The triumph of conservatism made itself particularly felt in the fantasy genre, in large part because the sorts of representational dynamics afforded by fantasy were peculiarly well suited to the psychological principles of the new conservatism. Nevertheless, fantasy was not an entirely uncontested terrain at this time. In such major fantasy genres of the period as technophobic films and dystopias, a struggle between right-wing and left-wing uses of the fantasy mode is evident. And the major fantasist of the period—Steven Spielberg—consistently promotes liberal ideals through his films. If conservative filmmakers used the motifs of technology and dystopia to project terrifying images of collectivization and modernity, liberals and radicals used them to launch covert attacks against the conservative ideals of capitalism and patriarchy. The flight into the future in many fantasy films is often a flight into the past, toward a world of more traditional values. But it is also often a flight toward more radical alternatives than the constraints of “realism” (both as an aesthetic principle and as a principle of social control) allow to be elaborated. Detachment from the constraints of realism allows fantasy to be more metaphoric in quality and consequently more potentially ideological. Fantasy replaces an accurate assessment of the world with images that substitute desired ideals or feared projections for such an assessment. But such detachment from realist reference also permits the development of alternative constructions of social reality which might otherwise be smothered under hardnosed conservative realist injunction against being “utopian.” If fantasy is given to metaphor, it is also an open terrain which permits the deployment of more metonymic rhetorical forms. Indeed, it is in the future-fantasy genre that one finds some of the most radical critiques of American society during this period.
Moreover, the fantasy mode became a locus for projected idealizations of empathetic social relations of the sort more and more unavailable in a public sphere increasingly dominated by conservative principles of survivalism. The fantasy genre is especially revealing in this regard, since, as a result of the conservative occupation of the public sphere, the society’s dominant institutions less and less satisfied people’s sense of idealization, their sense of being “good.” Meanness and venality are not particularly cherishable traits. The rise of economic realism (the triumph of criteria of efficiency over criteria of welfare) in the public sphere in the eighties put a burden on the private sphere (the family particularly) as a locus of idealization. It should not be surprising, then, that Steven Spielberg’s family fantasy films became tremendously popular during this era. Displaced from the public sphere, liberal ideals of empathy, tolerance, and care tended to retreat to the private sphere.
This shift is telling because it indicates that the new conservatism was not entirely in sync with what most Americans believed. Even if the Republicans succeeded in playing to resentment against taxation, welfare, and affirmative action hiring in order to enlist support for a procapitalist economic program, by the mid-eighties most Americans were expressing distrust of the Republican economic agenda. The majority correctly saw it as unfair. Moreover, Republicans were incapable of attaining hegemony in the social sphere of the sort they held in the political and economic spheres. Thus, as much as liberalism, conservatism found itself in a dilemma during this time. It could seize political power on the basis of economic doctrine, but it could not transform American culture in a way suitable to its social ideals. What one could call an American quandary developed in the eighties. In the face of entrenched social liberalism, conservatives could not impose their values on the private domain, but liberals faced with entrenched conservative power in business were powerless to reform the economy and to make it more humane.
Fantasy films concerning fears of machines or of technology usually negatively affirm such social values as freedom, individualism, and the family. In the seventies technology was frequently a metaphor for everything that threatened “natural” social arrangements, and the conservative values associated with nature which we examined in the last chapter were generally mobilized as antidotes to that threat. But technophobic films were also the site where the metaphor of nature which sustains those values was most saliently deconstructed. From a conservative perspective technology represents artifice as opposed to nature, the mechanical as opposed to the spontaneous, the regulated as opposed to the free, an equalizer as opposed to a promoter of individual distinction, equality triumphant as opposed to liberty, democratic leveling as opposed to hierarchy derived from individual superiority. Most important for the conservative individualist critique, it represents modernity, the triumph of radical change over traditional social institutions. Those institutions are legitimated by being endowed with the aura of nature, and technology represents the possibility that nature might be reconstructable, not the bedrock of unchanging authority conservative discourse requires. Indeed, as the figure for artificial construction, technology represents the possibility that such discursive figures as “nature” (and the ideal of free immediacy it connotes) might merely be constructs, artificial devices, metaphors designed to legitimate inequality by positing a false ground of authority for unjust social institutions.
The significance of technology thus exceeds simple questions of mechanics. It is usually a crucial ideological figure. Indeed, as the possibility of reconstructing institutions conservatives declare to be part of nature, technology represents everything that threatens the grounding of conservative social authority and everything that ideology is designed to neutralize. It should not be surprising, then, that this era should witness the development of a strain of films that portray technology negatively, usually from a conservative perspective.
The technophobic theme is most visible in the early seventies in Lucas’s THX 1138 (1970), a quest narrative set in a cybernetic society where all of life is regulated by the state. Individuals are forced to take drugs to regulate sexual desires; thoughts and individual action are monitored by electronic surveillance devices. A sense of mass, collectivist conformity is connoted by shaved heads, the assigning of numbers instead of names, and starkly lit white environments. The lack of differentiation between individuals is suggested by the limitless quality of space; everything lacks boundaries, from the self to the city. The libertarian basis of the film’s value system cuts both ways politically—liberally, in that recorded messages allude to the McCarthyite repression of dissidents, and conservatively, in that they also refer negatively to socialism (“Blessings of the State, blessings of the masses. We are created in the image of the masses, by the masses, for the masses”). Against undifferentiated totalitarianism, the film valorizes the differentiated individual. THX flees the cybernetic society, and the last image depicts his emergence into freedom and nature. His liberation is associated with a bright orange sun that strikingly isolates him as he emerges. The bright sun is a metaphor for individual freedom, for the departure from a world of contrivance and artifice into nature. The sun literally singularizes THX by giving him a distinguishing boundary. He is no longer one of the intersubstitutable mass. In addition, the sense the image imparts is of something literal, the thing itself, nature in its pure presence. Indeed, nature is supposed to be just that, something outside contrivance, artifice, technology, and the sort of substitution which rhetorical figures (the very opposite of what is literal) usually connote. The grounding of the ideology of liberty in nature is tantamount to grounding it in literality, since literality implies things as they are, unadulterated by the sort of artificial intersubstitution of people which prevails in the egalitarian city. Visual style connotes political attitudes, and given a choice between the deep white frieze of equality and the warm orange glow of liberty, one suspects what people are likely to choose.
