The New Servility

It should surely by now be recognized that the 2006 movie The Devil Wears Prada marked a crucial moment in American bourgeois self-critique. The casting of Meryl Streep as a Bad Career Woman, and Anne Hathaway as an ingenue, is not in itself particularly groundbreaking. (More interesting is the movie’s announcement of the skinny jeans trend.) What I find unsettlingly prescient about the film is its celebration of the perverse role of the “Assistant,” with its acknowledgement that most work involves necessary humiliation and submission to the will of a superior. On the one hand, the “Assistant” fits the movie’s Bildungsroman plot, with its assumption that a period of youthful apprenticeship is a stadial approach to the Guild of Adult Power. But on the other hand the movie suggests that being an “Assistant” is no mere phase. Everyone who works at Miranda Priestley’s fashion magazine is engaged to some degree in the courtiership of flattering and cultivating power. In short, the movie invites us to identify, at least half the time and only quasi-unwillingly, with the glamour of servitude.

The Devil Wears Prada feels to me like an archetypal movie from the mid-aughts: aware that it’s in a bubble economy, aware that celebrity is fleeting and shallow, and yet trapped in a world where these cultural ephemera have real power. Since the financial crash in 2008, things have gotten a bit darker. In 2011, the Occupy movement popularized the growing divide between “the 1%” and “the 99%,”—a statistic that probably helped Obama win a second term. If you combine that class-consciousness with the ongoing fads of reality TV, celebrity worship, and the ITV/PBS hit “Downton Abbey,” you get “Another Period,” Comedy Central’s wicked depiction of rich and famous parvenus of Newport, Rhode Island in the Gilded Age.

Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) - The Walking Dead - Season 4 _ Gallery - Photo Credit: Frank Ockenfels 3/AMCI think two main things are being skewered by this hilarious show. First of all, it makes fun of reality TV (the pampered heiresses talk to the camera like Real Housewives or Kardashians) as well as “Downton Abbey,” with its uncritical delight in fabulous hats and gowns. Second, and a bit more interestingly, it foregrounds how distressing it is to see American servants be so grovellingly servile. The lingering postfeudal Tory romance of “Downton Abbey,” with its loyal servants and paternal aristocrats, is not a new genre in 20th century British culture (see large parts of the work of  Evelyn Waugh, P.G. Wodehouse, or Vita Sackville-West). But in America, servitude is not supposed to be permanent, much less enjoyable. The servants of “Another Period” collude openly in their own humiliation, inviting their superiors to treat them as monsters and quasi-humans, which they constantly and unthinkingly do. Only Christina Hendricks(!!!)’s character, a maid brutally nicknamed “Chair,” occasionally shows a flash of violent but impotent rebellion. Of course, humiliation is funny, and the heiress daughters (played by the show’s creators Natasha Leggero and Riki Lindhome) are creatively vicious, and the supporting cast of comedy all-stars are peerless in their masochism. I particularly enjoyed watching Gandhi and Trotsky get into a fistfight at Mark Twain’s charity luncheon.

It's complicated

It’s complicated

One of the new things about this bitter depiction of American servility to the wealthy, of course, is that it’s white people who are suffering. Both “Another Period” and “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” (in which Kimmy gets a terrible job as a nanny for an infantile trophy wife) emphasize the pains of servility by focusing on white servitude, rather than black servants (or, um, slaves). But these new comedies strip the narrative of inequality of any pretense of upward mobility or moral uplift. The equivalent of the aristocratic paternalism of “Downton Abbey” can probably be found in saccharine tales like Driving Miss Daisy, in which rich whites and poor blacks touchingly learn to get along. But “Kimmy” and “Another Period” convey absolutely no illusions that the people at the top deserve to be there, or that the people at the bottom are learning anything. It’s a sad world in which the dream of meritocracy doesn’t even work for white people.

Transporting the feudal class hierarchy to America, and gleefully exaggerating the distance between the classes—that’s all okay, of course, because we know the past was a time of inequality and shame. But on another level, “Another Period” is much cannier about collapsing the distance between the Gilded Age and the present than “Downton Abbey.” The reality-TV-style editing is a constant reminder that we, too, are fascinated by preening half-celebrities. I don’t really know what to do with this pop culture connection between celebrity worship and deeper social inequality, which may be the new way we work through the arbitrary nature of privilege. The social subjection of “Another Period” is conspicuously feminized and whimsical—as it is in “Kimmy Schmidt,” in which after escaping from 15 years in a bunker, Kimmy must undergo a new subjection to a tyrannical rich lady played by Jane Krakowski. We know that it’s crazy that the 1% have so much power; is depicting that power as feminized the way we acknowledge that it’s wrong?*

