Hypercapitalism, or the More Things Change the More They Stay the Same

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As I write these words, Jackass 3D is sitting on top of the cinematic box-office heap, reminding me of a semiotic analysis I wrote for the Los Angeles Times in February of 2001.  I am including an excerpt of that analysis here to make a point.
News item: Hannibal, the cinematic story of a captivating cannibal, is setting records by earning $100 million faster than any other R-rated movie in history. Meanwhile, a kind of stunt-variety show called Jackass is emerging as the breakaway hit of the current cable TV season, offering its 2 million or so weekly viewers the priceless opportunity to watch its performers perform such daring stunts as being thrust headfirst into an unflushed, and septically active, toilet. And if that isn’t enough, the XFL season is in full swing. Oh why, why, is American popular culture so seemingly intent on proving Sigmund Freud right? Because that is what anyone who is familiar with Freud’s two masterworks, Totem and Taboo and Civilization and Its Discontents, is virtually obliged to conclude when surveying the current pop culture scene. Everywhere, it seems, atavistic eruptions of the kind of deeply repressed instincts that Freud described in these books are being offered up for sale in the increasingly unbuttoned entertainment marketplace.
Take Hannibal. It is Freud’s contention in Totem and Taboo that, prior to its movement from life in a state of nature to the world of culture, mankind was fundamentally prone to cannibalism, incest, and patricide. The attainment of culture put these primitive instincts into that deep-freeze that Freud called “the unconscious” where, he believed, they continue to fester in the form of those neuroses that afflict us when cultural repression is unsuccessful or incomplete. Now, in these days of pharmo-psychiatry, when neurotransmitters have taken the place of the old Freudian “drives,” it is easy to scoff at such old-fashioned opinions. But the success of Hannibal makes one take pause. Why else are audiences so eager to pay good money to watch the exploits of a canny cannibal? By exploiting one of the most primitive instincts of all, Hollywood has managed to conjure up—paradoxically through the resources of a highly developed technological civilization—civilization’s antithesis: an image of utter barbarism. That is because the stunts featured on Jackass are not simply gross and disgusting. They bear the traces of ancient rituals of human sacrifice as well. After all, the star of the show got his start by sending the folks at MTV a video of himself getting shot by a Taser, and while this isn’t quite yet equivalent to being thrown into an active volcano, the aforementioned toilet-plunging stunt sure seems to be parodically close to it. And then there’s the XFL. It was Freud’s thesis in Civilization and Its Discontents that primitive man was a fundamentally violent and aggressive creature whom civilization tamed through development of a controlling superego. The NFL, with all those tedious regulations designed to keep its players out of the hospital (or the morgue), is clearly an institution that is, it appears, too much at the mercy of the superego for the fans of the XFL, who are increasingly discontented with civilization and eager to be exploited by a culture industry that knows that barbarism sells. Out with the superego! In with Attila the Hun! So stay tuned, folks, for more Freudian fireworks. I am expecting soon a new television series, probably a sitcom, to be called something like “The Continuing Adventures of Oedipus the King.” Or maybe that’s too complicated. How about “Mr. Oed”?
As I reread this old piece I see that nothing has really changed in the intervening years.  Okay, so the XFL is history, and Hannibal Lector hasn’t been around for a while. But then, there's the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the Extreme Fighting Challenge, and World Extreme Cagefighting to take the XFL's place, and the “Saw” franchise’s Jigsaw to take Hannibal's these days.  And whileThe Continuing Adventures of Oedipus the King” hasn’t yet made it to prime time, “How I Met Your Mother,” with its invitation to young audiences to contemplate the sex lives of their parents, certainly comes close. If anything, the situation today is even more Freudian today than at the time of my 2001 analysis. Which leads to an extension of my interpretation:  As popular culture has seen the immense profits to be made by appealing to humanity’s darkest and most sinister fantasies and desires, it continues to push the boundaries of civilized decency on behalf of the money to be made by doing so.  By the turn of the new millennium, America was already well into a hypercapitalist era, and the situation is simply feeding on itself now.  I can think of no better example of the meaning of Jeremy Rifkin’s term hypercapitalism: a world within which the only value left is the profit motive and the only measure of things is the dollar.
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About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.