by ONC Wang
Cut, no. 33, Feb. 1988, pp. 10-19
The discourses of VICE
Three discourses dominate the TV show MIAMI VICE, and account for its popularity. The subtitle of Emily Benedek's 1985 Rolling Stone article on MIAMI VICE identifies the three discourses thus: "Sex and drugs and rock & roll ambush primetime TV."[open notes in new window] In 1985, that subtitle seemed to date Rolling Stone, MIAMI VICE, and their conceptions of the cutting edge. Sex and drugs and rock & roll had finally hit mainstream U.S. television, after they had hit the rest of the United States for the last twenty odd years. In 1987, the libidinal promise of Benedek's subtitle has, eerily enough, taken on an unexpected relevancy. Because of such phenomena as the politics of AIDS, Nancy Reagan's saying "No" to drugs, and Nike's using the Beatles' "Revolution" to sell their shoes, people are once again debating what is at stake in sex and drugs and rock & roll: what sex and drugs and rock & roll mean.
In this article, I examine MIAMI VICE's answer to that debate. Most of my examples come from the show's first season, the fall of 1984 to the spring of 1985. As we shall see, the trends of that first season have since come to appear in many other areas of U.S. mass culture. These trends challenge leftists and progressives in a way we cannot ignore. While we fight with the far right for basic constitutional rights about our privacy and our bodies, we must simultaneously distinguish our own vocabularies for libidinal pleasure from late capitalism's own versions of sex and drugs and rock & roll. To make such distinctions is not always easy; at times it may seem impossible, except through a dialectical critique. At other times, however, the choice, like other issues in this country, is all too clear. First, then consider…
Sex and VICE
This song of indeterminate sexual practice, played by a band whose gay affiliations are part of its spectacle, accompanies the opening shots of one MIAMI VICE episode. The song's rhythm is hypnotic, with its one lyric repeating and folding in upon itself again and again. The scene is a heroin shooting gallery, with the room bathed in lurid neon colors. What, however, is narrated in these opening shots? The show's two female cops, Gina and Trudy, have just infiltrated the shooting gallery as junkies. They are without backup because MIAMI VICE's main protagonists, Sonny Crockett and Ricardo Tubbs, have conveniently lost them in traffic. In order not to blow their cover, the two women must accept the head pusher's open offer of drugs and intimated demand for sex. Just as they seem to acquiesce, they instead pull out their guns in perfect synchronization to the music, the lurid neon lights, and the unexpected arrival of the show's two heroes. The music breaks off, replaced by the sound of very loud gunfire.
This episode has, in effect, transformed the signifiers of transgression into those of titillation. The subversive power of Frankie's transgression against heterosexual propriety now merely becomes mood music for one commonplace male heterosexual narrative of titillation, the possibility of women made helpless and submissive by drugs. That the women turn out not to be helpless only shows how the scene titillates and then represses the fantasy it has given the audience. Indeed, we will see this formula of titillation/ repression occurring again and again in the show.
For, like the most vociferous Jonathan Edwards sermon, the eradication of vice on MIAMI VICE is intrinsically linked with its graphic exposure/ exploitation. As its title suggests, the show is not only about Miami's Vice squad, but about vice in Miami. Another way of putting this is that cop shows attract us not by the representation of norms, but by norms' disturbance and rectification; not because of the law, but because of crime and its punishment. Other genres, like horror and gangster films, also use a version of disturbance and rectification in their narratives, when they portray an evil that is then stamped out. In horror films, however, the evil is oftentimes a fear that must be confronted, if not exorcised. Thus David Cronenberg's films explore the suspicion that the human body and its biological functions are the site of nausea and monstrosity.
In contrast, cop shows and gangster films often explicitly portray evil as a desire — a vice — that is prohibited by the law. The disturbance by, and the rectification of, a vice is thus the way the cop show — and MIAMI VICE especially allows the viewer to indulge in what the show defines as vice. The dynamics among disturbance, rectification, exposure, and exploitation also create a spiral effect, an ongoing self-regeneration of titillation, repression, and titillation. Visually, the bikini-straps and other string-like garments for the body that proliferate within MIAMI VICE mark out the terrain that may be exploited forever, since it will never be fully unclothed.
