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The Invisible Hand in Popular Culture: Liberty vs. Authority in American Film and TV

by Paul A. Cantor

Availablecloth$45.00s 978-0-8131-4082-7
488 pages  Pubdate: 11/30/2012  6 x 9  10 b&w photos

Popular culture often champions freedom as the fundamentally American way of life and celebrates the virtues of independence and self-reliance. But film and television have also explored the tension between freedom and other core values, such as order and political stability. What may look like healthy, productive, and creative freedom from one point of view may look like chaos, anarchy, and a source of destructive conflict from another. Film and television continually pose the question: Can Americans deal with their problems on their own, or must they rely on political elites to manage their lives?

In this groundbreaking work, Paul A. Cantor explores the ways in which television shows such as Star Trek, The X-Files, South Park, and Deadwood and films such as The Aviator and Mars Attacks! have portrayed both top-down and bottom-up models of order. Drawing on the works of John Locke, Adam Smith, Alexis de Tocqueville, and other proponents of freedom, Cantor contrasts the classical liberal vision of America—particularly its emphasis on the virtues of spontaneous order—with the Marxist understanding of the “culture industry” and the Hobbesian model of absolute state control.

The Invisible Hand in Popular Culture concludes with a discussion of the impact of 9/11 on film and television, and the new anxieties emerging in contemporary alien-invasion narratives: the fear of a global technocracy that seeks to destroy the nuclear family, religious faith, local government, and other traditional bulwarks against the absolute state.

Paul A. Cantor is Clifton Waller Barrett Professor of English at the University of Virginia. Among his wide-ranging and acclaimed writings on film and television, Gilligan Unbound: Pop Culture in the Age of Globalization was named one of the best nonfiction books of 2001 by the Los Angeles Times.

“Cantor is undoubtedly one of the most original scholars in the field, and it will be welcome to have a collection of his essays in a single volume.” -- William Irwin -- Series Editor, Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture

The cause of freedom has rarely had as creative a defender as Paul Cantor. To follow his thinking and writing is to be changed by them. His outlook is romantic, intellectually robust, and new. With this outlook, he finds the idea of freedom in the most inauspicious places, not only in Shakespeare (his specialization) but also in popular culture, of which he is an incredibly trenchant observer. The Invisible Hand in Popular Culture is as astute an examination of the idea of liberty as you will find anywhere in the history of liberal literature, and one that resonates especially in our time. -- Jeffrey Tucker, Laissez Faire Books

Cantor demonstrates, often in new and surprising ways, what popular culture has to say about America’s most significant political and social issues. Cantor’s book is remarkably wide-ranging and well informed, with important insights on everything from South Park to Have Gun--Will Travel. In this book there is something of interest for everyone who either loves or hates pop culture, or simply wonders what one should think of it. There are provocative comments on every page, firmly supported by Cantor's immense knowledge of cultural and intellectual history. The book is brilliantly written—smart, sharp, completely free of jargon, and, frankly, a lot of fun. -- Stephen Cox, University of California, San Diego

Cantor knows all the words to the songs in the South Park movie, speaks fluent Klingon, and has forgotten more about the X-Files than Fox Mulder ever knew. Finally, pop-culture nerds have an intellectual to call their own. -- Jonathan V. Last, senior writer The Weekly Standard

The incomparable Cantor has blessed the libertarian movement with a literary voice. Would that we ahd more Cantors to show us how literature flowers when freedom flourishes. -- Independent Review

Cantor's latest book is a collection of wide-ranging essays that brims with brilliant insights on particular movies and TV shows. -- National Review

By dipping into pop-culture portrayals of 'both top-down and bottom-up models of order,' the author makes it easier and more enjoyable for today's readers to relate to the ideas he discusses, including Marxist ' culture industry' notions and absolute state control a la Hobbes. -- Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

This is an exceptional romp through television and film from the past seveal decades, and serves to entertain as much as to instruct us that the world of entertainment contains many valuable lessons in economics, liberty, and morality. -- Weekly Standard

Cantor can take pretty much any television show, such as Gilligan's Isalnd, and dissect it using everything from Homer to Shakespeare to Marshall McLuhan, and entertain you while doing it. -- LRC Blog

With a deep knowledge of literature and philosophy as well as film and TV, Cantor brings scholarship together with entertainment. He's fun to read, and you can learn a few things, too. -- Milwaukee Express

This sweeping, inclusive survey of American popular culture in the 20th and 21st centuries is a masterwork. Cantor offers thoughtful readings, detailed analyses of the works in question, and an authoritative overview of the ways in which pop and classical culture mesh to create the fabric of contemporary American consciousness. -- Choice Magazine

Written in clear language for the curious layman, but carefully footnoted for the scholar, Invisible Hand helps us look in a new way at the images on the screen that undeniably have an enormous effect on the viewer's notions of history, government, freedom, and the human experience. --

Political theorists have much to gain from reading The Invisible Hand in Popular Culture. -- Review of Politics

Analyses how ideas about economics and political philosophy find their way into everything from Star Trek to Malcolm in the Middle. -- Wall Street Journal