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At work recently, I went to get a ham sandwich from the university cafeteria. I discovered, to my vocal dismay, that the well-loved food counter offering homemade fare had been torn out and replaced by a Burger King franchise. Questioned about this innovation, the head of "food services" insisted that
it had been implemented in response to consumer demand. An exhaustive series of polls, surveys and questionnaires had revealed, apparently, that students and faculty were strongly in favor of a more "branded feel" to their dining environment.
It is worth pausing over the term "branded feel." It represents, I think, something profound: The presence of Burger King in the lunchroom is claimed to be a matter of affect. It addresses itself to "feelings," it meets a need that is more emotional than economic. This need has been identified, I was informed, by scientific and therefore inarguable means. The food-services honcho produced statistics that clearly indicated a compelling customer desire for bad, expensive food. According to his methodology, my protests were demonstrably elitist and undemocratic.
It is hardly news that opinion polls are frequently used to bolster the interests of those who commission them. But in recent years the notion that opinion can be measured in quantifiable terms has achieved unprecedented power and influence over public policy. The American penal system, for instance, has been rendered increasingly violent and sadistic as a direct response to opinion polls, which inform politicians that inhumane conditions are what voters desire. The thoughts and emotions of human beings are regarded as mathematically measurable, and the practical effects of this notion are now perceptible in the most mundane transactions of daily life.
This quantified approach to human nature is the result of the importation of theoretical economics into the general culture. Since the marginalist revolution of the late nineteenth century, neoclassical economists have rigidly confined their investigations within the methodological paradigm of positivist science, and they aspire in particular to the model of mathematics. Economists seek to produce empirically verifiable, statistical patterns of human behavior. They regard such studies as objective, unbiased and free of value-laden, superstitious presuppositions. The principle of "consumer sovereignty" hails this mode of procedure as the sociological arm of democracy, and it has made economics the most prestigious of the human sciences.
As David Throsby's Economics and Culture and Don Slater and Fran Tonkiss's Market Society show, the procedures of academic economists are now being further exalted to a position of dominant influence over everyday experience. Homo economicus is fast becoming equated with Homo sapiens. When airlines refer to passengers as "customers" and advise them to be "conservative with your space management," this development may seem trivial or comic. But in their very different ways, these books suggest that beneath such incremental cultural mutations there lurks an iceberg of titanic dimensions.
The Australian academic David Throsby is about as enlightened and humanistic as it is possible for a professional economist to be. He is also an accomplished playwright, and his influence on the political culture of his native land has been extensive and unvaryingly benign. He begins from the accurate supposition that "public policy and economic policy have become almost synonymous," and his intention is to rescue culture from the philistinism of businessmen and politicians who are incapable of lifting their eyes above the bottom line. It is a lamentable sign of the times, however, that he sees no other means of doing so than by translating aesthetic endeavor into quantifiable, economic terms. As he puts it, "If culture in general and the arts in particular are to be seen as important, especially in policy terms in a world where economists are kings, they need to establish economic credentials; what better way to do this than by cultivating the image of art as industry."
In order to cultivate this image, Throsby makes extensive if ambivalent use of the "rational-choice theory" derived from the work of Gary Becker. In Becker's opinion, the kinds of decision-making that economists contrive to abstract from the actions of people conceived as economic agents can be extrapolated to explain their behavior in areas of life that were once, romantically and unscientifically, thought of as lying beyond the arid terrain of rational calculation: love, for example, or aesthetic endeavor. This emboldens Throsby to ask whether we "might envisage creativity as a process of constrained optimisation, where the artist is seen as a rational maximizer of individual utility subject to both internally and externally imposed constraints," and to postulate "a measure...of difference in creativity (or 'talent'), in much the same way as in microeconomic analysis differences between production functions in input-output space measures differences in technology."
There are enough caveats in Throsby's book to indicate a laudable reluctance to engage in this project; however, he evidently feels that the current climate of opinion leaves him no other choice. He is thus driven to apply the economic understanding of "value" to cultural phenomena, and to engage in a "consideration of culture as capital...in the economic sense of a stock of capital assets giving rise over time to a flow of capital services." Much of this book consists of a monomaniacal reinscription of life itself into the technical discourse of neoclassical economics. We are therefore subjected to lengthy discussions of "cultural capital" (formerly known as "culture"), "social capital" (a k a "society"), "physical capital" (née "buildings"), "natural capital" (alias "nature") and of course "human capital" (once referred to as "people"). There is, it seems, no limit to the colonizing potential of economics: "If broader cultural phenomena, such as traditions, language, customs, etc. are thought of as intangible assets in the possession of the group to which they refer, they too can be brought into the same framework."
