Dystopian and utopian stories come and go in popularity. But this present moment is dominated by the dystopian variety, for understandable reasons.
As GenXers, we grew up on post-apocalyptic movies along with other dark and demented entertainment-visions. It was the slowing down of the Cold War during our childhood. But fears of nuclear war were in still in the air. And the sense of doom lingered. The End of History with the end of the Soviet Union simply ramped up anxiety further. It led into a decade of school shootings and homegrown terrorism, such as the Oklahoma City bombing and the the last killing spree of the Unabomber, with a new threatening crisis following after that about every decade: 9/11 terrorist attack, 2008 recession, and now 2020 pandemic.
In the childhood of Generation X, there was an innocence to the idea of civilizational collapse. Even war was something that happened elsewhere, as no foreign power had yet attacked the United States mainland. The dark bent of public imagination mired in a post-Vietnam malaise did make for a less than optimistic mood in that era, but those post-apocalyptic movies were often playful and over-the-top, like The Road Warrior (1981) and Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985). It was letting off steam that had built up from decades of Cold War paranoia and anxiety. Besides, the American imperial hegemony stood all-powerful, as the Soviet regime wound down into irrelevance and then disappeared. Amidst American greatness, doomsday entertainment could be taken as safe escapism.
Nonetheless, it may have led to a demented fantasy life for children growing up in it, an entire generation often thought of as cynical in adulthood. There was the beginning of a sense of decline back then, that America was somehow no longer as great as it once had been. The post-world war new car smell had faded. The economy was heading downward in the 1970s, as violent crime shot upward. This led to moral panic involving weird conspiracy theories embraced by the mainstream — like child molestation rings operating out of childcare centers and satanic cults abducting children for sacrifice. Some innocent people got caught up in the hysteria and were prosecuted and imprisoned based on the manipulated testimony of children. The line between fantasy and reality became blurred.
It was a strange time. Besides post-apocalyptic movies, there were all kinds of violent Vietnam War movies and horror movies featuring children as victims, demonically-possessed, monsters, psychopaths, violent punks, and devil worshippers. Even superficially patriotic movies like the Rambo movies (First Blood, 1982) gave expression to a sense of rot in America, that the government had failed. And as late as 1984, a movie like Red Dawn could still be made about the Soviet Union invading the United States. This is the entertainment GenX grew up on.
It felt different as American society moved into the 1990s, even if new fears replaced the old, such as a focus on technology in stories like The Matrix (1999). For the younger generation, the partisan culture wars were tiresome and posed no existential threat, no matter how shrill the right-wing screamed. Because real threats were hard to find, the Christian right turned to End Times fantasies, such as the first Left Behind movie in 2000. That turned out to be perfect timing with an Evangelical as president when Islamic terrorists attacked the United States — President Bush declared a “Crusade” and that gave a boner to fundies all across the land. Rather than fear apocalypse, many of these Christian lunatics have longed for the end of the world. Even their support for Israel has been inspired by the belief that the Temple must be rebuilt so that Jesus can return with a flaming sword of destruction.
The reality of American decline, though, is less dramatic. Even now in this global pandemic, the average person’s experience is boredom as we wait it out. It’s hard to imagine this as the first of the Four Horsemen, named Pestilence. As pandemics go, it is rather minor. It was the same with the 2008 recession, as the federal government intervened to bail out big biz and big banks in order to prop up the economy once again, albeit the economic problems were merely delayed and have been growing worse. Fear has been muted, even when the threats are real and looming. This era of gloom is hard to put one’s finger on, a general sense of unease or what some call floating anxiety. Even President Donald Trump as aspiring dictator and emperor is rather pathetic as compared to previous authoritarian leaders in the Western world, although his being elected at all is disturbing.
There is growing anxiety and it is seen in our entertainment choices. Dystopian novels were rising in popularity with the election of Trump. And that probably boosted Trump’s ego knowing that many Americans thought so highly of his prospects. There was already an interest in dystopian visions of America with The Hunger Games movies (the first in 2012), and that interest is even more intense now. Over the past years, numerous highly watched television series have come out that portray dark visions of alternative Americas: Amazon’s The Man In the High Castle (2015-2019), Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale (2017-2020) with a planned second series based on the novel Testaments, and HBO’s Plot Against America (2020-).
As for alternative Americas, there is also the recently released Motherland: Fort Salem from the Freeform network. In that world, the persecution of witches ended several centuries ago and the result was a matriarchal society. Still, it’s not exactly a utopian narrative. There are central themes about conflict and exploitation. And it has plenty of violence, including horrific terrorism. It might turn out to be a decent addition to the rest, but so far it’s not clear it’s of the same high quality.
They keep making this kind of entertainment giving voice to a troubled society. Apparently, there is a large audience for it. In another genre, there are also other less-than-happy portrayals of alternative Americas such as The Dark Knight (2008) movies and the X-Men movies (2000-), or even bleaker the Watchmen movie (2009) and HBO series (2019). More generally speaking, the Harry Potter movies (2001-2011) along with USA’s The Purge (2018-) and HBO’s Game of Thrones (2011-2019), Westworld (2016-), and His Dark Materials (2019-) also give hint to underlying fears in our society about authoritarianism, corruption, political failure, and impending doom. Another series HBO almost made was Confederate about the South having won the Civil War and so probably would have been another story of a fascist America.
There is a theory that, during hard times, people are attracted to escapist fantasy. Some famous examples of this during the Great Depression were Frankenstein (1931), Dracula (1931), King Kong (1933), The Invisible Man (1933), and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). That isn’t what we are getting right now, particularly not The Wizard of Oz (1939). There is no present equivalent to a movie like that. There is no sense that we can click our heels and return home.
There is something else that is different right now. It’s not only the large number of dystopian entertainment, from post-apocalyptic to alternative history. It is increasingly mainstream. There have always been lots of movies in this genre, but we are seeing more and more series than was the case in the past. Some of these series are prestige shows with large financial backing. There is noting schlocky about them and they aren’t being presented as niche genre entertainment. They are popular shows that are being watched by people who don’t necessarily otherwise seek out speculative fiction.
This is a different historical moment. These shows are being made in a highly realistic manner and they are ambitious. Their intention is to be taken seriously and, in the times we find ourselves, they are being taken seriously. But it isn’t only about President Trump as an aspiring tyrant. Consider that the first seasons of The Man in the High Castle came out under the Obama Administration, as did the initial entry in The Hunger Games film series. A sense of dread about where society is heading has been growing for decades now. It’s now hitting a fever pitch, but that fever is a symptom of the disease, not its cause.
The infection began long ago and the disease has progressed without notice. The danger of dystopias is that they can be self-righteously comforting in making us think we know who the bad guys are. And as with white middle class feminists unconsciously wielding privilege, we can too easily learn the wrong lesson from a show like The Handmaid’s Tale, in not recognizing our own complicity. It’s not like being bottlefed on dystopian nightmares helped GenX to fight the system and stop the slow but methodical authoritarian takeover. If anything, it more powerfully inured our minds to the worsening conditions, not only with cynicism and apathy but moreso a numbed disconnection from the banality of evil, the creeping nature of worse becoming worse — such as being led along by the chains of lesser evil voting that made greater evil inevitable.
Dystopian entertainment, in its exaggerations and caricatures, can blind us to the evil already around us. It makes one wonder what it all means. The growing popularity of dystopias may not mean the public is waking up, no matter how nice it would be to believe we finally might begin to groggily open our eyes to the morning light piercing our nightmares. New generations are being raised on this mainstreaming of dystopia, not only in summer flicks but hyper-realistic dramas that go on for years and so becoming deeply embedded within the psyche. It forms the background of the collective imagination, for good or ill.
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Let’s explore some further historical background to entertainment in the horror and dystopian genres.
