When I talk about or write literary critique, the most common response is not ‘wow, that’s interesting’, but ‘you’re mad’, or ‘what the hell are you talking about’. That’s more or less what happened last year when I embarked on a joint writing project to pick apart the political and cultural references in the once popular TV series The West Wing. In this venture, it was like my confederate and I were watching completely different episodes.
The reason for such diversity of explanation is that I was trained in Western literary critique as part of my undergraduate degree, and I worked for a time as a journalist, in which that training paid off. It may strike many people as unnecessary or contrived to read meanings beyond the literal or pedestrian interpretations, but it is unavoidable that artists and writers, even script-writers for TV shows, often do know some literary or cultural theory, and embed messages in their scripts that are lost without some similar knowledge in their audiences.
So, to explain to my confederate the theories and ideas I draw on every time I look at a film or TV show, read a book, or consider other art forms, I wrote the following survey of the subject, touching on the points I thought most relevant or interesting. It was suggested to me that maybe I should polish this ‘lecture’ into a more accessible essay, and I did a bit of that here.
It is necessarily an unfinished and idiosyncratic summary, risking misrepresentation of historical figures and critical elements of theory. It is also full of conclusions and selectivity that may have been appropriated from unmentioned scholars and writers. There is no willful plagiarism, but the sheer magnitude of a thorough and thoroughly referenced work is beyond my scope here. My words are not intended as an adequate substitute for reading the major thinkers themselves, or the many learned discourses about them.
In that context, all the perceived errors or misrepresentations that might be found here are my own. All the valuable insights are the work of other thinkers.
Entrée: empiricism’s stiff upper lip
In the late 19th century, British and American philosophy seemed entrenched in what has been called empiricism: the pursuit of ideas which could be experienced or evidenced in some methodical, empirical way, mostly by scientific means. This turned into a coldly rationalist approach, prone to all the reductionism that still attaches to scientific theory, and strictly limited by base assumptions about the workings of the universe, and human beings in it. The idea that individual human experience could in fact be unique was eliminated from it to demand that experience is only valid if it can be replicated by others. No spiritual experiences or fugues allowed!
But in continental Europe, other ways of thinking were also explored. Based on the emerging scientific disciplines we know today, but attempting to understand human qualities and social dynamics as separate from self-contained and autocratic ‘scientific’ models. These were sometimes attempts to understand and perhaps recombine metaphysical elements with the scientific, rather than leaving the matter of immaterial concerns to the side. At their best, such ideas were looking for a way to fuse again human qualities with mechanistic conceptions of the clockwork universe.
It might be argued that the absence of native non-empirical philosophical schools in the US and Britain explains the strong attachment in both societies to determinist models for political economy and social control, purged of human, humanist elements of moderation that has seen the dissolution of ethics, even in their religions and philosophical schools.
Luckily Anglo-American thought is sometimes influenced by external thinkers.
The Germanics, …
In this survey we begin with Sigismund Schlomo Freud (1856-1939). Leaving aside all his work in neurosurgery and his later practice, his assertion that human actions are underpinned by psycho-sexual urges, and that these urges include many common deviances or abnormalities is most relevant here. In men these are said to be caused by the Oedipal complex of sexually desiring the mother, and substitutes for her after infancy. There are also distinct stages of psycho-sexual development, moving from the oral, to the anal, to the phallic, with unnatural or handicapped development causing relapse to the initial stages via oral fixations (smoking, alcoholism, excessive eating), anal fixations (OCD, anxiety disorders), and aberrations of the normal phallic (which is said to be conventional heterosexuality) to hedonistic, excessive, or deviant levels. In that conception there was initially little room for homosexuality or women, except as addenda about anal fixation, licentiousness, and penis envy. Post-Freudians drawing on his work with women proposed that females developed in similar ways, with the father and subsequent substitutes as the anchor of sexual development.
