American dreamtime

An Anthropologist Goes to the Movies, Take 2


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An Anthropologist Goes to the Movies, Take 2
An anthropologist serving notice that he intends to write about movies must explain himself in a way that is seldom required of his colleagues who write about the exotic practices of small, distant societies. The contemporary nature of the material is perhaps not so suspect as its frivolity and com­mercialism. If we are prepared to abandon the image of the anthropologist as a student of living museum pieces, we are still apprehensive about his studying such lowbrow productions as James Bond movies, Star Wars, and Jaws. De­cades after Edward Sapir’s classic essay, “Culture: Genuine and Spurious,” anthropologists still have not sorted out the most important distinction between the two sorts of culture. Obsessively open-minded where “primitive societies” are concerned, we still draw an invidious comparison between the “folklore” and “fakelore” of our own culture.11 Consequently, the most suspect feature of popular movies is not their contemporaneity, or even their un­seriousness (jokes have been a recognized topic in the social sciences since Freud’s work on the subject), but rather their commercialism. Most aca­demics, anthropologists as well as literary and film critics, are willing to forgive a cultural production anything as long as it does not show a profit. But if, like The Spy Who Loved Me, Star Wars, Jaws, and E. T., it not only shows a profit but is a supergrosser, then it becomes a prime target for sniping by social critics of every persuasion.

Among anthropologists this curiously inverted elitism (“their” folkways are the real thing while “ours” are rubbish) seems to be a simple projection of our prejudices regarding the privileged nature of ethnographic research. In journeying to faraway places with strange-sounding names to do our “field work,” we are caught in the curious position of claiming to be nothing like the contemptible tourists who dog our tracks while being, in fact, a kind of super-tourist. Disparaging those superficial hedonists we call “tourists” and only tolerating those slightly more refined types we dignify with the label “traveler,” we wrap ourselves in a cloak of expertise that every force in the modern world is proceeding to unravel. Today the ethnographer, after years of exhausting graduate study and months of travel preparation, reaches his destination to find that Club Med is there ahead of him: the naked, dancing savages are not “natives,” but young lawyers and secretaries from New York and Toronto there for a week of frenzied rutting and relationship-making. And while the ethnographer is beating the bushes for the Real People, many of their number, having forsaken the impoverished, dead-end villages he has come so far to visit, are themselves in New York, Toronto, and other cities working as immigrant labor and often trying to stay a step ahead of the immigration officer and deportation back to their picturesque homeland.

Even those “natives” who have remained at home take up the pastimes of their emigrant kin: Dallas, Dynasty, James Bond movies, Star Wars, and much of the rest of that global media flood that is American culture have washed over the most remote Peruvian villages, New Guinea river settlements, Amazonian forest camps, and other favorite ethnographic haunts. The Real People know about J. R. Ewing, Sue Ellen, James Bond, and Luke Skywalker, and they work those media personalities into their own habits and conceptions of life, often blending the new myths of Hollywood with the old tribal tales of equally fantastic goings-on and forming in the process a fascinating synthesis of media-myth that can only artificially be segregated into “intrusive” and “indigenous” elements. The American Dreamtime I explore in the following chapters has no clear-cut boundaries; it certainly does not stop at the territorial borders of the United States. The traditional role of ethnography, to provide detailed descriptions and analyses of far-flung societies must therefore be subordinated to the original grand design of anthropology as that “science of humanity” which encompasses all prehistory and all ethnographic variation and strives constantly to make out, through the swirling clouds of data and debate, the outlines of a general theory of culture.12

The following chapters represent a departure from mainstream cultural anthropology in another respect. Throughout the brief history of what is known variously as “symbolic anthropology,” “cultural analysis,” or “anthro­pological semiotics,” practitioners of those esoteric approaches, as well as their detractors, have identified their subject matter with the immaterial, ideational side of things: the airy fairy end of the spectrum at the opposite pole from the solid, down-to-earth topics of politics and economics that lend themselves to empirical research. According to this stereotype, symbolic anthropologists study symbols, and symbols, as everyone knows, are those fluffy, figurative meanings tacked onto the meat-and-potatoes reality of social existence. Every argument and example in this work seeks to overturn that easy assumption and to expose it for the threadbare obfuscation it is. Myth and reality, symbol and substance are seductive but mistaken dichotomies that have, as a fixture of Western thought since the “Enlightenment,” led the human sciences into paralyzing contradictions. An integrated approach that details the inter­working of ideology and practice, of myth and act, is the only way out of the blind alley into which cultural anthropology has blundered, or been pushed.