As the Second World War came to an end, there was the baby boom and so a renewed focus on the young. The cover article of Parents’ Magazine, in January 1950, declared that, “Because in the next 10 years the United States will have a record child population, we are now entering upon what can well be termed the Children’s Decade” (quoted in the abstract of Andrew Scahill’s It Takes a Child to Raze a Village: Demonizing Youth Rebellion). A new generation of children offered not only hope but fear as well. “During the Cold War crisis, children’s bodies became the primary symbolic battlegrounds for political ideology” (Andrew Scahill, The Revolting Child in Horror Cinema). In both the United States and the Soviet Union, children were seen as targets of propaganda and so entry points of alien or corrupting forces.
There had been concern about youths gone wrong far back in history with moral panic rising in reaction to the mass urbanization and technological changes in the late colonial era (Technological Fears and Media Panics). So, children had increasingly become symbols of uncertainty and anxiety. Along with an emergent idealization of childhood, there was an ideological motivation to control children, as the ideal clashed with harsh realities. This underlying tension finally boiled to the surface with the under-parented Lost Generation of children working in factories and roaming in street gangs, although juvenile delinquency didn’t became a society-wide obsession until the 1940s and 1950s. The concern grew worse in the following decades. “Dixon notes that Rhoda in “The Bad Seed” was the first mainstream demon child, but the trope really took off with the 1960 British science fiction film “Village of the Damned” and the sequel “Children of the Damned,” in which a mysterious force impregnates all the women villagers simultaneously” (Douglas J. Rowe, Evil children chill moviegoers).
By the 1970s and 1980s, as another generation was coming onto the scene, it felt like the world was going to hell. Besides the peak of a violent crime wave, it was the period of economic recession and austerity, of farm crisis and AIDS crisis, of the final clashes of the Cold War and the lingering threat of nuclear catastrophe. “I’m a child of the ’80s,” writes David Sirota, “and I was deeply impacted by that decade and that pop culture — and for many reasons, that pop culture is back in a lot of ways. So I started thinking about why it’s back — and some of it is Hollywood laziness, some of it is coincidence — but it’s really kind of eerie, too, with the crisis at the Japanese nuclear power plant happening; you know, the last time that kind of thing was happening was at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, in the ’80s. So there’s a real zeitgeist of the ’80s returning” (from Jef Otte’s interview, David Sirota on Back to Our Future, Ghostbusters and the decade of “me”; see Back to Our Future: David Sirota on the 80s). There is also the fact that GenXers and their older siblings, the late Boomers, who were shaped by that era are now the majority of parents of youth and producers of entertainment.
Still, it’s the Fifties that must be given credit for giving birth to a particular strain of filmographic fear, and there were social circumstances to explain what went wrong. “While the media frequently portrayed teens as a monstrous threat to the stability of American society, these films show the teen as monster to be a creation of a corrupt adult world. If the teenager is vindicated in many horror films, mom does not come off so well” (Cyndy Hendershot, I was a Cold War Monster, p. 5). Yet, “In many of these films, the father is absent or bamboozled by his precious prince or princess; it”s left to the mother to come to the slow, horrifying realization about her offspring” (Douglas J. Rowe, Evil children chill moviegoers). In either case, it was a failure of adult authority figures, often the parents but also a sense of societal corruption in general.
Even when children were portrayed as dangerous, they often were also framed as victims and casualties of post-war changes or Cold War dangers. “With strong antecedents in the late 1950s (The Bad Seed, Village/Children of the Damned, The Lord of the Flies), the figuration of the revolting child—and specifically the child collective—is best understood as a Cold War monster. Indeed, […] public investment in the “good democratic child” and public outrage over the “juvenile delinquent” loomed large on the U.S. consciousness” (Andrew Scahill, It takes a child to raze a village: demonizing youth rebellion, p. 2). From a Fifties newspaper article, in reporting on the “Children’s Decade”, it was argued that all of society’s resources needed to be invested in children, as much out of fear as of loving concern: “The disturbed, hostile and rebellious child is a danger to himself and to the community, and a poor risk as a future citizen” (George Hecht, Today Is Termed Children’s Decade; Their Needs Cited, Madera Tribune, Number 75, 29 April 1952). “Beneath the insistence on creating a positive and healthy environment to foster children’s individual growth and social development was a concern over the nation’s future” (Daniel Gomes, “Sissy” Boys and “Unhappy” Girls: Childrearing During the Cold War). Childhood was the site of existential crisis.
There was something different, though, in the late Cold War era when horror movies fully went mainstream. Instead of the sins of the father and mother falling upon the next generation, it became more common for fictionalized children and youth to be made into something else entirely, ever more monstrous and alien. Youth culture was becoming its own force that diverged further and further from the adult world. This led to unsettling movies like the 1979 Over the Edge about juvenile delinquents running rampant and turning violent that shaped many minds of that generation of youth. “While somewhat raw and certainly not without imperfections, it’s easy to understand why Kurt Cobain claimed that the movie “pretty much defined my whole personality,” and why it so heavily influenced Richard Linklater in making his own ode to restless youth, Dazed and Confused” (Mike Sacks, Over the Edge).
Even so, most horrifying movies of that era didn’t put on a pretense of realism. That is what feels different about present entertainment. Movies and shows are so much higher quality in terms of special effects, script writing, and acting. It’s much bigger business these days and the profits are so much higher. Oddly, this has led to an increased popularity of gritty realism. Even alternative histories like The Man in the High Castle are made to be quite compelling in creating a plausible world that is fleshed out in great detail. Another difference is that the obsession with youth culture has completely changed in tone. In present speculative narratives of the dark bent, the younger generations are no longer demonized and made into scapegoats. Instead, when not simply ignored, they are heroes on a hero’s journey, rebellious fighters against oppression, and saviors of humanity.
We fantasize about the younger generation undoing our failures and making the world right again. At least, there is an acknowledgement of something being amiss and that someone had better do something about it. But what is our society supposed to do as GenZ reaches adulthood and they no longer are innocent children upon which we can project our failed aspirations? How are the young supposed to reverse centuries of damage to the environment, worsening inequality, and growing authoritarianism? Anyway, isn’t this rather convenient? Instead of doing the hard work right now, we can simply make and watch entertainment about alternative worlds and future worlds where fictional people do what needs to be done in fighting for a more just world.
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Other examples of dark entertainment from the past couple of decades:
I just noticed a reference to David Sirota’s recent book, Back to Our Future. It looks interesting. After reading some reviews and hearing some interviews, I decided to purchase the book on my Kindle. So far, I’ve only read the beginning and skimmed later sections. This post is more about my initial response, but it’s a very thorough initial response.
To put it simply, this book provides analysis of 80s culture’s impact on politics and how that impact continues.
•Atari: Best-selling videos Missile Command, Combat and Space Invaders sold techno-militarism to a generation of future drone pilots.
•Rambo: Embittered vet refought America’s wars and “gets to win” this time.
•Ghostbusters: The movie’s lesson: When government fails, these private security contractors saved us from interdimensional “terrorists.”
•World Wrestling Federation: Theatro-sport in which American good guys like Sgt. Slaughter body slammed foreign bad guys like the Iron Sheik.
•Mr. T: No matter what character this Mohawk-wearing strongman played, he represented racial stereotyping and threw it back in our faces.
•The Cosby Show: The pre-Obama image of the “post-racial” brand, the Huxtables were the first black family to dominate TV.
•Ferris Bueller: John Hughes’ cheeky truant glorified “going rogue” years before Sarah Palin.
•Air Jordans: Best-selling sneakers pushed the idea that we can each be superstars if we “just do it.”
•The Yuppie: Upwardly mobile wealth-obsessed Alex P. Keatons rejected ’60s idealism for modern materialism.
•“Greed is Good”: Gordon Gekko’s line from Wall Street became the decade’s most famous phrase — and its most enduring ethos.
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My discovering this book was serendipitous. I happened upon a reference to it the other night. A few hours prior, while at work, I had been talking to a coworker about all things apocalyptic, the Japanese nuclear plant problems being the starting point of the conversation. She mentioned something about a tv show and I was reminded of how many post-apocalyptic movies there were in the 1980s when I was a child. Between that and evil children movies, a child of the 80s was almost inevitably warped in the head.
