Products of the Culture Industry Can Be Great Too

What makes a work of art “great” or “classic”? Can there be modern classics? And how is that decided? While looking for a response to these questions, I searched for “modern classic movies” in Google. The third result was an article on the Business Insider website which listed the 2008 Disney/Pixar film, WALL-E, as a “modern classic” because it “explores so many different issues that you can watch it a dozen times and enjoy focusing on each one.” (Guerrasio) According to this article a classic is re-watchable and able to be returned to with a new focus. The word, “classic,” often implies antiquity, especially because of its use with reference to Greek and Roman culture, but the other aspects of its definition and connotation do not require that a classic be from a distant past. In the claim: “It is important to study great works of art, and especially great works of literature, because they give you a head start on the path of human perfection. They help make you fit for a humane existence, help you plan out a life worth living,” a “great” work of art is valued as being able to effectively present ideology of living a “good” life or a “life worth living.” Using this criteria, WALL-E still fits. It first presents the potential negative consequences of not resolving social issues before arriving at an imagined solution which promotes ideals. WALL-E is a great work of cultural art because of its positive message in response to multiple social issues.

WALL-E brings to light the issues of climate change, obesity, and attachment to technology. It also critiques big business and ignorance before arriving at a semi-happy ending when the people work to resolve the issues. The issue of climate change is the most obvious. The film takes place in a post-apocalyptic future where humans have lived on a giant, highly technological spaceship, the Axiom, for over 700 years because the waste and pollution on Earth made it unable to sustain life. Once any sign of plant life is found on Earth, the humans are supposed to return to restore and re-inhabit the planet. The name, WALL-E is an acronym that stands for “Waste Allocation Load Lifter – Earth-Class.” WALL-E appears to be the only functional robot of his kind left on Earth. He lives all alone with his cockroach friend in the run-down, complete landfill that is now Earth. He collects the trash, forms it into cubes, and builds towers out of it. Sometimes he finds objects that interest him and he takes it home where he organizes them. One day, he finds a little plant and saves it. Then another robot, named EVE (another acronym, which stands for Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator), arrives to search for plant life. After meeting WALL-E and finding the plant, she returns to the Axiom in hibernation mode with WALL-E following her. On the Axiom, we meet the humans, who are constantly lounging in hover chairs with video screens in front of their faces to chat with each other and watch advertisements about food and drink on the ship. Robots run the ship while the humans relax like they are always on vacation. They are all obese because they barely even have to move. They are also so focused on their screens that they do not notice anything else around them. The Axiom is operated by Buy N Large, the corporation whose logo is the only one that appears – both on Earth and on the spaceship. When the former leader, who sent the humans to space, is shown, we see that he was not the President, but the CEO of Buy N Large. The movie seems to blame all big businesses for ruining the Earth and causing all of the other issues. The movie suggests that this (a waste-filled, barren Earth with humans living in outer space as little more than blobs) is what could happen if we do not resolve these issues now.

After critiquing and presenting the issues, the movie then provides solutions for them and arrives at a semi-happy ending. Shortly after the Axiom left, it was thought that Earth would forever be uninhabitable so the CEO sent a message to the Axiom that they should never return to Earth. However, this movie shows that there is still hope to reverse the pollution on Earth, even after it has been completely overcome by garbage. Therefore it is also possible to change now so that Earth does not get to that point. In addition, WALL-E and EVE take care of the one little plant and treat it as precious and valuable as they protect it from the auto-pilot robots who want to destroy it and force the humans to stay in space instead of returning home to Earth to recolonize. This shows how we should treat plants, even now, because they are necessary for our survival on Earth. At the end of the movie (after the captain changes the “Auto” robot to manual), the humans return to Earth and begin to farm to begin to reverse the damage done by all the pollution and waste. This ending is only semi-happy because there is still much work to be done; it is only the beginning of more struggles as they try to rebuild the Earth and start over. Because the captain turns off the autopilot of the head robot, he shuts down the former big business leader and gains control. The movie presents the ideology that in order to restore the planet, big business leaders have to realize that there is still hope for the planet and treat plants the way WALL-E and EVE do by taking care of them instead of destroying them.

An interesting part of the movie is that WALL-E and EVE act like humans more than the humans do. WALL-E watches black and white movies on a TV in his home and wants to fall in love and hold hands with someone. He acts like he has a crush on EVE when he meets her and eventually they seem to fall in love. They are the only robots who make decisions on their own and show human emotions. In fact, they also teach the humans how to take charge, stand up (both metaphorically and literally) for the planet, and care for one another. The fact that humans learn from robots also presents hope because technology will not necessarily ruin the planet.

The movie also suggests that we should be aware of our surroundings and appreciate nature instead of being so attached to technology. WALL-E accidentally knocks a man off of his chair and introduces himself as he helps the man back up. With the video screen no longer in front of him, the man finally looks around and says “I didn’t know we had a swimming pool.” Later, WALL-E interrupts a woman’s video chat because he wants to move closer to EVE and she was in the way. Again, without the screen in front of her, she notices that they have a swimming pool. The man and the woman meet and later they observe in awe as WALL-E and EVE fly around outside the spaceship. They appreciate the beautiful stars and scenery that they only notice now that they are not constantly watching a screen. They also leave their chairs voluntarily and exercise a little bit as they have fun swimming in the swimming pool and they disregard a robot that tells them it is time to leave. The movie encourages physical activity and agency both in this scene and when the captain finally has to stand up and walk to turn off Auto. The captain takes charge of the technology and tells Auto “I don’t want to survive, I want to live.” Even though humans are surviving on the Axiom, they are not living because they are not being active or taking agency. The ideology presented in this movie makes this movie a great work of art because it is positive and teaches how to live a life worth living.

Several cultural critics would disagree that WALL-E could be considered “great.” Matthew Arnold, whose argument is paraphrased in the claim quoted above, implies in his writing that his definition of a great work of art would almost exclusively include art created before the Industrial Revolution. F. R. Leavis, who would also agree with the above quoted claim, draws a distinction between popular media intended for mass consumption and great works of literature and art that makes the two mutually exclusive. Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer introduced the term, “the culture industry,” to criticize the mass production and standardization of cultural media and the arts because it turned art into a product to be marketed and sold and it caused all the works to be very similar to each other. Louis Althusser, who also critiques the capitalization of the arts, argues that popular media is used by the ruling class to indoctrinate the proletariat with ideology that maintains them as subservient workers. All these men agree, although for different reasons, that cultural works which are the products of the entertainment business are damaging to society because they are not produced freely. They would all likely contest the above assertion that WALL-E, a children’s movie created by one of the largest and most influential media companies, could be likened to a classic work of art because of its positive messages. But it fits Arnold’s and Leavis’ criteria for a great work of art even though it is a product of the culture industry and it was made for both entertainment and ideology.

I disagree with Althusser’s cynical view and I believe the ideology in this movie is intended to teach values and ideals to children because the producers actually believe in their ability to change the world for the better – not because they want to prepare future workers. Leavis’ point that we should be able to tell the difference between a work of art which can teach ideals and one that represents what we should not follow is applicable even to products of the culture industry. WALL-E’s ideology is what makes it valuable and worth watching despite its production. Even some mass-produced works of art can be great in the way that Arnold and Leavis argue.


Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor W., and Max Horkheimer. “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception.” Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments. Ed. Gunzelin Schmid Noerr. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. Stanford, California: Stanford UP, 2002. 94-136. Print.

Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.” Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. Trans. Ben Brewster. Monthly Review, 1971. 1-65. Print.

Arnold, Matthew. Culture and Anarchy. Ed. Jane Garnett. New York: Oxford UP, 2006. Print.

Guerrasio, Jason. “20 Modern Classic Movies Everyone Needs to Watch in Their Lifetime.” Business Insider. Business Insider, Inc, 01 Jan. 2016. Web. 16 Mar. 2016.

Leavis, F. R. “Three Editorials.” The Importance of Scrutiny. Ed. Eric Bentley. New York: George W. Stewart,. 1-11. Print.

WALL-E. Dir. Andrew Stanton. By Andrew Stanton, Jim Reardon, Ben Burtt, Elissa Knight, and Jeff Garlin. Prod. Jim Morris. Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures and Pixar Animation Studios, 2008.

Lose Control


For those of you who, as children, wanted to grow up to be a “superhero,” like Batman, I presume “fascist” was not part of the job description. The Dark Knight, a 2008, Christopher Nolan blockbuster, shows us that justice is not absoluteOur beloved childhood superhero, Batman, isn’t so ideal. Though a superficial, with the grain reading of The Dark Knight would go along with the consistent depiction of the Batman in various other films and comics, Nolan attempts to show us that justice has shadings, and they are not as clear-cut as they might seem. The mere fact that the film was named The Dark Knight licenses some curiosity in even the least skeptical of critics. For the sake of making my argument even clearer, Batman is not the knight in shining armor we might see him as, on the contrary, he is a knight that works in the shadows, a vigilante. Because he attempts to solve the problems of crime plaguing Gotham, we see him as a hero, however, audiences overlook the fact that his actions fit the mold of a blatant fascist. Batman steps outside the legal realm to engage in violence and, more often than not, infringes upon the privacies of the people of Gotham. He reserves the enforcement of justice for elite like himself. Complementing this, his nemesis, the Joker, is an anarchist, priding himself on the destruction of societal norms. The film is actually more of a dichotomous relationship between fascism and anarchism, where the true colors of Batman shine through. Even the seemingly most pure symbols of justice are flawed.

Though this goes without saying, the Joker is not in the slightest sense a materialist. Yes, we see several scenes associating the Joker with money, but it becomes quite evident that the Joker is not your average “money is power”-type criminal. He torches Gotham’s mob’s extorted funds without batting an eye. The Joker professes, “It’s not about money, it’s about sending a message”. Withholding money from those who want it most is his way of gaining attention in the capitalist economy. Alfred makes the piercing observation that, “Some men…they can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with.” This is precisely why the Joker is untouchable. The Joker has no material desire. Nothing can lure him out of his cage. The fact that he has nothing to lose, only a drive for means (and not ends), makes him close to perfect. When threatened by Batman during his interrogation, the Joker remarks, “You have nothing to hurt me with.” Pain is fleeting. The Joker has no Achilles heel. His nihilism makes him a devout anarchist.


