Some radical critics argue that Hollywood film operates to legitimate dominant institutions and traditional values and that its representational conventions help instill ideology. Those institutions and values include individualism (with its emphasis on self-reliance and its distrust of government), capitalism (with its values of competition, upward mobility, and the survival of the fittest), patriarchy (with its privileging of men and its positioning of women in a secondary social role), racism (with its unequal partitioning of social power), etc. The representational conventions include form as well as subject matter. The formal conventions—narrative closure, image continuity, nonreflexive camera, character identification, voyeuristic objectification, sequential editing, causal logic, dramatic motivation, shot centering, frame balance, realist intelligibility, etc.—help to instill ideology by creating an illusion that what happens on the screen is a neutral recording of objective events, rather than a construct operating from a certain point of view. Films make rhetorical arguments through the selection and combination of representational elements that project rather than reflect a world. In so doing, they impose on the audience a certain position or point of view, and the formal conventions occlude this positioning by erasing the signs of cinematic artificiality. The thematic conventions—heroic male adventure, romantic quest, female melodrama, redemptive violence, racial and criminal stereotyping, etc.—promote ideology by linking the effect of reality to social values and institutions in such a way that they come to seem natural or self-evident attributes of an unchanging world. The conventions habituate the audience to accept the basic premises of the social order, and to ignore their irrationality and injustice. The mapping of personal life stories over structural social issues like war and crime makes the existing order seem moral and good. And personal identification with representations of public order creates the psychological disposition for inducement into voluntary participation in a system of exploitation and domination.
Much of what happens in Hollywood cinema is indeed ideological in the sense outlined above, but not all Hollywood narrative realist products are inherently ideological. This conception of cinematic ideology flattens out necessary distinctions between different films at different moments of history, and it overlooks the distinctive and multiple rhetorical and representational strategies and effects of films in varying social situations. The recourse to static, formal, abstract categories like “the subject” in structuralist film theory obliterates situational differences as well as the possibility that films generate multiple, highly differentiated effects. If the category of history helps break down and differentiate the somewhat monolithic model of Hollywood film which the structuralist theory of ideology takes for granted, the pragmatic determination of a film’s meaning or its ideology in terms of the rhetorical operation it addresses to audiences (rather than in terms of a preordained category of ideological closure that operates the same way everywhere without differentiation) also opens the analysis of film out onto a plural social and political terrain. Films cease to appear to be inherently ideological simply by being Hollywood narratives. Their political meaning is more a matter of specific arguments made, concrete representational strategies adopted, possible effects generated. Films function differently in different contexts, as the film survey we conducted for this study confirms (see Appendix), and we would suggest that the determination of their political meaning may be more complex, contested, and differentiated a matter than some structuralist film critics assume.
For instance, Hollywood film since 1967 is quite distinct from what it was in the preceding era, and we will argue that its political role in American culture during the period from 1967 to 1987 is varied and multivalent. Within certain predictable limits, popular films of this period debate significant social issues, and many, operating from a left-liberal perspective, attempt to use the traditional representational formats and conventions for socially critical ends. The limits are fairly recalcitrant, the breadth of political scope not very wide. But a study of the contemporary era suggests that Hollywood is not monolithically ideological. Its forms may have served predominantly conservative ends, but the current cinema proves that those forms can be reframed, given new political inflections. And even ideological films, we have found, permit an analysis of potentially progressive undercurrents in American society by delineating, frequently inadvertently, the salient fears, desires, and needs that make up the everyday fabric of American culture during a time of enormous change and that are the bearers of radical possibilities.