Simultaneously, the definition of vice itself works under a set of thematic prohibitions. As the episode that used "Frankie Goes to Hollywood" shows, the discourse of sex that saturates MIAMI VICE remains safely inscribed within the boundaries of patriarchal heterosexuality. "Evan," the only episode in MIAMI VICE's first year that dealt with homosexuality directly, safely defuses the issue by turning it into a drama of male heterosexual bonding, where Evan and Sonny are detectives haunted by the death of a mutual friend. This show distinguishes between male friendship and loyalty and male sexual love, with the latter portrayed as a forgivable sin, and the former termed as existential necessities. Evan's own crime, then, is not so much his homophobia as the fact that he let his homophobia override his loyalty to his gay partner, who, then distraught, died in a suicidal bust. Sonny, guilty of the same crime to a lesser degree, is saved by his "authentic" relationship with his new partner, Tubbs. Sonny's confession of his feelings to Tubbs constitutes a healthy male bonding that contrasts with Evan's tortured alienation from the male community. While Sonny still works with a partner, Evan now works as a solo undercover cop. Sonny's confession also overrides male/female relationships, since Tubbs must leave his beautiful pickup at a singles bar in order to find out what's bothering Sonny.
The final shootout of the show portrays Evan's death scene in a slow motion ballet style, reminiscent of the master of violent male bonding, Sam Peckinpah. The scene makes no narrative sense whatsoever, except as an unveiling of the psychological underpinnings to the relationships between Evan, Sonny and Tubbs. The final shot focuses on Sonny holding a dying Evan in his arms. As Evan finishes speaking ("It's your turn next, Sonny."), Tubbs appears from the right side of the screen; the shot freezes and the credits roll. Perhaps Evan's last words problematize what will survive him, the relationship between Tubbs and Crockett. They and their bond do survive him, however, as Tubbs' appearance on the screen makes clear. Most importantly, they also survive the now totally marginalized cause of this episode, the cop with the "problematic" sexuality. Thus the show reiterates and preserves the primary building block of institutional law enforcement — and thus of the institution: male heterosexual partnerhip.
But why is MIAMI VICE inscribed within the boundaries of patriarchal heterosexuality? The show certainly fetishizes Crockett and Tubbs as sexual objects as much as the female bodies it flashes across the screen. The cheesecake photos of the actors portraying Sonny and Ricardo in Rolling Stone make that clear. Yet unlike the women in the show, Crockett and Tubbs' sexuality does not confine itself to their physical bodies, nor even to the style of their clothes (though a large part does reside there). Rather, it disseminates itself along every aspect of their character makeup — from how they argue with the bureaucracy on the telephone, to the way they drive their sports cars (usually a Ferrari the first year), to how they act streetwise with their stoolies, to how they blow away their enemies with state-of-the-art weaponry. Paradoxically, and again unlike the women in the show, Sonny's and Ricardo's subjectivities are neither evaluated solely by nor inscribed solely within their bodies. They are always "more" than mere sexual creatures: more of a cop, more of a partner, more of an individualist bucking the system. By thus having male self and sexuality relate in such a varied manner, MIAMI VICE announces itself as a narrative of patriarchy.
Perhaps the most subtle reinforcement of racial hierarchy in the show relates to these sexual dynamics. Only Tubbs, the black cop, did extended bedroom scenes the first year of the show. This is no small point, as they are given as much music, time and choreography as any other part of the show. Since MIAMI VICE's first season, Sonny has done a bedroom scene; I still believe, however, that the show visually emphasizes Tubbs' sexuality more. This emphasis has flowered into the surreal: witness, in the show's second season opener, Philip Michael Thomas' (aka Tubbs) and Pam Grier's extended foot sex scene. Much less than the women characters, but still more than his white counterpart, Tubbs is defined by — and thus confined to — sexual display of his body.
Still, it is the woman who becomes most confined to her body in the show. She seems an alien within her own home, as her body stands first and foremost as the site of male pleasure. Next to drug smuggling, female (not male) prostitution represents the largest vice on MIAMI VICE.
Again, the same formula of titillation/repression that we saw in the Frankie episode operates here, as the very representation of the prohibition and punishment of prostitution fetishizes all the accoutrements of that trade (the prostitute's clothing and make-up, their bodies, the black wet streets they walk upon, the motel rooms in which they conduct their business) and offers them up as entertainment. Thus the use of prostitute humor on the show seems not so much a liberal attitude as an interested strategy that increases the opportunity for titillation through accommodation and tolerance. Moreover, the prostitute merely repeats thematically the main function of all women on the show, i.e., to serve the male gaze of the audience.
MIAMI VICE's opening establishes this function every week, with its shot of the front row of gleaming Rolls Royces soon followed by one of the backs and buttocks of two young, bikini-clad women. Pleasure and property, flesh and wealth, all conflate. I observed earlier how Crockett's and Tubbs' sexuality disseminates itself through all aspects of their lifestyle. One can further note that much of this dissemination deals with their interaction with the material world: e.g., their sports cars, motorboats, and Sonny's golden Rolex. That there is a definite sexual charge to this interaction might shed a light on one level of their interaction with the women of the show. One wonders, in other words, whether sparks fly because the women are women, or because they are just another category of stylistic props. Does the women's sexuality turn them into objects to be possessed, or is the perception of them as commodity objects the reason for their sexuality? The representation of conspicuous consumption on MIAMI VICE trivializes the distinction between these two questions. Both the Rolls Royce and the woman's body stand as sites of male pleasure that can be obtained in the same way.
