Featured Guest:
Joseph Natoli

Each issue of Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900 to present) we feature an interview, or a conversation, with a scholar in the field of American popular culture studies.

Joseph Natoli teaches American Studies at Michigan State University. His publications include Memory’s Orbit: Film and Culture, 1999-2000; Postmodern Journeys: Film and Culture, 1996-1998; Speeding to the Millenium: Film & Culture, 1993-1995; A Primer to Postmodernity; Hauntings: Popular Film and American Culture, 1990-1992; and Mots d’Ordre: Disorder in Literary Worlds.

In 1990, he started the SUNY Press Series “Postmodern Culture.” This past spring, we spoke to him about his latest book from this series, This Is a Picture and Not the World: Movies and a Post-9/11 America (2007).

How did you come to write your book in the style you did, part script, part blog, part Platonic dialogue? What did you hope this unusual structure would add to your study?

I started to break the rules regarding academic style – and by that I mean discursive expository with foundational footnoting – when I launched the SUNY Press Series “Postmodern Culture” in 1990. The flyer explained: “Accordingly, book manuscripts should display a ‘postmodern style’ that moves easily and laterally across public as well as academic spheres, `inscribes’ within as well as ‘scribes’ against realist and modernist modes, and strives to be readable-across-multiple-narratives and culturally relative rather than `foundational.’” That attracted quite a few manuscripts “back in the day,” and we have managed to publish a good number of books in that series.

In my own work I tried to demonstrate what I was looking for. Hauntings introduced the approach I was taking in using popular film like a kind of canary in a mine revealing the reality we were in. As far as I’m concerned that nails the aim of cultural studies: find out what reality game is here being played. I didn’t explode stylistically in Hauntings; it’s journalistic, no footnotes. And pomo impressionistic by which I mean I didn’t refrain from showing up in the writing. I want to reveal to the reader how I’m positioned, from who’s annoying me while I’m trying to watch a film that I’m subsequently going to write about, to what stories are currently renting my brain space. I have never pretended to be omniscient or passive neutral, or at very least theory neutral and value free, a bias-less soul. The way I’m narrated is part of my narration.

After Hauntings, I don’t directly write about my pop culture/pomo/cult stud approach again until this new book This Is a Picture and Not the World. (The origin of my use of the theory I read and wrote about twenty five years ago is in Mots d’Ordre, a work in which I try to make the case following Deleuze, Benjamin and Iser et al. that there is a “disorder” space in all art out of which regimes of order can be challenged.)

My next book Speeding to the Millennium was actually two books that I was working on at that time. One was a collection of vignettes about a fictitious town and the people who lived in it. The other was a continuation of my going back and forth between pomo theory, headline events, and popular film. It was my editor at that time, Carola Sautter, who said “Why not combine these two into one book? It seems to me that you’re after the same thing: what’s the American imaginary at this moment?” So we did. It fit my need to break down the boundaries between fictional and non-fictional writing techniques.

In the next book, Postmodern Journeys, I set out to do my cultural studies bit as usual but this time as a kind of travelogue, a mental journey that paralleled the European journeys I had been taken with university students for a number of years in a program called “Is This a Postmodern World?” The book I released in 2000 was called Memory’s Orbit and the format style there was the memoir. How personal or how sociocultural are our lives? The millennial moment; the “I” gazes backward but the gaze is caught up in an entire culture’s gaze backward at that moment.

So finally, This Is a Picture…written in screenplay format; I added the blogs later because I could not only extend the number of voices – straight Bakhtin – in dialogic but with the blog I could have a “character” – the blogger – present his or her dialogue as an “essay.” With the blog, I could go deeper into the view than I could with dialogue. I used a Voice Over, a Director, a Producer and various other film folks to get even more voices. I could bring more stories and perspectives and lenses into the mix. And, of course, the form followed the matter. Why not use a film language to talk about film? Why did a university press go along with all this transgression? I don’t know. Imaginative editors I would say.

Your book opens with an interview in which your interviewer jokes that you won’t get any red state readers. Talk to us about your political ideology and how it influences your scholarship.