During the first Cold War period, from the late 1940s through the mid-1960s, the Hollywood cinema was dominated by cinemascope spectaculars like Ben-Hur and Cleopatra, romantic musicals like Oklahoma and The Sound of Music, family melodramas like Picnic and Giant, anticommunist films like Red Menace and I Was a Communist for the FBI, Cold War spy thrillers like The Manchurian Candidate, beach blanket films like Gidget, Jerry Lewis comedies, Rock Hudson and Doris Day romantic comedies like Pillow Talk, paranoid monster films like Them and The Thing, conservative or at best liberal pluralist genre westerns like The Searchers and Broken Arrow, Hitchcock’s woman-punishing thrillers like The Birds and Psycho, and moralistic social problem films like The Man with the Golden Arm and Rebel without a Cause. While the overall ideological atmosphere of the cinema of the period is usually considered to be predominantly conservative or at best complacent, there were a number of socially conscious or critical films like High Noon, Attack, The Wild One, The Defiant Ones, Paths of Glory, The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Lawless, All That Heaven Allows, and On the Beach. In Seeing Is Believing: How Hollywood Films Taught Us to Stop Worrying and Love the Fifties, Peter Biskind demonstrates that many films of the period, even apparently “conservative” ones, question dominant myths and values.1 Still, it was not until the mid-sixties that Hollywood films began to adopt the critical and experimental thematic and stylistic modes that had characterized European and Third World filmmaking for some time. Biskind concludes his study by describing a “coming apart” of the social consensus of the fifties in films of the sixties.
In fact, if one considers a list of the major films of the early to mid-sixties, one notices indications of what Biskind calls “creeping leftism” throughout the period: 1960—Spartacus depicted a slave revolt, The Apartment satirized business sexism, and Inherit the Wind attacked fundamentalist religion; 1961—Raisin in the Sun, The Outsider, and West Side Story criticized racial intolerance, Splendor in the Grass explicitly attacked the suppression of youth sexuality, and Judgment at Nuremberg advocated a liberal indictment of intolerance; 1962—The Birdman of Alcatraz took a benevolent approach to criminal rehabilitation, while Sweet Bird of Youth criticized evangelical hypocrisy; 1963—Lilies of the Field depicted racial cooperation, To Kill a Mockingbird sympathetically portrayed racial interaction in the South and condemned racism, and Days of Wine and Roses dealt frankly with the problems of alcoholism; 1964—Failsafe criticized nuclear ideology, Seven Days in May carried out a liberal attack on the radical Right, Dr. Strangelove satirized nuclear war madness and right-wing paranoia, and Nothing but a Man depicted southern black life from a black point of view; 1965—The Bedford Incident depicted the real possibility of accidental nuclear war, Patch of Blue indicted racial intolerance, and The Pawnbroker dramatized the effects of bigotry; and 1966—A Man for All Seasons argued for the right to dissent, The Russians Are Coming satirized Cold War thinking, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? exposed a despairing side to suburban life.2
Film historians point to 1967 as a “revolutionary” year, the moment when a significant opening occurred in Hollywood film: that year Cool Hand Luke criticized authority, heroized rebellion, and denounced southern conservatism; Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner diagnosed the subleties of racism among liberal whites; Bonnie and Clyde romanticized social banditry; The Graduate addressed the new antibourgeois rebelliousness and growing alienation then taking hold of a large segment of the younger generation; In the Heat of the Night portrayed racism in the South; Hurry Sundown depicted a corrupt southern aristocracy; The Group presented a liberal take on women in American culture; The Flim-Flam Man celebrated rambunctious bohemianism; Marat/Sade dealt with the French Revolution and, indirectly, the problem of exploitation in contemporary society; In Cold Blood provided a journalistic examination of the psychology of murder and punishment; The Trip brought a new liberalism regarding drugs to the screen; Point Blank advanced critical perceptions of business values in an experimental style; Dutchman put on screen an Amiri Baraka (Leroi Jones) play about racism; Reflections in a Golden Eye dissected the pathologies of the military personality; Beach Red argued for pacificism and an understanding of the humanity of one’s national enemies; and Up the Down Staircase showed the new liberalism at work in schools. Social criticism would become even more striking during the following years with the appearance of Midnight Cowboy, Easy Rider, The Mad Woman of Chaillot, Medium Cool, and numerous other films.