The commercialism of popular movies and their deep roots in both the economy and ideology of American life are precisely what make them of critical interest to cultural anthropology. That the fantasy worlds of film are for sale and are consumed avidly by millions of movie-goers situates them at the juncture of idea and experience, of make-believe and everyday life, that is the core of American culture and therefore the problematic of its anthropo­logical investigation. Movies and money are inseparable because movies are a principal cultural production of American society, and American society runs on money. A truly dispassionate observer of that society (perhaps a Martian anthropologist visiting the planet) would soon recognize the importance of money in American life and would devote much of his research to activities in which money flows like water. And movies, being big business, would doubt­lessly merit his close attention.

The cultural anthropologist intent on studying modern American culture really cannot avoid going to the movies. Far from being an interesting sidelight on social reality, they are one of the main events. What Americans spend their money on (or allow their government to spend it on) is instructive and rather surprising. The major American industries throughout the eighties included, in addition to the predictable armaments and petrochemical multi-nationals, the complex of entertainment and tourism. And though it is only possible to estimate its revenues, a third industry that shares the pinnacle with these giants is the trafficking in drugs and illegal pharmaceuticals. The combined revenues of the legitimate tourism/entertainment sector and the illegitimate drug trade quite probably exceed those of the industrial complex. Hundreds of millions of people are ready to pay hundreds of billions of dollars for images: images of themselves taking their kids to Disneyland, basking in a tropical sun, dining in splendid restaurants, wearing elegant clothes, driving luxurious automobiles; images on film, on television, in print; images in their hallucinating minds. The Dreamtime temples that are our movie theatres do not disguise the real world; as William Stanner observed among the Australian aborigines The Dreamtime actively participates in and occupies the routine of daily life, whose imaginative nature we, unlike Stanner’s Australians, struggle to conceal.

The very nature of commercialism and consumption in America puts the lie to both the capitalist ethic and Marxist theory. Even before the collapse of the Evil Empire, the average guy out there was concerned about much more than keeping the Russians out of his back yard, keeping his car gassed up so he could get to work, and keeping his family secure and comfortable. Besides what he has or thinks he should have, he wants and needs something else: vicarious experience, a whole kit of virtual lives among which he can move and within which he can experience adventure, excitement, sex, violence . . . the whole seamy, steamy package. And, just perhaps, as well as all this vicarious thrill-taking, he also wants, in those moments just before sleeping or just after waking, to know what it’s all about. He wants a form of release and self-knowledge that isn’t supplied by the two-week vacation or the once-a-week trip to church or therapist. When he looks for that total package, the most complete, engrossing, convincing, theatrical source readily at hand is . . . the movie. The theatre is a house of images, at once recreational and edifying, where, after lining up and paying, he is free to traverse the cinematic Dreamtime in search of a reality whose presence and outlines he already perceives.

Far from being an escapist retreat, The Dreamtime of the theatre is often a sobering and terrifying forum where the muted and partially concealed threats to existence we live with every day are given free expression. There is no better example of the inextricable tie between movie-myth and “real life” than the double meaning the name “Star Wars” acquired during the eighties. Luke Skywalker’s quest for Jedi mastery of The Force and Ronald Reagan’s striving for nuclear supremacy in space through the Strategic Defense Initiative both unfolded within a tableau of American culture that continually searches for and confronts representations of unthinkable possibilities, ranging from the ultimate horror of nuclear holocaust or some other form of ecocide through the mass slaughter and extinction of animal and plant species, and on to the obliteration of simple warmth and caring in human relations. Whether it is in real or reel life, we persist in letting the world scare us stiff. And with good reason.

