SEX, SOCIAL CLASS, AND TECHNOLOGICAL CHANGE
AT THE END OF THE CENTURY
Summary: Today we will contemplate gender, work, and the
changing configuration of public and private in 1990s American
culture. We will consider the impact of economic and
technological changes on nineties American work and private
life. We will consider the examples of Dilbert, Office Space, and
The Sopranos. We will conclude by considering The Matrix and
its commentary on postmodern American life.
Broader connecting themes
Manhood, technology, and the American dream
Race, class, and national identity:
Euro-American versus African-American manhood
The urban landscape at the end of the 20th
Technology, selfhood, and community
As we proceed through today’s
discussion, let’s think about race,
class, and economic change at the
end of the century.
This representation of Martin
Luther King, Jr.’s “Dream
Speech” also invites us to ponder
the following question:
For many Americans, what has
become of the American dream at
the end of the twentieth century?
Materials for discussion today:
On work, manhood, and technological change:
The Sopranos (online clip from first episode)
The Matrix (in-class clips and discussion)
On politics and representation:
Brief discussion of Monica Lewinsky scandal
Sex, Lies, and Clinton
Monica Lewinsky affair enters the headlines, January 1998
•Clinton misleads the American public on television
•Lewinsky testifies before a grand jury in August 1998
•Clinton apologizes for misleading the public and hurting his
family, but insists on legal accuracy of his denials
•Starr Report becomes public in October 1998
•House votes to impeach Clinton, Senate does not (highly
•Clinton loyalists come to his defense: Lewinsky affair was a
private affair between consenting adults
•Democrats gain 5 seats in Congress in 1998 elections; Gingrich
leaves office under a cloud of impropriety
•Polls indicate that Americans overwhelmingly believed Clinton
to be guilty but the vast majority did not want him removed
Interpenetration of public and private
emergence of a confessional culture (recall Patrick Bateman’s
obsession with The Patty Winters Show)
sex as a public issue
Economic and Technological Change
Anxieties about Sex, Gender, and Family Life
Work, Class, and Culture in 1990s
Changes in the national economy promote prosperity
Cultural contemplations of white-collar malaise:
Scott Adams' Dilbert and cubicle life (see Dilbert comics
"It started as a doodle at work, at a large bank. He got
developed over time, also at work, and one day I realized I
had something." -Scott Adams on the origins of Dilbert
Office Space (1999)
This film chronicles the dreary life of Peter
Gibbons (Ron Livingston), a software
engineer cubicle dweller at Initech. Peter
has a frustrating commute, tiresome
coworkers, an inane boss and a girlfriend
that he's pretty sure is cheating on him. The
only bright spots in his life are his two
friends at work, Samir (Ajay Naidu), and
the unfortunately named Michael Bolton
(David Herman), his laid-back construction
worker neighbor Lawrence (Diedrich
Bader), and Joanna, a waitress at the local
Chotchkie's restaurant whom he worships
from afar (Jennifer Aniston).
From synopsis at imdb.com
Scene of smashing the photocopier from
The Sopranos (screen clip of first episode
written and directed by David Chase,
commentary on manhood and confessional culture
interaction of public and private identity
depiction of work
depiction of the upper-middle class
references to popular culture
relationship to the gangster myth
Season 1, Episode 1: “The Sopranos”
Tony Soprano tries to be a good family man on two fronts - to his wife, kids and widowed mother -
and as a capo in the New Jersey mob. The pressures of work and family life give him anxiety
attacks, so Tony starts seeing a psychiatrist; which is not the kind of thing a guy advertises in the
circles Tony moves in - it could get him killed. So he keeps it to himself.
What caused all this stress? On the home front his marriage is shaky and his mother needs to be
put in a nursing home (he calls it a "retirement community" but she still won't go). Uncle Junior
wanted to use Tony's childhood friend's restaurant to whack a guy named Pussy Malenga, but Tony
prevented the hit by blowing the place up. When a Czech mob attempted to move in on the
Sopranos' waste management business, Tony's hot-headed nephew Chris "handled the problem" by
murdering their representative and dumping him on Staten Island without getting the permission
of the administration. To top it all off, Tony is haunted by the feeling that the glory days of mob
life are long gone, and that he might not measure up to the titans of the past.
Madon'! It's enough to make anyone want to see a shrink.
