[T]he worker is related to the product of labor as to an alien object… the more the worker spends himself, the more powerful becomes the alien world of objects which he creates over and against himself, the poorer he himself – his inner world – becomes, the less belongs to him as his own.”
Karl Marx, “Estranged Labor,”
Economic and Political Manuscripts of 1844
This week, recent hit movie The Muppets faced pointed accusations of left-wing anti-corporate child brainwashing on FOX News for its villainous depiction of oil baron and antagonist Tex Richman (played by a gloriously snarling, hilarious Chris Cooper).
According to Dan Gainor of the Media Research Center (a pro-free-market media analysis organization that claims 501c(3) tax exempt status as an educational non-profit), Hollywood has been indoctrinating children for years in left-wing anti-corporatism. In his report on The Muppets, Gainor lists such child-friendly fare as Syriana, There Will be Blood, The Day After Tomorrow and The Matrix alongside Captain Planet and the Planeteers and Nickelodeon’s environmental community service initiative, The Big Green Help (his list, not mine), as examples of Hollywood’s mission to brainwash children into disregarding the social good performed by the oil industry.
This is ridiculous, of course. The Muppets are not leftists by any contemporary definition of the word. The Muppets is not about the oil industry, and There Will Be Blood should not be shown to children.
No, the Muppets are philosophical Marxists, who look past the trivial disagreements among our current ruling classes and institutions to the enduring spirit of humanity, which, left free of exploitation, might transcend the alienation it experiences in relation to its own work in modern society.
Of course, it is not so much a political message as a philosophical message, and you do not have to come to the same conclusions Marx does about the necessary action in the present day in order to recognize his insights, especially relating to how work changes people and the challenges it creates for us as human beings.
The Muppets addresses alienation in many forms: alienation of the individual from society, alienation of the subjective self from the expected and understood role of the individual, alienation of the self from the other, alienation of the self from knowledge of itself, and Gonzo, to name a few. But it is also concerned with economic alienation – the alienation of the worker from the product of his or her work, and the effect that has on the worker’s sense of self and social relationships.
Are you a man, or are you a Muppet? Who are the Muppets, and who are the Muppet masters? Rise up, you have nothing to lose but that guy’s hand up your AFTER THE JUMP —
The Pundits, the Dreamers and Me
Andrea Tanteros, who hosts The Five, the show that replaced The Glenn Beck Show on FOX News, decried in The Muppets what she sees as inappropriate and growing influence of the political left on the young, through the Jim Henson Studios and The Walt Disney Company (NYSE: DIS):
It is brainwashing in its most obvious form. I just wish liberals would leave little kids alone. Why does there have to be some sort of political message? I thought Sesame Street is supposed to be about sharing and being nice to people, but over the years, they’ve gotten more liberal.”
There are a whole bunch of reasons to take issue with this reading of the story (and I’m focusing here on the literary and philosophical interpretation of the piece, because this is not a politics site) — most obviously, the Muppets in The Muppets are entrepreneurs running a small business, and they’re hardly political leftists. Kermit lives in a mansion bought with the money he made from the Muppet shows and movies of the 70s-90s. Gonzo is the CEO of a plumbing corporation. Piggy is the plus-size editor for French Vogue. Kermit and Piggy even regret their failed marriage and wish they had taken their shot at a traditional family. Fozzie sells his skills freelance and works at a casino. The primary reason The Muppet Show is brought back to the stage and screen in the movie is to make a profit, and their goal in the film is to raise enough money to buy back the studio and the land on it in line with an existing business contract that gives them the explicit opportunity to do so. Hardly enough to write their ticket to McCarthyville.
Yes, the telethon is a charitable endeavor, but Kermit provides value to his customers, and he makes his case straight-faced to network execs, not in the grimy basement publishing rooms of Pravda. The movie shows the value of hard work, effective teams, putting the right talent in the right roles, and experienced, prudent, balanced management that knows when to take risks and when to resist reinventing what already works. You could probably make yourself a lot of cynical money writing It’s Not Easy Being Team: The Rainbow Connection in Start-Ups. In The Muppets, when the revolution shows up, it comes with a check to pay its mortgage.
Meanwhile, Tex Richman’s opposition to the Muppets is hardly market-driven. He seeks to manipulate the legal system, defrauding senior citizens, making false promises in his business deals, and when the competitiveness and value of the Muppet Show is going to win out, he resorts to underhanded tactics, violence, and destruction of private property to maintain his hegemony. He’s hardly a model business leader, and he’s very against market competition. So it’s pretty obvious the FOX report was blustery, empty sensationalism, which is fine. If I thought TV news were ever worth watching, I would not have seen The Chronicles of Riddick nearly as many times as I have (after all, they new episodes every night, and whole channels that play news all day). I didn’t come here to diss FOX News, and I certainly didn’t come here to bash political conservatives.
