Category Archives: TV Shows

Robert Ashley’s Perfect Lives Pt. 5: The Living Room

(Check out Pt. 1, Pt. 2, Pt. 3, and Pt. 4.)

Hip hop is bullshit, talentless crap and if its the face of modern black music that our musicians are aspiring to then we need to just give up. Rap requires no skill and only a slight grasp of language. Studies show most rappers have IQs average or below and people who listen to hip hop do too. What is this telling you?

-Candace Laytrene, Topix messageboard thread “Hip hop is shit-you’re dumb if you listen to it”

She (Tipper Gore) also wrote a book in 1987, “Raising PG Kids in an X-Rated Society,” plugged as “a practical guide for parents and consumers concerned with increasingly explicit material in today’s entertainment for children.” She wrote: “Something has happened since the days of ‘Twist and Shout’ and ‘I Love Lucy.’ “

-Melody Simmons, Baltimore Sun, 1992


And I did it my way
See, hip hop is what you make of it
And I’m makin’ a lot of it
See that’s a quadruple entendre, Jay Z eat your heart out

-Yelawolf, The Shady Cxvpher

The stylistics of the later James Joyce, Perfect Lives, and the vast majority of hip hop records share one major technique-the use of entendres and puns in a manner resembling a fugue. As the fugue is structured by the layering of a musical phrase over itself in different permutations to create a total effect and display slight variation as a unified totality, so that the cliche, and/or the disposable language, and/or the cultural context and colorings surrounding a word or phrase are compressed towards their opening up. The omnipresent language, the “sound we take so much for granted”, the “sound of God” Ashley discusses in Pt.4, is pivoted against its own history into becoming a fugue unto itself through the overlaying of its various connotations. This overlay is achieved through the inconsistency of punctuation, the breaking apart and recombining of cliches, and the very inconsistencies of language which your English teachers taught you repeatedly to avoid.

In other words, Robert Ashley has received numerous tributes of late in the form of his work being performed by indie rock bands, but the people who most successfully followed in the footsteps of Perfect Lives and its loose anarchistic relation to language are numerous rappers who never heard it. There’s something very beautiful in that.

The ways that race is codified in grammar and how grammars codify what constitutes racial identity in turn, how these relations to language influence a persons’ grasp on their surroundings and their shape are touched upon briefly in both “The Bar” and “The Living Room”. In “The Bar”, Ashley, while giving his sermon as the itinerant preacher in the titular bar, makes a couple mentions that the character within the loose narrative of the opera is black, though Ashley doesn’t do a verbal blackface (blackvoice?) or an Al Jolson routine; he sees the racial identity as one of a relation to language much as John Cassavetes sees race as a performative identity in Shadows.

“The Living Room” is framed as a conversation between Will, the sheriff of the town where Gwyn, Duane etc. stole the money from the bank, and his wife Ida. Ida asks Will questions, and Will gives answers that don’t satisfy the desired effect of what “answers” or, as the episode’s subtitle would put it, “solutions” are. The visual elements work at counterpoint to the images and the words keep trying to rein themselves in but run around wanton, destroying solidified meaning wherever they go. Quite a problem for a sheriff.

No puns, Will. That way leads to anarchy.
No puns, Will. That way leads to anarchy.

Another iteration of the problem of nothing/everything as a binary comes up very early on in the dialogue. Ida asks Will, “at the risk of everything, what’s the answer?”, and Will gives as good an answer as we may ever have for that particular question. It still, of course, doubles as an evasion. Will says “I’ve been practicing how to say it right the first time.” She volleys a restatement of the initial question, “could you give me a f’r instance?”,  and Will is back in the land of metaphors and stories that Ashley the narrator begins each episode with over the credits, giving the vaguely Aristotelian circular logic of two men talking about birds.

“one says, when I see those birds in cages,

I know they’re sad. two says, that’s a mistake. birds don’t get sad. that’s just how they look when they can’t…fly. one says…

wisely…well, that’s what sadness is.”

Emotion is performance or its inability in this example, something similar to Freud’s theories of energies of the self that transfer into different quadrants depending on their being repressed in other quadrants of the self. This may seem like sloppy writing on my part, a mixed metaphor, but as Ashley is an ecumenical ponderer of possibilities of everythings, this seems like the way by which I can engage with the spirit of Perfect Lives. The specific use of birds as an example could also be an allusion to Maya Angelou, though even if it isn’t my intuition says Ashley would find the connection interesting. It also fits in well with the playful discussions of race in the dialogue, like this one:

“she says: would you call this an alienation?

he says: this is…truly a nation of aliens, not the

only one, but probably the biggest. so I guess I would call it

an alienation. a friend of mine says it’s not a nation at all,

that they’re all aliens”

Similarly, when Will is trying to imagine who took the money from the bank, he can only describe the imagined culprits as being of foreign extraction in escalating absurd phrasings like “there’s no doubt the mexican is in it. the doubt is if he’s mexican.” The more frequent focus on race in this episode makes sense as it’s also a meditation on names. That all of language could be considered the naming of things

Will's not making the puns. The puns're making Will!
Will’s not making the puns. The puns’re making Will! And unmaking him at the same time.

The credits play on this concept and, being an episode concerning names, run a full 5 minutes and play on two separate occasions while also negating themselves.

