When public television aired Ken Burns’s ninety-part series on the Civil War, eggheads tripped over each other to proclaim this soft-spoken young writer as the American Homer, the architect of a Yankee national epic. The series was more than just good television; it was the narrative repository of all of our most cherished cultural values born Phoenix-like out of the fiery chaos of war. It extemporized for millions of viewers across the fruited plain the glorious sweep of heroic struggle and self- and national-transcendence that distinguished such classic texts as the book of Exodus, France’s Song of Roland, Iceland’s Edda, India’s Baghavad Ghita. All at once, it seemed to these intellectuals, the Colonies’ eternally crippling cultural anxiety, that collective penis envy of the American intelligentsia, had been lifted: culturally speaking, we’d finally Made It. We had found our Bildungsroman.
Hardly. What was far more impressive about the show was that it got the American public to actually watch a show on PBS and that it got intellectuals to admit to having watched TV at all. And yet while millions of snobs came out of the closet and admitted that, yes, they actually owned television sets, our cognoscenti were still too ashamed to own up to the obvious: that the truest aesthetic embodiment of the American sublime was not to be found in the cathartic saga of brother fighting brother, but in the weekly chronicle of the spiritual journey of a vessel called the “Mystery Machine” squiring Shaggy, Scooby, Velma, Daphne, and Fred to an eternal youth spent Fighting of the Good Fight. As national myth, the Iliad doesn’t have anything over “Scooby Dooby Doo, Where Are You?”
In the classic epic of transcendence, a tormented hero hears the lonely call of adventure, setting off to combat foes mortal and immortal, struggling with the alien forces of self and society, to emerge triumphant and whole. By taking leave physically of the nation he takes with him its spirit, rendering its glorious character lucid and visible in stark contrast to the slovenly barbarians he triumphs over. His antagonists are invariably bigger and seemingly more powerful, but by using their power and size against them the hero shows that it is spiritual purity that truly carries the day. Thus his struggle inspires the powerless multitudes by its example. They too can embody the nation (or the city-state, or the true faith) like good little sheep. And so the bard repeats his saga over and over and over, in a ritually hypnotic way, continually reproducing for his auditors the first principles of the nation so they can carry them forth in their everyday lives. They all know the story, and yet it is still told over, and over, and over and over (after these messages we’ll be right back) and over and over and over and over In Glowing Radioactive Primary Colors and over and over and over in Pulsating Half-Hour Units and over and over The Technicolor Bard tells and retells and tells and retells Uplifting Saga Of Adulthood Averted as the nation learns and relearns the Shimmering Ideal to which each and every citizen in our great democracy must aspire: to be A Teenage Rebel the symbol of consumer perfection that the gods of Madison Avenue and Hollywood implore us from on high to personify through what we wear, through what we drive, through what we drink, through what we eat, through what we watch, through what we Buy Buy Buy Buy like there’s no tomorrow to keep those wheels of commerce roll-roll-rollin’ along . . .
In this saga the first principles of consumer capitalism are ever embedded: by its positing of an unattainable ideal of libertine youthfulness we are taught to be habitually unsated in our desires. We are taught that commodities are the way in to a mystic Outsiderness which really and emphatically is the vital center of a culture rapidly losing its vitality. Next time you see a flying phallus blaze by you on the interstate at illicit speed, take a glance at the driver. Chances are he’s not under fifty. And he’s not, despite what the ads promise, getting younger. Balding James Deans. A nation of Rebels With Menopauses playing a game of chicken with the old folk’s home. A nation where earnest rebellion is impossible because the socialized means of dissent always lead tautologically back to the marketplace. We are lured into a commercially lucrative psychic terror of maturity, of spiritual wholeness.
This knife cuts both ways. The pre-pubescent is taught not to idolize Mom or Pop, but older Brother or Sister, with their cool clothes from the Gap, their cigarettes snuck on the sly, their music that annoys Dad so much, their tantalizing mating rituals. If junior can muster the energy to extricate himself from the Nintendo machine, it is to mobilize all his or her powers of cutrescence to separate the ‘rents from their hard-earned cash so he or she can aspire to the very expensive hobby of Teenagerdom. Teenagerdom achieved is costly to maintain, and often it transforms the lumpenproletariat of pre-adolescence into a proletariat of sixteen-year-old hamburger flippers, keeping the suburban economic infrastructure humming along.
We are thus socialized from birth into a terrifying cycle of truck, barter, and trade as we each are forced to shell out for our own personal City on a Hill, an unattainable Utopia that ever seeks to erase the inevitability of death. The Fountain of Youth is supplied through an underground spring of Mountain Dew, the commercials suggest. Or are we just getting pissed on?
We are catechized in the true and only American church on Saturday mornings when we are very very young and very vulnerable at the alter of Our Lady of Perpetual Hucksterism, Reverend Shaggy presiding, Hallelujah; and pass the Doritos.
Every episode has the same plot. The Mystery Machine sets out from nowhere to rendezvous with one of the crew’s relatives, who invariably live in some eerie run down old mansion. Here already we can read a socialization of a vital American commercial mythos of rootlessness: Scooby and his comrades don’t seem to come from anywhere, and don’t really seem to be heading for anywhere in particular, either. Like the classic American mythologizers of the open road John Steinbeck, Jack Kerouac, and Ken Kesey, the auteurs Hanna and Barbera present the viewer with the ever-receding ideal of infinite possibility. In Tocqueville’s words, they reproduce the classic American conceit of “forever seeking, forever falling to rise again, often disappointed, but not discouraged, [tending] unceasingly towards that unmeasured greatness so indistinctly visible at the end of the long track [Route 66?] which humanity has yet to tread.” Utopia equals the day after tomorrow. This is the existential American condition we are forever doomed to retread as we fantasize our own eternal youth. In this epic, rather than the destination becoming spiritual wholeness and self-knowledge, the goal, scripted by some demonic Zen master, becomes the futile journey itself. Yikes!