Whereas it is evident that forces of good, like Batman and the law, attempt to contain situations, what makes the Joker’s character so powerful is lack of control. The Joker gets off on the fear that causes mayhem and disorder in society. He explicitly says to Harvey Dent in Gotham General, “I try to show schemers how pathetic their attempts to control things really are.” Control means you have and end. It means you are vulnerable and expendable. Essentially every attempt by the “good guys” to contain situations is their undoing. The Joker goes on to explain, “Do I really look like a guy with a plan?…I’m a dog chasing cars.” A lack thereof a plan means that there are no expectations. The Joker is just a grown up version of that delinquent child who would always exceed expectations (and I don’t mean this in a good sense). Rules were there to be broken. The Joker is a blatant anarchist because his sole purpose is to tear at the roots of society, taunting those with a plan. The Joker even says, “I just did what I do best. I took your little plan and I turned it on itself.”


When it comes to Batman the great, Batman the fascist, we are blinded by our naiveté. Batman is supposed to be the hero, enforcing justice where the law cannot. We so very much want him to be perfect. So what if he has a little bit of a power complex? The Dark Knight’s authoritarian tendencies are evident very early in the movie. The opening scene of the film depicts ruthless mob members, who cringe at the sighting of the menacing bat-crest that lights up the sky. When the Dark Knight is done beating up the mob-members, one of the bandwagon, copycat batmen asks, “What’s the difference between you and me?” The response given is one implicit of power and wealth. Looking past the fact that Bruce Wayne is a smart, billionaire, playboy, trust-fund child, Batman uses his wealth and resources to act in ways the law does not. Whereas Gotham Police can’t afford high-tech, carbon-fiber armor, cutting-edge, military grade vehicles, and gadgets that seem to be handy in the worst of situations, Bruce Wayne can. The film’s audience is blinded by the fact that everyone wants to be a smart, capricious, billionaire playboy. We overlook the fact that his money gives him power, which he uses to act in ways he sees fit. Much like the Joker uses fear to stir society, Batman uses fear (in conjunction with brute power) to control crime. In a sense, Batman’s power goes beyond controlling law offenders as he also holds sway over law enforcement. The police won’t arrest him—Commissioner Gordon is essentially his puppet. Gordon gives Batman priority over raids, investigations, etc. Clearly this is a blatant transgression of what law is supposed to be. Batman is the muscle who acts in ways the police can’t and won’t physically and legally act. In a sense, Batman has monopolized every aspect of society. His power lets him enforce justice the way he sees fit, and, in turn, he walks unscathed. The Dark Knight is premised on totalitarian control of the justice system. Gotham is a corrupt city, even under the guard of the Batman.


Batman takes the Patriot Act to a whole new level. The Dark Knight goes beyond visible power tactics by formulating a highly-illegal, complex cellphone surveillance system to monitor society for threats. Batman infringes upon the privacies of each and every citizen of Gotham. Lucius Fox, the head of Wayne Enterprises, recognizes that the machine is “too much power for one person,” but, of course, concedes to the rhetoric of the Dark Knight and provides his services. Mass surveillance is a blaring signal of Batman’s fascist tendencies. Not only does he use money and power to influence and control people, but he also monitors the most intimate, undisclosed facets of people’s lives by turning their cellphones into pulse-generating, live microphones. As no one is beyond the reach and influence of the Dark Knight, we must ask, what are the limits of good intentions? Batman wants to keep society safe, but, in doing so, is he justified in infringing upon other basic liberties?

Anarchism and fascism are at odds with one another throughout the film. As these two forces duke it out, Nolan attempts to show the audience that a normative view of justice is nonexistent. Justice has shadings, and for every person there is a tipping point. The Joker mocks Batman, “You are truly incorruptible, aren’t you?…I think you and I are destined to do this forever.” Evidently the weakness of the Dark Knight is his compulsive sense of justice. The Joker and Batman are at odds with one another just as disorder and an obsessive urge for control oppose one another. The system is in constant swing.

Knowing that Batman’s weakness is his ardent sense of justice, the Joker pushes the Dark Knight to challenge his own beliefs. The Dark Knight seems like an “immovable object,” but seeing that he was willing to risk the lives of the partygoers at the Wayne fundraiser to save Rachel, it becomes clear to the Joker that Batman cares about something other than justice. In an attempt to corrupt the Dark Knight, the Joker gives Batman a choice between the two things he holds most dearly: Rachel, a symbol of lust, and Harvey Dent, a symbol of justice for the people. While being interrogated, the Joker says to the Dark Knight, “Then that’s the rule you’ll have to break to know the truth. The only sensible way to live in this world is without rules, and tonight you’re going to break your one rule.” Ironically, the Joker is in a cage: he has no control, but nor does Batman. For once in his crime-stopping career, Batman loses his grip on the world. This explains why he goes to the extent he does to infringe upon the law. The Joker’s job is made easier by the fact that he can tear people apart internally, even in the position of a prisoner. The Joker lies about the locations of each hostage, in turn internally tearing the Dark Knight to pieces. Batman intends to go after Rachel, but finds Harvey in the warehouse at which he arrives. Batman’s intentions show viewers that even the most consistent sense of justice is corruptible. Not only did the Joker pervert the authoritarian justice that Batman stood for, but, like a double-edged sword, he also corrupted “Gotham’s White Knight.”

When we think that all has come to a close and justice has been served, the Joker reminds us, viewers, of the loose cannon that he has set upon society, Two-Face Harvey. Dent is the one man Batman can’t control. If society were to learn that the man serving as Gotham’s district attorney had been stepping outside the law, to serve justice as he saw fit, order would crumble. Paradoxically, Batman seems to already fit this role, enforcing justice the way he sees fit. Just as Batman breaks laws to bring society under his control, Two-Face Harvey kills in order to bring the world to its knees. Until the end, it seems as if the only thing separating Batman and Dent is the fact that Batman won’t kill. Ultimately we are proven wrong when the Dark Knight assumes his role, hurling Dent off the edge of a building. The Dark Knight takes Harvey Dent’s life to reaffirm the sense of justice that the Joker took from him. In Gotham there can only be one fascist that decides how to interpret justice. Corrupted by the Joker, Harvey Dent threatened that establishment.


Nolan’s film depicts a struggle between fascism and anarchism, a battle of polar opposites, where justice is not absolute. Even the things we take for granted are corruptible. The title, The Dark Knight, is implicit of a struggle more than just that of good versus evil, as most viewers see it. A society, heavily monitored and maintained by one individual, is challenged by a nihilist, who attempts to break away the most fundamental facets of what makes the public human. The Dark Knight is in no sense clear-cut. Justice has shadings, and those shadings are determined by those individuals who hold the most influence over society. The conflict of the film is Batman’s attempt to hold onto his twisted sense of justice, even in the face of a villain who tries to show that justice is obsolete.

Superman: Man of Steel or Man of God?


Mankind fancies themselves beings of superior intellect compared to their bestial counterparts. They pride themselves on their individuality, knowledge, and reason. Little do they realize that the strength with which they pride themselves are not even theirs to claim. The agency and free will that man believes himself to possess is an illusion. His ideas, his personality, his entire being is produced by the society with which he lives. From the moment a child is born they are forced through a lifetime of institutionalization, through which they are taught to believe that the lessons they adopt are organically formulated in their own minds. This is achieved most successfully through the arts, manifestations of culture. Ideologies present themselves in all forms of art masked by an innovative representation. The same stories are told and retold, but each generation discovers or develops a means to regurgitate the ideologies that society has instilled in them in a fashion that appears to be new. The reason it succeeds is simply that one cannot refute what one does not consciously know is being argued. Instead man mindlessly absorbs what he believes to be frivolous or harmless entertainment, while unknowingly accepting and adopting a set of ideals he most likely has already been exposed to and will continue to be exposed to in order to ensure his allegiance and conformity. A society cannot function unless each individual understands and respects the role they must play. Whether it be an aristocrat or a peasant, compliance is vital. In the 2013 action film, Man of Steel, directed by, Zach Snyder, a seemingly innocent story of the beloved comic book hero, Superman, is riddled with underlying ideologies of Christian theology and American patriotism. For over 75 years, the world has blindly worshiped him as a secular, fictional character, while unknowingly praising Christian and American propaganda.


Though not perfectly, Superman’s story, and specifically his story depicted in the 2013 rendition, Man of Steel, mirrors that of the story of Christ. Born on the planet Krypton, Superman, originally named Cal-El, is sent by his father, Jor-El, to the planet Earth in order to save its people. Jor-El, even goes as far to claim that his son “will be a God to them”, in reference to humanity. Similarly, Jesus Christ is sent by his father, God, to enlighten the people of earth and save them by way of dying for their sins. Both men are aliens delivered from the skies to humanity with the sole purpose of “saving” mankind. Once on earth both men are raised by an adoptive human couple, whom bear resembling names. For Superman, he is raised by Martha and Jonathan Kent, two farmers, whom discovered him after his spaceship is crashed in a field. They give him his “earth name”, Clark. Jesus, lacking a spaceship, entered the world through natural birth by way of his human mother Mary. However, Mary, wife of Joseph, was allegedly a virgin, whom had been chosen by the Lord to birth and raise his only son. In addition to similar names, the human father’s both manual labor occupations: a farmer and a carpenter. It is key that Superman and Christ are both raised in humble surroundings. From a young age, both men demonstrate godlike or supernatural qualities. Jesus, though not performing any of his more substantial miracles until adulthood, presents a superior wisdom that can only be explained by the grace of God. Superman as a child is depicted as performing several miracles. One of which involved the sinking of bus, where superman, under the alias of Clark Kent, pushed the bus out of the water and saves the life of a drowning bully. Superman attempts to complete this act of selflessness as covertly as possible as his human father, Jonathan insists on him keeping it a secret until the time is right. He believes that Superman has a greater purpose on this earth, but is cautious that humans will reject Superman out of fear. He repeatedly states “People are afraid of what they don’t understand.” This idea of rejection based on fear is one of if not the core theme of the story of Christ. Jesus is condemned and ultimately killed because those fear him and what he is capable of. Man of Steel attempts to stress this theme so extensively that they even depict Jonathan dying instead of allowing his son, Superman, to showcase his powers before the time was right. Both men do not openly demonstrate their powers until their thirties. Jesus begins his ministry, the period in which he performs all his miracles and spreads the word of God, with his baptism in Jordan. Superman enters the public sphere following his own discovery of his “mission”: after a Kryptonian spaceship is located in the Arctic, Superman enters the ship and inserts the necklace he was sent with, which turns out to be a universal key. Once inserted into the ship, Jor-El’s consciousness or spirit is uploaded to the ship. Jor-El’s ability to be present even after death as a guiding and all powerful source proves him to be God or at least a god like figure. Through his father, Superman finally learns who he is, where he came from, and most importantly what his purpose on earth is. Informing Superman of his mission, Jor-El states, “you will give the people of Earth an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you, they will stumble, they will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun, Kal. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders.” Additionally, Jor-El explains that Superman’s strength and abilities are fueled by earth’s sun; Superman is powered by light. Light, in the bible is a representation for good, knowledge, morality, and most importantly divinity. Throughout the film Superman’s relationship with light is emphasized to insinuate his holiness, in the same fashion that Christ is usually depicted with light.