What even is this

What even is this

Stop now if you don’t want to read about how this new servility connects to (what I hope is the brief summer political career of) Donald Trump. Jodi Dean has written incisively of Trump’s appeal as a figure of naked plutocracy, freed by his wealth from the dreary necessity of being polite. Dean suggests that Trump’s infantile glory represents a kind of jouissance, a pleasure derived completely from the id. In the Trump campaign, rational political choice collapses into celebrity worship and what I find the very bizarre desire to celebrate the free and wealthy billionaire, completely apart from whether this serves the voter’s own self-interest. My examples of the new servility have so far been drawn from pop culture that only indirectly connects the humbling experience of social inequality to the supposedly rational contract-driven realm of the (masculine) capitalist workplace. But I detected some interesting responses to the New York Times’s recent article exposing the abusive work environment at while many subsequent commenters deplored the pointless degradations of the workplace, others suggested that the workers should be grateful to Amazon for hiring them. No price is too high to pay for this opportunity! Working an 80-hour day for a tech startup (or a tech giant) is not supposed to feel the same as being a personal assistant to a bitchy celebrity, but it’s hard to deny that they both participate in a kind of cult of servitude.


This horse will not save you

This post feels like it’s building up to a big defiant American finale, a call to declare your independence by going back to the land in a Jeep Wrangler. But romanticizing the ideals of pioneer masculinity as a response to fears of decadent social inequality is definitely an escapist cop-out. Sadly, undoing the glamour of plutocratic inequality is probably going to be tedious, uninteresting work.

* The link between femininity and bad economic excess goes back a long way of course: see Laura Brown’s analysis of the ideology of femininity and 18th-century imperial trade in Ends of Empire (1993) and Rachel Bowlby’s survey of women and consumer culture in 19th-century naturalism in Just Looking (1985). I would tentatively suggest that there is something new about using the feeling of servitude to a capricious rich woman as an allegory for plutocracy.

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Toward an Epicurean Scholarly Practice

To be a scholar is to accept certain ascetic practices—this is an economic constraint as well as a voluntary and cultic self-discipline. The economic constraint comes via several forms of artificial scarcity: the shrinking public investment in education, the insistence that more educational transactions be accomplished with less money, the dogma that human experience be subsidized with maximum “efficiency.” The scholar is a heretic who must be punished—he renounces the principle of short-term gain, for either himself or for his bosses—she embodies all the vices (self-indulgence) but none of the virtues (profit) of the luxury product. Like Oliver Twist, she dares to ask for more (more knowledge!) than is decreed sufficient for her vocational needs. Hence no amount of scholarly poverty is really shocking to public opinion.

You want more than your allotted vocational training??

You want more than your allotted vocational training??

There are several strategies for coping with the terrible guilt of wanting to be a scholar within the all-encompassing atmosphere of puritan American anti-intellectualism. Each strategy carries with it its corollary of perverse pleasures, and is guiltily modeled on the habitus of the business world against which we ambivalently posit ourselves. Maniacal productivism is a relatively pro-social strategy, and one to which the structures of professional advancement offer no resistance. The joy of over-caffeination and the soft egotistical glow of feeling busy: how central is this pleasure to every domain of American life! I’m afraid another strategy is political anger, of either the idealistic or the cynical variety. This praxis is always justified, given the large amount of injustice out there, and may even occasionally be helpful—but the risk of exhaustion is real, and it’s just a sad way to be all the time. Obsession-compulsion is another effective scholarly engine: you get to be a geek, you get to be the best in your field, and you get to rev up your motors to the neurotic pitch that proves your utility. If you have no obsession yet, one will be provided for you.

Here is my guilt: I am not really a puritan. It’s only an avid curiosity that’s kept me in the game thus far. So I had mixed feelings about this fascinating conversation between two lovely scholars about veganism (see pages 18-23). In fact it made me sort of panic and want to eat a donut. Yet I think my deeply symptomatic panic is not just food-based (I love meat as well as donuts), but also about the Sisyphean self-discipline of academic work.  When Berlant asked Stein, “What relation do you see between your scholarly pleasures and disciplines, on the one hand, and your incessant appetitive consciousness, on the other?” I got a little sad because the answer was so clear. Choosing veganism is to choose constraint amidst plenty—or maybe to choose constraint as if there were plenty—and so it does not conflict with academia’s already (I would argue) excessive commitment to ascetic ideals.*

Keep writing until you get the donut. Then accept that there is no donut.

