It will be a number of months before Sonia Maasik and I begin work on the ninth edition of Signs of Life in the U.S.A. but, given the continuing evolution of American popular culture, I am always watching and assessing the current signs in anticipation of whatever new directions the next edition of the book will need to take. So I was rather taken this morning by an L.A. Times headline to the effect that Mad Max: Fury Road stands to "lead the pack" with as many as ten Oscar nods, when the nominations are announced on the day this blog is scheduled to appear .
And, no, I am not going to make any predictions about the matter myself in this blog. That isn't what popular cultural semiotics is about.
What I find so striking about this successful return of the Mad Max franchise is how it reflects a continuation and, perhaps, intensification, of a popular cultural trend that receives a good deal of attention in the current (eighth) edition of Signs of Life. This is the phenomenon explored in Chapter 3, "Video Dreams," of the "new Westerns" that have been appearing in both television and the cinema. Such entertainments as The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones reset the stage of the traditional Western while maintaining the basic situation: an endless battle for survival conducted by armed men and women in a lawless wilderness. When you add to this the predictable (and predicted) mega-blockbuster success of the latest Star Wars episode—which, with its desert settings and echoes of the very first movie in the series (remember that famous saloon scene?), may well qualify as a new Western as well, especially in its vision of a world permanently at war—a fairly obvious, yet nonetheless important significance appears.
As we put it in the current edition of Signs of Life, the new Westerns (and related fantasies) "appeal to a society suffering from an apparently eternal threat of terroristic violence and economic malaise. As individuals we may feel helpless in the face of such forces, but as audiences we can find in the new Westerns an imaginary freedom to resist, while at the same time being reassured that everyone is as badly off as we are." (There is also the possibility, I must add, that the imaginary prospect of a life filled with the constant excitement and stimulation of perpetual combat—no boring cubicles or bills to pay here!—is also one of the big attractions of the new Western.)
Thus, there is a significant difference between the Westerns and war stories of the past and those of the present. Sure, The Lord of the Rings is about a war: but that war ends, decisively, with the destruction of the Ring. And certainly, the American cinema is awash with war stories—especially with respect to the Second World War. But those stories too portend an end to the violence. In High Noon Marshal Will Kane confronts the bad guys, blows them away, and that's that. But the new stories make it a fundamental premise that the violence not only has no ending, it really has no interruptions. Each of Tolkien's ages of Middle Earth end in a climactic battle (implying future wars, of course), but at least the wars are thousands of years apart. But in Mad Max—which is a new Western if there ever was one—the whole point is that battle is all that there is, and no victory is ever complete in the Star Wars, Walking Dead, and Thrones sagas.
What with the rise of ISIS/ISIL, the Paris and San Bernardino attacks, and the continuing evisceration of the American middle class, the conditions that helped foster the new Western have only been intensified since Sonia and I addressed them for the eighth edition of Signs of Life in the U.S.A. The return of Mad Max is a sign of this continuation and intensification. America appears to be stuck in a very bad place. The preface to the eighth edition begins with the words, "The more things change, the more they . . . intensify." I am beginning to suspect that the ninth edition will be composed under similar conditions.