From the ship Superman acquires a Kyrptonian battle suit, in the colors of the American flag, with what appears as an ‘S’ on the chest but is in actually a symbol for hope. This is an overt attempt to label superman as a beacon of hope, just as Christ was. General Zod, mirroring Lucifer, eventually enters the story. Lucifer, often referred to as the Devil or Satan, is a fallen angel. Jealous of God’s power and glory, Lucifer attempts to overthrow the Kingdom of God, sparking the only war to take place in heaven, and upon his failure is cast down from Heaven. In a similar fashion, General Zod attempts to overthrow the Kryptonian government and miserably fails. As punishment for his treason, he, and those he led astray, are shot into a black hole, representing hell. Both men experience this before the birth of Christ, ie. Superman. Once faced with the savior, Lucifer and Zod both attempt to corrupt their foe and lead them astray from their sole mission: Lucifer attempts to convince Christ that humanity is not worth saving, and Zod attempts a very similar plan, arguing that they are both Kryptonians, and should thus build a new Kypton through the mass genocide of humankind. Following Zod’s introduction into the film is the most iconic scene of the movie. Overlooking earth from space, Superman speaks to his father, God, for the last time. Jor-El says to his son “You can save all of them.” Superman, understanding what must be done, levitates out of the ship in the shape of cross with the sun illuminating him, then bolts down to planet earth.


Man of Steel, a movie so heavily doused in patriotism, demonstrates not only what Americans value, but more importantly what it is to be an American. A brown haired, blue-eyed, white man from a working class family in the Midwest is depicted as the Messiah. It is not a coincidence that these qualities align with a country built on a white heteronormative patriarchy. Nor is it by chance that Superman’s story, while mirroring the story of Christ also embodies the American Dream. Clark goes from being a small town, farm boy to the nation’s greatest hero. For America, the only solution to its problems is through the power of a greater being. For America, Christ is the only option.


You’re Not My Supervisor: Archer and Anti-Nationalism


When the FX TV show Archer broadcast its 5th season, fans of the show knew they were in for something different. Gone were the serial episodes split between the ISIS (the International Secret Intelligence Service and not the middle-eastern terrorist group ISIL) headquarters and exotic international locations. Instead, our heroes were on the run – fleeing US supervision and attempting to cash out a literal ton of cocaine. These changes brought a far more critical view of the spy-action drama Archer had parodied in prior seasons.

One possible method to understanding season 5’s message comes from Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser. In “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” Althusser claims that within the political sphere are multiple fighting groups. Each group promotes a different ideology that it believes everybody else should adopt. The key aspect of Althrusser’s theory is that this battle is cultural. As such, this struggle is reflected in our cultural creations. In the same way that groups fight to spread their ideology, movies and TV shows do too (Althusser, 146). If Althusser’s theory is correct, entertainment must be engaged in an ideological conflict.

Archer: Vice offers a particularly interesting window into this struggle because it is such a departure from the previous seasons’ format. If Althusser is correct, then the show critiques and battles the ideology preached by James Bond, Mission Impossible, and other similar movies in the spy-action genre. But the question still remains of what Archer subtly implies to its viewers, and how that is different from the ideology supplied by other shows.

The most prominent franchise of the spy-action genre is James Bond. Archer, and many other spy movies and TV shows, takes most of its tropes from this series. Specifically, the relationship between Sterling and Mallory is reminiscent of Bond and M’s. Archer’s surface aesthetic is much the same as Bond’s: they wear suits, are serial womanizers, and love a good drink. Both work for government agencies that send them all over the world for a multitude of reasons, the most prominent of which is assassination.

The defining trait of Bond and Archer is their nationalities. While American spies are common across all media, the “Bond-type” is a distinct trope with many characteristics of an stereotypical English gentleman. Archer, the show, takes the time to make sure that Sterling Archer emulates Bond but removes all traces of being British. Sterling lacks Bond’s sly demeanor, replacing it with a loud conspicuousness. Wry wit is replaced with overt sexual references and slapstick humor.   Bond’s powers of seduction come from a careful mental game combined with physical prowess. Archer gets with women by boasting about his job and all his achievements. Bond has a “martini, shaken not stirred.” Archer has whatever he can get his hands on. Even the two character’s theme songs reflect on their nationalities. Bond’s theme is an orchestral arrangement that plays as he walks triumphantly away from another vanquished enemy. Archer’s theme, “Danger Zone” by Kenny Loggins, literally describes him: Archer is a danger. The slick and posh versus the crude and common cleanly divides Bond from Archer in the came clichéd way that “American” and “British” are commonly differentiated.


Archer, top, is chaotic and uses brute force while Bond, bottom, is calmer and more refined.















The attention to nationality changes the message of each Bond movie and the Archer TV show. In the modern Bond movie Skyfall, the climactic battle takes place on Bond’s hometown estate of Skyfall in Scotland. Bond, along with the groundskeeper Kincade and head of MI6 M, are on the run from a former MI6 agent named Raoul Silva. After retreating to Skyfall, the heroes set up a series of traps and devices in order to defend Skyfall against well-armed attackers. After a long battle, Bond is triumphant in killing Silva. Unfortunately, M is killed in the battle. She leaves a Union Jack emblazoned porcelain bulldog to Bond to remember her by( Skyfall).

The Althussarian interpretation of these events points back to nationality. Because Bond is so clearly identified with Britain, it follows that when Bond is defending his homestead he is also defending his homeland. The battle at Skyfall invokes a possible attack on England by terrorists. Furthering this interpretation is the knowledge that Silva was at one point an MI6 agent, implying that these attacks can come from the inside by people who aren’t loyal to Britain. But the way that Bond survived was by retreating to Skyfall, and using the resources it provided. The ideological interpretation here is that in order to be safe, individuals should be loyal to their nations. Skyfall, and Bond in general, promotes staunch nationalism.

Although Bond is British, and the movie does directly promote British nationalism, I believe the correct interpretation of the movie’s ideology is that it promotes nationalism in general. Most audiences viewing this movie do not identify with Britain, but they do identify with Bond. As a viewer, watching Bond defend his country will not inspire you to defend Britain as well. Instead, the ideology will rub off on you to defend whichever country you support. The distinction between Bond’s British identity and Archer’s American identity is only important in the contexts of the character’s stories. In terms of ideology, the concepts are generalized.

Archer argues against the type of nationalism promoted by Bond in Archer: Vice. The season begins with an attack by the FBI on ISIS, which results in the death of minor character Brett and the arrest of the main cast (“White Elephant”). This initial scene sets up the rest of the season: the disgraced ISIS agents attempting to sell cocaine in order to make some money before parting ways. I want to draw attention to two particular episodes in this season. First is “On the Carpet.” In this episode, we are introduced to Slater, the shady arms dealer. Slater gives Archer, Cyril, and Ray weapons in return for the cocaine they were attempting to smuggle, and tells them to fly south. Slater’s identity is revealed in “Arrival/Departure,” the final episode of the season. Slater is actually a CIA agent who was selling arms to a South American dictator to increase the CIA’s budget. The dictator could only pay for the weapons with cocaine, so the CIA needed people to sell the cocaine for them. The ISIS agents had actually been selling the CIA’s cocaine the whole time. Slater attempts to bring the ISIS agents to a CIA black site, but is disarmed. The episode ends with Mallory pulling a gun on the CIA agents and forcing them to reinstate ISIS.

As Archer’s defining trait, like Bond, is his nationality, we should look at these events through the national lens again. The initial crisis in the series is not an attack by a foreign group. The initial crisis is an attack by the US on an American – Archer. The breach of trust between country and individual doesn’t end there. The final reveal, that the CIA had used ISIS to fulfill their own goals, also demonstrates this point. Ideologically, Archer is implying that we should not trust our government. The government will only use you and abuse you, as they did to the ISIS agents. Furthermore, as indicated by Mallory, the only way to save yourself is to force the government to help you. That fact is reinforced by the attempted murder of the ISIS agents by the CIA once the ISIS agents had lost their utility. Archer counters the Bond style nationalism with a grim account of government secrecy and betrayal. Archer implores the viewer to not become a pawn in a much larger war.

Archer’s anti-nationalist agenda is unique and not a result of Archer’s satirical nature Austin Powers, another parody franchise that draws main elements from the James Bond, also advocates nationalism. Like both Bond and Sterling Archer, Austin Powers is known for his suits, nationality, and serial womanizing. But the ideology offered by Powers is in accordance with Bond, rather than Archer.

Take Austin Powers in Goldmember as a specific example. The major conflict is that Dr. Evil and Goldmember have commissioned a tractor beam (called “Preperation H”) that they will use to destroy the world. In the final confrontation of the movie, Austin pleads with Dr. Evil not to launch this rocket towards Earth. At the penultimate moment, Austin’s father reveals that Dr. Evil is actually Austin’s brother, which causes Dr. Evil to switch sides and fight off Goldmember to save the day.

There are a few key details that should be included to clarify Austin Powers’ ideology. First, the rocket is very clearly made by the Japanese – a whole scene in the movie is dedicated to infiltrating the factory where it was constructed. Second, Goldmember is Dutch, and a Belgian couple raised Dr. Evil. The enemy in this movie is foreigners, foreigners who want to destroy the world with foreign technology. And the way to stop this from happening is by uniting under a British identity. Austin Powers, while plainly parodying James Bond, agrees with Bond that nationalism and national identity is a solution to problems. Furthermore, it even identifies the specific way you should serve your country: accept the brotherhood of your nation and you will be protected from outsiders who mean you harm. Despite it’s nature as a parody, Austin Powers is on the same side as Bond in the cultural battle.

