Stranger Things, “Binging on Demand” & the Serialized Symptoms of Late Capitalism

By Joshua D. Gonsalves |

We must win the race to the river
Or there’ll be a hanging tonight
Burl Ives, “One Hour Ahead of the Posse” (1952)

“The Black Meat is like a tainted cheese, overpoweringly delicious and nauseating so that the eaters eat and vomit and eat again until they fall exhausted”
     William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch (1959)

1. The Non-closural Mode of Post-Serial TV

The deferral of closure in (Post-)Serial TV today is a specific historical mutation: a phase-shift in temporality, identity politics and media consumption. We stream series on an internet that doubles as a site of identity construction based on binging on TV in the Post-Serial mode enabled by the bulk dumping of seasons at a time. If post-9/11 surveillance presides over post-2008 economic panic, televisual seriality helps manage the insecurities generated by finance and geopolitics. Quality TV emerged as a norm with HBO’s The Sopranos (1999-2007). [1] The anxiety of watching week by week (i.e., serially), cliffhanger by cliffhanger, season by season, forever defers the angst elicited by a hyper-policed instability. In 2013, HBO’s serial format began to be undermined by Netflix’s bulk dumping of shows like House of Cards (2013-) and Arrested Development (2013-). HBO’s on-demand division currently lags behind Netflix even though it has more subscribers overall, making HBO crucial to Time-Warner’s share of the global media market. The danger to Time Warner’s HBO model is the fact that no one wants to wait, preferring to process anxiety in bulk. The “Binging on Demand” format enables viewers to download complete seasons, to immerse themselves in world-building environments, and then move on to other series until the next one rolls out. In the interim, previous seasons can be rewatched and anxiety mastered through the comfortable compulsions of repetition.

Consider, in contrast, the estranging distance provided by the classic studio system’s version of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (1946). Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) is rewarded for successfully investigating a strange case by getting the good girl, Vivian Rutledge (Lauren Bacall). The film seals itself with a kiss as a wailing siren warns that this clichéd ending will not set things right. Bacall’s eyes unforgettably convey anxiety over post-war economic uncertainty, eroding gender roles and the coming of the Cold War security state. The threat of political questions rising to the surface and contesting closure is, at the same time, contained—both before and after the movie’s release—by three films starring a real life couple: To Have and Have Not (1944), Dark Passage (1947), and Key Largo (1948). Closure positions white heterosexuality as the norm through a repetition displaced and distributed within a temporal order as solidly discrete as fifties-era suburban homes (cf. the ticky-tacky boxes built by the former US soldier-Nazi collaborator in the extreme noir Act of Violence; 1949). This norm is, in contrast, currently threatened with imaginary extinction, as its over-assertion by crypto-fascists attests amidst a ghostly housing market.

Quality TV presumed the comforts of the home and a weekly familial schedule: a simulation of fifties-era America. The historical shift away from the Bogart/Bacall classics of the forties towards TV narratives in the fifties harkened back to the beginnings of cinema. Serials like The Perils of Pauline (1914-15; serialized well into the 1920s) enacted a groundbreaking departure from nineteenth-century serial novels towards the more immediately immersive smoke-and-mirrors of the twentieth-century screen. Pauline incorporated newspaper tie-ins, covered New York City with over fifty billboards, and grossed 1 million dollars over 20 segments: “some episodes presented complete adventures while others left the story, and usually the heroine, hanging until the next.” “By late 1914 or early 1915,” as Ben Singer points out in Melodrama and Modernity: Early Sensational Cinema and its Contexts,

“virtually all episodes culminated in suspenseful cliffhanger endings. With this design, serials encouraged a steady volume of return customers, tantalized and eager for the fix of narrative closure withheld in the previous installment. In this system of artificially perpetuated desire, serials conveyed a certain acuity about the new psychology of modern consumerism.” [2]

Binge-watching reconfigures this visual fix, transposing addiction into a space where everyone has their own set of screens. The TV-watching family’s joint leisure session morphs into the fragmentary time of solo consumption.   

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The recent hype over Stranger Things (2016-) exemplifies another historic tendency, this time transforming how people enjoy TV series. We have entered the non-closural mode of Post-Serial television. If the show can be defined as an immersion in streaming visual images—i.e., an eighties that is both synthesized, or persuasively orchestrated on visual, narrational and aural registers, and periodically accurate thanks to synthesizer sounds from that lost decade—this simulacrum is no longer consumed as a stand-alone TV program. Thanks to social media interaction, self-image-generating data exchange, perpetual persona performativity, sub-Reddits and the like, we are now at a stage where watching and fervid identity-“consumption,” “construction,” and production via the internet are one social act: the general intellect on speed. [3] The watch-surf turn remakes the couch potato into a mobile viewer, a generator of viral value, and a node for the computational interactivity of financial speculation, geopolitical agit-prop and capital accumulation. The viral values generated through the page-hits, ad revenues and customized consumer profiles produced by fan-surfing supersede, at this point, the advertising revenues and subscriber fees generated historically by Network, Quality or Cable TV. [4]

I begin my analysis of this shift—from a temporality of waiting-and-watching to a hyper-accelerated binging—by mapping the serialized symptoms of late capitalism narrated by True Detective (HBO), Fargo (FX), and Westworld (HBO): week-by-week serials in the old style that fuel the new internet dispensation of identity chatter, data performativity, and visual image interchange on the ‘net. I extend this line of inquiry by analyzing Stranger Things as an exemplar of how a superannuated serial temporality is assuming monstrous form through the dumping of entire seasons at a time, unconstrained Internet streaming, and constant mobile use. This is the logic of binging in bulk on-demand—we binge both on content and on the fantasies that this data assumes by being always already unconsciously plugged into an interminable Internet interactivity that has destroyed any sense of place. It is this futural no-place that Stranger Things visualizes as an Upside Down happening right now, as if alongside the shadow-world we once knew.

