We Are All Roman Porn Stars Now

Article excerpt

Are we fighting the good fight through our service or just creating a spectacle of superexploitation?

AAUP members are likely to be familiar with the 1960 adaptation of Howard Fast's Spartacus by Stanley Kubrick and Dalton Trumbo, a rousing Kirk Douglas production widely credited with breaking the Hollywood blacklist. We're a bit less likely to be among the five or six million weekly viewers of the recent series of the same title produced by Sam Raimi, a show that will launch its fourth and final season on Starz in January 2013. While the show consistently wins its time slot against other cable offerings, I don't particularly recommend watching it-catch up on The Wire, Nurse Jackie, or Breaking Bad first.

Impressively, the show has managed to hold its audience despite significant production challenges, including the death of the actor playing the title role. Certainly some of its viewers tune in for the objectified porn-star bodies of the actors. But they stay because they identify with the characters in the story. I think it's worth trying to understand this identification, in large part because it seems to be an identification with a mode of exploitation similar to our own.

With balletic violence, gorgeous computergenerated imagery, and lovingly detailed mature sequences, Raimi's production doesn't at first seem calculated for the status-conscious and servicemotivated intellectual-the sort of person who gives up salary in exchange for prestige and satisfaction. That said, one of the show's persistent themes is the personal cost of pursuing psychic rewards-such as celebrity or the esteem of one's colleagues. The show invites identification with the gladiators on the supposition that the viewers are also imprisoned by their own pursuit of affective compensation. Our motivations (teaching for love, serving the community, bringing about the good society, and so on) are prime examples of psychic compensation. Our superdiscounted wages likewise exemplify the cost of accepting it.

DALTON TRUMBO, MEET LARRY FLYNT

The show consistently wins its cable time slot in the eighteen-to-forty-nine demographic, a success that suggests, as even our friends at the New York Times acknowledge, an apparently growing appetite for stories of class warfare (see Ginia Bellafante's January 20, 2011, article, "The Adventures of Spartacus Six-Pack"). Of course, this use of class warfare erroneously assigns the term only to class struggle from below (as if the arduous labor of Mitt Romney, John Boehner, Rupert Murdoch, and Bill O'Reilly to roll back medical care, education, and workplace rights isn't the class war of the rich on the rest of us!). As I observed at the time, and as the flash-fire of the Occupy movement confirmed, recent trends in cultural consumption indicate a growing will among the 99 percent to fight back against the institutionalized warfare of global capital.

There are two paths into this version of Spartacus that any reasonably competent cultural studies scholar might pursue: genealogical relationships, especially those with earlier versions of Spartacus, and transitive relationships with parallel iconography, like the masterless samurai of Akira Kurosawa, Sergio Leone, Clint Eastwood, and the rest.

The first approach would be largely a project of mourning-that is, exploring all the ways this latest iteration of Spartacus measures a retreat from the Leftcultural imaginary tapped into by the blacklisted dream team of Dalton Trumbo and grand old Howard Fast. For decades a best-selling writer of openly anticapitalist fiction, Fast was imprisoned for resisting the House Un-American Activities Committee and forced to self-publish the 1951 novel on which the 1960 film is based. (Apparently Kirk Douglas produced the film largely out of pique after losing the title role in Ben Hur to Charlton Heston, but he still deserves enormous credit for having the courage to employ these writers and helping to break the blacklist. …