I’m a child of the ’80s, and I was deeply impacted by that decade and that pop culture — and for many reasons, that pop culture is back in a lot of ways. So I started thinking about why it’s back — and some of it is Hollywood laziness, some of it is coincidence — but it’s really kind of eerie, too, with the crisis at the Japanese nuclear power plant happening; you know, the last time that kind of thing was happening was at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, in the ’80s. So there’s a real zeitgeist of the ’80s returning.
I don’t know that Sirota discusses the post-apocalyptic genre, but it seems to fit in with his overall analysis. The nuclear accidents back then made nuclear apocalypse an increasingly real possibility which was imaginatively portrayed in various entertainment media. As a GenXer born in 1975 (the same year Sirota was born), I’m well aware of the impact of 80s culture.
Sirota takes this a step further and says this impact is continuing as if the 80s somehow stunted America’s natural development. The country was going in one direction with the civil rights movement, environmentalism and other things, but then the 80s came and a different attitude took over: hyper-individualism, capitalist greed, paranoia of government, aggressive militarism, ultra-nationalism, racial fear-mongering, class war, culture war, radicalization of religion, etc. Americans haven’t yet collectively recovered from the trauma of the 80s. There were the 50s, the 60s, the 70s, and it’s been the 80s ever since. An endless nightmare as if Reagan were still president.
[T]he ’80s speak to us today for one simple reason: “Because it’s still the ’80s. The calendar doesn’t say ’80s, but we’re still looking through an ’80s mind-set.” Think Charlie Sheen. Think Lehman Brothers. Think McMansions.
As William Faulkner said: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
The ’80s set the stage for our lives today, Sirota says, and he explains it best in his introduction: “Almost every major cultural touchstone is rooted in the ’80s. … The Sopranos was an update of an ’80s Scorsese flick (Raging Bull and later Goodfellas).The Wire was Baltimore’s own Colors. Curb Your Enthusiasm is a Los Angeles-set Seinfeld. American Idol is Star Search.” And so on.
[ . . . ] “The reason you see so many remakes is not just because nostalgia resonates,” Sirota says, “but because (’80s movies) are still culturally relevant.”
Part of his argument relates to his realization that most people aren’t political at all, or rather don’t consciously identify as political, don’t consciously think out their political views. And, even those who are consciously political as adults, usually didn’t identify as being political when growing up. Nonetheless, it’s obvious that everyone has political views. Even children, when asked, can offer views on political issues. We all gain our political views from somewhere. Sirota thinks that pop culture has a greater impact on our minds and worldviews than we normally realize. He even goes so far as to see it playing a role of pseudo-propaganda in some cases and outright propaganda in other cases. This can be seen to some extent as part of the normal enculturation process, but the 80s were anything other than normal… and, in the process, a new norm was created for American society.
So I’d been reading some social research, and one thing that’s been coming up is that pop culture and entertainment — especially for children — is just as formative to how we see the world as news; as children, this entertainment that’s packaged as non-political, it can be as reality-shaping as reality is.
All the buzz in the entertainment/tech world about the blockbuster new video game Homefront brings back memories of the 1984 film Red Dawn — and rightly so. The creator of Homefront is none other than John Milius, the writer/director of the 1984 film that later became the deliberate namesake of the most famous operation in today’s Iraq War. But it should also bring back memories of the larger militarist themes that continue to define our entertainment culture — themes that ultimately bring up the direct but little-examined connections between the Pentagon and the entertainment industry. It is the legacy of those connections, first intensified in the 1980s, that continue to embed militarism in seemingly non-political products like video games and action movies.
As I show in , much of the video game industry was subsidized by the military and military contractors, and many of the earliest games were consequently martial in thrust. Think: Atari Combat and Missile Command, which then grew into a larger video game world that, as one Konami executive said in 1988, “takes anything remotely in the news and makes it a game.” You could see that in Nintendo’s Iran-Contra era game Contra just as you can see it in today’s hits like Call of Duty. And in almost each of these games, the ideology of militarism (i.e. military action solving all problems) is reiterated and reinforced.
Same thing when it comes to the Pentagon-Hollywood relationship since the 1980s — only in that case, we’re now seeing military officials quite literally line-editing scripts to make them more pro-military.
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Several points stand out to me in Sirota’s analysis.
First, Sirota argues that the 80s was when violence became normalized. Violence became a central part of our collective psyche: movies, video games, etc. Part of this had to do with the Vietnam War, the first major military loss that shook America’s collective confidence and righteous nationalism. Americans had internalized the violence from the Vietnam War footage and were now trying to come to terms with the sense of national failure that came after the withdrawl from Vietnam. It was maybe something like a collective Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Sirota does mention the Vietnam War. He talks about the explanations given such as what he calls the “hands tied behind their backs” myth. I guess the idea was that if the soldiers weren’t held back, they could’ve demonstrated some real violence that would’ve forced the enemy into submission.
Second, the obsession with violence was inseparable from the obsession with hyper-individualism. This partly was represented by fear and hatred of government, the belief that the government can’t do anything right, that the government is the enemy of the people, of local governance, the enemy of communities, of religions, of capitalism, the enemy of all that is good. In general, all collective action and activism was looked upon with suspicion. Nothing good could come from people working together cooperatively toward the common good. Only individuals (or else individuals working together for the purpose of profit, i.e., private contractors: The A-Team, Ghostbusters, etc) could solve problems. People couldn’t rely on government, the FBI, or the police to solve their problems… and, so, people instead had to hope for a hero figure to come to town. And it was considered admirable when things got done, even if it meant breaking laws and committing violence. This hero worship also led to our culture of idolizing celebrity and wealth (a celebritocracy borne out of a distorted vision of meritocracy).
“A lot of the changes that happened (in the ’80s) weren’t good,” Sirota admits. “The deification of celebrity, for instance. The individual. Michael Jordan could soar above all the rest. It wasn’t about the team anymore. That wasn’t so good.”
[ . . . ] “It was the outlaw with morals. The guy working on the inside for the common good,” Sirota says. He says that trend translated to sports, pointing to a poster of bad-boy Barkley. “He broke the rules but he was a good guy.”
As for ’80s greed, the examples are endless both then and today.
He cites Michael J. Fox’s The Secret of My Success (1987) as glorifying the ’80s goal of “working your way up to huge sums of wealth.”
But another 1987 movie perhaps summed up the era best. Wall Street (which co-starred Sheen) lives on because of three famous words uttered by Michael Douglas: “Greed … is good.” The sequel, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, was released last year. Still relevant. Bernie Madoff, anyone?
“The young of the ’80s didn’t want to save the world,” Sirota says. “They wanted to get rich. It became the norm, and it’s the norm today.”
Third, Sirota explains how all of this was disconnected from reality. It had become a collective myth that couldn’t be questioned. He gave some examples about the enemies the media and government demonized during the 80s.
The US government was using propaganda about the Godless commies for the purpose of justifying the building up of the military-industrial complex, but the US government had plenty of data in their own reports that the Soviet Union was technologically inferior by far and was destroying itself trying to keep up with US technological advancement. The US government knew the commies were no real threat, but the myth of a powerful enemy was necessary and desired. To have a powerful enemy, gives a nation a sense of meaning and purpose even if it’s an utter lie.
The other example shows how lies when repeated enough become collective reality. On some level, I suspect most Americans were aware that the commies couldn’t be used as a scapegoat forever. The Cold War was drawing to a close and so the search for a new great enemy was already beginning. The new enemy to be feared was Islamic terrorists (which was already at that time starting to become the new standard enemy in American entertainment).
In our fighting the commies, we had at times aligned with radical Islamic fundamentalists and theocrats. I think many people realized that this would eventually lead to blowback, that our allies once we were finished using them would turn against us. More importantly, we just needed an enemy. If we had to create that enemy by funding, training and arming radical Islamic fundamentalists, by overthrowing democratic governments and supporting oppressive regimes in the Middle East, then so be it. Creating enemies is no easy task. It takes a lot of money and time, a lot of effort and planning, a lot of destruction and loss of life. But what the 80s have taught us is that endlessly fighting enemies of our own creation is something worth fighting for.
