Wrestling with Snakes on a Plane

The article below was delivered as a plenary address at the Screen Studies Conference in Glasgow in 2006, just a month or so before the notorious Snakes on a Plane went into release. I'm posting it here because it never appeared anywhere else--Chuck Klosterman wrote a shorter, similar, and much funnier take on Snakes just a few weeks after this, so I figured why bother. But with the magic of the blog, it can now take its rightful place as detritus on some remote mainframe. If nothing else, the embedded clips are enjoyable for those who like snakes and/or planes.

Forty odd years ago, a modest young sociologist took it upon himself to do battle with the historical legacy of Marx. In thin but razor sharp volumes like The Consumer Society and the Mirror of Production, Jean Baudrillard revisited—one might dare say, deconstructed—the spectres of a Marxist vocabulary that seemed increasingly irrelevant in the European and American democracies, a world where Das Kapital had begun to lie like a nightmare on the leftist present. The essays anticipated a new global order where the western democracies, placated by gestures toward socialist policies at mid-century and then blindsided by the accelerating exportation of their labor force to the third world, would cease to produce much of anything anymore beyond media, information, and military hardware. Rejecting the Marxist trinity of labor, production, and alienation, Baudrillard offered a new vocabulary to engage the increasingly obscene politics of simulation, a world of seduction and an evil system of objects. In this hyperreal land of sci-fi theory, human subjectivity no longer finds itself embroiled in adjudicating the exploitative politics of exchange value. Instead, a collective genius of consumer goods and information technologies now cultivate human subjectivity as an incubator necessary in sustaining their existence, circulation, and evil agendas. Thus does my iPod need me more than I need it, whatever “I” might be at this point in the non-history of objects, and whatever “need” might mean to a thin slab of silicone and plastic that was born, not so much of a human desire to hear music, but out of a parent technology’s imperative to create new formats and markets for its data.

All good materialists will no doubt find the above gloss noxious to the point of provoking internal sarcasm, if not externalized nausea. Unfortunately and perhaps unfairly, Baudrillard’s work today often evokes a strand of media theory that seems wholly allergic to institutions and practices, audiences and people. However, as counter-intuitive as it may seem from our own historical moment, I would argue Baudrillard’s move away from Lefebrvian materialism toward the anti-Platonic giddiness of the hyperreal was in fact wholly consonant with a larger move during the 1970s toward engaging a more concrete politics of consumption. During roughly the same period, after all, countrymen Pierre Bourdieu and Michel Foucault also sought to reframe classic Marxist issues of power and domination within more localized frames of practice and discourse, albeit with vastly different agendas and results. And in England, of course, the Birmingham School radically redirected neo-Marxism from its totalizing Lacanian-Althusserian wing to a Gramscian emphasis on the politics of consumption and social difference in everyday life, a paradigm of media theory that arguably remains dominant in the English speaking world.

The arch difference in Baudrillard’s work, of course, and the reason why so many on the left refuse to take anything he ever wrote seriously, was the seemingly definitive and yet suspiciously ironic break with Marxism itself, a calculated and no doubt self-aggrandizing decision to stand Marx on his head, perhaps only speculatively, so as to counter the increasingly dead-end struggles of historical materialism with the ecstatic resignation of a nihilistic idealism (or idealistic nihilism, depending on one’s perspective). The Baudrillardian wing of media theory thus remains a thorny and infuriating paradox for the left and media studies generally, a body of work clearly indebted to leftist traditions of ideological critique and aesthetic negation, and yet wholly estranged from the left’s traditional architectures of power and its usual engines of explication. It is a critical position marked by perpetual irony and ultimate impossibility, maddeningly apathetic in its political utility, and yet all the same strangely persuasive as an oceanic poetics of electronic signification.

Like other forms of poetry, it is probably impossible to have a rational debate over the merits of simulation, obscenity, fascination, and seduction as a working theory of the media. What I would like to address today is what might be gained by entertaining the possibility that the Baudrillardian critique of Marxism and its attending theories of the media may be more than a simple stunt, postmodern poetry, or an instrumental attempt to gain strategic position in the always high-stakes competition of French philosophy. Why, after all these years of dismissal and disavowal, does this paradigm nevertheless remain so persuasive in capturing a certain logic of the media as an environment, opponent and destiny? In keeping with the theme of this year’s conference, I am particularly interested in how this work might help us reconsider our always vexing inquiry into the issue of representation, social determination, and the status of contemporary television as object, text, and/or system, a debate that in turn has important implications in considering questions of a television aesthetic.