We are faced here, essentially, with the quantification of all human experience. Not merely economic behavior but every aspect of life and thought can be expressed under the statistical rubric and studied in mathematical form. The notion of the "stakeholder," dear to Tony Blair, whose ambition to create a "stakeholder society" is overt and unapologetic, is fundamental to this project.
A stakeholder stands in relation to the world as a shareholder does to a corporation. He (or she) casts a cold eye on his surroundings and perceives only his "stake" in them; he rationally considers the means by which he may optimally maximize their benefits. The stakeholder, then, is not human. He is rather a quantified abstraction from humanity, a machine designed for the calculation of marginal utility. Good-hearted economists such as Throsby would retort that the stakeholder does not enjoy an empirical existence; he is merely a useful theoretical construct. Would that it were so. But in fact, as Hannah Arendt said of neoclassical economics' cousin, behavioral psychology: "The problem...is not that it is false but that it is becoming true."
There is an interesting convergence between rational-choice theory and the venerable tradition of socialist materialism. Both approaches insist that the real factor motivating human behavior is economic self-interest: that of an individual in the former case, and that of a social class in the latter. The British sociologists Don Slater and Fran Tonkiss address many of the same questions as Throsby in their book Market Society, but they view the conquest of intellectual and social life by economics from a more traditionally leftist perspective. Like Throsby, Slater and Tonkiss acknowledge that "market logic has come to provide a means of thinking about social institutions and individuals more generally," but instead of concluding that students of aesthetics must therefore incorporate economic concepts into their practice, they envisage a movement in the other direction. Today, they claim, "the economist's task of explanation is as much interpretive or hermeneutic as it is mathematical."
Slater and Tonkiss are influenced here by the "rhetorical turn" that economists such as Deirdre McCloskey have recently attempted to introduce into their discipline. The increasingly abstract nature of money, it is claimed, lays bare the fact that financial value, like semiotic meaning, is an imaginary and therefore arbitrary mode of signification. As such, money can be studied using terms and concepts drawn from rhetoric and literary criticism. (An amusing parody of this idea occurs in Will Self's novel My Idea of Fun, which features a "money critic" whose job is to pontificate about the aesthetic qualities of various forms of finance.) Slater and Tonkiss present this as an appealing reversal of intellectual roles: "Whereas the central preoccupation of critical social analysis has traditionally been the way in which economic rationality dominates culture, contemporary social theory has been increasingly concerned with the central role of cultural processes and institutions in organizing and controlling the economic."
Although their emphasis is different, Slater and Tonkiss's argument leads to the same essential conclusion as Throsby's: It no longer makes sense to distinguish between "economics" and "culture," or between "the market" and "society." In practice, it makes little difference whether one regards this as an incursion of aesthetics into economics or vice versa. Indeed, Slater and Tonkiss are a good deal more pessimistic than Throsby about the consequences of this development. To their credit, they are willing and able to introduce into the discussion concepts like "commodification" and "alienation," from which even liberal economists like Throsby recoil in horror. But they stop well short of the bleak dystopianism of Adorno, and their slightly anodyne conclusion is that "markets are not simply good or bad, because they are highly variable." This pluralism is forced upon them, because their book is intended as a historical survey of various theoretical approaches to the market: Market Society provides admirably lucid and meticulously fair readings of Smith, Ricardo, Durkheim, Simmel, Weber and Polanyi. Despite its historical approach, the most beguiling feature of the book is that its treatment of such past thinkers is undertaken with a prominent sense of our present predicament.
Discussing the economist whose theories have had the greatest influence on that predicament, Slater and Tonkiss remind us that "Hayek held that ultimately there were no economic ends as such; economic action always served ends that were non-economic in character because needs and desires are exogenous (or external) to the market setting." But to say that there are no economic ends is the same as to say that there are only economic ends. It is, in other words, to abolish any distinction between the economic and the noneconomic. Toward the end of Economics and Culture, Throsby observes that "in primitive societies...culture and economy are to a considerable degree one and the same thing." By this definition, as each of these important and timely books suggests, our society may be the most primitive of all. Can anyone, today, escape the "branded feel"?