These dynamics map onto Trudy and Gina, the two supporting female police characters, in a more complex manner. Because of their detective prowess, martial arts ability, and confidence with guns, both female cops are much more empowered than other women on the show. Yet, at the beginning of the show's first season, an even more startling trait marked the difference between them and MIAMI VICE's other women. Trudy and Gina wore little make-up and dressed plainly except when they went undercover as prostitutes. The juxtaposition between their undercover and "real" selves was predictable. What was more jarring was the disjunction between them and the rest of the show's universe — or, more precisely, the expectations of that universe. The lack of any decoration upon their bodies called attention to the incredible style lavished on everything else (most obviously, on the other women) in the show. At that point in the season, Gina and Trudy seemed unique in that they had to go "undercover" to take on the signifiers of a discourse — the commodification of the female body — that the representation of other women on the show openly valorized and fetishized.
Halfway through the first season the gap between Gina and Trudy and the other women began to close: someone decided to change policy and both female cops became more glamorous. This was especially true of Gina, the white cop. Towards the end of the first season, one episode revolved around how Gina, posing as a hooker, had to sleep with a gangland boss. Lee Saudin's review of MIAMI VICE waxed enthusiastic over the episode, claiming a taboo had been broken, insofar as TV had always before considered such women undercover cops safe from sexual harm. If this episode did disturb such a fantasy, did it have that as its only intention and consequence? What Saudin took for a radical, cultural disturbance also repeated one basic service of MIAMI VICE, the possession of the female body as a site of male pleasure. As Saudin noted, the actual possession of Gina by the mob boss happened off-screen. This did not interfere, however, with the TV audience's more important possession and consumption of the onscreen images of Gina — as hooker.
Other episodes with other women establish this service more blatantly. In one, an opening scene that looks disturbingly like a porno flick turns out to be the filming of a porno flick. Even more so than when Gina is working as an undercover hooker, this episode's disjunction between appearance and reality, between porn and TV actress, only serves to emphasize how in the larger context of the male gaze and the female object, the TV audience and the TV show, there is no disjunction at all.
The drugs of VICE
"It's the lure of easy money
For the last two decades U.S. recreational drug culture could prove its difference from the rest of society by pointing to the mass media's laughable misrepresentation of drug use. Indeed, the drug culture lovingly adopted such representations as part of its own canon of weirdo Americana exotica. Why turn to Ralph Steadman's portraits of lizard businessmen when the businessmen themselves produced such classic distortions of reality as MARIJUANA: THE KILLER WEED or the DRAGNET episode where Sgt. Friday busts an acid party? DRAGNET was delightfully ludicrous in that its stereotypical signs for drug activity seemed so obviously the property of the dominant "straight" culture's imagination: e.g., the Prince Valiant "hippie" hairdos, the Nehru jackets, and the sitar muzak. MIAMI VICE has, however, changed this relation between drug and mass culture. For the first time on primetime TV, the signs of drug consumption are actually those of the drug culture, where MIAMI VICE's drug discourse coincides to a large degree with the same stylistic and imagistic vocabulary — e.g., coke mirrors, rock & roll, and MTV pyrotechnics — used by the drug culture to define itself.
"To a large degree" becomes an important qualification since MIAMI VICE's drug discourse discriminates in the sense that it is primarily the language of cocaine. Thematically the cocaine smugglers outnumber both heroin and pot dealers on the show. The stylistic dynamics are more complex since the signifiers of cocaine — the mirror, fast cars, sleek visual style, beautiful dazed models — also represent part of the discourse of opulent consumption in which cocaine itself forms another sign. Cocaine and wealth speak the same language, as cocaine remains the drug one can spend the most money on in the shortest period of time. It thus becomes the perfect allegory for opulent waste, consumer excess, and hyperbolic living in our culture's fast lanes.
And what is the "fast lane" — or even more overtly, the "fast track" — but another allegory for the most intense existence possible offered to us by our culture at any given time? The metaphoric associations of cocaine are those most in line with an acceptance of economic and cultural life under capitalism. No other drug works as well. Heroin becomes too debilitating, antisocial, and is much more class restricted, while marijuana has too many passive associations — one cannot be "laid back" in the "fast lane." And acid, the drug most absent from MIAMI VICE, has the unfortunate, anarchic habit of causing states of consciousness that deny (or fantasize the denial of) the metaphysical rules of the status quo. Only alcohol saturates the world of business more. Though ubiquitous, its role as the businessman's ever faithful prop — the "martini lunch" — never varies.