In that regard, we might see in The West Wing’s Josh and Sam a personality type leaning slightly towards the anal phase, suggested by compulsive perfectionism in certain areas, and atypically developed sexual relationships displaced by other personality focuses. Leo is proposed as an oral type, being an alcoholic. Bartlet becomes a default for ‘normal’ phallic development, particularly in his Catholicism and lustful pursuit of only his wife. These are not acknowledged characteristics in the scripting, but the pervasiveness of post-Freudian ideas in American society allows us to speculate that both Josh and Sam were separated from their mothers’ affections a little too early, and Leo even earlier. In terms of literary analysis this might mean little more than we are supposed to see them as extraordinary rather than ordinary people.
Freud proposed another very pervasive theory: that we are animated as people by the primitive and impulse-driven ‘id’ of instinct and desire, which is mediated by a stern and rule-driven ‘ego’, possibly created via socialisation and upbringing, and that the battle between the unprincipled urges, and the sternly rule driven self-repression is mediated by the ‘superego’, which involves rationality, education, reasoning and the ability to interpose social contexts for impulses and self-denial.
In a fairly crude way we can see this theory at work in the fiction of season one, episode three, ‘A Proportional Response’, where Bartlet’s id wants to annihilate Syria, the ego, represented by his joint chiefs, proposes a rules-driven restraint, and Leo mediates between them as the superego. I suspect this is a fairly deliberate play on the Freudian theory by the script-writer, Aaron Sorkin.
An adjunct to Freudianism more familiar to Americans is psychoanalysis, the process of talking through issues to expose subconscious problems. The tools of psychoanalysis have become deeply embedded in Westerns societies through the manipulation of subconscious desires and reactions via propaganda and advertising, pioneered most notably in the US by Freud’s nephew, Edward Louis Bernays (1891-1995). Both types of influence are evident in West Wing episodes featuring psychoanalysis as treatment for traumatic events, and by product placement associating items with the characters, therefore proposing them as status symbols (for example, Apple laptops used by Sam, among others).
Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961) was at first Freud’s disciple, and then his rival. He adds to critical literary theory the concepts of meaningful dream symbolism, or human archetypes, from which was developed the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, and of metaphysical elements to psychological makeup, like complexes associated with arrested development or trauma, a ‘collective’ unconsciousness of common symbolism and impulses, and the notion of ‘acausal synchronicity’ (coincidence, not related by direct causes) that acquire or already have meaning through a consideration of completely unrelated other insights.
From Jungianism we might infer Toby to be an introvert, and Bartlet an extrovert, and we can see played out between them the archetypal conflicts between such personality types. From Jung, too, we might explain an unlikely bond between Vice President Hoynes and Leo because of their alcoholism as synchronistic coincidence, not linked by any direct cause or effect, but bringing them together nevertheless, established in social discourse as that between fellow alcoholics who submit to the common discipline of Alcoholics Anonymous. This is the archetype in fiction of friends who at first did not like each other, and whose friendship no one can really explain in glibly systematic ways. It makes sense to us because we probably all know of similar friendships.
… the French …
Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) proposed that linguistic units should be evaluated on the basis of their relationship to the social, political, and economic circumstances creating or valuing them. That is, what is the culture-specific significance of communicating something in a specific way rather than another? He also suggested that ‘signs’, such as words and idiom in written language, or images and lighting or colour schemes in film scenes, are composed of ‘signifiers’ (words, images) and ‘signifieds’ (an intended or fixed meaning), but that the signs used to do that are related to signifiers and signifieds only abstractly. This theme is important to later assumptions that meaning is constructed not entirely by intention, but also by the subjectivity brought to signs by their interpreters. In other words, you and I might interpret the words in the same scene of a West Wing episode quite differently because we bring different subjectivities to the story, even if the words and images of the script do not change, and Sorkin, the director, and the actors might have had intentions different from both our interpretations.
This is a difficult concept for people to grasp if their sole background is scientific, or empirical. Such people are inclined to insist that there is only ever one true and fixed meaning to any fixed set of words or actions. Many artists and writers, however, count on the fact that their audiences will bring many different perspectives to the work, and therefore derive many different meanings from that work, expanding its cultural significance beyond time and place.