Keep writing until you get the donut. Then accept that there is no donut.

How difficult it is, under current conditions, to imagine an alternative scholarly praxis based on Epicureanism. Epicurus was a materialist philosopher of the 4th century BC who called his school “The Garden” and valued friendship and pleasure above all. He got a bad name for vicious overindulgence, whoring and feasting—as Stephen Greenblatt tells it in The Swerve, the Christian fathers saw his philosophy as a “noxious threat” (101)—but in fact he believed that only moderate pleasures were truly reliable in the long run. (Indeed, Seneca reported that Epicurus would offer gruel and water to guests, since peace of mind is the truest pleasure.) He feasted with his friends, he sought to minimize pain, and the memory of these pleasures allowed him to contemplate death cheerfully. As Americans, the idea of moderation is naturally abhorrent to us—it feels as if your potential for true excess, for pushing boundaries, is being left untapped. (The tradition of Epicurus as a discriminating gourmet—that we’re OK with.) Can you imagine the punitive rage that would be evoked, among all classes of society, by the spectacle of scholars failing to be miserable? But the path we tread now, though it seems safe, is also precarious—we invite burn-out and reinforce the solitude of egotism, losing our ability to care for ourselves and others.

Epicureanism gardenI don’t know if I’m ready for full Epicureanism. Withdrawing from political battles, as Epicurus was accused of doing, seems both short-sighted and difficult. Politics can also be a pleasure, as some other Greek probably said. But friendship, self-care, lack of fear, moderation, generosity—without these as possibilities, however utopian, our scholarly praxis risks being merely a reaction to inherited structures of artificial scarcity. Vegans are also welcome at the feast.

*I felt I had to let Jordan Stein respond to my skepticism about the whole vegan lifestyle thing. He ripostes “My hesitation is that you characterize veganism as an asceticism, a doing-without. And that’s not really what it is, but more germanely, not at all how Lauren or I describe it. I for one am a great fan of donuts!” 

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Should comedy be a religion?

Let’s try a thought experiment. What if comedy were a religion?

Instantly theology would get a lot simpler. No need to defend the lifestyles of ancient desert-dwelling zealots, no need to imagine an afterlife or complicated cycles of rebirth, no need to evangelize with the sword when you could simply try to make your audience laugh. For a postmodern subject this idea is super-appealing. To take a potentially serious and tragic question like the meaning of human experience, and treat it lightly or irreverently: isn’t this something we already do well? Our playful and silly works of art are already among our most valued: we defend The Interview against malicious hackers, and the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo against murderous terror. Aren’t the terrorists themselves guilty of blasphemy?

Key and Peele: church ladies fighting Satan

Key and Peele: church ladies fighting Satan

The spiritual benefits of Comedyism seem as appealing as the political. Laughter cuts through every spiritual chain—depression, anxiety, isolation, fear. It feels free when you can laugh about something rather than being crushed by it. Laughter can build a community, a communion of the suddenly-surprised. It lights up the brain; it reverses the chain of command; it gives you sympathy with the outsider. Comedy works best when the oppressed mock their oppressors, when fixed gender roles are reversed, when lovers are reunited and the fool becomes a king. Everything wrong is made right for an hour, here in the green world of Arcadia.

But maybe it’s too hasty to imagine that a religion of Comedy would be politically progressive, precisely suited to modern tastes. Satire can make fun of entrenched hierarchies, but it’s just as easily turned to making fun of stupid weirdos who offend against some standard of taste, or mocking anybody with a new idea. And the cruelty! Maybe we are cheating death when we laugh at cruelty, folly, and humiliation—or maybe we just like dumping on losers. Thank Comedy those people aren’t us! There but for the grace of Comedy! And ugh, the gross parts—the shit and the mud and the fart jokes. Lower than that, even—mockery of celebrities, the cheapest laugh.

Saint Mindy, Patroness of Timing

Saint Mindy, Patroness of Timing

Comedy may be liberatory, but it’s not a democracy. There is no equality in comedy. There is a priestly caste: those who can make others laugh. It’s a spiritual gift bestowed absolutely without merit. What is more existentially unfair than being born without a sense of humor? And like other kinds of communities, the Church of Comedy is built (at least a little) around exclusion. Laughter can hurt and divide, while it binds others together—the ones in on the joke. The pain of being laughed at; the pain when no one laughs at your jokes—these are a form of social death. Those who succeed though are briefly Nietzschean supermen: the brave and amazing, for at least ten seconds.

Dearly departed Colbert Persona, pray for us!

Dearly departed Colbert Persona, intercede for us!