Cocaine, on the other hand, occupies many different positions in the discourse of wealth at once. As an industry, a consumer product, the ultimate currency, and signifier of class lifestyle, cocaine is the perfect caricature of the actual force of capitalism driving us in daily life. To conduct business at the largest volume possible in the shortest time necessary, so that one can spend as much as one can as quickly as one can — is that not the perfect description of the big coke deal? Is that not also the ultimate capitalist fantasy — abundant wealth creating more wealth all in the time it takes to exchange two suitcases in a seamy bar?
Are we then supposed to consider the cocaine smugglers on MIAMI VICE as not only the new bootleggers of the eighties, but also the archetypal capitalist entrepreneurs of our time? How do we then reconcile their violent, bloody lifestyles with such a view? Is there then an implicit critique of capitalism in MIAMI VICE, where we displace our anxiety with the capitalist system onto these Lee Iacoccas of the snow industry? Fredric Jameson makes this very argument about the use of the Mafia in THE GODFATHER:
To a degree I believe Jameson is right. Yet in many gangster films, and certainly in MIAMI VICE, the displaced anxiety over capitalism — or more precisely, the risks and pitfalls of capitalism — occurs with a simultaneous desire to emulate and invoke the signs of that very same system. This desire exists in MIAMI VICE because the show's cocaine discourse does not confine itself to the devalued characters of the cocaine smugglers, but it also disseminates itself among the stars of the show — Crockett and Tubbs — and the watching TV audience.
It is in regard to MIAMI VICE's audience that it becomes important for the show to represent the drug culture's own cocaine discourse in an authentic manner. Members of this audience have found it increasingly difficult to fantasize themselves as somehow not conforming to the various mainstream institutions. For such a fantasy they can still turn to the politics of drugs, simply because many such controlled substances remain illegal. People need do only one line of coke and stand outside the law; indeed, one becomes an outlaw. Much more glamorous (in a bourgeois sense) than pot, heroin, or acid, coke transforms people into the most romantic drug outlaws possible. Certainly the coke user is more colorful than those dour individuals who (still) define their opposition to the ruling institutions by long-term commitments to social change and revolution.
For the sensibility I have just caricatured, cocaine works on a fast-food principle of self-definition, where one quick consumption gives us access to a singularly striking political identity with a whole string of associations into which we can tap. The fact that many of these associations are also those of conspicuous consumption merely reflects how safely institutionalized our attempts at personal deinstitutionalization have become. Before MIAMI VICE this commodity of fast-food self-definition only resided in the actual taking of cocaine; now the show's discourse allows us to partake of this same service vicariously. The show's fantasy of outlaw consumption satisfies us because the discourse itself is authentic, part of the drug culture's own language of cocaine.
As this discourse moves beyond the show's frame, towards the audience, it simultaneously moves towards the thematic center of the show, the cops Crockett and Tubbs. With their beautiful women, Italian sports jackets, Wayfarer sunglasses, Ferrari sports cars, and action poses choreographed to rock & roll, Sonny and Ricardo participate more fully in the signs of a cocaine lifestyle than anyone else in the show. The only un-cocaine-like aspect of Crockett's and Tubbs' characters becomes their nonuse of cocaine. In both the viewers' and actors' case, actual use is simply unnecessary for signs of the drug discourse and our own participation as readers. The show explains Sonny's and Ricardo's flashy similarity to their criminal counterparts by reporting how, as undercover cops, they must often imitate those they wish to bust.
This plot device does allow a thematic exploitation of the disjunction between appearance and reality, akin to the episode of Gina as an undercover hooker and the gangland boss. Yet this narrative aid does not fully explain why Don Johnson's photo in Rolling Stone has him fishing a bag of white powder out of the Caribbean. The ambivalent intention of Johnson's photo appropriately repeats cocaine's contradictory role as most forbidden/ desired object in MIAMI VICE. Is the photo merely a reiteration of Johnson's function as a law-enforcement official, or is it a coy acknowledgement of his participation in a cultural production that desires, as part of its attraction, to elide its difference with the drug culture? The publicity surrounding Johnson's own partying past certainly does not inhibit this latter view of MIAMI VICE, as a cultural production that intends on showing it knows its culture well.