In comparison with the stark, gripping images of struggle and destruction that pour from our popular movies, novels, songs, and TV shows, the intermi­nable, woolly debates politicians conduct over which constricting, dehuman­izing dogma is preferable exert a minuscule influence on public opinion. “Political reality” in the United States today is not to be discerned from close readings and discussions of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Communist Manifesto, the Congressional Record, or even New York Times editorials (Noam Chomsky’s conspiracy theory notwithstanding). It is rather to be found in a hodgepodge of exceedingly soft, anecdotally cute “news” sources like Time and Newsweek magazines, of TV anchormen and women like Dan Rather, Connie Chung, Barbara Walters, and perky Katie Couric, of myopic commentators and columnists like Rush Limbaugh and George Wills, and, last but not most, of the politicians themselves, congressmen and women and presidents whose effectiveness, and certainly whose continued presence in office, is a product of their own relative success as TV personalities and of their “spin doctors” who further manage the images their politician bosses generate. The line between myth and reality, stage and street, symbol and substance, Dreamtime and common sense is hopelessly tangled and blurred where the “political reality” of American life is concerned. To argue otherwise — and here is the crushing paradox for any form of “realism” — is to grasp at yet other mythic forms and ritual behaviors, to prop up hopelessly caricatured images (the “real American,” the “patriot,” the “national defense,” and the “American family”) as self-evident truths somehow present and directly perceptible in social life.

The dawning of the era of the supergrosser coincided remarkably with the rise to political power of an individual, Ronald Reagan, who is to date the best, and worst, example of the power of myth in American life. Himself a product of the then maturing movie industry, it is not surprising that Reagan seemed always to inhabit an America produced in Hollywood and to conduct his office as though from a director’s chair. A lifelong resident of The Dreamtime, Reagan’s career on both Hollywood and Washington stages attests to the impossibility of separating “symbolic” from “real” life. With Death Stars circling not only Tatooine but also the planet Earth, it becomes imperative that every thinking person take a long, deep look at the role myth plays in our lives. Anthropologists and others wary of committing themselves to the kind of uncompromising cultural analysis attempted in what follows cannot defend their professional preferences with that old cliché of “working in the real world,” for that world, if it ever existed (and I am convinced that it did not) has, in the contemporary United States, drifted or been dragged, kicking and screaming, deep into the territory of The Dreamtime.


The Primacy of Myth

Banks and tariffs, the newspaper and caucus, methodism and uni­tarianism, are flat and dull to dull people, but rest on the same foundations of wonder as the town of Troy and the temple of Delphos, and are as swiftly passing away. Our log-rolling, our stumps and their politics, our fisheries, our Negroes and Indians, our boats, our re­pudiations, the wrath of rogues and the pusillanimity of honest men, the northern trade, the southern planting, the western clearing, Oregon and Texas are yet unsung. Yet America is a poem in our eyes; its ample geography dazzles the imagination, and it will not wait long for metres.

— Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays

What Is Myth?

The premise of this work is that certain popular movies have a great deal in common with myths. Since anthropologists have developed analytical frame­works for studying the social relevance of myths told by their traditional ethnographic subjects — the “natives” — it follows that an anthropologist interested in the natives of America in the approaching twenty-first century can expect to find important clues to their culture in the movies they attend.

But if movies are myth, what is myth? No question is more crucial to this inquiry, and yet few questions are more intractable. Although anthropology and comparative religion have produced a great many studies of the subject, the extent of fundamental disagreement over the nature of myth, among scholars as well as the lay public, is remarkable. Part, but only part, of the problem arises from the fact that “myth,” like notions of “kinship,” “family,” and “race,” is an idea scholars have borrowed from ordinary language and forced to conform to their own specialized usages. Even in the wider public arena, however, the concept of myth is a deceptively simple notion that embraces contradictory meanings. Sorting out those discrepant everyday meanings and reconciling them with an anthropological understanding of myth is a large part of the project before us. As we proceed it will become apparent that a theory of myth and a theory of culture are inseparable, and may be basically identical.