A good starting point here might be to consider whether or not television has in fact become an evil object, a techno-institution that in its unchecked expansion, proliferation, and domination now exceeds any former relationship it may once have had with the political economy of the corporate nation state, and that increasingly follows its own logic in virtual independence from all passing social and historical formations, be they individual, local, or global. Of course, at this point in history, to isolate television as an object, either technologically or institutionally, seems quaint, perhaps even ridiculous. So, having begun with the premise of TV as an evil object, I would like, as many have done this weekend, to dissolve the technology itself away into a more synthetic notion of an evil system—a terrain of popular culture where individual media--film, TV, the internet--are just so many vectors in advancing its ever more horizontally and vertically integrated agenda. Convergence, as we often call the hardware side of this equation, also indexes a cultural process that with increasing frequency seems to produce irrational, inexplicable phenomena that break with media culture’s antiquated mandate to inform or entertain. How else are we to explain a major CD release by Paris Hilton, a star with no discernable constituency, whose meta-fame seems based entirely on a desire to be famous for being famous for being famous, and whose career can only be seen as a toxic ghost in a bored hype machine, one that must, above all else, create buzz, media, and markets.

Consider also a phenomenon like Snakes on a Plane. Scheduled for release later this summer, this film has been a growing multi-platform sensation for over a year now, promising to leap from B-film joke to major summer blockbuster. Interest in the project seems to have first emerged among that growing legion of internet cinephiles who seem more fascinated by the film industry than films themselves. Smitten by screenwriter Josh Friedman’s blog account of his involvement in the film’s high-concept genesis, this community of early franchise adapters quickly spread the Snakes on a Plane mantra, or at least took the film’s title as a mantra. Recounting the phone call from his agent offering him the chance to work on the film, Friedman writes, “Holy shit! It’s a title. It’s a concept. It’s a poster and a logline and whatever else you need it to be. It’s perfect. Perfect. It’s the everlasting Gobstopper of movie titles.” Snakes on a Plane has since gone on to generate countless fan websites, unlicensed T-shirts, fake promo reels, fake audition tapes, parodies, alternate scripts, winking late-night TV jokes, and one might even say a nascent pop philosophy. Friedman himself has encouraged, facetiously no doubt, that “snakes on a plane” replace “shit happens” as the nation’s favorite phrase of fatalistic resignation, as in “did you hear Jack got hit by a bus?” “Eh, whaddya going do…snakes on a plane.”




As the above clips suggest, Snakes on a Plane has already generated the full gamut of “fan” activities associated with other media franchises, suggesting a passionate and sincere interest in the film’s compelling narrative world. In this extraordinary case, however, such activity has flourished well before the film itself has even made it to the screen, and in some cases, even before the film started principle photography. Since Snakes on a Plane does not as yet exist in any official form, one has to assume there is a sizeable audience intoxicated by the very idea of snakes on a plane. We have to wonder, however, if the premise of reptiles disrupting a flight is so startlingly original and utterly compelling that thousands would embrace it as profoundly meaningful within their own lives, sight unseen? Probably not. In fact, the exact opposite. As the above examples of pre-extratextual materials should make clear, those with the strongest interest in Snakes on a Plane appear to gravitate toward the film as an absurd exemplar of the high concept algebra by which the film industry calculates its product. Echoing Friedman, participants in the Snakes on a Plane phenomenon walk that thin line dividing adolescent enthusiasm for adolescent crap with a knowing, world-weary appreciation for the inane genius of Snakes on a Plane as pure concept, a viewing position that it seems we are all increasingly asked to entertain these days. Like all good high-concept titles, Snakes on a Plane cynically and yet with glorious candor comments directly on the recombinatory logic that has come to dominate the media industries so dramatically, so unapologetically. The most popular bootleg T-shirts for the film thus feature the film’s narrative architecture reduced to a simple pictographic equation: snakes + plane = snakes on a plane.

Most of the performative over-enthusiasm for the film plays incessantly with this single joke, reveling with winking bemusement in Hollywood’s reductive logic of additive attraction.
Perhaps the biggest fan of the title is the movie’s leading man, Samuel L. Jackson. Supposedly, when the studio considered changing the title to something less campy, Jackson responded, “What are you doing here? It’s not Gone with the Wind. It’s not On the Waterfront. It’s Snakes on a Plane.” According to such lore, the title remains Snakes on a Plane because, as the above fan clip suggests, Samuel Jackson said so. Widely circulated, stories of Jackson’s determination to be in a film called Snakes on a Plane, come hell or high water, evoke images of the star in his Shaft persona storming into a room of metrosexual studio parasites and scalding them with their own triple lattes for messing with his action. In reality, however, Jackson and New Line Cinema have worked hard and in complete harmony to exploit Jackson’s now oddly comforting image as America’s favorite angry black man, an identity Jackson has cultivated in projects ranging from the high drama of A Time to Kill to the retro-camp street cool of his work with Quentin Tarantino. Again, within a logic of signification wholly divorced from any grounding in the material politics of race, Jackson has come to epitomize an urban black masculinity that operates on the border of humor and menace, a composite of historical movie signifiers incorporating Sidney Poitier’s internalized righteousness, Clint Eastwood’s slow-burning vengeance, and the urban √©lan of innumerable blaxploitation stars of the 1970s.