Comedy doesn’t get the big movie awards—it’s fleeting, it’s low, it can’t be sold abroad. It’s hard to translate across cultures, and the contemporary references that create instant community can also decay quickly, leaving the joke pointless and uncool. Telling a joke is like playing with fire: one moment you’ve created a fountain of delight, the next you did something wrong and you’re about to get ripped apart on twitter (or worse). You can spend your whole life devoted to it, but with each joke you have to start completely fresh. (“Dying is easy; comedy is hard.”) Works and grace don’t always do the trick, so maybe the theology isn’t so simple after all. Fallible, stupid, and yet joyful, comedy is a very human magic.

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We have always been inside: on Peter Sloterdijk’s “In the World Interior of Capital”

INTERIOROFCAPITALThis is the first Sloterdijk I’ve read, though I’ve always been attracted to the title of Critique of Cynical Reason because it’s got the word “cynical” in it. This volume promises a similar iconoclasm: has the critique of grand narratives, centerpiece of post-totalitarian Europe, itself “already hardened into a comfortable meta-grand narrative” (4)? His proposal really is grand: a philosophy of globalization divided into a “history” of crazy risk-taking (“disinhibition”) and Western imperial expansion from 1492-1945, and a “post-history” in which electronic simultaneity and decolonization together create a space of “inhibitions,” instant feedback, and the “obligatory contrition” (10) enforced on nation-states by international courts of law.

Anyone who likes Adorno’s aphorisms will enjoy Sloterdijk’s wordplay, and his habit of connecting seemingly random details into overarching stories: the “theory of the pirate,” the excurses on Jules Verne and Rilke, the idea that if we switch to solar power, the “romanticism of the explosion” will look in retrospect like “energy fascism” (231). It’s a delightful book, with weirdly defamiliarizing observations on every page. The book’s most vivid section is its depiction of the risk-taking world of the first European explorers, and their literally delusional belief in their own success. Mutinies (and depressive, self-critical thoughts) must be violently suppressed: “Had the Portuguese Magellan … not overruled the objections of the next men in command, marooning and executing Spanish nobles along with the other rebels, he would not have made it unmistakably clear to his people what it means to be on an unconditional outward voyage” (82). This relentless and quasi-psychotic forward orientation survives in modern business practices: “the crews on the discovery ships were the first objects of naïve and effective group modelling processes that were redescribed in the present day as ‘corporate identity’ techniques” (81).

Team-building exercise

Team-building exercise

In this stage of globalization, no one can stop the “unleashed visionary energy of the entrepreneur-charlatans. Today, as yesterday, all of these live off their productive errors … Through their auto-hypnotic talents, practical natures manage time and time again to build up empires around themselves from self-deceptions that succeed in the medium term” (83).

Sloterdijk thinks philosophy has underestimated the conflict between the land-bound and the sea-borne in Western thought: to really build your society and economy around ocean navigation, you have to make your culture portable (so explorers beneath foreign skies can still feel like natives of their country of origin), insure everything, speculate constantly, accept that “enlightenment begins at the docks” (87). The medieval universities and the landlocked countries overestimate the importance of nations, of Boden, of dwelling, and they merely look provincial. But Sloterdijk is so persuasive in his slighting of Heideggerian provincialism and his description of the psychotic-entrepreneurial mindset of globalizing Europe that I found the second half of the book, when he describes life inside the giant Crystal Palace of modernity, a little disappointing.

Global "haves"

Global “haves”: freedom, whatever

This Crystal Palace was clearly built by visionary psychotics (though fully insured!), so it’s not clear how life inside got so dull. Sloterdijk’s Crystal Palace is like the spaceship in Wall-E, with its fat entitled humans—though of course far less equitable, since so many people today live outside the world of consumer dream. (Whether the global outsiders are being exploited—whether this economic inequality is in fact necessary to consumer society—isn’t clear.) Inside the dome, modern subjects engage in various security-enhancing projects culminating in the desire to become a global celebrity. Despite the humor here, I’m not a big fan of the implication that modern society is decadent—it flattens out real political gains made in this century by (for example) women, non-European races, and alternate sexualities into mere consumer choices. Ho hum, women can vote now.

If you live in a glass house, you want to throw stones at the glass house. Glass houses are fragile and ridiculous. But what if you think you live in a city instead? Or perhaps a civilization? Maybe civilization is super-violent and unsustainable ecologically, but it’s also been, thus far, the vehicle of all human liberation. I’m looking forward to reading more Sloterdijk: the first volume of Sphären (translated as Bubbles) is already out and the other two are on their way. But is there an apocalyptic death wish in that title, with its suggestion that bubbles gotta pop? What if some of the things in consumer society create genuine pleasure (an argument debated by Mark Fisher and Jodi Dean in Reading Capitalist Realism)? Humans live in society—as Sloterdijk does point out, we cannot survive in the empty void. Maybe humans actually breathe more freely in cities, in connected groups open to the air.