De Saussure’s linguistic theories are today regarded as quaint and superseded, but their influence remains in the works of others, such as French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009), who proposed that understanding the significance of people in a social contexts relies on an understanding of their relationship to other people (as opposed to looking for signs of their self-contained significance). In that way, the relationship between President Bartlet and Toby Ziegler explains Ziegler’s character more completely than focusing solely on him. Also, the understanding of Bartlet-Ziegler makes it easier, by inference, to understand the relationships of boss-inferior, of Josh-Sam-Leo, of Josh-Donna, of Abby-Zoey-Elizabeth-Ellie, and of others. It does this by an almost subconscious process or relating the fictional to personal analogues or equivalents.
This can be highly important to interpreting and understanding otherwise unexplained relationships in fictions. For example, we do not need to know Leo’s wife well in order to understand that relationship because we have Bartlet-Bartlet to compare it to, and our own marriages, or the marriages of others, or those of our parents. In that way I interpret Leo’s abandoned marriage as my own, understanding by social comparison the damage done to personal relationships by pressure of career and dedication to cause. Even if my personal experiences differ from yours, a common cultural dialogue on these matters creates the necessary common ground for understanding.
Perhaps more importantly, Lévi-Strauss proposed that myths are startlingly common across cultures, and function with pairs of binary oppositions that appear to cancel each other out to create some harmonious equilibrium. I suspect they actually do no such thing. We may feel the dysfunction of Leo and wife, or Sam and prostitute, being balanced by the Bartlets, who remain married or united despite frictions they experience. In reality, though, there is no balancing. Leo and Sam remain ‘unresolved’ in their fictional psychosexual representations, and the Bartlets function solely as a kind of rôle model, with Jed being the patriarchal stereotype, or the King to Abby’s Queen, or to Leo’s Baron, and Sam’s Knight, or the Father to Leo’s Uncle and to Sam’s Son/Nephew/Understudy.
I’m not proposing any literal attempt at reducing the characters this way, only to suggest that Lévi-Strauss thought of us using such abstractions to make sense of relationships that are not, or cannot be explained in the formal, specifically granular, hierarchical detail we know from personal experiences with ‘similar’ relationships.
Let’s add to this turbulent mix the vexing figure of French psychotherapist Jaqcues Lacan (1901-1981), who described himself as a Freudian, but who was and remains definitely something else altogether.
He split the initially Freudian and incomplete theory of ‘otherness’ into two distinct phenomena. One is the ‘specular’ (mirror imaged) realisation of self as holding potential for desired traits and attributes, but also for hidden realities not visible to others. The second otherness is the alien, external ‘other’ that is represented by actual other people, initially symbolised by the mother as an object of comfort but also of alienation, but altered or morphed into something more complex by friends as much as by strangers, who may seem at times impenetrable to understanding, even by the Levi-Straussian social comparison.
In terms of The West Wing, these concepts open the door to vicariously identifying with ‘the other’ represented by the various characters, and recognising ‘others’ as both natural (relatives, friends, people who share our views and circumstances) but also as locuses of alienation from our sense of self and our causes (enemies, people who do not share our opinions and do not wish us well). Using the same theoretical abstraction, I might see in Sorkin’s psychosexual recognition of his mother as the ‘other’ an interposition in the storylines of the ‘Jewish Princess’ syndrome, whereby the otherness of his mother is normalised as a female sexual stereotype; dare I conclude that Sorkin’s mother was an overbearing, loud, selfish woman, like so many of the female characters in The West Wing? A mother who spoilt him rotten but smothered his individuality to the extent he couldn’t wait to get away, like Josh from Mandy, and eventually from Amy Gardner too? Did Sorkin see himself as Josh in his fictions, and does that explain the tremendously likable but embattled Danny Tripp in Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip?
Michel Foucault (1926-1984), whose work simply defies summary, added complexity rather than new or adapted theory to the existing schools of thought, proposing that ‘history’ and ‘progress’ are in fact representations of ideologies of power, striving to maintain power relationships by normalising their descriptions of history as progress rather than maintenance of a status quo differentiated only by lifetimes and clothing.