The idea of “myth” is so deceptive because it is so commonplace; everyone uses the word in everyday contexts and has no trouble with its meaning. The term occurs repeatedly in newspaper articles, television news programs, and in casual speech: the myth of male superiority; the character of Santa Claus; “I know people who claim they’ve seen Bigfoot, but I still think he’s just a myth.” Just a myth — the phrase captures the popular mood wherever myth is invoked: it is a falsehood that may be quite harmless or terribly insidious in its deception, but that in either case should not be allowed to mask the good, old-fashioned pragmatic reality that every mother’s son and father’s daughter recognizes as the bedrock of existence.

The strongest challenge to this study of American mythology, and its strongest appeal, consists precisely in the tremendously schizoid, paradoxical, ambivalent attitudes toward myth that characterize the thinking of those mothers’ sons and fathers’ daughters. Americans cherish the image of them­selves as a practical, down-to-earth people who, for that very reason, stand out in a world of older societies mired in complex social refinements and bizarre, otherworldly religious traditions. According to this collective self-image, we do not venerate royal lineages as our European cousins do.1 Nor, again keeping to this self-image, do we sacrifice our lives for Allah or take a rice bowl and wander off into the woods to seek enlightenment. Yet there has never been a people so committed to projecting, on so massive and global a scale, an idealized, stereotypical, high-contrast image of themselves. I am not referring here specifically to movies or other forms of leisure, which might be expected to traffic in stereotype, but to the values that presumably figure in our daily lives, from the breakfast cereal and aerobic routine that start the day through everyday interactions with family, friends, and workmates, to the major events and decisions that punctuate and define our lives: marriage and divorce, childbirth and abortion, the purchase and sale of a home, getting and changing jobs.

At least since Tom Wolfe chronicled the appearance of the Me Generation, in a series of brilliant essays collected in The Purple Decades and Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine, the lives of “ordinary” Americans have been anything but that: we do not simply do something, like get married, have a baby, buy a house, change jobs, or even choose new wallpaper; rather we agonize endlessly over the significance, the implications of what we do for who we are, for which character on the great silver screen of life we may find ourselves playing. Divorce lawyers, plastic surgeons, personal trainers, and family therapists, amid a growing swarm of other “facilitators,” are always there to help us stir the tea leaves of our psyches in the vain hope of coming up with an answer to the most engaging question in America: “Who am I?” And, as Wolfe mercilessly observes, we tackle that question through what has become an almost religious quest in itself: the obsessive, insatiable plea, “Let’s talk about me!”

America, a supremely mythic construct always rendered here within implicit inverted commas, is dedicated to the antithetical principles that its men and women are the equivalent of living, breathing cartoon characters, imbued with all the virtues of the founding fathers (mothers supposedly weren’t big on founding in those days), and that these same walking gods and goddesses are good, sensible down-to-earth folk who believe in practicality above all else. The individual, archetypical “American” thus becomes an impossible collage of Rambo and Benjamin Franklin, Calamity Jane and the Little Woman.

While every grade school history book, magazine advertisement, TV com­mercial, and movie insinuates the myth of America into the consciousness, not just of United States citizens but of most persons alive on the planet today, the primary audiences of those mythic texts — Mom and Dad and Buddy and Sis, going about their daily routines in Wichita Falls, Memphis, Rapid City, and points north, east, south, and west — take them all in and somehow, through some amazing, magical transformation, turn them into the stuff of a down-to-earth, bread-and-butter, myth-denying, “real life”-embracing existence. Unable to live with the idea that myth is an active force in their lives and unable to do without its fantastic productions for more than a few minutes at a time, Americans lurch from pole to pole of the improbable symbolic/semiotic land­scape they have created, now deriding the “unrealistic” qualities of myth, now reveling in them.

