If you really want to divide people into two opposing tribes, and judging by the political divide between Conservatives & Liberals it seems that we do, then this is the real dividing line.
People who treat culture as absolute.
People who see culture as a construct.
Pop quiz. Is America a real place? Or are Americans just a big gang of people pretending that America is real? Is the Christian faith the absolute word of God? Or just some old fairy tales? What’s your name? Hey, good to meet you James! Now is James really you…or is James just a label attached to you?
You get the idea.
Westworld is an entry in the “WOAH CULTURE IS A CONSTRUCT!!!” school of thought. It’s the story of some androids who believe they are real people living in a real town, but are slowly awakening to the reality that they are artificial, constructed androids playing roles in a wild west theme park.
You see the metaphor there?
It’s not an original metaphor. Philip K Dick played out the same ideas in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, and numerous other stories. The Matrix is just one big giant metaphor for awakening to the constructed reality of culture. American Gods, both the novel and recent tv show, are about the construction of cultural reality. In fact sci-fi is, arguably, all about the construction of realt(ies).
Westworld is that kind of scifi, but after a strong pilot episode, it quickly nose dives. About half-way through the show’s first season I realised why. I knew this was a show about “culture as construct” after about seven minutes. But the showrunners were playing the idea as though they were the first people ever to argue this case, and simply getting bogged down in announcing their own cleverness.
That’s symptomatic of the show’s deeper problem. It treats its ideas as mindcandy, and showrunners Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan come out looking like tourists playing with ideas that deserve to be taken more seriously. Because this dividing line between “culture as absolute” vs “culture as construct” is at the heart of our culture wars today.
Think about The Handmaid’s Tale, a much more intelligent story than Westworld, that’s nonetheless working with many of the same themes. The theocratic Republic of Gilead is a constructed culture. A complete invention. Cobbled together by a brutal patriarchal regieme. The people of Gilead are forced to play roles, and if you happen to be a woman your role is to suffer under total male domination.
The Handmaid’s Tale is a story, but the conditions of oppression it describes are 100% real. We live in a constructed culture, where to be the wrong gender, colour, sexuality or class is to be condemned to ongoing forms of oppresion. This isn’t a fiction. This isn’t sci-fi. It’s reality for billions of people in this world. The boundaries and extent of oppression may shift over time, but it remains all too real.
Westworld reads like a story told by and for people who find the idea of “culture as construct” entertaining, but don’t really grok its lived experience. People who read Marx, Foucault and Baudrillard at college, but never saw themselves described as the targets of structural violence. People who still really believe in their culture as an absolute, that just happens to always favour them.
Maybe we need Westworld as “intro to critical cultural theory” for the masses. But I’m glad that it wasn’t lauded with Emmys for the many ways that it fails.