Economic and institutional changes in the film industry contributed to the transformations underway in Hollywood. During the sixties, what remained of the old studio system was bought up by corporations; other studios transformed themselves into conglomerates. Increasingly, films were put together as “deals” by independent producers or agents, who then secured funding for production from the major studios, who also handled distribution. The demise of the studio system gave filmmakers more control over their product than had been the case during the previous era, and this development helped facilitate the production of more socially critical and innovative films. The elimination of the Production Code and the initiation of a new rating system in 1966 made it possible to deal with previously forbidden subject matter. At the same time, film schools were producing directors literate in film history and interested in making more films that were personal statements. A growing number of “art film” theaters imported European film movements which influenced the style and thematics of Hollywood film. As a result, some Hollywood films of this period began to resemble the sorts of complex cinematic texts that were being made by British social realist filmmakers, French New Wave directors, and such influential filmmakers of the time as Fellini and Bergman. These changes were related to new industry perceptions of the audience and the marketplace. An emerging baby boom youth population was quickly becoming the center of American culture, and audience surveys indicated that a young, more liberal and cineliterate audience was responding to newer, more socially conscious and innovative films.
Perhaps the crucial reason for the increase in socially conscious and stylistically innovative films in the late sixties was the liberal and radical social movements of the period—civil rights, antiwar, feminism, consumerism, gay liberation, the hippie counterculture—and the general loosening of previous strictures against sex and drugs. Radical social and political issues of the sort banished during the Cold War were once again possible topics of popular films.
Any history of the post-1967 era would note that during this period the United States ceased to be the sole world power; the American empire was curtailed on several fronts; and the postwar era of “Pax Americana” came to an end. The country’s economy experienced several major crises. The nation’s leadership from Nixon to Carter was shown to be corrupt or ineffectual. The liberal pluralist consensus that had held the country together for decades was broken by the social movements of the sixties and seventies. The split in that consensus widened throughout the seventies, and previously stable social institutions like the family and cultural representations like “the nation” and “freedom” became objects of contestation. Grassroots movements arose around issues of the environment, consumer rights, sexual politics, rent control, corporate power, and militarism. They inspired a fierce counterattack by conservatives in the late seventies and eighties.
These conflicts and changes produced significant shifts in national mood and national self-image which register in popular films of the period. The psychosocial effects of economic instability, the loss of the Vietnam War and of national prestige, social divisiveness, threats to the traditional patriarchal family and to conservative sexual mores, revelations of corruption in government and business, fears of environmental poisoning and of nuclear war are on ample display in film. In many ways, to study films of this era is to study a culture in decline, trying to come to terms with severe economic, political, and social crises and to adjust to a world in which the United States had much less power, both economically and politically. Films portray the extremes of anxiety, tension, hope, and fear undergone in this process of transformation and themselves participate in and further the process of social change. The shift from the depiction of alienation from the “American Dream” in The Graduate (1967) to the affirmation of white middle class male opportunism in Risky Business (1983) tells us something about the changes in U.S. society in the period between the two films. An understanding of the ideology of contemporary Hollywood film is therefore inseparable from the social history of the era.
Three narrative strands demarcate some of the major changes of the period: the fruition and further vicissitudes of the social movements of the sixties, the failure of liberalism in the seventies, and the triumph of conservatism in the eighties. The sixties were characterized by a radicalization of major sectors of the American population. Blacks rose up against poverty, discrimination, and disenfranchisement. Women reignited the feminist movement for reproductive rights and civic equality. Young whites rejected the American Dream of bourgeois success, turned to drugs and music as symbols of alternative values, and refused to collaborate in American imperialist adventurism in Southeast Asia. Capitalism ceased to be a taken-for-granted institution in American life, and a radical intellectual culture developed in the universities particularly. In addition, grassroots movements struggling for equality for Native Americans, Chicanos, and other minorities came into being, as did powerful ecological and environmentalist currents which spurred opposition to nuclear power and the toxic pollution of the environment. This groundswell of radical energy transformed American society, forcing significant changes in U.S. institutions, from the patriarchal family to laws regarding civil rights, the environment, and war.
Popular agitation obliged liberals in government to legislate for major changes in the way poor people, blacks, and women were treated in American society. Liberals used such government programs as welfare, public housing, busing, and affirmative action hiring requirements to alleviate the most obvious surface symptoms of structural inequality. The federal government and the courts intervened actively to remedy racial discrimination, pollution, unfair treatment of criminals, the denial of control over their bodies and sexuality to women, and so on. From a liberal perspective, it was a period of great reform, when liberals dreamed of creating a Good Society through federal spending, legislation, and regulation.