But I did come to correct Andrea Tanteros on one thing, The Muppets sure aren’t becoming more liberal. While the Muppets have chased market solutions to their financial woes since a decade before I was born, at the heart of their characterizations and stories has always been the question of what this work does to who we are — to our characters and to our spirits. Like many works of philosophy and most Muppet stories that are any good, The Muppets is about alienation: specifically, the sort of alienation you endure when you work to somebody else’s profit rather than your own.
The Muppets have always addressed the tension between the American Dream and the damage it does, and how people can transcend the alienation they face as workers in a capitalist society through a combination of being true to themselves and being open and generous to others. In Marx’s writing, these ideas are deeply involved with one another.
It is just in his work upon the objective world, therefore, that man really proves himself to be a species-being. This production is his active species-life. Through this production, nature appears as his work and his reality. The object of labor is, therefore, the objectification of man’s species-life: for he duplicates himself not only, as in consciousness, intellectually, but also actively, in reality, and therefore he sees himself in a world that he has created. In tearing away from man the object of his production, therefore, estranged labor tears from him his species-life, his real objectivity as a member of the species and transforms his advantage over animals into the disadvantage that his inorganic body, nature, is taken from him.
Similarly, in degrading spontaneous, free activity to a means, estranged labor makes man’s species-life a means to his physical existence.”
Karl Marx, “Estranged Labor,”
Economic and Political Manuscripts of 1844
Okay, okay, okay, that’s a little tough to grasp. Let’s use a better formulation of it, from The Muppets Take Manhattan.
Peoples is Peoples
This was way back in 1984, when The Muppets, trying to pursue the American Dream by taking their musical, Manhattan Melodies to Broadway, found themselves broke and starving. Kermit asked Pete the diner owner if he could get food for his friends, despite being broke, offering to work it off. Pete responds with a poetic if incoherent statement on the species-being of humanity and the call to push past the restrictions private property and wage conventions place on our notions of ourselves and each other — to not let the things that the capitalist system makes us do to survive take away our deeper sense for the value and recognition we find in each other.
(So much for getting more liberal recently. This was almost 30 years ago. Sheesh.)
It isn’t entirely fair for me to call the Muppets Marxist — it is more that they recognize and create art from difficulties Marx proposed, while instead turning to friendship, compassion and generosity within a capitalist system to soften and attempt to transcend alienation, rather than destroying the system that puts it in place. Imagine a Muppets Take Manhattan where Pete denies Kermit’s request for food, so the Muppets riot, trashing the diner, carrying off Jennie, and force-feeding poor Pete a Greek omelet, 86 feta, laced with cyanide, before disemboweling and shooting him and all that Rasputin nonsense.
The Muppets are not Marxist-Leninist. The point is to recognize the alienating effects of the capitalist system, to portray reflect them empathetically to connect with the audience, and to move through them through self-ownership, self-actualization and species-actualization that comes from putting on The Muppet Show and related activities.
They are more Promethean figures, looking to offer post-capitalist self-actualization to people who continue to live in a capitalist world.
Moving Right Along.
Kermit the Frog and his fellow Muppet Show performers are usually economic underdogs – scrappy post-Vaudeville journeymen throwing together shows on shoestring budgets while scrambling with shoddy equipment and inadequate staffing, always one blown fuse away from giving everyone their money back. Much of the humor of The Muppet Show and the movie The Muppets, as well as of the Muppets in general, comes from how their essential nature shows through their difficulty. They lack resources and skills that might tend to add value to commercial artistic performances, but having them would subtract (and in the case of newer, shinier post-Elmo Sesame Street, does subtract) from their authenticity and aesthetic value.
This is because the Muppets are not, or at least strive not to be, commodified entertainment. They are difficult, intellectual and very meta, like the similarly Marxist-influenced (but un-Muppetish in other ways) Epic Theatre of Bertolt Brecht. Their relationships and love stories are rarely strictly sentimental and are often mature and bittersweet. The Muppet Show is not a variety show, it is a backstage show about putting on a variety show — you do not get the finished product of the labor of the Muppets as your entertainment to consume — you get a chance to connect with them and move past your own alienation by connecting with them.
The Muppets tend to break up and go into the regular workforce in Muppet movies and shows (as they do in The Muppets), only to discover that living their lives on their own as part of everyday society doesn’t give them the same sort of authentic experience and senses of community that they bring out of each other when they do their own kind of work. This is the Marxist alienation and estrangement of labor that metastasizes and grows to become profound personal alienation and the reduction of the species-self as merely a means in the labor system.
We don’t enjoy the Muppets by enjoying what they perform for us, we enjoy them by sharing their experiences.
So, what does this the end of alienation look like? Well, it is both stridently individualistic and compassionate and collectivist – a lot like folksy America. A lot like a road trip:
You Have Nothing to Lose But Your Fart Shoes
Let’s follow this idea one step further — what is a Muppetish performative act, how is it Marxist-influenced, and how is it different from sentimental or commodified performance art? Our example will be Fozzie Bear’s signature utterance, “Wocka Wocka Wocka” (I always preferred Wakka Wakka, but this is how the Muppet Wiki spells it).