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Here is another related factor that Sirota may or may not touch upon. The attitude of seeking enemies was an all-encompassing way of making sense of the world and hence of making public policies.
Worst of all, the demented paranoia of the 80s even led to the American people becoming the enemy. There was evidence of this mentality from earlier times such as with COINTELPRO from the decades prior, but the 80s brought it to a whole new level. COINTELPRO only targeted specific groups. The War on Drugs, however, targeted the entire American population. In many ways, it was worse than even McCarthyism. The War on Drugs has done more damage than probably any other public policy in American history. I doubt there is any US policy that has led to more people being imprisoned, more people having their lives destroyed, more increase in violence, more increase in a corporatist elite profiting off of the suffering of others, more targeting of the poor and minorities. My God, even Prohibition wasn’t this damaging. The War on Drugs has been going on for decades which has only led to an increase in drug use and drug-related violence. Now, the War on Terror (funded by the black market for drugs) has ratcheted up even further this paranoid oppression and authoritarian fear-mongering.
The 80s created a schizophrenic mentality. The government was the enemy and yet the government was necessary to fight the supposed even greater enemy of commies, terrorists, and drug dealers. The government was the enemy and yet the government was necessary to fight the enemy that is hiding within. Any American potentially might be a commie, a terrorist, or a druggy (or a gangsta, or a welfare queen, or an illegal alien, or an eco-terrorist, or a radical liberal). Everyone potentially was an enemy. No one could be trusted. It was everyone against everyone. A society of trust and cooperation was a thing of the past. The role of the government in helping average Americans was seen as evil and the power of the government to hurt the enemy was seen as good.
So, spending on social services and infrastructure (what conservatives like to call socialism) were reduced as the military-industrial complex (along with the alphabet soup agencies) continued to grow (along with the debt). Both fiscal and social conservatism were ironically used as part of the propaganda to increase the power of the ruling corporatist elite. Fiscal conservatism!?! Give me a fucking break! Neocons like Reagan believed in fiscal conservatism in the same way a pedophile priest believes in God. Even if their belief is genuine and earnest, those negatively effected would hardly find much comfort. I don’t know if a laissez-faire ideology correlates to reality any more than Christian theology. What I do know is real are the impacts that those who believe in such things have on the real world and on real people. And the enduring results of 80s culture of greed ain’t pretty.
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What appeals to me about David Sirota’s view is that he is putting this all in the context of the larger history of the 20th century. The 80s concretized a particular worldview of culture war that continues to this day, and it continues to be grounded in mainstream culture. He explains this well in giving a summary about his book:
The book really has four basic sections. There’s a section about how the 1980s redefined our memories and our ideas of the 1950s and the 1960s, basically by remaking our memories of the 1950s into this idyllic time of calm and prosperity, and remaking the 60s into things that are bad, things like chaos and assassination — and so that ’50s vs 60s battle is still something that influences groups like the Tea Party and so forth, and it really divides along political lines.
[ . . . ] You know, the 1980s really was the time when there was this conflation between entertainment and real — Reagan was constantly referencing movies and pop culture in his speeches; you know, he’d been an actor himself. And so people might say, oh, The A Team wasn’t a big deal, Dukes of Hazzard wasn’t a big deal — but The A-Team, this one one of the highest rated shows for preteens, this show with the premise of four, you know, private contractors on the lam from a government that can’t do anything right. This stuff has a real impact on how you think about your world.
“You know what’s wrong with parents today? They still think they can change the world.”
With all the angry right-wingers, fear-mongering fundies and cold-hearted neocons these days, it’s hard to remember there was a time when a Republican could be portrayed as being a genuinely kind, lovable character. With all the horrifying results of trickle down economics, all the rampant crony capitalism following deregulation and all the cynical class war against the working class, it’s hard to imagine that fiscal conservatism once upon a time could’ve been shown as almost quaintly charming in it’s innocent naivette. It’s understandable that many at that time were persuaded, inspired even, by Michael J. Fox’s role:
The world has changed. The contemporary equivalent of Alex P. Keaton would be Eric Cartman from South Park. In the episode “Die, Hippie, Die”, Cartman sees hippies as dangerous vermin to be exterminated.
“Every time one of these ex-hippies comes prancing in from yesteryear, we gotta get out the love beads and pretend we care about people.”
~ Alex P. Keaton
“For the past several days I’ve been noticing a steep rise in the number of hippies coming to town.… I know hippies. I’ve hated them all my life. I’ve kept this town free of hippies on my own since I was five and a half. But I can’t contain them on my own anymore. We have to do something, fast!”
~ Eric Cartman
Alex as the charming fiscal conservative has morphed into Cartman the not-so-charming bigoted conservative. And yet both capture some basic essence of the desire of many contemporary conservatives to rebel against society (a corrupt, lazy and generally inferior society that deserves being rebelled against).
The radicalization of the conservative movement is one of the oddest phenomena in US history. There were always radical elements in American society, but something about Goldwater’s campaign allowed the radicals to take over the entire conservative movement. Now we have Cartman-like pundits on the radio and on cable. They still rail against mainstream culture despite having become so much apart of mainstream culture that they now help to shape it. That, of course, doesn’t stop them from acting like victims as if hippies were somehow still a dominant force. The right-wing mindset is forever stuck in the past which blinds them to the present. To the right-winger, Cartman’s paranoia is the reality they live in.
Alex P. Keaton continues to be relevant more than a couple decades after Family Ties ended. Having gained power, the conservatives inspired by the likes of Alex may now feel disgruntled by their failure which has inevitably followed from their success. But that doesn’t stop them from believing, doesn’t give them pause, doesn’t cause them to doubt their ideology. It remains relevant because the True Believers keep it relevant:
Still, it’s tempting to conclude that Keaton’s near-iconic status requires more explanation. Last summer in the New Republic, Rick Perlstein, the left-leaning author of a book on Barry Goldwater, argued that, even now, after years of Republican rule, the “culture of conservatives still insists that it is being hemmed in on every side.” Having been “shaped in another era [the mid-1960s], one in which conservatives felt marginal and beleaguered,” conservative culture—Perlstein had in mind everything from “Goldwater kitsch” to Fox News—still feeds on this antagonism, reflecting a sense that righteousness is always at odds with the decadent mainstream.
Alex P. Keaton fits this vision perfectly. Throughout the show’s run, he was on his own: His parents were liberal, his sister was a ditz, and his one conservative ally, Uncle Ned, was a fugitive and then a drunk. Still, he persevered.
Conservatives nowadays have plenty of Uncle Neds who may seem like frauds and failures to those who don’t share their capitalistic idealism. Still, conservatives persevere.
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Not only do they persevere, their becoming disgruntled has made them even more rabidly motivated. And big money has given their minority voice a big megaphone. This is what the Tea Party is or has become, arguments aside about how it began. Tea Party leaders and icons, such as Beck and Palin, represent this tendency toward nostalgia that Sirota writes about (Back to Our Future, pp. 27-8):
Now, during the Obama presidency, the Tea Party opposition is an exact analogue to the Reagan vanguard, all the way down to the latter-day roots of its very name—in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the The New York Times labeled what were then the first contemporary antigovernment/antitax revolts “modern Boston Tea Parties.” Not surprisingly, the goal of today’s Tea Party protesters is a return to the politics of the fifties-worshiping, sixties-bashing 1980s.
Tea Party protesters and their leaders in the conservative movement acknowledge this intrinsically in their choice of language and extrinsically in their most unfiltered declarations. For example, an essay posted on the website of Freedom Works, the organization that sponsors Tea Party demonstrations, says protesters are enraged by “the sense that the country that they grew up in is slipping away right before their eyes.”