If I had to pick his single most obvious influence in The West Wing, it is that Bartlet and his team do many things they regard as tough and ground-breaking which are in fact just the re-validation of an existing power structure in which any real change is perpetually deferred, or denied altogether as not feasible or desirable. No free ducation, universal healthcare or social security for America. Ever. It’s just too far out of bounds even in a fiction.
Another layer of complexity is added to all of this by Jacques Derrida (1930-2004), whom I regard as a madman who took over the asylum – in a not unsympathetic way. Don’t get me wrong. I like inspired lunatics, like AE van Vogt, and some people I have worked with. I like them much more than convinced simpletons, who just happen to be the majority, and dangerously empowered if they have MBAs or congregations of credulous followers. I think I like them because they have a sense of what is human and appropriate even while others present proof that we should aspire to subvert what is human.
Derrida proposed quite boldly that Hegel and Marx were wrong to argue that there is a constant dialectic reconciling conflicting ideas via a synthesis, thus creating new, better ideas. Instead he suggested we can understand human artefacts and motivations only by deconstructing them, and by keeping the deconstructed elements separate and void of the meaning they have when they are combined, or un-deconstructed. Unlike plenty of idiots using Derrida’s work to justify all sorts of nonsensical ‘emo’ stream-of-consciousness as necessity, he himself made no claim as to what the meaning of deconstruction should be, instead posing that question to us.
To understand some implications of Derrida’s thinking, consider a pair of dressmakers’ scissors. It is an object whose essence (function or purpose) precedes its existence (it is designed before it is manufactured). You and I know this. That’s what makes the object dressmakers’ scissors. Now consider a child, with no knowledge of dressmaking or scissors, who uses the object as a tool to punch holes in your sofa or pry loose your skirting board. Is the object, in that specific context, still a pair of dressmakers’ scissors? What about the context of a sociopathic murderer who knows the object intellectually as dressmakers’ scissors, but who conceives of them as a particular aesthetic instrument for mutilating or altering flesh? If these examples strike you as ridiculous, consider the vast assortment of apparently innocuous items which, today, you will not be permitted to carry onto a commercial airliner because they can be conceived of as weapons or instruments of destruction.
The same principle applies more softly to a situation constructed for the character Toby in The West Wing, season two, episode 20, ‘Mandatory Minimums’, when his ex-wife, Andrea, tells him that she was pulled over by a policeman while driving on a date with a baseball identity; the apparent dilemma this poses for Toby is whether she abused her position as a Congresswoman to avoid being booked. However, Toby and Andrea deconstruct the anecdote to work out whether he is morally appalled by the abuse of power, made jealous by her having been on a date with another man, or just annoyed that this man works for a baseball team other than his preferred New York Yankees. Another example might be my personal analysis of the African AIDS crisis derived from season two, episode four, ‘In This White House’, where I disqualify its proposed cause by greedy Western pharmaceutical companies, and propose instead elements completely extraneous to the fiction: a Christian colonialism that opposes prophylactics and sexual education, and an endemic local tribal rivalry played out in savage barbarity and corruption that makes medical treatment difficult or completely impossible.
Perhaps a more simple example is the analysis of the opening in the same episode, in which the Capital Beat TV show host introduces Ainsley Hayes as ‘from the right’ and Sam ‘from the left’, proposing in that statement a number of assumptions with which I disagree: that Republicanism is of the right, implying there is nothing worth considering to its right, that Democrats are of the left, implying not only that they are to the left of the Republicans, but that they subsume all other potentials of the left, and that right and left imply the sole permissible political arena, justifying the concentration of all ‘legitimate’ political opinions in this conception of Republican and Democrat.