The sixties are also significant as the beginning of the end of the complicity of the American population in the imperialist aspirations of their business-government leaders. The Vietnam War was the cause that catalyzed opposition to the use of U.S. governmental and military power by the business class to wage war against nonwhite, generally anticapitalist liberation struggles in the Third World. Young men refused to fight, and by the early seventies, most adults opposed the intervention. The United States was obliged to withdraw. More important, perhaps, the war meant that business leaders in government could not count on the support of the American population when business-government decided to use force against its enemies abroad. The sixties thus mark the end of a long period during which the business class could act with impunity and great violence against popular liberation movements overseas.
Yet to speak of the sixties as an event in this way is somewhat misleading. They are in fact the culmination of a long movement under way since the mid-fifties, when the McCarthy era ended, the Beat Generation began, blacks turned on their white oppressors, and radical thinkers like Herbert Marcuse and C. Wright Mills began to voice the sorts of new ideas that have come to be associated with the New Left. Moreover, the sixties spilled over into the seventies, and the shadow of the sixties movements hangs over the liberalism of the mid-seventies, down at least until 1977.
Cinema and television were integral to the dissemination of the new radical ideas and values. Films like The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde, and Easy Rider redefined the prevailing representations of the world for many young people, offering touchstones and providing points of reference for constructing alternatives to the conformist ethos of the preceding era. In the late sixties particularly, radicals in the “New Hollywood” had more access to filmmaking than ever before. Blacks especially were noteworthy for producing strong political statements in film, and women like Barbara Loden were beginning to experiment with the use of film to represent previously unrepresented dimensions of women’s experience in a patriarchal society. Films exercised the same transgressive tendencies that were breaking down old principles of order in the world of the radical movements and the counterculture. They questioned the sanctity of the white male hero, the iconography of capitalist individualism, the ideal of conservative family life (so powerfully promulgated in fifties television), the prevailing ethos of sexual repression, and so on. Films broke down the generic boundaries and principles of propriety that segregated life into discrete sectors for men and women, rich and poor, black and white.
But the New Hollywood of racial themes and liberal values was dependent on a secure economic climate, as indeed were the movements themselves. And the seventies were to be a time of severe economic crisis and material suffering for many as a result of inflation, unemployment, and a conservative backlash against labor militancy. Payment for the simultaneous hawkish guns and liberal butter of the Johnson years began to fall due in the early seventies in the form of the first economic recession of the period (to be followed by more severe ones in the mid-seventies and early eighties). At the same time, the crisis of confidence in government and economic institutions that characterizes this period was initiated by revelations of government and corporate wrongdoing (the Pentagon Papers, the Watergate scandal, the ITT and Lockheed disclosures, media exposure of unsafe automobiles, and so on). In addition, the liberalism and radicalism of the sixties had two unintended effects. Radicalism drove many moderate liberals into the conservative camp, and liberalism ignited a reaction in the form of a virulent opposition to welfare, abortion, busing, and government regulation, and a firm advocacy of the traditional family, patriotism, and fundamentalist religious faith. The “new” conservatives were already active opponents of liberalism and radicalism in the early seventies in such journals as The Public Interest. The second, less intellectual and more populist reactionary movement did not emerge as a powerful social force until the late seventies, when it would come to be called the “New Right.”