Numbers, faces, the people who helped make the opera, all there and not simultaneously, running in parallel but not like a roulette wheel.
Numbers, faces, the people and institutions who helped make the opera, all there and not simultaneously, running in parallel but not, like a roulette wheel.

Even Will and Ida’s names, their claim or at least shield around which they construct their self, are in fact multi-layered puns (Ida-ea) which the opera evoke with similar inconclusiveness at other points. To go back to the first episode, the overture: “The will is almost nothing, he thinks to himself.” and “There is something like the feeling of the idea of silk scarves in the air.” Their names as puns don’t bring the reader/viewer/listener to any definitive reading any more than the line in the Saussure diagram makes the word tree correspond to the actual tree and vice versa.

Saussure diagram showing a proposed split relationship between the thing-in-itself and its linguistic representation in the word or picture. Derrida famously erases the line between the two seemingly distinct components in
Saussure diagram showing a proposed split relationship between the thing-in-itself and its linguistic representation in the word or picture. Derrida famously erases the line between the two seemingly distinct components in “Of Grammatology.”
“Names”, already an abstract concept, split and also repeated in a screenshot from “The Living Room”.

Will and Ida’s conversation is a Platonic and Hegelian dialectic. Will discusses Tourette’s syndrome as Ashley himself does in the interview I transcribed an excerpt from in the first installment of these reviews. For Ashley, Tourette’s syndrome, the spontaneous coming to language and sound, is the postmodern anamnesis, the possibility of God after meaning. Derrida’s narrative of being lost in a sea of images that can never reach the comfort of monolithic actuality, to the student of theology that thinks God is reality manifest (a belief that exists in various forms from philosophies of science to deism to the Zohar), is a fall narrative with its possibility of redemption removed.

Put otherwise: if God is everything around, beside, inside and outside of us, all images are graven images. All language is left with after meaning is being.

Robert Ashley’s Perfect Lives Pt. 4: The Bar

Dear mother, dear mother, the Church is cold;
But the Alehouse is healthy, and pleasant, and warm.
Besides, I can tell where I am used well;
Such usage in heaven will never do well.

But, if at the Church they would give us some ale,
And a pleasant fire our souls to regale,
We’d sing and we’d pray all the livelong day,
Nor ever once wish from the Church to stray.

Then the Parson might preach, and drink, and sing,
And we’d be as happy as birds in the spring;
And modest Dame Lurch, who is always at church,
Would not have bandy children, nor fasting, nor birch.

And God, like a father, rejoicing to see
His children as pleasant and happy as He,
Would have no more quarrel with the Devil or the barrel,
But kiss him, and give him both drink and apparel.

-William Blake, “The Little Vagabond”


Episode 4 is both the center of the opera , sandwiched between the three chapters preceding it and the three that come after it. It works as Ashley testament, his personal aria and the point where all the chapters come together into an idiosyncratic theory of language as theory of everything. In parts 2 and 3 the camera shot of the road kept getting closer and closer; it could be said that the old man in the hotel room in the opening chapter is a further aged and widowed iteration of the man from the older couple in chapter 2, and that the old couple are in fact the star crossed lovers of chapter 3, Ed and Gwyn. Narrative timelines have been coexisting and moving backwards. Ed and Gwyn are presumed to be different characters co-existing with the old couple but are played by the same actors in only slightly modified outfits.

This accordion notion of time has been leading toward the unification/collapse of time and language that occurs in “The Bar”, a sermon on the mount delivered from the ground and what could reasonably be presumed to be Ashley’s own spoke-sung manifesto. It is the skeleton key through which to unlock the rest of the work. It has the most lively backing music, a sort of R&B that leans heavily on the gospel roots of the genre. The words of the chorus in this episode are unified with Ashley the narrator’s speech in a call and response that suggests a lively Pentecostal service. Ashley the narrator collapses into the characters of the piece and we hear him speaking as a character but in the video version see him still firmly placed in the physical space of the narrator as he delivers his stirring oration.

Note that the background colors used in the narrator set in the previous three episodes are put left-to-right, the progression forward of words in written English.
Ashley speaking as Buddy, the preacher in the bar, and the narrator simultaneously. Note that the background colors used in the narrator set in the previous three episodes are put left-to-right, the progression forward of words in written English.
The Ashley doubles put in a spatial progression mirroring that of the background behind him in the above shot of him narrating.
The Ashley doubles put in a spatial progression mirroring that of the background behind him in the above shot of him narrating.

As I pointed out in the earlier chapters, Ashley tends to play the dual role of narrator and arbiter of strictly codified language and relationships between characters. In this chapter, Ashley is the bartender, who is silent and fairly irrelevant to the goings on, and the narrator, suggesting a dialectical relationship between the possibility of exuberance; of unrestrained language and the juridical constraints/containers that keep language contained in hopes of resolution, both in the larger society and in Ashley himself. He is split along similar lines, lines that keep shifting.

Unlike the previous chapters we see only one still image of a landscape here, a shot of the outside of a JC Penney department store with a very artificially inserted lightning bolt. The quantification and restrictive relationship of capitalism to language and the people living in it.

The branches of the tree of life, the painful markings (
The branches of the tree of life, the painful markings (“bruises”) on the landscape, an ominously lit department store.

