Cultural Sophistication and Self-Reference
on American Television:
Seeds of Hope?

by Ralph Dumain

Generally when I look at American culture these days I see little but degeneracy. I am rarely heartened even by the obvious sophistication that our society has achieved in certain respects over the past two decades, because it is so heavily counterbalanced by increased fragmentation, intellectual laziness, dehumanization, and superficiality. The sophistication that we do have is not so much a product of any mental effort on our part but of the obvious facts of the fait accompli of cultural changes brought about by other people's efforts that are pretty close to being irreversible in spite of the pretensions of the extreme right to turn the clock back. The first time is tragedy, the second farce. The sophistication to which I allude has a lot to do with the breakdown of taboos, thanks to greater and greater frankness, the all-pervasive cynicism (which Peter Sloterdijk in Critique of Cynical Reason calls enlightened false consciousness), the impracticality and even undesirability from the standpoint of the mass media of keeping silence about even the most intimate aspects of social life (not to mention political scandals), and the presence of television which hides less and less of human behavior and allows young children to become aware of phenomena that a generation ago even adults never discussed among themselves. Obvious examples would be the social changes in the roles of the sexes, increased recognition and even acceptance of homosexuality, open discussion of child abuse, sexual behavior, and just about any form of human behavior. These are markers of real progress, but for the most part we are coasting on the achievements of the recent past rather than doing any deep thinking ourselves. To sum up: I would call what I have perceived a Hegelian paradox: increasing sophistication combined with increasing superficiality and dehumanization.

One aspect of American popular culture that stands out is an increasing self-referentiality that reflects the fact that from infancy our cultural reference points come from the mass media and not folklore or the concrete life experience of ourselves and people around us, which is another way of saying that "real life" itself, what people do, how they work and live and enjoy themselves, has become less material, particular, and localized, and has become more mediated, more abstract.

I encountered the consequences of self-referentiality in philosophy long before it became obvious that the same thing was overtaking real life. For many years I have made a distinction between a healthy self-referentiality or reflexivity and an unhealthy or unhappy self-consciousness. I have never been impressed by formal gestures of reflexivity which serve as an excuse for denial of objective truth and reality and a ruse for faking tolerance and open-mindedness when such gestures make the determination of truth impossible and disguise the power of those controlling the game. When philosophy, language, literature, and art are only about themselves, never about reality, that is pure narcissism. I used to say that self-reference is the last gasp of bourgeois thought.

I have long regarded this as a degenerate philosophical stage of a degenerating civilization. However, I always upheld healthy self-reference as a part of the objective process of knowing objective reality, a productive self-consciousness in the sense of epistemological awareness of how knowledge is known. Signs of this kind of self-reference are not new: they reflect the modern era as a whole and first found expression at least two hundred years ago. You can find self-reference in the works of William Blake for example, but it is not the message itself, just a device for getting it across. Nowadays, self-referentiality is the message of bourgeois art and criticism, and there is no other, which is an unmistakable sign of decadence.

How does this apply to popular culture today? Instead of musical ability, there is sampling. Instead of television scripts about real life in small towns or naked cities, we have television programs that refer to television. Is this just a sign of the a deracinated populace experiencing their civilization grinding to a dead end? Or is there more?

Self-referentiality about American society and culture in general is becoming increasingly evident in American television shows. Drama series like I'll Fly Away and Homefront reflect the consciousness of the American people that American society has changed profoundly since the Second World War and operates on profoundly different assumptions than were operant a generation ago. The appeal of these shows is hardly nostalgia, since they depict unsavory realities such as racial segregation and repressive sexual morality. I believe their fascination comes from the constant comparison of the contemporary viewer's reference points with the more restricted set of assumptions of an American society that exists no longer. Our own past becomes as exotic and primitive as any tribe on the other side of the globe, even more so because it is not so distant from the here and now.

Self-referentiality about the media itself has evolved to the point where there are television shows about people making television shows. Gary Shandling's cable series, The Larry Sanders Show, is about the behind-the-scenes world of a talk show host. Even more extreme was his network The Gary Shandling Show, which not only was about him being on television and carrying on an obviously staged real life consisting of being on television, but featured a theme song about writing a theme song for the show. This may not be deep, but that extreme level of self-reference is an indicator of the level of abstraction, of sophistication that society has reached. I don't think that is bad, though I don't think it exposes any deeper truths than the fact of self-consciousness itself, which itself may be a profound truth, but is not connected to anything else of substance.