[ . . . ] Glenn Beck, the Tea Party’s media field general, says it is about “real outrage from real people who just want their country back”—and he’s very clear that “back” means before The Sixties™. In one recent diatribe, Beck praised Joe McCarthy for “shin[ing] the spotlight on the Communist Party” in the 1950s. In another, he insisted “fifty years ago people felt happier” than they do today because today “we have less God,” prompting his guest to agree by saying, “Something happened in the 1950s where everything went down … that’s when they started taking God”—“they” being the hippies, “God” presumably being a reference to mid-twentieth-century courts barring prayer in school.
This kind of nostalgia now slashes its way through today’s politics and policy debates, and its lack of connection to specific issues betrays its eighties-crafted anchor in intergenerational conflict.
[ . . . ] “It’s kind of a time for another Eisenhower,” Bob Dole told Politico in a discussion about 2012 presidential candidates.
The language—“back,” “real people,” “deviating from,” “slipping away,” “the way it was,” “different country than I grew up in,” “legacy,” “better time”—underscores the fierce yearning for a fantastical authenticity and conformity of old-time fifties America, sans the real-world downsides like lynch mobs, religious bigotry, burning crosses, chauvinism, union-busting, and smokestack pollution that plagued the mid-twentieth century. Whether or not Tea Party leaders are specifically pointing to the actual 1950s is less important than that the broader movement is advocating that bigger, 1980s-manufactured concept of The Fifties™.
The tragedy, of course, is the elimination of the kind of moderate Republicanism that once played a pivotal political, cultural, and legislative role in the real 1950s and 1960s. Conservatives today accept no compromise positions on taxes, national security, social issues, or anything else, because to Republican leaders, conceding such middle ground is akin to aiding and abetting the hippies—an unthinkable proposition, but not just to them.
That passage caught my attention. I’ve been thinking about the Tea Party for quite a while now. Last year I started to write a post about the documentary Generation Zero. The documentary created quite a buzz at the time (at least, on Fox News), but it is mostly unknown outside of the Tea Party crowd. I only heard about it because of a blog I follow which focuses on the topic of generations. The documentary is based on the generation theory of Strauss and Howe.
I never finished writing my post about Generation Zero. I felt like I was missing some element to bring my thoughts together. Sirota’s analysis may be that missing element. It wasn’t a bad documentary per se. However, it did fall into this mythology of everything wrong with America is the fault of the hippies.
Sirota is correct that the nostalgic worship of The Fifties has become popular again. And Sirota is correct that this nostalgia is disconnected from reality, from the actual history of the 50s. John Oliver of The Daily Show did an awesome clip (Even Better Than the Real Thing) which utterly lambasted this naive vision of the past that is favored by right-wingers.
There is nothing wrong, of course, with looking for the positive in the past. But one can’t learn from the past by turning it into a Hallmark movie or a Norman Rockwell painting. One particular detail that caught my attention in the above passage is Bob Dole’s saying that, “It’s kind of a time for another Eisenhower”. If only Republicans were genuine about their reverence for the good ol’ days, many liberals would be more than happy to cooperate. In the good ol’ days of the first half of the 20th century, liberalism was triuphant and politicians were usually unwilling to publicly denounce liberals for fear of their political careers being destroyed by doing so. As Eric Alterman pointed out in his book Why We’re Liberals (p. 4):
It may shocking to some to discover that for much of the past century, the term liberal suggested, in the words of historian John Lukacs, “generosity nay, magnanimity; not only breadth of a mind but strength of soul.” A liberal was someone “free from narrow prejudice,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Even the enemies of liberalism sought legitimacy within it. In 1960, the New York Times Sunday Magazine published an article by the philosopher Charles Frankel in which he observed that it would be difficult to locate a single major figure in American politics who could not find a favorable remark or two about American liberalism. Indeed, he wrote, “Anyone who today identifies himself as an unmitigated opponent of liberalism…cannot aspire to influence on the national political scene.” Frankel noted that even politicians who indulged in attacks on “liberals” were usually sufficiently cautious in their criticism to attach qualifiers to the word, lest they be accused of antiliberalism themselves. Southern conservatives, for instance, complained about “Northern liberals,” often insisting that they themselves were liberals in matters of social welfare. Even Joe McCarthy usually restricted himself to attacking “phony liberals,” leaving open the inference, as Frankel put it, “that he had nothing against genuine liberals, if only he could find one.”20 Later the same year, “Mr. Republican,” Senator Robert A. Taft, claimed the liberal label for himself, stating—accurately, as it happens—that he was in reality “an old-fashioned liberal.”21 The party’s successful 1952 presidential candidate, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, was also on board: “To be fully effective,” Ike explained, “we need in Washington liberal and experienced members of Congress.”22 As late as 1968, voters heard this moving tribute to the virtues of liberalism: “Let me give you a definition of the word ‘liberal.’…Franklin D. Roosevelt once said…It is a wonderful definition, and I agree with him. ‘A liberal is a man who wants to build bridges over the chasms that separate humanity from a better life.’” The speaker? That famous liberal presidential candidate: Richard Milhous Nixon.
Eisenhower was more progressively liberal than most Democratic politicians are today. So, these right-wingers aren’t being genuine when they reference the past as if, prior to the hippies, all of American society was ruled by the far right. Today’s Republicans, unlike Eisenhower, aren’t moderate about anything. Moderate Republicans are an endangered species. How can the right-wing loons of today bring up Eisenhower’s name when the right-wing loons back then thought Eisenhower was a commie (and mainstream Republicans back then thought such right-wingers were radicals and extremists). You’d be hard pressed to find even a self-identified liberal in contemporary mainstream politics who would make the type of statements Eisenhower made such as (Letter to Edgar Newton Eisenhower, November 8, 1954):
“You keep harping on the Constitution; I should like to point out that the meaning of the Constitution is what the Supreme Court says it is. Consequently no powers are exercised by the Federal government except where such exercise is approved by the Supreme Court (lawyers) of the land.
“I admit that the Supreme Court has in the past made certain decisions in this general field that have been astonishing to me. A recent case in point was the decision in the Phillips case. Others, and older ones, involved “interstate commerce.” But until some future Supreme Court decision denies the right and responsibility of the Federal government to do certain things, you cannot possibly remove them from the political activities of the Federal government.
“Now it is true that I believe this country is following a dangerous trend when it permits too great a degree of centralization of governmental functions. I oppose this–in some instances the fight is a rather desperate one. But to attain any success it is quite clear that the Federal government cannot avoid or escape responsibilities which the mass of the people firmly believe should be undertaken by it. The political processes of our country are such that if a rule of reason is not applied in this effort, we will lose everything–even to a possible and drastic change in the Constitution. This is what I mean by my constant insistence upon “moderation” in government. Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. Among them are H. L. Hunt (you possibly know his background), a few other Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or business man from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid.
“[ . . . ] I assure you that you have more reason, based on sixty-four years of contact, to say this than you do to make the bland assumption that I am surrounded by a group of Machiavellian characters who are seeking the downfall of the United States and the ascendancy of socialism and communism in the world. Incidentally, I notice that everybody seems to be a great Constitutionalist until his idea of what the Constitution ought to do is violated–then he suddenly becomes very strong for amendments or some peculiar and individualistic interpretation of his own.“
– – –
So, what exactly are conservatives today reminiscing about? Where did they get their revisionist history from?