Onward we press. The crew arrives, only to be greeted by a crew of “creepy” (the show’s favorite word in referring to adults) middle-aged wackos. A grave crime against property has been committed, our heroes are informed; a ghost has been scaring everyone off the premises; it would be best for them to just stay out of the way and let the grown-ups take care of things. But this will not do; their Argo after all is called the Mystery Machine and with those words’ transcendent implications of post-psychedelic youth culture in all its righteous splendor, the revolutionary and benevolent truisms of the rootless hippy of American legend are recalled and exploited. Rather than trusting anyone over thirty, the kids follow Jerry Rubin’s and the Monkees’ (who are too busy singing to put anybody down) call for an America redeemed by its children. And here is where their (and our) arch-nemesis steps in: the Pigs. The local sheriff, a seedy looking character if there ever was one, gruffly warns the “kids” that they’d better back off. But they would sooner let Richard Nixon himself toss a bucket of napalm over a Cambodian babe-in-arms than resist the challenge of Doing The Right Thing
They split up to investigate—they can cover more ground that way—“Scooby” always ends up with “Shaggy.” He is thus indicated as the epic’s bearer of meaning, and a word on the semiotics of “Shaggy” is in order. He personifies the show’s project of pounding into dust the possibility of any genuine cultural dissent precisely because he mobilizes in his character so many of characteristic figures through which post-war youth dissent has been represented. With his scraggly goatee echoing that original television deviant, “Maynard G. Krebs” from The Dobie Gillis Show, he recalls the casual subversion with which America’s original deviant youth subculture, the Beats, were co-opted.
He is funky sexually (if we are to take his relationship with “Scooby” as more than a mere friendship).
The world Beat originally had a triple-significance. First it referred to the beat of black music, that supposed mystical funky release from white America’s all-pervasive sexual and cultural (and consumer) repression. Second it referred to their own proud marginal status; they were “beat” with the hypocritical dominant culture. Finally, it referred to their supposed self-beatification, their unrepressed and thus saintly repudiation of the world of middle-class sinners. And “Shaggy” is down for all these things, the spiritual guru of the Mystery Machine ethos. But as a salesman for whatever products are being peddled this morning, he finally becomes down for none of the underlying things these outward manifestations represented. He is a radical transfigured by his debased status as a cartoon character into an avatar of “radical” conformity to the logic of the market. He is funky sexually (if we are to take his relationship with “Scooby” as more than a mere friendship), totally “out there” in behavior, and proud of it; but finally, he is a hedonist who prides himself on his limitless powers of consumption. Thus the beatnik anti-American becomes, through the miracle of television, a sort of Überamerikaner, the ultimate consumer. Eating a ten-foot long sandwich in each episode doesn’t come cheap, you know. A hero to be emulated, but beyond emulation, “Shaggy” points the way to his status as the repository of the most enduring value in American life: the never-ending imperative of a market society to continually make and remake consumer desire through the exploitation of the need to release repressed tensions by styling yourself a rebel.
But that’s not all, folks. With “Fred” representing the hip fratster, “Daphne” the strawberry-coifed sex-object, and “Velma” the earnest would-be campus bomb thrower, the viewer is offered up a tantalizing semiotic soup of significations of commodified deviance.
So much for that ludicrous digression (I recall the Monkees: “Who writes this stuff?”). Back to our story. The young ones split up and investigate. In the dramatic climax they find and unmask the wrongdoer, who turns out to be . . . Surprise! . . . the Pig!! Like the classic hero of antiquity, the youths use the villain’s power and size against him to demonstrate their spiritual superiority. Spiritual superiority, it is implied, is the young viewer’s spiritual superiority over the menacing, doddering forces of Old Age. As the good (but pathetically emasculated in their power to affect reform, like the well meaning liberal bureaucrats of the Kennedy administration) adults breathlessly thank the kids for saving the world, “Fred,” “Velma,” and “Daphne” describe how simple it really was—and, how the praise really belongs to the clueless “Shaggy” and “Scooby,” the true heroes, who teach that ignorance is bliss, style is substance, and that consuming like a hog has spiritually redemptive capabilities. And as the Bad Guy mournfully intones “I would have done it too if not for those meddling kids and their dog,” youth is tragically reminded that its transformative power in society resides in its purchasing power.
Aside from all this, the thrilling saga of youth rebellion also serves as a simple ruse to get kids to watch the commercials.
Next season, the story remains the same, with some surface changes. “Scrappy Doo” is added to the cast, celebrity guest stars are also added. Children are thus taught the logic of planned obsolescence, that what they purchase today becomes worthless tomorrow. In sum the show presents a masterful rhetoric of psychological stagnation, a fully integrated ideology of infinite infantilization; useless crap put in the service of selling useless crap. Here, in Scooby Doo, is demonstrated a distopic vision of how the American is made, not born. Burn Ken Burns. Long live the Hannabarbildungsroman!