Deconstruction can work on another level entirely. If we were to strip away our suspension of disbelief and look at Josh and Donna not as West Wing characters, but as lines of dialogue identified only by numbers, what do we make of Josh’s didactic explanations of various policy positions to Donna? Do we see in them the author, Sorkin (and others), hard at work in constructing us as an audience, in need of lecturing about the policies, and using Josh and Donna only as artifices to deliver that lecture? And if we see that, do we see the Socratic dialogue, reminding us that Sorkin is well enough educated to know about that method of explication? My suspicion about that being exactly the case appears to be confirmed when, in season four, episode four, ‘The Red Mass’ Josh tells Donna about a motivational seminar being full of unacknowledged appropriations by gigantic figures in Western culture, including Plato and his work The Republic.
The point of mentioning this last episode is to highlight an instance of specific, literal reference to cultural influences, and how they have been misappropriated and misinterpreted by someone in the fiction for ulterior motives. The corollary of that point is to ask what this would mean to someone who couldn’t have recognised the references to Plato, et al, without the specific mention, who can’t recognise how those ideas are being used to manipulate people in life, and who might say of my interpretation that ‘you are mad’ when I see what I see and say what I say.
Derrida proposes intensely intellectual abstractions not at all suitable to a reductionist mindset that demands a consistent, coherent conclusion inherently flowing from its own method, which almost guarantees the outcome and all ‘acceptable’ interpretations of it. Derrida demands that we think earnestly and hard to pursue our own conclusions and judgements, based on our own reasoning and observations. That this is difficult is not recognised enough by the reductionists, who see in the challenge to think independently only the void of their own power to think or form judgements. Worse, many such people then assume or insist that other people cannot and must not think differently, and when confronted with less conventional assessments they resort to a contemptuous but peremptory dismissal of all post-modernism as ‘pomo bullshit’. I have seen this too many times not to lament the anti-intellectualism it embodies, and to draw attention to the vital rôle played by judgement and critical thought not only in analysing the fiction, but also the method being used, and what its influence is on the final assessment.
Louis Althusser (1918-1990) eclipsed his uxoricide to remain a highly influential, often-cited post-Marxist theoretician. His notion of ‘interpellation’ or being ‘called on’ by ideology as its subject, is most interesting in cultural and literary critique. In proposing that various institutions and organs of state perpetuate an ideology that ensures their own survival, Althusser suggested that this ideology reduces individuals to its subjects, being hailed by repetitive propaganda that reinforces a message stating that the aims of the ideology have always existed, and have always been legitimate. Althusser suggested this is a lie, and that a currently dominant ideology arises from social and economic power relations and is maintained by the uncritical collaboration of people in that process, no matter that it works against their interests.
In this manner we might see ourselves, in our rôle of The West Wing audience, as the people governed and subject to the decisions of the characters we watch, as substitutes for the real people in the White House. We see those characters as inevitably shaped or animated by the purposes they serve, as if there were no choice but to serve those fixed purposes rather than to creatively construct new or different ones. In this way the notion of press ‘secretaryness’ dictates that CJ must occasionally mislead the press corps, cannot have an affair with Danny Concannon, and restricts or directs her activities to the unwritten but understood and dishonest rules of a game, referred to directly by the character in season one, episode three, ‘A Proportional Response’, when she says: ‘Admiral Fitzwallace is Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Leo McGarry is White House Chief of Staff, I’m your host CJ, let’s play our game.’ We are invited to think this is witty. We are invited not recognise it as an admission we are about to be lied to.
We, as audience, are interpellated as passive consumers of the fictions in the show, as people who have suspended their disbelief to absorb the ideologically-laden messages about the inevitable obedience by everyone of rules governing political conduct, the ‘natural’ order of the institutions with which we are confronted, the consumptive lifestyle that sees us sit in front of prime-time TV at an appointed leisure hour, and the passivity of our engagement with the issues and conflicts presented to us. We enjoy the fiction at least in part because we are complicit in its lies.
On a purely personal note, one of the biggest lies here is how likable the characters are. It implies or invites us to believe that the real White House staffer are similarly likable, and not the rat bastards we occasionally find out they really are.