This profound ambivalence toward the role of myth in our lives is not, however, just an idiosyncratic trait of Americans. It is so prominent in the United States, once one begins to notice it, because American society, with its movies, TV, advertisements, and mountains of consumer goods projects a larger-than-life image onto the entire planet, fashioning an immense web of experiences and meanings that comprise a global culture of consumer capital­ism. The absolutely fundamental point I want to make here is that the powerful ambivalence that haunts our thoughts and feelings about myth is a general condition of human experience, that the ambivalence, operating in a particular symbolic/semiotic framework described in the following pages, is the primary force that makes human culture what it is. While undertaking a cultural analysis of popular American movies here, I approach them as es­pecially striking examples of mythic processes which I see operating at the deepest level of all societies, all human experience, and which constitute that flash-in-the-pan phenomenon we have come to call “humanity.” According to this view, the enormous corpus of myths composed by the native peoples of the Americas, Asia, Africa, and Australia are substantially comparable with our James Bond movies, Star Wars, Jaws, E. T., and the like. The obvious cross-cultural differences within this disparate global corpus, I would claim, have to do in large part with the highly varying situations the peoples of the world find themselves in vis-à-vis artifacts or machines, animal life, kin and ethnic groupings, and natural or man-made forces of creation and destruction, and not with inherent differences between “modern” and “native” thought.

If anything distinguishes “us” from “them” in these waning years of the twentieth century, it is our more pronounced and often desperate efforts to deny myth a place in our lives. Those doomed efforts contrast sharply with the willingness of native peoples, as documented repeatedly by anthropologists in the field, to view the Dreamtime world of myth and the everyday world of mundane affairs as inseparably linked, so that life unfolds, as William Stanner notes in the epigraph, not from one discrete historical moment to another, but within an everywhen of mythic/”real” events.

Questions of profound importance arise when we confront our pressing need to keep myth at bay. A fundamental point I seek to establish in this work is that the “everywhen” world of native peoples actually accords better with physical reality as represented in the mathematics of quantum mechanics, cosmology, and complexity theory than does the myth-denying “realism” so dominant in the American self-image. As I discuss in Chapter 3, those scientific and mathematical theories describe a world of virtuality in which multiple possibilities of states of existence are simultaneously present, and in which “what happens next” is inherently unpredictable, undecidable, up for grabs. These powerful scientific theories of physical reality advance a “logical” picture of the world, in the sense of mathematical rigor and experimental confirmation of their bizarre findings, but it is a logic of things that just happen.

The both-feet-on-the-ground realism that dominates the American self-image — the myth of America — thus conflicts, in a stunning bit of irony, with the best models of physical reality modern science can provide. Those models describe, in the most elaborate and intimidating mathematical terms, a seem­ingly mystical world in which things can be in two places at once, travel backwards in time, and even pop into existence from nowhere. The implica­tion I think can be drawn from this striking disparity between the “science” of American myth and that practiced by living, breathing scientists is that we harbor, at the base of our consciousness, a compelling, fearful need to believe that our cultural values and social institutions make sense, a need threatened by a vision of a world of stark contradictions and shifting, multiple realities. However disorganized and out of control our individual lives may become, we want to believe that these are inadvertent missteps, departures from a human existence solidly grounded on a foundation of good, true values. Hence the tremendous ambivalence toward “science” in American life: we hold it, or rather our mythical version of it, up as the embodiment of the sense and rationality we yearn for in daily life, and yet simultaneously reject it for the dark, unwelcome truths we fear it may hold.

The paradox, perhaps the definitive, crippling paradox of our age, is that we yearn for (and even proclaim as doctrine) a world of consistency and con­tinuity, for a society that is a certain way, just at a period in history when technological change and population growth are utterly transforming the very basis of what it means to be human, and in the process ushering in a being, a “form of life” in Wittgenstein’s phrase, as different from ourselves as we are different from our hominid ancestors of a million years ago. Humanity’s tortuous movement toward that Something Else is the stuff of myth, as I propose myth’s nature to be in these pages. That movement, however, is both tortuous and contested. Against the irreversible tide of change, and against the profound generativity of myth (which directs that change), we erect hopeless, hateful institutions to proclaim that life, after all, is a certain way, that things are unquestionably this rather than that, and that we should think and act accordingly or suffer the consequences. Our classrooms, law courts, and government offices are all variations of an institution that, following Foucault, has come to embody the spirit of our age: the prison. Yet despite the best efforts of our wardens (every schoolteacher, lawyer, and bureaucrat) to suppress the mercurial truths of myth, the intensity and persistence of our forbidden longing for the Dreamtime world of the movie theatre or of the simple momentary reverie bear witness to our desire to abandon the doomed effort to impose meaning and uniformity on an enigmatic and diverse humanity.

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