The conservative reaction against the liberal programs of the Great Society and the radical agenda of the New Left appeared in cinematic representations that challenged the predominantly critical outlook of many late sixties films. It promoted values that were more counterrevolutionary than countercultural. Whereas blacks and the poor were victims with whom one empathized in the sixties, they became disturbers of order in early seventies films like Dirty Harry. Women, whose struggle for independence had received some sympathetic attention, now suffered a fierce and violent male backlash in the form of horror films like The Exorcist3 And the forces of law and order that were depicted as unjust and repressive in sixties movies were championed as social heroes. Conservative themes, characters, and styles began to dominate Hollywood film once again. The success of films like Love Story, Airport, The Godfather, The Exorcist, and Jaws (the first or second top grossing films for 1970, 1971, 1972, 1974, and 1975) motivated Hollywood producers to seek blockbuster hits in more conventional and predictable genre formulas. Whereas the late sixties are characterized by generic discontinuity and innovation, genres return in the early seventies as a major film form in the demonic horror and disaster films. Moreover, the ironic and critical social realist styles of the late sixties give way to a mixture of grandiose, bombastic, and mannerist styles in the early to mid-seventies. The conservative chiaroscuro of The Godfather and the misogynistic horror of The Exorcist supersede the critical reflexivity of Midnight Cowboy and the experimental style of the early Altman (M*A*S*H, Brewster McCloud, McCabe and Mrs. Miller). The resolution-oriented narrative of the classic Hollywood cinema returns in full force, and the crest of reflexivity and experimentation in narration, image, and character that one finds in the more radical films of the late sixties recedes.
Nevertheless, in the early to mid-seventies conservatism was still on the defensive, and a questioning of American institutions and values is carried out throughout these years in Hollywood film. It makes itself felt in conspiracy films, in the new black, women’s, and working-class films, in the revived social problem film, and in the transformations of such traditional genres as the western, the detective, and the musical. What these films suggest is that the radical social movements of the sixties did not disappear after 1971, but instead produced effects that spread like waves through U.S. society and put some of its most powerful social and cultural institutions in question. Even conservative films that point to the radical movements by reacting against them evidence the effects of those movements.
By the mid-seventies, some of the most significant effects of the movements of the sixties were strikingly visible. In 1975, the war in Vietnam finally ended with the liberation of Saigon. The Clark Amendment forbade foreign intervention in Angola. Abortion had been legalized, and the Equal Rights Amendment was moving toward passage. The civil rights movement extended to Chicanos and Native Americans. Strong environmental protection laws were in effect. Blacks made significant political gains in electoral politics, and black cultural production in film was at its height. Liberals in Congress were hauling major corporations as well as the intelligence apparatus over the coals for wrongdoing. The popularity of antiauthoritarian films like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and All the President’s Men (the two top grossing films in 1976) suggests that representations of a sense of distrust toward those in power were resonating with audiences. At the same time, films articulating perceptions of conspiracy among corporations and ruling elites were prevalent and popular—from Network and Coma to The China Syndrome.
But victories also take their toll by generating countermovements, and the high point of one movement can be the starting point of another in reaction to it. A new, much deeper economic recession in the mid-seventies helped foster white middle class resentment against affirmative action, in part because of the pinch of unemployment. Conservative opposition to peaceful coexistence and arms reduction talks with the USSR grew and became hysterical when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979. The attainment of relative parity in nuclear weapons also provoked right-wing fears regarding the “Present Danger.” The liberation of Angola and Nicaragua gave rise to cries of “creeping communism.” Conservative men and women launched what would be a successful campaign to turn back the ERA. Blacks suffered most through the recessions, and as the economic crisis was exacerbated, there were increasing white conservative outcries against federal welfare spending. An antitax movement sprang up around the country. Moreover, greater international economic competition made corporate profit difficult to maintain in America’s relatively high-wage climate; in consequence, corporations began to divest and deindustrialize, to move overseas in search of lower wages, and to launch a campaign against unions and labor in general.
