Which comes first, the events or the zeitgeist? Peter Biskind examines pop culture

6 October 2018

9:00 AM

6 October 2018

9:00 AM

Those who study culture — or think about public policy in relation to it — often wrestle with the classic post hoc dilemma: did a work or movement in popular culture influence events in real life, or did it simply reflect the zeitgeist?

Were, say, ‘video nasties’ responsible for an uptick in violence and sadism in a generation of British youth? The Daily Mail seemed to think so, although today their hysterical headlines appear faintly ridiculous.

Were the two broken boys who committed the Columbine shootings in Colorado shaped by The Matrix? Or did they simply recognise in that film a stylish myth in which to dress their murder/suicide pact?

Spike Lee poses the question for us in this summer’s BlacKkKlansman, in which a black activist (played by Harry Belafonte) recounts a 1916 Waco, Texas lynching purportedly influenced by frequent theatre showings of 1915’s loathsome The Birth of a Nation. And while, on the one hand, we could argue that Birth of a Nation itself is a product of a time when black men were regularly lynched by white men desperate to hold on to their power, it also seems true that the film’s emotional power may have been a contributing factor in the very real public torture and killing of young Jesse Washington.

Generally it is the loudest voices seeking the easiest answers who advocate a close post hoc causality between culture and cultural events, but when the compulsively readable film writer Peter Biskind (Easy Rider, Raging Bull) offers a new cultural history of Hollywood with the subtitle How Vampires, Zombies, Androids, and Superheroes Made America Great for Extremism, one is tempted to hope that he has indeed solved an equation for us and will give us an explanation for what has seemed inexplicable to many: the rise of Trump, the Brexit vote, neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville and Chemnitz.

He doesn’t, of course, since what we’re talking about are problems with multi-faceted causes that can’t be attributed to the appearance of Game of Thrones, Twilight or Avatar. Biskind argues gamely and accurately that works of culture can stoke our emotions, but the best feature of his book is not any linkage between the rise in extremist narratives and extremism but, instead, his unearthing of the subterranean political passions to be encountered in left, mainstream, and rightist films and TV shows.

James Cameron and Steven Spielberg are indeed emblematic in their leftist tendency to distrust the institutions of government and business, to side with monsters and aliens rather than trust the powers that be. Rightist narratives like 24 and Deadpool (Biskind calls Deadpool the first alt-right superhero) do tend to be scathing in their contempt for the institutional rule of law, and more than willing to embrace the idea that personal revenge, embodied by an implacable hero willing to do anything, may offer the best means of achieving justice. The producer Gale Anne Hurd offers us insight into mainstream narratives: these are the stories that seek to answer the question ‘Are there limits to what we will do to survive?’ in the affirmative. The mainstream heroes of Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead are trying to walk an ethical line in a world in which danger and dangerous choices abound. Sometimes they succeed; sometimes they fail and fall. But in a world like ours, in which many of us feel the old moral guardrails are disappearing or have vanished already, these stories offer us a vision of people trying to do the right thing, as well as the consequences of choosing the wrong.

Ultimately, Biskind is at his best not as pop culture prophet explaining our world, but as pop culture guru explaining our stories. Too fast-moving and short (223 pages of text) to be deep cultural history, The Sky Is Falling is instead a thoughtful, entertaining, and occasionally profound critical study of the texts that entertain, move and, sometimes, shape us.

We live in an age of apocalyptic narratives, of planetary disasters, zombie apocalypses, alien invasions. Only these high-stakes stories seem accurately to convey how disjointed our world feels, how threats seem to swarm us from every direction, how it is difficult to know where to place our trust. The Walking Dead, Avatar and The Avengers did not create this world. But, in some way, they do help explain the world and our place in it, even though we see it in funhouse reflection.

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