The Original Port Huron Statement: The Big Lebowski and the Religion of Laughter

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Big Lebowski

An Introduction to Lebowskiana

The “Stranger” — our narrator, a nineteenth century cowboy, who, somehow, is also an observer, and erstwhile participant in the story — delivers these introductory lines:

A way out west there was a fella, fella I want to tell you about, fella by the name of Jeff Lebowski. At least, that was the handle his lovin” parents gave him, but he never had much use for it himself. This Lebowski, he called himself The Dude. Now, Dude, that’s a name no one would self-apply where I come from. But then, there was a lot about The Dude that didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. And a lot about where he lived, like- wise. But then again, maybe that’s why I found the place s’durned innarestin’.[1]

Jeff Lebowski is the man for his time and place: Los Angeles, 1991. The Stranger continues: “I only mention it ‘cause some- times there’s a man — I won’t say a hee-ro, ‘cause what’s a hee-ro? — but sometimes there’s a man . . . a man who, wal, he’s the man for his time’n place, he fits right in there — and that’s The Dude, in Los Angeles.”

The Stranger’s prefatory remarks clue us in to Jeff Leboswki’s status as “representative man.” The Stranger’s narration is confused and halting; its only consistency resides in atavistic use of the language of philosophical history. This makes it clear, not only that “The Dude” is the protagonist of the story, but also that meaning in history is the central theme of The Dude’s story. And yet the empty, tautological, quality of the Stranger’s ramblings — and indeed, The Dude’s lifestyle — brings the whole notion of meaning in history into question. The reason for this is that “history” has come to an end. But the “end” can be read in one of two ways. In short: either this “end” is the culmination of a metaphysical destiny, or merely the senescence of a certain way of thinking and speaking of things. Whether the former or the latter is the case is the paradoxical question that The Big Lebowski sets out to expose, in a playful, ironic way.

The Dude is the film’s hero. But if it is the end of history, there would seem to be no need for heroes. History in the Hegelian sense is motivated by the physical desire to overcome scarcity, and the psychological desire to enjoy equal recognition. According to thinkers like Francis Fukuyama, industrial capitalism answers to the first desire, and liberal democracy satisfies the second. The Big Lebowski is set at the very moment when Fukuyama declared the end of history, in this sense.

Heroes — “world-historical individuals” — are catalysts in the historical process. Seeking to satisfy their own burning ambition, in pursuit of unequal recognition, they unwittingly carry the historical movement toward its own progressive telos. At the end of history, such individuals would be not only useless, but even dangerous. Now, Jeff Lebowski is not this sort of dangerous individual, and perhaps it is this that makes him the man for his “innarestin’” time and place. Like a Hegelian hero, The Dude does seem entirely unconsciously to abide in the Zeitgeist of early-1990s LA. And as modest as it may seem, to insist on being called the “Dude” in a culture where everyman is called a “dude,” is to insist on unequal recognition, to stake a personal claim to one’s world-historical representativeness. But this LA Zeitgeist is all about cultivating the appearance of unconsciousness and no one is more self- consciously unconscious than The Dude. Finally, as the Stranger observes, 1990s LA is history’s laziest moment, and The Dude is the laziest person in LA. Thus, in a time and place where every desire can be (and so, in principle, has been) satisfied, The Dude strives, earnestly, for nothing. In “fit[ting] right in there” The Dude excels, surpassing all others.

The Dude lives alone, is unemployed and his life seems devoid of any activity, other than bowling. He is a chronic marijuana smoker, and a connoisseur of White Russians. Despite the run-ins with liars, thugs, a pornographer, and a gang of German bogeymen (and women) who are self-described nihilists, The Dude is the real nihilistic hero of the story. The Dude’s “lack, not only of faith, but of any lived relation to a social structure or political community of any sort, other than that of the league, or ‘bowling together’ — is absolute . . . The Dude’s anomie, the nihilism implied by his lifestyle, in fact, is far more nihilistic than anything of which the self-proclaimed nihilists in the film can ever dream.”[2]

Now, this was not always the case. The film reveals little of The Dude’s life story, but enough to indicate his past as a participant in the New Left campus uprisings of the 1960s. He claims to be one of the Seattle Seven (“me and, uh, six other guys”) and prior to this, to have been, “uh, one of the authors of the Port Huron Statement. — The original Port Huron Statement . . . Not the compromised second draft.”