Cultural critic Roland Barthes (1915-1980) offers some complementary thoughts on ‘authors’, or creators of original work, who stimulate thought and reaction in audiences. He suggested they have been largely supplanted by ‘scriptors’ who merely re-arrange old ‘texts’ or pre-existing meanings to create variations on themes. Sorkin, in that light, draws on the craft of screen writing, ‘great’ authors, television drama formats, and political anecdotes to merely re-arrange meanings with which we are already familiar, perhaps adding to the sense of legitimacy of the Althusserian interpellation.
It should be noted that the term text refers to any method of story-telling, not just written works.
Barthes also introduced into the language of critics the parallel notion of ‘writerly’ texts that demand some participation by the audience to interpret and create meaning, and ‘readerly’ texts that ask only passive consumption of pre-determined meanings and notionally fixed interpretations. In these senses, most of Sorkin’s scripts are readerly, with occasional writerly moments, notably season three, episode one, ‘Isaac and Ishmael’, but also CJ’s pointed rebellions against policy and decorum when women are mistreated by notional allies of the US, and the President does not speak out against such outrages. It might also be said that Sorkin sometimes creates the appearance of faux writerly text, as in season one, episode six, Mr Willis of Ohio, in which we are invited to draw our own conclusions on sampling for the census, but as a futile act, since our judgement is limited to one about a fiction rather than an actual political decision. We are offered the illusion of siding with what’s right and decent, but of course we just sit in our lounge chairs, doing nothing at all.
… and the Germanics, again!
The name Herbert Marcuse (1889- 1979) sits quite uneasily in some sections of the US intelligentsia, where he is prominently regarded as a kind of subversive, blamed as a leading instigator of the student radicalism in the later 1960s and early ‘70s. In particular he seems to have offended conservative sensibilities via his association with the Frankfurt School, which decamped substantially to Columbia University after the rise of Hitler in Germany, and with his 1955 utopian work Eros and Civilization, in which he argued the case for sexual liberation (for gays as much as women) and for a kind of utopian sensual hedonism; sex has always been a difficult topic for conservatives to understand, let alone discuss, since even the words needed for a dialogue on sexuality are regarded as taboo by many figures on the right. Underlying the conservative hostility, however, is the misunderstood post-Marxist critique that was Marcuse’s life-long project.
I don’t have much time for the idea that in appropriating some of Marcuse’s ideas I must be beholden to him wholesale. I certainly don’t regard his utopian ideal of a hedonistic society, watched over by a meritocracy (presumably self-appointed), as anything more than another recipe for totalitarian disaster. That said, he did have some useful insights, particularly those explained in the 1964 thesis, One Dimensional Man. In this book he argued that contemporary social formation was dominated by the bureaucratic, administrative processes of institutions and organisations, like universities, state bureaucracies, and corporations. These influences work both to normalise the logics of having such structures in the first place, and not to radically alter them, but also to impose a deadening surrender to their hierarchies and internal bureaucratic processes.
In addition, he argued that a ‘false’ consciousness was being created and perpetuated in people’s minds by the influences promoting consumerism, leading people to confuse their identities with qualities derived from the products they buy (such as car as penis extension, or house as status symbol). In acquiring and pursuing this false consciousness, people lose the power of ‘negative thought’, which is closely aligned to my conception of critical analysis, but also to Derrida’s deconstruction in that it works only by disassembling into the component elements any argument or message in order to recognise how it functions, and, most importantly, for what purpose. Who is served by any argument or proposition?
There are some hints of this in The West Wing, season one, episode four, ‘Five Votes Down’, about Leo’s belated anniversary dinner, in which expensive trappings are supposed to substitute for emotions because this is how appreciation is shown in corporate America. The same episode features a sub-plot in which the material value of each staffer is seen as an indication of their potential corruption, because this is seen as an inevitable consequence of acting according to corporate rules in America. A corollary is that the audience is expected to regard corruption as normal rather than shocking or out of place! However, the Marcuse theory is more useful to me in examining myself as part of an audience constructed by the narrative: who am I in the conceptions of the network, the producers, and Sorkin? An educated ‘liberal’ (I presume Republicans weren’t big fans of the show), of relatively affluent habits, including a mid to executive level desk job, accustomed to bureaucratic hierarchy and its logics, which underpin much of the West Wing episodes, but also troubled by conscience, and yearning to be able to delegate that conscience to people like the characters in the fiction, seeking a false sense of security in the delusion they will soothe my guilts with idealism and righteous policy interventions when and where they are needed to uphold justice, fairness, and the American way.
