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June 1991


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Jeremy Butler <[log in to unmask]>
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Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Sun, 2 Jun 91 10:35:56 CDT
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[From _Lingua Franca_, December 1990, p. 28.  Brian Morton is the
book review editor of _Dissent_ and the author of a forthcoming
novel from HarperCollins.]
                     L'ISLE DE GILLIGAN
                        Brian Morton
Editor's Note: The following _etude_ originally appeared in
the journal _Dissent_ (Summer 1990) under the title "How Not To
Write for _Dissent._"
     The hegemonic discourse of postmodernity valorizes modes of
expressive and "aesthetic" praxis which preclude any dialogic
articulation (in, of course, the Bakhtinian sense) of the
antinomies of consumer capitalism.  But some emergent forms of
discourse inscribed in popular fictions contain, as a
constitutive element, metanarratives wherein the characteristic
tropes of consumer capitalism are subverted even as they are
apparently affirmed.  A paradigmatic text in this regard is the
television series _Gilligan's Island_, whose seventy-two episodes
constitute a master-narrative of imprisonment, escape, and
reimprisonment which eerily encodes a Lacanian construct of
compulsive reenactment within a Foucaultian scenario of a
panoptic social order in which resistance to power is merely one
of the forms assumed by power itself. [1]
     The "island" of the title is a pastoral dystopia, but a
dystopia with a difference--or, rather, a dystopia with a
_differance_ (in, of course, the Derridean sense), for this is a
dystopia characterized by the free play of signifier
and signified.  The key figure of "Gilligan" enacts a dialect of
absence and presence.  In his relations with the Skipper, the
Millionaire, and the Professor, Gilligan is the repressed, the
excluded.  The Other:  He is the id to the Skipper's Ego, the
proletariat to the Millionaire's bourgeoisie, Caliban to the
Professor's Prospero. [2]  But the binarism of this duality is
deconstructed by Gilligan's relations with Ginger the movie star.
Here Gilligan himself is the oppressor:  Under the male gaze of
Gilligan, Ginger becomes the Feminine-as-Other, the
interiorization of a "self" that is wholly constituted by the
linguistic conventions of phallocratic desire (keeping in mind,
of course, Saussure's _langue/parole_ distinction).  That Ginger is
identified as a "movie star" even in the technologically barren
confines of the desert island foreshadows Debord's concept of the
"society of the spectacle," wherein events and "individuals" are
reduced to simulacra. [3]  Indeed, we find a stunningly prescient
example of what Baudrillard as called the "depthlessness" of
American in the apparent "stupidity" of Gilligan and, indeed, of
the entire series. [4]
     The eclipse of linearity effectuated by postmodernity, then,
necessitates a new approach to the creation of modes of
liberatory/expressive praxis.  The monologic and repressive
dominance of traditional "texts" (i.e., books) has been
decentered by a dialogic discourse in which the "texts" of
popular  culture have assumed their rightful place.  This has
enormous implications for cultural and social theory.  A journal
like _Dissent_, instead of exploring the question of whether
socialism is really dead, would make a greater contribution
to postmodern discourse by exploring the question of whether
Elvis is really dead.  This I hope to demonstrate in a future
1. Gilligan himself represents the transgressive potentialities
of the decentered ego.  See Georges Thibault, _Jouissance et
Jalousie dans L'Isle de Gilligan_, unpublished dissertation on
file at the Ecole Normale Superieure (St. Cloud).
2. _Gilligan's Island_ may be periodized into an early, Barthean
phase, in which most episodes ended with an exhibition of
Gilliganian _jouissance_, and a second phase whose main
inspiration is apparently that of Nietzsche, via Lyotard.  The
absence of any influence of Habermas is itself a testimony to the
all-pervasiveness of Habermas's thought.
3. The 1981 television movie _Escape from Gilligan's Island_
represents a reactionary attempt to totalize what had been
theorized in the series as an untotalizable herteroglossia, a
_bricolage_.  The late 1970s influence of the Kristevan semiotic
needs no further comment here.
4. Why do the early episodes privilege a discourse of metonymy?
And what of the title--_Gilligan's Island_?  In what sense is the
island "his"?  I do not have the space to pursue these questions
here, but I hope to do so in a forthcoming book.