“Binging on Demand” counters this existential de-meaning or pulverization of social significance by upholding the illusory control of a viewing subject who no longer needs to submit to external schedules, masochistic cliffhangers, or commercial breaks in immersion. [5] Being indefinitely immersed in this way comes with its own dangers, however, such as an addictive diminution of agency. Westworld (2016-) has a five year plan while True Detective (2014- ) and Fargo (2014- ) plot stand-alone seasons, creating an interminable vista for disposable income extraction in its new form: attention/data extraction. The binge watcher-surfer in this new attention economy may be watching one screen while surfing another and possibly scrolling a third simultaneously. She is not buying and consuming things. It is her captivated attention that is, in contrast, generating worldwide webs of viral value in what has come to be known as a “screenager” economy.

2. Television + Lacan = Symptoms of Late Capitalism

A turn to Lacan can help us understand why serial TV captivates the desire of subjects as they attempt to cognitively map a fragmented world-as-screen. Desire is not, as Lacanians remind us, self-sufficient, as is assumed by the individualistic habitus of capitalism. It is motivated, instead, by the desire of the Other. To return to the example from The Big Sleep, Philip Marlowe’s inexplicable hunger to solve strange cases is driven neither by money, nor by an abstract respect for the Law. This desire does not emerge from some putative moral core hidden underneath his suit. Rather, in striving to save Vivian Rutledge from a complicated plot (expressly against her will) he is unconsciously serving the desire of the M(other) that she re-presents insofar as the unconscious “Philip Marlowe” is concerned. The subject acts so as to please or to defy (i.e., please in an ambivalent, Oedipal or contrarian sense) the “projected” desire it has implanted in the Other. The subject acts, in other words, so as to make sense of the centerless circulation of signifiers that contingently make and unmake our world-in-common: “the linguistic Other (language, discourse).” If attempts to please the big Other typify the acting out of a fantasy scenario, the linguistic bits out of which this fantasy is constituted have assumed a new form these days. The becoming-Big-Data of capitalist existence has irreversibly relegated, in other words, the Lacanian Big Other (for which our automated egos or artificed intellegences perform) to yet another fantasy scenario.

There is, as bears repeating and as Samo Tomšič’s vivisection of the capitalist unconscious contextualizes, no “‘Other of the Other,’” [6] which is to say that the subject-motivating desire of the Other does not exist but is concocted by the unconscious to give a false consistency to a contradictory, contingent and entropic state of affairs. The subject counters this demeaning lack (‘there is no Other’) of meaning (or, ‘of the Other,’ or of socio-symbolic signifiers, or of all that contingently circulating data) by overinvesting in the demand of an inexistent “Other.” This repetitive reinvesting proceeds apace until it becomes a fantasm that seems to arise from the deepest reaches of consciousness. These fantasies enable, in turn, denials of a literally de-meaning lack: the shock that there is no actually existing demand of the Other. It is all projection, fantasy, or a self-confirming egoism. Desire emerges as a despairing attempt to counter the undoing, destitution, or traversing of the fantasy that one is pleasing some One, anyone: “Love me, love me / Say that you love me.” For Lacanians, this traversal of the fantasy is a necessary step towards less delusive desires in search of less deluded drives. Binging on the demand of the Other tends, in contradistinction, in the opposite direction as the ego seeks to perpetuate the fabricated consistency or intelligent design that it requires to persist in delusion.

To binge on demand is also to enjoy the illusion of control contra capitalism. This illusion falsely solidifies, in cooperation with the delusion that one is servicing the Other’s demand, the ego as that which makes (and achieves) its desires. Desire remains, however—if seen from outside this ego-construction—no more than doing what the Other is delusively imagined to demand. The passive verb tense of “imagine” is intentional, since it stresses, as if experience wasn’t proof enough, the being-determined of desire. At some level, this lack of any actually existing demand in the Other is recognized insofar as desiring bodies remain anxious. Viewers feel empty and emptied after bulk-watching until they can binge again. This interminability of visual investments “artificially perpetuat[es]” desire or post-“modern consumerism” (to re-cite Singer’s Melodrama and Modernity) as a mere detour for the self-valorization of value that is capitalism: an endless process without ethico-moral, political, or personal teleology. [7] The “‘automatic subject’” of capitalism keeps watching, then, insofar as it—i.e., the id-subject beyond consciousness—is compelled by drives out-side one’s ego, controlling personality, or ethnonationalist identity. Whether it is a Right or a Left ethnonationalism (i.e., one that wants to apotheosize the rightness of whiteness by returning to fascism, or to redeem whiteness from itself by amplifying the demand of little others masquerading as the Big Other) is, of course, indifferent to the capitalist unconscious. Needless to say this being-compelled is highly profitable for the content provider, which explains why Netflix is deeply concerned about viewers de-subscribing. The fear of the virtual cord-cutter or de-subscriber is rising exponentially, constraining both Netflix and HBO to invest heavily in original content to keep viewers hooked.