An even more fascinating example is the current hit comedy Seinfeld. Both its extreme simplicity and self-enclosed nature are prime sources if its appeal. Its universe, though set in New York, is ultimately as sparse and as simple as Krazy Kat. Other than the New York setting, the other obvious social fact is that all the characters are middle class Jews, even the ones with non-Jewish names. But the show is neither about Jews nor the reality of New York. It is about the trivialities of everyday life and the interactions among four basic characters, though other people are involved too. The four characters interact with people and situations in New York, but they essentially inhabit a social universe unto themselves, where there are no pressing economic or social concerns, as if they are no place in particular. This creates a simplified world that is virtually archetypal, and I believe that this is why the show has achieved near cult status. But if that were not enough, the main character is a comedian called Seinfeld, which is what he is in real life. His everyday life is his material, both in the show and in the nightclub act which the viewing audience sees snippets of each episode. And if that were not enough, the show attains the acme of self-referential chutzpah. Seinfeld and his pal George sell a pilot to network television, whose premise is that the show is about nothing, just everyday trivial life and the relationships of the central characters, .ie. themselves. George even mocks the idea, saying:who will go for that crap? We see Seinfeld and his buddies interacting with actors who play them rehearsing their roles. And ultimately we see them watching parts of a finished episode including excerpts from Seinfeld's stand-up act on stage. This is virtually infinite regress, self-referentiality over the top. And it works! It shows that in a certain respect our culture has reached a level of maturity and self-reflection that is truly remarkable.

But there is so much more that needs to be said about who we are and where we are going. For me the most brilliant manifestation of popular culture in the depressing '80s and '90s is The Simpsons. The brilliance of the show is truly amazing. It has elements both popular and esoteric. It reflects the prototypical experiences of middle America that everyone can relate to and yet is packed with all kinds of allusions to classic films, art works, political ideologies (e.g. Ayn Rand), many of which are likely to go over the heads of most adult viewers. There are not only allusions to other mass media products but outright self-reference, such as the Simpsons watching television, with Bart even remarking on one occasion that a particular program is so uncannily real that it is as if someone put their lives on the screen (and after all, they themselves are really cartoon characters). But there is much more. The Simpsons have real lives too. They live the lives of quiet desperation of white working class people with middle class ideals. The rich and powerful captains of industry and government are held up to constant ridicule; the police are lazy, unsavory baboons. The children are more sophisticated than the adults, either irreverent or commenting on their states of mind and their social situation with the analytical tools of college professors. The shows are outrageous not only because extreme and outrageous things continually happen, and the hilarious incongruities come at a breakneck pace, but because the characters honestly express feelings that are normally kept quiet. The show is not merely self-referential, it is a highly sophisticated social satire, that appeals to both the popular and the highly critical mind (which may be the same person in many cases). It appeals to both the familiarity of conventional social arrangements and the sense of the outrageous. To say that the show is mean-spirited or Bart a bad role model is very shallow: the show is social satire and way over the heads of children, and it is not about sleaze like Married With Children. This marriage of the cartoon format and television is an advanced realization of the potential of popular art.

The increasing tendency of people to reflect upon experience and incorporate psychological and sociological insights into their life experience is being reflected in the script writing of many series these days. Television maintains a delicate balance of incorporating more sophisticated and self-conscious thinking while maintaining the status quo and pandering to social and mass culture conventions. So in lieu of permitting the advocacy of radical politics or alternative lifestyles, instead it features known conventional situations interlaced with second order commentary upon them. For example, Picket Fences is a tacky soap opera, which passes itself off as serious though it may well be tongue-in-cheek. But embedded in this modern day Peyton Place is some highly sophisticated presentation of psychological ideas and moral dilemmas. Psychiatric theory is debated as a therapist instigates an intimate relationship with an ex-patient. Legal theory is argued as a sleazy defense lawyer stoops to dirty tricks to get his clients off. Ideas, principles, arguments, rationalizations are constantly juxtaposed with concrete life situations that demand judgments. Tacky as the manifest content of this series may be, the writing is some of the most sophisticated I have ever seen.

My final example is a TV series I have recently discovered that completely blows my mind: Northern Exposure. When I first happened upon one or two episodes, I was initially attracted to its quirkiness, which reminded me of the unusual personalities I knew back in my neighborhood in my home town Buffalo. Eccentric, quirky, or unusual personalities and environments are important because they teach us about human possibilities, and paradoxically about human nature, that it is not based on the constants that we naively supposed, but that it has depths and needs and possibilities for expression that negotiate with the external social environment in unpredictable ways. In this case the environment is more eccentric than the individuals, because we are presented with a small community that itself is highly idiosyncratic. That is a major part of the appeal: this is a small town that is unlike any other.

C.L.R. James once wrote that the central conflict in the American psyche was the need for both the expression of individuality and community or satisfactory social relations with others. Demands of conformity, social regimentation constrain the former; perpetual loneliness, isolation and competition hinder the latter. The Alaskan town portrayed in Northern Exposure is almost an ideal resolution of this dilemma. Because so many of its inhabitants come from elsewhere and reflect different individual experiences as well as cultures, and because they must coexist in a small town in what is usually considered a remote area (in earlier times it might have been a frontier town), there is both a sense of community as well as a recognition and tolerance of individual differences. It is expected that everyone will be different, so different types of people accommodate each other. They have to conform only to the exigencies of life demanded by the climate and environs.