Austin Powers next to his car, “The Shagmobile”

For Althusser’s theory to be demonstrated, there must be an ideological war between movies within the same genre and of the same type. The traditional spy-action superpower, James Bond, has long argued that we should submit to our country and accept our place as a member of that particular society. Even spin off media, like Austin Powers, which parodies some of the central concepts and constructs in Bond, advocates the same position. But Archer, a firm fixture in the spy-action scene disagrees. It tells us to distrust our government and find our own path to safety. In doing so, it declares a cultural war on the other spy TV shows and movies.






Austin Powers in Goldmember. Jay Roach. Perf. Mike Myers, Beyonce Knowles, Seth Green.  New Line Cinema, 2002, Online.

Althusser, Louis. “Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays.” La Pensée (1970): 127-186. Web.17 Mar. 2016.

Skyfall. Sam Mendes. Perf. Danial Craig, Javier Bardem, Naiome Harris. Metro Golden Meyer, 2012. Online.

“White Elephant,” “The Rules of Extraction,” and “Arrival/Departure.” Archer: Vice. Writ. Adam Reed. FX, 2013. Online.


Forrest Gump: A Feather in the Breeze

Each of us wants to find happiness in one form or another. We hope to obtain material objects or attain non-material moral and societal standards because we trust that these things will bring us happiness. British literary critic Matthew Arnold believed in adopting disciplined strategies that minimize the role of chance in order to ensure happiness. He asserted that true happiness comes only through reading the standard-bearers of literary achievement, the “classics.” Arnold insisted that only by reading the classics can a person attain culture: a set of common meanings and values that can then be applied to the real world and guide an individual on how to live a life worth living (5). To stray from this well-ordered path, he warned, is to fail to reach the final goal of perfection. Arnold, writing in the mid-19th century, rejected the notion that culture can be obtained from any other source, and dismissed contemporary film and literature as superficial, without substance, and to be avoided at all costs.

Fellow academic Raymond Williams agreed with Arnold on this topic; he too denigrated modern media as low-brow babble aimed at an expanding audience presumed to be stupid. Williams recognized the value of classic education, yet also believed that “ordinary,” working-class people, and not the elites, have a culture that can teach us valuable lessons on how to live a happy life (4). Each man overlooked the potential insights to be found in the newest generation of literature and film.

The 1994 film Forrest Gump presents a theory of happiness born of both education and ordinary experience, enhanced by the role of free will and chance. The protagonist is a simple, small-town man who by conventional standards is lacking in both culture and intelligence, yet exemplifies both in the unorthodox, almost accidental fashion in which he lives out his life. Forrest is not well-read, but heeds his mother’s sage advice. He is optimistic, avoids judging others, and is kind and respectful to everyone he meets. He is a shining example of the honorable culture of the poor that Williams touts. The film celebrates the simple truths of blue-collar values, which can be just as illuminating as classic literature. It also demonstrates that happiness can be found in a life led without a plan.

Forrest takes life as he finds it and without any clear path, but succeeds and finds joy in every situation he faces because he responds to each in the same cultured manner: with kindness, respect, integrity, and optimism. The feather that floats through the air at both the beginning and end of the movie is a perfect metaphor: Forrest never knows where his life will take him next, but he goes with the flow and he finds happiness at all stops along the way because that is what his mother taught him to do. From a young age, Forrest listened to his mother’s advice. One quote, in particular, always comforts and reassures him: “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.” Surprises are to be expected, and some are more pleasant than others. He lives his life by this motto, and and it guides him through a most astonishing series of random events.  He finds himself in the middle of some of the most important moments of his generation: dancing to the music of a young Elvis Presley in his home; meeting presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon in the White House; and fighting in Vietnam. Through it all, he maintains his same demeanor. He even wins a Purple Heart simply because he keeps two promises: he promised Jenny he will run away from the conflict when things got bad, and he promised his good friend Bubba that he had his back, just as Bubba had his. Bound by his culture to keep these promises, he carries countless wounded men out of the field of battle, including Bubba (who does, however, die). This keeping of promises as a means of survival is exactly what Raymond Williams is talking about when he discusses the culture of the ordinary people.

In his essay entitled “Culture is Ordinary,” Williams describes the selfless deeds his neighbors perform in assistance of his family while his father was on his deathbed: “one man came in and dug his [father’s] garden; another loaded and delivered a lorry of sleepers for firewood; another came and chopped the sleepers into blocks; another – I don’t know who, it was never said – left a sack of potatoes at the back door; a woman came in and took away a basket of washing” (11). His neighbors perform these acts of kindness without even saying they did them and with the expectation that, were they in the same situation, Williams and his family would do the same for them. Forrest does the same, even when he is mistreated. He generously gives Bubba’s share of profits from the business they hoped to start together to Bubba’s mother, even though she called him stupid for even starting the company on his own. He also donates large sums of money to institutions that have helped him in the past, thereby returning the favor. Forrest’s life is grounded by his values, and he is a happy man.

The life of Forrest’s one true love, a hometown girl named Jenny, illustrates a life defined by chance and whim and unanchored by culture. Jenny did not have good parenting, and her childhood was filled with brutality and betrayal. Her adult life is defined by a series of poor choices. She is dismissed from college because of a series of lewd photographs, performs topless at a club in Memphis, continues a harmful relationship with an abusive jerk and Black Panther Party member, and samples various psychedelic drugs with hippies. She achieves nothing of permanence in her life, and as a result is so unhappy that she considers suicide on several occasions. This unhappiness is consistent with Arnold’s theory that happiness is created by doing things that cannot be taken away.

But when Jenny needs help, and even when she really doesn’t, Forrest comes to her aid. He punches out a myriad of men who he believes to be a threat to Jenny over the course of the movie. His constancy is a perfect counterbalance to her many missteps, because, although his life is far from well-ordered, he is steady, anchored by his values, and finds happiness in simple things. He tries to help Jenny do the same.

With all of the poor choices Jenny made throughout her life, she acts as a foil to Forrest. The fact that they grew up together in the small town of Greenbow, Alabama, did not result in them internalizing the same culture. The fact that it was a small town should not be romanticized, because that town included much meanness and treachery. Forrest and Jenny are products of the best and the worst in rural values.

Greenbow contradicts Raymond Williams’ notion that culture of a town is particularly good just because it is small and ordinary. The people of Greenbow call Forrest abusive names. The school principal extorts sex from Forrest’s mother as a condition of accepting Forrest into the school. Mrs. Gump does what she has to do to make sure that Forrest gets the education he needs so he can fit in more with the other kids his age. In this light, Mrs. Gump’s conduct aligns with the ideas of Arnold in that she believes Forrest will be better off if he learns “the best which has been thought and said in the world, and through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon [his] stock notions and habits” (Arnold 5). She believes that the knowledge Forrest will gain in the regular elementary school will improve the quality of life. She realized what Raymond Williams did not: that a child like Forrest needs education to complete his “culturization” and ability to more intimately relate with the world around him.

Arnold and Williams are both products of their time and place. It is understandable that, as a highly educated British theorist, Arnold would assume that only people of comparable intellectual potency could be considered cultured. So, too, is it understandable for Williams, a small-town boy who, although he attended a prestigious university, grew up in a working-class town, to believe that his own origin is a superior place of culture and intelligence. Both Arnold and Williams refuse to acknowledge that a culture other than their own is indeed legitimate. In the final analysis, neither of these men took into account that a work such as Forrest Gump could reveal so much about culture. Neither Arnold nor Williams imagined a person quite like Forrest Gump – a feather blowing in the breeze.


Arnold, Matthew. Culture and Anarchy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).

Williams, Raymond. “Defining a Democratic Culture.” Resources of Hope: Culture, Democracy, Socialism (London: Verso, 1989).

“Jesus Walks”: Cultural Innovation in an Industry of Monotony

By Ross Hoch

                                  ‘I feel like I’m too busy writing history to read it.’

You’ve heard it before: Modern music is all the same, some formulaic progression of chords, manufactured in the hit factory by calculating writers and producers to hook listeners, before being neatly packaged by some attractive entertainers.  Some would say that people who think like this are only reactionaries; old curmudgeons opposed to change, who not only say that music and culture was more diverse in their day, but that they walked uphill both ways to and from the concert hall where they listened to it. However, scientific studies have proved that pop music has a narrower dynamic and timbral range, borrows more heavily from older music, and is less and less unique than ever before. While advocates of the internet age might disagree, for the most part the significant capital needed to professionally produce and distribute music and other forms of entertainment to the mass market encourages an industrialization and streamlining of the process.   Cultural theorists like Adorno have gone so far as to suggest that with the advent of the industrial age and mass markets, all of culture has been infected with mind-numbing sameness, devoid of original thought.  Adorno even argues that the supposed counterculture movement merely offers the illusion of choice which functions within and perpetuates the existing system of sameness.  However, there have been certain artists who seem to have provided strong counterexamples to Adorno’s claims.  One of the most notable is Kanye West, who gained fame with his groundbreaking single “Jesus Walks.”  While, this work admits that in a world of mass-production the danger of all art being the same exists, Jesus Walks rejects cultural and genre norms, genuinely supporting the idea that the exceptional creativity and individuality of human spirit can overcome industrial society’s pressure for sameness.

Kanye West’s second (and most popular and critically acclaimed) “Jesus Walks” music video.  Not the contrast between the flames of the devil that are trying to engulf West at one moment and the halo that surrounds him at the next.  Also note the blatant undisguised allusions to racism in America.

Though it was conceived of well after Adorno’s publication of his cultural theories on an inevitable sameness (in 1944) hip hop was in many ways born out of a reaction to the culture industry and “establishment” domination of culture and entertainment.  Working class African Americans in the South Bronx, disenchanted with the almost – systematic oppression and a lack of opportunity in spite of recent civil rights movements, and not given a voice in popular “industrialized” artistic forms like rock and roll, created a new unique cultural movement to express themselves.  As the Paley Center writes, “From the beginning, hip-hop was aggressive and oppositional, a break from the musical traditions it followed.”[1] In rejecting the primacy of the melody (something previously thought to be a musical necessity) and instrumentals, in favor of the layering of beats with rhythm, rhymes, bass, and samples, hip-hop established itself musically as a unique, and innovative art form, outside of Adorno’s monotonous “culture industry.”  Furthermore, by giving a voice to oppressed inner-city blacks and speaking freely about the harsh realities of inner city life it gave expression and agency to those who Adorno would have asserted to be voiceless, brainwashed subjects of the culture industry.