The imagery of the prior episodes swirls inside and around shots of Ashley speaking and an overlay of the tree of life. In an especially clever shot, Ed and Gwyn, in their only appearance within the immediate “now” of the episode’s progression of the plot are zoomed out from their seats at the bar into what at first appears to be the bar’s window but reveals itself to be the context of the opera itself, the opera itself being a simultaneous metaphor and actualization of Ashley’s accordion metaphysics.

The edges closing in to contain Ed and Gwyn. The window frame is the cinematic frame and a continuation of the shifting prison bar imagery of the third episode.
The edges closing in to contain Ed and Gwyn. The window frame is the cinematic frame and a continuation of the shifting prison bar imagery of the third episode. The prison is the narrative.

The libretto goes into the four stages of “the self” which seems not coincidental in its being placed in the 4th chapter; it’s possible that the previous three episodes were mediations on the stages of the self proposed in “The Bar”. The opera’s fidgety visual, narrative, and syntactical circling, shifting and morphing is explained far more concisely than I can do here in the sermon itself:

And we said the Self is ageless being

What I don’t know

The word eternal is a mystery to me.

I don’t understand that word.

I can’t say the Self is ageless

Being eternal,

So, I have to find another way of seeing, another way of

Understanding that the Self is ageless

The line breaks and punctuation of the paperback edition of the libretto I’m working from, presumably at least overseen by Ashley, break open even further contexts and connotations while pointing toward a holistic reading of the text more conveniently (perhaps more deceptively) than the TV form. There are distinct differences in suggested cadence. For example, in the recorded version, Ashley delivers the first two lines quoted above in a manner suggesting the punctuation “And we said the self is ageless, being what? I don’t know.”  The different break up of the lines into “And we said the Self is ageless being/ What I don’t know”, suggests that “What I don’t know” is supposed to correspond as a reiteration of “ageless being” and correspond more directly to the distorted neo-Platonic theological system pointed toward in the sermon and the associated imagery used in the TV production.

The tree of life overlaid on Blue Gene Tyrrany's hands playing the piano. Note that his hands are not given a visual blur of any sort in this episode.
The tree of life overlaid on Blue Gene Tyrrany’s hands playing the piano. Note that his hands are not given a visual blur of any sort in this episode. The reflection of his playing and the keys in the body of the piano is not pointing anywhere for the first time.

Perfect Lives, having its genesis, like much of Ashley’s work, in the initial epiphany of feeling connected to the (seemingly?) inchoate ramblings of the mentally ill, might be described as a dramatized attempt to overcome the initial trauma of losing faith in the possibility of mental illness. It might also be described as an extension of the postmodern project, a project that first expanded the bounds of what constituted language theoretically and has been managing and exploring the aftermath of that discovery; a batch of book-crumbs trailing through Derrida’s destruction of the line in Saussure’s diagram through to Deleuze/Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus and that has touched pretty much every culture product to come after it, or at least was bit by the same invisible bug more noticeably before this anxiety/breakthrough crept into Western culture at large.

But Perfect Lives distinguishes itself in its framing of this dilemma as not a problem of literary criticism or secular philosophy primarily (though those were the initial delivery vessels) but as being a distinctly theological question. If language can’t “mean”, if the occasionally God-less gods of progress and teleological historicism can’t hold up, if the individual can’t come to any grander schema of “knowing”, this paradoxically, by killing anything resembling a god, positions every forward motion or action as being a leap of faith. But by doing this, it clears the playing field for a sort of gerrymandering of dogmas far more dynamic than the ones embraced prior; the flowing fluctuating liveliness of Perfect Lives can only exist in its relation to this iteration of the larger problem, falls apart so that it can come together and vice versa, and returns to one of the initial questions of western philosophy-“How ought one live?”, perhaps more productively restated as “How ought one live in the face of a circular closed thisness/haecceity that seems to open everything up?”

Perfect Lives offers not an answer but an ecumenical system of answers, a theory of theories of everything that comes to its own pluralism standing over, mucking around in and lying beneath the everythingness of everything(s). And “The Bar” stands as Ashley’s most direct, diffuse, troubling and edifying statement on the matter in a larger piece made of answers that doubt themselves and squabble as though they were people.


If there’s an answer to tower over the rest, the one that Ashley himself secretly endorses, it might be found in the following lines:

Around us in the bar

We hear the sounds of life


She goes down to The River when she can…

The Holy River where the notes came up from New Orleans.

Because It’s There, The Doctor says.

She is enchanted.

She has learned that short ideas repeated

Massage the brain.

But even this presents problems in its closeness to the regimentation of the dread “industry”. “Boogie woogie is the vessel of the eternal present”, but then the clarity of constant “present” is in itself another artificial stricture as Henry James explored in The Ambassadors. But for a brief moment, it all seems to line up. Maybe a brief moment is all we can stand. As is stated in “The Bank”: “It changes, right? ‘n so cosmic is the scale that just a glimpse is all it takes to break my heart”.

Robert Ashley’s Perfect Lives, Pt. 1: The Park


Years ago, I became interested in the notion of involuntary speech. My way of approaching Perfect Lives came out of that interest. I had been observing people-particularly in New York-and I noticed that many many people were talking to themselves, publicly. Since I talk to myself privately, there seemed to be only a thin line between their madness and my madness. (Except I thought of mine as music.) At the same time, an idea that I was trying to confirm for myself was that there may be no problem, no discontinuity, between the thinking mode in music, and the way you correct that mode to make it something that everybody else recognizes. It’s the question of the origin of consciousness.