By 1978, the New Right was becoming a powerful force in American culture and politics. The “revolt against the state,” that is, against the liberal use of the federal government to curb the negative effects of capitalism on people and the environment and to promote social welfare, was well under way. The movement was given a unified philosophy through the combination of a rehabilitated classical free market economic theory (Friedman and Laffer) with the new fundamentalist evangelism of the likes of the Moral Majority’s Jerry Falwell. These were linked with the highly combustible militarist patriotism that emerged in the late seventies in response to Soviet expansionism, the “loss” of Vietnam, and the Iran hostage crisis. What gave the movement coherence was a “politics of return,” the combined call to return to pre-New Deal, pre-social welfare economics (with its faith in the free market), to the traditional, male-supremacist family (in which children were disciplined and women subservient to men), to fundamentalist religious values (especially as allied with the “right-to-life” movement and with an eschatology that equated the Second Coming with the destruction of the Soviet antichrist), and to a time when the United States was the most powerful military nation on earth. By 1980, the New Right had been united into a religious crusade to restore the free market and the social discipline it required through the destruction of its two greatest opponents, the New Deal federal government and the Soviet Union.4
The new conservative spirit in American culture informs many popular films of the seventies and early eighties. In the Star Wars series, a very Soviet-looking Empire is successfully blown away by “republican” champions of “freedom.” Feminism is put in its place in Kramer vs. Kramer, a film that demonstrates that father does indeed know best (even about mothering). If Death Wish had not taught blacks that they had better watch out for whitey, their return to Bojangles roles in films like Trading Places at least taught them how to get along with their newly gentrified oppressors. A slew of post-Vietnam, promilitarist films, including The Deer Hunter and Rambo, made it clear that the hawks were determined not to let “it” happen again. After a mid-seventies crest of popular disillusion and projected anxiety in disaster and conspiracy films, American culture seemed to turn predictably in the late seventies to fantasies of power (Star Wars and Superman were the top films of 1977 and 1979) and fantasies of romantic, nostalgic, or religious transcendence of the world of inflation, unemployment, and loss of national prestige (Grease, Close Encounters, and Animal House were the top films of 1978).
In the early eighties, under the leadership of Ronald Reagan, the revived conservative social movements managed to turn back many of the liberal social gains of the preceding fifty years. Films that promote right-wing positions regarding feminism (Terms of Endearment), war (Rambo), economics (Risky Business), and social structure (Return of the Jedi) were prevalent during this time. The most popular films of the early to mid-eighties—Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, Beverly Hills Cop, Rambo—suggest that conservative values, escapist fantasies, and cinematic regressions to traditional social forms were resonating with audiences by now exhausted by economic crisis and the resulting insecurity and ready to identify with images of a reinvigorated patriarchal family (On Golden Pond), a revived male-centered romantic couple (An Officer and a Gentleman), a renewed military (the Star Wars series), new stronger male heroes (Indiana Jones), and triumphant Americanism (the return-to-Vietnam films).
But, as we have argued, the social movements of the sixties carried over into the seventies and eighties, and significant cinematic statements against social injustice, nuclear weapons, and U.S. foreign policy continued to be made (War Games, Missing, Silkwood, Under Fire, Salvador). This phenomenon indicates a discrepancy between cultural production and political power. But the simultaneous popularity of both liberal films like E. T. and militarist fantasies like The Empire Strikes Back also suggests that there were cultural forces at work in contradiction to the hegemonic conservative power bloc. While describing the history of the relation between film and society during the period between the passing of the New Left and the rise of the New Right, then, we will be concerned with delineating those forces and analyzing their consequences.
We conceive of the relationship between film and social history as a process of discursive transcoding. We do so in order to emphasize the connections between the representations operative in film and the representations which give structure and shape to social life. Social life consists of discourses that determine the substance and form of the everyday world. For example, the discourse of technocratic capitalism, with its ideals of progress and modernization, embodies certain material interests, but it also consists of representations that shape and transform the social world. Indeed, one could say that the very substance of capitalist modernity depends on such representations; it could not exist without them. The ideal of “progress” is a metaphor, a figure which allows specific economic interests to be transported across class lines and universalized, while also underwriting the reshaping of material life. The same can be said of people’s social roles and psychological dispositions in a capitalist culture. Businessmen live by one set of representations, housewives by another. The prevailing cultural representations that shape a businessman’s life prescribe certain patterns of behavior, thought, and feeling, and set boundaries over which he cannot cross. Similarly, the housewife internalizes representations which prescribe a quite different set of attitudes and habits, different boundaries on thought and action. The acceptance of such boundaries or limitations constitutes one’s life as a synecdoche, a part which stands in for a whole, in that one allows one’s life possibilities to be curtailed, reduced to a part, in order to fulfill a function in the larger whole of technocratic capitalist social life. One’s being is thus shaped by the representations of oneself and of the world that one holds, and one’s life can be described in terms of the figures or shapes which social life assumes as a result of the representations that prevail in a culture.
