Robert Goldman, HEGEMONY AND MANAGED CRITIQUE IN PRIME-TIME TELEVISION: A Critical Reading of "Mork and Mindy". Reprinted from Theory & Society, 11 (May 1982): pp.363-388, Part 4.
Popular Cultural Criticism

Recent critical analyses have demonstrated that the cultural products transmitted via television are not value-free, but rather tap dominant cultural assumptions that shape our understandings of work, leisure, sexuality, political economy, and history.23 "The media are constantly producing packages for consciousness," and this packaging carries multiple layers of coded messages.24 Historically, the messages packaged by television have resonated with the political project of corporate capitalism. By and large, the messages disseminated by television have assisted in structuring an understanding of "social reality" consonant with the goal of maintaining the corporate status quo. At the same time, television has also borne a more dissident tradition. Shows such as The Smothers Brothers, M*A *S*H, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, and Saturday Night Live have briefly challenged and poked fun at prevailing ideologies and the dominant approaches to packaging consciousness. The very existence of these shows is testimony of the cultural contradictions that shape and are shaped by television. Those who construct the M & M series see it as encompassing "social commentary". Included among their targets have been the power and authority of professional expertise; the predominance of technocratic logic; fundamentalist religion, television evangelism, and the secular religion of professional spectator sports; est and other pop philosophies and psychologies that masquerade as commodity solutions to alienation and anxiety; commodity fetishism and consumerism; ageism; discrimination against women in labor markets; racism and bigotry; bureaucratic irrationality and hospital care; the instrumentalism of the greeting card industry; the nuclear power industry and the concealment of radiation dangers; and the oil corporations. Their commentary has also taken the form of a quasi-populist criticism of politics, the presidency, dishonesty, the formalism of democracy, and banks.25

Treatment of these targets is often inconsistent, for the show's writers are doubtlessly less concerned with presenting a unified perspective than with drawing attention to the ridiculous, the absurd, and the irrational in modern social life. Mork provides a hedonistic, anarchist philosophy, a penchant for oppositional inversions, and an alternative language of rationality to the instrumental rationality of the market, bureaucratic structure, and modern science. Mindy, on the other hand, is consistently the voice of Western reason speaking in the interest of order, benevolent paternalism, competitive individualism, and bourgeois morality. To confuse matters more, Mindy's liberalism qua humanism is a contradictory amalgam of the hackneyed defense of endangered bourgeois institutions plus a humanism that extols the virtues of a nonsexist, nonracist society. Mindy never raises the subject of social problems, but reacts to them with the constricted vision of her class or with superficial humanist pleas against the irrationality of the socioeconomic world. The conflict between these two positions is exemplified in an episode dealing with children's rights and the legitimacy of parental authority. In the episode, Eugene runs away from home "because of my mother, she acts like she owns me." Mork takes seriously Eugene's account of parental domination, whereas Mindy defends the benevolence of paternalism - parents are simply doing what is best for children, although children are frequently incapable of recognizing this. When Mindy attempts to take Eugene home to this parents, Mork intervenes.

Mork: No, no! (Grabs arm of Eugene and pulls him away from Mindy.) You're not going to take him back to that tyrant. I grant him parental asylum.

Mork and Eugene: (Chanting with clenched fists upraised)

Hell no. We won't go. Hell no. We won't go.

Historical interpretation of this joke reveals that the audience's capacity to laugh at it is based on their grasp of 1) the political content of the concept of asylum as an escape from tyranny and 2) the resistance to authority signified by the gesture of the raised fist and the chant associated with the opposition and resistance to the Vietnam War. Whereas this appears as a statement of defiance toward the hegemonic notion of parental authority, it is a gesture of stereotyped defiance that the audience is not expected to take too seriously (because both Mork and Eugene are depicted as childlike). In the course of the narrative Mork directs the wedding of Eugene and Holly (not only are two children married together, but one is Black and one White) so that they may seek a "better world" in which fun reigns supreme. When Mindy discovers what he has done, she tells Mork that it is illegal for children to marry, to which Mork responds "I bet no ten-year-old voted for that law." At this point the children reappear, sick from overindulging in candy. The negative consequences of opposing parental authority are now apparent and Mindy takes this opportunity to mount her final attack, "See, their parents never would have let this happen. Parents teach children valuable lessons." At this juncture, it has been made clear that Mork naively misunderstood the nature of parental authority, but the scene concludes with Mork's anarchist spirit unbroken, "You mean, like don't kiss a moody rhinoceros on the lips... don't spit into a tornado." Yet, in his report to Ork, Mork puckishly extols the virtues of motherhood. Because Mork's "alienness" gets consistently tied to his childlike naiveté, his alternative mode of critique can be trivialized in the end as innocent wisdom tarnished by another trait of children, unthinking impulsivity.