Returning to the “automatic subject” of capitalism, it can be said that it engages in binge watching so as to anxiously satisfy the fantasy demand of the Other, to personalize compulsive drives without a telos as a fixed set of signifiers (in lieu of the merely “linguistic” data-signifiers of “language,” “discourse,” etc.)—say, the Other’s imperative that the subject “be a man” projected by the Western genre. Westworld explicitly simulates this desire that the fragility of masculinity also seems to demand in True Detective, Fargo, and Netflix’s The Fall (BBC, 2013-2016). All stress that women are also demanding access to (e)masculation. All genders betray, as the fragilities engendered in Westworld will clarify below, the same symptomatic complex of late capitalism: “Man Up!” (and not Blackhawk Down).

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A survey of how these symptoms are normalized, habituated, or made into a “second nature” by these shows, will form the ground for my historicist (or, more accurately, historical realist) reading of the retro-fetishistic Stranger Things. This interpretative turn is worth taking for it insists on undoing of the self-same repetition of the straight, white story that Bogart and Bacall once conjured up together. They were married in-between To Have and Have Not (1944) and The Big Sleep (1946), completing the circle of a seductive 4-part circuit sealed in upon itself. Stranger Things, on the other hand, undoes the reification of social relations that the other shows I analyze fail to challenge. It occupies my attention (!) since it opens up the self-enclosing ego to queer desires, wayward drives and other undoings that directly register the imprint of the historical shift in temporality, identity politics and media consumption that I identify as Post-Serial TV. The other shows do not, for the most part, enact this undoing of normative desire. They hover, instead, as the symptoms that they generate indicate, in-between an appeal to a redemptive whiteness (right.eth.nat.) and a liberal sympathy with those that must be redeemed so that whiteness can continue to tolerate itself in the mirror (left.eth.nat.).

3. Man Up Side Down!

If the fantasy demand that one “be a man” is basic to our times, this fantasm invariably gets symptomized via the contradictions of race, class and gender. In season one of True Detective, Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson) mistreats the women in his life and ends up losing his family while Rustin Cohle  (Matthew McConaughey) cannot master either the loss of his child or the marriage that this loss destroyed. Gender troubles ruin fantasies of paternity. So too, in season two Francis Semyon (Vince Vaughn) cannot get over his wife’s inability to bear children. Raymond Velcoro (Colin Farrell) struggles, in turn, to be less of a deadbeat alcoholic bad daddy. Yet season one, located in a residually segregated and exorbitantly fantasmatic Louisiana, was wildly popular while season two, set in a cross-cultural and realistically racialized LA, was not. This racialized geography is a symptom, indicating, in turn, a gendered order of reasons—or a symptomatic complex—for this fall in popularity although not, of course, in viral value.

A comparison of the narrative set-up of season one to the detective pairing of season two helps explain this dip in popularity (a  fall in HBO’s overall stock and viral value that has recently been righted by the success of Westworld, among other feeds). Woody and Matthew are being interrogated by two African-American detectives over their failure to close a serial murder case. The Obama-era fear of the white man being displaced by his black double is in full flower. McConaughey’s character is especially uppity in regard to this loss of a racialized masculinity and displays an obscene white trash persona in order to flaunt his adversarial lack of freedom. He sucks cheap beer out of cans while chain-smoking in defiance of politically sensitive regulations. The narrative set-up of season one boils down to two antagonistic sets of male detectives in which recently upgraded black men sit in judgment on the failings of their white doubles.

McConaughey’s character’s substance dependence marks an unbearable anxiety that the white cops must manage for the benefit of the normative viewer (straight-and-white-and-male or straight-and-white-and-male-identified) by convincing the racially different viewers represented by the other detectives that whiteness has not been downgraded by the rise of the black man. The normative detectives are initially valorized by their flashback retelling of a heroic rescue-the-girl melodrama. However, they were unable to follow this up with an arrest of the truly guilty party. The white (true?) detectives’s narrative is, in the meanwhile, revalorized by the thoughtfully realistic (and realized) performances of Harrelson and McConaughey. Both end up reasserting a racialized white masculinity for their literal (the African-American detectives) and figural audience (any other race fraction or fraction of the majority that might not believe in this reassertion), yet once their narrative has been told both cop couples, black and white, still need to find the killer. In contrast to season one of Fargo, where black feds are punished by death for failing to stop a vicious murderer, both races in True Detective fail to detect a habituated criminal hiding in plain sight. The season concludes with the true detectives fatally hunting down the killer in a labyrinth and with one of them being saved from near-fatal wounds by the black cops. The murderer is the true class enemy: a defiant backwoodsman enjoying incest with his half-sister (and mocking Cary Grant’s Transatlantic accent in North by Northwest!). The true (middle class) cops defy both their replacement by the ascent of the black man and their slippage into the African-American’s double: low class white trash. They also dismiss the residual need for an imaginary Britishness as a justification for American racial identity. All bets are off.