Sirota argues that much of this revisionist history and 50s mythologizing came from the 80s. That is the origin of the problem we now face. The 80s is the source of much revisionist history because the 80s is the point where the country started heading back toward some of the worst elements of the past. An example of this is how bigotry was championed in the 80s and was put in deceptive packaging to make it more socially acceptable. This racism has been disguised in the language of culture war and class war, but the underlying racism is obvious for anyone who has their eyes open. Most recently and most obviously, there has been a resurgence of this racism which can be found in the Tea Party. As Sirota wrote in his book (p. 212):
In light of the blitz, to blame Obama for seeking “to transcend, if not avoid, the issue of race” is to yet again avoid blaming the real culprit: the white America that since the 1980s demands reticence on race from all black public figures as the price of public support. Sure, as a purely tactical matter, you can credibly argue that Obama’s Cosby-esque deal with white America is a self-defeating Faustian bargain. Survey data show roughly six in ten whites openly admit to believing in at least one bigoted stereotype, and a recent study showed that when asked about health care legislation, a significant number of whites expressed less support for the exact same bill if it was coming from President Obama rather than from a white Democratic president. A black leader who tries to circumnavigate that intense bigotry by avoiding race may be emboldening the bigotry inevitably coming his way. Similarly, American politics is increasingly steered by a largely white Tea Party movement whose supporters are, according to polls, disproportionately motivated by racial resentment. An African American leader who goes out of his way to downplay that right-wing racism to the point of rebuking former president Jimmy Carter for criticizing it—well, that only helps the Tea Party opposition play its duplicitous dog-whistle games.
I was already aware of this. I have a post about the study done where Tea Party supporters admitted to having racially prejudiced views. Of course, this is nothing new… but I guess that is why it’s so disheartening. One of Sirota’s basic points is how we as a nation are atavistically mired in our own dark past. We are stuck in this manner because the distorted 50s mythology has appealed to what has been a white majority in this country, and the appeal becomes stronger as whites increasingly lose their majority status. In the words of Sirota from the article, “The Motto of Mad Men”:
As one tea party leader told The New York Times: “Things we had in the ’50s were better.”
To the tea party demographic, this certainly rings true. Yes, in apartheid America circa 1950, rich white males were more socially and economically privileged relative to other groups than they are even now. Of course, for those least likely to support the tea party—read: minorities—the ’50s were, ahem, not so great, considering the decade’s brutal intensification of Jim Crow.
But then, that’s the marketing virtuosity of the “I Want My Country Back” slogan. A motto that would be called treasonous if uttered by throngs of blacks, Latinos or Native Americans has been deftly sculpted by conservatives into an accepted clarion call for white power. Cloaked in the proud patois of patriotism and protest, the refrain has become a dog whistle to a Caucasian population that feels threatened by impending demographic and public policy changes.
I’m not sure how many people understand the way this came about. I’ve met many conservatives who seem to have a dim awareness that the world was once different when they criticize the Democratic Party as being the party of racists because it used to have it’s stronghold in the old KKK South. What conservatives forget, in making this criticism, is that the Republicans are now the party of the South. Republicans purposely gained the South by using the Southern Strategy which was an often overtly racist strategy. It began with Nixon, but became even more important with the campaigns of Reagan and Bush Sr. From Sirota’s book (p. 18):
The magma of resentment politics that had been simmering underground since the late 1970s exploded during the stretch run of the 1980 presidential campaign. In August of that year, Reagan channeled white rage at the civil rights movement by endorsing the racist euphemism states rights, an endorsement that came during a speech to a Confederate-flag-waving audience in the same Mississippi town where three civil rights workers had been murdered by the Ku Klux Klan.
I remember reading last year about Reagan’s campaign. I was shocked and amazed by the bravado of so blatantly referencing a violently racist past just for the sake of winning an election. You can’t get any more cynical than that. As I recall, the speech that started off his campaign was that very speech given at that town which was famous for having previously hosted the Ku Klux Klan’s murdering of civil rights workers. That was the beginning of the Republican Party and conservative movement we know today. That is the past America that conservatives feel nostalgic about.
– – –
I find myself simultaneously repulsed and fascinated by this history of American culture. I’m generally interested in any analysis of generations. It’s very strange how whole generations can get caught up in a single worldview, especially with our mainstream media today which offers everyone the same entertainment and news.
We live in interesting times. Boomers are losing power as GenXers are coming into power. Whites are losing majority position as minorities are gaining majority position. Religious fundamentalism and politicized religion is becoming less popular as religious diversity and non-religiousness are becoming more popular. We’re in a new century with a media of the likes never before seen. The world is becoming globalized and Americans are trying to find meaning and purpose in a time when everything is shifting.
Not everyone responds to this change with a positive attitude and an open embrace. But I, for one, am ready to leave the era of the 80s behind.
– – –
Note: I think that is all I have to say right now. I’m sure I’ll have more thoughts once I read more of the book. Maybe I’ll continue my thoughts by eventually finishing my post on the documentary Generation Zero.
David Cronenberg is a director whose movies I often enjoy. A favorite weird movie of mine is Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch which is loosely based on the novel by William S. Burroughs. He definitely brought his own touch to that story and there are some common themes with his other movies: mixing of machine and biology, sexuality, the grotesque, etc.
I’m not sure which movie he first developed these themes, but Videodrome was one of his early movies. I was just watching eXistenZ which also uses these themes. Its a decent movie if you’re into dark violent visions of artificial realities.
What inspired me to write this blog is that there is a scene where the two main characters bought some fast food. The name on the bag was Perky Pat’s which is a direct reference to the Philip K. Dick story. The story is about how people get obsessed about the game that their lives revolve around it. Cronenberg takes this idea in a different direction, but I’m sure PKD would’ve appreciated what he did with it.
Basically, I was just pointing out Cronenberg as one of the contemporary meeting points between WSB and PKD.
I decided to start this thread because of one site that I like a lot. Its called TV Tropes Wiki. Its so named because it originally started off just being about tv shows, but has since expanded to cover any type of media. So, what is a trope?
Tropes are devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members’ minds and expectations. On the whole, tropes are not clichés. The word clichéd means “stereotyped and trite.” In other words, dull and uninteresting.
It has a bunch of entries about wikis and Wikipedia. And, of course, Wikipedia has an entry of the TV Tropes Wiki.
A while ago, the site got hacked and was destroyed. Unfortunately, it wasn’t backed up, but through the dedication of the contributors they re-created the whole site by copying from the cache function of search engines which sounds like a difficult process. Its back up to normal again. Its a popular site which is probably why it attracted a hacker. They had a discussion forum, but the code of the forum was a risk for further hacking and so they got rid of it.
Here are the entries about forum tropes, and here are the entries about hacker tropes.
I’ve been recently looking at books written about mythology and culture. In particular, I was looking at books that look at the mythology of movies. But, in the past, I noticed a similar trend in books about Jungian typology.
One thing I notice is that books that have a Christian slant often aren’t as interesting or insightful as those that have a more general or universal slant. This is partly just my personal bias, but I think others might agree with me.
Its not that Christianity is itself a weakness in analyzing deeper truths within culture. Instead, the problem is that many Christians who write about mythology in culture(movies, chidren’s novels, etc) use mythology as a proselytizing device rather than taking mythology as a serious field in an of itself. I certainly don’t mean to imply that Christians lack insight, but someone who tries to see the entire world through Christian theology has a limited view through which to express what insight they may have.
I’m not criticizing Christianity in general, but I am criticizing proselytizing. Even so, my criticism is slightly wider than simply preachy didacticism. Often these Christian category of books suffer from the same superficial quality that many self-help New Age books have. As such, there can be a lack of detailed analysis and objective discernment… which can too often translate into a lack of deep insight, or at least a lack of deep insight outside of the Christianity.
Why I bring this up is because it annoys me, but it doesn’t annoy me because it comes from Christians. I look for spiritual perspectives and I appreciate the Christian perspective, but few of the Christian books that flood the market are worth reading. Of course, there are lots of junk writing being published from more than Christians, and, so, my criticisms are applicable to writers of other persuasions. The reason I’m picking on Christians is because when looking for spiritual views on culture I tend to find a slew of Christian books.
Plus, I think that what I’m pointing out demonstrates a real trend that exists within mainstream Christianity itself. I went to hear a Christian author speak(I don’t remember her name) and she spoke about the relationship Christians should have towards secular culture. She pretty much said that Christians should use art to communicate the Christian message. She was saying that Christians should try to effect culture all the while not letting themselves be influenced in return. That seems a rather condescending and manipulative attitude. It seemed that the only purpose she saw for art was as propaganda. She was a nice and intelligent person, but she saw the world as an us vs them conflict.