Well, I use a lot of voices to avoid using my own. I’ve heard it; I know what it will say. Almost. If it were the voice of a Celestial Entity who has the scoop on The Truth I’d stay with my own voice. In the absence of that, I try to imagine and then create other narrative frames and then from within those frames link word and world, fashion meanings. What use is this dissipating of view through multiple voices? First, I believe it correctly chastises the certitude we all seek and expect – and shouldn’t. Second, a clash of voices without a fascist voice leading us just might introduce into our minds something we’ve not considered before. We could be affected. Our way of knowing might suffer a crack. All to the good as something previously unrepresented in our lives might work its way in.

I do think that our idolatrous relationship with globalized capitalism needs a crack or two. It is indeed “savaging” so very much and so obviously, from the planet’s health to the health of the “bottom” 80% of the world’s population. Only a fully unleashed imagination armed with a workable sense of the absurd can do any justice to the ridiculousness of a casino logic ruling our democracy. My political ideology is therefore more like a mood: the present moment is so absurd it’s laughable and yet so tragic and disappointing as to unleash promethean level anger.

Academia has been accused of liberal indoctrination in the classroom. How would you respond to such criticism?

Yes, well, some character has to say that, given the quarter of a century of conservative and now neoconservative ascendancy. Another character might point out that the countercultural, dissident students of the past are now the complacent to oblivious students of the present. Which is preferable? A corporate character would prefer the de-politicized student. Discard your Marx and pick up your Wall Street Journal. You “grow the economy” with market oriented students. Then you get the character who points out that you might lose your egalitarian, liberal democracy while “growing the economy.” But, says another, that’s already lost. A huge gap between rich and poor is innocent says one; it eventually undermines political equality says another. Why so? Money runs political campaigns, political campaigns produce political leaders, political leaders representing money and power have little incentive to change a situation that treats them so well. Ah, but there’s incentive produced by inequality is the retort. More exploitation goes on than incentivizing is the counter retort. We need to look at the charts: three men have as much wealth as sixty million. Ah, but what role models they are!

In the early ‘70s I was an untenured faculty member serving as the secretary of the first NLRB recognized faculty union in New England. The summer following our victory, I was terminated for “unspecified reasons.” I didn’t get a chance to enter a classroom again until the late ‘80s and then only as an adjunct. Writing has been my abused form of “indoctrination.” There was a long purge of supposed “radicals” and by the ‘80s what might have been left on college campuses could be called “liberals.” They would serve I suppose as “radicals,” so radical that they wound up supporting Clinton in introducing global trade agreements that were no more than a new computer assisted imperialism. And supporting “welfare reform” which basically relieved the wealthy of any tax burden in support of the “Losers.” Based on the “corporate university” we have today, it doesn’t seem that any “radical’ dissemination of dissent went on in the classroom. I suppose, of course, that historical obliviousness, and a fragmented awareness which most students today display could be called “radical.”

In This Is a Picture, you state that film genres “were created in response to what kinds of pictures audiences seemed to want, and, in turn, Hollywood mapped out its pictures of the world within this genre grammar.”

We construct a reality that in turn constructs us, which means we are shaped within the stories we, the human race, have told. Hollywood is an effective disseminator of stories and can be seen, at first glance, as an origin of pictures of the world we live within. But clearly the management of our entire culture industry is corporate and the rules of consumer marketing apply. Genre is thus a form of targeting and branding and although it seems Americans – now thanks to the new twenty-first century technoculture – choose endless pictures of the world and therefore escape any narrowing of personal choice, although quite obviously the desires which propel their choices are already shaped within the strategies of targeting and branding.

There’s a profit need then to identify what pictures of the world Americans are living in, solidify, batch and brand them, and, after what Jameson calls the cultural logic of late capitalism – postmod – sinks in, create rather than just copy those pictures. Hollywood, before TV and only challenged by radio and print media, is the supreme image making power. Hollywood is “reaching” the public, but not to the extent that YouTube, Facebook, MySpace, Second Life, endless blog sites and so on would eventually reach us. We are over-stimulated in an age of over-transmissions. Pictures of the world can be transmitted to you on your cell phone, your laptop, your Blackberry. Picture making has been privatized and personalized. How do you classify by genres this individually designed world? You need a public space for genres to be launched. It can be done but certainly not by referring to genres that are “so five seconds ago.” You consider first that the enchantments of personal choice and uniquely, self-designed pictures of the world are just that – enchantments. Illusions.