The rhetorical strategy of many technophobic films, therefore, is to establish a strong opposition between terms (liberty vs. equality) that does not permit any intermediation. The elimination of the middle ground is an essential operation of this ideology. A major mid-seventies film that executes this strategy is Logan’s Run (1976), in which a policeman named Logan is induced into fleeing a cybernetic city by a young female rebel against the city’s totalitarian regime. The representation of the city evokes all the negative traits in the conservative vision assigned to the figure of technology—the destruction of the family, the interchangeability of sexual partners so that feeling is destroyed by rationality, enforced mass conformity that places the collective before the individual and effaces individual differences in an egalitarian leveling, the power of state control over the freedom to choose, and so on. The city is a mid-seventies liberal pleasure dome where one can summon sexual partners at the touch of a button or periodically receive a new identity. Population size is regulated, and no one has parents. This lack of self-identity is associated with hedonism and collectivity. Logan and the woman rebel get caught up in an orgy at one point, and the colors suggest hell. When the two are separated (divorced, one might say, to emphasize the ideological motif), they almost lose their identities in the teeming crowd. In such a sexually permissive, hedonistic world, clearly no social hierarchy or subjective boundary can be established or maintained. Collectivity is thus associated with a loss of self-identity and a lack of sexual discipline that breaks family bonds.
One of the first things that Logan says upon emerging into nature is, “We’re free.” In nature one knows who one’s mother and father are, whereas in the city of collectivism and sexual hedonism no one knows his/her parents. Thus one can only be an individual, a self, within a society of monogamous marriage, in which sexuality primarily serves the “natural” function of reproduction rather than pleasure. In the film’s conservative ideology, the restoration of the traditional family, the preservation of individualism, and the curtailing of nonreproductive sexuality seem to be interdependent, and they all depend on the rejection of everything technology represents—mediation, equality, intersubstitutability, and so on. In this vision one catches a glimpse of the actual ingredients of the emerging conservative movement whose values the film transcodes.
Outside the technological city, the rebels discover nature as well as supposedly natural social institutions like patriarchy and political republicanism. The woman ceases to be an equal of the man, a structure of equivalence generated in the city by representations, primarily wide-angle long shots of crowds, that place everyone on the same plane in the same frame and imply their equality. In nature, she assumes a subordinate position, both socially and within the camera frame as they sit by a crude campfire. Close-ups connote an unmediated spontaneity of “natural” feeling, a literality of social structure uncontaminated by liberal revision. This is the real thing once again, not a technical substitute or an artificial contrivance. One senses why empiricism is often the best recourse of ideology. At the level of empirical literality, equivalences cannot be established of the sort that thrive in the technological city, where the possibility of infinite copies annuls individual differences. At the level of social literality, everything is radically individuated, incapable of comparison. Appropriately, then, Logan kills his police partner, who has followed the rebels out of the city. He is a double or copy who is Logan’s functional equal, and his death individuates Logan. He renounces his identity as a cybernetic functionary precisely because his intersubstitutability means he has no identity as such. The death occurs at the moment in the narrative when the rebels have come to Washington and rediscovered the United States’s republican political system. With it, they rediscover the predominance of liberty over equality, the individual over the collective.
The peculiar twist of this ideal of liberty, therefore, is that it is a social theory that rejects the social (being other than oneself, mediated by social relation, a copy or technological robot). The choice of nature, as an alternative to technological collectivity, is thus appropriate, since nature is what is entirely nonsocial. What conservatives ultimately want is a ground of authority that will make inequalities that are in fact socially constructed seem natural. This is tantamount to saying that such instituted inequalities must seem to embody the literal truth of nature, things as they are and should always be. For this reason, the strategy of ontologizing, of making technology and technological constructs seem as if they possess a being or essence in themselves, independent of context and use, is crucial to the conservative ideological undertaking. Technology must seem to be intrinsically evil, and this is so if the natural alternatives to technological society—the family and the individual especially—are to seem inherently good, ontologically grounded in themselves and not subject to figural comparison or connection to something outside them that might possibly serve as a substitute or equivalent. What is literal cannot be transported, as in metaphor, out of itself and made to stand for something else. Thus, technology represents a threat not only to self-presence in the sense of individual freedom in the conservative frame, but also to presence as the criterion of the ontological ground, the nature and the literality that anchor conservative social institutions.
A deconstructive analysis would point out that what is posited in this ideology as an ontological and literal cause that gives rise to social institutions—as well as to derivative, secondary, and unauthorized deviations of the original intent of nature through technological simulation and figural substitutions—is in fact an effect of those very things. The nature of ideology is the product of technology; literality is an effect of rhetoric. One notices this at those moments when nature and the literal are shown forth in films like THX and Logan. Nature takes on meaning as such within the films only as the other of urban technology. Its immediacy is mediated by that against which it is posed, just as the individual is necessarily mediated by society. Moreover, the supposed literal ground of social institutions is the effect of the metaphoric comparison of those institutions to nature. In order to call them natural, one has to engage in precisely the sort of metaphoric or figural comparison, the sort of rhetorical “technology” that is supposedly excluded by that ascription. It is a case of innocence by association, and as a result, those institutions are guilty of being something they must claim not to be, that is, rhetorical constructs, mere technology. Thus a deconstructive reading points out the extent to which representation plays a constitutive role in the making of social institutions, because the metaphors and representations that construct the ideal images of such institutions are also models for social action.
