Friday, February 06, 2009

Art Imitating Whose Life?

About a month ago, I started watching the television show "24" from its beginning. I was immediately hooked, as I wrote in my initial post on the subject ("24" Is Like Television Crack), and this week I just began Season 5. My general impression is that the quality of the show declined after the first couple of seasons-- in part because the novelty of the format wore off, in part because many of the characters became caricatures, and in part because the writers' attempts to maintain the constant cliffhanger tension had resulted in truly over-the-top storylines-- but I'm still watching. Then, in a department meeting yesterday, one of my colleagues told me that the show's writers are "right-wing Republican hawks," which forced me to step back from my antihero-love-fest for a moment and realize that I, too, had been sucked in to the point of seriously relaxing my critical eye.

The truth is that the general world-view in 24 is hyperbolically hawkish. It presents a kind of Huntington-esque "clash of civilizations" between the United States and its foreign enemies, in which Counter-Terrorism Unit Agent Jack Bauer-- who lies, steals, kills, tortures, and breaks protocol all in the name of dutiful patriotism-- is positioned as the ideal soldier and citizen. There are a few consistently repeated leitmotifs that regularly work to excuse viewers from questioning not only the political wisdom, but also the morality, of Bauer's actions. These include statements like: (1) "You/I/We had no choice. This is what had to be done." (2) "There's no time to question. We have to act now." (3) "I will do whatever it takes to protect this country." and my favorite (4) "You're just going to have to trust me." The overarching "problem" of every season so far has been structured like a textbook utilitarian moral dilemma, where the permissability of actions is almost always determined by weighing the benefit of saving one life against the benefit of saving thousands/millions. In May, Christopher Orr from The New Republic wrote a piece explaining how Jack Bauer became a Republican hero and imaginative (George W.) Bush-proxy:

As befits his training, he is a man of action: decisive, aggressive, and disinclined to play by the rules when he feels they’re getting in the way. He never wavers, second-guesses, or gives in to criticism, instead doing whatever needs to be done to safeguard American lives, regardless of the costs.

The apparently right-leaning prejudice of 24 hasn't been lost on conservatives, as MediaMatters reports that many of them have consistently referenced the show over the last several years as support for their hawkish policies. Laura Ingraham even told Bill O'Reilly that the popularity of 24 was as "close to a national referendum that it's OK to use tough tactics" as we're going to get. (And I think it's safe to assume that by "tough tactics" she meant torture.) So, it does appear that the evidence is stacked high in favor of viewing 24 as right-wing political propoganda, aiming to foster a culture of fear that itself fosters political and ethical exceptionalism on the part of Americans.

[And, yet, but... (as Derrida was find of saying)...]

I'm not yet convinced. I can certainly see the evidence for claims that 24 is art imitating life-as-seen-by-conservatives, but it has an interesting way of making that life uncomfortably ambiguous, sometimes even in spite of itself. Sure, the hero is a hard-on-terror, soft-on-rights utilitarian. Sure, they have some cartoony caricatures of the left, like an Amnesty International lawyer who prevents the "much-needed" interrogation/torture of a terrorist suspect, and the (closeted homosexual) rebel son of the Secretary of Defense who is ridiculed for his "sixth grade, Micheal Moore logic." But these characters are small in both number and significance when compared to the show's many, many behind- (and sometimes right-in-front-of-) the-scenes liberal-hating "foils"-- Congressmen, agents, yes-men, bureaucrats, citizens-- who are faithfully portrayed as the self-interested, conspiratorial, power-hungry, short-sighted and amoral hawks that they are. For those inclined to see 24 as right-wing propoganda, I wonder how they explain the fact that the first (black and Democrat) President was a cautious, stalwart, self-critical and impeccably moral character, while the subsequent (white and Republican) Presidents have all been villains. And I wonder how they explain the fact that the horrors of torture are never concealed, even when they are ostensibly justified. And I wonder how they explain why so many "good" people die.

For all of its eschatalogical hyperbole, 24 is hardly a simple black-and-white morality tale. It may even represent the best kinds of illustrative moral dilemmas that we often search for in ethics classes. That is, 24 is framed in such a way as to suggest its own solution, without providing the necessary support for that conclusion. Perhaps contrary to the intentions of its authors, 24 consistently maintains the tension of an aporia, which necessitates that one make a real decision of moral, political and, most importantly, artistic interpretation. If it is the case that art imitates life-- and it certainly is the case that timely, hard-edged, "reality"-based television like 24 suggests that it does-- then the task of the translator (to use philosopher Walter Benjamin's phrase) is to first decide: whose life? which art?

Benjamin once speculated (in "On Some Motifs in Beaudelaire" from Illuminations: Essays and Reflections) that in order to understand art, we must consider the relationship of the viewer to the "aura" of his or her object. He called this "auratic perception," by which "to perceive the aura of the object we look at means to invest it with the ability to look at us in return.” I'm still not sure what the popularity of the show 24 indicates about the American public, but I think we might ought to allow for the possibility that sometime in the last 7 years the public invested this art with the power to look at it in return... and we did not like what we saw.

1 comment:

John said...

But it is not at least possible that 24 presents, rather than a mirroring of American life, a projection of one of several possible Americas? I have seen the program only once or twice, and did not like it. But I was struck by the sense that 24 is about not properly speaking the apocalyptic (un-covering and opening onto eternity), but rather some popular construing of this as exactly the opposite, "the end", closure, time running out. It is at least an open question which "American end of history" we are going to believe in or experience. I for one was not captivated by 24 or its particular, and claustrophobic, "time slot".