Scattered chunks of films littered the theaters this holiday season. Except for The Royal Tenenbaums, which I've told you about, there wasn't a whole movie to be found. Or, to speak more precisely, no movie except The Royal Tenenbaums gave me the impression of wholeness, by which I mean the pleasure that arises when the mind can play back and forth through a picture, discovering how the details enrich one another.
No doubt I value this pleasure so much because I've been trained, as a critic, to look for it. Surrealists, post-structuralists and the average moviegoer do not. Even so, I believe that when artists aspire to wholeness, they put into their work a kind of sustained intelligence that we might call integrity, care or love. When I claim that this quality is missing from most movies nowadays, I of course say almost nothing. Maybe a slightly higher percentage of today's films are hash, compared to the run of productions in the 1930s; but that's for the cliometricians to decide. The critic's challenge is to find some response to the present year-end Oscar contenders, when there's no object of criticism among them.
Should I solve the problem by jumping outside the film world? Then, from a safe distance, I could belabor the politics of Black Hawk Down for being simple-minded, and the politics of Iris for being absent. Many useful comments could be made on these subjects. They just wouldn't be useful to someone who already reads The Nation.
So I suppose I'll have to do what moviegoers have always done: ignore the pictures and watch the stars. I won't talk about The Majestic and Ali, Monster's Ball and A Beautiful Mind. The subjects of this column will be Jim Carrey, Will Smith, Halle Berry and Jennifer Connelly. Let me begin with Connelly, who in A Beautiful Mind has finally achieved recognition as an actress, and in so doing has given the film a large part of its merit.
As you may know, A Beautiful Mind offers a loose approximation of the story of John Nash, a highly gifted mathematician who has struggled all his life against delusions and compulsions. The film, too, suffers from some mental confusion--screenwriter Akiva Goldsman and director Ron Howard somehow got Nash's biography mixed up with Jack and the Beanstalk--but once you get past that problem, you may appreciate the cleverness of this quasi-fairy tale. To begin with, the filmmakers have invented some briskly effective ways to suggest that Nash has a miraculous talent for pattern recognition, and that such a talent can be dangerous. Even when there's no order to be found, his mind keeps searching for one; and since the cold war provides great material for paranoia--the film begins in the late 1940s--Nash has a world of troubling data to sort. In a risk that's bold by Hollywood standards, the film presents its hero's blossoming delusions as if they were real--that is, as he would experience them. You're well into the story before you can sift the facts from the hallucinations, a process that's made compelling by Russell Crowe's performance in the lead. Awkward, shuffling, aggressive, witty, exasperating and vulnerable, he's altogether credible as someone who thinks in abstractions for a living.
But back to Connelly. She plays Alicia Larde, the woman who courts, marries and helps to rescue Nash. The filmmakers turn A Beautiful Mind into her story, almost as much as it is her husband's, and that's as it should be. Alicia is the one who gets scared witless, calls in the shrinks, strives to keep the household together and howls in the bathroom at 2 am. Connelly deserves full credit for carrying off the role.
It's a credit that's long been denied her. Although she's done some good work in smaller productions--Keith Gordon's Waking the Dead, Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream--Connelly has suffered till now from the Elizabeth Taylor syndrome. Like Taylor, she started young in show business and was quickly turned into a physical commodity, cast for her dark hair, blue eyes, smooth face and a buxom figure that she exposed very freely, arousing both sexual interest and condescension in a single gesture. The condescension came all the more quickly because Connelly, like Taylor, seems submerged in her beauty. It tends to separate her from other actors, as a rare fish is held apart in an aquarium, with the result (among other things) that she's a bad choice for comedy. Connelly can play at being amused by someone, but she isn't funny in herself--in contrast, for example, to her near-contemporary Shannon Elizabeth, a wonderfully silly person who shares her looks like a good joke.
Connelly has so far been incapable of such lightness; but she's right at home with the intensity of suffering that's called for in melodrama. Now her reputation is taking an upward turn similar to Taylor's at the time of Suddenly, Last Summer and Butterfield 8. Heaven knows, I don't want to go on to Cleopatra; but as someone who respects the tradition of melodrama, I think American cinema would be stronger if producers created more roles for Jennifer Connelly.