From HBO’s Sopranos website
Tony as Everyman
In general, The Sopranos holds up a mirror to American
middle-class life, and the distortions viewed in that mirror seem
exaggerated for the sake of narrative effect. But these effects are
not nearly as distorted as we like to imagine. Though comprising
less than twenty-five percent of the global village, we consume
over seventy percent of the world’s resources. Our gady lifestyle,
with its insatiable thirst for resources, presupposes a level of
violence against nature, against each other. In The Sopranos, this
violence is normalized, made to appear casual, unremarkable.
Even the most extreme instances of violence in the series are
played a little tongue-in-cheek. (Parini, 86)
Season 1, Episode 8: “The Legend of Tennessee Moltisanti”
This week, an ugly rumor made its way around Essex County, and it can be summed up in one word:
At the wedding of Larry Boy Barese's daughter, all the wiseguys talked about were the indictments
coming down and how half of New York has already left for Fort Lauderdale. So the question was,
what are Tony and his associates going to do, lam it or stay? The decision was for everyone to stay -
but do a little "housecleaning" in case anyone shows up on the doorstep in an "FBI" jacket.
Later, there's a television broadcast naming everybody in the Soprano crew as possible subjects of a
grand jury investigation. Everybody but Christopher, that is. So he got upset because he's not named.
Very upset. Depressed, even. After all, if he's not significant enough to warrant a warrant, what's the
point of his life?
To put it mildly, Christopher started falling apart. He had nightmares about Emil Kolar. He
infuriated Tony by shooting a clerk in bakery. When he tries to take his mind off things by writing a
screenplay, it only makes things worse. Madonn' - what's going on with him, anyway?
Not to worry. Just as Christopher is about to hit bottom, he's named in the newspaper as a "reputed
gangster." Life is good and he's got a new lease on it. . .
From HBO’s Sopranos website
Work and Selfhood in the Internet Age: Wachowski
Brothers, The Matrix (1999)
"In an anti-Utopian future, the 'real' world as we
know it is nothing more than a computer construct,
created by an all-powerful artificial intelligence. A
small group of humans has found a way out of the
construct, and are now fighting for the future of the
human race."--from container.
Neo awakes in a world of all white. He is in the Construct, a
"loading platform" that Morpheus and his team use to prepare to
deal with the Matrix world. Gone are the sockets in Neo's arms
and neck. He has hair again. Morpheus tells him that what he is
experiencing of himself is the "residual self image, the mental
projection of your digital self" and bids him to sit while he
explains the truth. "This," he says, showing an image of a
modern city, "is the world that you know." A thing that really
exists "only as part of a neural, interactive simulation that we call
Morpheus shows Neo the world as it truly exists today, a scarred,
desolate emptiness with charred, abandoned buildings, black
earth, and a shrouded sky.
Morpheus goes on to say that "at some point in the early 21st
century all of mankind was united in celebration as we gave
birth" to artificial intelligence, a "singular consciousness that
birthed an entire race of machines."
--synopsis at imdb.com
The Matrix, Baudrillard, and
Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation (1985)
original French Simulacres et Simulation is the book in
which Neo hides illicit software
“The simulacrum is never that which conceals
the truth--it is the truth which conceals that
there is none. The simulacrum is true.” -
Baudrillard on Postmodernity and
Life at the End of the 20th Century
Modern society has replaced all reality and meaning
with symbols and signs
The human experience is of a simulation of reality
rather than reality itself.
The simulacra are signs of culture and media that create
the perceived reality
Society has become so reliant on simulacra that it has
lost contact with the real world on which the simulacra
Morpheus: The Matrix is a system, Neo. That
system is our enemy. But when you're inside,
you look around, what do you see?
Businessmen, teachers, lawyers, carpenters. The
very minds of the people we are trying to save.
But until we do, these people are still a part of
that system and that makes them our enemy.
You have to understand, most of these people
are not ready to be unplugged. And many of
them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on
the system, that they will fight to protect it.
Morpheus: What is the Matrix? Control. The
Matrix is a computer-generated dream world
built to keep us under control in order to change
a human being into this.
[holds up a Duracell battery]
Neo: No, I don't believe it. It's not possible.
Morpheus: I didn't say it would be easy, Neo. I
just said it would be the truth.