A theme linking many of the episodes is presented via the biographical development of Mork, and pivots about the supposed absence of emotions in those from Ork. Orkans have evolved their cerebral skills (principally the mastery of nature through science) at the cost of the elimination of emotions and sensual gratifications. Out of this premise emerges a crude version of the Weberian thesis, familiar to those who follow science fiction. Unchecked, the implications of total scientific hegemony - with its dictates of efficiency, control, and predictability - are inversely related to an antiseptic distillation of the human spirit from the species. The quest for total control over nature through science and technology entails the rationalization of each and every aspect of social life, including the self. This theme is pursued, for example, through antitechnocratic jokes about Mork as a test-tube baby. This is pursued repeatedly in assertions about the species-need to both have and be parents. And, suffering the pangs of rejection Mork assumes a quasi fetal position, crying "back to the tube". Detached from his own natural origins and subordinate to a technicist hegemony, man becomes distanced from the roots and forces of his own active self. Man's identity is denied when science cuts away species-being and with it such things as the Oedipal complexes. Mork delights in "re"-discovering a primordial sense of guilt and its dialectical relationship to pleasure. Mork, however, is anything but a representative of the "iron cage". In contrast to the "disenchantment of the world," Mork's attitude is similar to that of the American Indian who spoke, "I am brother to the river." He re-enchants the world. Repeatedly Mork engages in relationships with inorganic objects, establishing a vital relation with his environment. In this sense, again, the show poses a challenge to the framework of Western reason, just as it does when Mork articulates the perspective of Gestalt or Zen. The underlying principles of totality or yin and yang or dialectics are subversive of the prevailing categories of Western reason. In one episode, influenced by the perspective of Gestalt, Mork dances a ballet of the self. This dance of the simultaneous and multileveled emotional configurations that compose Mork's persona permits Mork's archetypes to challenge aloud their repression: "behind the aesthetic form lies the repressed harmony of sensuousness and reason - the eternal protest against the organization of life by the logic of domination, the critique of the performance principle."26

A recurrent theme revolves around loneliness and the concomitant lack of trust that our society engenders. The overwhelming message seems to be that we have a basic need for "otherness"; in the absence of that otherness or relatedness the self becomes shriveled or distorted. This scenario of intense individuation and the subsequent estrangement from self and others is presented in a variety of ways. In the commentary that concludes one episode, Mork observes that loneliness may be anticipated in a society that counsels its children not to speak to strangers, prohibits speaking to those next to you in both school and work, and attaches stigma to those who openly speak to themselves. Alternatively, he contends that the development of the self requires interaction with others in an atmosphere of trust. This is highlighted in an episode satirizing singles bars. The show depicts singles bars as fraudulent insofar as they proffer an "instant intimacy" that rests on a series of deceits and surface appearances instead of on trust or openness of expression. The theme of trust versus loneliness is also pursued through confrontations with the misanthropic neighbor, Bickley. Bickley represents the intensely lonely, isolated individual in mass society. Ironically, Bickley writes greeting and sympathy cards, an occupation that superficially seems to denote concern for others. This attack on the manipulative instrumentalism of the greeting card industry also demonstrates the way in which expressions of otherness are depersonalized, standardized, and confined to market, exchange relations. Repressed in his need for otherness, resolutely antisocial because of his fear of rejection (which translates into dependency on alcohol), Bickley emerges as a caricature of the debilitating effects of total privatization. Set against this description of the problem, the suggested remedies are, once again, banal and simplistic. "Personal crises" such as Bickley's loneliness can be solved by giving him a pet to care for. This solution is little different than that offered by the cloying bathos of Bickley's greeting cards.