The Sugarhill Gang who had the very first hit rap single “Rapper’s Delight” in 1979.

Yet, few would recognize the 21st century hip-hop culture (that Kanye West wrote in) as the wholly innovative, unique form of expression of a typically marginalized segment of society. As hip-hop spread to the wider world in the 1980s, corporate interests took what had been a subversive and revolutionary form of music made for the oppressed and commoditized it for profit and mass consumption[2].  Under the pressure of corporate-driven profit, rappers have been driven towards defined media stereotypes: such as the “pimp”, “gangsta”, and “playa”, in corporate America’s attempt to profit from narrow, but dramatically appealing definitions of inner-city black life for profit.  This evolution in hip hop has led some like music critic Dart Adams to say that hip hop (like one of Adorno’s “countercultures”) merely presents the illusion of choice, existing “almost solely to maintain the status quo and promote moneyed interests.”[3]

Within this context of hip-hop as the product of an industrial process, the unorthodox messages in “Jesus Walks” provide a testament to the fact that despite the conformist pressures of cultural mass production individuals have the capacity to produce art of substance and individual meaning.  For instance, Jesus Walks very premise, that of the walk with Christ that everyone must embrace, “Jesus Walks” rejects adopting for himself the conventional “bad-ass” gangster, rapper, and pimp personas and instead chooses to adopt that of a Christian capable of humility.  West notes that this is specifically a rejection of the terms and corporate pressures of the producers, in rapping, “So here go my single dog, radio needs this/ They say you can rap about anything except for Jesus./  That means guns, sex, lies, videotape./  But if I talk about God my record won’t get played, huh?”  While one might be led to think that the risks of stepping outside convention would be consumer rejection, West explicitly states that he is rebelling against the corporate controlled radio industry (and record industry).  Thus he does not believe his innovative artwork to be outside the bounds of consumer tastes, but rather outside of the narrow, negative and monotony-inducing “guns, sex lies, videotape” confines imposed by the radio and record industry.  In interviews about the song West often cited that those in the record industry, while admitting the song’s undeniable musical and lyrical excellence, stated that the centrality of the Christian theme meant that it would not get playtime on the radio[4].  Yet, in explicitly challenging the producers and describing the issues with the corporate elements of hip hop, West not only forces the hip hop industry to widen its scope in playing this convention-defying song, but also in observing its success, confront the fact that their limited scope was neither productive in forming good art, nor in catering to true consumer desires.

Furthermore, unlike the hit singles of many of West’s contemporaries,  “Jesus Walks” is the rare piece of art that by using old material creates a piece of music that is genuinely innovative.   Hip hop production has always been an amalgamation of various musical motifs, beats, samples or songs, with the payoff of the best songs being far more than the sum of their parts.  However, in recent years this potentially rich combination has often become more and more formulaic.  Rap has evolved in the direction of a more pop-like formula with a base synthesized beat and musical riff overlaid with alternating rap verses and more and more poppy, melodic hooks typically infused with a couple ear-pleasing samples.  In contrast to this general trend, “Jesus Walks” utilizes several musical elements rarely used in mainstream hip hop to create a rich, and frankly surprising texture of sound.  As Pitchfork (a magazine particularly vicious in its critiques of unoriginality) remarks, “Militaristic drums, choral melisma, snake-charmer keyboards, and swatches of orchestration made “Jesus Walks” an odd thing to spill out car windows in summer 2004.”[5]

In addition to these elements atypical of contemporary hip-hop, “Jesus Walks” makes heavy use of gospel choir, incorporating an element of the African American tradition of music seldom paired with the heavy beat and rhetorical power of mainstream rap to construct a truly moving refrain.   Indeed, the song made gospel so central to its musical themes and has motifs so characteristic of gospel that it was even briefly nominated for several gospel awards categories despite the fact that the song was not traditionally considered within the confines of gospel music. (Don’t worry cultural conservatives quickly convinced the awards organization of the need to remove a song so “secular” and “profane” from the nominees).

     An early Jesus Walks music video.     Listen for the way in which milatiristic drum beats, impassioned gospel solos, the backing children’s choir, and orchestral transitions combine to create a “towering inferno of sound” particularly during the refrain from 1:50-1:20.

Jesus Walks” gradually layers all of the above-mentioned voices from all corners of culture on top of each other to build what the Observer describes as “[a] towering inferno of martial beats, fathoms-deep chain gang backing chants, a defiant children’s choir, gospel wails, and sizzling orchestral breaks.”[6]  It is a creation that simultaneously hearkens back and stays true to musical traditions, particularly African American hip hop and gospel, and yet is so removed from the stereotypical formulaic conception of commoditized hip hop or any form of mainstream music, that upon listening one cannot help but question Adorno’s theory of universal cultural sameness.  

While we have established that West thoroughly rejects the notions of conventional hip hop in terms of both subject matter and musical composition, “Jesus Walks” could have been a song that while rejecting mainstream elements of the hip hop industry merely embraced other establishment cultural values previously not expressed through hip hop.  “Jesus Walks” could have just been some catchy musically brilliant work that presented Christ as a panacea to all the problems facing America, but instead it explores the struggles, false promises and internal conflicts in the American dream for marginalized members of society.

There is no one version of the American dream.  It’s a buzzword or buzz phrase, if you will, and to some extent it has a different meaning for everyone.  However, there is a sort of establishment portion of the American dream that a Marxist like Adorno would say the ruling classes foist upon you.  This is that success is possible through hard-work within the confines and conventions of what’s accepted by society.  In other words if you adopt the Protestant work ethic as a guideline in your personal and work life some sort of success will come, regardless of your background.   Of course this implies the drug-dealers and criminals are that way because they are less worthy.  They had a chance to better themselves and wasted it.  They are criminals chiefly because they are morally depraved and corrupted.  

West disagrees with this empirically flawed premise and presents them drug dealers and criminals as equals, morally complex victims of unjust circumstances and stereotypes, to be valued as much as anyone else, through the use of various speakers on either side of the conflict.  In the first portion of the first verse he raps, “You know what the Midwest is?/  Young and restless/ Where restless (niggas) might snatch you necklace/ And next these (niggas) might jack your Lexus.”  Here he reveals the racial stereotypes of thievery, depravity, and the inferior quality denoted by the usage of the n-word, that are projected onto poor blacks by American society.  West uses and identifies with (using “we”) further examples of the systemic environment into which blacks are thrust such as arrested by police and tried in court solely as a result of skin color so that his audience may sympathize with those “who walk the valley where the shadow of the Chi where death is” like they would with the shepherd of the 23rd psalm. He builds on the sympathy he has established in the listener for the difficulties of the marginalized by segueing into a first-person narration, spoken by a drug dealer raised in this environment.  Finally, after hearing of the repeated oppression and denial of the American dream in America we can understand why the speaker no longer believes in Jesus’ ability to save us.”  Through presenting the victims such as the drug dealer and the “victims of welfare” as torn between the devil and God,  Kanye outlines the duality of man and the members of an unequal American society constantly torn, “at war” with “terrorism” “racism,” and “ourselves.”  

A product of the culture industry would likely have accepted and propagated the inequality-enforcing (interpellative) message of the elites American Dream.  In contrast, West outlines the inherent flaws and inequality caused by racism and stereotypes ingrained within American society, and in doing so creates a genuinely individual, complex, and original message, devoted to a cause greater than profit or maintenance of the establishment.  Through presenting victims such as the drug dealer and the “victims of welfare” as torn between the devil and God,  Kanye outlines the duality of man and the members of an American society constantly torn, “at war” with “racism,” “terrorism” and “ourselves”.  

In its refusal to conform to norms of popular music genres, and its complex voicing of the struggles of marginalized African-Americans in society “Jesus Walks” revives the dissident, nonconformist, nature which made hip hop so powerful and attractive at its inception.  Moreover, “Jesus Walks” is nothing if not a musical masterpiece created through a rarely seen combination of gospel, rap, orchestral arrangements, and carefully chosen samples.  In “Jesus Walks” West created a mass-produced cultural work of rebellion and originality that is a joy to listen to in its own right.  Thus, many pieces of entertainment lead their audiences to absorb the conformist ruling-class ideologies packaged within them “Jesus Walks” demonstrates the potential for certain mass-produced entertainment to elevate its audience’s mindfulness.  

“Jesus Walks” openly acknowledges and attacks the perceived culture industry (in this case specifically the record industry) and its tendency to churn out art that is topically and musically monotonous and disconnected from the realities of social conditions within American society just as Adorno does.  However, by attacking and rebelling against the same cultural problems Adorno diagnoses, it disproves Adorno’s claim that all art is the same, for in order for a mass-produced piece of art to genuinely attack the culture industry for its “Adornian” monotony and false messages, it must be different from those messages which it critiques.  The beauty of “Jesus Walks” as an artifact of cultural individualism and authentic originality is that it works within Adorno’s own framework for culture but provides a counterexample to its central claim, that in a culture of mass production all culture is essentially the same.  


jesus walks



[1] Calhoun, Claudia. “The Emergence of Hip Hop.” Paley Center. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Mar. 2016.  <>.

[2] Romero, James. “Influence of Hip Hop Resonates Worldwide.” LA Times 14 Mar. 1997, Column  One: n.pag. LA Times. Web. 16 Mar. 2016.

[3] Adams, Dart. “Hip Hop Turns 40.” NPR. NPR News Organization, 11 Aug. 2013. Web. 16 Mar.  2016.

[4] Leung, Rebecca. “Rocking for Christ: Christian Music Becoming Big Hits on Mainstream Radio Stations.” CBS News. CBS Interactive, 1 Dec. 2004. Web. 17 Mar. 2016.

[5] Leung, Rebecca. “Rocking for Christ: Christian Music Becoming Big Hits on Mainstream Radio Stations.” CBS News. CBS Interactive, 1 Dec. 2004. Web. 17 Mar. 2016.

[6] The Guardian Observer. Web. 18 Mar. 2016.  Mulholland, Gary. “Song of the Month: Jesus Walks by Kanye West.” The Observer 15 Aug.  2004: n. Pag.