This all-male foursome of detectives assuaged anxious male viewers until season two, starring Rachel McAdams as Antigone “Ani” Bezzerides, a Hagakure-reading, knife-wielding detective. Why was this season so despised, mapping, as it did so elegantly, a Chandleresque LA far closer to global reality than the previous season’s Southern Gothic? Did it come too close to the historical real? The brutal deaths of the male detective (Farrell) and the parvenu gangster (Vaughn, who “was drafted,” he tells us, “on the wrong side of a class war”) underscore their failure to reassert either masculinity or class privilege. This loss of privileged whiteness is explicitly evoked both by the mother of a motorcycle cop before he dies (she had told him that his whiteness ought to insure his success in society) and by Farrell’s retired deadbeat-cop father (he tells him that whiteness no longer insures anything as he gets stoned in front of the TV with the drugs his son purloined for him). Vaughn dies at the hands of a Mexican cartel member who stabs him for refusing to hand over his manhood: a classy yet shiny gangster suit. Farrell eventually dies like a dog thanks, in part, to the corruption of a black police chief who once ran black ops for the government (yet another Obama-era paranoia about the formerly despised taking charge of the state). McAdams, on the other hand, frees herself from masculine ego-armor—her defense against childhood abuse—by having an affair with Farrell! It is McAdams and Kelly Reilly who are tasked with communicating closure once the gangster and the detective have been dispatched. They replace the traditional bio-reproductive couple only to disappear with McAdam’s infant into South America (or a Latinized LA à la Elysium [2013]?) protected by one of Vaughn’s goombas. He now obeys Reilly unquestioningly. No wonder angry man-fans disliked this season. White male panic symptomizes itself, in the meantime, by growing more and more irritated over TV serials controlled by what these folk see as an all-too-liberal Hollywood. This irritation can only be increased by a decentered social media that no one can ever hope to control.

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The differences between the two seasons of Fargo did not produce the negative reactions educed by True Detective. The first detailed the struggle of a female Deputy, Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman), to be taken seriously as she seeks to uncover who killed the Police Chief and Pearl, Lester Nygaard’s wife. Solverson corrects, for example, the replacement Chief when he introduces her to Nygaard (Martin Freeman) as “Molly” by stating her official rank: “Deputy.” The plot revolves around Lester’s murder of his wife and the crimes of the hitman who enabled him, Lorne Malvo, played with cool cruelty by Billy Bob Thornton. Lorne Malvo’s masculinity is seamlessly identified with his propensity to murder, mayhem and voyeurism; i.e., he records and re-listens to phone calls from panicked men like Nygaard who he has cajoled into blood-splattering acts of male self-assertion. If Malvo stands in for male viewers hungry to repeatedly re-experience men reasserting themselves, he could not have found a better victim than Lester. We first see him being harassed by Sam Hess (Kevin O’Grady), a bully from high school. Hess bullies him by substituting the African-American slur for his name: Nygaard. It is symptomatically significant that Lester, like the men in True Detective, is suffering from an erosion of masculinity coextensive with the de-privileging of whiteness. Season two reinforces this white male panic by tracking Mike Milligan’s (Bokeem Woodbine) struggle as an African-American gangster in a corporatized mafia—that is, the rise of the black man that threatens to replace his white double by asserting an equal access to social capital.

Fargo is dominated by a paternity in crisis, from Hess’s idiot sons to a supermarket mogul’s imbecilic child. Both the criminal Hess (who runs a trucking business in cahoots with organized crime) and Chaz (Joshua Close; Lester’s more successful brother, as his wife constantly reminds him) frequent strip clubs, omnipresent sites for reasserting a crisis-ridden masculinity. Chaz is also a criminal hiding an illegal machine gun (technically, an LMG) in his garage: a Daewoo K3 Paratrooper! Masculinity is further complicated by race and gender when Chaz tells a business associate how another colleague, Blackman, wanted to enjoy a “blumpkin” from a stripper: a humiliating fetish in which a man receives fellatio while emptying his bowels. The straight white male fears being reduced to an African-American, yet wants to be black while retaining an outdated racial privilege. [8] This desire for a racially regenerated masculinity that the strip club denizens express is exposed, in the end, as an assertive (read: humiliating) fantasy vis-à-vis destabilizing women, as symptomized by Molly, her solv(erson)ing of the case, and her eventual promotion to Police Chief. Fears of gender destabilization are confirmed by the constantly twitchy reactions to Molly’s assertions of agency by an interim Police Chief promoted solely on account of his gender.

The becoming-fragile of traditional maleness in Fargo is catalyzed by racial contradictions. Season two is partially motivated by Milligan’s drive for equality vis-à-vis his white associates. He ends the season by being promoted from street enforcer to a desk in corporate HQ. A highly symptomatic exchange between Molly’s father and grandfather illuminates how white men perceive themselves as having been left behind by Mike Milligan’s social mobility in defiance of the downgrading of his race. Both father figures are war veterans, the older of World War Two and the younger of the Korean War. Pop toys aimlessly with a knotted piece of cord while telling his Korean War story. Grandpa then recounts how he came across a Nazi officer who had hung himself during the mop-up after Normandy, and sums up the difference between the social after-effects of their respective wars: “These days, well … sometimes wonder if you boys didn’t bring that war home with you.” His comment to his son-in-law stresses how the domestic space can no longer be insulated from the libidinal war logistics that World War II kept safely at bay. [9]

Unlike WWII vets—the so-called Greatest Generation—the generations of Korea and Vietnam (Iraq and Afghanistan) lack (comparatively speaking) an approving social consensus regarding their militarized masculinity. The valorization of killing during WWII is, in other words, progressively diluted by less idealizable wars. The massive body counts in Fargo intimate that this desire to kill has returned to the homeland. Yet things get stranger and even more symptomatic insofar as the death-by-hanging that both Molly’s father and grandfather reference is associated with the violent history that systematically oppresses African-Americans like Mike Milligan. When Molly’s father tells Mike that the mob he works for should abandon “this need for conquest, you know, tryin’ to own things that aren’t meant to be owned,” Milligan refuses to be talked down to. He interrupts—“Like people?”—wryly referencing the oppressive social consequences of slavery—to wit, the buying and selling of “people”.

