The Sopranos and Adult Entertainment

I have been thinking about the definitions of ‘adult’. Pierre Bourdieu defines adult in terms of ‘social age’ which is separate from ‘biological age’. When one is an ‘adult’ one assumes certain responsibilities in exchange for assuming certain freedoms. However, there is another definition of ‘adult’ (and therefore ‘age’). This was made apparent to me while rewatching the early seasons of The Sopranos. It relates to Adorno’s conception of mass-culture as belonging to an infantile milieu. Here he describes it in terms of mass-produced music:

Not only do the listening subjects lose, along with the freedom of choice and responsibility, the capacity for conscious perception of music, which was from time immemorial confined to a narrow group, but they stubbornly reject the possibility of such perception. They fluctuate between comprehensive forgetting and sudden dives into recognition. They listen atomistically and dissociate what they hear, but precisely in this dissociation they develop certain capacities which accord less with the concepts of traditional aesthetics than with those of football and motoring. They are not childlike, as might be expected on the basis of an interpretation of the new type of listener in terms of the introduction to musical life of groups previously unacquainted with music. But they are childish; // their primitivism is not that of the undeveloped, but that of the forcibly retarded. […]
Together with sport and film, mass music and the new listening help to make escape from the whole infantile milieu impossible. The sickness has a preservative function. […]
Regressive listening is tied to production by the machinery of distribution, and particularly by advertising. Regressive listening appears as soon as advertising turns into terror, as soon as nothing is left for the consciousness but to capitulate before the superior power of the advertised stuff and purchase spiritual peace by making the imposed goods, // literally its own thing. In regressive listening, advertising takes on a compulsory character. (The Culture Industry, 46-48, bold added)

The Sopranos itself, particularly the first and maybe second seasons, is a complex text. The tensions staked out between the main characters are purposeful and crisp. They involve complex everday life problems (rendered mildly cartoonish through the sex and violence and mobsterisms). The vehicle of this network of tensions is the psychiatrist-guided self-exploration of mob boss Tony Soprano. One of the core tensions is between the image of the media-spectacle ‘mob boss’ as a powerful totality and the unfinished dimension of Tony’s character. The media itself is tackled and represented in terms of its capacity to block or close off relative to the open potential of Tony’s (dare I write it) becoming. (Or should I say the becomings of the Tony-Psychiatrist assemblage.) There are various other tensions similar to this mainly in terms of identity (fatherhood, childhood, motherhood, sexual identity, drug addiction, etc).

Although there are some problems with the obviousness of the matriarchial-victim/agitator plot line of the first and second seasons, it is obvious that in later seasons the death of the actress (Nancy Marchand) who played Tony’s mother, Livia Soprano, was to the show’s detriment. Instead of Tony’s singular unfinished nature, with all his strengths and frailties, gentleness and violence, the horizon of the ‘mob-boss/mafioso’ image spreads to that of the ‘minor’ characters. The ‘minor’ characters are much less engaging. The plot mechanism is still often psychiatry or psychiatric help, and the horizon of potentiality is constructed through various tensions being played out through other characters.

What might be useful here, in part, is Agamben’s reworking of Deleuze’s initial conception of cinema and the ‘movement-image’. Agamben rethinks the ‘movement-image’ as being the ‘unity of gestures’ (from an essay on Agamben’s work here):

Cinema, especially silent cinema, is the primary and exemplary medium for trying to evoke gestures in the process of their loss. Deleuze defines the images of cinema as, initially, movement-images, and Agamben extends this analysis. If Deleuze breaks down the image into movement-images, Agamben will further break down the image into gestures. If the unity of the image has been broken, then we are left with only gestures and not images. What is this fragmentation of the image? The image is a kind of force field that holds together two opposing forces. The first is that the image reifies and obliterates the gesture, fixing it into the static image. The second is that the image also preserves the dynamic force of the gesture, linking the gesture to a whole. What we need to do is to liberate this dynamic force from the static spell of the image.

Debord’s cinema reinstates the gesture as part of the image and not the image as a reified segment of an image-series. The ‘gesture’ is Agamben’s term for the molecular components of the image that allows us to think the potentiality of the image, rather than is subsumption in the cinematic totality of pornography or advertising’s endlessly deferring image-series:

The spontaneous ideology of communication is that the medium is secondary to expression. When something is ‘properly’ expressed we no longer notice the medium. The repetition and stoppage of montage reveal the medium, the ‘pure means’, and allow it to be shown as such. Not so much particular images but the image as medium: ‘The image gives itself to be seen instead of disappearing into what makes it visible’. Agamben gives two very different examples of this showing of the image as such, which reveal that the image is, in fact, imageless, because it is no longer an image of anything. One is pornography or advertising, in which the image is revealed as deficient, exposed as such, *but only to lead us on to more images*. There are always more images promised that will fulfill our desire but this image as such is not it. The other way, Debord’s way, is to exhibit the image and so to allow the appearance of ‘imagelessness’. In this case there is no longer some other image but the end of the image. It is in the difference between these two strategies that the ethics and politics of cinema exist.

Agamben’s ‘gesture’ I think is going to be useful for eventually thinking through how it is possible to imagine a minoritarian use of the cinematic. The cinematic is not cinema. Cinema is the industrial-cultural mechanism for the distribution of cinematic properties (ie commodities not states or capacities) for consumption. On the other hand, the cinematic is the dimensions of everyday life that has been described as ‘the aestheticization’ through the proliferation of ‘screens’. It is precisely the tension between the cinematic expressionism of the spectacle and the materialist semiotics from which it derives that can serve as another motor for the end of the image. The problem is that cinema is not even the privileged arm of the cinematic anymore. Maybe Pop Art has already done all this? I am not sure.

Anyway, it is possible to think of The Sopranos as combining elements of Adorno’s aligned infantile milieu through the sex and violence and Agamben’s gestural imagelessness through Tony’s (and others’) multiple splayed tensions. This is the paradox of so-called ‘adult entertainment’. One has to be an ‘adult’ so as to be infantile enough to be subsumed by the gross stupidity of the totalizing reified image. This is a principle of recognition ‘adult’ whereby one becomes part of a vertical hierarchy. Not only does The Soprano’s contain this as part of the show’s actual storyline, but the show’s power comes from it representing representations of adult media not as media, but through the characters themselves as (non)expressions of this media. The best example is the singular image of Silvio’s impersonation of movie mobsters. The actor playing Silvio (Steven Van Zandt) plays a mobster playing an actor who is playing a mobster. Silvio perform’s a stylised voice and gesture of actor Al Pacino’s line from Godfather III, “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.” The ‘gesture’ is part of an image that has an unfinished gestural dimension. It is a ‘dark precursor’: a differentiator between two (or more) heterogeneous series. Not between two media commodities (The Sopranos and The Godfather III) or the serial cultural event franchise of mobsterisms, but between the gestural potentiality of the image (to ‘articulate’ and ‘become’) and the ‘closed totality’ of the pornovertising’s endless image-series of infantile subsumption.

EDIT 23/04/06: The problem for critics and critical scholars is that the distinction made above between the unfinished gestural and the closed totality of the image is never absolute or definitive. One activity of the fan is to potentialise the ‘image’ through forcing a gestural cleave by tracing to a sufficient end the circuits/networks within which the image is suspended. That is, the image in itself may not be interesting, but the gestural dimension of the inter-textual image-chain or circuit may be. This act of tracing is similar (in the sense of being an extended version) to the significatory chain that Deleuze writes about in Proust.