The ideological character of the conservative technophobia films stands in greater relief when they are compared to more liberal or radical films that depict technology not as in itself, by nature, or ontologically evil, but as being subject to changes in meaning according to context and use. For example, the figure of technology is given socially critical political inflections in Silent Running (1971), which opposes nature and individual freedom to corporate misuse of technology in an ecological vein, representing the corporation as putting profit before the preservation of the environment. In Star Trek (1979) a human actually mates with an astral body born of a space probe, proving that humans and machines can get along more intimately than conservatives ever imagine. And in Brainstorm (1983), the story of a technological invention that can be used either for war or peace, the family is shown falling apart, then mending with the help of the invention. Through this narrative motif the family is depicted as a constructed institution, itself an invention reliant more on negotiation than on naturally given laws.
Perhaps the most significant film in regard to an alternative representation of technology that takes issue with the ideology deployed in conservative technophobia films is Blade Runner (1982), directed by Ridley Scott. The film, based on the novel by Philip K. Dick, concerns four androids (“replicants”) who revolt against their “maker,” the Tyrell Corporation. A policeman, Deckard (Harrison Ford), is assigned to “retire” them. Deckard falls in love with Rachel (Sean Young), one of Tyrell’s most advanced replicants. With Rachel’s help, he manages to kill three of the rebels and fights a final battle with the fourth, Roy (Rutger Hauer), who allows Deckard to live because he himself is about to die. At the end, a fellow policeman allows Deckard and Rachel to escape from the city and flee to nature. The film offers a mediation between technology and human values. “Replicants are like any other machine. They can be a benefit or a hazard,” Deckard says. And the film concludes with a happy marriage of humans and machines.
Blade Runner deconstructs certain ideological oppositions at work in more conservative technology films. The marrying of human and replicant undercuts the posing of nature as an opposite to a negative technological civilization. The film also deconstructs the conservative romantic opposition of reason and feeling. In the film, reason is represented by analytic machines that dissect human and objective reality. The police detect replicants with analytic instruments that observe emotional reactions in the eye. When Deckard analyzes the photograph of a room, he breaks down the reality into small parts until he captures what he seeks. The analytic gaze is thus represented as an instrument of power. Posed against this power is feeling. But the film suggests that feeling is not the polar opposite of reason. Rather, feeling, especially in the replicants, is the product of technology. And these machine humans are shown to be in many ways more “human” than their makers. Analytic rationality is depicted as irrational and anti-human when used instrumentally in a policed, exploitative society, but it is also the instrument for constructing a more communal ethic. Thus, the film deconstructs the oppositions—human/technology, reason/feeling, culture/nature—that underwrite the conservative fear of technology by refusing to privilege one pole of the dichotomy over another and by leaving their meaning undecidable.
Blade Runner also calls attention to the oppressive core of capitalism and advocates revolt against exploitation. The Tyrell Corporation invents replicants in order to have a more pliable labor force, and the film depicts how capitalism turns humans into machines, a motif that recalls Lang’s Metropolis. Indeed, German Expressionist features are evident throughout. The bright pink and red colors of the huge electric billboards contrast with the dark underworld of the streets, and this contrast highlights the discrepancy between the realm of leisure consumption and the underclass realm of urban poverty and labor in capitalism. In addition, the neo-Mayan architecture of the corporate buildings suggests human sacrifice for the capitalist god, and Tyrell is indeed depicted as something of a divine patriarch.
Although the film contains several sexist moments (Deckard more or less rapes Rachel), it can also be read as depicting the construction of female subjectivity under patriarchy as something pliant and submissive as well as threatening and “castratory.” (The female replicants are sex functionaries as well as killers.) Similarly, the flight to romance and to nature at the end of the film gives rise to at least a double reading. Romance is escape to an empathetic interior realm from the external realm of public callousness in a capitalist society. Although it promotes personalization and atomization, the final flight also creates a space of autonomy and compassion which can be the basis for collective and egalitarian social arrangements. If the film privileges privatism, it may be because in U.S. society of the time, it was possible to locate humane values only in the private sphere.
The film implies that even the supposedly grounding, ontologically authoritative categories of conservatism like the individual, nature, the family, and sentiment are indeterminate. They have alternative political inflections that revalorize their meaning according to pragmatic criteria of context and use. It is important, then, that unlike the conservative films that end with a move toward (cinematic as well as ideological) literality that supposedly reduces constructed social institutions to a natural or ontological ground of meaning, this film ends in a way that foregrounds the construction of alternative meanings from the literal through the figural or rhetorical techniques of substitution and equivalence, especially the equivalence of human life and technology (of Rachel the machine and Deckard the human at the end, for example). Figurality is foregrounded through juxtapositions that are not justified by the literal logic of the narrative. For example, Roy suddenly carries a white dove that soon becomes a symbol of charity and forgiveness. He himself in fact becomes a figure for Christ as he lowers his head and dies. The dove he releases flies up into a blue sky that also appears out of nowhere for the first time in the film, for no literal reason. The figural or rhetorical quality of these images is thus underscored by their narratively illogical emergence. The same is true of the origami doll the other detective leaves for Deckard as he and Rachel flee; it signals that the detective allows them to escape and becomes a figure for charity. And the wry, ironic comments Deckard makes at the end about his new relationship with the android woman foreground a figural doubleness or undecidability of meaning.