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American Dreams in China: Challenges of the Transnational University

The film American Dreams in China (2013) is a Chinese film about upward mobility that will feel familiar to most Americans. It’s sort of a Horatio Alger story about getting rich, sort of a Great Gatsby tale of disillusionment with traditional forms of success, sort of like The Social Network in its glorification of entrepreneurship.

The interesting difference is that all the aspirants are mainland Chinese, and the great prize is the American university degree, guarded by stone-faced visa officers, impossible vocabulary lists, and treacherous cultural differences that force you to pretend to be open, casual, and practical. It’s fun—and only fair—to see American plots transposed west to new settings, with Americans cast in the villain/mentor roles in which American films have traditionally cast British actors. (Welcome, Benedict Cumberbatch, to a long period of remunerative employment!) The movie has been a big hitAmerican Dreams in China - poster in mainland China.

But, speaking in my incredibly limited (and yet relevant) role as an American university professor, I was disturbed by the movie’s representation of WHY you might want to study in America. The Chinese students—Cheng, Meng, and Wang—are sympathetically differentiated in their motivations. Cheng Dongqing is the son of the poor farmer whose mother went into debt to finance his education, and is tormented by a fear of failure. He never gets his visa approved—though his beautiful girlfriend does, and leaves him. Wang Yang is the sensitive poet, who has an affair with a pretty American named Lucy (who for some reason is studying in the PRC in the ’80s). He doesn’t get a visa either. Meng Xiaojun is the superior one, who gets his visa and his degree, but finds life as a luckless immigrant too hard and humiliating, and returns to China with an enormous chip on his shoulder.

Cheng was searching for the green light

Cheng was searching for the green light

When Meng returns, he finds that Cheng and Wang have teamed up to tutor a new generation of Chinese students in how to beat the TOEFL and the GRE, and win the prize (ironically) that they were denied themselves. Their tutoring company, “New Dream” (loosely based on the Beijing New Oriental and Education and Technology Group), is a phenomenal success, with increasingly large classes of laughing and excited students. The “losers” are now rich! In the movie’s climactic scene, Cheng crushes and impresses the American legal team who are suing him for what appears to be unauthorized use of TOEFL test questions. He has memorized an entire legal book on the plane, from which he can quote passages at random—in order to prove that Chinese students are just great test takers, a stereotype the movie plays with and rejects, but eventually embraces. The outcome of the legal case is unclear, but at least the Chinese businessmen have finally won respect from the unsympathetic (and generally white) bad-parent gatekeepers.

It’s a satisfying B-movie plot. Possibly it’s Chinese propaganda, as this blogger suggests—but B movies are not usually subtle, and I found this one eminently watchable.

For me, the painful part of the film was its replication of a debate currently ripping apart the American university system about its structure and ultimate ends. Is the university system merely about credentialing—is it an empty machine stamping out degrees that certify economic worthiness? Is it about getting a certificate and passing a test, after which “success” will follow? Or is it even remotely still about “something more”: popular access, democracy, citizenship, human plenitude, imagination, creativity, originality, political questioning, the independent search for knowledge and truth? You are laughing scornfully because you’ve read Bourdieu, and The University in Ruins, and you know that American universities are increasingly enchanted by a corporate model that promises short-term gains built around the intellectually-vacant concept of “excellence.” But I’m upset! I still want some of what’s in category B, the part that this movie (for reasons of nationalism and artistic compression) simplifies away. I’m not in this business to scowl & deny my students advancement.

Do NOT trust the dangerous foreigner

When wanting “something more” is just a trap

The structure of national longing depicted in the movie is that Americans have business success (as well as every other kind of success), and the Chinese understandably want a piece of that. But Americans have nationalist inferiorities of our own. Sometimes we get bored with mere business success, and historically we look eastward to Europe for some kind of art and culture we can never have. Henry James is the avatar of our own national discontent: Americans feel obscurely that we are not good enough at artistic subtlety and dark psychology, so: well, have you read Portrait of a Lady? Some of those national dreams of beating Europeans at their own game are embodied in American universities—but these Chinese students ignore the atavistic Eurocentric parts of American universities (a.k.a. the humanities) because they can’t translate those courses into success at home. Poetry (as Wang discovers) does not cross borders easily.