-Robert Ashley, printed interview

So like, um, for Bazin, what the ontology of film has to do is it has to deal with, you know, with what photography also has an ontology of, except that it adds this dimension of time to it, and this greater realism. And so, like, it’s about that guy, at that moment, in that space. And, you know, Bazin is like a Christian, so he, like, believes that, you know, God obviously ended up like, everything—he believes, for him, reality and God are the same. You know, like—and so what film is actually capturing is, like, God incarnate, creating. And this very moment, God is manifesting as this. And what the film would capture if it was filming us right now would be like God as this table; and God as you; and God as me; and God looking the way we look right now; and saying and thinking what we’re thinking, right now, because we are all God manifest in that sense. So film is actually like a record of God, or of the face of God, or of the ever-changing face of God.

-Caveh Zahedi, Waking Life

Silence is the soul’s invisibility. We can, of course, conceal ourselves behind lies and sophistries, but when we speak, we are present, however careful our disguise. The monster we choose to be on Halloween says something about the monster we are. I have often gone to masquerades as myself, and in that guise no one knew I was there.

-William H. Gass, “On Learning to Talk”


I have tried on and off for several years to write an essay on Perfect Lives and in all of these attempts I’ve failed.  It’s the center of my personal canon; the libretto atop the pile of books that form my bible-like any good post-structural Gideon I keep them next to my bed-and I find I revisit and ponder passages from it with a frequency that far outstrips any other book. It defies categorization, understanding, it refuses to be anything but itself and evades the bounty hunters of language that might desire to tame it so it might serve them on their own terms.

As such, there are few things I can accuse Robert Ashley of “understanding” with a clean conscience. But if even the most diffuse work has some sort of pivot point, if anything has a container even if the container can’t be specified to anything smaller than “the universe”, I would phrase the pivot point to Perfect Lives as follows:

Words don’t want understanding. They want children.

Perfect Lives is a work obsessively concerned with flatness; the flatness of Ashley’s voice, the flatness of the Great Plains, the flatness of common language, cliches, the flatness of the television. And so a flatness of language-and everything’s language, everything can be read-gives a suggestive depth and a sense of the things we can’t see (or perhaps that we don’t realize we’re seeing) that nevertheless never stop moving. The video shows static shots, the characters rarely ever move, but the shot keeps changing ever so slightly or with allusive turbulence. As presence implies lack; as the a widely spread line on the battlefield implies few reinforcements; as the things that seem to coat the world grow thin the way the uniformity of the paint on a house only maintains itself by our constant touch-ups, so Perfect Lives glimpses at something larger through the cracks. It’s an architecture that seems to touch the sky by its falling apart.

That meaning is a process, a calculus of the senses made in the face of a nothing that threatens to divide anything into the infinite is dramatized most cogently in the first episode; note how the intellectual determination is characterized as a preference. Interjections by the chorus in parentheses:

He studies the ashtray and tries to rule out preference, pre-

ferring (of course) over not preferring,

but he prefers, gravity (over what other state?) pre-

ferring in this case, (of course) earth

(the earth as they say), preferring

some state over non-state. (of course)

Now he grips himself with determination,

even knowing it causes sadness. (of course)

He is determined to be what?

(of course) He is determined to be serious,

not for the first time, not for the first time, there is the feeling

(of course) of a mistake.

But too late, he has arrived…

Ashley leaves in the corrections one makes mentally when speaking and in these suggests the tenuous, flowing nature of the conclusion of the language is betrayed; the clean confidence with which the writer or speaker is implored to present themselves to the world is but a construction; behind and around it sits, as Ashley puts it, “a ball of hot stuff we haven’t put our minds to yet.” Ashley is the first ‘pataphysician in earnest, a gentle explorer into a world of subjective pluralities after meaning that was always there, but may never have been. The chorus repeats, in each installment, the corks with which the shifting narrators attempt to bottle language unsuccessfully as it fizzes out all around them. (Of course.) It’s a coming to terms (and more terms) with the traumatic experience of facing language to see it has more powers greater than we ever imagined and that we can’t actually own it-the chickens of the word and the image come home to roost and the aftermath in which we all diffusely exist.

The overarching plot of the opera, which is barely touched on in favor of seeming digressions that may or may not be such, dramatizes this shifting exultation or transgression around a thing that seems, sometimes, to be there, and other times, more frighteningly might not. Perhaps it both is and isn’t, and this might be the most disturbing thing of all.

I quote the summary from the back of the Dalkey paperback edition of the libretto:

Raoul de Noget, an over-the-hill singer, and his younger pal Buddy (“The World’s Greatest Piano Player”), find themselves in a small town in the Midwest. They become friends with the son and daughter of the local sheriff, and the four hatch a plan to do something that, if they are caught, will be seen as crime, but if they are not, will be art: they will rob the town bank, take the money over the border into Indiana, and then return it the next day.

Episode 1 is the overture and lays out the primary question: There’s quite possibly nothing and quite possibly everything behind language. The gut seems to suggest whatever this sensed (no)thing is contains both the elements of overwhelming joy and of the worst sort of existential misery. What to do? What to say?