MIAMI VICE's discourse on cocaine and capitalism has also prospered and found a new home in this country's latest media war against drugs. One need only recall the TV ads centering on the blank face of a rhesus monkey who gave up everything — food and sex — for cocaine. What are we staring at but a simian reflection of our own capitalist selves, our definition as appetite, as conspicuous consumption, as the constant demand, "I want, I want"? Whereas MIAMI VICE implicitly holds out cocaine as the ultimate signifier of a capitalist lifestyle, the monkey commercial merely inverts the message and isolates cocaine as the cause of runaway consumption, a perversion of our more "normal" appetites. Give up cocaine, the ad implies, and you'll be able to keep your appetite for other commodities, for other areas of the marketplace, where conspicuous consumption will have no ill effect at all. That the monkey ad is a commercial for a private clinic merely reiterates the marketplace's ability to transform everything — even a desire for a non-appetite — into a commodity.
Perhaps the most self-revealing ad about the relation between cocaine and business is an anti-drug commercial not about cocaine, but marijuana. In the ad, a thirty to thirty-five year-old pothead smokes a joint with a friend while claiming the drug has never harmed him in any way. His mother's angry voice abruptly breaks in from off screen, asking if her son has found a job yet. The ad ends, underscoring the mother's accusation by ironically stating, "Nothing Happens with Pot." Thus the commercial demonstrates the economics that MIAMI VICE's glamorization of the cocaine discourse has implied all along: some drugs are better than others for life not only in the fast lane, but also on the fast track.
A final note: one overtly unfortunate consequence of MIAMI VICE's infatuation with the drug discourse is its labeling of the drug smugglers by race. This labeling reflects how the drug culture itself names drugs by their area of origin — Jamaican, Colombian, or Humboldt, for example. In various episodes Crockett and Tubbs have fought the Jamaicans, the Colombians, and the Haitians. The show associated each group with a drug lifestyle: the Colombians with cocaine, the Jamaicans with reggae and marijuana, and the Haitians with voodoo and hallucinogens. Each group was made up of psychotic and violent brutes to be exterminated. The obvious, racist implications of these associations are especially malign when one considers the United States' present foreign policy towards those Latin American states south of Miami's border. For just as the show's drug discourse does not solely reside among the drug smugglers themselves, their bloody fate does not so much signify the end of drugs, as the justifiable death of brown-skinned men.
Rock & roll and VICE
Unlike the clones it has spawned on other networks, MIAMI VICE will pay up to $10,000 buying the rights to original rock songs rather than using made-for-TV imitations. Jon Hammer, who has recorded with Jeff Beck, does the show's original computer synthesizer work. Besides Hammer and Frankie Goes to Hollywood, other diverse members of MIAMI VICE's rock & roll canon include Glenn Frey, Peter Gabriel, the Coasters, Todd Rundgren, U2, and Tina Turner. I do not use "canon" lightly. Next to its cocaine discourse, MIAMI VICE's rock & roll vocabulary has become its most effective tool for attracting its young and upwardly mobile audience.
The absence of such a vocabulary is striking. Compare MIAMI VICE with its short-lived ABC imitator, THE INSIDERS, where the latter choreographed a car scene to a recording that was obviously a studio attempt at "new wave" music. The lack of a real recording artist immediately pegged THE INSIDERS as a cultural production outside of the culture it wished to address. In contrast, the authentic songs which MIAMI VICE uses have become the footnotes of its cultural authority, the signature of itself as a cultural spokesperson for a culture that grew up listening to rock & roll in the sixties and seventies, and now has become one of the most prominent audiences for consumer advertising. But as a "cultural spokesperson" what does MIAMI VICE say? What fantasies and allegories of capitalist life does its rock & roll construct?
In discussing the discourses of sex and drugs on MIAMI VICE, I've already named several: the female body as a commodity for male pleasure, outlaw consumerism, and life in the coked-out "fast lane." We have seen how these fantasies mutually share the signs of excessive wealth, conspicuous consumption, and material possession. We have further seen how rock & roll participates in the signification of those fantasies. Such a phenomenon should not seem surprising. Long associated with the body and pleasure, rock & roll effortlessly feeds back to the same primal instincts of sex and drugs. Yet, as with those discourses, its initial affiliation with rebellion and youth elides only momentarily the potential within it for other types of associations. As a type of music that now draws much of its strength from state-of-the-art technology, its very form exults in the high tech, late capitalist state that gave it birth. First introduced as a sign of youth, it has turned into a sign of the youth industry, as that very concept has become institutionalized, commodified, and fetishized. Finally, its feverish energy, what attracted many to the music who were faced with the dreary alternatives of white, suburban U.S.A. has turned out to be less discriminating than once thought. For, as a type of rhetoric, rock & roll may praise many different things.