The movie’s Chinese students show that the emotional structure of meritocracy can be international: it leaves you with perpetual longing and self-hatred, whether you feel like an insider or (as more commonly) a parvenu, an immigrant, a racial minority, a sexual minority. There’s a kind of solution for this, and it is to come together and recognize our common needs rather than focus just on our own “success.” (It would have been nice, for instance, if Meng had some sympathy for the waitress who under-tipped him—since they are caught in common structures of blue-collar precarity—rather than simply being offended and rejoicing when he surpasses her.) But of course meritocracy is also about the desire for individual distinction, and that’s pretty much the opposite of wanting to share that hard-won respect with others. It’s easier to be generous when you’re at the top—which is why we need at least the fiction that we get our degrees in order to give something back to society. That counterweight to personal selfishness is not just good for those less fortunate; it provides an essential emotional buffer against the fears of personal inadequacy that can make meritocracy so painful.


… but my secret last name is “Loser.”

Both heartless meritocracy and idealistic scholarship can lead to disappointment and disillusionment. But they’re not completely identical: the idealism of scholarship is ultimately to advance the cause of free inquiry and truth, not just individual success. If the American university loses that idealism and turns into a mere degree-granting machine, we will lose part of our raison d’être, as William James warned. Moreover, an entirely selfish meritocracy is almost too painful to bear; you never stop feeling like a loser. American Dreams in China shows that the desire to rise is a powerful force, and its nationalism is kind of understandable, but its depiction of the motivation for success is ultimately narrow and unsatisfying.

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Lukács and the Mockingjay

How important is Katniss Everdeen, really, to the uprising in Panem? Would she count as a “world-historical figure,” according to Georg Lukács?

I don’t really know, because I haven’t read the third book in the “Hunger Games” series, Suzanne Collins’s teen-dystopia trilogy. Every hint and spoiler I’ve heard on the internet leads me to believe it will be “hard” and “violent.” Fans wonder if the violence will even be representable, though I have great faith in Hollywood’s capacity to depict fantasy violence.

Not a mere tactic

Not a mere tactic

But the second movie in the series, Catching Fire (which I will now be SPOILING MASSIVELY), plays some clever tricks with the concept of historical narrative, and with the hackneyed template of individualist Hollywood epic. Our heroine, Katniss, thinks she’s starring in one kind of story, but then finds herself starring in another. (Is genre-mashup the way we imagine revolution nowadays?) The plot of Catching Fire first seems like a tired retread of the first movie (The Hunger Games), except that this time the Games are set up specifically to neutralize Katniss, who became a symbol of forbidden hope after forcing the Gamemakers to change the rules. In the first movie, her televised mourning for fellow tribute Rue (a young African-American girl) set off a wave of public anger—though in the second movie she is mostly too cowed to rebel. Katniss is sent back into the arena as part of a “Quarter Quell,” in which the victors of previous Games are pitted against each other.

When the first movie came out in 2012, everyone found their own allegory in it. Conservatives saw a rebellion by the Real America against out-of-touch Big Government, like the Tea Party. Liberals took it as a fortuitous mirror of 2011’s Occupy Wall Street protests against the capture of democracy by Big Money. For me, the most powerful part of the story was the despair of the young people trapped by rules they didn’t make. Did this reflect the death of the American dream, since young people in “Generation Screwed” have to carry the twin burdens of debt and falling expectations? Or maybe teens just like dystopias because they dramatize the painful individuation of growing up.

Accidental symbol

This is just an accident

Catching Fire throws an interesting kink into the Katniss-as-rebel-heroine narrative. We know that Katniss only wants to survive, and her prime loyalty is to her family. In the first movie, the sacrificial moment in which Katniss volunteered as tribute to save her innocent sister Prim was heroic, but not motivated by any larger political purpose. Katniss brings the same individualist family-first ethos to this movie, but the game has changed: her whole society is now organizing around a more collective strategy. Katniss here is like Rick at the beginning of Casablanca, a lone wolf who tries to avoid getting swept up in the Resistance. She just happened to be wearing a pin with a mockingjay on it during the first Games, and so the mockingjay (a mutant bird with uncanny powers of mimicry) became the symbol for the Rebellion against Panem. Katniss is now a figure of popular identification: even President Snow’s granddaughter copies Katniss’s braids, saying that “everybody” wears their hair this way now. But she just wants to be left alone.

