Tuesday, June 1, 2010

On the Productive Errors of Professor Larry Ribstein

Every so often you run across a goofy idea. It’s rarer that you read a goofy idea, expounded at length, by (what seems to be) a tenured professor in an actual publication. So it is with Professor Larry E. Ribstein, who has written a law review article arguing that we can blame films for the financial crisis.

To be fair, his point is considerably different than the usual interpretation of the sentence above—what he means is that films are responsible for the perception of the economic crisis as a specifically financial one. Let’s turn over the floor to what he thinks:

Narrative makes sense out of reality and can forcefully persuade listeners to a particular point of view. Artists in general have a narrative of business which springs from their belief that at least some aspects of business are antithetical to art. Filmmakers add to this a resentment of the constraints capital places on their art. Film is particularly persuasive because of its vivid images and because of the consistency of filmmakers’ anti-capitalist perspective on business. Filmmakers’ negative portrayal of capitalists has helped to prepare the public to believe that capitalists – and not government, economic cycles, greedy people or business generally – caused the financial crisis. This will help the public accept a regulatory agenda built on this premise, specifically including the regulation of hedge funds.

The article has so many odd, questionable assertions in it that I felt really compelled to showcase them…and laugh at them for no other reason than this is a reasonably important human being who appears obsessed by the idée fixe that those dastardly films/novels/narrative pieces are deceiving us, the common folk, into hating Wall Street when we really shouldn’t be. (Ultimately, I think the issue he raises is interesting, but we’ll get to that when we get to that.)

So, narratives create popular perception create regulation. And the narratives are against capitalists and business, says Ribstein:
…it is not the corporation that resists narratives, but the storytellers themselves. Since millions of people spend most of their waking hours inside firms, something interesting must be happening there. Why should artists be able to peer into all corners of the world except this one? Surely not just because artists are not themselves business people, since they are also not most of the other things they write about.
The problem is that artists see business as anti-art. Artists, like the rest of us, must trade self-expression for wages. Artists want to produce high art while the non-expert public demands low art. Although non-artists face similar choices between economic and psychic income, artists imagine that their selves are worth more than those of mere mortals who play golf or watch football rather than enrich global cultural life. They also see business people as forcing the dismal choice between art and money by helping create our mundane commercial wants.

We have a few tropes here: one, the idea that artists avoid narratives about corporate life. But as far as I can tell, people think this about just about everything: people have accused American narrative artists of being unable to write political fiction, of being unable to portray religious people, of Mormons, of people outside New York or Los Angeles…and they’re all right! Every time you hear a criticism about narrative art that attempts to identify a particular trend (e.g. artists can’t write about the joys of cooking pasta), ask yourself this question: is the real reason because most novels/movies/TV shows suck? About 90% of the time (very scientific estimate), it is! So it is with this case: most novelists don’t seem to be able to do a very good job with corporations because…most novelists don’t seem to be able to do a very good job, period. But there are examples of business life being depicted in narrative art with subtlety and empathy: for example, the very excellent Then We Came To The End.

The other dominant trope here is that of the arrogant artist: they think they’re soooo coool. And it’s true! Artists do think they’re soooo coooll! But guess what? Most people think that about themselves. The author provides no special justification why artists think this especially about themselves (he acknowledges it: “non-artists face similar choices between economic and psychic income”), and defaults to prejudice rather than actual fact.

Speaking of prejudice rather than actual fact:
Artists’ disdain for business is not the only possible view. Indeed, businesspeople might credibly claim moral superiority. After all, business is about helping others to express themselves by buying things. A successful businessperson must understand the buyer’s wants and needs and be willing to cater to them even at the cost of obscuring her own personality. Businesspeople sacrifice their souls to make our lives happier by making products or providing jobs that enrich our leisure or give us more of it. Although artists might characterize selling self for money as the contemptible act of “selling out,” the rest of us need not accept this perspective.

The poor, downtrodden businessmen of the world. It’s enough to make me want to start up a fund giving money to the successful businessmen of the world, so that they might receive counseling for the terrible burdens they carry: would they like a pied a terre or no? Is it gauche to fly a private jet down to Florida for lunch? And so on. It’s difficult: they need therapists.

But these errors are merely errors of opinion and logic rather than actual errors of fact. The latter error is created in the very next paragraph:
The artists’ side of the story gains power from the fact that artists get
to write, sing, play or act their narrative. Resentment of business is pervasive in high and low art, from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (1598), in which an evil money lender squeezes a noble merchant, to the film Shakespeare in Love (1998), four hundred years later, in which a financier squeezes the playwright himself.
It’s important to note that the author provides no actual quantitative or statistical analysis, merely random examples. Let’s take The Merchant of Venice. Is it really as simple as it seems? For one, it’s difficult to say—if Ribstein’s characterization is correct—that a plotline featuring an evil money lender preying on a merchant is founded upon a resentment of business—indeed, if the merchant is noble it suggests that Shakespeare believes business can be a noble calling. And it’s important to note that Ribstein is probably wrong: the question, is Shylock evil? is difficult to answer—Shakespeare certainly goes out of his way to establish that he’s preyed upon for essentially anti-Semitic motives, and Shylock gets the very best speech in the play. Meanwhile, the noble merchant of Ribstein’s characterization is simply a jerk. Simplifying complex, interesting works of art to serve his purposes is a Ribstein trademark, as we shall see.