All of these figures place literality in abeyance, and they underscore the fact that the metaphors conservatives employ to create a sense of a natural or literal ground are irredeemably figural. Indeed, the reconstituted family at the end is working on such a high level of constructedness and figurality, an open-ended relationship between a human and a machine, that it could never touch ground with any literal authority of a sort that the closing images of nature might have conveyed in a conservative or ideological film. What rhetoric, like technology, opens is the possibility of an ungrounded play with social institutions, simulating them, substituting for them, reconstructing them, removing them from any ground of literal meaning that would hold them responsible to its authority. Perhaps this is why technology is such an object of fear in conservative science fiction films of the current era. It is a metaphor for a possibility of reconstruction that would put the stability of conservative social institutions in question.
But the longing for literality and nature in conservative technophobic films might also be indicative of an antinomy of conservatism in the modern world. As conservative economic values became ascendent, increasingly technical criteria of efficiency came to be dominant. In addition, conservative economic development emphasizes the displacement of excessively costly human labor by machines. The increasingly technical sophistication of the economic world and the shift away from industrialized manufacturing to tertiary sector “information age” production creates a hypermodernization that is at odds with the traditionalist impulse in conservatism, the desire that old forms and institutions be preserved. Yet the new technologies make possible alternative institutions and lifestyles, as well as the reconstruction of the social world. Perhaps this accounts for the desire for a more literal, natural world in conservative films. It is a reaction to the world they themselves help create through an ideal of efficient economic development. One antinomy of conservatism is that it requires technology for its economic program, yet it fears technological modernity on a social and cultural plane. This can be read as a sign of the dilemma conservatives faced in the eighties. In control of political and economic life, they could not gain power in the private realm of social values that on the whole continued to be more liberal.
Although in the mid-eighties there was a marked decline in the number of conservative technophobic films, those fearful of technology do not give up easily, as might be suggested by a film like The Terminator (1984), in which androids continue to look and act like Arnold Schwarzenegger. Indeed, the film is about a punitive robot that just won’t give up. It keeps coming on, not having seen Blade Runner, unaware that it is supposed to forgive and forget.
Films about the future might seem to be the most aloof from contemporary social problems. Yet they frequently are characterized by radical positions that are too extreme for Hollywood realism. In some respects, the genre that seems most distant from the contemporary world is the one most free to execute accurate descriptions of its operations. Fantasies of the future may simply be ways of putting quotation marks around the present. They carry out a temporal displacement that short-circuits the implicit ideological censors operative in the reigning realist narrative regime of Hollywood.
Future films on the Right dramatize contemporary conservative fears of “terrorism,” or socialism, or liberalism as in Logan’s Run or Escape from New York. Left films (Outland, Blade Runner) take advantage of the rhetorical mode of temporal displacement to criticize the current inequalities of capitalism. These films display what we have called the American quandary. Conservative films evidence fears of liberal modernity, while Left films advertise the tremendous power of conservatism in economic matters even as they criticize it. The films put on display the split that runs through American society between a civil sphere dominated by liberals and run on quasi-democratic, pluralist principles, and an economic sphere, dominated by conservatives and run in a feudal manner, in which workers are essentially slaves of capital. As such, however, these films delineate a salient antinomy of contemporary capitalism. The principles of political liberty and self-determination that informed the bourgeois revolutions from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century have been successfully blocked from making incursions into the economic sphere, which has continued to operate on two levels. The liberal principle of “freedom” governs the intercourse between capitalists as the principle of marketplace competition, while the intercourse between capitalists and workers operates according to the preliberal principle of domination and exploitation. Freedom, in the liberal sense of self-determination, has yet to reach that level of society, and one function of capitalist ideology is to prevent it from doing so. But the strategy of defense, like all such strategies, indicates a danger and a potential even as it successfully deflects them. The capitalist civil sphere must adhere to “democratic” principles of operation because by so doing the ideological illusion is fostered that the whole society, including the economy, operates according to such principles. It is not accidental that capitalists now refer to their national fiefdoms as “industrial democracies.” But the capitalist attitude toward such liberalism will always be only tentatively supportive. To prevent the incursion of the principles of political liberty into the economic sphere, capitalists will reserve the right to impose the neofeudal principles of the economy on civil society as a whole, revoking liberalism entirely. The prevalence of capitalist “states of siege” in the world, from Pakistan and Turkey to South Korea and Chile, is an indicator of this reality, as is indeed also the undeclared state of siege carried out against workers and poor people during the Reagan years. But they also point to a threat; a siege indicates an embattled position. And this is the progressive possibility embedded in the American quandary and in the antinomy between liberal civil society and neofeudal, conservative economic society that became strikingly clear in the eighties. The threat is that the principles of liberty and self-determination will finally enter the economic sphere, and one could interpret the hypertropism of capitalist self-justifications at this period in film (the hero phenomenon) as an indicator of an increase in that threat.
Signs of the threat emerge clearly in the imaginarily liberated space of the future film, especially in what are called dystopias. Dystopias, or negative Utopias, predominate in the future-film culture of the seventies and eighties, in part as a result of the era’s crisis of confidence. Dystopias generally project into the future the fears of the present, and their themes often transcode the sorts of anxieties that characterized that crisis—uncontrolled corporations, untrustworthy leaders, a breakdown of legitimacy, rising crime, etc. They are vehicles for populist and radical critiques of the capitalist ethic and of capitalist institutions (evident particularly in the popular Road Warrior films, which pose an ecological vision of liberal hope against the brutal primitivism of competitive capitalism). The dystopia films can therefore be seen as indirect, displaced articulations of progressive forces and desires that constituted a resistance to conservative hegemony in the eighties and that pointed forward, literally as well as figurally, to alternative futures.
