"Network" and Our Current Epistemic Crisis

Sidney Lumet’s 1976 masterpiece Network (written by Paddy Chayefsky) remains one of the most prescient and chilling films in American cinematic history. Everyone on this site — and presumably the vast majority of sentient Americans — is well familiar with the cri de coeur of “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” uttered by Howard Beale, one of the film’s protagonists, played brilliantly anda with extreme pathos by Peter Finch. That Network, for me, is the most memorable film of 1976 is saying something — it was the most incredible year in the history of American film, producing Scorsese’s seminal Taxi Driver (my favorite film of all time), Rocky, All the President’s Men, Carrie, David Lynch’s Eraserhead, and The Omen.

What the best of these films evidenced — Network, Taxi Driver, and All the President’s Men in particular — was an epistemic break that resulted directly from the mid-70s breakdown in order due to the end of Vietnam, Watergate, the oil shock, Middle Eastern turmoil, and stagflation. This break created the space for gritty, shocking, and truth-telling films such as these to reach an audience that might not have been receptive to their subversion just a few years before. Contrast the content of those films with the popular cinematic response of our era to its crises — a retreat into the fantasy worlds of Tolkien, Rowling, and countless superheroes. That, however, is another topic for another time.

Network, in contrast to the nihilistic violence of Taxi Driver and the explicitly political intrigue of All the President’s Men, illuminated the ferment of post-Watergate America obliquely, through an institution which by that point had come to define an era: the news media. I won’t bother summarizing the film’s plot — you can look it up on Wikipedia, or better yet, watch it (it’s streaming on Netflix now). What Network is about, however, is the eerie and almost grotesque manner in which the news media distorts facts, exploits spectacle, and revels in crisis for its own sake to drive up ratings and ensnare unwitting viewers.

Beale’s famous “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore” rant, therefore, places the viewer (both the current viewer of the film, and the fictional viewer of the UBS Evening News in the film) in a double bind that illuminates the manner in which our contemporary media functions. On the one hand, Beale’s impassioned rant is just that — a holy lambasting of the corruption that ran rampant throughout all strata of the mid-70s power elite leading to a system-wide rot and apathetic resignation:

I don’t have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. It’s a depression. Everybody’s out of work or scared of losing their job. The dollar buys a nickel’s worth; banks are going bust; shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter; punks are running wild in the street, and there’s nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do, and there’s no end to it.

We know the air is unfit to breathe and our food is unfit to

eat. And we sit watching our TVs while some local newscaster tells us that today we had fifteen homicides and sixty-three violent crimes, as if that’s the way it’s supposed to be!

We all know things are bad — worse than bad — they’re crazy. It’s like everything everywhere is going crazy, so we don’t go out any more. We sit in the house, and slowly the world we’re living in is getting smaller, and all we say is, “Please, at least leave us alone in our living rooms. Let me have my toaster and my TV and my steel-belted radials, and I won’t say anything. Just leave us alone.”

Well, I’m not going to leave you alone.

I want you to get mad!

Those are words meant to vilify utterly the complaisance of a society that had lost its political and ethical moorings, to rouse it into action of some sort, or at least into active consideration of the surrounding world. On the other hand, however, Beale’s explosion into the nation’s popular consciousness provides precisely the vehicle by which programming director Diana Christiansen (Faye Dunaway) latches on to the idea of exploiting the spectacle of Beale to revive UBS’s flagging ratings. One can’t raise one’s fist in the air and shout with Beale without the concomitant awareness that doing so exacerbates precisely the problem that Beale inveighed against — the disconnect between the opinion-making elite and its audience. This double bind is alive and well on both sides of the political spectrum today — I hardly need name names, but we’re all aware that all three major networks make use of spectacle and bombast to drive ratings. This elevation of spectacle above substance is a primary contributing factor to this strange epistemic relativism prevalent (primarily, though not exclusively, on the right) in contemporary America, where facts are a matter of opinion and reality a matter of preference.

Far less recognized, though equally important in terms of Network’s enduring cultural significance, is the speech delivered by Chairman of the CCA (the conglomerate that acquires UBS) Board Arthur Jensen to Beale toward the film’s end. Beale has just learned that a deal is in the works for an even larger Saudi Arabian conglomerate to buy out CCA, and in a nod to anti-Arab hysteria of the OPEC crisis days, Beale launches into a tirade at the close of one of his (much revamped for maximum entertainment value) shows to implore his audience to write or telegram the White House to stop the CCA deal. Jensen, incensed, summons Beale to a dramatically darkened board room to preach his “corporate cosmology”:

You have meddled with the primal forces of nature, Mr. Beale, and I won’t have it!! Is that clear?! You think you’ve merely stopped a business deal. That is not the case. The Arabs have taken billions of dollars out of this country, and now they must put it back! It is ebb and flow, tidal gravity! It is ecological balance!

You are an old man who thinks in terms of nations and peoples. There are no nations. There are no peoples. There are no Russians. There are no Arabs. There are no third worlds. There is no West. There is only one holistic system of systems, one vast and immane, interwoven, interacting, multivariate, multinational dominion of dollars. Petro-dollars, electro-dollars, multi-dollars, reichmarks, rins, rubles, pounds, and shekels.

It is the international system of currency which determines the totality of life on this planet. That is the natural order of things today. That is the atomic and subatomic and galactic structure of things today! And YOU have meddled with the primal forces of nature, and YOU WILL ATONE!

Am I getting through to you, Mr. Beale?

You get up on your little twenty-one inch screen and howl about America and democracy. There is no America. There is no democracy. There is only IBM and ITT and AT&T and DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide, and Exxon. Those are the nations of the world today.

What do you think the Russians talk about in their councils of state — Karl Marx? They get out their linear programming charts, statistical decision theories, minimax solutions, and compute the price-cost probabilities of their transactions and investments, just like we do.

We no longer live in a world of nations and ideologies, Mr. Beale. The world is a college of corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable bylaws of business. The world is a business, Mr. Beale. It has been since man crawled out of the slime. And our children will live, Mr. Beale, to see that perfect world in which there’s no war or famine, oppression or brutality — one vast and ecumenical holding company, for whom all men will work to serve a common profit, in which all men will hold a share of stock, all necessities provided, all anxieties tranquilized, all boredom amused.

The news media from which most of us derive most of our information on a daily basis is an integral cog in this machine — owned by those international corporations, the media and the corporate oligarchy exist both to tranquillize and titillate those anxieties, amuse that boredom, and to keep the news “consumer” fixed upon the spectacle and the Potemkin democracy in which we are taught to believe. Anyone who watched the manufactured debt ceiling crisis couldn’t help but notice this dynamic in action — very few could elucidate the underlying macroeconomic issues, but the framing of Obama v. Boehner, or corporate Republicans v. Tea Party, or corporate Democrats v. progressives will be sure to produce some knowing nods.

Jensen’s speech — even despite the Soviet and linear programming references — has aged remarkably well, at least as well as Beale’s. The two combine to illuminate a key contributing factor to the current democratic and fiduciary crisis in which we find ourselves. And — spoiler alert — all too fitting that the film ends with Beale agreeing to air Jensen’s viewpoint. UBS finds his ratings plummeting, and, in the ultimate triumph of pure spectacle, Christiansen arranges for Beale to be assassinated on air. All for the sake of higher ratings.

(Cross-posted at DailyKos.com)

(and for some reason, the color doesn’t match my usual color scheme… haven’t been able to figure out what’s up with that)

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~ by Benji on 6 August 2011.

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