Friday, August 23, 2013

So You're Still Rooting for Walter White...

And so, apparently, is Skyler. I've already gone through why Walter White is a wholly objectionable figure elsewhere. But I wanted to talk a little bit about why viewers and critics remained attached to the show, finding it continually praiseworthy. I don't exempt my own judgments from the dynamic I am attempting to analyze: I remain invested in the show as well, and think so far this seasons two episodes have been excellent. But there are at least two strains of fandom that I want to talk about. First, those who are invested in Walt as the Heisenberg "badass" and view Skyler as some kind of killjoy, and second, the more sophisticated arguments about how Skyler is the moral center of the show, serving as a sort of cipher for the audience to participate in the narrative without being corrupted by Walt.

Representatives of the first view have become scarcer as Walt's naked ego-driven ambitions have become clearer, rendering less and less credible his claims that he "Just wants to provide for his family." Comments like those of popular twitter character (and AV Club commenter) @ZodiacMotherfucker (who is known for his all-caps tweets) suggest a masculine identification with Walt, as in this example:

While one might roll their eyes at this (its a comical account, clearly) the comments sections at any number of websites that do recaps of Breaking Bad like Hitflix or the AV Club have sections of fans who do root for Walt a somewhat surprising amount. For example commenter "HISLOCAL" on Hitflix says that "I'm getting a little tired of Jesse moping around, for the same reason I got tired of Skyler's attitude towards Walt. I understand that any of us would, in reality, act like Jesse or Skyler, but it's just kind of a buzzkill to watch on TV." The commenter understands the relation between the fantasy of television, but nevertheless admits that the charge of the show is the connection to Walt and his survival/success.

Similarly the most popular scene from the first episode of this season was the showdown in the garage between Hank and Walt. Even though Hank has the physical upper hand on Walt when he punches him, Walt maintains a mental edge with his gruff "Tread lightly" comment that finishes off his soliloquy about his own power and capacity for dread. This phrase was all over twitter following the episode, and even showed up on fan paraphenelia and imagery, permeating Gchat statuses and social media discussions of the show. They belie a certain kind of admiration for the badass side of Walt's "Heisenberg" persona.

Even articles that take a distanced and critical view of Walt depoliticize the grid of identification that sustains the relationship between the viewer and show. For example this Slate piece argues that Skyler is the best character on the show because "she’s the one who reminds us that it’s necessary to loathe Walt. She is our moral grounding." All well and good, but the last stanza of the article claims that it is easy to get sucked into identifying with Walt because of "the show’s narrative logic—Walt must overcome obstacle A to achieve goal B—to the point of blinding oneself to the evil of the particulars and their endpoint. We root for Walt because we want the show to continue." I disagree with that assessment because the formal characteristics of a show do not necessarily guarantee our investment. No matter how many Dick Wolf procedurals are put it, the level of intensity between the viewer and say, Jerry Orbach's Lenny Brisco is often less intense than that between them and Bryan Cranston's Walter White.

In her recent book Washed in Blood Claire Sisco King examines three periods of American cinema wherein shows featuring sacrificial male leads have helped America to "work through" difficult national traumas in a manner that reified and stabilized rather than undermined the hegemony of white masculinity. King examines cinema from the period of Vietnam, the nineties, and post 9/11 America to make her claim. The critical supplication permanently attendant to the drama of Walter White suggests his suitability as an avatar for another American trauma: the first period of the nation that sees a black man in the White House. Breaking Bad saw its critical star really take off during its second season in 2009, where the adrenaline pumping tales of a science teacher who "finds himself" when he is confronted with the threat of cancer. This despite the fact that very early on in the show many of Walt's "struggles" are coded as such only by a misogynistic masculinity: we have no context to determine whether Walt's feelings of restriction within his marriage are legitimate gripes or results of his own small minded selfishness, as later seasons might suggest. What Walt is "finally awake" to is not his objective status as a victim but instead the legitimate possibility that his situation might be able to count as a situation of victimage in need of redress.