In the mid-seventies, populist fears were directed at the power of large corporations in films like Soylent Green (1973) and Rollerball (1975). Values of nature, family, ecology, and individuality are posed against statist domination, characterized by massification, modernization, and the destruction of family life. The destruction of the family, a locus of personal attachments, is equated with the impersonality of corporations. Rollerball concerns a sports hero named Jonathan (James Caan) whose world is controlled by a cartel of corporations and characterized by the breakdown of the family. Jonathan’s wife is taken away by a corporate executive. In keeping with the populist ethos of the film, he in the end engages in an individualist rebellion against the corporations that rallies the people to him in a kind of revolution. As in so many films, the choice of literal examples is relevant to metaphoric meaning structures. The team against which he has to contest in the end is Japanese, and of course at this time the Japanese were beginning to undercut American world economic power. The radical edge of populism is evident in the film’s critique of capitalist domination. Yet a conservative potential emerges in the privileging of traditional male-dominated family life and of individualism conjoined with a leadership principle. Rollerball operates ideologically by dichotomizing the world of social alternatives into two possibilities—either individual freedom (linked with male property right over women) or totalitarian domination. No middle ground is allowed in this equation, no middle term. And anything that departs from the ideal of pure individual freedom (corporations, but also socialism) is by implication lumped under domination. Audience sympathy is thus potentially channeled toward support for small business individualist capitalism, since everything else—from socialism to corporate liberalism to the welfare state—is made to look bad by being subsumed under the polar opposite of individualism. The success of such representational strategies in popular culture helps account for the absence of a socialist alternative in the United States.
If the mid-seventies are characterized by populist dystopias that articulate the growing feelings of resentment against corporations in American culture, in the late seventies and early eighties, a number of left-liberal and radical dystopias (Quintet, Blade Runner, Outland) appear that negatively represent the basic tenets of capitalism (the right to exploit labor, competition, etc.). In Altman’s Quintet (1979) postholocaust life consists of playing a brutal game in which the goal is to kill the other players through a complex system of alliance and betrayal. It is a market world; no one can be trusted; and kisses frequently precede slit throats. This disturbing allegory of capitalism was too bleak for late seventies audiences desirous of more romanticized visions, and the film flopped.
Peter Hyams’s Outland (1981) was more successful, perhaps because it was an obvious pastiche of High Noon, the story of a sheriff betrayed by his fellow townspeople who must stand up to outlaws alone. But the film is also one of the most accurate representations of the reality of labor exploitation under capitalism that has appeared in Hollywood. At a space mine, workers are given drugs to make them more productive, but as a result they become psychotic and commit suicide. The drugs eliminate the boring and oppressive features of work. “When the workers are happy, they dig more; when they dig more, the company is happy; when the company is happy, I’m happy,” the manager tells the sheriff of the mine town, who attempts to end the practice. The company sends killers to prevent him, and he defeats them with the help of a woman scientist.
The conservative ascendancy of the early eighties seemed to invite more radical counterattacks than Hollywood had hitherto seen. What is striking about films like Outland and Blade Runner is that in a future fiction mode they depict the present reality of capitalist labor exploitation, a reality usually kept off the Hollywood screen. Indeed, the harshness of that reality in part accounts for that absence, since it makes it necessary for the leisure world of post-work entertainment to be something that alleviates the boredom, lack of fulfillment, and pain of wage labor exploitation. It is a commonplace of radical cultural criticism to say that many Hollywood films can in fact be characterized as the real world equivalents of the drugs of Outland. But what this suggests as well is that such drugs are indicators of very real pain, potentially threatening diseases.
These radical future films point out the feudal character of the wage labor system and attempt to mobilize traditional representational forms (the western, the hard-boiled detective), as well as traditional liberal humanist ideals (freedom, charity) as critical weapons against that exploitation. The use of traditional representational codes is especially significant for drawing out the contradiction between the political ideals of liberty and the feudal reality of the economy. For those codes—especially the detective and the western—are associated in the tradition with the principles of liberalism. Even if they do so in an individualist manner, they promote the liberal value of freedom or self-determination. And they frequently argue as well for community cooperation and social responsibility. The antiwealth ethos of the detective is especially marked by this trait. However, the dominant procapitalist ideological system of American culture has succeeded in limiting the applicability of those ideals to capitalist entrepreneurs, and, as we have seen, that ideology is refortified during this era.
Because the western and the detective genres usually serve the ends of that ideology, their very narrative form suggests the liberal value of self-determination. The detective acts alone; the cowboy usually rejects community (as in Shane) for the open road. It is part of the critical strategy of films like Outland and Blade Runner, then, to apply those forms to the critique of economic exploitation. The use of such forms dramatizes more strikingly the discrepancy between the values of freedom and self-determination on the one hand and the realities of mass exploitation on the other. On a formal level, they draw out the antinomy between a capitalist ideological sphere that justifies itself with ideals of freedom and a capitalist economic sphere that belies those ideals. In so doing, the films suggest that the reason for this segregation is that a revolution of the sort Blade Runner enacts metaphorically would probably result were those ideals allowed entry into the world of labor.
The American quandary we have described is thus one that promises to be more threatening to the Right than to the Left. For one senses that the Right can only be on the defensive, given the distribution of forces and of possibilities. Our argument has suggested that their hold on economic power is not firm; it is defensive, and it probably cannot forever withstand the incursion of liberal principles of self-determination into the economic sphere that dystopian films either imagine or suggest. Indeed, the growing prevalence of liberal principles in the civil sphere would seem to indicate that the current tendency is for liberal values to spread and for conservative ones to contract. This seems confirmed by the dominant defensive and resentful attitude toward non-economic matters that is evident in conservative dystopian films. In John Carpenter’s Escape from New York (1981), for example, the metaphor of the “fallen city” covers a lot of modern liberal terrain, from punk subcultures to feminism to liberal politics. The city is a conservative nightmare of minorities and criminals rampant. It is a case once again when the literal vehicle of the metaphor is a direct representation of conservative fears. A pro-detente president is about to sell out the United States to the Soviets, but he is kidnapped by terrorists. Only a tough, conservative, martial arts, military hero named Snake can save the day. In the last scene, he walks away contemptuously from the buffoonish president and the press as an American flag looms behind. (Will the real Führer please step forward?)