Knowledge as conquest of the surrounding world doesn’t seem to be the answer. Throughout the piece, in the manner of Gertrude Stein or James Joyce, Ashley is using words that have multiple definitions to stand in for several of the multiple senses in which they can be used. The word bursts forth as a wellspring of plurality in opposition to the tight academic “grasp”. In this passage, this method is spoken of and demonstrated simultaneously:

I am not sitting on a bench next to myself, (true enough) whatever that means.

I am a city of habits.

I am completely knowable in every way. (true enough)

I recognize superstition in every form.

The anger of the words wakes me in the dream of myself. (true enough)

Note the shift from the earlier interjection by the chorus of “of course”, a confident punctuation, toward the less certain and oddly quantitative “true enough”.

This and the other episodes are portraits of the words use to dance around the means in which we “master” the word. In the overarching structure of the piece is suggested a more anarchistic relationship to the word, but in this anarchistic relationship comes a very different landscape that looks superficially but precisely like the one that preceded it.

This is why Ashley names each installment after a common space. Tomorrow we’ll look at Pt. 2: The Supermarket.

Why Am I Clapping? Why Am I Laughing? Psychoanalysis of a TV Set

In the beginning there was happiness…

Smiley, the happiest brand ever, was founded by Franklin Loufrani in 1971 through a newspaper promotion to make people happy. using the logo to highlight good news, it allowed readers to see the bright side of life throughout any day. In a very short time Smiley became the most recognizable icon in the world and remains so to this day.

-Anonymous Author, Smiley Corporation History Page

Because it’s There, The Doctor says,
She is enchanted.

She has learned that short ideas repeated,
Massage the brain.

-Robert Ashley, Perfect Lives

Humor is a conformity enforcer clothed in the garb of congeniality. It focuses on others’ weaknesses, disasters, stupidities, and abnormalities.

-Howard Bloom, The Global Brain

Did you know that you’re 30 times more likely to laugh if you’re with somebody else than if you’re alone…

-Site preview, Google Search: “why are we laughing”

As is said when dogs try in vain to eat our food, “The TV thinks it’s people!”

What does a box that runs on wish-fulfillment wish for? What do televisions dream of?

What are its Freudian slips? What does it tell us?

It resists analysis, firmly confining me to the couch.

It shows me sitcoms that progressed since their inception from obsession with narratives of “actual” workplaces and families into obsessive narratives about the forging of surrogate family and replacement community. Why else on The Office would Dwight be a welcomed guest at Jim and Pam’s wedding when they hate him?

It shows me Bojack Horseman. The titular protagonist, a washed up actor who starred in a fictional sitcom about a family, repeatedly meets with the actors who played his (not) family and attempts to make them behave like an actual family. He eventually gives up on this, finding another surrogate family still trapped within the fictionalizing confines of the screen.

It shows me an episode of Alf. Alf becomes obsessed with the sitcom Gilligan’s Island and deserts his fictional surrogate family on the sitcom Alf hoping to escape from his own escapist entertainment into the twin dads of Gilligan and The Skipper. In a distortion of It’s a Wonderful Life, Alf, in a dream, is told by the Gilligan’s Island characters they’ve been watching Alf on a television rigged together with coconuts hoping to escape living on Gilligan’s Island. Alf goes back to his fictional surrogate family. An infantilized Jimmy Stewart, Alf tells them he appreciates them and gives Nietzschaen affirmation to his own fictional, surrogate existence. He escapes from one television sitcom to another television sitcom and returns but never exits the television.

These are just a couple among dozens upon dozens of telefictional equivalents.

They-with slight logistical variations-are, of course, eerily reminiscent of Derrida’s reading of a Rousseau’s Confessions in Of Grammatology.

Derrida gives us a summary (in Hollywood they’d call it “a remake”, in the Met they’d call it an “icon painting”) of the Confessions wherein the lonely Rousseau describes masturbating in the otherwise empty bed of the absent prostitute, his girlfriend, the woman he affectionately refers to as “mother”. He can’t touch his absent actual mother so he supplements her always present absence with a replacement. Eventually even this supplement requires supplementation by his own erotic fantasies. All for a thing no longer there, that can’t be there.

Just like Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.

“The TV thinks it’s people!” And it wants its mother.

Television presents itself in stories of its own drowning in a rising tide of supplements.

The sitcom is one of the pinnacles of what Dwight MacDonald dubbed “midcult”, what has been referred to as “fakelore”-the demographic-incepted industrial production of popular mythology. It aggressively divides the shared experiences and reference points of the child from the adult so as to most efficiently deliver advertising. Thereby it comes to commandeer the psychological space once the territory of the family.

And in its stead attempts, in all its blocky clumsiness, to grow into the experience of the family. It wants to jump on the table and eat our food. It wants to complain about what we’re having for dinner tonight. As God created man in His image, so has man created the television screen, in its image.

Television grows impatient wanting to be people and attempts to make them meet it halfway. It pushes them from the communality of the folk dance or music or tales toward the isolated space of the home, the office, the automobile. It blurs the sense of time in the night better than a bonfire and tells all the jokes.

It seizes the flow of folk culture as its own. The flow is diverted from being from the bottom up, of society out into art. It becomes the trickle down flow of art into the dreams of an occupied population.

The audience is the primary object of attention. For the television, people is the hopeful self-actualization to resolve its coming of age narrative. It is us that constitute the mirror in which television primps its hair and play-acts what it wants to be when it grows up.