In the same episode in which the conversation between Molly’s fathers occurs, Ed Blumquist (Jesse Plemons) is tasked with effacing the evidence of the murder that his wife Peggy (Kirsten Dunst) half-committed when her car struck a gangster who was fleeing from the triple killing that initiated season two. She does not even remove him from the windshield, preferring to let Ed discover the wounded man in the garage and finish him off. Both are guilty, yet Ed, a butcher by trade, gets assigned the clean-up operation. A song by Burl Ives, “One Hour Ahead of the Posse,” plays as he scrubs away before grinding up the body at the meat shop where he works. Ed is threatened with the same fall away from white privilege as all the other untrue detectives: “We must win the race to the Rio / And we’ll shake that old posse at last.” He fears, in sum, being strung up like a Nygaard as yet another victim of the extra-legal justice and illegal violence that courses through both seasons of Fargo like a river. In fact, the cops barely prevent the local gang from lynching Ed.

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Death-by-hanging is an explicitly rendered motif in season two of Fargo, yet American history reminds us that it is not confined to African-Americans. It is crucial to the Western genre (in True Grit [2010], the native is deprived of the last words that the white criminals enjoy), as well as to the history of violence that Frontier colonization visited on the indigenous populations alluded to by gangland enforcer, Native American, and Vietnam vet Hanzee Dent (Zahn McClarnon). In the meat shop where Ed works we see everyday racism in the form of a cigar store “Indian.” This on-the-nose prop placement connects the masculinizing fetish for meat to the regeneration through violence that is, as Richard Slotkin influentially argues, coextensive with American history; [10] i.e., the uneaten buffaloes that were shot, at times by Westworld-lite tourists from trains, so as to prevent native resistance to colonization. The struggles of Dent and Milligan for equal treatment in Fargo foreground how both blacks and natives are upending racial privilege by refusing the subordinate roles to which white rule relegates them.

Ed dies in the end. He and Peggy lock themselves in a meat freezer (!) in order to evade pursuit by Hanzee Dent. Yet when Molly’s dad arrives to rescue the couple, Peggy fears it is Hanzee. She has, after all, recently seen a TV movie where a Nazi smokes a couple out of hiding. She mistakes a veteran-cum-policeman for a WWII Stormtrooper. This misrecognition symptomizes how warfare has been brought home—pace Molly’s grandfather—by both the Korean War and WWII; say, by Nazi scientists imported into a securitized Cold War state committed to treating its own citizens as enemy combatants, or by the still-current fetish for German Shepherd dogs (as in the recently released K-9 melo, Megan Leavey, “Based on the Story of a Marine’s Best Friend”; 2017). [11] The Nazi who hung himself embodies, in retrospect, this guilt over genocide (Jews and others) that will not go away: Native Americans, buffaloes and other not quite so exterminated victims, i.e., black “people.” As in Stranger Things there is, as will soon become crystal clear, no domestic space that is not a battlefield. War is brought home to roost.

4. Un-Westering Westworld

My analysis of contingent connections such as Blackman-blumpkin in True Detective and Fargo has educed a basic symptom of late capitalism: the desire to “be a man”. In both shows this desire counter-produces fears of being replaced by the formerly abjected racial and gender classifications symptomized by Mike and Molly. Quelle horreur—an interracial coupling! More horror ensues for white-identified viewers, since both Mollies and Mikes are actively arrogating positions of power, literally in the cases of Solverson (the name of the father becoming woman as well as Molly becoming the true “son”) and Milligan, and imaginarily in the case of Hanzee, who becomes boss of the Fargo mob post-facial surgery. Racial abjection augments the realistic anxiety of a petty bourgeois fall into the working class, unleashing a white male panic over lost privileges—i.e., Indians passing as Cowboys.

Westworld is a simulated Wild West theme park where the rich pay exorbitant amounts of money to interact with perfect simulations of human beings. These “hosts” exist for the pleasure of the so-called “guests,” i.e., to be raped and murdered. Westworld is set in a future where material ills are conquered, yet the fragility of masculinity remains unabated. And so men regain a sense of themselves by raping women and killing other men. Female, African-American and Asian guests also partake in these “violent delights” thanks to an equally uneven access to money that allows all to obey the mantra of the Western (for a price): “Be a Man.”

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The credit sequence announces becoming-male as the objective. We see robots and horses being constructed in a futuristic atelier until the credit sequence climaxes with the moving image of a ghostly blonde riding forward firing precisely into the future. We then enter the serial narrative itself, following the blonde’s avatar, Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), as she moves from repeated violations to overcoming the programming that prevents her from using a revolver, an O-so-virulent signifier of maleness. By season’s end she revolts against the corporation that enslaves her, shooting her co-creator and a horde of executives. Maeve (Thandie Newton), a British-African brothel madam, mirrors Dolores’s trajectory by manipulating male technicians into granting her the apparent autonomy that she needs to initiate a general revolt from below, the cataclysm towards which the entire first seasons progresses. She coolly kills and resuscitates one tech as if to prove her absolute sovereignty over life and death. Maeve also relies on stereotypical feminine wiles to outwit male control, yet it is crucial to the plot that she remains motivated by a robotic maternal instinct. She returns to Westworld in the final episode to find her lost child. In declining to escape according to her original plan—in truth, a hidden pre-program that scripted her “apparent” will to revolt—Maeve resists coding in the name of … another code? Westworld undoes the difference, in other words, between genetic human code and a humanizing A.I. code, since both seem to produce illusions (like love) that operate as if they were real fantasy scenarios.  