That I am not an American at all is never considered by the fiction, and since American TV is such a major export around the world, it explains a lot about claims from some critics on the left about cultural imperialism – the normalisation of American practices and conventions in societies where they do not fit, or are resented as corrosive and alien.
In that false consciousness, I am expected to be oblivious to really conspicuous absences – things I know to exist as a direct consequence of political policies that are simply not shown – like crack dealers, or two dollar ‘hoes’ (the only prostitute in the show is significantly upmarket). There are no homeless people except in season one, episode 10, and even there only as non-threatening idiots resigned to their sub-human status. There is no corporate exploitation, let alone endemic corporate crime, no police brutality, no violent racist or sexist atrocities (except outside the USA), no struggling poor people, and so on. A whole tranche of reality is eliminated from the fiction, and with it, from my political consciousness, and conscience, as an audience member.
Rounding off the rogue’s gallery is Jürgen Habermas (1929-), an initial critic and then close friend of Derrida. Habermas is a still-living German intellectual giant with a diverse output, but of interest to me, in terms of critique, are a number of almost-asides he made, the first being that everything should be, and is, open to critique, closely allied in my mind with a pluralism that admits all intellectual disciplines into the sphere of any critique – so, any critique may borrow from the separate, sometimes artificially segregated academic disciplines of history, art, anthropology, the sciences, linguistics, politics, and anything else that seems appropriate. Pluralism also admits that in all circumstances there may be a variety of conclusions, or options for improvements, that appear to be mutually exclusive, but are not rendered invalid because of it. In other words, there are no right or wrong answers, only a range of options from which to choose, and there is no rule that says choosing one means negating another, or that elements of more than one option cannot be chosen simultaneously, even if that seems to be denied by our cultural habit of reducing our debates to binary oppositions. The binary oppositions transposed from math and physics to social and political concerns invariably become facile reductionism in its purest form.
In some senses Habermas punctuates a stream of thought flowing from Saussure to Barthes to Derrida, which implies the creation of meaning to be transcendental, in that different intentions and meanings exist in message creators and interpreters, and across time. Even among interpreters there is often no common ground, except when it is confected by an ‘expert’ stepping in to say: ’You should interpret Shakespeare’s Coriolanus to mean this …’. In other words, Habermas appeals to me in proposing that thought is hard work, that critique is difficult, and that the cheap, easy option is to condemn ideas and options not favoured rather than looking to them for useful features. It appeals to my idea of pillaging all ideas for what I find useful rather than abandoning whole tranches of them because some features are odious, or binding myself wholesale to appealing ones despite their flaws, like people do with religions and ideology.
Coincidentally, and not particularly relevant to us here, Habermas is the first of a generation of Germans to examine the Nazi period as not taboo, and as part of German history rather than some isolated aberration. In that endeavour Habermas opens the way to an interpretation such as my own about the 30 Years’ War: it created such massive damage to Germany, and Europe more widely, that it forced on those left still standing the compromise that religious differences could not ever again be allowed to motivate political feuds within and between states.
Could it be that the Nazi period teaches us not just that the Shoah was an abomination, but that the concentration in the state of all civic life and rules is a dangerous mistake. A mistake being recreated by allowing corporations to appropriate the state for the sole purpose of corporate profitability. The number of dead in pursuit of corporate aims since WWII already far exceeds the Shoah body-count, and in terms of the almost incomprehensible dehumanisation of monetising all life.