While the title Snakes on a Plane evokes as certain inane brilliance in and of itself, Jackson’s presence in the film and publicity adds an equally powerful, though equally cartoonish, frame of race around the entire project. Indeed, when added to the high concept dilemma of snakes loose on a plane, Samuel Jackson’s high concept blackness has proven so powerful that the film is perhaps the first in history, though probably not the last, to generate a catch-phrase in advance and in complete independence of the film’s actual dialogue. With Jackson’s persona involved, snakesters began circulating an imaginary yet seemingly inevitable moment of Jackson yelling passionately to ground control, “We got motherfuckin’ snakes on this motherfuckin’ plane.” So profound was this fantasy of a racialized action cinema, of what Jackson would most likely say if he were actually caught on a plane with a mess o dem creepifying snakes, producers eventually rescheduled six days of reshoots so that the phrase could actually be inserted into the final film. Not only did this insertion further flatter both the “insider” and populist fantasies of the Snakes community, it also allowed the movie to move up from a PG to a more marketable R rating. And while the “MF” bomb can not be dropped directly in most official venues for publicity, this phrase nonetheless permeates the unofficial marketing campaign.

With minor adjustments, Snakes on a Plane could have been made by Monogram studios in 1943, by PRC in 1955, by A.I.P. in 1964, by Roger Corman in 1974, or by Dino De Laurentis in 1985. One could say, in this respect, that the film is, or will soon be, “timeless.” Which brings us back to Marx, Baudrillard, textuality, pop aesthetics, and the social. A timeless story, by definition, stands outside of history. For many years, neo-Marxists staged often bloody interventions into the politics of a “timeless” canon, providing materialist grounding to the previously unexamined ideologies that bound narration, form, and style within specific historical formations. At the same time, however, insidiously and silently, the omnivorous and ever merging industries of culture were producing their own brand of timeless art, not in a bid for transhistorical greatness, but as the inevitable product of a hermetic circulation of ideas, routines, wisdoms, logics, and protocols. Perhaps there was a moment, say in 1934, when aeroplane and Cobra could have hashed it out in the skies of modernity in a genuinely compelling fashion, plausibly linked in some way to a social imaginary beset with wonder technologies and orientalized reptiles. But what does it mean to make that film, torn straight from the pages of a depression era pulp, in the early 21st century? Once the film comes out, no doubt some pop pundit will offer a pseudo-symptomatic explanation as to its extraordinary popularity, perhaps opining that the film’s collision of snakes, planes, and angry black men reflects a post 9-11 fear of technology, terrorism, and the global other. But that would be complete bullshit. Better to explain the film as the Darwinian endpoint in decades of high concept evolution, an industrial logic conducted, no so much as a dialogue between Hollywood and a history of actual audiences, but as a chase after a phantom social through a generic funhouse of distorting mirrors.

Ironically, and yet wholly consonant with the genius of the media as a complex evil system, our era’s move toward global cultural traffic only accelerates this agenda. There is no corner of the world that Snakes on a Plane cannot and will not touch, since it speaks so eloquently in the international action film’s chosen dialect of Pidgin cinema, a mode of high concept cinema so high that it has broken free of the gravitational pull of any individual or social experiences, hopes, or desires. We have long been so sensitive to the exploitative politics of class, nationalism, racism, sexism, and heteronormativity, that we rarely consider what might happen once the culture industries finally achieve what years of political activism have not, an elimination of all social difference to the point that, rather than usher in a new era of harmony, light, and justice, we all become perfect vessals for the replication of viral blockbusters, sitcoms, and celebrity gossip. Working from neo-Marxist assumptions about hegemony, mediation, homology, and determination, we have long assumed that the media have some connection to what people do and think, and there remains a branch of media studies still very invested in issues of reform, progress, and justice across the various media, whether such reform involves improved content quality or better serving viewing communities perceived as marginalized and neglected. And yet, such models of determination and mediation have always been, and remain even now, fraught with problems. If the media are, ultimately, an index of the social, than efforts to reform them are akin to trying to rechannel the smoke billowing from a raging semiotic tire fire. If we lean more toward a paranoid vision of the media as directly determinative of the social, an instrument of more centralized and organized power, we risk returning to delusions of ideological inscription traceable to rational or at least vaguely lucid agents of power, perhaps Rupert Murdock operating from an oxygenated compound on the moon. Hegemony gives us the advantage of balancing both modes of indetermination, fluid alliances of elusive power at war with the symbolic creativity of a resistant public. And yet, how much more might we be able to explain if we were to cede to contemporary media its own autonomous and in many ways agentless logic, a signifying system that, while it may have at one point had its roots in a formative moment of social and historical determination, increasingly seems motivated by and answerable to a set of aesthetic and industrial protocols that are gradually walling themselves off from the terrain of the social.