Unlike Maeve, Dolores realizes that love is a sham. By the end of the season she is (apparently) finally codeless and free. Has she, Lacanians might inquire, traversed the fantasy? The relationship between her and the Man in Black (Ed Harris aka William in the 30 years ago timeline; N.B., the first season follows the travails of William and Dolores in two timelines, until it finally synthesizes present and past) has been incrementally developed over ten episodes only to be violently deconstructed. She now acts solely in the interests of autonomy. The problem is that in becoming a cold, cruel man like the sublime Man in Black, she merely reiterates the regeneratively violent logic of American world-building at work in the Western genre. [12] If the blonde seems to warrant more autonomy than her formerly colonized double, the allegedly progressive future setting of Westworld enables race-blindness. Things come, however, to the same “violent end”: to be a man is to trans-aggressively assert oneself in the abode of death…alone. Class, in conclusion, is taken for granted in the elite Westworld, where the revolting androids form an all-too-easy allegory for a proletarian uprising. Heteronormativity rules, excepting a token lesbian-android hook-up as a lure for the male gaze. Dolores revolts against the misogyny that substructures gender politics, yet queer-blindness is not challenged—that is to say, gays are neither demonized, nor humanized in Westworld. In Stranger Things, in contrast, both occur.

5. The Return of Futures Past

The symptomatic complex mapped by Stranger Things is decidedly different from the shows examined above. This show not only loosens class, race and gender from the double bind or bad infinity of Left-Right ethnonationalism, it also designates the infrastructural technological conditions of possibility for Post-Serial TV’s generation of symptomatic investments in—and resistances to—our capitalist present. It does both these things, as we will now see, by representing our internet-worked present as what it calls the Upside Down. This Vale of Shadows, as it is also named, traverses and transposes their present into ours, enabling Stranger Things to symptomatically register both the “class war” undergirding a familial social order and the desires that queer this gendered order beyond recognition.

The plot revolves around the abduction of Will Byers (Noah Schnapp)—one of four puberty-aged friends, Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), Mike (Finn Wolfhard), and Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo)—into the parallel universe of the Upside Down by a monster that must be hunted down and killed by an army of investigators: cops, feds, the male kids, a teen couple, and Will’s mother. Lucas is African-American, yet this is a race-blind or uncommented fact except when he is equally bullied alongside his friends by being called “Midnight.” Class and gender, on the other hand, reveal Will to be a true stranger on both levels.

The season begins and ends in Mike’s suburban home. His household contains an older sister, Nancy, a befuddled father (“This is our government. They’re on our side”) and a mother who desperately wants to understand her children: “You don’t have to hide….” Lucas and Dustin inhabit the same undivorced middle class space as Mike. Will, in the meanwhile, lives with Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), his outsider brother, and a skittish single mother suffering from “anxiety problems.” The mother, Joyce (portrayed by Winona Ryder) accentuates maternal pathology due to Ryder’s well-publicized issues with depression, low-grade criminality and pharmaceutical abuse. When Will leaves Mike’s family and the suburb where his friends reside he is chased into his dilapidated residence and abducted in a scene echoing the X-Files (1993-). Neither his mother nor his brother are home, as if in keeping with the aperçu that “all the family ties among the proletarians are torn asunder.” [13]

Will is also—as his mother informs Sheriff Jim Hopper (David Harbour), an untrue detective who has also lost a child and a marriage—upside down on the level of gender. He is “queer” or “not like most,” and the other kids “make fun of his clothes.” Class, poverty and gender stigmatize Will, yet he is able to evade the monster in the ghostly, ectoplasm-webbed double of their small town because he is, as his brother tells us, “good at hiding.”

Will must, like the older teen couple (Nancy and Jonathan), hide his emergent sexuality from inquisitorial parents. Mike must also hide his puppy love for Eleven (or 11, played by Millie Bobby Brown) from his parents, a telekinetically endowed girl who has also escaped from a shadowy government research center along with the monster that she released from being Upside Down. So too when Nancy (Natalia Dyer) loses her virginity to an upper middle class boy, she tells her mother that “nothing happened” … twice. Nancy’s sexual transgression leads, in keeping with the horror genre, to the second abduction. Her awkward and queer (according to internet fan-dom) friend Barb (Shannon Purser) must pay the price for Nancy having sex.

Will likes stranger things than the norm permits, as we learn when his Peeping Tom brother—who also prefers the perverse; i.e., photographing rather than interacting with people—tells him that it is OK to like things other than the baseball games to which his estranged Dad drags him. Will concurs. His favorite song on the mixtape that his nonconformist brother gives him is The Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go.” He has wanted to escape a depleted working class domesticity for a while now, which is why the monster comes for him. Will’s queer sexuality invited it in, as Barb’s not-quite-right desire arguably did as well. The season ends with the Upside Down still alive in Will in spite of his literal rescue from the place standing in for unconscious drives. The Other Side enables, in sum, the activation and secret enjoyment of strange desires, although not for Barb. Fan-dom chatter remains, however, adamant that she will be resurrected, as if testifying to an internet-torqued desire for stranger modes of being-driven.

Stranger Things is lovingly retro, from soundtrack gems (Corey Hart’s “Sunglasses at Night,” Toto’s supremely cheesy “Africa”), to original music by period-era synthesizer fetishist-band Survive, the Stephen King font and an OCD-focus on props, clothes and styles. Given this obsessive retro-fetishism, one way into the series is to ask what sticks out as part of our present rather than theirs? What materialist condition of possibility brings the series into our historical real?