Let’s see Ribstein desecrate more works of art:
Consider also a leading contemporary film version of business, the popular television show, Mad Men. The businessmen who inhabit this drama about an advertising agency in the 1960s often are miserable, deluded and empty. They tune into other people’s dreams so they can furnish them with their clients’ products. An airplane can be a place for vicarious sex or a magic ship that brings daddy home. Kodak’s Carousel does not just show slides, but creates “memories.” The men of the Sterling Cooper agency have shrunken inner lives. When a Mad Man’s father goes down in an airplane the son uses his loss to butter up the airline as a potential client. The presentation of the Carousel campaign leaves the men reflecting dismally on the detritus of their own family lives. An ad man who expresses his “real” creativity in fiction is
mocked for writing but envied for selling the story.

These narratives set out to condemn the business world rather than to convey the sort of nuanced portrayal good art seeks to achieve. In other words, the problem is not that business inherently lacks good narrative, but that the good storytellers prefer not to tell businesses’ whole story. Narratives like Mad Men succeed because of how the characters react to the depressing predicament the artists have constructed. They do not inquire into the nature of artists’ predicament. Business dramas are all a bit like Beckett’s Waiting for Godot: the characters might engage us, but we have only the sketchiest understanding of their surroundings. Business narratives would be more interesting if the characters interacted in a more convincing environment comparable to the minutely realized backdrops in television shows about the police (The Wire) or the mob (The Sopranos) or in the novels of Anthony Trollope. Artists’ resentment causes them to shrink from a similar engagement with the business world.

Let’s dispose of the first, obvious thing: seriously, The Wire is “a show about police.” Let’s review other famous Ribstein summaries of works of art:
Macbeth: A play about Scottish history.
Hamlet: A prince sees ghosts.
Godfather: This gangster film.

I mean, come on. The Mad Men characterizations here are also hollow. Consider; the businessmen are often miserable, deluded and empty. But that’s because practically everyone in the show is miserable, deluded and empty. (Note: Ribstein later concedes that Mad Men’s portrayal of Connie Hilton is favorable to business, but writes this off as simple “nostalgia,” which misses the point of the show so spectacularly that I’m worried he thinks Macbeth is “A play about Scottish history advocating reliance on witches and ambition.”)

Let’s skip past a lot of Ribstein’s throat-clearing about why filmmakers particularly dislike capitalists (his theory: filmmakers must debase themselves to producers to get their money, and therefore are particularly resentful of them. It’s a full-fledged embrace of auteur theory, which is of course wrong: actors, producers, everybody plays a discrete role and so why would producers—who, after all, get to control a lot—acquiesce to a portrayal that depicts them as evil looters? Exactly.) In fact, he believes that film is particularly powerful noting that, (and I swear I’m not making this up): “No wonder Hitler enlisted Leni Riefenstahl to harness this powerful force to the rise of Germany.” Ah, well then. Godwin’s Law apparently is finding new applications: law school professors.

A central point here: he believes Wall Street is an example of a film that’s particularly negative towards capitalists. This is true. But he ignores its effects, which is that a certain class of people idolize Gordon Gekko (and the rest just don’t care). A central flaw? Yes. Because he believes that Wall Street may have contributed to the prosecution of Michael Milken, as opposed to, you know, actual illegal behavior (he dismisses the crimes he was convicted of—crimes that, remember, led to ten years’ prison, a huge fine, and exile from the financial industry—as “technicalities.”). This is a goofy view, because anyone engaged in casual observation would have realized the effects of Wall Street were exactly the opposite of what Oliver Stone intended—and hence didn’t exactly arouse popular outrage as much as popular envy.

Let’s just say that there’s too many ridiculous comments in the article for me to tackle them all—I would get tired and you bored—but this provides a convenient jumping off point for a useful idea the author assumes but in no way proves: that popular media influences pop culture. The author’s claim is the same claim as all those mothers who were certain that video games would engender a wave of crime (the same for the rap music) back in the nineties, or all those ridiculous claims about rock and comic books in the fifties and sixties—hell, as far as I know a group of Roman mothers led the way in complaining about particularly socially subversive etchings. And of the claims my generation is intimately acquainted with—the claims that we’d all start doing violent crime because of the video games—we can confidently dismiss them as risible.

But somehow the idea has some attraction, because we are play-acting a little bit when we read a book or watch a movie—imagining and escaping into someone else’s reality. And if that other reality is plausible enough, people like to get lost in it—there are still Trekkies out there. It’s an idea that seems like it should be true.

The problems, however, are pretty legion: they’re not exactly scientific or quantifiable, and they depend on people interpreting material in the same way. And these problems are all pretty much insuperable from a logical point of view. But it’s impossible to read postmortems on 24 that discussed its political effects without agreeing a little bit. Is that merely emotion speaking for logic? And if true, how effective are art’s workings? Is it a nudge? A shove? What social movements or philosophies or policies owe their origins to works of fiction? How did they work? Someone with greater subtlety and, frankly, intelligence than Professor Ribstein is the guy to figure these questions out.

1 comment:

  1. An excellent comment, and one that needs to be better known and distributed.

    Ideologues are at best, a cranky nuisance, and, at worst, a genuine menace, regardless of their place on the political spectrum. Ribstein was an ideologue of the first water. We need far fewer of them. I well remember Ribstein's bizarre fixation from when I worked at the UIUC. He ran a film series for students, in which he'd show the evil, anti-capitalist films, and then demonstrate their biases--all the while, it seems, remaining comically innocent of his own.

    Again, thanks for the analysis. Larry won't be turning out any more works of genius such as the article discussed above, but it remains important to demonstrate just how ridiculous such people and their views really are.