In this way Walt's "break bad" authorizes itself to take a position typically denied in the "mass public" according to Michael Warner: Walt may operate simultaneously as both the righteous agent of his own professional/marital vengeance and also take a position that satisfies the need to matter (be seen) attendant to a public where the cost of white male privilege is also the denial of the subtle pleasures involved in relaxing and "being seen" rather than constantly gazing. One describes these as subtle pleasures only on account of Walt's whiteness and maleness: that it takes the trauma of cancer to push him into the exercise of his agency suggests in part the sinister capacity of the subject to interpret trauma not as a sign of something gone wrong but instead evidence of the correctness of what has been, driving them, in melancholic righteousness, towards the pursuit of control and mastery that has only appeared as a horizon rather than a reality. That it took many viewers many seasons to realize Walt's horrible and empty center suggests this reading has more than a little merit.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

1965: Reagan's Increasingly Mainstream Moves

Scholars like Kurt Ritter suggest that Ronald Reagan had to moderate his strident anti-Communism as he attempted to mainstream himself for political purposes.  The necessity of this move became apparent to Reagan after his bosses at GE, for whom he was hired to do a long-running series of corporate talks, fired him because he had moved too far too the right.[1] Moreover, if Reagan was going to appeal to a broader electoral center, he needed to move away from meaty redbaiting and enthusiastically appeal to a broader segment of society.
            Following his very well received delivery of “A Time for Choosing” in support of Barry Goldwater late in 1964, Reagan began to campaign and speak even more in earnest, branching out from his old GE circles and speaking more in support of other candidates around the country. In Granville, Ohio on June 8 1965 Reagan came out to speak for Rep. John M. Ashbrook at a dinner gathering. Examining the text of this speech suggests how Reagan’s moves following his 1964 speech maintain many similar and somewhat radical themes in his speaking, although the move away from an explicit reliance on an existential rhetoric of annihilation is striking.
            Reagan opens with a typical series of pleasantries and references to Ashbrook before he transitions into his speech, which was entitled, “A Moment of Truth: Our Rendezvous with Destiny.” Reagan’s first reference to any sort of policy matter comes in the second paragraph, noting sarcastically of the Voting Rights Act, “I think it’s wonderful that they’re going to have a voting bill. If tombstones and empty warehouses, why not people?” This reference, almost certainly referring to the suggestions that John F. Kennedy among others had repeatedly benefited from election fraud, does double duty for Reagan: not only does it position Democrats cannily on the side of undermining democracy, but it also diminishes the ongoing debate over the VRA (which sought to expand the electoral franchise in practice for blacks) by suggesting with its sarcastic tone that voting itself was a relatively empty practice given that corruption had soiled it. Moreover the structure of the joke relies on an equivalence between the explicitly described “tombstones and empty warehouses” which are inanimate objects signifying death and decay and the implicitly black bodies that are to inhabit a parallel place in the structure of the humor.
            Reagan, having rendered suspect the most visible of democracy’s traditions, elections, then turns to the general notion of democracy itself, suggesting that the real threats to democracy come not from without but from within, suggesting that, “while Rome’s barbarians came from without—your barbarians will be engendered by your own democratic institutions.” Reagan’s warrant is the work of Alexander Tyler, which suggests that democracy “can only exist until the voters discover they can vote themselves largesse out of the public treasury.” These comments set up Reagan’s later pivot to discuss the dangers of the Great Society, and its placement just a few stanzas after the denigration of the VRA suggests that the ultimate ruin of democracy comes when everyone can vote, with the implicit charge that giving blacks the right to vote will ruin democracy. The very next paragraph substantiates these threats by providing data, in the form of rising national debt, a diminished gold supply, and a rising crime rate, suggested relays or relationships between these phenomena and democracy’s decline.
            Reagan then suggests a rhetorical inversion in the two parties’ relationship to the idea of the “status quo” which he says is “Latin for the ‘mess we’re in.’” The last Democratic campaigners had portrayed conservatives as “radicals who’d bring about some drastic upheaval” where “here we had a peaceful and prosperous America.” Reagan continues a maneuver suggested in his earlier “A Time for Choosing,” where he had argued that “the people” would be corrupted not because of their intrinsic failures but instead by the power of Big Government to ruin their good civic sense. The status quo, characterized by government expansion that threatens to corrupt even the most well intentioned citizens, becomes the warrant for a new conservatism. Reagan implicates this struggle by suggesting that “Freedom is very fragile; it has flowered only a few moments in all of…history and most of these moments have been ours.” Reagan not only taps into a well of American exceptionalism, he positions this freedom as perilous and permanently threatened. While sounding fewer explicitly militaristic notes as in “A Time for Choosing” and his earlier more radical speeches for GE, the general threat to freedom could speak to a large audience of people, especially whites, concerned about what socio-political gains of people of color could mean for them.[2]