 The television nervously laughs after it tells me jokes as though it really desperately wants me to like it. It’s insecure and presents itself in perfectly starched shirts, perfectly fit clothes. Its apartments always look specially cleaned as though expecting company.

“Smart” TV is the tv trying to have an earnest heart to heart with the audience about their relationship. We call this self-reflexivity. The TV calls it self-awareness.

The sitcom is defined by the laugh track and its felt absence, the drama by the musical cue.

The laugh track is one of the television’s reoccurring dreams. It wants approval. In its home, your home, it punctuates your projected dreams with its own dreams of you giving it unconditional love. The laugh track is the television’s safe-space

The original laugh track was also the first ever mellotron. One guy, Charles “Charley” Douglass, invented and owned the only one: “The Laff Box”. It looked like a tiny organ and was protected with padlocks. It had 32 sets of ten second tape loops that would be periodically switched out, able to reproduce a variety of different types of laughs at once. We might call these combinations chords.

Because this man’s business was a family business and because this box was essentially an instrument, the producers took to fighting over who got to book his son, who was very generous in his topical application of “laffs”. If the tape loops could be considered a fictional simulacra of a community he was their gregarious philosopher king, the bringer of “sweetened” dreams.

The producers would, however, avoid his wife. She was, according to insider sources, stingy with the “laffs”.

The Douglasses with their Laff Box were the mass media age’s answer to The Carter Family. They created the poststructural inverse, the pastiche of the other side of the folk song or play-the spectator response. They traveled playing “the audience” to any entertainment willing to pay them.

Somewhere in the clap, in the laff, in the cheer, sits the nervous shriek to stop.

The Superhero and Cultural Subversion

After sending an excerpt of my previous essay on the cultural place of the superhero to a friend, she took offense at the passage where I claim there’s no possibility of the female superhero because of the cultural discourses of power that create and maintain the superhero. She sent me to this New Yorker essay on the genesis and cultural history of Wonder Woman and we discussed it in its minutia until the wee hours of the morning. Reading the essay, a couple passages stuck out at me:

A press release explained, “ ‘Wonder Woman’ was conceived by Dr. Marston to set up a standard among children and young people of strong, free, courageous womanhood; to combat the idea that women are inferior to men, and to inspire girls to self-confidence and achievement in athletics, occupations and professions monopolized by men” because “the only hope for civilization is the greater freedom, development and equality of women in all fields of human activity.” Marston put it this way: “Frankly, Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world.”

And here, Marston’s agreement with the thesis of my previous essay, with the New Yorker writer echoing the Freud element:

“Do you think these fantastic comics are good reading for children?” she asked.

Mostly, yes, Marston said. They are pure wish fulfillment: “And the two wishes behind Superman are certainly the soundest of all; they are, in fact, our national aspirations of the moment—to develop unbeatable national might, and to use this great power, when we get it, to protect innocent, peace-loving people from destructive, ruthless evil.”

And finally, the political denoument and split of the feminist movement’s relationship with Wonder Woman after the fairly advanced feminist politics of the six years total that Marston ran the title:

Marston died in 1947. “Hire me,” Holloway (Marston’s female assistant) wrote to DC Comics. Instead, DC hired Robert Kanigher, and Wonder Woman followed the hundreds of thousands of American women workers who, when peace came, were told that their labor threatened the stability of the nation. Kanigher made Wonder Woman a babysitter, a fashion model, and a movie star. She gave advice to the lovelorn, as the author of a lonely-hearts newspaper advice column. Her new writer also abandoned a regular feature, “The Wonder Women of History”—a four-page centerfold in every issue, containing a biography of a woman of achievement. He replaced it with a series about weddings, called “Marriage à la Mode.”

The notoriously backwards internal politics of the comics industry reared their ugly head and from 1947 onward with few exceptions the Wonder Woman character’s vaguely radical feminist components were rarely touched on again outside some attempts to make her a “career woman” in the 70s, her new look roughly modeled after the fashions of Mary Tyler Moore’s sitcom heroine. The superhero, as a power fantasy, can at best touch progressive politics through the questionable tactics of the savior narrative or at worst use the most superficial trends of feminism as a trojan horse for reactionary politics while maintaining plausible deniability against their doing so. The sins of second wave feminism in their most bald form were regurgitated in Wonder Woman comics.

Of course Wonder Woman as a conscious piece of feminist propaganda couldn’t work. The reading of comic books has always been, like most “entertainments” that pretend to exist outside the possibility of intellectual criticism, processed on the unconscious level. This, not the conscious intent of the creator, creates their possibility of unwitting cultural subversion.

Comic books, as products meant for children, have sexual repression built into their DNA. It’s not an accident that Doctor Octopus always attacks right when Peter Parker is on a date. This is a repeated motif. Escape into superego to avoid the id. Express the repressed sexuality in obsessive endless images of bondage style sadism. Superman’s initial visual conception was in softcore bondage pornography. This is not a design error, it is the design.

The recent debates over the objectification of female characters in comic book art, while long overdue, miss one of the basic elements of the overarching visual aesthetics of superheroes. Superheroes have always existed as hypersexualized figure drawing to the point where Jack Kirby and Stan Lee had to invent the absurd “unstable molecules” to explain why the clothing of the superhero is always perfect form fitting and never folds. I’m not advancing the idiotic moral equivocation argument pushed by the dread MRAs here. Even if the sexualization cuts both ways, the sexual objectification of the female characters exists in a different cultural context. The larger cultural norms for the entire history of superhero comics as a genre have involved the commodification of women as sex objects. As such the absurdly enlarged breasts, shrunk waists, and erotic posturing of female characters is the reproduction of the larger culture and reactionary.