Key Works

Adorno, Theodor, and Max Horkheimer. Dialectic of Enlightenment. N.p.: n.p., 1944. Print.

“Jesus Walks.” Comp. Kanye West and Che Smith. College Dropout. Perf. and prod. Kanye West. Roc a Fella, Def Jam, 2004. CD.





Where We Can’t Define Our Path

We like to understand what we see on the screen in terms of archetypes, whether it’s tragic heroes, infuriating villains, or anything alike. We like characters that make sense; characters that get what they deserve. Our stories should provide us with lessons, or teach us something profound about the world. We crave understanding from what we engage with on the television. We desire entertainment, yes, but also the conviction that there are in fact ways in which to live, perspectives and methods of thinking that will lead to some outcome preordained by that very approach. Show Me A Hero is a television series that not only questions this, but tells us to feel resigned to disruptions in our ways of living that inevitably change our outcomes. It gives us our tragic heroes, our faithful sidekicks, and our unrelenting narcissists, who are willing to burn down everything around them if the smoke lifts them higher. But the show leaves the viewer unsure and troubled by how little control each of us has on the future of our lives. It suggests regardless of our choices there will be outside forces that we can’t overcome.

The show makes us question our agency. Show Me A Hero, a six part mini-series created by David Simon, chronicles the political debate around desegregation of public housing in the city of Yonkers, starting in 1987 and moving forward into 1994. Nick Wasicsko is a young council member running for mayor with almost no shot against six-term incumbent Angelo Martinelli. Everything changes, however, when a Federal judge rules against Yonkers requiring the desegregation of public housing, which Martinelli doesn’t appeal. The rest of the series pits the mostly white, affluent east side of the city and their council representatives against the order. The show isn’t kind to these people. Throughout the series they are defined as a one-dimensional white mob that are convinced that they aren’t racist, but rather are just protecting their property values and communities. The only one who is really explored is Mary Dorman, a long-time resident and community activist. One of the ‘heroes’ of the show, her journey from ardent opponent of the housing to the new residents’ biggest white advocate is heartwarming, if not a bit cliché. Her path to sympathizer once she gets to know the residents of the new public housing is praiseworthy but also reveals that, while she was a valuable resource in making the housing project a success, it didn’t matter. As she is told many times, and eventually repeats herself, “The housing is coming whether you like it or not” (Episode 6).


Perhaps more illustrative of the futility she feels is what comes earlier when she’s still opposed to the housing. Shoveling the walk to her front door, she remarks to her husband “We keep shoveling the same walk. It never ends.” She’s talking about the run of politicians who have promised to fight the court order on housing, but then turned when the reality of governing faces them in office. More broadly, it’s the same theme. The world moves, and try as we might, we have little real influence.

One of those politicians who turned on his word also happens to be the main character of the show. Nick Wasicsko beats the odds to become the youngest mayor in America, riding the support on his promise to appeal the housing decision. The scene in episode one where Wasicsko screams “I’m the fucking mayor” (Episode 1) surrounded by his friends and family on election night is his peak. He spends the rest of the show fighting for appreciation and self-worth as the world chews him up again and again. His term as mayor soon descends into chaos as he reverses course on the housing decision, and desperately pushes to get a plan through the city government to avoid fines that would bankrupt the city. Against him are the masses of east Yonkers who come out in mob form to every council session, and their representatives who have to choose between passing the housing or re-election. .


Wasicsko never had a chance at re-election after turning to support the public housing, but would never lose the addictive taste of his big election win. As his life spirals lower and lower – losing the re-election, ceding his candidacy the next cycle to be a councilman again, and eventually losing that seat too after one more term – he desperately tries to hold onto something, anything to validate his self-worth and turn his life around. Unfortunately, all he can see are politics and soon he starts to play with the lives of his friends and family. His wife Nay urges him to stop, saying “You can’t mistake votes for love” (Episode 6). Soon his political gambling costs Nay her job, and at his lowest ebb he challenges his best friend for her council seat. This is Nick’s tragic flaw. Votes and the affirmation of personal love that they bring is all that he values, and at his absolute nadir, with his political career finished and his closest relations being torn apart by his desperate political maneuvers, he takes his own life. He is a flawed hero, who stood for what was right and paid for it, and never could quite figure out that there was more to life than votes. The title of the series comes from a telling quote by F. Scott Fitzgerald: “Show me a hero, and I’ll write you a tragedy.”

What makes Wasicsko particularly compelling are his contradictions. He is a cynic yet never a realist. His optimistic spirit seems born out of an unending confidence in his ability to make things work. It’s not that he’s especially charismatic. His confidence seems more driven by his relentless desire for affirmation of worth. He both continually asks his wife if she’ll love him no matter what and espouses confidence she’ll never leave him. He makes repeated visits to his father’s grave, where his conversations scream of a relationship that lacked the desired affection. Perhaps this is the point, that his show of confidence is derived from a need to prove to himself that he can be loved, that he is worth the love that his father never gave him. But speculating on father-son dynamics is not the point. Nick is a man born for politics; he lives and feeds off of it. He has the self-belief and cunning edge required, but he doesn’t have the capacity to accept defeat. Instead of accepting the powerful political and social forces around him, he plows on directly into the storm. Only when he finds himself alone in the churning waves with a broken boat does he realize the damage he’s done. When he realizes how truly alone he is and can’t see a way out he breaks down in a particularly poignant scene. He has tried so hard, gambled everything he had to win back his political position and admiration, yet nothing, not even a Kennedy Profile in Courage Award nomination, could change his political fortunes. He was too scarred, having taken all the consequences of the housing case that would forever taint his name. This is the point the show is trying to make. Wasicsko was powerless against the political forces around him and unable to change that no matter what he tried.

More importantly Nick Wasicsko was not a martyr as the title might suggest. What took him down was his connection to the public housing project, yet when the first units are up and he visits a block of residents, only one even knows his name. Nor is his anonymity the cost of such social progress. Regardless of his decisions, the city was going to be forced to integrate. If it took making Yonkers bankrupt, the Federal judge was going to do it. So what can we learn from Wasicsko as a character? He’s not a martyr for progress, and his political career was destined to be limited by the negative influence of his affordable housing projects association. The reason he gambled his wife’s job was because his own party was already freezing him out when he was a councilman for the second time. His actions only hastened his demise and speak to his desperation to turn things around as political forces much larger than himself pulled him down. It is easy to characterize Wasicsko’s eventual suicide as the product of his flawed character. But hidden beneath that was that every mistake he made on the way down was an attempt to stop and reverse his slow decline already taking place.


The relative insignificance of an individual’s choices that the show implies doesn’t mean that people don’t have any choice in their lives. At any moment Nick Wasicsko could have picked up and given up on politics. One of the residents of the new public housing units, Carmen Febles, could have stayed with her family in the Dominican Republic. Doreen Henderson, another resident, could have continued to deal drugs. The unspoken message of Show Me A Hero is that regardless of personal choices, there will be larger forces along each path that will impact you. Febles tried to improve her family’s life but the power of poverty follows them to the Dominican Republic and back. Despite her endless hard work and conviction that “we are too good for this place”(Episode 5) (the projects), her family remains subject to a lottery to get a new home in east Yonkers. Billie Rowan, a resident of the new housing project who is doing her best to start a new life for her kids, is evicted because her boyfriend (and father of her children) commits murder back on the west side of Yonkers. Everyone remains victims of forces out of their own control.

It’s therefore not exactly a lack of agency or ability to shape our own lives that the series is trying to transmit. Show Me a Hero is instead convincing its viewers that regardless of their personality or what they do; whether they’re hard-working, endlessly optimistic, or practical, there is no guaranteed outcome. There no secrets to approaching life or character definitions that can assure you a certain experience. Instead every path is subject to forces one can’t control, be it political, economic, or social. Our individual destinies will not define, but rather be defined by the large forces they encounter. Some things are inevitable, others are variable. Nothing, however, will be controllable, and accepting that and “making the best of it as we can” (Episode 6) as Mary Dorman says is all that is left. This is what the series leaves with viewers, the idea that there are no ideologies that one can possess that will shape exactly how one sees or experiences the world. Instead there is only the ideology that we are always subject to the whims of forces greater than ourselves. It’s not a message to convince people they have no real world agency. It’s instead to convince the viewer that they’re ability to determine their future based on actions and character will always be insignificant relative to the complex and shifting political and social forces surrounding us.



  1. Show Me A Hero. Episodes 1-6. HBO. 16 August 2015. Television.

Fight Club: A Commentary on the Crises of Capitalism


Tyler Durden says, “We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war… our Great Depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars.” Fight Club is a coming-of-age movie for the men of Generation X. The movie explores a male-centric critique of American cultural collapse epitomized by emasculation, domestication and materialization and gives extreme solutions to these crises. Fight Club forces its predominantly male audience to reconsider their whole lives. We question whether our lives mean anything, whether our work brings happiness and satisfaction, and whether we are overwhelmed by cultural censorship and mundanity. The desire to escape these problems motivates every decision the main character(s) make. Tyler Durden, the Narrator’s alternate personality, continually pushes the Narrator’s conscious personality (and the audience) to examine the oppressive culture of capitalism. We analyze the Western way of life from an anarchical perspective. This movie portrays Western culture mired in the mundane repetition of industrial production. Social mores mold us as pawns of capitalism: following authority, emulating models, buying useless shit, and censuring ‒ through the use of force or the suggestion of force ‒ contradictory advice. We must ask ourselves if we are comfortable with the repressive forces that act to domesticate us and if our lives improve through the acknowledgement of these forces.


Fight Club pummels its audience with the loss of manhood and masculinity in modern society. This theme is present throughout the movie. Tyler claims that “we’re a generation of men raised by women.” This statement summarizes the American era of maternal child-care with working fathers. This apparent problem is dramatized when the Narrator struggles with insomnia at the beginning of the movie. He copes with the crippling lack of sleep that zombifies his personal and professional life by attending support groups. He finds comfort in listening to other’s painful stories, receiving sympathy, and crying into Bob’s “bitch-tits”.


These sessions make Bob the equivalent of a surrogate mother. The movie suggests men today rely on the warm, pitying support of mother figures to relieve the anxiety of repetitive lives.