Thus, first and foremost among MIAMI VICE's celebrations is its equation of the electric guitar with the gun. More important, MIAMI VICE's music not only sanctions violence, but corrective, institutionalized violence. Just as the outlaw discourse of cocaine now glamorizes the narcotics agent, so too does the rebellious, anarchic beat of rock fetishize the organized law enforcement official. (A rock interlude with a SWAT team is an archetypal MIAMI VICE image.) Such insights are not new. Writers like Hunter S. Thompson and Michael Herr have for quite awhile placed rock & roll and violence at the center of how contemporary United States runs. What is new is who is having and exploiting those insights. MIAMI VICE stands as just one of many mainstream industries/ institutions that have realized rock can revitalize, and thus resell, not only old genres, but old formulas — e.g., the ideology of male institutionalized violence.
The apotheosis of this resell in this new Cold War must be the neo-MTV fireworks of the film TOP GUN — or "Phallus in Wonderland," as J. Hoberman succinctly named it. As the times become more jingoistic, this movement from crime show to military film makes perfect sense. TOP GUN logically extends the idea lurking behind the MTV scenes of entrapment and stakeout in MIAMI VICE, that the undercover cop still has his uniform, and those in uniform are the ones who really know how to rock & roll.
Besides its conflation with institutionalized violence, MIAMI VICE's music has another important effect upon the show. As "MTV cops," Crocket and Tubbs to a large degree inhabit the world of MTV, where life is done to music. Music videos largely started out as promotional tapes of rock artists performing their songs. In the late seventies, creators coupled this intention with a new concept that only a few visionaries beforehand — such as Richard Lester in his film A HARD DAY'S NIGHT foresaw: Have the rock stars perform in and out of their songs; i.e., have them not only play the music, but act in a narrative sequence choreographed to that same music.
Not surprisingly, the narrative sequence in many of these videos is often merely a skeletal frame wholly dependent upon the song. Crockett and Tubbs arrive at a time in media consciousness when the MTV idea has been exploited to death — or, perhaps, to a new mass-consumer vision of life. The fantasy MTV first and foremost sells its audience is that life can have the same aura of performance when it too is done to music, and furthermore, that this aura becomes the only register in our lives of which we are capable. The musical excursions of Crockett and Tubbs are the perfect examples of beings living in Fredric Jameson's postmodern "pastiche," where individuals interacting with stylistic props to the tune of a contemporary hit replace narrative, psychological, and subjective depth.
Many have noted the show's postmodern emphasis on imagistic and audio style at the expense of narration: Lee Saudin argues that the show disdains narrative closure in order to deny the neatness of the moral universe. In contrast, MIAMI VICE co-creator Lee Katzin says,
What Saudin's point and Katzin's description leave out is that MIAMI VICE's fantasy — the phenomenology of MTV — represents the perfect experiential lifestyle in a capitalist, consumer society. What is such a lifestyle but an intense interaction with such props — such commodities as the female body, sports cars, speedboats, and cocaine? And how do we know it is intense except for the music, the literal rhythm of life in the fast lane? If we want to look for the transcendental signifier, rock music is it, the sign of the distinction between purposeful and aimless consumption. With our walkmans on, lost in the supermarket, we inhabit the same universe as Crockett, Tubbs, and the MTV stars, privy to the same "intensities" of a life choreographed to rock & roll.
Jameson's point about the postmodern "pastiche" and the "intensities" of late capitalist life is not that they are inherently bad or reactionary, if such a judgment would mean that we can then refuse them, along with the rest of late capitalism's effects upon our lives. He uses a dialectical approach, seeing that if there is a Marxist history after late capitalism, it will occur not by rejecting, but by working through our late capitalist present. This may provide little comfort in 1987, when we are reaping the more obviously blatant and vulgar consequences of the rock & roll capitalist lifestyle that MIAMI VICE anticipated, now that everything from wine coolers to scooters to sneakers to soft drinks is being sold by rock & roll stars and/or their songs.
For artists still committed to rock, one reaction to the music's newly found commercialism might be to highlight radically the fact of rock & roll as a commodity. Such an agenda takes its cue from artists already operating in other mediums, such as Barbara Kruger and her Times Square sign that stated I'M NOT TRYING TO SELL YOU ANYTHING. Culturecide's Tacky Souvenirs of Pre-Revolutionary America LP appears to be exploring this very project, of revealing how rock and capital conflate. For it seems to be the case that MIAMI VICE's rock trend has exposed one basic truth about that music, that even the most marginalized or insurrectionary rock & roll is still within the marketplace, and to think otherwise is to risk a nostalgia irrelevant for future change.
Perhaps MIAMI VICE's conflation of rock & roll and late capitalist life might also help us understand how music and violence relate on the show. Just as the show's MTV phenomenology defines life, so too does it define death. The show's realistic representation of blood, guns, and wounds separates its action from the "cartoon" violence of MAGNUM P.I., and THE A TEAM. Yet the use of slow motion, freeze shots, and rock music also separates this action from the naturalistic violence of THE FRENCH CONNECTION. Death becomes a self-conscious spectacle that records one's last interaction with the world of props, the moment when one leaves the circulation of wealth and commodities in the fast lane forever. It is thus appropriate that a large number of the people who die on MIAMI VICE are drug smugglers, sellers and buyers. Death is when you literally can't deal anymore.