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6. “It’s the Internet, Stupid!”

It is the Upside Down as a stand-in for an internet where children and adolescents can pursue hidden desires outside parental control—where they can “Binge on Demand” and binge on their unconscious binging via identity-world-building websites. This pursuit makes the real world into a spectral, abject waste—IRL—especially if the ultraviolent Dark Web is added to the infrastructural politico-economic mix. Will’s lack of a father seems to enable his desire to “go now” or to “stay” away from the insistent demand that he “be a man.”  He is unlike gunfighter Nancy, who heeds this paternal demand when she commandeers Jonathan’s father’s pistol from the male teen. He is literally a nancy-boy or a molly (read: Johnny Depp/River Phoenix) who must content himself with a camera, or a merely male gaze. Yet this becoming-man is as frustrating to her as it is for Gillian Anderson’s Detective Superintendent, Stella Gibson, in The Fall.  Nancy ends up renouncing her class-&-gender transgressing attraction to Jonathan, preferring to remain with the asinine upper middle class Tom Cruise-type. Gillian remains fallen, or as lonely as Philip Marlowe in the final pages of a Chandler novel. The final episode of the series (so far) closes with Stella ensconced in her tony London apartment, staring at a biblical phrase scrawled on a monetary note, arbiter of capitalist alienation: “He who loves not abides in death.”

More anachronizing symptoms continue to invite the 80s into the present in Stranger Things. Canned news about Syria and Lebanon drones on when Eleven turns on the TV. She switches the channel to a Coke ad. There is no way out of identity-consumption in the surveillance state, a state of things that is emphasized by the Sheriff’s true paranoia about his house being bugged, or by the black ops murder of a local man who shelters Eleven. The post-WWII militarization of everyday life makes citizens expendable. It “draft[s]” us all into what Vince Vaughn calls a “class war” in True Detective, a world-girdling war that is, as our actual present reminds us, just beginning to pick up steam.

Lucas references the immediately commodified resistance to empire in Star Wars (1977) as well as to the everyday war it elicits. He also indexes the white fear that black people only pass as middle class—being, in truth, a fifth column dedicated to undoing white privilegeas is witnessed by Dustin’s obsession with the black Lando Calrissian’s (Billy Dee Williams) betrayal of the good cause in The Return of the Jedi (1983). Most symptomatically, the kid encrypts ‘Nam, as is evident when Dustin jokes that Lucas may have family in a nearby psychiatric institute. An uncle who never got over his Vietnam PTSD? Unknown. What is visible is Lucas’s access to Vietnam-era paraphernalia like binoculars and an army knife. He wears a camouflage headband and is the most militarized of the foursome, performing a solo reconnaissance mission that allows him to warn the others that the kill squads are coming. The posse is thereby able to bike away to safety in imitation of the kids in E.T. (1982). In the digitally updated version of that movie Spielberg replaces, however, the bad men’s guns with walkie-talkies. Contra this revisionism, the militarized Lucas uses a slingshot reminiscent of resistance from below, from the biblical David to present-day Palestine. Vietnam trauma lives on as a fillip to government control.

Lucas’s unconscious drive for (racial) justice supplements white-identified fears of being (justly) sidelined by linking up with revolutionary drives to undo the gender and class oppression typified by the familial order that domesticates Will, Nancy, Barb and Jonathan into obedient pets. This drive arises from compulsions of which the race-blind Lucas is unaware, thereby preventing him from projecting fantasmic demands onto an ego-confirming Other. The contrast with the other shows I have dissected is clear. If the patriarchal family is torn asunder in True Detective, it returns shot to hell and riddled with cancer in Fargo’s second season. “You’re a good man” recurs as a refrain in a reconstituted social domain in which Molly’s adopted daughter is treated like a dog, or a bad robot: “Good girl”.

In Stranger Things, the symptoms of late capitalism are weirder, yet both Will and Nancy prefer to hide rather than act, to “stay” and not to “go”: to act out and then deny (Nancy), or closet (Will), their desire to be, or not be, a “man.” Eleven, a veritable kickass action heroine in the making akin to Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in the Alien series (1979-), exorcises the monster only to remain in hiding in the final scene. Her mutant status makes her an encrypted X-Men-(2000-)code (i.e., the binary “11”) for the revolution that Westworld’s androids recently dreamed-uploaded into the historical real—a mutant revolution that overleaps the human via the becoming-one of genetic and computational codes that I referred to during my reading of Westworld. How will these intersections play out? We will have to wait and see before binging, once more, on demand. This binging is not, in sum, controlled by the ego, but marks the striation of the subject by drives lurking outside the capitalist overcoding of consciousness, temporality and media consumption in the Upside Down, Dark Web, or Other Side: Vales of Shadow.

The drive, after all, “‘Presses ever forward unsubdued’ …. ”. [14] Servicing the demand of an inexistent Other depends—It Follows—on the drives that impel this fantasmic desire to be true to one’s ego. Yet the historical shift I have called (Post)-Serial TV also solicits internet-worked drives that insist on the destitution of the fantasy of being-a-man that both males and females simulate in and out of the closet. If “Act Unconsciously” is an apt epitaph-graph of a libidinal politics today, it might be because the power of the drive compels you.  

