More than ever, all textual production today risks allegoresis, the “reading of a text as though it were an allegory”—whether saying everything or nothing, one inevitably says too much, and always much more than intended (Jameson 25). We can see the former strategy, one of hermeneutic containment—“saying everything”—deployed in Jordan Peele’s Us (2019), an approach cinematographically distilled in the film’s opening shot, in its mise-en-scène mapping of desired reading trajectories. Spatialized, distributed across the frame, we find directions for meaning-making use: a televisual succession of interpretive keys (America, mass media, consumerism, the haves and have nots (our possible “thems” to Us’s “us”)); a shelved array of intertextual VHS activations (whether of a cinephile, geek, or pre-digital vintage); and for the Screen-heads, exegetical channels telecasting subject-positioning (and blackness) via the intermittently ‘dead’ TV screen—its glass capture interfacing ‘apparatically’ the spectator, the enunciative camera entity in absentia, as well as the reflected, couch-bound watcher. In short, readings reliably pick up these allegorical signals, carrying temporally their initial single-shot synchrony across narrative structure, phase-shifting per design protocols (pop-) cultural and (pop-) theoretical wavelengths.
Commercially, what’s “new” here, what’s novel about the film and these so-called “social thrillers,” is their transversal fluxing of these frequencies, their staging—at the level of content, of explicit meanings—of theory’s demystifying interference with culture, its rendering of doxa and common sense into so much static, fading them out to better filter for the relationalities undergirding all binaries’ surface falsities—“Us” and “Them” being co-constitutive of course, interrelated through class exploitation and commodity-attuned desire (or so argues Todd McGowan, hitting 100% Completion on the above-diagrammed textual circuits). Of course, what’s at issue with such user-friendly metacommentary—one which the text forcefully cues the viewer to perform—is its fundamental dehistoricization: this is the era of Post-Fordism, of Web 2.0, of the postmodern, global totality, that which, in the end, overdetermines all pseudo-collectivities of nation state (America) or group (rich and poor, black and white). (Viz., the sonic overwriting of the production logo procession prior to our shot: anticipatory diegetic surf noise indexing territorially bicoastal boundedness in lieu of the terrestrial—or even “Universal”—orbit of multinational capital; as well: the film’s decisively analog structure of feeling, its nostalgia for the experientially local, for seclusion from the digitized many). In other words, the film’s class critique is inadequate—is vulgar—without some reference to contemporary conditions of production, the production that’s happening via the very consumption generating the frenzied spectatorial allegoresis that typifies these films. More simply, we’re talking about free labor: not just ideological habituation, but data generation, image dissemination, and the endless production of takes (and clicks and views and thus more takes), especially those of a humanities flavor.
From a media industries perspective, it must be emphasized: this textual repurposing of critical theory (at a scale and intensity beyond slashers’ dilettantish dabbling in Carol Clover) is very likely intentional, a matter of product-design. Take for example a “Commercial Insights and Analysis” report prepared for HBO by the AGW Group—a marketing agency—on Lovecraft Country (2020): we find cheek-by-jowl therein (1) reference to “Afrofuturism,” “Afro-Diasporism,” “monster theory,” “code-switching,” “otherness,” “intersectionality” and Kimberly Crenshaw; and (2) discussion of the show’s reception on Black Twitter, Reddit, and the always-promotional content mills of our middle-brow organs of record. What’s important to emphasize here is not—or not just—the liberal watering-down of radical theory, but the harnessing thereof for leisure-time production. In other words, within the busy-box puzzle-box of the films’ mind-game narratives, critical theory and leftist politics become one more variety of lore, of easter-eggs to be (be)labored over digitally, discursively (and profitably). Is it possible for interpretation to escape this digital enclosure then? Is academia now just a fandom? Is all writing now, even journal publication, a species of explainer, of content production? Is this piece? And finally, by writing it, what materially distinguishes me and my production—this post—from that of the (likely humanities-educated) freelancer grinding away precariously in the cultural factory?
“HBO Lovecraft Country Cultural Insights & Analysis.” AGW Group, https://agwgroup.com/lovecraftcountry. Accessed 17 Sep. 2021.
Jameson, Fredric. Allegory and Ideology. Verso, 2019.
McGowan, Todd. “Two Forms of Fetishism: From the Commodity to Revolution in Us”. Galactica Media: Journal of Media Studies, no. 1, 2019, pp. 63-87 https://doi.org/10.24411/2658-7734-2019-00003.
Peele, Jordan. Us. Universal Pictures, 2019.