We are all no doubt familiar with the common science fiction plot of the robot or android who gradually becomes sentient and then, inevitably, autonomous, a creation of mankind that eventually breaks free of all human influence and control. Most frequently, such fantasies are expressed in the prevailing language of techno-animism, wherein centuries of magical thinking about the apparent electronic transmutability of information and consciousness incubate within the housing of an historical era’s most advanced gadgetry, be it a clunky depression era robot lumbering through a mad scientist’s laboratory or a sleek mainframe purring in the underground bunker of some secret governmental agency. But what if the media, in its relentless international success as a weapon of mass signification, is destined to become, not an exquisitely refined chunk of hardware like the Terminator or HAL 2000, but a decidedly protean medium of messy, low-tech evolution, not unlike the great Paleozoic oceans that once covered the earth and that randomly spawned amino acids that randomly spawned creatures that randomly developed to have their own logics and agendas. In this scenario, media technologies do not become increasingly sentient mirrors of human consciousness, but instead remain wholly alien objects that in ever more complex structures, economies, protocols, and histories generate waves of signification far in excess of anyone’s ability to control, understand, need, or desire them. This is not to argue that the media, as an increasingly sovereign and perhaps even evil object, does not have a profound impact on the social; rather, it is to say that the media in its own diabolical and ultimately agentless agenda to replicate us as eternally viewing and consuming subjects is no longer an extension, reflection, or partner in our social world, but an irrational empire onto itself that must be acknowledged and negotiated, much like a rogue state with loose signifying nukes. The media as an evil object, paradoxically, would be a system with no center, no boundaries, and little to no ambition or politics beyond its own economic and aesthetic replication.

A half-century ago Theodor Adorno lamented, “every trip to the cinema leaves me, against all my vigilance, stupider and worse. Thirty years ago, Pauline Kael complained, “After years of stale stupid acted-out stories,” she could no longer endure “the little bits of show-business detail worked up for us by show-business minds who got them from the same movies we’re tired of.” For many years, the besieged could at least retreat into a form of creative irony, perhaps as a last vestige of an alienation that was gradually giving way to ecstacy. As Kael, notes, “cinephiles have always recognized each other at once because they talk less about good movies than what they love in bad movies,” suggesting that many of us have long been in tactical combat with our culture’s industrial logics and agendas. And how else are we to function in a cultural environment where increasingly the only real entertainment the media provides us is the metapleasures of process over product, a world where movies are no longer stories or art, but are increasingly discussed, even in popular discourse, as projects, vehicles, and franchises—examples of some new low, outrage, or mode of stupidity that transcends us all? But, as Snakes on a Plane demonstrates so dramatically, even this pleasure of a resistance grounded in the social is about to be taken away from us, portending as it does a world where everyone is such an “insider” that there is no longer any “outside” from which to experience any form of aesthetic, moral, or political affect.


Amusing as this clip might be, it also suggests an increasingly difficult challenge in the coming years. How does one satirize Hollywood by satirizing Snakes on a Plane? Why would anyone engage in such a redundant mode of comedy when Hollywood already offers such satire pre-loaded in so much of its product? While it would be comforting to believe that this skit reflects the real process of the film’s actual development, a scenario wherein passionate artists fight to tell the story of Anne Frank only to have a studio cretin saddle them with snakes on a motherfuckin’ airplane, the sad truth is there are thousands, if not millions of eager thralls only too happy to serve the Master’s call in bringing Snakes on a Plane to a marketing/consumption venue near you. After all, it seems to somehow be related to what the people want, or once wanted at some point, and in any case, it demonstrates that the Master laughingly recognizes his limits and foibles. Yes children, I often do make films that suck…now have a Snakes on a Plane T-shirt, won’t you? There are also thousands if not millions of us willing to embrace Snakes on a Plane, either out of boredom, compromise, or a smirking cynicism. In the mid-1990s, an older though still anti-rationalist Baudrillard writes, “Things have found a way of avoiding a dialectics of meaning that was beginning to bore them, by proliferating indefinitely, increasing their potential, outbidding themselves in ascension to the limit, an obscenity that henceforth becomes their immanent finality and senseless reason.” What better way to describe our Snakes on a Plane moment than as an “ascension to a limit,” a world where cultural technologies have found a way to break free of the messy, limiting dialectics of a meaning grounded in the social, perfecting instead an obscenity of senseless reason where we laugh at the culture industries laughing at themselves laughing at us laughing at them? Or, to put this process of an obscenity accelerated to the point of informed resignation in a more pop vernacular, “Did you hear there’s going to be a film called Snakes on a Plane? Can you believe it? Eh, whaddya gonna do…snakes on a plane.”

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