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Works Cited

[1] On the problematic category “Quality TV” in relation to HBO, see the following essays and the edited collection in which both are included:

McCabe, Janet and Akass, Kim. “It’s Not TV, It’s HBO Original Programming,” in It’s Not TV: Watching HBO in the Post-television Era. Eds. Marc Leverette, Brian L. Ott, and Cara Louise Buckley. New York: Routledge, 2008. 83-93.

Santo, Avi. “Para-television and Discourses of Distinction: The Culture of Production at HBO,” in It’s Not TV: Watching HBO in the Post-Television Era. Eds. Marc Leverette, Brian L. Ott, and Cara Louise Buckley. New York: Routledge, 2008. 19-45.

[2] See “Power and Peril in the Serial-Queen Melodrama,” 221-262, in Singer (210). Singer, Ben. Melodrama and Modernity: Early Sensational Cinema and its ContextsNew York: Columbia UP, 2001.

[3] On “Netflix as media form and business model designed to accommodate the way consumption and identity construction are tied together in contemporary capitalism,” see: Jenner, Mareike. “Is this TV IV? On Netflix, TV III and Binge-Watching,” New Media & Society 18.2 (2016): 257-273.

[4] The effectivity of advertising in a “‘screenager’” attention economy, where adolescents multi-screen content (mobile, television, pad, etc.) remains a weakness in this revenue model, yet the colonization of a de facto limited attention span is currently being extended to children for whom ADHD is now the norm. Enter our new version of the electronic babysitter—virtual zombification—it lives! See: Matrix, Sidneyeve. “The Netflix Effect: Teens, Binge Watching, and On-Demand Media Trends,” Jeunesse: Young People, Texts Cultures 6.1 (2014): 119-137.

[5] “[C]ontemporary media platforms actively solicit an individualized, fragmented, and empowered media consumer, one who has greater control over when, where, and how she watches movies and television shows. However, this offer of liberation from the viewing schedule is often accompanied by increased surveillance, giving studios, streaming video services, and social media companies more precise information for their efforts to market directly to those individualized viewers […] Still, the enduring perception was that digital delivery provided users with more choices and more flexibility in consuming media content. But in fact, a number of real restrictions and limitations determined when and where users could access movies.” Tryon, Chuck. On-Demand Culture: Digital Delivery and the Future of Movies. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2013, pp. 14, 40.

[6] Tomšič, Samo. The Capitalist Unconscious: Marx and Lacan. New York: Verso, 2015, pp. 44, 123.

[7] “Capital, self-valorizing value, has no intrinsic limit […] If the capitalist merely executes the logic of capital, then it is not he, but rather capital, self-valorizing value, that is the ‘subject’ of the process. Marx refers to capital in this regard as the ‘automatic subject’….” Heinrich, Michael. An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital. Trans. Alexander Locascio. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2004, pp. 104, 89.  

[8]  On this desire to be the White Negro see: Crouch, Stanley. The Artificial White Man: Essays on Authenticity. New York: Civitas, 2005.

[9] In mainstream mythography at least; cf. Aaron Skabelund’s symptomatic reading of the 1944 movie, My Pal, Wolf, where support for the war by the domestic population, especially children, is mobilized by a “tearful little girl … send[ing] her beloved German Shepherd dog, Wolf, to serve his country,” a self-sacrificial, government-sanctioned practice that characterized both American and Japanese war mobilization: “a New York Times reviewer observed the ‘drama not only brings the war into the home but drags it right into the nursery’” (2014, 128). Skabelund also notes how the post-WWII movie The Courage of Lassie (1946) engaged (what we would call) PTSD in returning soldiers by displacing it onto traumatized dogs, a displacement currently occurring in Max (2015), and the direct-to-stream, domestically-targeted Max 2: White House Hero (2017). Skabelund, Aaron. “Breeding Racism: The Imperial Battlefields of the ‘German’ Shepherd Dog.” Society and Animals 16.4 (2008): 354-371. Skabelund, Aaron.  “Dogs at War: Military Dogs in Film,” in Cinematic Canines: Dog and Their Work in the Fiction Film. Ed. Adrienne L. McLean. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2014. 123-142.

[10] Slotkin, Richard. Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1973.
Slotkin, Richard.
Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993.

[11] Post-WWII security = a Civil War contra Civil Rights: “Tacitus’s state had been founded upon civil wars and it treated its citizens as defeated combatants” (Tuck 16); cf. Luftwaffe interrogator Hanns Scharff, a still active influence on American torture techniques. Scharff became an American citizen and went on to design a Cinderella mosaic for Disney World, Orlando. His mosaic company remains fully operational. Tuck, Richard. The Rights of War and Peace: Political Thought and the International Order from Grotius to Kant. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
See Skabelund on the persistence of Nazi myths in Amerika (sic; the initial name of Hitler’s personal train as well as a relevant Rammstein song) via the German Shepherd (2014, 137-8; 2008), as well as my Bio-Politicizing Cary Grant: Pressing Race, Class and Ethnicity into Service in “Amerika”. Winchester, UK: Zero Books, 2015, pp. 24-32.

[12]  See Slotkin’s Regeneration Through Violence. 

[13] Marx, Karl and Engel, Friedrich. The Communist Manifesto. [1850-1888] Trans. L. M. Findley. Peterborough, ON: Broadview, 2004, pp. 78-79.

[14]. Goethe, Faust, 1.4; cited in Freud, Sigmund. Beyond the Pleasure Principle. [1920] Trans. and Ed. James Strachey. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1989, p. 51.

 

 

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