The weight of the past

Defeat with no honor

It’s easy to identify with a figure of vague rebellion, especially a reluctant and ambivalent one. But I felt that Catching Fire was a little more powerful than the usual celebration of “being yourself” you see in American movies. Maybe this time I felt the weight of American history a little more strongly. Didn’t we once have a revolution for real, with our 13 colonies? And didn’t we ruthlessly crush the uprising of the Confederacy, burning a track through a rebel state?  I got the chills from the hollow vision of the Victor’s Village, with its melancholy Federalist/Civil War/New-Deal era furniture. When President Snow corners Katniss in her library, it feels like he’s in a farmhouse in Appomattox.

Or maybe it’s that more than in the first movie, we’re reminded again and again how spectacle—like the one we’re watching—can be used to crush dissent. Bread and circuses! And romantic fantasy—the hope that one crazy couple can get away from it all, like at the end of Blade Runner—is just pulling the wool over your eyes. “Remember who the real enemy is!” Finnick reminds Katniss, just before they destroy the Quarter Quell arena. I gasped in the theater at that line: “the real enemy”?? You mean winning a rigged neoliberal Survivor-like game is not the best we can hope for? Blogger K-punk enthuses that because of this line, Catching Fire is a truly revolutionary work of art, coming at precisely the right moment.

You shouldn't want this to work out.

You shouldn’t want this to work out.

What’s clear is that the Hunger Games doesn’t fit simply into the Twilight template of one girl torn between the two boys she loves (though that plot is also there). Katniss exploited the popular hunger for romance to survive the first Games, and in this film it’s even clearer that the bond between Katniss and poor Peeta (who really does love her!) is the Capitol’s way of diverting attention from real political oppression. But this implies that insofar as we (the pampered spectators) root for Katniss to find love, we’re being lulled into passivity by the culture industry.

The other plot twist that feels politically powerful is the revelation at the end that Katniss (like us) has been in the dark about the whole Quarter Quell. The other victors had already banded together to concoct a plan to destroy the Games as a signal to the Rebellion, but left her out of it—ostensibly because she’s being watched by Snow, but really because she’s too much of a loner. Unlike Rick in Casablanca, Katniss has not yet figured out that there’s a war on, and that she is in it. She’s only an accidental heroine, just as the mockingjay is an accidental symbol. We completely misread her role: she is not in fact (or not yet) the heroine of an epic.

Jeanie Deans's quest to save her sister

Jeanie Deans’s quest to save her sister

Georg Lukács suggested in The Historical Novel* that the best kinds of historical novel—like the ones by Romantic novelist Walter Scott—don’t focus on the great historical actors. They focus on mediocre, marginal figures like the English squire Waverley in Waverley (1814) or the Scottish lass Jeanie Deans in The Heart of Midlothian (1818), who are caught up in larger events. They are forced to reveal their heroism—a heroism latent in all humans—because of the stress of their revolutionary times. But their heroism is intensely context-specific: “Having successfully carried through her aim, Jeanie Deans returns to everyday life, and never again does she experience a similar upsurge in her life to betray the presence of such strengths” (52). The epic, by contrast, focuses on the hero—the king or the warrior—who embodies and maybe transcends historical change. Only in epic is the famous person also the main character of the narrative: “The all-national character of the principal theme of epic … require[s] that the most important person should occupy the central position, while in the historical novel he is necessarily only a minor character” (45). For Lukács, the value of Scott’s novels is to show how history is moved forward unknowingly by large masses of people and not just one or two great men. They’re progressive and implicitly democratic stories, he argues—even if the hero isn’t the one celebrated by history.

So is Katniss the agent of change, or is she just a humble girl (with fantastic archery skills) swept up in a bigger story? Evidence—in this second movie at least—points to the latter. The movie’s last scene, though, depicts Katniss’s face moving from trauma and confusion to anger and resolve, hinting that she’ll take a more active role in events from now on. So probably the third movie will revert to Hollywood archetype and depict a protagonist in more control of her own destiny. If it does, I will feel satisfied—like a Capitol citizen rooting for her favorite—and that will be a little disappointing.

* Georg Lukács, The Historical Novel (Boston: Beacon P, 1963)
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Coppola’s Girls, Coppola’s America: Guilty/Not Guilty

It’s hard to watch Sofia Coppola’s 2013 The Bling Ring, which came out on DVD about a month ago, without feeling like you’re at the end of a chain (no, I didn’t say human chain) of recycled celebrity worship. The film tells the story of a group of vapid and glamour-obsessed teens in LA who figure out just how easy it is to break into celebrities’ houses and abscond with their blingiest objects: their antique Rolexes, their Alexander McQueen sunglasses, their Louboutin heels. Rather than covering their tracks, they post appalling selfies on social media, displaying both their intimacy with the celebrities and their rool-breaking teen fearlessness. When they’re caught, they act with a maddening sense of clueless entitlement, asking if they can just give all the stuff back. The teens then become mini-celebs themselves, fawned upon by local media because of their famous victims.