The customers of VICE
MIAMI VICE's "ambush" of primetime TV by sex and drugs and rock & roll repeats the basic intention of that medium as a service industry. The thematic repression of MIAMI VICE's services, drugs and prostitution, is merely the necessary precondition for the dissemination of those discourses along stylistic, imagistic, and visual lines — lines that intersect with a host of other commodity associations ranging from Italian fashion to the latest rock recording. Miami becomes the Xanadu of the fast lane lifestyle, a city populated by hip young professionals with the latest in weaponry. The victims of this fantasy are those individuals without enough cash flow to join in the circulation of such a dream. Their fate is non-representation, elision, and marginalization. Thus the Xanadu that MIAMI VICE constructs has much to say about its cocaine millionaire inhabitants, but in the first year the show was silent about the ghetto rebellions of Miami's poor.
Since then MIAMI VICE has represented the city's lower and under class. Unsurprisingly, the inhabitants of MIAMI VICE's ghetto have been as stylized and slick as the rest of the show's characters. In one episode there was the "good Kid" who played football and was doing his best to stay out of trouble; diametrically opposed to him was the teenage "crack king" who rode in a limousine and terrorized the ghetto to the beat of a rap song. Sonny's guilt over the murder of the "good kid" by the "crack king" was an existential tragedy that disguised a ritual invocation and confirmation of liberal guilt — that nothing can be done for the "few good kids" that do live in the underclass. The show's slick musical and visual style really did remind the viewer that the inevitability of the "good kid's" death was a ritual, a specific one of the liberal mind, the narrativization of the unavoidable tragedy of the ghettoes.
The episode's conflation of rap and crack also affiliated the show with one aspect of the new mentality's crusading against drugs. While either disguising or distorting, as in the rhesus monkey ad, the obvious continuum between cocaine and a yuppies lifestyle of conspicuous consumption, this mentality easily invests crack with a series of inner city, urban associations, tinged with racism and fear of the poor. As with Jameson's remarks on the Mafia and my own on MIAMI VICE's cocaine vocabulary, what is at stake is not so much the "issue" of crack, but how the associations of that drug form a vocabulary of crack, and how that vocabulary then functions in our society. In the economy of drug discourses, crack is the unpleasant sign of a race and class getting rich that on no account should.
A far more compelling example of a progressive episode on the show occurred in MIAMI VICE's third season: G. Gordon Liddy played (!) Captain Real Estate, a rightwing CIA type involved in a plot to frame the Sandinistas for the murder of a priest actually killed by the Contras. The episode surprised me because it came out and explicitly stated that the Sandinistas were framed for a murder the Contras did, and because Real Estate, the unconditional villain of the show, escaped Sonny and Tubbs and succeeded with the frame. If this were a ritual of liberal guilt, it was one of a very explosive type. In terms of TV, we are much more used to tragedies of the ghetto, than to a story that explicitly depicts U.S. terrorist action in Latin America as the villainous component of a show. Although this episode does intervene radically in the conventional TV universe, it is hard to conceive how to seize such a moment for further political praxis, or to even predict when such a moment might slip through all the exigencies of the TV industry and occur again.
Perhaps such difficulties define the areas of investigation now challenging students of mass culture. The "Real Estate" episode itself seemed to construct a consciousness of the gap between the momentary intervention it was accomplishing, and the possibility of continual leftist praxis in primetime TV. I am not thinking so much of the fact that Capt. Real Estate wins, nor of the cynicism involved in letting Liddy profit from the opportunity of such an episode. There is, rather, one telling scene in the show that is also its most powerful: One of Real Estate's henchman goes to murder a TV reporter who has a video tape proving the Contras' guilt. He enters her office, hits her from behind, and she falls unconscious. The camera tracks slowly into a close-up of her lying on the floor, all in time to the ominous, obligatory beat of a rock tune. Suddenly, from the top of the screen, a gun appears, aimed at the reporter's head. The shot freezes as interference appears on the screen, literally making the TV viewer's screen one of the many TV screens in the reporter's office. The interference grows, till gun and body are barely discernible. Thus the episode asserts the distance and interference between its particular images and the TV audience who consume the images without seizing them, or who seize the images all the while knowing it is the distance and interference that must be consumed too.
What, then, about the customers, the audience of VICE? They are certainly hip, and are surely lost, if they buy the final commodity the show offers: that their participation in its discourses of sex and drugs and rock & roll will distinguish them from any other consumer audiences in an "authentic" way. In any arena, no distinction of any worth will occur through an uncritical affiliation with the imagery and vocabulary of a discourse. Such signs will only mark the moment of our entrapment, if we refuse to situate how, when, and why they inform our consciousness.