Tyler catalyzes the shift in the Narrator’s life. The Narrator admires this gruff, manly figure ‒ a new mentor offering a different path to comfort.

fight club tyler durden

Tyler introduces himself to the Narrator on a plane in the first thirty minutes of the movie, and they stick together until the conclusion. The movie reveals that Tyler is actually a figment of the Narrator’s imagination, an alternate personality that exists to change the Narrator’s life and make him stronger. Introductions aside, after they meet on the plane, the Narrator goes home to find that Tyler/he blew up his apartment. He calls Tyler for help and a place to stay. Tyler forces the Narrator to verbally ask for help. This is the first step towards a new, masculine life for the Narrator. The Narrator has to take control of his actions and, man-to-man, ask for help. The scene ends with Tyler proclaiming, “It could be worse. A woman could cut off your penis while you’re sleeping.” This shocking alternative emphasizes the central focus on masculinity.

Tyler and the Narrator’s relationship truly begins when they form an ultra-masculine “fight club”. Tyler fights instead of crying and seeking comfort in support groups. This strictly male club meets in a basement periodically to fight. The fights are not about winning or losing but rather about building strength and confidence and fulfilling a primal urge.


The Narrator and Tyler begin “sizing” everybody up ‒ even historical figures such as Lincoln. Fight Club presents fighting as the solution to the emasculated male population of America. The previously weak Narrator now stands up to his boss at work. He flaunts injuries. He is no longer afraid, anxious, or disgusted with himself. The Narrator, in his Tyler persona, continues to spread the cult of fighting across the country in new cells. He also assigns “homework” to members. They are supposed to pick a fight with a complete stranger and lose. This reaffirms the movie’s message that fighting isn’t about winning. Fighting taps into a primal pleasure, a fighter’s pain and adrenaline create a unique internal calm. The calm satisfaction that results from fighting is the salvation for the feminized male population.


Fight Club frequently suggests that the domestication of individuals in society prohibits meaningful existence. The movie uniquely oscillates between domestic or anti-domestic culture. Before the DVD menu opens and after the FBI message forbidding piracy, a message from Tyler hides in plain sight.


This movie mocks the people who take the time to read government warnings. If you read this message, you’re a drone, a sheep. Tyler’s message harrangues readers about the absurdity of following government advice and the societal pressure to overconsume. Through ridicule, he calls for men to rise up, be spontaneous and “prove” that they are alive and conscious in this world. The opening scene solidifies this theme. We meet the Narrator, who travels frequently for a job that he hates, describing his life in terms of repetitive, forgettable, disposable units: airplane meals, individually packaged soaps, and “single-serving” friends. His life is an anonymous cycle without trouble, excitement, or spontaneity. He prays for a plane crash to end the repetition. He dreads returning to his “filing cabinet” apartment.

Tyler ends this domestic life in an instant by blowing up the Narrator’s house, a move that forces the Narrator to live with Tyler in a run-down, wild house far from civilization.


Tyler works as a projectionist in a theater where he splices glimpses of porn into family movies and as a cook in a fancy restaurant kitchen where he urinates in the soup. He sells soap he makes using human fat stolen from a liposuction clinic. Through these jobs and actions, Tyler shatters the shelter of our privileged lives and our disconnection from the real world. Over the course of the movie, Tyler helps free the Narrator from his numbing nine-to-five job. Tyler’s jobs are some of the movie’s solutions to the problems that arise when a society becomes domesticated. He wants us to be more primal, more focused on survival, more alive.


Fight Club also draws attention to society’s infatuation and obsession with materialism. Hatred of consumerism drives the plot. When the Narrator describes his home, he states, “Like so many others, I had become a slave to the IKEA nesting instinct.” He obsessively buys useless shit for the sake of buying. He buys food that he doesn’t eat. He buys designer clothes, a form of “masturbation”. He watches the Shopping Network for entertainment. Tyler breaks this dismal cycle with nitroglycerine, blowing it all onto the street. Tyler instructs us to destroy the consumerist culture that plagues the world of Fight Club, but we must personally determine if we find this culture a issue in modern society.


Fight Club also insists popular culture is obsessed with masturbation. Fight Club’s term “masturbation”, emphasizing the self-pleasure connotation, means any form of self-improvement to meet society’s standards. Giving up masturbation means no dieting or working out to look like models, no liposuction to become skinny (when the real problem is poor nutrition in the modern diet), and no shopping for brand-names. The film rails against narcissistic investments to improve our looks in unnatural ways. We should not derive pleasure from wearing Ralph Lauren or by going to the gym to look like Brad Pitt (Tyler).


Tyler sums up the incessant materialism of society in three ways: 1.) “Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need”; 2.) “The things you own end up owning you”; and 3.) “You’re not your job. You’re not how much money you have in the bank. You’re not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You’re not your fucking khakis. You’re the all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world.” The capitalist nature of modern society infuriates Tyler, who, in turn, asks us to embody his anger. Corporations bombard us with advertisements 24/7. People salivate for material wealth while compromising their happiness in jobs they hate. Tyler implores the audience to understand that we are not what we own or possess. Living a fulfilling life trumps everything.

Tyler states that “it’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.” This is where Project Mayhem comes in ‒ the climax of the plot and Tyler’s ultimate goal. Behind the Narrator’s back (actually while the Narrator persona is sleeping), Tyler organizes multiple cells of trained fight clubbers to carry out anti-corporation attacks. They detonate explosives on the foundations of a corporate work of art which then rolls into, and destroys, a corporate coffee shop. They vandalize large corporate buildings. They destroy Apple computers in a store. They accomplish their end goal, blowing up credit company headquarters which erases the debt record. They aim to stymie consumerism and devastate a corporate industry that survives on our materialistic addition. Fight Club’s answer to materialism is the destruction of capitalism.


Fight Club uses visual and auditory elements that imitate advertising tactics. David Fincher, the director, hides a Starbucks cup in every scene. The Narrator claims that in the dystopian future, “when deep space exploration ramps up, it’ll be the corporations that name everything, the IBM Stellar Sphere, the Microsoft Galaxy, Planet Starbucks.” This movie asks us to relook at these seemingly convenient corporations as tyrants seeking to control our lives. Subconscious mind-control through advertising is this story’s antagonist. Even the song that concludes this film, “Where is my Mind” by the Pixies, instructs us to reconsider our existence in society and break-free of our capitalist chains.

What does this all mean?

Fight Club forces its audience to scrutinize the cultural ideologies of the society in which we live. The gender ideology of masculinity this movie adopts almost exclusively portrays male characters. Fight Club has only one significant female role. Her primary purpose is to tease out the strange relationship between Tyler and the Narrator and dramatic concluding reveal that they are the same mind. The supersaturation of male roles emphasizes the varying levels of masculinity of each individual. This automatically forces the audience to examine their own views of masculinity in today’s culture, challenging us to find compelling evidence against Fight Club’s theory of emasculation. The same challenge is presented in the ideologies of anti-materialism and anti-domestication. These core ideologies provide a broader critique of capitalism ‒ a critique reflected in the current rebellion against political and corporate interests, driven in large part by disenfranchised white men.

The Backbone of a Story

Why do we tell stories? To inform? To entertain? While there are many short, simple answers, most are too weak to fully explain the existence of such a longstanding and prominent cultural phenomenon. Looking for an answer to this question through a general analysis of stories misses the richness associated with any individual story. By analyzing an individual story, the features which distinguish stories as a component of our culture become apparent. American History X is an excellent example of such a story. In evaluating this movie, one can lose oneself in its emotional undulations and become immersed in the movie’s variations on the defining elements of a story. These elements arise at a deep level of the story, a level of political content. It is here that we find one answer to the question of why we tell stories. This answer is in the form of a pair of components that are universal among all stories. That is, all stories illustrate some conflict, and then provide solutions for that conflict. The effectiveness of this process is, in large part, why stories are so valuable to us as a method of communication.

As we established above, engaging in any generic analysis of stories is challenging. As a consequence, it’s difficult to determine what to begin looking for in American History X. Seeing as no clear strategy presents itself, a chronological approach is a natural method to default to. The movie begins with one of the two main characters, Danny Vineyard, taking a special, individualized course from his high school principle in an effort to both educate and discipline him. The course is called “American History X”, and Danny is assigned to write a paper about his brother Derek, a former Neo-Nazi. The story proceeds to follow Danny’s development through his youth and Derek’s development into a Neo-Nazi, as well as Derek’s prison time for manslaughter of two burglars, and the brothers’ eventual rejection of Neo-Nazi values and organizations. With this brief summary for the sake of continued reference, we can turn to analyzing the story’s opening.

The story wastes no time in establishing a problem. It doesn’t lull the reader into a long tale absent of adversity, confusion, and surprise. Immediately, it presents Danny’s ultraconservative and discriminatory views as challenges for him to live with. His negative attitude toward a wide swath of society, minority groups in particular, predisposes his peers to disdain him. And his actions do no service in endearing him to them either. The reason Danny is initially made to take “American History X” is his submission of an essay on Mein Kampf to his Jewish English teacher. For Derek, the trouble his views lead him to is even greater. His radical attitude causes him be scorned by his mother and sister. Additionally, his aggressive suppression of minorities in his community leads him to prison time.

Beyond vividly establishing this problem, the story provides a clear solution. In Danny’s voiceover, following his murder by a fellow student, he denounces hate. This can easily be seen, in the context of Neo-Nazi elements of the story, as a rejection of ultraconservative views which center around antagonism toward minority groups. Hence, a solution is found in this final realization that people must not adopt such hateful viewpoints.

Thus, American History X makes a couple components of its storyline very clear. It presents a conflict. And it shows the audience a solution to that conflict. These literary features that American History X highlights point to a couple of candidates for key features of stories more broadly: the presentation of a conflict, and the illustration of corresponding solutions. But we need something more compelling than these overtly made points to suggest that this structure for stories is universal.

The question then is, what is present at a deeper level in all stories? Is there an underlying element of stories that binds them to some general structure? For an answer to this question we can turn to the theories of Louis Althusser. Althusser argued that ideology is present in all literary content. By Althusser’s definition, ideologies are the secret political contents that underlie literature, films, and other forms of communication. Almost no content can escape the presentation of some sort of ideology. Even the simplest articles, essays, or films have some underlying assumptions. The collection of these assumptions and more complex, hidden messages makes up the secret content, or ideology, of a work.

Ideologies in stories manifest themselves no differently. We can observe this through the lens of American History X. While the movie explicitly presents the conflicts and solutions illustrated in the paragraphs above, it conveys far more than that. Like other stories, American History X presents political ideas that are, at least partially, buried.