There are, in fact, far fewer pictures of the world we are presently living in than any cursory review of history would reveal. We are far easier to brand and the genres are fewer though not identified. Melodrama is Oprah and Dr. Phil; Fantasy is Facebook and MySpace; Romance is a porn site; Adventure is Surviving in an artificial paradise. Winning is The Apprentice followed by Deal or No Deal; Losing is Jerry Springer and Cops.

I make up a number of genres in This Is Not a Picture to parody the belief that such genres could possibly exist in our new twenty-first technoculture world. Contradictorily, I try to picture a change to a certain postmodernizing of genres that I and others of my generation were raised within. So you can say they exist only if personally chosen as far as the IPhone generation is concerned and exist independent of our personal will as far as an older generation is concerned. Thus, they will become extinct, replaced by the genres of Google.

One of the genres you discuss is screwball comedy. You believe the classic screwball comedy reveals our first postmodern awareness.

The aim in classic screwball was to multiply plot and character intersections till we were dizzy, and at least one character on the screen became dizzy along with us. Cary Grant, for instance, in Bringing Up Baby. Whatever the foundational logic of society might have been, or the protocols of social interaction, or the quandaries of individual identity, none of this was to matter more than the unfurling of contingency and chaos. The insignificant in word or deed could rise to baffling focus; what anyone said could as easily confound and confuse as communicate. With so much activity on the screen that spilled over, what could be rationally grasped? How could norms and control ever be reasserted? Deconstructive in a ludic way. Marking spaces beyond the frame of time and place. This screwball comedy extends to screwball realities in Lynch’s Twin Peaks in 1991 when realities truly proliferate beyond any master frame or any regime of order.

And sci-fi films mirror our cultural paranoia and offer “grounding optimism, the driving utopianism.”

There is a dominating voice in this chapter; I admit it. Thanatos vs. Eros. Do sci-fi films reveal a collective unconscious death wish? Are we now in our postmodern awareness, our awareness of how we are aware, on the track of our own murder? I suggest that sci-fi films from Forbidden Planet to Terminator and the Matrixand I, Robot among others mark this. And yet there is always a ray of optimism that, in fact, is the wellspring of sci-fi itself: we can mend our ways and dispel our Thanatos desire.

When one looks at our preemptive war with Iraq, an act performed in the certainly recent dark shadow of Vietnam, one can only conclude that consciousness and reason were not players here, that some unconscious irrationality was behind it all. This is dystopia and it is now.

When I employed the film Forbidden Planet in such a key role in this chapter, I did so because I identified the self-slaughtered Krell race on that planet as extending their desires into a world that could not accommodate them. And I saw in that a perfect parallel to ourselves, now. And, of course, the transformation of all human desires into desires focused on products and services dooms any fulfillment of our own self-realization because that transformation is reductive and fraudulent. What all sci-fi, therefore, seeks to escape is not the alien from another planet but the home grown parasite of our own creation.

There have been a lot of recent studies analyzing George Bush’s cowboy ethos. What do you make of that in the context of the western?

My generation’s voracious appetite for Westerns is rooted in a simple naïve realist formula that fulfills naïve notions of good and evil, of success and failure, of cowardice and heroism, of truth and falsehood. It’s a useful story to put the president into after 9/11 and whoever directed that movie – Karl Rove probably – should be given an Oscar. The only ones it didn’t impact were the “whatever” generations for whom the historical frontier as well as the Hollywood picturing of that frontier are equally non-existent. Historical obliviousness kicks in I judge from my university students at the six month mark. Anything before that is treated to a “whatever.” Those who actually show up to vote would respond to the mythos attached to the brush cutting, Texas twanging Mr. Bush.

