Culture

Slouching Towards Babylon, Waiting to be Born: "MAD", Bond, Vegas, Empire

What happens when Vegas is everywhere? MAD's recent blog post about nude Royals provides a vital clue to the nature of the post-Empire moment…

What happens when Vegas, is everywhere?

What happens in Vegas…, so the saying goes. It's a saying that is ostensibly a riff on a cherished maxim of Paul Edgecomb, a character appearing in the Stephen King novel The Green Mile. "What happens on the Mile, stays on the Mile," Edgecomb says, and you can probably recall (as can I), Tom Hanks saying the same in Frank Darabont-directed movie adaptation. Maybe the saying was first conceived of in the pages of The Green Mile, but the idea of Vegas is a powerful attractor. And it's an idea that summons up that Edgecomb-adage and seems to make it its own. What happens in Vegas…

Of course, as UK Royal Prince Harry has recent proven on the pages of TMZ and all across the internet, things don't necessarily stay in Vegas anymore. Or do they? Has Vegas become a preexisting condition under which we all now find ourselves living? Fellow Brit Royal, Duchess of Oxford Kate Middleton getting snapped while sunbathing topless in the south of France certainly lends credence to the idea of Vegas is now a condition. And the fact of Royal lawyers working to legally interdict the spread of these paparazzi pics across the Eurozone, does seem to validate this cultural shift. A new chapter in the ongoing romance of bread and circuses is being penned, and we're all invited it would seem.

As usual, MAD seems to have gotten it just right. Even before the "scandal" of the topless Duchess broke in the gossip rags across Europe, MAD had heavily 'shopped nude Royals up on it's blog, The Idiotical. It's an old Royal tradition, The Idiotical intimated in that "humor in a jugular vein" style that has become MAD's trademark. Camilla enjoys air hockey in the buff, Charles and Kate do like to challenge each other at nude archery, and even the Queen relaxes by enjoying a spot of au natural ping-pong with Pippa Middleton (Kate's younger sister), The Idiotical "reports".

It's this strange coincidence on The Idiotical, the coincidence of ideas of Empire and the ethics of reportage, that offers a unique insight into the cultural moment we're currently living through, and a unique insight into why MAD, now in its 60th year of publication, remains as vital and as vibrant and as necessary as it has always been.

This is the post-Empire moment Bret Easton Ellis reminds us. Although germane to his point, Ellis didn't need to evoke Charlie Sheen's very public breakdown to say what he had been saying for some years now. To say that the socially aspirational culture of '60s suburbia (the same one that intersects so neatly with the heavily fortified notions architected in by the British class system) is now in a state of collapse. What Ellis' piece on Charlie Sheen, what his entire body of work, and what UK Royal attorneys seeking legal remedies in French and Dutch and Belgian courts all point to, is the idea that turnabout is fair play. That it's no longer a question of how we can aspire to be more like "Our Betters", but now it's a question of how much they are like us.

For two centuries and more now, American culture has secretly, perhaps even unknowingly, rallied around Thomas Jefferson's idea of a natural aristocracy as the primary expression of Liberty. The idea that our natural skills and talents and insights will be enough to catapult us into a new meritocracy. The idea remains as radical as it was in Jefferson's own lifetime. A natural aristocracy is the secret engine that kicks over and powers social media -- the idea that who you are as a person matters more than any social happenstance at the time and place of your birth.

The socially aspirational culture of '60s suburbia reads like an aberration then, one that comes in on the back of the postwar influx of capital, and the conceptualization of the Boomers as a generation. But the '60s suburbanite aspirational culture also ties into an older cultural system, that of observing history as if it were a Shakespearean play -- through the eyes and minds of great personalities, more often than not Royals. The answer to Arthur Miller isn't Joe DiMaggio or even Marilyn, but Hunter S. Thompson, or Jack Kerouac, or Norman Mailer who wrote themselves into "high" culture like oldtimey outlaws exploited their notoriety to write themselves into the fabric of culture and memory.

Somewhere along the line though, the worm turned. Legs McNeil and Jennifer Osborne's examination of the "normalizing" of the porn industry, The Other Hollywood, as well Jane Juffer's At Home with Pornography might prove instructive as templates for understanding the precise mechanism of this cultural shift. At what point did stargazing become a vicious and ongoing crusade for uncovering the skirmish-points of the collapse of "high" culture? One tactic to embolden the idea of the natural aristocracy has been to defang the threat of the Old Aristocracy. To watch the "Higher Ups" for the moments when they slip, and perhaps even fall. Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of Vanities illustrated beautifully the circus pursuant to this end.