This Christian author was speaking at the University library and there was also an exhibit of Blake’s work there. After the talk, I perused through Blake’s writing. Blake demonstrated how art and religion can inform eachother rather than either one controlling/manipulating the other for its own purposes. Also, unlike the Christian author, Blake had genuine insight that anyone could learn from… no matter what the religious belief or lack thereof.
Do you need to blow out the dust and cobwebs from your mind? Here are my recommendations (in no particular order):
Robert Anton Wilson – He is the penultimate countercultural writer. He knew how to make conspiracies fun. The Illuminatus! Trilogy was entertaining fiction that covers a lot of the same material he writes about in his nonfiction. If you just want his ideas straight, then a good book would be Prometheus Rising. I personally think the world would be a better (or at least more interesting) place if everyone read some RAW.
Terence McKenna – In the area of psychedelics, he is my favorite writer. But his mind is wideranging which covers similar topics as Robert Anton Wilson. I started with True Hallucinations, but any of his writings are quite enjoyable. For the sake of variety, The Archaic Revival is a good collection of essays and interviews. I have a book that has these two published together which is quite nice. I’d also recommend listening to recordings of him speaking because his enthusiasm is contagious.
John Keel – A truly weird writer in the Fortean tradition. The first book of his I read was the The Mothman Prophecies which is a good introduction to his ideas, but for his full weirdness read The Eighth Tower. By the way, the movie based on the first book was decent entertainment (and I do recommend it as worthy attempt at portraying difficult material), but a lot of the weirdness got left out.
Patrick Harpur – Read Daimonic Reality. Not quite as all-out weird, but still helpful in shifting your view on reality. It’s probably the best all-around introduction to help you grasp the wide spectrum of the strange and the paranormal.
Jacques Vallee – A scientist with a very respectable intellect who doesn’t let his evenhandedness get in the way of his appreciation of the oddness that is the human being. He is well known fo his Passport to Magonia where he discussed the connection of UFOs with folklore, mythology, religion and non-ordinary experiences, but there is no need to seek out that out-of-print book. He reworked at least some of the material in his more recent book Dimensions: A Casebook of Alien Contact.
George P. Hansen – I’ve read The Trickster and the Paranormal which I highly recommend. However, it’s no casual read. He packs in a lot of info that you probably won’t see connected together by any other author. If you can read this book and not feel a little uncertain about objective reality, then I’ll be impressed.
Victoria Nelson – Her book The Secret Life of Puppets was an inspiration to me. She gave me new appreciation for some authors I was already familiar with and made me aware of some works I’d never heard of. I found it very enjoyable the way she connected certain strains of Western thought, popular culture and weird fiction. It’s a very accessible book of very deep ideas.
Eric G. Wilson – His writing is directly in line with Victoria Nelson, but with more emphasis on philosophy and religion. Both authors look at the underbelly of Western thought. I find his mix of ideas appealing, and I like how he keeps his focus on what it means to be human. I first read his The Melancholy Android, but his Secret Cinema might be a better intro to his thinking. Neither are massive tomes, but he packs a lot in.
William S. Burroughs – He is best known for his fiction, but I’m going to recommend some of his other writings instead. One book that offers an interesting glimpse of an interesting mind is The Cat Inside. It’s partly autobiographical and partly musings about life. Another one that I really enjoyed is My Education: A Book of Dreams. Burroughs had a rare mind. He is one of those writers who I can sense the actual person behind the words. If you really want to get the sense of Burroughs, then you have to listen to his recordings. He read many excerpts from his works and he did some interviews, but what I love is simply the sound of his voice. Once his voice is firmly implanted in your brain, then read some of his books. A very odd and entertaining adaptation was made of Burroughs’ Naked Lunch by David Cronenberg, but actually it’s also an adaptation of Burroughs’ life and writing in general. I really liked Cronenberg’s loose adaptation and he has done a number of enjoyable weird movies worth watching such as eXistenZ.
Philip K. Dick – He is another writer who I have the sense of knowing as a person because his writing was often autobiographical. He didn’t travel widely as Burroughs had, but his mind certainly travelled widely. I’ve enjoyed all of the fiction I’ve read by him. One of his more interesting novels might be Valis which is the first in his Valis Trilogy. However, to really appreciate his fiction it’s necessary to read some of his nonfiction. I’d suggest reading either In Pursuit of Valis: Selections from the Exegesis or The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick: Selected Literary and Philosophical Writings. Even if you’re not someone who normally likes theology and philosophy, PKD’s odd take on them might amuse you. It’s hard to find non-fiction writings any weirder than what he has to offer. If you want to read some writings about PKD, there is a lot of good stuff out there (for instance, those who’ve written about him include some writers I’ve mentioned above: Terence McKenna, Victoria Nelson, and Eric G. Nelson). My favorite book about him is Pink Beams of Light from the God in the Gutter: The Science-Fictional Religion of Philip K. Dick by Gabriel Mckee. Mckee provides some useful context by which to understand PKD’s philosophizing. Also, my favorite movie adaptations are Blade Runner and A Scanner Darkly. I really love the latter done by Richard Linklater who also made Waking Life which is an even stranger film. Some people didn’t like the rotoscoping technique of Linklater’s adaptation, but personally I thought he captured PKD like no other movie. A Scanner Darkly is one of those stories that is so mindblowing in it’s depressing darkness that I was glad it’s balanced with a playful attitude and the actors in the film captured well that playfulness.
Franz Kafka – Now, this guy is a writer who can always lift my mind out of mundane normality. His fiction is required reading and personally I’d recommend his short stories, but if you’ve already read some of his fiction then I’d recommend the Blue Octavo Notebooks. These notebooks were different than his diaries and they contain some very interesting musings and fictional snippets. By the way, I’d recommend Jeremy Irons‘ simply titled movie Kafka and Orson Welles‘ The Trial.
Douglas Adams – I figured I should include this author simply because he has a very weird imagination that is endlessly humorous. He throws out a lot of odd ideas and manages to tell an enjoyable story at the same time. If you feel like you’re taking life too seriously, any of his fiction would be a good antidote. His most popular work is his Hitchhiker Trilogy, but I think I might’ve enjoyed even more his novel Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency.
Barry Yourgrau – His stories are just outright goofy but in a good way. The only book I’ve read by him is A Man Jumps Out of an Airplane and so that is the one I’d recommend. He has also written children’s stories, and he has done some spoken word which can be found online (check out The Sadness of Sex on Youtube which is just the first part of a larger work).
Thomas Wiloch – I just like his imagination and the fantastic images he creates can be quite striking at times. I suppose one could think of him as a darker version of Yourgrau. I have read some of his stories from different collections, but the only book of his that I own is Screaming In Code which has some nice pictures in it. I don’t know which would be his best book, but if you just want a taste of his writing you can find some of his stories online.
Neil Gaiman – His Sandman series is some of the best graphic novels around. They’re strange stories with high quality artwork. He manages to create some very distinctively intriguing characters and places them in equally intriguing worlds. I won’t vouch for all of Gaiman’s work, but I’ve enjoyed all of the graphic novels I’ve read by him. A good graphic novel is always nice when you’re trying to escape from reality. Gaiman has also been involved in films and shows either in writing the scripts or in having his work adapted. I’ll mention only two notable examples. He wrote the story for Dave McKean‘s move MirrorMask (and they’ve worked together before in graphic novels). McKean has a surreal visual imagination that goes well with Gaiman’s writing. His story Coraline (which I’ve never read) was made into a delightful animated stop-motion 3-D film. It was actually a bit freaky considering its target audience would seem to be young kids.
Alan Moore – He has done a lot in the field of graphic novels and I’ve only read a small portion of it. I started with his Promethea which I absolutely loved. It’s an imaginative work about imagination. Moore has also done some darker stuff which is also good such as Watchmen (a decent movie adaptation was made of it, but it’s seems surprisingly difficult to do justice to a graphic novel in the constraints of Hollywood). What I like about his imagination is that it has some intelligence to it. I like seeing interesting ideas placed in a visually stunning medium.