So, perhaps the dude is the man for his time and place, or maybe he is a refugee from another “end of history” — the apocalyptic 1960s. How is this castaway from the sixties significant in the ‘nineties?[3] The juxtaposition of the late-sixties activism of the Seattle Seven and the early-sixties pacifism of the Port Huron Statement adds another layer of irony. With only a few (now well-known) exceptions, the early leadership of the Students for a Democratic Society had splintered or dropped out of “the movement” before it was overtaken by Weathermen-style activism. Moreover, what could The Dude mean by “The original Port Huron Statement” as opposed to the “compromised second draft”?

Of course it is not my intention to give a literal interpretation of these remarks, or the film as a whole. Suffice it say that the common thread I see here, is the quest for authenticity. The problems of authenticity and the end of history are related in an ironic manner. The Big Lebowski sheds comic light on this ironic relationship.

Briefly, the “ironic” relationship I refer to is as follows: Thinkers from Rousseau to Marx have intimated that the end of history (the perfection of human freedom) actually is a sort of return to authentic humanity. Be it the authentic self-love of the state of nature, or the authentic community of primitive communism, the end of history will mark a return to un-alienated humanity, albeit through the perfection of civilization. Claims to authenticity take two common forms. In the first, authenticity is achieved by maintaining faithfulness to an original or foundational moment; in the second, by eschewing foundations and committing oneself to one’s own style (autonomy). The appeal of formulas like Rousseau’s and Marx’ is that they are ambivalent between these two visions: the perfected freedom of the end of history entails both a return to original humanity and the free creativity of one’s own self.

Interestingly, The Dude’s reference to the “original” SDS manifesto is also ambivalent with respect to these alternatives. One way of seeing the Port Huron Statement is as just such a founding moment: “The tale of the magnificent manifesto written around the clock by a convention that stayed up to watch the sun rising over Lake Huron, followed in short order by the saga of the brilliant brief worked up by sleepless cadres fighting off a sneak attack by paranoid elders — this was the stuff of SDS’s founding legend.”[4] Perhaps The Dude’s own myth of himself is anchored to this “original” moment. But the tensions written into the Statement led to rifts within the New Left that developed into obvious fault-lines by the time of The Dude’s involvement with the Seattle Seven.

This irony in The Dude’s self-mythologizing mirrors the tension in the Port Huron Statement’s aims. The manifesto placed equal emphasis on the whole community and on personal authenticity. On the one hand, it declares: “Loneliness, estrangement, isolation describe the vast distance between man and man today. These dominant tendencies can’t be overcome by better personnel management, nor by improved gadgets, but only when a love of man overcomes the idolatrous worship of things by man.” This is a classic diagnosis of anomie as the product of atomistic ideology and technological society. Yet, on the other hand, the manifesto goes on to claim that human beings “have unrealized potential for self-cultivation, self-direction, self-understanding, and creativity. It is this potential we regard as crucial and to which we appeal, not to the human potentiality for violence, unreason, and submission to authority. The goal of man and society should be human independence: a concern not with image [or] popularity but with finding a meaning in life that is personally authentic.”[5]

Todd Gitlin perceptively argues that the New Left was able to finesse these contradictions — for a time — by adopting expressive politics. The “expressive side to the movement culture [was] rooted in the subterranean ethos of the Fifties, and in the long run revolt against the containment of feeling and initiative in a society growing steadily more rationalized. Participatory democracy entailed the right of universal assertion.” Squaring the circle between communitarian values and individual expression, this style precipitated the now familiar notion that “the personal is political.”

The implicit theory of expressive politics was that the structures of private feeling begin before the individual, in capitalist acquisition and the patriarchal family; public in its origins, private feeling should therefore be expressed where it belongs, in public. Its faith was that a politics of universal expression would make the right things happen — and be its own reward.

Gitlin acknowledges that the New Left tended towards a “belief that political style is central to political substance — a fetishism of style,” but he also points to the importance of style for all modern mass-political movements. “We shared [this belief], in fact, with Kennedys’ managerial liberalism . . . The New Left’s disruption of established procedure was a counterpolitics to the managed world of institutions — a system which professes the glory of democracy while its bureaucratic rules mask the ways in which correct procedure has taken a weight of its own.”[6]

Over time, Gitlin suggests, the channels dug out on each side, between expressive and managerial styles, can harden into identities. The opening scene of The Big Lebowski alludes to this clash of styles/identities. We meet The Dude, in his bathrobe and jelly sandals, as he renders a $0.69 check for a pint of half-and-half. Evidently he is the lone customer in Ralph’s grocery store. As The Dude checks out there enters a ghostly presence: George H. Bush, on television, announcing our first invasion of Iraq. The televised president, and in particular, one of his phrases will become a leitmotif of the film: “This unchecked aggression will not stand.”

