This is part of what will hopefully be an ongoing series I’m going to call The Ethics of Immanent Creation, focusing on the issue of creative work within the world–the productive process that gives rise to those things we analyze. Rather than an analysis or opinion piece, this is meant to be more a rumination, an effort to help outline the problematic I encounter.
This is a conversation I’ve been having a lot lately, so I figured it was worth mentioning on here. It goes something like this:
Other: I really like “Independence Day.”
Me: Yeah, it’s pretty good, but for me it’s a guilty pleasure.
O: Why? What’s wrong with it? I mean, sure, there are some plot holes but…
M: It’s more the political stuff.
O: Like what?
M: Well, how about the ridiculous number of Jewish stereotypes–or general racial stereotypes? Economic stereotypes, such as with Randy Quaid’s character? Or the whole ending sequence where we see the little montage of the world’s cliche’s, and of course no one knows what to do until–“It’s the Americans! They want to organize a counter-offensive!” “Well it’s about bloody time!” “True, because we are literally helpless without the big American hyperpower to hold our hand, even in an apparently apocalyptic post-globalization scenario.” Or how about the fate of the President’s wife, a textbook case of Women in Refrigerators if I’ve ever seen one? Or the patronizing treatment of Jasmine’s strip-dancing, or structuring the film as a defense of heroic president-icons against conspiracy theories, or– Well, as you can see, I could go on about this forever.
O: I mean, I can kinda see what you’re saying, but what, do you think they intentionally put that there? It’s just a fun action movie, I don’t think they were thinking about the political side of it.
M: True. I’m almost certain that Roland Emmerich, who seems to be a very well-meaning idealist sort of fellow, did not go into this project intending to perpetuate racist, sexist, and classist ideology. Likewise with everyone else involved. But nonetheless, the movie does this. The key word here is ‘perpetuate’. When this was put together, people didn’t think about the implications of what they were saying, in terms of race, because they were putting together a story based out of cultural myths–cliches and tropes, basically. There’s nothing wrong with this. Most everything either contains or reacts to cliches and tropes; that’s the fundamental basis of a number of theories of cultural transmission, from Roland Barthes to Richard Dawkins. But nonetheless it resulted in a movie that is all these things: sexist, etc.
O: But how can you expect them to be responsible for that? Are they really responsible for the sorts of messages that get put into the story if they’re not even aware of them, if they’re not done intentionally?
M: I don’t know. This is why it becomes useful to talk about that idea of ‘originality’, which often means taking a critical look at the cultural myths we rely on. Sure, by now the idea of another revision of traditional fairy tales or something might seem outdated and overplayed–except that Disney and company are still churning out replications of the unfortunate elements of these myths, and people are so used to it that they actually regard something like “Brave” as being feminist! When someone is making a work, they are either replicated myths–and this can, generally, be called lazy storytelling–or they are critiquing those myths, even if their critique is just the refusal to use them. So when I’m picking on Roland Emmerich, what I’m really doing is accusing him of lazy storytelling, but also pointing out that this laziness has political consequences.
O: So, this is about political correctness? Haven’t we been dealing with that for decades now–and isn’t it pretty universally loathed?
M: Except that the term political correctness assumes some absolute, which is one of the reasons that critiques of what the right calls ‘liberals’ love to use the term: it implies that offended defenders of minority groups see themselves as imposing some new absolute rule. While this may be true of a few, most of us are cultural relativists living instead with the issue of experienced ethics. So perhaps the term ‘political responsibility’ would better convey what I’m trying to say: these people are responsible for their political content. By saying that something is just a fun action movie, you can try to excuse that political responsibility, but it’s still there.
O: But how is their responsibility? It’s not like people are going to get their morals from watching “Independence Day”…
M: Would that it were so. But think back to your own childhood, assuming you grew up in some sort of normative United States-style experience: you were exposed to a lot of movies like “Independence Day”, songs like “Ignition (Remix)”, books like “Harry Potter”, games like “Duke Nukem” and you probably watched, listened to, read, or played these things repeatedly. If you were anything like me you ran around the playground shouting, “Welcome to Earth!” and punching imaginary aliens. In doing these things, you were re-enacting, you were learning how to perform cultural positions. A lot of kids learned what it meant to be American from movies like “Independence Day”; is it any wonder, then, that they grow up believing in some myth of American exceptionalism?
O: But you can’t just blame the films and music and whatnot; the children have to be responsible for what they end up learning as well. Besides, don’t you like cheesy horror movies, which have traditionally been vilified for their influence on children? How is this any different from those “Marilyn Manson and Doom caused Columbine” arguments?
M: I absolutely agree: people are responsible for their individual actions. What we have to understand is that these actions are overdetermined; they are both entirely the fault of the individuals who enact sexism, etc, and the fault of those who culturally imbue them with these ideas–although that’s a much more diffuse blame. The classic metaphor is the man who is executed by a firing squad: each shooter would have been sufficient to kill him, yet they all shot him, so the blame is diffuse but the responsibility rests on the shoulders of each shooter. The difference between these sorts of cultural ideas and something like the Manson-Columbine argument is in presentation. No one with any vague amount of critical thinking approaches Manson thinking he is dead serious if he says, “Kill!”–it’s clear he’s being transgressive, and his performance carries transgressiveness almost to the point of parody. I point you to Lukacs and simply say that the act of transgression is in itself a re-affirmation of the law; this is why the sort of ‘political correctness’ that goes after any discussion of drugs, sexuality, race, etc, is not only ineffective but actually harmful. What is insidious about the sexism, etc, in the films of Roland Emmerich (and just about every other cultural product we enjoy; I don’t want to make too much of a scapegoat of Emmerich) is that it is not framed as a problem; rather, it is hardly framed at all, appearing as the basis and background for what is ostensibly a discussion of mankind uniting in the appearance of a new Other (Godzilla, aliens, ice age, Mayan apocalypse). It is the way that cliches neither true to current reality nor an ideal reality are mindlessly replicated that I rebel against. It is unrealistic and harmful. Is it fair to ask the creators of a fun action film to be responsible for this? Maybe not, in certain traditional conceptions of fairness. But someone has to be responsible, and the only figures standing there are the creators. By creating something, you need to be aware of not only what you do, but what you perpetuate, what you pass on.
Well, this is clearly not exactly 100% accurate to life, but it is indeed patched together out of various conversations I’ve had. Is it the final word on the topic? I don’t think so. I specifically framed this as a dialogue to open myself up to refutation, and if anyone would like to continue the discussion I would be happy to. But it does seem to me that there’s a good degree of excusing of bad messages that goes on–not the subversive messages that we associate with Eminem and Pussy Riot; the insidious, friendly, destructive messages contained in Meg Ryan movies and the show 24 and “Call Me Maybe”. This isn’t a matter of being too ‘politically correct’, it’s a matter of asking people creating cultural products that will be shown to hundreds of millions of people to take accountability for what they put out there. Perhaps the most egregious violators are advertisers, who naturally have no advantage in telling us anything but exactly what we want to hear–in other words, reinforcing stereotypes, and in doing so defining cultural positions that vastly limit the ability of most people to understand anything apart from the normative message they’ve been spoon-fed for generations. And we wonder why political change is so hard to achieve.