Unbound: Pop Culture in the Age of Globalization
Paul A. Cantor
Lanham & Oxford: Rowman and Littlefield, 2001.
$27.95, 266 pages, ISBN 0-7425-0778-5.
Université de Rouen
Paul A. Cantor is professor of English at the University of Virginia.
He is originally a Shakespeare scholar but he has considerably widened
the scope of his research over the years. He has authored an impressive
series of essays, often book-length, on Shakespeare, Romanticism,
comparative literature and literary theory in general. In Gilligan
Unbound: Pop Culture in the Age of Globalization, he principally
tackles four TV shows: Gilligan's Island, Star Trek, The Simpsons
and The X-Files. The book is divided into two sections, entitled "National
Television and the Democratic Ideology of America" and "Global
Television and the Decline of the Nation-State". Cantor states
in his Introduction that he views his book as "a contribution
to our understanding of globalization". (xv) I quite agree, Gilligan
Unbound: Pop Culture in the Age of Globalization may indeed help the
reader make a bit more sense of globalization. It has attention-grabbing
sociological overtones, it shows Cantor's excellent grasp of history,
economics and politics, and is generally far-reaching.
When I read the book myself, however, I was even more thrilled by
other features: the analytical method per se and the things Cantor
has to say about the shows themselves. I was not disappointed. Not
very much has been written about Gilligan's Island (comparatively
speaking), and his outtake is refreshing as well as edifying. Star
Trek and The X-Files are such cult series that hundreds
of books and essays have been published about them, not to mention
the thousands of web pages that discuss them. Everything is on offer,
from the gushing and awkward prose of geeky fans to the most highbrow
exegeses, taking in the neurotic ravings of conspiracy theorists.
Cantor still manages to find new angles, which is quite an achievement.
He is even better when he examines The Simpsons, demonstrating
among other things that in spite of appearances, the cartoon series
may very well constitute a compelling vindication of the nuclear family
and local communities, linked to many Americans' disappointment with
federal politics. To supplement this I recommend The Simpsons
and Philosophy: The D'oh of Homer, edited by William Irwin, Mark
Conard, and Aeon Skoble (2001).
I hope I'll be forgiven for the following lines, which might
be viewed as trivial details, irrelevant gibberish or the ravings
of a bitter scholar with a personal vengeful agenda. The blurb of
this book angers me: "In Gilligan Unbound, a distinguished
Shakespeare scholar and literary critic proves once and for all that
popular culture can be every bit as complex, meaningful, and provocative
as the most celebrated works of literatureand a lot more fun."
Well, what a relief. And here we all were, poor Cultural Studies devotees,
painfully plodding along, deluding ourselves, not knowing that we
would have to wait for decades, until 2001, for Cantor to finally
come to our rescue and prove that point, "once and for all".
And of course, a Shakespearean was needed for the task, and not just
a Shakespearean, but a "distinguished" one. I presume this
means that the famous Shakespearean Marjorie Garberwho started
examining popular culture eons agodoes not deserve the adjective
"distinguished". It gets worse: "Cantor, without condescending
to either his readers or his subject matter, rescues the serious study
of popular culture from academic jargon and incomprehensible prose."
True enough, some of us students of popular culture are not altogether
serious. True enough, some of us are overly keen on jargon, to the
point of writing rather cryptically (I'll refrain from naming the
culprits here). But there are many of us who try for clarity, thank
you very much. As for the notion of condescension, I won't even address
it, for fear of sounding even more hysterical.
If this were strictly the idea of a Rowman & Littlefield publicity
executive, it would be quite tolerable. But alas, Cantor does it too,
to a certain extent. When he states that he looked at those TV shows
"drawing upon the analytic skills [he] had developed during years
of studying literature" (ix) I can only approve, having added
Cultural Studies and Gender Studies to my once purely literary research
myself, and so often having to grit my teeth when some people disregard
my literary forays just because I happen to spend a considerable amount
of my time writing about people like Madonna. But must he add that
"intelligent and well-educated people are genuinely interested
in hearing shows such as The Simpsons and The X-Files analyzed in
a serious academic manner"? (ix) Later he writes that he regards
this book "as an experimentto see what happens if we provisionally
drop our intellectual prejudices against television [
(xxiv) What point is he really trying to make? Who is he trying to
convince that a little bit of slumming can do no harm? The educated
people who are prejudiced against television are often the same who
are prejudiced against popular culture in general and the study of
popular culture; does he think he's going to make them change their
mind? Just because he's a "distinguished Shakespeare scholar"?
My guess is that his readers are more likely to be, like me, people
who have happily never had such prejudices, and so his half-apologetic
remarks will irritate them more than anything. Or is it that he merely
wants to make clear that he is not one of those left-wing Cultural
Studies specialists he criticizes later, who always, he unfairly believes,
see all TV series as "telling the same sad tale of racist and
sexist stereotyping"? (xxxiv) In the essays themselves he sometimes
continues in this vein, feeling compelled to write things like: "The
Simpsons may seem like mindless entertainment to many, but in fact
it offers some of the most sophisticated comedy and satire ever to
appear on American television" (67) A forthcoming issue of Cercles
will be entirely devoted to American sitcoms, and as its editor I
guarantee I will not indulge in such provisions. Sex and the City
might not be Hamlet, but I trust our contributors' musings about it
will constitute self-sufficient validation, of the show and of its
study. Of course, seeing that the title of this Cercles special
issue is "Gender, Race and Class in American TV Sitcoms",
it will probably do little to dispel Cantor's misgivings; but the
pieces themselves might.
Apart from that, Gilligan Unbound: Pop Culture in the Age of Globalization
is an absolutely fine book, well-researched and well-written, convincing
and entertaining. I am prepared to go as far as to venture that readers
can take pleasure in the essays and be edified even if they have never
watched Gilligan's Island, Star Trek, The Simpsons
and The X-Files. Of course, they will enjoy them even more
if they are regular viewers of such shows, and be positively elated
if they are "fans". I unhesitatingly recommend it. I only
hope that next time, Cantor will do without the unwelcome precautions
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