The ‘Sixties in the ‘Nineties

In a classic 1960s gambit, the youth culture took the pejorative, “dude,” and transfigured it into a badge of honor. At some point (probably in his college years), Jeff Lebowski baptized himself “The Dude.” If Jeffery[7] was “the handle his lovin’ parents gave him,” then Dude is more an anti-handle than a substitute one. Taking the opposite of a name does not prevent The Dude from suffering the misfortune of mistaken identity, however. In the scene that sets the story in motion, Dude will become convinced, this rug “really tied the room together” and thus its desecration is an injustice that demands rectification.

The Dude does not arrive at this conclusion immediately. His enthusiasm for this peculiar cause is stoked, even incited, by his friend and bowling teammate, Walter Sobachek. Walter, too, has put on a second identity, having converted to the Judaism of his now ex-wife. A Vietnam veteran, Walter, like The Dude, seems to be stuck in the late 1960s. The two characters evoke two distinctive types of that era: The Dude is a marijuana-smoking, forty-something hippie. An epitome of casual style, he is a veritable Jerry Rubin in his mastery of the expressive politics of irony. His only memories of college include “smoking Thai stick and occupying various administration buildings.” Conversely, Walter, the war veteran, owns a private security agency. Walter habitually carries a pistol, to which he is wont to take recourse when diplomacy fails. We are first introduced to this behavior when he brandishes the gun at a bowling alley, in order to ensure that a rival team’s player records a foul. “HAS THE WHOLE WORLD GONE CRAZY,” Walter fulminates, “AM I THE ONLY ONE WHO GIVES A SHIT ABOUT THE RULES?”

Walter’s relentless, characteristically arbitrary, and convenient application of rigid codes to all the quandaries of life typifies the posture of militant activism. The relationship between The Dude and Walter (friendship, and bowling, keeps them together in spite of incommensurable disagreements) is at the heart of the film. It may not be too much to say that these two characters represent decomposed essences of New Left political styles, “one of individual moral rectitude along the lines of Thoreau, the other ‘Leninist-Maoist.’” [8]

The Dude’s confrontation with the “Big” Lebowski also neatly echoes elements of the clash of cultures in the 1960s. Taking the hard line on individual responsibility, The older, established Lebowski maintains that the goons alone are responsible for damages to The Dude’s rug. The sequel is a confrontational dialogue between The Dude’s casual-cum-lazy mores and Lebowski’s rhetoric of individual-responsibility. Lebowski confirms that The Dude is unemployed, whereupon he proceeds to browbeat him with that most Nixonian of epithets — “bum” — chanting, “The bums will always lose.” The Dude abides this skirmish with the aid of another joint, and then retreats.

The convoluted relationships among these and other characters comprise far too many ins-and-outs to recount here. In any case these plot twists, difficult enough to follow on screen, are not the main source of the movie’s appeal. The point is to laugh. Jeff Bridges, the actor who played “The Dude,” sums up Lebowski’s charm aptly: “I usually point to the end of the script, to what the Stranger says at the end of the movie. I think the Stranger’s enjoyment of the movie sums up what people like about it.”

THE STRANGER

. . . I don’t know about you, but I take comfort in that. It’s good knowin’ he’s out there, The Dude, takin’ her easy for all us sinners . . . Made me laugh to beat the band. Parts, anyway . . . I guess that’s the way the whole durned human comedy keeps perpetuatin’ itself, down through the generations, westward the wagons, across the sands a time until — aw, look at me, I’m rambling again. Wal, I hope you folks enjoyed yourselves.[9]

A Community Organized for Inaction in History

What is most sociologically interesting about Lebowski is the relationship the film engenders among its community of fans. When The Big Lebowski premiered, in 1998, critics and moviegoers alike reacted with puzzlement. Like many films destined to become cult classics, Lebowski’s audience did not materialize immediately, but slowly gestated into a modest but passionate band of fans on whom the film exerts a weird and wonderful pull. This attraction may flow from viewers’ understanding the film’s many, oblique, philosophical references, or from an appreciation of its playful portrayal of post-anti-heroism as the proper response to “the end of history.” Probably it owes something to both. Bridges registers surprise that the movie did not perform better at the box office. “But now . . . well . . . I’m glad people are digging it . . . that it found its audience.” For Bridges, the Stranger’s denouement conveys “what’s great” about the film, “how it says it all without really saying anything. Maybe that’s one reason why people dig the movie and are able to watch it over and over again. It’s like picking up a kaleidoscope. You see something new each time.”[10]

