Inquiring Minds Want to Know

Is Bush drinking? Scott McLemee ventures into the world of tabloid scholarship.

September 27, 2005

If not for the recent online buzz about whether or not President Bush has resumed drinking, most of us never would have heard the allegations. The story was, after all, broken by The National Enquirer – a paper not taken in this household, you may be sure. We are loyal to the Weekly World News instead.

The cover of the Enquirer is always full of the faces and first names of celebrities, very few of which I recognize -- while the reporters at the News do the kind of hard journalistic digging needed to reveal, for example, Saddam Hussein’s efforts to clone dinosaurs for use as weapons of mass destruction. Some years ago, there was an off-Broadway musical inspired by WWN coverage of the amazing saga of the half-human Bat Boy. I’m always keen to read updates about that brave little guy.

But a scoop is a scoop. More interesting than the Enquirer story itself has been the response to it -- not just its prime spot in Slate’s roundup of trash news, but the loud blog feedback, followed by the metacommentary by Jonathan Dresner at Cliopatria, which was remarkably sober. (Didn't see that one coming, did you?)

A decade has passed since the earliest syllabus was prepared for a course called “Tabloid Culture.” Now it’s a regular area of scholarly specialization ( with conferences), so it’s hard to know how anybody keeps up with all the secondary literature, let alone the two-headed alien babies.

As it happens, the first paper on cultural studies by an American academic I ever came across -- more than 20 years ago, in fact -- was a pioneering study in the field of tabloid hermeneutics. Stephanie Greenhill presented “ The National Enquirer: A Secret Method for the Mastery of Life” at the Southwest Graduate Student Conference in Comparative Literature, held in March 1982 at the University of Texas at Austin. The proceedings were published the following year by UT’s Comp Lit program -- using what appears to have been a very, very early desktop publishing program. The volume provides no information about the contributors. Nor is there any trace of Stephanie Greenhill’s subsequent career as a scholar available online. [See update below.]

But a vague memory of her argument has been at the back of my mind ever since the current Enquirer story began pinging around the blogosphere. It took some digging, but I’ve located my copy of the proceedings and reread Greenhill’s paper. And so, in the spirit of honoring a forgotten pioneer, here is a precis of her work, and an application of it to interpreting “Bush’s Booze Crisis.”

My recollection had it that Greenhill must have been one of the first American academics to draw on the first generation of cultural-studies scholars – the early theoretical work of Stuart Hall and others at the Birmingham Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies in England. (The center closed three years ago.) But in fact, rereading her paper now, I see that Greenhill was actually looking at the tabloid from within a completely different framework: that of folklore.

An interesting rewriting of things, given the subsequent fate of each discipline over the following two decades. By the 1990s, the American version of cultural studies was on the rise, while folklore programs were shutting down. If the stereotype had it that someone with a background in cultural studies wore hipster eyeglasses and a complicated haircut, the other field had a much less flattering icon: namely, the Comic Book Store Guy on "The Simpsons," responding to one of Bart’s pranks by saying, “I do not deserve this! I have a Ph.D. in folklore and mythology!”

With understandable frustration, some folklorists have insisted for years that they were doing cultural studies long before anybody thought to call it that. And rereading Greenhill’s paper after all these years, I’m inclined to think they have a case. Her analysis stresses how the Enquirer -- which is, arguably, as debased a piece of mass-produced junk as ever issued by a printing press -- actually replicates some features we associate with oral or traditional forms of culture.

Not that you’d notice it right away, of course. “It can be a very disturbing experience to read the Enquirer,” she writes. “The physical layout encourages the feeling of alienation. One’s eyes are forced to search up and down in order to find everything on the page. One cannot even look only at headline-sized materials to get an overview; there are a number of single-line quotations which force the eye constantly to refocus. Perhaps it is this format, rather than the content, which is the source of the subjective sense that the Enquirer is a fragmenting rather than a communal force.”