However, the coded hypersexualization of the masculine that arises from the broader attempts to repress homosexual tendencies creates possibilities of politically progressive subversion. The repressed id always makes itself known to those paying attention.Coded language wants to be found out. It seeks community.

The person who introduced me to comic books when I was two years old, my cousin (a terrific fellow who leads an exciting life) now runs gay superhero costume themed fetish parties. They look like a hell of a lot more fun than Comic Con. In the linked NY Times article he mentions pretty much outright using the homoeroticism of the images as a means of discovering himself. In superhero comic obsessed communities, it ended up actually being the white cis-het sexuality that was repressed on the ground. Comic Con has “cosplay” but there are no cis-het superhero sex parties that I know of. Their impulses have to exist largely in voyeurism. The repression of the “deviance” led to the opposite of what was intended. This is irony at its richest and most satisfying.

So far this is the only subversion against the norms caused by the main streams of superhero comics I can think,of. I say this not to marginalize its positive effects but to assert the circumscribed nature of the superhero in my prior essay.

Guest post by Daniel Levine. Check out his first book here. He also just released a comedy album which you can hear selections from for free here.

“Mad Men”, the 60s, and the Triumph of Neoliberalism: Carol Lipton’s Review

Last Wednesday, I took a walk that I had not taken for many years: I went from 38th Street and Second Avenue to 59th and Lexington, revisiting much of the scenery and streets I used to pass by every day as a summer letter carrier in Grand Central Station in 1970. It was the height of the Vietnam War. Kent State and the war were raw, open sores on the nation’s psyche. I passed 57th Street, and was struck by something I hadn’t noticed in many years: the Juan Valdez coffee room, where I used to go at the end of my morning route for a free cup of Columbian coffee. I cringed, thinking how to my college self, getting a free cup of espresso in midtown Manhattan from a giant corporation that was exploiting workers in Latin America, was an incredibly exciting event.

I thought back to the endless sun-drenched afternoons walking up Park Avenue, a 20, sometimes 34-pound load of mail on my back, sporting my third change of work shirt, off to the afternoon Special Delivery runs that would terminate at UN Plaza, Beekman Place and Tudor City, and how a small treat like a free cup of coffee would make my day.

I thought of how embarrassingly neocolonialist its “El Exigente” ad campaign was, and the yawning chasm between the sanitized advertising image of the friendly coffee grower and the brutal realities of coffee plantations and assassination of labor leaders in South America.  I realized how the loss of any remaining illusions about the corporate machinations taking place in the canyons of midtown obliterated any traces of youthful excitement about being on those streets. What I felt was the opposite of the many tributes to the glories of Midtown, whether Sinatra’s or JZ’s. For me, there was neither hope nor charm.

Midtown in 2015 was vastly different terrain from midtown in the 70s. Gone were the low-level apartment buildings, the dozens of small cafes and restaurants, coffee houses, working class bars, and boutiques.  In their place were glass and concrete cenotaphs, interspersed with the monotonous neon frontage of chain stores and banks.

My walk served as the perfect prelude for the final episode of “Mad Men”. The “Mad Men” finale was, whether intentional or not, a stark commentary on the triumph of globalization and return to normalcy after the tumultuous and disorienting cultural upheaval that was the 1960s. The ending of “Mad Men” was a master stroke. With a modicum of imagery, Matthew Weiner brilliantly portrayed the co-optation of the counterculture.

The ending, a replay of the most iconic TV ad of the 70s, the 1971 Coke commercial, was in effect a bookend to a scene at the beginning of the series, when the War in Vietnam had begun to escalate.  Don Draper was at a coffeehouse in Greenwich Village, intently watching as a folk singer on acoustic guitar sang the mournful and elegiac “By The Waters of Babylon”.  The singer, a humble young man in nondescript clothing, is the opposite of Draper, the Brill Cream Adonis. The song is sung in round robin style reminiscent of a Greek chorus.  Its emotional refrain, “We lay down and wept, and wept, for these our young” stands in plaintive contrast to Draper’s polished, impervious facade.

The series returns to the War in Vietnam in its final episodes, as Sally’s childhood friend enlists in the army, and she angrily denounces him. She becomes the moral center of “Mad Men”. Don, who had been slowly losing the ability to manage his game of 12-dimensional profligacy, finally hits rock bottom. He’s forced to confront the flotsam and jetsam of his life: the fake identity, the betrayal of his children’s trust, his many secret affairs, the lingering shame of his upbringing in poverty.  In the final scenes, Don’s emotions surface, and he finally seems to allow himself to feel genuine feelings.

In one of the most touching scenes in the series, he bids farewell by phone to Betty, who is dying of lung cancer brought on by years of heavy smoking, made more tragic by the irony of his trade. For Don Draper is no ordinary man losing his ex-wife to cancer. He’s one of advertising’s reigning geniuses, whose daring, innovative ad copy plumbs the depths of the American psyche. His ads created indelible imagery designed to  manipulate the deepest desires of Americans, so they would crave his clients’ products. It was Don who, at a meeting with Lucky Strike, announced that after Reader’s Digest had made it impossible to discuss cigarettes and health in the same sentence, created a new brand identity as the “toasted” cigarette.