How does Habermas enlighten us about The West Wing? Again, as with Marcuse, probably more by drawing attention to ourselves as audiences, and how we participate in fictions, rather than as a passive interpretation of the fiction in isolation from the factors that gave rise to it. Habermas’s value to me is perhaps more as a contemplation of the relations of production that make the TV show possible – the money flowing to fund the writing, technical production, actors, and dissemination of the TV broadcast. Reminding me that it is an instrument of a contemporary commercial interest before anything else, designed to create content for the sales channel that is commercial TV.
There is a curious hostility from both simple-minded semiotics scholars and their simple-minded conservative critics towards an eclectic picking and choosing of elements from diverse bodies of theory. A hostility to the refusal to commit oneself as an acolyte of this or that thinker, or to this or that specific thesis as ideology. It strikes me as the attempt to reduce the subject of criticism to a more simple, tractable quantity so that criticism and condemnation can occur and succeed without the effort of independent and creative thinking in itself. That is to say, as a means of avoiding personal judgement not vouchsafed by some monolithic and overpowering authority, and therefore open to critique in itself.
Such positions appear to me as both lazy and cowardly. They eschew the idea of personal judgement and being judged according to the rationality or merit of individual arguments. They actually do the ideological work of reducing people to one-dimensional, monetised automatons, capable of no critical analysis or creative thought about options and ‘where to from here’. This, in turn, devalues all ideas that don’t have an immediate return on investment. Critical thought, in this paradigm is seen as inefficient and wasteful failure to respond to advertising and ideological stimuli.
The discipline in applying the ideas mentioned here, and many more that are not mentioned, is not in being a faithful interpreter of someone else’s thinking, but about the nimbleness with which the ideas of others can be adapted and applied to contexts not contemplated by their original authors, or by the tranche of subsequent elaborators.
If it is not immediately clear, I should stress that attempting to apply every and all ideas touched on here to all critique every time would be an exercise in insanity, like putting on a pair of spectacles that tints all things a shade of madness. Instead, the ideas should sit in the subconscious mind like a diverse and unspecialised toolkit, ready to be used only if and when a specific job appears to call for a specific tool. For example, I doubt that I could get very far with Freud’s Oedipus theory in evaluating the dynamic between Dolores Landingham and, say, Charlie. I might come up with an entertaining thesis, but it might not add much to my appreciation of the show overall. However, the Oedipus theory applied to Sam’s dalliance with Laurie seems very rich territory for speculating on not only his character, but Rob Lowe’s personal reputation. So, horses for courses, as the vernacular idiom has it.
Critique meant for newspapers or periodicals generally aim at informing particular demographics about the worthiness of a book or TV show to invest the money and time to read or watch. For us, here, and for me more generally, the purpose has always been to illuminate an aspect not commonly focused on in examining film or literature. That is, it is an almost confessional process whereby I narrate my reactions as the object of the prose, and cast my imaginary audience as people who have probably not interpreted the ‘text’ the same way as I have. A motive in doing that is to inform, but more importantly to spark debate. Any kind of reaction other than mute or merely mumbling acceptance of received wisdom. To be mute is just consumption without consequence, and without value, except for the value represented by the metaphorically discarded cheeseburger wrapper.
Underlying my motives is another, much more selfish one. I like to write. That’s not possible without writing, which is a skill that needs to be used every day lest it rust like an unloved garden spade.
To make this chain of motivations and purposes work, the writing has to command some kind of attention, and to do that, it must be sophisticated enough to deal in internationally recognised tropes, ideas, catchphrases, and narrative structures. This consideration, on top of all the others mentioned, is the most important reason for knowing of thinkers, and being able to use their ideas. That applies in politics, business, and art as much as in cultural critique. It is a ‘universalisation’ of my own ideas into language that has at least the claim of being transnational. It is a means of talking about things that strike me as important without trivialising them by reference solely to my own solitary experiences. It is a way to transcend parochial concerns by associating them with universal themes, and to make meaningful apparently dense and opaque topics by comparison and contrast with an established body of mythology, fiction, and scholarship.
What you do with these words is another matter. Maybe you will write about it.