The edgy, resentful mood of the film characterizes conservatives faced with the increasing power of liberal modernity (in social relations, sexuality, and politics) and the increasing threat (reflected in a negative mode in current life and in the film as underclass crime) that the liberal principles which conservatives cannot quell in the private sphere might spread to the public economic sphere. If, at this time, liberal ideals tend to be reclusive and sentimentalist, confined to the private sphere, conservative social ideals tend to be hostile and resentful, in part because they are so much at odds with a modernity they cannot turn back. If liberal dystopias are either tragic or whimsically metaphysical and ironic in the early to mid eighties—modes appropriate to a value system out of power—conservative dystopias evidence the brutal and resentful edginess of those anxious to turn the dystopia of modernity into a Utopia of brutality. Yet we see something progressive in this situation. When the Nazi said that whenever he heard the word culture he reached for his revolver, it was because the radical Jewish culture of Weimar Berlin was indeed a threat to the Right. If conservatives seemed to be reaching for their guns a lot in this period, it was probably for a similar reason.
It is in Steven Spielberg’s films that the American quandary we have described appears in its most dramatic form. In Spielberg’s cozy home world of cuddly beasts and warmhearted social relations, liberal ideals thrive of a sort that elsewhere in American society and Hollywood cinematic culture were being shunted aside in favor of a brutish, quasi-fascist cinematic and economic realism. Spielberg’s fantasy films of the late seventies and early eighties—Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and E.T. (1982)—always seem to be keeping something at bay, much like the white suburban world where most of the action of the films takes place. It would be relatively easy to excuse liberal fantasies of ideal communities and spiritual transcendence from an examination of contemporary conservative culture. But classical music played at Auschwitz has a different meaning from its performance in prewar Vienna. And any affirmation of white middle and upper middle class culture during the era of the conservative revolution must be judged in relation to what the white middle class and its political representatives accomplished during this period. White liberal sentimentality becomes criminal when it is measured against the rise in the black infant mortality rate provoked by the Reagan domestic budget cuts or the increase in deaths among workers affected by reductions in federal safety standards or the numerous killings perpetrated by bombs and death squads in Latin America as a result of the foreign policy of the white conservatives in power in the eighties. Spielberg’s family fantasies can be understood as symptoms of the banishing of liberal values from the public sphere and their retreat into private visions of at least domestic charity and care. But they must also be understood, we suggest, as strained attempts to close ears to the sound of suffering elsewhere in the social system, outside the bounds of the suburban tracts his films endow with such a warm glow. To a certain extent, what one witnesses in these films is a cranking up of the classical music so that the screams of the doomed won’t be heard.
Unlike other “movie brat” filmmakers like Coppola, Lucas, and Milius who relish celebrations of a conservative male socialized public world of aggression and violence, Spielberg is distinguished by his emphasis on the family as an embattled sphere of empathy and care, threatened by external forces. Frequently those forces are associated with such things as the state, bureaucracy, science, rationalism, and capitalist greed. The mixture of antistatist and anticapitalist motifs, conjoined with a neoromanticist affirmation of ecologist and spiritualist values, situates Spielberg within the arena of “New Age” politics that developed after the sixties in places like California (with Jerry Brown being the most famous avatar). Both liberal federal bureaucracy and conservative capitalism are rejected from this ecologist point of view, which favors decentered social forms as well as more benign economic arrangements. The immense popularity of his films, especially E.T., suggests that resistant liberal forces existed in American culture at odds with the dominant conservative value system.
In his early films—Duel (1972) and Sugarland Express (1974)—Spielberg depicts working and middle class people struggling against threatening impersonal forces. In Express particularly, the family is defended against the forces of the state, which threaten to break it up. The family is a central concern of his first major fantasy film, the enormously successful Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), an allegory of escape from the travails of everyday life in the mid-seventies—unemployment, divorce, cynicism, lack of confidence. Yet the film inverts the order of causality by presenting the supernatural as the cause of unemployment and divorce rather than depicting the quest for spiritual relief as a symptom of such social travails. Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) encounters an unidentified flying objective and becomes so obsessed with making contact with it again that he is fired from his job and his wife and children leave him. He is portrayed as an unappreciated, childlike genius who clings with faith to his intuitions and eventually finds the spaceship again. In the final scene, in which the UFO lands, he climbs a mountain, an obvious symbol of spiritual transcendence, and is taken away by the benevolent, childlike space creatures.1 That happy conclusion is coded as a mystical encounter and is also associated with the reconstitution of an ideal family. Neary encounters a young mother and her son who share his mystical insight. Thus, while the film obviously plays to the sort of religious revivalism rampant in the mid and late seventies, it also is a male fantasy of the transcendence of all the troubles and responsibilities of family life, a life increasingly harried in the recession-ridden mid-seventies when the incidence of divorce, suicide, and mental illness among working people rose.
The film cites some of these social problems, but it does so only in order to justify a flight from them. And that flight is toward an idealization of certain aspects of reality which afford comfort. Those aspects are predominantly private, like religion and family, and are associated with feeling and nature, while the state is linked with science, skepticism, and rationality. The private world of individual insight shared by a special family of idealized common people stands in contrast to the technological world of the scientists, who in the opening scene seem incapable of understanding a mystical occurrence which a common man grasps naturally and intuitively. Not surprisingly, the aliens communicate through music and images implanted in the minds of chosen people, not through words, which in romantic ideology are thought to be too artificial and rational. The film thus offers the possibility that ordinary people can feel special; indeed, it is a story of election, the choosing of a special person who attains private bliss. His commonness permits him to be an object of universal (well, at least white male) identification. The film enacts as narrative the very structure of identification which allowed it to be so popular. For that identification is with a retreat from public concerns to a purely private experience (reinforced once again by heightened representational dynamics), and the story is also of such a progress. While it would be possible to read this congruence as yet another symptom of the compensatory operation of culture, it is also necessary to situate it historically. The white middle class actually did retreat from the troubled public world into privacy in the late seventies, and as it is enacted in this film that retreat has benevolent consequences. But it also needs to be read as a means of saving one’s own hide. Roy Neary gets away scot free, and, to a certain extent, so would the white middle class in the years following this movie. They too would seek a purely private salvation from economic recessions for which blacks, the poor, workers, and women would be obliged to pay. And they would imagine themselves to be special enough to deserve it.