In speech act theory, utterances are explained in terms of three levels of meaning:
- The “locutionary” level, which is how they are produced and their definitions, syntax and semantics by their most basic, functional interpretations.
- The “illocutionary” level, which is what the statement ostensibly or intentionally means, or what it does.
- The “perlocutionary” level, which is their effect, whether it is intended or not.
Let’s do a warmup:
Iceman tells Maverick “You can be my wingman any time,” and Maverick responds, “Bullshit, you can be mine.”
- Maverick’s locutionary act is the meanings of the word bullshit, and the syntax of how Maverick identifies Iceman and the status of Iceman as his wingman rather than the other way around.
- Maverick’s illocutionary act is the offer of wingmanship, and also an offer of friendship and mutual respect with maintained rivalry.
- Maverick’s perlocutionary act is an acknowledgement and gratification of building homoerotic tension for the two characters and the audience — not by way of sex acts, but by way of growing and exploring themselves through each other.
Get it? Got it? Good.
In this song from The Muppets, “Pictures in my Head”:
Consider this joke from Fozzie (who in the song is appearing in a picture frame as Kermit has a montage of memories of his distant friends).
I didn’t do it, I’ve been framed! Wocka Wocka Wocka!”
“Estranged Labor,” Economic and Political Manuscripts of 1844 (Wocka Wocka Wocka)
Okay, in the actual joke, not the citation, how does “Wocka Wocka Wocka” function in speech act theory?
- As a locutionary act, Fozzie is uttering an onomatopoetic laugh.
- As an ilocutionary act, Fozzie is prompting the audience to laugh at his joke.
- As a perlocutionary act, Fozzie is prompting the audience to share laughter with him on the merits of the shared experience of his making the joke.
The one scene in The Muppets that works the least for me is when Jack Black is tied up and Fozzie is telling jokes. The audience doesn’t laugh at Fozzie’s jokes, but they laugh at Jack Black begging them to call the police. They think he thinks the jokes are bad, but really he has been kidnapped.
I don’t like the scene because the point with Fozzie’s jokes was never just that they were bad. They aren’t funny because they are bad. Lots of people tell bad jokes, and they’re not funny.
What’s funny about Fozzie’s jokes is how much Fozzie enjoys telling them. Fozzie loves the jokes he tells, not necessarily on their merits, but because of his simple joy in the act of telling. We as an audience laugh at “Wocka Wocka Wocka” because he is tipping his hand to us that he is just having a blast doing what he is doing — that he loves the feeling of telling corny jokes to people and is a consummate professional at it. We have all felt and recognized the various aspects of that feeling at times — loving to do something despite being terrible at it, maybe even a little bit because we are terrible at it, but yearning more than anything not quite to be good at it, but to find in it a way to connect with others — to find recognition and mutual identification. To traverse our own alienation.
Fozzie owns his work. Oh, he performs it for Kermit, sure, and Kermit makes more money than Fozzie does, as we see in The Muppets when Kermit lives in a mansion and Fozzie lives on a back porch on a Reno alley exposed to the elements. But Fozzie does not feel estranged from the product of his labor, because it is so authentic to him, and it connects him both with himself and with other people.
Marxism may have problems with people having bosses, but Kermit is a boss who gives people opportunities to do things that are authentic to them — in that way he corrects one of the fundamental flaws in 19th century management that led Marx to deem it a lost cause. Add that, a little health insurance, some vacation, a decent night’s sleep, and suddenly the revolution isn’t looking so likely after all.
The Muppet Name
The fact of the story that ties is all up for me is how the Muppet name and intellectual property, even the Muppets’ own likenesses, are bound up in the contract with their ownership of their studio — which represents their ability to work authentically, without feeling alienated from themselves or humanity (obviously they are not human, but “peoples is peoples” as Pete would say). Whenever they go off to work somewhere else, they end up alienated, when they are back at The Muppet Show, they are themselves, and they feel better and more whole. Lose that self-ownership, and the work becomes this alien thing to them — they don’t even recognize themselves.
This is set up in the story against the existential crises of Walter and Gary, which are more personal and less economic, but rhyme somewhat with the problems the Muppets go through in the movie.
And why teach this to children? Because children feel profound alienation and need for belonging. It is part of their social and intellectual development. That is why kids respond to the Muppets, not because of politics. If the political left were so good at its job that it could create things as awesome as the Muppets for strictly political purposes, they would probably be doing quite a bit better in a whole lot of ways right now. But again, that is all beside the point.
Marx believed the only way to eventually break this cycle was for the proletariat to seize the means of production and abolish private property, which by necessity brought about this alienation. The Muppets had a different plan for how to go about it — it had something to do with playing music and lighting lights…