You won't be needing those flip-flops any more

You won’t be needing those flip-flops any more

The kids are mostly horrible. Emma Watson’s character is especially vile, pouting “I want to rob!” in one scene and then, when she’s caught, excusing herself: “I think this situation is a huge learning lesson for me.” But the movie gives you no easy position of moral judgment, because it of course replicates the very glamour it criticizes, down to the list of luxury brands thanked in the credits. The movie’s pleasures are the same as the teens’: the supernatural ease of breaking into beautiful homes (it seems no harder than clicking on a link), the pleasure of the stolen glitter and silk, and the fact that they get away with it for so long despite their obvious stupidity. The LA night is soft with marine haze, and celebrity houses in the Hollywood Hills are lit up like transparent gems. Moreover, the real “Bling Ring” teens, fictionalized with different names in the movie, were in some cases let off with probation because (as I learned from the DVD extras) the case’s LAPD detective served as a consultant on Coppola’s film. Simply by watching this movie, you’ve helped pervert justice.

And yet, of course, you can’t really blame kids for growing up in a fantasy-addled society with no sense of moral accountability, a.k.a. America. The movie is clearly a satire, perhaps no better than we deserve, of a society where unfair amounts of riches are lying around for the taking. The kids get off with minimal jail sentences, yet they’re longer (must I say it?) than those served by any of the bankers who caused the 2008 financial crash. Parts of the satire are quite delightful, especially the scenes in which a mother, played by Leslie Mann, attempts to home-school her coke-snorting daughters according to a religion based around the greedy magical thinking of The Secret. The movie’s emotional core, such as it is, is pity for the group’s lone male (Israel Broussard), who yearns for human connection. When he gets adopted by a clique of bad-news party girls, he’s never been happier in his life.

Too young, too beautiful

Too young, too beautiful

Sofia Coppola’s movies about luxury, and the luxurious moods of regret and anomie, are sometimes dismissed—altogether wrongly—as self-indulgent, when in fact they crackle with timely self-awareness. Her 2006 Marie Antoinette is one of the loveliest and most knowing 9/11 allegories of the oughts: for how could you blame the sad pleasure-seeking Queen for the injustice of the ancien régime? She’s guilty—of having enjoyed herself—and yet she’s not guilty, since she was merely the most visible symbol of a whole system of inequality. When America was attacked, we were similarly shocked, and felt like, and were, innocent victims; and yet were we not also guilty of eating cake while others starved? We both were, and were not, guilty of those crimes. The fun-loving Marie Antoinette is punished excessively, and yet she was raised to do exactly what she did, and so had really no way out.

Maybe the bill will never come

Maybe the bill will never come

Casting a naïve young person as an allegory for American decadence is an ambiguous gesture that gets to the heart of what it feels like to live with consumerist blindness, and how we exonerate ourselves from amorphous feelings of guilt. I have mixed feelings about this: I think that in pop culture terms, most of the last decade has been about trying to ignore the consequences of American mistakes at home and abroad by either retreating to a childlike world of wonder, or pretending life is an endless dance party. You can’t charge children for the bills rung up by their parents, can you? Morally you can’t, and yet economically apparently you can. The adults got away without paying, so maybe if young people don’t think about it, and distract themselves with partying, the stolen goods under the bed will just magically go away.

Chartreuse means never having to say you're sorry

Chartreuse means never having to say you’re sorry

The color schemes of Coppola’s movies have charted the evolving moods of baffled, quasi-blameless American overprivilege. Lost in Translation (2003) was rootless, pale, bleached by anxiety; Marie Antoinette was full of delicious pastels and false hope. The Bling Ring goes for neon: the opening credits are chartreuse, and the shiny rolling suitcase that Rebecca steals from Lindsay Lohan and wheels off into the sunset is hot pink. Neon is no longer anxious: it’s shameless, it’s fearless, YOLO. It’s the death of alternative culture, in which youth adopts a pose of alienation from the market: these kids are happy conformists. They’re criminals, and they know it, and they sort of get away with it.

The moral framework of self-loathing in The Bling Ring is both inadequate to the nature of the problem, and a step in a new direction. While the death of Marie Antoinette is tragic, these kids are just corrupt, and the corruption of their culture is not enough of an excuse.  Should they have to pay? Will we have to pay?

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