The Invisible Hand in Popular Culture: Liberty versus Authority in American Film and TV

The Invisible Hand in Popular Culture: Liberty versus Authority in American Film and TV

The Invisible Hand in Popular Culture: Liberty versus Authority in American Film and TV

The Invisible Hand in Popular Culture: Liberty versus Authority in American Film and TV


Popular culture often champions freedom as the fundamentally American way of life and celebrates the virtues of independence and self-reliance. But film and television have also explored the tension between freedom and other core values, such as order and political stability. What may look like healthy, productive, and creative freedom from one point of view may look like chaos, anarchy, and a source of destructive conflict from another. Film and television continually pose the question: Can Americans deal with their problems on their own, or must they rely on political elites to manage their lives?

In this groundbreaking work, Paul A. Cantor explores the ways in which television shows such as Star Trek, The X-Files, South Park, and Deadwood and films such as The Aviator and Mars Attacks! have portrayed both top-down and bottom-up models of order. Drawing on the works of John Locke, Adam Smith, Alexis de Tocqueville, and other proponents of freedom, Cantor contrasts the classical liberal vision of America—particularly its emphasis on the virtues of spontaneous order—with the Marxist understanding of the “culture industry” and the Hobbesian model of absolute state control.

The Invisible Hand in Popular Culture concludes with a discussion of the impact of 9/11 on film and television, and the new anxieties emerging in contemporary alien-invasion narratives: the fear of a global technocracy that seeks to destroy the nuclear family, religious faith, local government, and other traditional bulwarks against the absolute state.

Paul A. Cantor is Clifton Waller Barrett Professor of English at the University of Virginia. Among his wide-ranging and acclaimed writings on film and television, Gilligan Unbound: Pop Culture in the Age of Globalization was named one of the best nonfiction books of 2001 by the Los Angeles Times.


Popular Culture and Spontaneous Order, or, How I Learned
to Stop Worrying and Love the Tube

A film may have its own unity, with its relationships coherent and its
balance precise. But that the ultimate unity can be entirely foreseen is a
dubious proposition: the distance between conception and delivery is so
great, and the path between them so tortuous and unpredictable….A film
…cannot be made in the mind and then transferred to celluloid precisely
as conceived. One of the prime requirements for a film-maker is flexibility
to improvise, and to adjust his conceptions to the ideas and abilities of his
co-workers, to the pressures of circumstance, and the concrete nature of
the objects photographed.

—V. F. Perkins, Film as Film

In studying popular culture, especially when working on my book Gilligan Unbound, I quickly ran into hermeneutical difficulties. I wanted to discuss television shows as works of art, to demonstrate how they present a meaningful view of the world in a skillful and sometimes even masterful manner. I was interested in how a sequence of television shows expressed changes in the way Americans perceived their place in the world and, more specifically, the way their attitudes toward globalization evolved. This project involved making statements such as: “The Simpsons portrays the national government negatively and celebrates a turn to the local and the global” or “The X-Files suggests that modern technology is at war with the power of the state.” In short, like many of my colleagues, I surreptitiously imputed intentionality to something inanimate and truly unconscious—a television series. One could claim that in such circumstances saying “The Simpsons” is simply shorthand for saying “the team that created The Simpsons,” but I suspect that something more is at work here, an attempt to evade the difficult questions about intentionality and artistic purpose that analyzing a television show raises.

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