Films transcode the discourses (the forms, figures, and representations) of social life into cinematic narratives. Rather than reflect a reality external to the film medium, films execute a transfer from one discursive field to another. As a result, films themselves become part of that broader cultural system of representations that construct social reality. That construction occurs in part through the internalization of representations.
Recent “object relations” psychoanalytic theory emphasizes the role of representation in determining the direction and development of psychological life. Psychological maturation and health are foremost a matter of developing a capacity for mental representation. And certain forms of mental dysfunction, like schizophrenia, have come to be seen as consisting in part of a failure to develop such a capacity. Representation is important because it allows the person to mark out boundaries between the self and the world as well as between objects in the world. At the earliest stages of development, representation enables the child to tolerate separation from initial caretakers; by representing them to herself in their absence (by “internalizing” them), the child can learn to accept the sense of loss separation entails. If that initial separation is executed successfully with the aid of mental representations, then the child is likely to continue to develop a capacity to represent the world in a way which is not neurotic and that is distinct, complex, articulated, and differentiated. Neurotic representation is either too indistinct or too distinct; it erects excessive representational boundaries between objects or between self and world which are designed to protect a vulnerable self, or it has trouble constructing representational boundaries, with the result that the self is excessively oriented toward fusion with others.5 Such “boundary disturbances” appear as mental representations that replace representations of the actual object world with private representations that are either exaggeratedly developed, distinct, and articulated, but which have no bearing on reality, or characterized by a failure to distinguish the imaginary from the real or to make clear distinctions between objects.
Representations are also taken from the culture and internalized, adopted as part of the self. When internalized, they mold the self in such a way that it becomes accommodated to the values inherent in those cultural representations. Consequently, the sort of representations which prevail in a culture is a crucial political issue. Cultural representations not only give shape to psychological dispositions, they also play an important role in determining how social reality will be constructed, that is, what figures and boundaries will prevail in the shaping of social life and social institutions. They determine whether capitalism will be conceived (felt, experienced, lived) as a predatory jungle or as a utopia of freedom. Control over the production of cultural representation is therefore crucial to the maintenance of social power, but it is also essential to progressive movements for social change.
Film is a particularly important arena of cultural representation for carrying out such political struggles in the contemporary era. Film is the site of a contest of representations over what social reality will be perceived as being and indeed will be. Films have been used to reassert traditional representations of women in order to counteract feminism, but they have also permitted the prevailing representations of capitalism and of capitalist government to be questioned. Significant changes in American attitudes toward such institutions as government and the family have occurred in the past two decades, and cultural representations like film have been part of that process. In addition, the sorts of economic and political crises that have occurred during this time provoked psychological crises which were also crises of representation. Traditional ways of representing the world broke down; there was a tremendous loss of confidence in institutions. The cultural representations of leaders and of public virtue were eroded, and people whose psychological integrity depended on the internalization of those representations felt what psychologists call a loss of “object constancy.” That is, their private representations no longer stabilized a secure world, and that loss of stability provoked anxiety. In such a situation, either new representations can be forged which take change into account or old ones can be revived which reinstate stability. To study American film of this period is to observe this dual process in action.
The political stakes of film are thus very high because film is part of a broader system of cultural representation which operates to create psychological dispositions that result in a particular construction of social reality, a commonly held sense of what the world is and ought to be that sustains social institutions. This conception of the role of film necessitates expanding the traditional Marxist notion of ideology, defined as the system of ideas and images which operates to enlist the oppressed in their own subjugation-control without the exercise of force. In our view, ideology needs to be seen as an attempt to placate social tensions and to respond to social forces in such a way that they cease to be dangerous to the social system of inequality. Ideology carries out this task through cultural representations which, like mental representations in relation to the psyche, orient thought and behavior in a manner that maintains order and establishes boundaries on proper action.