This is not to say that cinematic form is inconsequential to the film’s appeal. Indeed, one might suggest that televisual culture is the “authentic” protagonist of The Big Lebowski. In properly post-modern fashion, the fictional world in which the movie’s events transpire comprises a Frankenstein-like patchwork of cinema history, highlighting Western, noir, and buddy-movie tropes. The lack of any distinctive Los Angeles landmarks in the film (excepting the In-N-Out Burger franchise) reflects the irony of the film’s opening lines, where we are told that the story is about a certain man (The Dude) and a certain place (Los Angeles) in a certain time (1991, or, the End of History). “All of the characteristic postmodern tricks are on display — the subversive mockery of narrative, the method of inhabiting a genre to expose its artificiality, the satirical thrust of its allusion to the classics, its disbelief in the old structures, tropes and systems”[11]

Yet, as the authors of the above lines continue, this playful transgression drives beyond, or beneath, the familiar cynical message that most postmodern art portends. For brevity’s sake, let’s say that the clichéd message of the typical postmodern production is: “authentic communication is impossible, and so trust, friendship and love is, too.” Lebowski affirms the first, but not the second part of this proposition. “These mortals may be fools, but they actually love each other. This makes them — and arguably, (their creators,) the Coens — very different from the characters and film-makers of the typical camp postmodern mode, which generally ends in cynicism and showy surface-effects rather than affirming life and ultimately choosing real feelings.”[12]

The Religion of Laughter

Although it emerges from a community of viewers, cult fandom implies a challenge to the voyeuristic culture of the spectacle. Televisual culture depends on the separation between producer-actors and spectator-judges. The screen is the invisible barrier that instantiates this division. The transparency of the screen which separates actors from spectators makes possible the illusion that watching and acting are equal. But the child in us knows that seeing and performing are unequal.

Cult fandom arises from an innocent, “childish” gesture to deny the separation, as well as the false equation, between acting and watching. Cult fandom expresses the spectator’s desire to participate in the action, to (re)create it even in the paltriest way, rather than be satisfied with the passive role of spectator. Moreover, it denies that spectators can be competent judges of performance without having been performers themselves.

Cult fandom is a doubly-ironic attempt to overcome the implicit division at the basis of televisual culture by bringing a particular televisual world into life. It is as if the viewer is attempting to transcend the transparent barrier of the screen through a gesture which denies that the screen is a barrier at all. The illicit nature of this gesture gives rise to a new division between cult-fans and their judges, plainclothes members of the public who know too well the distinction between reality and make-believe, and cannot fathom the purpose of such real-life play.

The Big Lebowski is unique among cult films because the movie itself initiates this doubly -ironic gesture. This is evident in several ways. First, Lebowski’s Los Angeles is not the city viewers are familiar with, but the “real” LA of strip-malls, bowling alleys and suburban fast-food haunts. Second, the movie’s main characters, Walter and the Dude, are ostensibly failures but are based in large part on successful entertainment producers John Milius and Jeff Dowd. Third, the movie’s narrative momentum is generated by misunderstanding, mendacity, and conflicting agendas. As in the world, so in Lebowski, events are not governed by a master script but result from myriad private plans whose authors lose control of them the moment they begin to enact them.

From the first image of tumbleweed, Lebowski’s world-stage is a “barrel-of-laughs”—a ride where “people try to keep their balance while the upturned barrel revolves round its axis. One can only keep one’s balance by moving on the bottom of the barrel in the opposite direction to, and with the same speed as, its movement… The more violent [the characters’] gestures and their grip of the walls, the more difficult it is for them to get up and the funnier they look”[13]

Lebowski’s “barrel-of-laughs” resonates with the “End of History” question of the 1990s. Seen in this way, the movie is a lighthearted meditation on the possibility that history follows no script. The dénouement of the Cold War put to rest the Communist narrative of Historical progress—it was misconceived. But this did not resolve the question of history itself. Indeed, the revelation that history’s movement was not governed by any master script actually intensified the sense that human life is ruled by relentless and apparently arbitrary change. In short, Marx’s dictum about capitalism’s historically revolutionary effects—“all that is solid melts into air”—survived the collapse of his conviction that the historical vicissitudes of capitalism would be redeemed by final Communism and the predestined end of the class struggle.

