15 Bond, of course, deals with The Man by becoming His joke-cracking agent, although as a secret agent he has considerably more latitude to express his individuality than the conventional desk-bound office worker. Bond’s gun shoots bullets, not musical notes, and is trained at the enemies of his employers. But in taking up the machine in Her Majesty’s Secret Service, he personalizes it and demonstrates that mechanical expertise need not be the sole prerogative of an anonymous apparatchik.

If Bond is a bit like and a bit unlike the rock star, he is also a bit like and a bit unlike the football player. His forty-year career from the fifties into the nineties significantly coincides with the emergence of rock and football as our national obsessions. And with reason. If rock and football, at least from the perspective of cultural analysis, exist to explore the complex boundaries between animal, human, and machine identities, if, that is, they function as mediating devices, then we are left to wonder how these devices are them­selves connected. The answer lies with Bond, whose cipher-like identity is a distilled study of boundaries or, again, bondaries. Bond mediates the me­diators, tying into a single if highly dynamic cultural structure the disjointed figures we create to represent and wrestle with the contradictions of human existence.

The second-order mediation Bond represents is complex, for the human-machine and individual-State relationships involved in the story of Bond are not articulated separately but, as we have seen, as a whole. Bond thus provides an instructive lesson in composite identity, in the Whitmanesque multiplicity of selves. He shows that cultural processes are not one-dimensional affairs. Like the football player, Bond is a highly trained and specialized team member whose energies are all directed to beating the other side. But unlike the football player, Bond wears no uniform (and his number, 007, is invisible), nor does he disguise his personal identity with a helmet, shoulder pads, etc. Although he retains his civilian appearance, Bond in an evening jacket is every bit as dangerous as a blitzing linebacker. Football players give up their individuality and rely on their similarly robotic team mates to accomplish feats of physical prowess; the well-oiled human machinery of a professional squad is also a mountain of muscle. But Bond mocks the team he serves so well, flaunting his individuality while relying, like the rock star, on State-produced gadgetry to perform his acts of technical wizardry.

Bond’s physical attractiveness both complements and opposes the physical might of the football player, which is itself already anomalous: the football player confounds the animal-machine opposition because his superb physical conditioning is the result of monotonous routine. In becoming physically perfect he is forced to abandon a supposedly animal spontaneity in favor of mechanical regulation. As we will see in Chapter 6 this anomalous synthesis of animal and machine, which is a function of the two lying at the poles of a semiotic dimension, characterizes all our fateful cultural interactions with animals. The tension or ambivalence that issues from this supreme antinomy of culture is probably behind the curious inconsistency in the names of NFL teams, some of which bear traditionally “totemic” animal designations (Dolphins, Rams, Broncos) while others have function labels that identity them within the other totemism of occupational and ethnic groups (49ers, Packers, Steelers, Redskins).

Bond’s animal nature is signed directly by his sexuality, to the point that his women have become a trademark of both the movies and the novels. His end­less flirtations, which strike so many of us gender-polarized postmoderns as gratuitous if not contemptible, actually mask a complexity that emerges clearly when one considers the sexuality of his tandem characters, the rock musician and football player. Both figures are sexual blurs, distortions, juxtapositions of anything that could be construed as a charter of socially endorsed sexuality. The rock musician, a technical wizard at the guitar, indulges every animal appetite. He is expected to run amok; his unrestrained sexuality and drug use are devices that define and reinforce the State in the act of negating it.

Note that it would be ludicrous for the media to feature an exposé of drug use by rock musicians, for that excess is theirs by right; it is almost their assigned function in a State that has made them emissaries of an emerging technological culture. Drug use in professional sports, however, attracts tremendous media coverage: those fine, upstanding young athletes should do nothing to impair their magnificent bodies or disciplined training. And the sexual taboos of the locker room are an article of faith among coaches from junior high to the NFL; the supremely conditioned animal cannot aspire to the unregulated public sexuality of his opposite number, the rock musician. A six-foot-six, three-hundred-pound tackle is already so overwhelming a physical force that any further stimulation of his physical nature, whether by drugs or sex, would make it impossible for him to function as a cog in that penultimate Dreamtime machine, the football team. In contrast to both football player and rock star, the sexual style Bond affects is to cultivate a flamboyant but seductively cool manner that both affirms and denies his animal self. Bond is that quintessentially modern figure: a technician of passion.

Animal and machine, Individual and State, are oppositions whose solitary expression is impossible in a pure, unmediated state. As Descartes observed long ago, nothing can be purely animal without conforming to notions of mechanistic behavior that negate its animal status. The very existence of culture depends on a principle of semiosis by displacement: A thing acquires meaning by pointing at what it is not, by its vectorial movements within the countervailing fields of semiospace. Our cultural heroes exemplify this principle. For a close inspection of the semiotic processes underlying the phenomena of football and rock reveals that, far from being consistent stereotypes, each is a profoundly contradictory enterprise. The secret agent, however, goes the football player and the rock musician one better: he mediates these mediators. James Bond, as our archetypical secret agent, combines and confuses elements of both.