Why did Americans so easily fall into the easy moral dualism of the Western movie? Perhaps that was Mr. Bush’s appeal in Kansas, gateway to the frontier. I suspect that distractions, seductions, illusions kept too many Americans from breaking free of Mr. Rove’s application of the naïve realist formula.

Do your students display the angst of the noir character as well?

History is there in the classic film noir; there’s a Depression era/WWII surround working to hone every film noir character’s edge. The eye is on how Chance can show up in your life and tear it up. And there’s a lot of twentieth century “who knows anybody” and who the hell is Charles Foster Kane and “who am I?” crises mixed into that surround. Deep twentieth century modern ontological dread. You have to read the books and see the films and look at the art and listen to the music…

Jump ahead to now. History is gone. There’s just you. I really mean Me. Deep ontological dread? Take a soma tablet and surf some porn. Or jump into X-Box. We’re on the cover of Time magazine as the Person of the Year. I mean I am. I don’t care about you. How close are the dark shadows of the past? Who knows? We’re skating on the surface of the present and it’s filled with toys and joys! By the way, did I say, “I’ve got mine. Get yours”? You have to spend a day on Facebook…

Marketing strategies are designed to reduce, dissolve, and erase the edge. The hurdle now, a marketing one, is to detour the thousands of horribly wounded from Iraq away from thinking about Chance and how it works, from power and how it works, from profits and who they go to. I could also mention the swelling hordes of “economically challenged” and those whose debts can no longer maintain the illusion of “middle class.”

We may be heading toward noir characters like Bogie played but who around would recognize them? Who would create them? I don’t see anything promising in what I see being launched on YouTube. “They Broke Away From A Computer Screen And Dropped Their Cell Phones To Walk The Mean Streets!!!” See the movie! What do you have to do to develop a Bogie hard edge noir coolness? Look up from your navel and watch the world closely…

What is the most interesting realization you came to during the process of writing this book? Did you have a great epiphany?

I didn’t expect to keep writing screenplays but when I got up in the morning that’s what I was looking forward to. I didn’t think I could present all the ideas I wanted to with just dialogue. I was worried about getting my theory into the work. For me theory comes first. I don’t assume natural instincts in responding to film, or a gentleman’s grasp of what’s what and so on. If you say you don’t have a theory, what you’re telling me is that you’re a natural, or you’re “open minded” and just read or hear or see “what’s there.” You don’t have a filter; you don’t mediate anything. I don’t buy any of that. We’re wearing prescriptive lenses in that movie theatre; I have a theory that asks what’s my prescription? Right now. In this place.

Once I settled down and let the theory emerge without too much fanfare – through the conversation that’s the intro of the book, through the voiceover and blogs and so on – I could enjoy writing guilt free dialogue.

Epiphany? No. But I did get haunted toward the end thinking that the American imaginary after 9/11 I was trying to picture really didn’t connect at all with my own students, with the twentysomethings. I don’t think the American Cool chapter went into all that I wanted to canvas. There were a lot more voices but the thing was I wasn’t familiar with them. Not well enough to do them, like a ventriloquist.

What do you know about the twentysomethings?

I believe that the new twenty-first century digitalized technoculture generation is not going to “mature” out of a constitutionally different way of being in the world. Their minds point to a new paradigm. I can’t picture that picture of the world they’re in. Is that a failure of my imagination, or theirs? The I-Phone generation is there to be read in pop culture but what shows are computer and cell phone hook-ups but no social hook-ups, no cultural hook-ups in the Raymond Williams sense of culture as a “whole way of life.” All the hook-ups here go back to the “Me,” to an uninterrogated, self-designed self.

If my cultural studies technique is to trace or connect pop culture to headlines – and vice versa – by employing a postmodern theory that connects stories and images – without hierarchical distinctions – to a shifting reality making – and that is my strategy – then a pop culture that is not really cultural – concerned with the “outside” culture – is pop solipsist. There’s no way for me to get in. I know there is a belief that postmod underwrites a “self designed” self and reality, and therefore it is the cultural logic creating this pop solipsism. Consider though that this “self” is already narrated by the surround it would claim to dominate. The self designing individual therefore is no more than ensnared within a story that privileges his or her own self designing powers. It’s a fatal story I believe although our latest pop cultural mania – The Secret – reveals that all one needs do is project one’s will onto the universe and the universe will bend.

