The Pop Culture Scene Appears to Be Going Primitive

Jack Solomon is a professor of English at Cal State Northridge

News item: “Hannibal,” the cinematic story of a captivating cannibal, is setting records by earning $100 million faster that 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.

I am far from being the first culture critic to make such an observation. In the 1940s, a pair of German-Jewish refugees from the barbarities of Nazi Germany--Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno--wrote a book called “Dialectic of Enlightenment” in which they argued that civilization, in the form of what they called the “culture industry,” was returning to barbarism in the name of profits.

What really bugged Adorno, who was a highly trained classical composer, was popular music, especially jazz. Sounds pretty quaint these days, of course, and Horkheimer and Adorno are currently unfashionable in the world of cultural criticism.


But in the wake of such shows as “Jackass,” I’m not so inclined to write off these two old refugees and their rather prim attitude toward popular culture. For while “Jackass” is clearly an expression of a male youth culture that is desperate to find some new way of shocking an increasingly jaded society--nothing much new in that, the bikers of the 1950s, hippies of the 1960s and punks of the 1970s were shocking too--there still seems to be something deeper going on here.

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”?