representing the zietgeist of the last 8 years

Chuck Tryon discusses the recent Newsweek special The Way We Were, which asks some cultural critics to pick a single cultural text that represents the last eight years of Culture under the Bush regime. While pointing out the impossibility of selecting just one text to represent the zeitgeist of the last eight years, Tryon admits this is an interesting intellectual pursuit. I tend to agree. Critics chose the following tests: Battlestar Galactica, American Idol, Jeff Koons’s Hanging Heart, The Corrections, Black Hawk Down, Borat, Green Day’s ‘American Idiot’, Far Away, and Rick Warren’s The Purpose-Driven Life. Of these, I’ve only “read” American Idiot, so I’m not in much of a position to comment on some of these. I like Tryon’s perspective on some of the choices, though. So I’ll not weigh in on these selections, and let you read Tryon’s take on those.

Tryon also offers up some alternative choices, which are interesting:

While I find elements of Ansen’s argument persuasive, I’m contrarian enough to want to offer another alternative. One of the things I noticed about the Newsweek list is that it is devoid of any viral videos. Couldn’t Chris Crocker’s voyeurism-inducing diatribe against the paparazzi, “Leave Britney Alone” (viewed 23 million times on YouTube alone), be the ultimate representation of the Bush Era and its embrace of all things interactive? While the gossip rags have existed for some time, the fascination with the private lives of celebs has been central to the last decade, a seemingly safe distraction from Bush’s missteps. Crocker also exploits the confessional form of the YouTube form, at least the old, more televisual form, as well as anyone.

But, at the risk of appearing overly presentist, I’m tempted to argue that the raw videos of an Iraqi reporter throwing his shoes at President Bush may very well be the text that most captures the last eight years. The video cited here is fairly typical, opening with Bush standing at a lectern next to the Iraqi president. It’s yet another pseudo-event, a final attempt for the Bush administration to put a positive spin on a war that has lasted nearly six years. Bush, who apparently has Matrix-like reflexes, manages to duck both shoes, and the journalist stumbles to the ground where he is arrested. As we have read pretty much everywhere, throwing a shoe at someone, in Arab culture, is just about the worst insult possible, but Bush’s actions, and his response make the gesture seem–at least on one level–seem utterly innefectual. At first, Bush smiles nervously, obviously uncomfortable with what has just transpired, but he quickly recovers, and by the time order is restored, he jokes that the shoe is a “size 10,” using affable mockery in order to try to defuse any remaining tensions. In some sense the video seems symptomatic of the inability to truly respond to the actions of the Bush administration that have left a country utterly devastated. The video captivates me not only because of the powerlessness of the gesture, the insult essentially lost in translation, but also because it seems to capture, in something approaching real time, the Bush Bubble as it forms.

I’d like to weigh in with a couple other options. Also at the risk of being overly presentist, I think Martha Raddatz’s interview with George W. Bush on ABC, though short, represents much of the last eight years:
• The disrespect toward George W. Bush (and even America) by those abroad (the shoe throwing)
• The American voyeuristic impulse (that Bush finds it just “interesting” that a shoe was thrown — aren’t other traditions interesting?)
• The incredible hubris of this administration and the cynicism (“So what?” if they were wrong about WMD’s?)
• The cultural amnesia and particular amnesia of this administration (Bush’s reiteration that he can’t remember details)
• The belief that those who are protesting or angry just want attention, are just like the rest of an “individual celebrity” culture
• Bush’s general reaction to division/divisiveness, which is to dismiss it as ineffectual or not important

Perhaps another possibility is the recent episode of South Park, “Britney’s New Look” (Wikipedia), which I just watched last night. So, it’s fresh in my mind and thus an easy pick. But the episode makes some interesting commentary (or at least re-presentation) on politics (boring!), celebrity, sexism, sacrifice, the centrality of corn to our culture. Additionally, it’s just a great homage to Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” Perhaps South Park is just a great cultural text to “represent” the last twelve years in general.

Other people’s thoughts?

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2 Responses to representing the zietgeist of the last 8 years

  1. Dennis says:

    Michael, have you ever read any of the Critical Theory that deals with South Park or Family Guy?

    If SP represents the last 12 years…. well, I can’t disagree. But that’s not exactly an uplifting thought.

  2. Michael says:

    I’ve read an article or two on South Park, though details are fuzzy. Most impressionable is an article on the Simpsons, which I am in agreement with: that it represents the ironic critique of everything (not just a critique of what’s wrong), and that in the end, the family and capitalism are still supported and reinforced. I’m inclined to agree. No, it’s not uplifting to think of South Park as iconic of our times. It’s ludic postmodernism to the max.

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