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dfw on bureaucratic heroism

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140425122645-hill-street-daniel-j-travanti-story-topI’m re-reading (as much of) Infinite Jest as I can this weekend, as I’m teaching it (for the first time – I’ve before done The Pale King in graduate seminars) on Wednesday. Made it up to page 318 yesterday, no mean feat, and want to do the same sort of numbers if possible today. Ah, the joys of the end of term. I spent the entirety of last weekend reading Midnight’s Children. 

One thing I’m on the look out for this time through Infinite Jest are early signs of the themes of The Pale King. How about this one, on bureaucratic heros. It comes from an essay that Hal Incandenza writes for his Entertainment History class:

Chief Steve McGarrett of ‘Hawaii Five-0’ and Captain Frank Furillo of ‘Hill Street Blues’ are useful for seeing how our North American idea of the hero changed from the B.S. 1970s era of ‘Hawaii Five-0’ to the B.S. 1980s era of ‘Hill Street Blues.’

Chief Steve McGarrett is a classically modern hero of action. He acts out. It is what he does. The camera is always on him. He is hardly ever offscreen. He has just one case per week. The audience knows what the case is and also knows, by the end of Act One, who is guilty. Because the audience knows the truth before Steve McGarrett does, there is no mystery, there is only Steve McGarrett. The drama of ‘Hawaii Five-0’ is watching the hero in action, watching Steve McGarrett stalk and strut, homing in on the truth. Homing in is the essence of what the classic hero of modern action does.

Steve McGarrett is not weighed down by administrative State-Políce-Chief chores, or by females, or friends, or emotions, or any sorts of conflicting demands on his attention. His field of action is bare of diverting clutter. Thus Chief Steve McGarrett single-mindedly acts to refashion a truth the audience already knows into an object of law, justice, modern heroism.

In contrast, Captain Frank Furillo is what used to be designated a ‘post’-modern hero. Viz., a hero whose virtues are suited to a more complex and corporate American era. I.e., a hero of reaction. Captain Frank Furillo does not investigate cases or single- mindedly home in. He commands a precinct. He is a bureaucrat, and his heroism is bureaucratic, with a genius for navigating cluttered fields. In each broadcast episode of ‘Hill Street Blues,’ Captain Frank Furillo is beset by petty distractions on all sides from the very beginning of Act One. Not one but eleven complex cases, each with suspects and snitches and investigating officers and angry community leaders and victims’ families all clamoring for redress. Hundreds of tasks to delegate, egos to massage, promises to make, promises from last week to keep. Two or three cops’ domestic troubles. Payroll vouchers. Duty logs. Corruption to be tempted by and agonized over. A Police Chief who’s a political parody, a hyperactive son, an ex-wife who haunts the frosted-glass cubicle that serves as Frank Furillo’s office (whereas Steve McGarrett’s B.S. 1970s office more closely resembled the libraries of landed gentry, hushed behind two heavy doors and wainscot-ted in thick, tropical oak), plus a coldly attractive Public Defendress who wants to talk about did this suspect get Mirandized in Spanish and can Frank stop coming too soon he came too soon again last night maybe he should get into some kind of stress counselling. Plus all the weekly moral dilemmas and double binds his even-handed bureaucratic heroism gets Captain Frank Furillo into.

Captain Frank Furillo of ‘Hill Street Blues’ is a ‘post’-modern hero, a virtuoso of triage and compromise and administration. Frank Furillo retains his sanity, composure, and superior grooming in the face of a barrage of distracting, unheroic demands that would have left Chief Steve McGarrett slumped, unkempt, and chewing his knuckle in administrative confusion.

Written by adswithoutproducts

March 22, 2015 at 10:57 am

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  1. I would also point out the similarity between heroism for Hal and Leo Strauss. It’s hard not see Wallace as a reluctant neocon, trying to buy his way out the masculine trap he built for himself.

    IJ was earth-shaking for me when I read it in college in 1998. But its overall prescriptions seem aimed at someone as stoned, young, and arrogant/insecure as I was; reading back over some of the AA/Gately stuff (this was a year ago) I was struck by how little power it has. His sins are pretty much laughable, actually. Given how cartoonish he made his male sinners in his later fiction, it’s hard not to think that the moralism was a total dodge. Hence the neocon connection.

    Incidentally, the new McCarthy book, which has a superb ending–the scene with Madison and the powerful man is incredibly real–seems devoted to upholding similar conventions, with its incredibly-dated belief in corporations channeling Deleuze and anthropology. Lol.

    Modulo Myself

    March 23, 2015 at 2:24 pm


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