Also, the town could be considered an archetype of multiculturalism, though that word hardly does justice to what happens in the show. There are New York Jews, rednecks, ex-military people, and most unfamiliar to most viewers: the culture of the indigenous people, whom are sometimes referred to as Indians (and perhaps Eskimoes) but whom I would call Aleuts for lack of knowledge of what other peoples might inhabit Alaska. Because of the cultural diversity, the oppressive conformity, provinciality, and xenophobia of other small towns is not present here, not to mention that this town has people in it that have been around, or who are highly educated, or who are more familiar with the modern, urban, technological world than in bygone times.

While the above-mentioned factors give the scenario its charm there is much more. Some of the characters are highly educated, intellectually and culturally sophisticated people, which means they use abstract ideas to comment on their experiences, which is all the more amusing given the plurality of cultures and cultural reference points that co-exist. Different customs, beliefs, and cultural practices are highlighted, especially those of the indigenous people — clans, totems, etc. — but since all the people are just ordinary familiar folks, we see the sameness even within the superficially exotic differences. But the intellectual reflection upon these various cultural situations is hilarious. The local radio DJ is very adept in social theory. The native indigenous medicine man and carver of totem poles is thoroughly versed in art history and aesthetic theory and comments accordingly. Sometimes diverse cultural practices are juxtaposed and are very funny. There is one episode in which a young indigenous person comments that his native language is disappearing, and is only used by old people when they don't want the youngsters to know what the are saying. He shares his concern with the Jewish doctor, who compares the situation to Yiddish, which he says is spoken only by oldta-cockers on the Lower East Side. The doctor repeats old Jewish stories to the Aleutian fellow, but the latter completely misunderstands their significance or lack thereof, but nevertheless twists the meaning and the moral in solving his own dilemma. The miscommunication across cultures is a scream, but it also teaches us to be conscious of cultural assumptions.

The episode I saw this evening, however, completely blew me away and inspired this essay. I will only mention the two most important subplots, though there are others. The indigenous medicine man embarks on a research project to ferret out the collective unconscious of the white man. He assumes that in the folklore and stories of the various whites in the town he is going to find the key, based on the assumption that these stories are supposed to have the healing function and higher metaphysical purpose of the mythology of his own people. As a highly sophisticated intellectual, he doesn't take his own religious beliefs literally, but interprets them symbolically, which is where there truth and spiritual efficacy lie. So he interviews all the whites in town, but he is constantly frustrated because he is very serious and high-minded, but all the stories he hears are adolescent and trivial. The whites have no connection with or concern about their own folklore — Paul Bunyan and so on — and all they can come up with on their own are absurd stories about accidents, mishaps, and the archetypal plots of dirty jokes. The medicine man is thoroughly nonplused as he interviews people and tape records dozens of meaningless, trivial, freaky stories that get passed from one person to another. Unable to fathom the white man's collective unconscious, he takes his dilemma to the local radio DJ. He says he can see no healing power in any of the stories and that most of them involve situations that are adolescent and make people feel worse. The DJ responds that Western man has lost touch with myth and is probably suffering the aftermath of the traumatizing effect of the industrial revolution and the rise of capitalism. The medicine man wants to know how the rise of capitalism ultimately induces folk tales on such themes as teenage girls, stick shifts, and Spanish fly, but the DJ can't help him there.

Meanwhile, the younger indigenous fellow, who is always facing dilemmas and asking questions, is both an apprentice shaman and a film buff, and he is entrusted with the task of organizing a film festival that will generate tourists and revenue. The theme of his festival is his hero Orson Welles, who defined the very essence and possibilities of cinema. He rhapsodizes over Welles' films to everyone he meets with the most exquisite analytical discourse. He not only acquires reels of Welles's films but he is visited by Peter Bogdonovitch as a prospective keynote speaker and one-time personal friend of Welles. But the planning does not proceed according to schedule and he is relieved of his post. Downcast, he contemplates his failures as film festival organizer and apprentice shaman, and after consulting with others on his failures, retreats to the movie theater to watch Citizen Kane for inspiration. The elder medicine man enters the theater and they discuss their dilemmas while watching Citizen Kane. The younger one explains the symbolism in the filming of Citizen Kane, and eventually concludes that the ultimate purpose of the film is to find out what is possible. His mentor concludes that perhaps following a path is ultimately more important than the path chosen or the destination reached, and he finds significance in the fact that the characters in the film never find out what Rosebud is, and his worry about the white man's mythology is somehow alleviated.