But inasmuch as TMZ and E! Entertainment Network have proven to be credible tools against the threat Old Aristocracy poses to an emergent natural aristocracy, Empire it seems never ends. This is a point underlined heavily by Adele's dangerously languid Bond Theme, "Skyfall" released just last Friday. Amid the moody tones and even moodier lyrics (music against which we can clearly see the images from the movie's trailer play out) Adele offers a fabulous equation that seems to capture the very heart of Empire. "Where worlds collide and days are dark, you may have my number you may take my name, but you'll never have my heart…" and later, "I know I'd never be me without the security of your loving arms keeping me from harm."

This dangerously languorous music seems deeply connected with the scene of Daniel Craig's Bond aboard Chinese gondola somewhere in Hong Kong, while paper lanterns balloon relaxingly in to fill the sky. There's a violence to this scene, you know Bond is here to kill someone, ready to die in the attempt if needs be. It's that violent confrontational stance that Bond remakes as fearlessly elegant that speaks to the psychic evolution in Adele's thinking in "Skyfall". In the first, she finds herself torn between the need for surveillance and her own capacity at invoking privacy by concealing her heart. Then in the second, she finds herself already having conceded the point and having surrendered, at least emotionally, to the failed notion that security is an act of love.

This love/hate relationship with power and surveillance culture (which ends more often than not in the surrender of personal liberty) has always been at the heart of not only Bond, but notions of Empire as well. It's plain to be seen in the 2009 drama An Education, just as much as it's apparent in the Michael Caine '60s-era gangster flick, Get Carter. Empire conceives of security as an economic exchange, and consequently enacts a kind of globalized slavery. And the answer to Empire and to James Bond seems unexpectedly to be MAD, and perhaps more surprisingly, Vegas.

Vegas, perhaps because of where it sits in the psychic landscape of the Continental US. It's an idea rarefied by rock journalist and social critic Greil Marcus and host Neal Conan on Talk of the Nation -- the idea of geography of choice. Do you have the courage to Head West, Marcus frames the problem. The promise of course being, by the time you make it out as far as California, you'd have stumbled into a new way of living, far, far from the ancient mechanisms of paranoia necessitated by Empire that Adele articulates so flawlessly.

The journey today of course, is very different than the first journeys across America. Today, we know of the existence of California, the golden beaches on edge of the Pacific. But trekking across Nevada, what would it have meant to hit Vegas for the first time, and never know of California? Vegas, even before it was built, even before it was Vegas, must seem very much like the Sunday afternoon before the Apocalypse. The last time to take in a football game, have a drink with friends, shoot some craps, get married one last time. If HST was right about anything, he was right about Vegas being the psychic precinct for the death of the American Dream. It really is all Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

And if Vegas is everywhere, and it is, then it follows that the Time Is Near everywhere, and unconditionally. The pervasiveness of Vegas is a way to embolden ourselves, to fiddle while Rome is burning, rather than have to live with the tragedy of watching all the former glory burn down. MAD's style of fabulation parading as earnest journalism is not only the permanent detente in the ongoing skirmish with Empire, it also wrestles with a deeper truth in the Jonah Lerher saga. Lehrer's true betrayal wasn't that he was a fabulist, or that he eroded the barrier between fact and fiction or that he promoted the public's distrust of journalists in general and journalism in particular. Lehrer's true betrayal lies perhaps in the fact that he failed at what the hype around him seemed to crown him as -- an LA intellectual who could hold his own on the East Coast. To take Greil Marcus formulation -- an intellectual who could reverse the geography of choice and perhaps reinvigorated things Back East, retracing the mythic journey in Peter Fonda's Easy Rider. It's the deep-seated hope that Lehrer with his gifts could have been a new HST blending together fact and fiction in a way that describes a deeper truth.

So it's down to MAD, as it has been for decades now, to tilt their "humor in a jugular vein" at the windmills of both authority, and the abstract machinery of authorization. When MAD presents fiction stylized as fact, the publication offers a savage blow against Empire, a powerful reassertion of the psychic geography of choice, and a necessary redemption of the Apocalyptic moment where surveillance paranoia and security theater is simply neutralized. And when it does so, MAD returns us to that hope for better tomorrow conceived of in the most Zen of terms -- that we can know the world without traveling, without knowing.

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