Comedies are stories destined to end well, no matter how bad things might seem in the middle. In this sense, Marx’s narrative of history is a comedy, much like the Christian narrative of redemption that provided its model. History was invented by the ancient Greeks, but their philosophers did not conceive of history as meaningful in itself. They could conceive of histories as tragic stories of irreconcilable goals, and of time as the cycle of growth and inevitable decay. But the idea that History is meaningful in itself, a drama scripted by God or the Universal Mind, receives its impetus from revealed religion.

We are progenies of the historical comedies of Christianity, which encouraged us to hope in a heavenly redemption from history as part of God’s supernatural plan, and Enlightenment Progress, which encouraged us to be optimistic about humanity’s infinite capacity to redeem ourselves in and through history, to make life here on earth more and more heavenly. Traditional Christianity accommodated the barrel-of-laughs version of history so long as it applied only to the secular world—the earthly “City of Man.” The heavenly “City of God” was another matter. But there were always some who rejected this distinction; and we might think of the revolutionary side of modern Enlightenment, with its rejection of religion for the sake of human progress, as an ironic reversal of the distinction. From the nether view of post-modernity, however, history is neither a pilgrimage through the veil of tears nor a march towards immanent progress. Postmodernity resigns us to history as barrel-of-laughs, but it withholds Christianity’s promise of redemption.

In this post-modern spirit, both the Dude and Walter display a quixotic seriousness that evokes the necessary but futile effort to maintain one’s balance in the barrel-of-laughs. The Dude’s devotion to authentic individuality and Walter’s commitment to the politics of solidarity reflect the Port Huron Statement’s two aims. Although these aims were complimentary in the aspirations of the Statement’s authors, the turbulent history of the student movement revealed the difficulty of reconciling them in practice. In the wake of the Movement’s failure, all that is left for the Dude and Walter is to run against the Momentum that would pull them down. This is why they are easily duped and especially funny looking, but it also makes possible the genuinely human bond they share. The Dude, a quietist without reverence, tries to steer the world in an irenic direction largely by the ironic strategy of avoiding real commitments. Walter’s Zionist-inflected Judaism is a way of clinging to the value of valor that was strained by the viewing public’s response to Vietnam. But in spite of this divergence between their contemplative and militant ways, perhaps even because of it, they help to keep one another’s balance.

 

Notes

[1] All unattributed quotes in this essay are from The Big Lebowski

[2] Joshua Kates, “The Big Lebowski and Paul deMan,” in Edward P. Comentale and Aaron Jaffe, eds., The Year’sWork in Lebowski Studies (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2009) p. 153

[3] All we know of The Dude’s lost years is that he was a roadie for Metallica during this period.

[4] Todd Gitlin, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage, revised edition. (New York: Bantam, 1993) p. 120

[5] This and the above quote from the Port Huron Statement are from Gitlin, pp.106-108. A view unexamined here is that The Dude is referring to the un-amended version of the Port Huron Statement, which was less stridently anti- communist than the version finally adopted. (For a narrative of the battle between Old and New Left over anti- communism in the Port Huron Statement see Gitlin, pp. 171-192)

[6] All quotes in this paragraph are from Gitlin, pp. 134-135.

[7] Hereafter, “Dude”.

[8] One of the reasons that we had difficulty coding the whole phenomenon of the Sixties, [says Howe,] is that at first we couldn’t see the interweaving of these two…and secondly even if we could see it, we didn’t know how to cope with this.’ Gitlin, p. 176.

[9] I’m a Lebowski, You’re a Lebowski, p. xiii

[10] I’m a Lebowski, pp. xii-xiii

[11] J.M. Tyree and Ben Walters, BFI Film Classics: The Big Lebowski (London: British Film Institute, 2007) p. 105

[12] Tyree and Walters, p. 104.

[13] Jan Kott, Shakespeare Our Contemporary (New York: W.W .Norton, 1974) p. 140

Alan Baily

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Alan Baily is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Stephen F. Austin University in Texas and an Associate Editor of VoegelinView. He has published numerous articles on ancient Greek political philosophy.