The ending is very funny, but there is no need to go into it here. The important thing is that this whimsical piece of popular entertainment involves sophisticated writing and abstract ideas of the highest order. Twenty years ago such a show would never have been permitted on American television; now such material is routine. This is a real advance, and I must leave no room for doubt as to what I mean.

Though some of the language and concepts presented might be over the heads of some viewers, this is not a show geared merely to yuppies, intellectual snobs, Woody Allen fans, watchers of stuffy boring British television on PBS, or similar undesirables. Like The Simpsons and the other shows mentioned here, it is genuinely popular in its presentation and appeal. The situations presented are accessible to all, with the added twist of sophisticated intellectual commentary added on top of the basic plot lines, quite apropos of a self-referential age. But there is something else I am compelled to emphasize. What we can learn from these programs goes beyond self-conscious playing with cultural codes and beyond simple-minded cultural relativism where there is merely a myriad of different viewpoints but no truth. There is something objective to learn as well. We learn that different cultures, beliefs, and viewpoints exist, but we are not led into a metaphysical vacuum of subjectivity and arbitrariness as a result. By the juxtaposition, comparison, and testing of these varying viewpoints against the background of the common material and social world in which they coexist, and with a knowledge of history, and finally with a sense of basic human values worth pursuing, we can learn some objective truths about what is constant and what is variable, about who we are, how we got that way, why we are that way, where we are going, and even what is worthwhile for us to become. We need not stop at nihilistic subjectivism and relativism — the stage of cynical reason and enlightened false consciousness. The best of these entertainments teach us something objective about the human equation (and this objectivity is very different from the absolutism of the fundamentalist right), and whatever their shortcomings and omissions, there are seeds of hope, because as ignorant as we seem to be most of the time, apparently some lessons of the modern world are sinking in.

And on the subject of cultural codes, I have one more very important thing to say. Given the unhappy self-consciousness that exists today, and a more abstract and mediated cultural environment in which the conscious manipulation of cultural signifiers becomes prevalent as well as possible, the ability to manipulate cultural codes is not in itself something particularly special, estimable, or progressive. As a means to a deeper truth, yes, but just for its own sake, no, it is quite tiresome as well as consistent with the ethos of late capitalism. And here is where I part company with contemporary cultural theorists, postmodernists and others infected with the disease or its various mutations. My first example is a recent article by the cultural historian George Lipsitz, who has done some very important historical work but lately has been suffering severely from the aforementioned disease. Lipsitz recognizes the cultural revolution that percolated through American culture in the 1940's, which he exemplifies in the works of Charlie Parker, Chester Himes, and Ralph Ellison — all of them black artists, not coincidentally, I'm sure. Lipsitz makes a big deal about how these artists consciously manipulated cultural codes and exhibited this self-consciousness in their work, and above all Lipsitz finds significant their subversion of the conventional distinction and ranking of "high" and "low" culture. But to view things in such a way is to look at cultural production from the outside in, from the exchange value and supposed status of cultural products, not from the standpoint of their intrinsic qualities. But I contend that only academic snobs care about such categories: whether to uphold elite culture or to go slumming, their point of departure is always external and precategorized as befits people obsessed with status. Ordinary people choose entertainment that is readily available or appeals to them; they don't choose it or like it because it belongs to a category known as "popular culture"; only intellectuals do that. And artists, whatever other battles they are fighting, if they are worth anything, they don't produce animated cartoons, write novels, compose music, or perform saxophone solos with the sole objective of subverting the trappings of high and low culture. That may be a by-product, but that is not how artists of any real substance, popular or otherwise, produce their work. If they must be conscious of these distinctions because of their social situation, dealing with them can only be a means to an end, for example, the unification of the diverse ingredients of experience or form to create something of intrinsic importance. As an end in itself, self-referential playing with codes is a meaningless, infantile indulgence. If we are to care, to respond, we need a motivation, and if codes and their manipulability themselves constitute the message, we must still be motivated in some way to care about this kind of message.

There are many cultural phenomena these days that fill me with despair, including the general run of television. Living in media-generated abstractions and a culture of stupefaction has taken the vital human element out of much cultural production, but in partial compensation, the increased abstractedness and artificiality of the social environment has made possible some very advanced manifestations of self-referentiality. If they are at least well done, they can delight us with their ingenuity; their formal properties will be a major source of entertainment value in the ways I have illustrated. But they are most satisfying, dynamic, and significant when they connect with society itself, when they connect with something objective in society or cultural evolution, when they make us self-conscious to the effect of seeing the objective world (which means ourselves, too) with greater clarity, and hence giving us the sensation of spiritual liberation, that feeling of elation that comes over us when our consciousness is set into flight.

8-9 November 1993

Edited & uploaded 3 November 2000
© 1993, 2000 Ralph Dumain

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Uploaded 3 November 2000

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