            Reagan then pivots to discuss the perils of inefficiency and bloated bureaucracy, pointing out the difficulties the federal government has in competing with the private sector in terms of services provided for cost. This threat is coupled with claims that “the ultimate goal” of federal employment is meant to make it so that “there will no longer be a need for private government agencies.” This point combines with a series of data points about the government gathering more information about citizens. While Reagan does not explicitly at any point suggest what the government will do with data, this allows listeners to infer something sinister: he is, presumably, not worried that the boxes of data will end up somewhere next to the Ark of the Covenant. And with the specter of Big Government run rampant not only in Reagan’s speech but also in the latent content suspicious of totalitarianism’s European form, these claims do not need much to do their work on the audience.
            Importantly, however, Reagan makes a good show of agreeing with the intentions of his opponents if not their results. Good intentions should not be conflated with good outcomes, which Reagan hammers home when he tells the story of a motorcyclist who, wearing his jacket backwards, is “rescued” from a crash by an emergency response team that turns his head to the front of the jacket. Reagan repeats this refrain as he acknowledges that problems with education, housing, and other issues are salient, but emphasizes his disagreement with government-based solution to these problems.
Government control of education, for example, risks making education political, and “What if one day, that pressure is of a political nature not to our liking. Education is the bulwark of freedom. If you remove it far from the community…it becomes the tool of tyranny.” These claims set up his historical arguments about the nature of freedom, which he suggests, “comes but once in the history of nation” and at this crucial moment where “we face a world that’s half slave and half free.” The result is a world that raises the question of “whether mankind itself can survive.”  The speech finishes with many apocalyptic tones. Reagan speaks of a “pathway of history” that is “littered with the bones of dead empires…Every time, history tell us, that a cultured, advanced society has met the less cultured, the barbarians triumph.” Reagan then summons a future where “our failures will be recorded in a book yet to be written called the Rise and Fall of the United States of America.” Reagan’s Manichean themes of Good and Evil, which were more explicit in the original “Time for Choosing” speech, reappear here, though they crescendo near the end rather than being peppered throughout. The structure of the speech mirrors the sense that one would have of perceiving the real threat to America as an internal rather than external one: creeping realization as opposed to constant terror.
In an earlier post I suggested that “A Time for Choosing” exemplified Reagan’s ability to engage in affective conflation, wherein the bodies attention to threats becomes a manner for flattening out dangerous phenomena and articulating them to the same set of existential anxieties. Here one can see evidence of a more sophisticated use of this strategy, one that stakes out its distance from the bombastic rhetoric of Goldwater but maintains a similar set of sentiments suggesting that Americans still have to worry about existential threats to the polity.  In a very telling passage near the end Reagan speaks of
Truly forgotten Americans—unsung heroes who get up in the morning and send their kids to school and pay their bills; contribute to their church and their charity and their community. They believe in God as the Creator of all our rights and freedoms and they’re disturbed because their children can’t ask His blessing on a lunch in the school cafeteria.
These “forgotten Americans” preview Richard Nixon’s silent majority, not only suggesting how their disappearance (and silence) indexes their marginal position relative to the status quo that Reagan spends a great deal of time indicting, but also preying on their anxious worries about their own relevance in a moment where institutions of privilege (the Church, a white ballot box, economic self-sufficiency, and a relatively stable domestic circumstance) were threatened by the “barbaric” forces outlined by Reagan. The American government has created these barbaric forces by inserting itself into matters best left to the social rather than political spheres.  Reagan’s implied solution is a shrunken government, one that poses less of a threat to the virtues of America’s citizens. Without a smaller government, only the “barbarians” will be remembered as those whom clamor loudest receive the most notice and acclaim. In the context of “Great Society” programs that were premised on singling out for improvement sectors of society, Reagan’s call about the “forgotten Americans” transformed these Great Society programs from benign initiatives into actions that signaled who did (and did not) matter in the eyes of the government. The “extermination of mankind” references by Reagan creates a kind of sympathetic relay with the disappearance from society of these “forgotten Americans” and their replacement by poor and racially-marked barbarians who lacked the civic sense to see that good intentions and right actions did not always meet at a coincident point.

[1] Ritter, “Reagan in the South.” This happened in 1962, although Reagan continued to give versions of “The Speech” like “A Time for Choosing” and the speech under examination here for some time.  Another crucial matter was that Reagan threatened not only ideological embarrassment for GE, but also financial: he spoke out against programs like the TVA which benefited GE immensely.
[2] As explained in an earlier post, despite the rapid gains in the standard of living and the white middle class through the fifties and early sixties, gains and losses tended to be experienced relatively rather than absolutely through competitive rather than cooperative logics. This suggests a pernicious element of individualism that even robust rhetorics and logics of republicanism struggle to snuff out.