The question of a distinct identity carries a further, darker resonance when we realize that MIAMI VICE is also one of the few mass media border towns between us and our southern neighbors. It is the only primetime TV show that regularly gives us a glimpse of the Latin American world that touches upon and informs Miami. And in this critical period in history, when it is absolutely necessary to know whom we live next to, and thus among, what does MIAMI VICE most often show, and what do we most often see? Only a feverish circulation of bodies and drugs all moving to the beat of a Genesis song; only a cash flow that entices, kills, and entices again; only late capitalism's latest version of ourselves.
1. Emily Benedek, "Inside MIAMI VICE," Rolling Stone 444, March 1985: 56.
2. For further discussions on the newly arisen 80s relevancy of drugs and sex and rock & roll, see "Sex Under Siege," Village Voice Literary Supplement Number 48, Sept. 1986, The Village Voice Vol. XXXI No. 36, 9 Sept. 1986; the "Drugs Are Us" section in The Village Voice Vol. XXXI No. 39, 30 Sept. 1986; and Richard Goldstein, "The New Society," The Village Voice Vol. XXXI No. 52, 30 Dec. 1986: 23-28.
3. For an analysis of the homoerotic component in this patriarchal formation, see Jeremy G. Butler, "MIAMI VICE and the Legacy of the Film Noir," Journal of Popular Film and Television 13.3 (1985): 132-33.
4. I borrow the concept of John Berger's, that women are always trained to look upon themselves with a "male gaze." See John Berger, Ways of Seeing (New York: Viking, 1972): 146.
5. Lee Saudin, "The Virtues of MIAMI VICE," The Chicago Reader Vol. 14, No. 20, 15 Feb. 1985" 15. Saudin's article is a counter-argument to mine, in that she sees MIAMI VICE's first season as an example of progressive TV: "For the first time in decades we have a TV show that doesn't treat capitalism as a gift from God," Ibid.
7. Two other recent works that use cocaine as an allegory for big business are Jay Mclnerney's BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY and Brian de Palma's SCARFACE, two cultural productions also known, in their own ways, for excess and/or life in the fast lane. For some more views on cocaine and the economy see, Scott L. Malcomson, "Cocaine Republic," The Village Voice Vol. XXXI, No. 34, 26 Aug. 1986: 15-20, and Pete Hamill, "White Line Fever," The Village Voice Vol. XXXI, No. 34, 26 August 1986: 21-27.
8. Fredric Jameson, "Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture," Social Text 1 (1979): 146.
9. Consider, for example, Time's praise for the show since it "has brought TV's cops and robbers back to its roots: the mythic battle between good and evil." See Richard Zoglin, "Cool Cops, Hot Show," Time 16 Sept. 1985: 61.
10. Zoglin 63.
11. J. Hoberman, "Phallus in Wonderland," The Village Voice Vol. XXXI, No. 21, 27 May 1986: 59.
12. This aura would not be the Benjamin aura that comes from the cult of the unique art object, but the "phony smell of the commodity" that comes from the cult of the star personality. See Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." Illuminations, Hannah Arendt, ed. (New York: Schocken 1969) 231. The later seasons of MIAMI VICE have thought up a new tactic for creating more star aura, and solidifying its hip, cultural credentials: having MTV performers and other exotic members of the media guest star on the show. Recent guest have included Little Richard, Miles Davis, Peter Sellars, and G. Gordon Liddy.
13. Fredric Jameson, "Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism," New Left Review 146 (July-August, 1984): 12-13.
14. Saudin 14, and Zoglin 61.
15. Jameson, "Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism" 10-12.
16. "As for the as yet untheorized original space of some new 'world system' of multinational or late capitalism (a space whose negative or baleful aspects are only too obvious), the dialectic requires us to hold equally to a positive or 'progressive' evaluation of its emergence, as Marx did for the newly unified space of the national markets, or as Lenin did for the older imperialist global network," Jameson, "Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism" 36.
17. For an overview of the current situation, see Leslie Savan, "Rock Rolls Over," The Village Voice Vol. XXXII, No. 32, 11 Aug. 1987: 71-75.
18. See Ellen Lubell, "Spectacolor Short-Circuits," The Village Voice Vol. XXXII, No. 6, 10 Feb. 1987: 81. For a general discussion of political art, the avant-garde, and the conflation of art and economy, see Hal Foster, "For a concept of the Political in Art," Art in America April 1984: 17-23.
19. See Simon Frith, "Killing Jokes," The Village Voice Vol. XXXII, No. 35, 1 Sept. 1987: 75.