But the ads, and perhaps especially the articles, recycle many of the basic themes found in folklore. “Collections such as Flanders and Brown’s Folk-Songs from Vermont,” notes Greenhill, “deal with many of the subjects equally beloved of the Enquirer: illicit love, the bizarre, violence, death, satire, and religion.”

Furthermore, many of the stories in the tabloid’s pages lend themselves to exactly the kind of structuralist analysis that Claude Levi-Strauss performed on myths gathered by anthropologists. In short, they are efforts to resolve binary oppositions such as that between nature and culture, male and female, life and death.

Consider, if you will, “Miracle Baby: Love Overcomes Incredible Odds for Paralyzed Wife and Her Gentle Giant” -- recounting how a very tall bodybuilder and his very small, paralyzed wife created their happy family. Their small child is, as Greenhill puts it, “obviously the symbolic synthesis of the two.... By creating a balance between these opposites, a state of normalcy will result.”

The classical balance typical of the Enquirer may explain my own preference for the rather more surreal landscape of the Weekly World News, in which normality is constantly menaced by (for example) self-replacing androids who “breed like flies.” And it was WWN that revealed that undergraduates aren’t the only ones spending all semester on drinking binges. So do 8 out of 10 of their professors!

And now our Commander in Chief is staggering down the same path. Or so we are told by the Levi-Straussian structuralists at the Enquirer. I think Greenhill’s paper helps clarify some things about the response to this news (if that’s what it is) -- and, in fact, elucidates some things happening between the lines of the story itself.

Her analysis emphasizes that a folkloric work (song, legend, tabloid) serves to help hold a community together. And it can play that role whether or not everyone in the community quite believes it to be literally true. That point has been made more recently, with great force, by the Pennsylvania State University-Hazleton folklorist Bill Ellis, whose papers in the book Aliens, Ghosts, and Cults: Legends We Live (University Press of Mississippi, 2001) deserves to be better known.

To sum up the point as Ellis makes it: The important thing to understand about any form of contemporary folklore (for example, the urban legends constantly making the rounds of e-mail and conversation) is that the debate over its truth or falsity is part of how it circulates. Such folklore helps define the limits of what a community believes. Or rather, what it hopes or fears might be believable.

That certainly applies to the online conversation over “Bush’s Booze Crisis” – in which some very fine hairs have been split over the epistemological question of whether something might be true even if it’s in the Enquirer.

That story can be read as a criticism of the President, in keeping with a populist distrust of power that Greenhill finds operating throughout the tabloid. But it is also, at the same, time, a negation of the image of him that has emerged in recent months as someone utterly out of touch with the news about Iraq and Katrina. It shows him, rather, as wounded to the core. What might look like ignorance and indifference are actually the signs that awesome responsibility has left him in unimaginable pain. He is human, all too human.

Does this have any political consequence at all, in the real world? I don’t know. But it does tend to confirm the basic insightfulness of Greenhill’s paper – tucked away in a scholarly publication now forgotten, probably, by everyone except the contributors. And maybe even by them. The final line of her essay sums it up nicely: “The attractiveness of the Enquirer could be that its readers can pick and choose both their tales and their morals from a certain range of possibilities, and know that others are doing the same thing.”

UPDATE: The mystery regarding the fate of the author of the 1982 paper has now been cleared up -- for it turns out that her name was actually Pauline (not Stephanie) Greenhill. I regret the error, without being quite responsible for it. As luck would have it, a glitch from 23 years ago has come back to haunt us.

In an e-mail note, Ms. Greenhill explains that she was indeed the folklore grad student at the University of Texas at Austin "who wrote the article on the National Enquirer, published in the student conference proceedings so many years ago." But she wasn't actually there to present her paper. "My friend STEPHANIE Kane gave it on my behalf, and somehow the editors mixed up our two names.... The conference organisers did put in an errata sheet correcting the mistake, but we all know what happens to those sorts of things."

Today "the not very mysterious" Pauline Greenhill, as she signs herself, is a professor of women's studies at the University of Winnipeg. A list of her scholarly publications since 1993 is available at this Web page.


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