The irony here is that unless the isolated self pays attention to the cultural surround, including all the variant stories history reveals, the supposedly self-designed life is no more than self-enclosed, oxygen deprived, rather like a plant whose roots turn inward, toward eventual death, although it is surrounded by what would invigorate it. An endless expansion of products and web sites and blogs and cable channels and cell phone capabilities are all at the selective disposal of an incredibly shrinking awareness. What would compel personal choice fashioned by all prior personal choices and caught within the limited surround thereby created to choose the different, the other, the alien? And what would compel the dominating narrative of consumer capitalism to let go of this self-designing through purchase generation?

I think Wim Wenders’ film Until the End of the World, a film I wrote about in Hauntings, is absolutely prophetic here in regard to the cultural narcissism of the I-Phone generation. A computer records an individual’s brain activities and then those visualizations of one’s own “world awareness” replace the world as the center of focus. Characters in the film wander around with a hand held computer gazing into their own representing.

I’m doubly haunted here: what if someone twenty-five years down the road attempts to picture not the world but the picture of the world being lived in at that time? And then they went to the movies to find that picture. Perhaps there would be something like an interactive animated Cars (the top grossing film of 2006) being shown. Okay, so you go to the Internet. But it’s all virtual reality programming now, self designing reality making at the hi tech cutting edge. Who’s drawing the picture meanwhile that’s ruling the world? Now that picture haunts me.

What do you hope readers gain from your study?

Hopefully, and first of all, that we are bombarded with variant pictures of the world, none of which can be authorized beyond their own self authorizations. Through numerous characters voicing different views about numerous movies, I set out to picture an American cultural imaginary post-9/11 that the reader is living in. Say we are playing chess on a bottomless chessboard – Derrida’s game – and we therefore assume only our own moves count. After all, there’s no foundational truth but only stories of truth, pictures of reality cultures construct. But in fact there are rules to the game shaped by the dispositions of power; there are powerful stories that sponsor the game and while we humans cannot escape the inevitability of narrative mediation of the world, we can deconstruct and deterritorialize stories of injustice and inequality. We can change the rules of the game. We have to study closely the cards dealt and as the French say connaitre le dessous des carts, know their under sides. The picture and the politics behind or beneath the picture. I wrote This Is A Picture to reveal a bit of this.

What are you working on now?

I’ve been posting working draft chapters of a book called Times & Tempestson my website. The Times part begins with a piece I wrote right after 9/11 called “Debate in a Time of Terror.” (That piece and all my work in progress except the play are on www.josephnatoli.com. ) That was in October 2001. Then I went fallow until New Year 2006 and since then have written pieces mostly on the new twenty-first century technoculture and the kind of new paradigm I think it is creating. The Tempests part is a five act Shakespearean parody of the Bush administration entitled The Tempests. It begins with Hurricane Katrina and the dramatis personae include Bushlet, Prince of America & Brush; Airbush, Old King of America; Babs, Old Queen of America; Rovago, Bushlet’s Ancient; Malcheney, Duke of Halliburton; Rumsack, Minister of War; Condironi, Minister of Alibi; Rosenwolf & Guildenpearl, Courtiers; Sir Kenny Boy Belch, friend to Bushlet; Calibush, a Savage; Sceela & Scleeto; Nick Bushbottom, a weaver; Bubba, the joiner; Nada, the tinker; Hotdean, leader of the rebellion; and Lady Rod, queen of the fairies et al.

Blank verse no less. A difficult book to sell, you think? I set out to picture the America that the Bush picturing of the world had created. I tried different approaches and finally settled into Shakespearean farce/tragedy as having enough breadth to handle the absolutely fantastical years since 2000; and the meter put a bit like a bridle into the mouth of my bewilderment and anger. You could perhaps run the first act in your magazine?

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