As Nikil Saval pointed out some years ago, “The arc of scientific management is long, but it bends towards self-Taylorizing.” (See further development of these ideas in this essay by Alexa Hazel, and a few comments by me, on related matters, here.)
I might coin an analogous phrase: The arc of creative product development is long, but it bends towards self-Haysing.
For several decades the Motion Picture Production Code, commonly known as the Hays Code, governed what could and could not be shown in movies. I was thinking of it the other day while watching Ernst Lubitsch’s glorious Trouble in Paradise (1932), made just pre-Code and therefore full of Inappropriate Content.
A very funny moment early on comes when the two thieves-pretending-to-be-aristocrats, played by Miriam Hopkins and Herbert Marshall, are having dinner together and gradually revealing what they’ve pinched from each other. He returns her brooch; she returns his watch. They resume their meal and then after a moment he says, “I hope you don’t mind if I keep your garter.” Her eyes widen and her hand inspects her leg as he displays the garter, kisses it tenderly, and replaces it in his pocket.
The Hays Code did away with such immoralities. Eventually it was repealed in favor of our current movie rating system, and now we can have anything, right? Right? Well….
Alan Rome has a fine essay in The New Atlantis on recent developments in the Star Trek world in which he points out that earlier installments in the series were governed by a kind of liberal idealism: “In Star Trek’s future, the United Federation of Planets is a liberal-democratic regime encompassing hundreds of different alien species, all devoted to peace, freedom, and equality. The Federation is the United Nations writ galactic, led by an Americanized humanity.” But more recently it has become necessary to cast strong doubt on all that nonsense: “Government is somehow both the only possible guarantor of justice and also structurally implicated in all social evils. The current system is therefore illegitimate and needs to be dismantled in favor of some sort of utopian solution.” That no one seems to know what that Utopia might look like is another of Rome’s points, but for now I just want to focus on the fact that a series like Picard cannot do anything but portray any existing social system as hypocritical, complicit in oppression, structurally unjust, etc. etc. That’s intrinsic to the Code.
As Foucault spent his career demonstrating: Written Codes are strong, but Codes unwritten are stronger. And I don’t think I need to list the ways in which recent movies and TV shows have exhibited a frantic determination to depict all that Must Be Shown and to refrain from depicting all that Must Not Be Shown. I also don’t think I have to list the ways in which this kind of manaical ticking of checkboxes inhibits creativity. It’s self-Haysing: disciplining yourself in order to avoid being disciplined by others, and that’s always kind of pathetic. No need to belabor this point. I just want to make a few others:
- Whether written or unwritten, Codes are always present, though some periods (like our own) are more prone to code fetishizing than others;
- While you will surely approve of some Codes and disapprove of others, they always inhibit creativity;
- But they also inspire creativity, because real artists look for ways to evade the force of Codes or, through jujitsu moves, use them to advantage;
- Figuring out whether in any given case a Code is more productive than destructive is not easy, though as a general rule, the more feverishly people strive to enforce a Code the more destructive it is;
- And, finally, if you don’t like what the current Code is doing to movies and TV, there’s a vast body of work out there that you’ll like better.
I don’t know why people think it’s so important that there are always new products being developed that will suit them. If there’s one thing that our current moment does well, it’s to make available to us the great cultural achievements of the past, in multiple forms and formats. If I don’t like Old Disney, there’s Woke Disney; if I don’t like Woke Disney, there’s Old Disney. Break bread with the dead, is what I say. (But also maybe stock up, just in case.)