Spielberg’s E.T., released in the summer of 1982, quickly became the highest grossing film of all time. The long lines around theaters testified to its enormous appeal, an appeal due, we would argue, to the film’s idealization of a harmonious and romantic sentimentalist private sphere at a time when the public sphere, in the hands of Republican conservatives, was given over to a vicious program of economic apartheid that gutted support systems for the poor, menialized labor, and allowed the brutality of the market to pauperize those least empowered to resist its harsh logic. If the white middle class turned away from the world in Close Encounters, in E. T., that class covered its ears.
The story concerns a suburban family, from which the father is absent, which encounters a friendly lost alien in its backyard. They care for it, but their house is invaded by bureaucratic government officials and scientists who almost kill the cuddly little beast. The children help the alien to escape, and this happy conclusion is associated, like the ending of Encounters, with a reconstituted family. A sympathetic scientist who believes in unscientific things like feelings and space critters is positioned as a new father in the family, taking the place of the alien.
Like Encounters, E. T. idealizes nature and feeling over scientific rationality. Yet whereas conservative films link such romantic motifs to the market and militarism, this liberal film associates them with such positive interpersonal attitudes as tolerance, empathy, and acceptance. The adult world of harshness and competition that so many conservative films celebrate is looked on from the children or E.T.’s perspective, through frequent point of view shots, in a way that portrays it as menacing. The real aliens in the film are all over thirty or over three feet tall. The style of the film and its use of cinematic conventions are also romantic and generically nostalgic. Elliot’s first encounter with E.T. in the backyard is shot through a filter that bathes the scene in a warm, gauze glow reminiscent of a Norman Rockwell painting. And the tradition of Hollywood child fantasy films, from Peter Pan to Pinocchio, is consistently cited. The film is thus cinematically coded as harking back to an ideal of social reintegration, and this is paralleled by a formal motif of reintegration with a lost cinematic tradition. One notices this dual nostalgia in the way suburban life is depicted. It is endowed with the cinematic characteristics of the mid-American small town as it was represented in earlier Hollywood films (the Hardy Boys, Capra).
Such nostalgia can be read as further evidence of audience responsiveness to the possibility of fleeing a troubled present into an untroubled past. Indeed, in Spielberg’s production Back to the Future (1985), an escape into the past rectifies it and permits white upward mobility to occur successfully. A young man leaves for the past, where his actions bring his parents together and change the future, so that when he returns his family has jumped several income notches. The explicit economic theme of this film bears retroactively on the themes of E. T. The escape into an untroubled generic past serves an obvious therapeutic function. The broken ego (or family) is reintegrated through the fantasy of regression and enabled thereby to engage once more with the world. But in E.T. that regression occurs in a nature just adjacent to the suburban tract, and while this placement has a metaphoric ideological intent, it is also literally indicative of the fact that the white suburb is at the very edge of white middle-class civilization, as far as you can go to get away from the urban underclass. It should be remembered that this is also the time when comedies like Trading Places and 48 Hours about the integration of blacks into the white middle-class world were becoming popular.
The fantasy of regression in E.T. cannot be separated from a literal distancing of other realities, especially the reality of what was being perpetrated in the U.S. economy at the same time. Indeed, the incursion of those realities is itself rendered literally in the destruction of the white suburban house by the forces of the state who invade in search of the alien. At stake in the film is the very integrity of the white middle-class home, threatened from without by the logic of the world. It is appropriate that it is saved by an entirely private measure—feeling—and a purely familial instance—the restored father. For the film does through these recourses successfully keep the world of harsh economic and political realities at bay. What the film displays, therefore, is the cohesive interiority and boundaried impermeability of the white middle-class worldview. The enactment in the film of the restoration of family and ego integrity alike is in keeping with its implicit public position, which is that there is no public, only a threatening other which must be repelled, kept out of sight entirely. Only in this way can one go about living one’s life of private concerns, within earshot of the urban underclass camps but far enough away within oneself not to hear.
Spielberg’s world is a dichotomized one. The same oppositions recur repeatedly—science and feeling, reason and spirituality, the beast of repressed sexuality (Poltergeist) and idealized family life (Gremlins). This set of oppositions seems to transcode the larger split that came increasingly to define American culture at this point in time, the division between a public world of conservative cynicism and a private world of liberal idealization. It is indicative of the extent to which the public world had been purged of empathy, feeling, and community that the private idealizations of these traits take on such exaggerated forms in the popular imaginary of Spielberg’s films. Indeed, one could say that a film like E.T. is merely the logical correlate of a film like Rambo, the other side of the same social psychological coin. Everything that is purged from the white male heroes of the eighties, all the attachments and dependencies which must be removed if the cinematic version of the conservative revolution was to be carried out, have to be pushed into the private sphere, where they become exalted and hypertropic.