This mediation is a generative process, for in combining irresolvable opposites he sanctions their continued operation in everyday life. In short, we would not have animals and machines, individuals and the State, were their category boundaries not already intricately tangled and contaminated. There is probably no better term than “agent” to describe Bond’s distinctive role, unless one borrowed from chemistry the notion of “reagent,” for his presence hastens and intensifies events whose nature is generally obscure outside the Dreamtime setting of our movie theatres. The critics are right in a sense: Bond is empty, devoid of character, no more than a cipher whose mission carries him from situation to situation, woman to woman, group to group, category to category. Essentially devoid of content himself, he can take on that of others in operating in his chosen field, for he is, after everything else, undercover, a spy.

The Story of America
It is all too easy to adopt the refined views of an intelligentsia (Tom Wolfe’s cultural mavens) and dismiss football, rock music, and secret agent thrillers as acts in a modern day Roman Circus that the masters of our society put on to amuse and pacify the mob. Too easy, and too cynical, for such an attitude rejects the possibility that simple tales and rituals may contain profound meaning and that the mob, lacking in education and sophistication, may still grasp at an intuitive level the vexing dilemmas of human existence. Faced with the unsurpassed popularity of NFL football, Michael Jackson concerts, and James Bond movies, the cultural anthropologist, if not the philosopher and literary critic, has no choice but to treat them with the utmost seriousness.

When we approach the story of Bond from the perspective of cultural anal­ysis it yields important clues about how our culture is put together and where it appears to be headed. In the story’s context of an American Dreamtime the fundamental categories of identity which, I have claimed, operate in all human societies animal, machine, individual, group assume stark, dynamic configurations that surely have existed in no other society, ever. While we have wrestled with the conceptual implications of our relationship with artifacts long before “we” came into being as Homo sapiens, it is only in the last few decades that we have had to deal with technological change of such a phenomenal order. A striking feature of The Dreamtime in its present highly charged and unstable state is our simultaneous valorization of the individual and the machine, categories that appear incompatible in principle and that in actual daily life generate a tremendous antagonism.

The ultimate signified and puzzle of the American Dreamtime, in which the story of Bond figures so largely, is the concept-myth of America itself. Our movie screens, TV sets, and supermarket novels are filled with secret agents and private investigators James Bond, Sam Spade, Travis McGee, Smiley, Jim Rockford, Harry O., Barnaby Jones, Thomas Magnum, Rick and A. J. Simon, and many others because they offer the illusion that there exist discrete, bounded societies, groups, or situations which the clever agent can infiltrate and set right or wrong. But despite the best efforts of Bond and his imitators, that illusion of fixity, of a clear and distinct boundary separating Us from Them, remains an illusion. The United States at the end of the twentieth century is a land of such sprawling diversity and festering antagonism that it can be fashioned into that storied land of America only through the continuous activity of a myth-making intelligence. That intelligence, an essentially artifactual intelligence, creates the disparate cultural heroes and spectacles that attempt to confer a uniform meaning on our fragmented, conflicted experience.

The semiotic construction of America is a function of those universal processes of cultural generativity identified in the previous chapter. Residents of the United States and of all the lands it influences are together in their restless efforts to comprehend their ever-changing lives. The semiotic antipodes of Animal-Artifact and Individual-State are not static oppositions, but evolving processes of cultural formation. The apparently superficial Fleming narratives and Sean Connery movies thus lead into the most profound theo­retical questions surrounding the nature of culture. To be human, as to be American, is never naturally (or divinely) to be such-and-such, for what we call “human” or “American” is a process through which the symbol-using, myth-making intelligence picks its way back and forth across the category boun­daries it has itself erected. On that tortuous journey the mind, that strange place, must fashion its own trail markers, which may take the form of cultural heroes whose actions exemplify critical juxtapositions or transformations of elemental categories of identity.

These abstract considerations have in addition a highly personal side, for they figure directly in our individual daily lives. We are all, like it or not, akin to secret agents in that we find ourselves over the course of our lives belonging to diverse, incompatible social units. The family of our childhood memories becomes unrecognizable and disintegrates, peer groups form and reform with different codes as well as different members, loves and marriages occur with sometimes dizzying abruptness, children become if not strangers then at least . . . different. Difference you and I, us and them how naturally these terms of belonging, of innate identity, spring to our lips and yet how artificial and contingent they are. Belonging to a group, being a this rather than a that, is at once critical and problematic; there is simply nothing fixed about this whole enterprise of identity.

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