An almost perverse obsession with self that has become common in advanced capitalist society27 is presented via the character of Susan. Susan is the personification of both narcissism (she flaunts her "numero uno" necklace and declares her love for herself) and the shallowness of the commodity self (she is literally nothing more than an agglomeration of fetishized component parts, each an extension of a consumable product). Her model for relation. ships is the marketlike exchange of self qua commodity. This characterization of Susan permits further criticism of the ideology and cult of consumption in an episode on Christmas. The economism and consumerism of Christmas are detailed via Mork's failure as a Christmas shopper and his subsequent creative construction of Christmas presents for his friends. "Homemade" (Mork) is contrasted against "store-bought" (Susan) and the notion of brotherly love depicted as an increasingly hollow vehicle subordinated to the demands of the market. The show attempts to debunk this secularized ideology of Christmas spirit, i.e., the more you care about somebody the more expensive the store-bought gift.28 M & M's handling, in its second year, of the issue of consumerism illustrates the manner in which critique is softened and partially canceled by a reformist political stance that derives from an acceptance of the underlying principles of liberal hegemony. In an episode lampooning consumerism and television advertising, advertising is compared to the "invasion of the mind snatchers" in its ability to "control us" - Through the device of Mork's nightmarish dream we are brought face to face with the mindless consumerism and conformism generated by "Friendly Persuasion". Consumerism promises to confer on the individual a world in which fear and anxiety are abolished and personal problems solved through acts of consumption. Indeed, as Mork is beckoned into the "promised land" of the television screen he is informed that "for every problem there is a solution, or a gel." This critique culminates with illustrations of the types of sales pitches employed to secure compliance and integration: corporate paternalism; fear of social ostracism; the promise of libidinal gratification. But, what is the solution to Mork's nightmare? Enter Mindy and the voice of liberal reform espousing individualized consumer reform: equal parts utilitarianism and the exercise of the individual will. The problem of unnecessary consumption is dissolved by an appeal to utilitarian values and to will-power. 29 The conclusion (solution) effectively dissolves the critique.

A view of social relations as the constant, anxious quest for validation of an always stylized, and hence precarious, self-image constructed around market-like exchanges in the currency of "looks" is pursued in an episode lampooning Werner Erhard and est-like commercial pop psychologies. As a parody of est, ERK (Ellsworth Revitalization Konditioning) espouses a philosophy of self-adoration while promising the elimination of emotional highs and lows. Achievement of this goal depends, claims Ellsworth, on "finding our own space". "Finding our own space is the commodity sold by Ellsworth as a means toward healing the unhappy self. The episode caricatures commodified privatism as a warped mode of self-development in which self-other problems are supposedly resolved via the exclusionary occupation of an intensely individuated emotional space. Like est, ERK also endorses submission to the "humiliation and abuse" of the authoritarian leader as a legitimate therapeutic device for solving personal problems. Ellsworth is depicted as greedy, manipulative, hypocritical, and callous, whereas his followers are shown as indiscriminant consumers passively seeking commodified panaceas for their personal troubles. The episode carries a moment of middle-class moral indignation as it lays bare the deceitful and authoritarian features of this con-man's approach to problem-solving.

But, in spite of the episode's sometimes penetrating assault on the "currency of appearances" and the empty, superficial lifestyle that it begets, the core assumptions of liberal hegemony remain untouched and intact. Indeed, those very assumptions define ERK as a vulgar form of commercialism (akin to gossip tabloids, trash sports, or even pornography), the germ of which is external to the structure of liberal capitalism. The problem is greed, and the problem is Ellsworth - he is one slick and greasy dude. As the self-help entrepreneur, Ellsworth is portrayed as a walking collection of lifestyle-status points and sign-values ("I've got my Rolls-Royce!"). Conspicuous consumption and commodity fetishism define his personality. He instrumentally reduces those attending his session to body and commodity counts and he speaks in a starkly reifying language that transforms all relations and processes into things. Susan, Ellsworth's most ardent devotee, is already familiar to the viewer as the skin-encapsulated ego whose relations with others are conditioned by pecuniary values and the currency of her commodity-self. Each of them performs the "you're number one" ideology in a fashion that is designed to make clear to the audience the "distasteful" consequences of putting this ideology into practice. However, "only the most stereotyped characters are deemed to 'register' on the audience, and their slant (the pushing of a certain position) embedded in character, is almost always simplistic and thin."30 By identifying crass materialism and the currency of appearances exclusively through the characters of Ellsworth and Susan, the episode divorces the criticism of manipulative social relations and the commercial exploitation of personal problems from the institutional structures that produce these phenomena. Indeed, in the end, Ellsworth's tyranny, selfishness, open greed, and flaunting of the accoutrements of his vulgar money-making (gained at the expense of those who trusted him) are vanquished by Mork's championing of liberal humanist values - "to thine own self be true."

A Stunted Dialectic of Managed Critique