Having just seen Monster's Ball, I will also say the same for Halle Berry. She, too, has based her reputation on being absurdly gorgeous, with this distinction: Berry treats her looks like a loaded gun, which she can and will use. Of course, the danger varies; there was a lot of it in Bulworth but not much, somehow, in The Flintstones. Now, in Monster's Ball, the sense of risk suddenly leaps to a higher order.
Berry plays a wife and mother in a present-day Southern town--wife to a man on death row, mother to a boy who weighs 180 pounds and has not yet reached puberty. Through a series of catastrophes--or perhaps I should say wild coincidences--she eventually finds herself on the sofa late at night with Billy Bob Thornton, the racist white prison guard who led her husband to the electric chair. Grief, fatigue and booze are weighing heavily on her. She needs to wriggle free of them; everything that's still alive in her demands it. And so, in a scene that becomes a tour de force, she laughs in reminiscence about her husband, insists to herself that she's been a good mother, philosophizes starkly about the lives of black men in America and ultimately pours herself into Thornton's lap, demanding, "Make me feel good."
The screenwriters of Monster's Ball, Milo Addica and Will Rokos, might easily have based this scene on an acting-class exercise. A pair of students are assigned random emotions and must then improvise their way through them, making up the transitions as they go. What Berry does with the scene, though, has no whiff of the classroom. She doesn't just bob along on the swells and troughs of her feelings; she remembers at all times that these emotions have welled up because of the stranger next to her, this oddly quiet man to whom she addresses the whole monologue. She seems half-blind when she looks at him, but only half. She pushes against his self-possession, moment by moment; and the steadier he holds, the further she plunges in.
I wish the rest of Monster's Ball could live up to this scene. There are several fine sequences in the movie, which Marc Forster has directed with admirable restraint; but the picture is entirely too eager to flatter the audience. Monster's Ball is a machine, designed to make Billy Bob Thornton think and behave just as you believe he should. By the end, there's nothing to cut the good intentions except the memory of that smoky, greasy, overpowering scene where Halle Berry risks everything. It's almost enough.
The opening fifteen minutes of Ali are so good that they, too, come close to justifying the picture. In a virtuoso montage, which shows director Michael Mann at his very best, this sequence takes young Cassius Clay up to his first fight against Sonny Liston and his declaration of allegiance to the Nation of Islam. After that, you begin to notice that four screenwriters have labored over this production. Plot points are made with the galumphing literal-mindedness of Bob interviewing Ray. What's worse, these same points, from Liston I through the Foreman match in Zaire, were touched on in the 1977 film The Greatest, written by Ring Lardner Jr., directed by Tom Gries and Monte Hellman and starring (in the role of Muhammad Ali) Muhammad Ali.
Condemned in advance to being third best, after the real-life figure and the original movie incarnation, Will Smith can do little more than look good. It's what he specializes in; I've loved him for it. Here his innate cockiness takes him a long way in the role, as does his rapper's enjoyment of Ali's rhymes. So why does he keep getting upstaged by his supporting cast: Jamie Foxx, who makes something glorious of Ali's sidekick Drew "Bundini" Brown, and Jon Voight, who lives and breathes the role of Howard Cosell? The answer, I think, is that Smith does best when he floats along at a slight remove from his scenes, commenting on the action as if he might at any moment call it a day and go home. Ali makes him earnest; and earnestness, even more than the need to mimic a living figure, makes Will Smith disappear.
I wish Jim Carrey would disappear when he becomes earnest; but instead he latches into the movie like a tick, gorging on sentiment and perpetually, monstrously sucking in more. The effect is all the worse in Frank Darabont's The Majestic for the cinematography. It turns Carrey into a pastel-colored tick.
In this insufferable fantasy about good old-fashioned movies and good old-fashioned Americans, Carrey plays a blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter who (through a wild coincidence) loses his memory and is welcomed into a small town. It's a wonderful life, except for the FBI. I needn't point out to Nation readers how The Majestic makes a hash out of the blacklist period. (Carrey figures out, in a climactic burst of inspiration, that he can plead the First Amendment before HUAC. Gee!) What really concerns me is the demotion of this anarchic genius to the status of All-American Nothing. Carrey can play comedy like nobody else alive; so why is he pushed into melodrama?
My conclusion: American cinema is taking its actors too seriously, and its actresses not seriously enough. Happy new year.
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