Rather than conceive of ideology as a simple exercise in domination, we suggest that it be conceived of as a response to forces which, if they were not pacified, would tear the social system asunder from inside. Indeed, one could say that the very necessity of ideology testifies to something amiss within society, since a society that was not threatened would not need ideological defenses. By attempting to pacify, channel, and neutralize the forces that would invert the social system of inequality were they not controlled, ideology testifies to the power of those forces, of the very thing it seeks to deny. Even conservative films, therefore, can yield socially critical insights, for what they designate in a sort of inverse negative is the presence of forces that make conservative reactions necessary. By reacting against the structural tensions and potentially disruptive forces of an inegalitarian society in a way that attempts to render them invisible, film ideology must also simultaneously put them on display—just as excessively washed hands testify to offstage guilt, or as an abundance of white blood cells points to disease. It is for this reason that we see ideology itself as being a testament to the presence of forces in American society which have the potential for becoming sources of progressive change.
We would contend as well that ideology needs to be redefined more concretely as certain specific rhetorical and representational techniques which, when internalized, give rise to particular ways of constructing (perceiving and acting in) the social world in keeping with the prevailing institutional setup. Ideology, we have found, is primarily a metaphoric way of representing the world that is linked to a particular way of constructing social reality. A metaphor replaces an image with an ideal or higher meaning. The ideal meaning “freedom” is substituted for by a concrete image (for example, the eagle). The metaphoric replacement of the actual object with a higher meaning parallels the way in which, in ideology, certain ideal meanings come to stand in for an accurate perception of actuality. Someone who adopts such ideological representations of the world as “freedom” will think, feel, and act as if the ideal of class mobility were real, and will not see the structural reality of class inequality. Nevertheless, actuality cannot be erased entirely, if for no other reason than that the necessary vehicles of all ideological metaphors are actual, concrete, literal, and material, and this discursive reality cannot be transcended. The idealism and ideology which a metaphoric rhetoric permits (by creating sense of meaning that is above materiality) are trapped by their own material literality. Some connection, some material tie or contiguous link between the ideal metaphoric meaning and the reality it supposedly transcends and determines, will always obtrude. We will use the term metonymy to refer to these links. Metonymy is the trope of connection between objects which are in contiguous relation to each other or which relate by part to whole. Eagle is by metonymy not a sign for an ideal like “freedom” but rather is significant of, because literally connected to, some part of material reality like the threat hunters and land developers (whose material activities are sanctioned by an ideological ideal like freedom) pose to the wilderness and the environment. You can see why we might want to privilege the metonymic mode of representation. Rather than promote an idealized understanding of the world which overlooks material connections, metonymy is the mode of representation that foregrounds the contiguous, material, contextual interconnections between different dimensions of the actual social system. It is an anti-ideological representational form in that it acts to deconstruct the pretensions of ideological meanings like “freedom” by anchoring them in their material contexts.6
We also see the metonymic undermining of ideological metaphors as indicating real forces at work within the society of domination that threaten its stability and identity. If metaphor is an ideological representational form which sanctifies the status quo because it posits a hierarchy of ideal meaning over material image, code over context, and determination over the dissemination of reference, metonymy, in contrast, is a leveling and equalizing form which defuses metaphoric hierarchies and with them the social hierarchies they stabilize. The metonymic connections that undermine the idealizing pretensions of social metaphors instantiate real forces and possibilities in society that tend toward an equalization of all the inequalities ideological metaphors sanctify, a breakdown of social boundaries, and an erosion of such spurious ideals as property, propriety, and individual self-identity. By pacifying the tensions endemic to an inegalitarian society, ideology points toward those forces, and it cannot help but register the effects of those other possibilities in its very representational form. What we will be concerned with primarily in this book, then, will be what we call a diagnostic critique of those ideological strategies whose dual purpose is to analyze the sources, the morphology, and the limitations of conservative and liberal ideological cultural forms and to ferret out the forces and possibilities that ideology seeks to deny, forces that point beyond the society of domination toward a more equal social form. Using deconstructive analysis, we attempt to go beyond the usual charting of successful domination in the critique of ideology by studying how films undermine their own ideological premises and by asking what about ideology points toward the reconstruction of society along progressive lines, not on the basis of a utopian aspiration for another world, but on the basis of immanent possibilities within this world.7