Yet the great popularity of the films can also be read as testifying to the presence of strong needs and desires denied in the public world for community and empathy. In other words, the very escapism and privatism of these films are interpretable as indicators of progressive potentials in American culture. By sentimentalizing the family, Spielberg’s films play along with the contemporary conservative conversion of the public sphere into a survivalist jungle to the extent that they assume abdication from the public world. Yet they can also be said to indicate that despite the best efforts of conservatives, desires still exist for something better. The imbalance of fantasy desire and public reality is also due, we suggest, to the fact that capitalist modernization has outrun the traditional institutions (the family especially) that accompanied and sustained the economic system. The “critical” edge of films like The Godfather is sharpest at those points where they depict how capitalist modernization undermines institutions that once held communities together. What is interesting about films like E. T. is that they show the demise of old family forms and the reality of divorce (and this is the difference between a liberal reconstructive attitude toward change and a conservative one, like Coppola’s, that clings to old forms and resents the encroachments of the new). Yet they also suggest the possibility that a new stabilization can occur; another man enters the family. Such order is shown to be provisional and unstable, not a fixed order of the sort conservative films seem to establish. The low level of even these liberal reconstructions is indicated, however, by the fact that patriarchy still provides the model for reconstruction. In a few decades perhaps we’ll be ready for a cuddly female or even androgynous alien who will teach us new forms of community support and broad group care that won’t require the restitution of a “man” to the “family.” With any luck, we won’t even know what those words refer to.
By the mid to late eighties, it was becoming clear that the tensions between traditional conservatism and the newer brands were working to the detriment of the conservative forces that assumed power in 1980. If 1971 signaled the onset of that edgy rightist tone that would characterize the conservative movements of the late seventies and early eighties, 1986-87 signaled the end of conservative hegemony. Ronald Reagan finally began to lose power, Congress passed into the hands of the Democrats, rendering him even more harmless, and the Iran arms-for-hostages/Contra-supply scandals ruined his credibility and his popularity as well. Within his own ranks, divisions had been evident throughout his reign between the hardline New Rightists and the more traditional conservatives. It was already evident by the mid-eighties that the Right’s united front would no longer hold. And the major factor working against the Right was capitalism itself. Because competition and self-interest are its operative principles, coordination and cooperation are inherently alien to its psychology. If a metonymic vision is impossible for the Right, so also is metonymic action which paratactically coordinates rather than hypotactically subordinating its elements. If Hitler served a certain function for all of German capital (only to get out of hand), Reagan served a function for all of American capital but could hand on power to no one with as universal (as metaphoric, one might say) an appeal. He supervised the gutting of old industrial capitalist sectors and the fueling of newer technological defense oriented forms of capital, but what is good for one branch of capital is bad for another. While finance capital thrived during the eighties, productive capital withered; New York became one immense Wall Street, but major production shifted overseas. Multinational productive capital saved its hide in Singapore but scorched the earth of mid-America in the process. The result was division rather than unity. Right-wing capital came into power proclaiming the gospel of fiscal responsibility, but it left the country in hock to Japan, and that hurt major production-oriented sectors of the American economy, which began to fight back in the form of trade laws. Moreover, the popular abstention which permitted Reagan to succeed in 1980 gave way to resistance as more and more people realized what that success produced in the way of social misery. And the tremendous accumulation of wealth which permitted the Republicans to become so powerful (through the infusion of great amounts of money into the media and mail campaigns) was by the mid-eighties slowing down. Once-mighty Texas almost went into receivership as oil prices fell, and the stock exchange index zoomed up and fell alternately as speculation tried to resolve the evident and deep dilemma of a system at odds with itself. At the same time, insider trading scandals on Wall Street revealed the cesspool of illegality lying under Reagan’s public philosophy of greed. And the religious evangelical Right, which had promoted the conservative revival of the era, was wracked by sex scandals and fraud.
In the midst of all this, the vision that was likely to appeal to Americans was not the Rightist one which called for a rejuvenation of capital; that worked in 1980 at the tail end of a recessionary decade. Rather, the communitarian theme of the social family (evident in part in Spielberg’s films) stood to gain from the misery the Right had inflicted on large sectors of the country. Each social movement generates a new level of composition in its adversary, and if the movements of the sixties in part generated the reaction of the eighties, that reaction itself created the terrain on which a more liberal social vision was likely to succeed. It was difficult to argue that “welfare cheats” were robbing the country blind when they were dying of starvation on the streets. It was easier to suggest that the rich had gotten rich enough and that it was time once again to care for the needy. By filling its coffers while emptying the welfare rolls, corporate capital had set itself up as a target. And in the short run, the only one capable of exploiting that possibility was the Democratic center, which, because it is slightly more sensible than the Right, knows better than to push the poor too far into penury.
We will conclude by suggesting that other things are possible. The United States is not without its Left alternative, although its parameters are limited, its power nonexistent. Nevertheless, its agenda is not entirely unrealistic. Egalitarian possibilities exist in American society, as they must in any unequal social system. For example, in our poll we asked if people thought the American economic system was just; 60% said no. The answers followed class lines, as one might expect: 72% of the working class participants, 60% of the middle class, and 49% of the upper middle class participants answered negatively. And 90% of the blacks, compared with 54% of the whites, responded with a no. We also asked if people would prefer a society in which wealth was divided equally, and 50% responded affirmatively, again along class lines (71% of the working-class respondents, 46% of the middle, and 47% of the upper middle class participants). Of those who make under $30,000 a year, 65% would prefer such a society, as opposed to 43% of those who make over $30,000. For blacks, the figure was 82%. Women more than men also felt the society was unjust, and a surprising 42% of the conservative respondents expressed a desire for an egalitarian society. We do not hold out these figures as indicators of revolutionary possibilities. What they do suggest is what one would expect: inequality, especially if you are on the receiving end of it, generates desires for equality. But it also generates desires among the Haves for things to remain the same. It is a simple and understandable difference. What we do take away from our poll results is the conviction that ideology is not entirely successful. It can’t be, in situations of real material inequality and injustice. It is for this reason that we will argue in conclusion that the Left should attend more to the counterideological impulses and possibilities which reside within the apparently seamless system of conservative cultural power.