Has the tragic specter of the Grace Kelly-like Betty stoically facing an agonizing death resulted in Don finally acknowledging his role as America’s uber-pusher? Matthew Weiner, like Jules Pfeiffer’s Dancer, answers both “yes” and “no”, and seeks to perfect both answers.

Like a scorpion stung by its own stinger, none of the employees of Sterling Cooper will be immune to the potency of advertising’s subliminal payload. While Betty will be the first to die of cancer, we can easily imagine the rest of Sterling Cooper’s staff, who not only smoke but drink like there’s no tomorrow, following suit.

Weiner strongly hints at Roger’s inevitable death from smoking, as he continues his multi-pack habit following a near-fatal heart attack. In one of the last episodes, he visits Joan to tell her he’s left the bulk of his fortune to their out-of-wedlock son.

The escalation of our national penchant for addiction parallels the increasing desperation driving the global search for raw materials and resources that stokes the engine of capitalism. Forty-five years after Mad Men’s ending, multinationals have virtually cannibalized the earth, laying waste to its mountains, trees, and oceans. Like a mainlining junkie, cranes drill into its veins and arteries, extracting minerals, oil, and natural gas, looking for that angry fix.  From 1970 until the present, most of the Amazon rainforest has vanished. The men who rule America’s corporations have not only caused millions of death from lung disease, they’ve also destroyed the lungs of the planet.

In 1970, the year “Mad Men” ends, the paroxysms of outrage over the assassinations of MLK, RFK, Malcolm X, and Kent State were reaching a crescendo. The massive social protests that produced the hippie counterculture as an alternative model to mass consumption had become a force to be reckoned with.  Its values represented a threat to corporate culture simply by their refusal to participate in conventional dress or grooming.

Millions of American youth stopped consuming the products that Madison Avenue wanted to sell. Rock ‘n’ roll anthems like “Satisfaction” and dozens of other records derided advertising, and its “useless information supposed to fire our imagination”. The Who released “The Who Sell Out”, with fun-house style cover photos mocking deodorant ads and Roger Daltrey bathing in a tub full of Heinz beans. 1970 saw the first Women’s Liberation march, and women abandoning the use of grooming products, high heels, and perfume.

Don Draper finds himself in California at the end of a cross-country journey in search of his identity.  He’s surrounded by hippie women who wear no makeup, braid their hair and tie it with ribbons. He wants to abandon it all. He goes to find himself in Big Sur and Esalen. Peggy pleads with him to return to the office, reminding him that the Coke account is waiting, promising that he can always come back.

In the final scene, Don is at Esalen, his belongings already looted from his East Side penthouse by his French Canadian mother-in-law, his car abandoned.  Amazingly, he has given up smoking. We see him in the lotus position in an al fresco yoga class, deeply inhaling the California mountain air, smiling and seemingly at peace, the Bodhisattva of Madison Avenue.

This cuts, without explanation, to the show’s final scene, of the iconic 1971 Coke commercial. But Weiner provides us with an irrefutable clue to the meaning of this scene: one of the women wears her hair with the identical braids tied in red ribbons as the Big Sur receptionist. It’s clear that Don designed the ad campaign. The commercial  shows about 100 people from different countries singing the refrain “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony”, and finishes with “Coke. It’s the Real Thing”. It employs every hippie, peace and love trope and a catchy, sing-along song, to sell Coca Cola.

Here are gentle, fresh-faced, idealistic youth, seemingly from every nation on the planet, all joining together to have a Coke. Just as Coca Cola has cannibalized the land and culture of indigenous peoples, it now engulfs and merges with hippie iconography and language to create a potent image. It is an image designed to expand Coca Cola’s global market to include the counterculture and the Third World. It promises to deliver the world to peace, harmony, and greater understanding, just as Africa is poised to plunge into mass starvation, drought, and the AIDS pandemic. The 1971 Coke ad can now be seen for what it was: the watershed moment that signaled the reification of countercultural values and the sanitized culture of the 70s.

Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, it’s obvious that Don mined his deepest experiences to create the ad, an apt metaphor for the remarkable tenacity and mutability of capital. This Coke campaign’s multiracial cast and veneer of peace and harmony would become the template for every non-profit emergency relief campaign thereafter, most notably “We Are The World”. At the center of the photo is the blonde hippie manqué, wearing the same braids in red ribbons as the Esalen receptionist. She’s wearing a red and white dress and stands resplendent against an expanse of blue sky, a living, breathing Star Spangled Banner.

Many people in the past week have discussed how May 4, 1970 and Kent State sounded the death knell for the 60s. I think that the final bell tolled on September 11, 1973, with the coup in Chile. It was the death of hope, the killing of a government that had dared to nationalize American corporate assets in a valiant attempt to wrest control over its own resources from the talons of global capital. Vance Packard, in his classic work on advertising, “The Hidden Persuaders”, warned Americans that we were being manipulated and tracked into consumption categories from cradle to grave, and that advertising was robbing us of the ability to think critically. The legacy of the 1971 Coke campaign is very much alive. It is the triumph of image over reality, of illusion over substance, of slogans over critical thought, that are the hallmarks of late-stage capitalism, where we pledge allegiance to our own destruction.