Grant Morrison – I first read his Doom Patrol which is truly bizarre. I’ve since read some of The Invisibles and The Filth. Both of those are equally bizarre. If you like weird, this as weird as you can get and still tell a good story.
Bill Willingham – I include him for reasons of basic amusement. Like Gaiman, Willingham draws on folklore in his Fables series. Otherwise, they’re very different in style. His Fables series tell the stories of the fairytale characters we’re all familiar with but mixes them together with an overarching plot. It’s just fun to read.
Harlan Ellison – He was friends with Philip K. Dick for a time. He isn’t as well known as PKD, but Ellison was also one of the early innovators who helped popularize the field of weird fiction. He is a very prolific writer and I certainly haven’t read all or even most of his work, but what I have read I’ve enjoyed. Even though he doesn’t quite have the philosophical depth of PKD, he does have a strange imagination. There was an interesting graphic novel adaptation of his work called Dream Corridor. It’s uneven in the quality of different adaptors, but overall his stories translate well to a visual medium. Another very interesting collection is Mind Fields: The Art of Jacek Yerka, the Fiction of Harlan Ellison. The art in that book is truly surreal and Ellison wrote his stories as direct inspirations of each picture. It’s been a while since I read the stories in that collection, but the pictures have stuck in my mind.
Thomas Ligotti – Something about Harlan Ellison’s work reminds me of Ligotti. I’m sure I like Ligotti better, but I don’t think they’re really comparable. Ellison is dark and Ligotti is even darker. However, by saying he is even darker I don’t mean grotesque or violent. It’s dark in a more subtle sense. Many consider Ligotti to be the best or at least most weird writer in horror fiction. A good collection of his stories is Teatro Grottesco, but maybe the reason Ellison made me think of Ligotti is because the latter also has a graphic novel adaptation of his work (i.e., Nightmare Factory). I should mention that some serious Ligotti fans dislike the adaptations. I understand that much of the enjoyment of Ligotti’s work comes from his mastery of language, but still some of the artwork in the adaptations is truly compelling. His story The Frolic was made into a very good film. Although I’m not sure that Ligotti’s writing will blow out the dust or cobwebs from your mind, his stories probably will do something to your mind.
Matthew Rossi – I own his Things That Never Were: fantasies, lunacies & entertaining lies. As far as I know, this is his only published book, but I’d hope he would continue writing. I don’t know the type of person that this book would appeal to. It isn’t exactly either fiction or nonfiction. It’s just intelligent silliness. Obviously, he is someone who has accumulated lots of useless information in his head and so decided to try to put it together in such a way that it made it somewhat plausible. He mixes up history, mythology, religion, genre fiction, conspiracy theories and pseudo-science. As Paul Di Filippo says in the Introduction: “Rossi’s several incompatible mindchildren aren’t fighting. they’re violently screwing, and out of this brain-intercourse is going to arise an unpredictable hybrid of startling portent.” Also, if you like Rossi’s writing, you might enjoy Myths for the Modern Age: Philip Jose Farmer’s Wold Newton Universe by Win Scott Eckert.
Some collections that are required reading:
I Saw Esau: The Schoolchild’s Pocket Book
Edited by Iona & Peter Opie
Illustrated by Maurice Sendak
This is a well-chosen collection of songs and rhymes that children have repeated for many generations. I was only familiar with some of them probably because the editors collected these 50 years ago in British schools, but I enjoyed many of them that were new to me. These songs and rhymes are just pure silliness, and Sendak’s pictures are almost on every page.
Greasy Grimy Gopher Guts: the subversive folklore of childhood
By Josepha Sherman & T.K.F. Weisskopf
This is a great find. I recognized many of the songs and rhymes. This is the unedited version of your childhood. A nice thing about it is that the collectors provide multiple versions which demonstrates the innovativeness of children. Some people might be surprised by the dark perversity of the child’s mind, but I can’t say I was surprised.
Grimm’s Fairy Tales
By Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm
If you haven’t ever read any of these, you should. And if you haven’t read them in a long while, then you should read them again. I really love these stories. There are many different versions and I don’t know which is the best. I’d probably go with the Jack Zipes edition. I didn’t read these as a kid and I doubt many parents these days would read them to their children. Some of them are fairly dark, but that is part of what makes them amusing. The Grimm brothers supposedly had even cleaned these stories up a bit when they realized that their target audience might actually be children. I would love to see the original versions, but I don’t know if there is such a collection. Anyways, the Grimm’s versions are enjoyable. I personally find something immensely appealing in the simplicity of a fairy tale. Many fairy tales (especially in their earliest unpolished form) have a dream-like quality about them. The only modern fiction that comes close are prose poems or flash fiction.
I’ve already mentioned some movies above. Here are some other movies that just amuse me or in some cases help free my imagination and inspire a sense of wonder (I’ll only list my top favorites, but you can find all of my favorites on my About page):
Monty Python – Pretty much anything by them is amusing.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show – I enjoy this movie in the same way I enjoy Monty Python. Inane weirdness and silly songs and dance.
Army of Darkness – This is one of the best cult classic horror camp movies ever made. I’m a fan of Bruce Campbell’s brand of humor. If you’ve already seen this movie and enjoyed it, then I’d recommend Cemetery Man.
Waking Life – Strange ideas presented in a strange style. This was Richard Linklater’s first use of rotoscoping which he later used in A Scanner Darkly (which I also highly recommend).
The Nines – It’s hard for me to judge this movie for it is strange to the extreme and yet certainly not weird simply for the sake of weird. It’s an amazing movie, but it probably requires watching it more than once.
Donnie Darko – Another movie that really makes you ponder reality. There is some very startling imagery in this movie that sticks in my mind.
Dancer in the Dark – I realize this is a movie people either love or hate. I admit it’s a bit difficult to get into at first, and of course not everyone appreciates Bjork’s singing. However, there is no movie like it. After a while, I was completely pulled into the world of the protagonist and I thought it a very fascinating world. It shows how imagination helps someone survive even the bleakest of situations. So, if you like despairingly depressing movies where the characters break out into song and dance, then this is for you.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – This also was a movie I had a hard time getting into the first time I watched it, but it’s grown on me. This movie literally takes you into the mind of the protagonist. It’s both funny and sad, something like life itself but with more entertainment value.
The Truman Show – This is one of the best Philip K. Dick movies ever made that wasn’t specifically based on a Philip K. Dick story. All I can say is I hope I’m not trapped in a reality tv show. That would be truly sad, especially for those watching.
Dark City – This is an even darker and more fantastically weird version of The Truman Show. Being trapped in a reality tv show might not be such a bad fate afterall. It’s an awesome movie and the visuals are just amazing. By the way, it’s somewhat similar to the Matrix Trilogy, but Dark City was made first.
What Dreams May Come – This is a more positive view of the imagination, but it has plenty of dark to it as well. Even if you discredit it for the romantic optimism, I hope you can appreciate some of the stunning visual scenes. This is the only movie I’ve ever watched that made the afterlife seem compellingly real. For certain, the Hell that is presented feels much more convincing than the Christian version.
The Fountain – This is one of my all-time favorites, but I can understand why others might not like it. Similar to What Dreams May Come, it plays with ideals of romantic love but it stays away from sentimental superficialities. It’s a very convoluted movie which some have complained about. However, if you’re like me and have some ability to understand complexity, then it shouldn’t bother you. There is some very intelligent use of visual language that helps hold the narratives together.
Altered States – This was a very original take on the scientist that goes too far, but in this case he nearly falls off the edge of reality. Psychedelics and monkey-men, sex and religious imagery… what isn’t there to like?
Return to Oz – If you liked the original The Wizard of Oz movie (or maybe even if you didn’t), then you should see this. It’s Oz transformed. I’ll just say that, upon her return, Dorothy isn’t greeted by singing Munchkins.
If you don’t have the time to read a book or watch a movie and need some quick amusement or mind-expanding edification, then here are some websites for you.