The best point at which to begin searching for the hidden political statement of the movie is Danny’s final voiceover. In the event that the audience has failed to that point at identifying the solutions to the problems with an ultraconservative political movement, Danny’s final words package up this message. However, what Danny specifically says is “Hate is baggage” and “Life’s too short to be pissed off all the time.” This quote occurs for a matter of seconds at the end of a multiple hour film which gave a disturbing portrayal of the Neo-Nazi movement. As a result, the natural effect of this statement is to reinforce the problems with this hateful movement to the audience. But, in actuality, the statement goes beyond this in scope. Danny’s rejection of hate extends beyond the Neo-Nazi movement to far less radical and more trivial forms of hate.


This is the secret political content of the film. When examining Danny’s remark in a vacuum, the content may not seem secret. But in the context of the entire film, the immediate impact of this quote on the audience is far more narrow than the explicit content of the statement itself. The hidden statement, that hate is baggage, is evidenced throughout the film. Derek’s father, shown during Derek’s youth in the movie, is portrayed as aggressively condemning affirmative black action in front of Derek. He argues against the increase of black literature in English classes and questions the appropriateness of hiring black individuals who scored relatively low on the fire-fighting test to serve alongside him at the department. Such vehement opposition to full, equal opportunity, and the employment of hate speech, which he uses to make the argument, is classifiably hateful. Although less severe and extreme than Neo-Nazism, the story sends a signal that hateful behavior is not rewarding, as the father is murdered by a drug dealer at the scene of a fire. Another example of this is apparent in Danny’s behavior and fate. While Danny holds ultraconservative views throughout most of the movie, he never wears his politics on his sleeve to nearly the extent that Derek does at the zenith of his Neo-Nazi career. In spite of this, Danny is still murdered at the end of the film. This evidence leads us toward a conclusion. Hate, however trivial, has a negative impact on our lives. Be it extreme, hateful political action, or guarded personal beliefs, when we harbor hate, we carry it with us everywhere and it harms our lives and those of others.

From this, it’s clear that American History X lends support to Althusser’s argument. The secret content to the story is that, in a political context or elsewhere, when people carry hate with them, it is to the detriment of them and those around them. In addition to supporting and exemplifying Althusser’s argument, American History X extends his claim. Not only does it present its claim about hate as a hidden ideology, but it does so in a very specific manner. The film shows hateful attitudes and behavior as a collective problem, and identifies living with openness and joy, free of hate, as a solution. In this way, the story of American History X presents hidden political content by showing a point of conflict and suggesting solutions.

We began by asking, why do we tell stories? Now, we have one of several important answers to this question. Stories allow us to disperse political content surreptitiously by weaving a message into a story, drawing the reader into it, and causing them to subconsciously absorb it. As American History X has highlighted, the hidden content of stories is not conveyed in any arbitrary fashion, but rather, occurs specifically through the identification of a problem and corresponding solutions. This style of presentation gives stories persuasive power that logical arguments for a claim often lack in spite of their superior clarity. In the case of American History X, the conflict facing the main characters was their hateful nature, and their solution was, quite simply, to be less hateful and more kind and open toward others. When searching for commonalities among stories, it is useful to look at a story through the lens of Althusser, who views the forwarding of ideology as a universal constant among stories. In doing so, we were able to observe the establishment, below the surface of the plotline, of a conflict and solution which allowed us to extend Althusser’s claim.



[1] Althusser, Louis. “Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays.” La Pensée (1970): 52-116. Web. 18 Mar. 2016.

Image Sources:




Let Your Freak Flag Fly…Or Maybe Not

Our most prized possessions are our identities. Whether we know it or not, we treasure the ability to understand and define who we are, and how we relate to other people. So what happens when a threat is posed to our identity, to what we think makes us unique? Cultural theorist Theodor Adorno posits that since industrial society started mass-producing culture, art – valued for being an outlet of individual creativity – is in danger of becoming all the same. The sameness does not stop at art – the industrial production of culture for mass-public consumption indicates that we, as individual as we might feel, are just part of the mass consumers, all conforming to standard molds of taste and interests. So we’re now faced with the depressing thought that the culture industry is churning out mind-numbing entertainment, enabling us to not think too hard for ourselves and just go along with everyone else. But if you look closely enough, a glimmer of hope can be found in art that manages to present an alternative to the monotony.

Diane Arbus, a self-proclaimed “photographer of freaks,” presents us with art featuring people on the fringe of society exposing and embracing their “abnormalities.” Skeptics of cultural ingenuity (and believers of cultural sameness) might ask: isn’t she commercializing and exploiting people with physical abnormalities? What makes her work different from Freak Shows common in the 19th century or American Horror Story: Freak Show – culture that draws on and exhibits “biological rarities?”[1] Arbus was met with disgust when her work first came out – people could not understand why she chose to capture ugliness (many refused to even call it art). Reception of her work has drastically changed and is now widely revered for giving a voice to underrepresented people and outcasts. But this same claim could also be made of American Horror Story: Freak Show. Arbus’ work goes deeper than just exhibiting striking abnormalities like Freak Shows, or even breaking down the stereotypes and boundaries of “normal” like American Horror Story: Freak Show. Her photographs force viewers to confront their own anxieties about how others perceive them and examine their own happiness and paths of existence. Arbus’ art shares real stories – the stories of her subjects, of herself the photographer, and of any view who engages with it. Her work is not broadcast across the country at a scheduled time every week, but if you do happen upon her subtle art you will be rewarded with an alternative to the sameness of entertainment.

"A Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx" N.Y. 1970

In an optimistic and most positive assessment, American Horror Story: Freak Show is like any piece of popular art aiming to break down the stereotypes of an outcast group. The show details the lives of a group of “freaks” trying to stay relevant in the dying Freak Show industry. The ostracized characters because of their physical differences and who are not immediately relatable – but crafted with dimensions to identify with. Storylines are interwoven with dramatic human emotions that tug at your heart strings: you root for the “freak” and “non-freak” who fall in love; you empathize with freaks learning to love and embrace who they are. Boundaries and associations of the label “freak” are broken down by a character that is outwardly and physically “normal” – and has led an economically and socially privileged life – but has clear psychological “freakishness” and disadvantages. The line that distinguishes “freaks” from “non-freaks” is even further blurred in our minds.

While American Horror Story: Freak Show redefines normal and promotes tolerance, it engages you with characters whose realities are evidently distant from your own. You might temporarily lose sight of this distance as you sit enraptured for sixty minutes, but are abruptly brought back to reality and left sitting in front of a screen. Any real emotional investment you had7 in the story has suddenly dissipated. And this viewing experience is probably just what you wanted from the show. It evoked exciting and fearful and dramatic emotions for sixty minutes at the end of your day. The word “entertainment” in German translates literally to “underholding,” or “what holds you under” – the show has held you under its spell for the perfect amount of time to “relax”, and then releases you back to your “real life”. You might establish a connection with the storyline and characters, but it is a detached connection at best.

And this is where we see Arbus’ work diverging from commercialized “photography of freaks” – she has crafted a story that cannot just be turned off and release you back to reality because it is reality – the reality of the actual subjects, the reality of the photographer behind the camera, and the reality of you – the viewer.

Arbus’ work and American Horror Story: Freak Show are different manifestations of art in their intended purpose and end product. The writers and directors of American Horror Story: Freak Show create characters for mass audiences to connect with and storylines to increase viewership; Arbus’ work portrays real people and their stories. Arbus does not view her art as the end in itself – the subject is more important than the actual photograph – and the experience of connecting with her subjects is in a sense the art. In some of her most famous works such as “A Jewish Giant at Home with His Parents in The Bronx, N.Y. 1970,” or “A Young Man in Curlers at Home on West 20th Street, N.Y.C. 1966,” subjects reported one of the most striking aspects of Arbus’ craft was how she invited and expected her subjects to get to know her in the vulnerable way she was getting to know them. Arbus firmly believed that she and her camera were temporary guests entering the lives of her subjects: “‘I work from awkwardness,’ she said. ‘By that I mean I don’t like to arrange things. If I stand in front of something, instead of arranging it, I arrange myself.’ That arrangement is about humility: you don’t change the subject, the subject changes you.”[2] She acknowledged that she was entering existing lives and that those lives existed independently of her art. In American Horror Story: Freak Show, the story and the characters – and our attachments – are contained and bound to the art itself. The “realness” of engagement with the show ends not far from where it began. Arbus’ art rests on the premise of natural, empathic, genuine human connection and interaction. When you can have that, do you even need mind-numbing entertainment?

A young man in curlers at home on West 20th Street, 1966.

Her attitude towards her art allowed her to access her audience in a unique way because it begs viewers to confront their personal insecurities and fears. Arbus proposed a theory of the “gap between intention and effect” –her photography makes viewers consider the gap between what we want people to see and what cannot helped but be seen by others[3]. She made her art with the intention of advancing her subjects’ and audience’s understanding of themselves and the way they relate to others. Reception of her work also illuminates fears that our society has: expressed discomfort exposes layers of anxieties about our own freakishness and abnormalities, as well as the discomfort we feel from seeing someone else so exposed and vulnerable. Sometimes viewing her photographs feels unnatural – like you’re looking into a window of someone’s life that you shouldn’t be, and that reaction stems from our inclination to push back and close the door on unconventional intimacy and vulnerability.

Child with a toy Hand Grenade in Central Park" N.Y.C. 1960.

American Horror Story: Freak Show and Arbus’ photography demonstrate common interpretations and cultural value. It is very possible that for some shared viewers, each piece of art achieve the same effect. There are probably people who might not think twice about what a photograph of “a giant with his parents” has to offer them. But in the midst of the cultural industry infiltrating our minds with sameness, we have to take advantage of the genuine art that is simply commenting on the basic human condition. So while this is on one hand may seem like a love letter for Arbus’ work, it is a call to take Arbus legacy in stride. She understood that the art itself was a merely closing the distance between us and the people we share this world with.

[1] “Freak Shows.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 18 Mar. 2016.

[2] Kim, Eric. “11 Lessons Diane Arbus Can Teach You About Street Photography.” N.p., 15 Oct. 2012. Web. 18 Mar. 2016.

[3] “The Photography of Diane Arbus.” The Inkling The Photography of Diane Arbus Comments. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Mar.