The Dude as Death of the New Left
To begin, I should note that I’m not using the term Old Left in the pejorative sense that it acquired in England, where, in the 1960s and 1970s, it referred to the supposedly retrograde remains of traditional, party-based, labor-oriented, leftist organizations and politics, in short, precisely what the English New Left was supposed to offer an alternative to. Instead, I’m thinking of the Old Left much more broadly as Marxism, socialism, and communism in general, in their pre-New Left forms. In contrast to the Old Left, the New Left, in its U.S. context, like its English counterpart, turned away from labor, economics, and materialist issues as its overarching concerns. The Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) spearheaded the New Left movement in the U.S., and, consequently, the 1962 publication of the Port Huron Statement, the SDS’s manifesto—the Dude claims to have helped write an early draft—marks a seminal moment for the New Left. While the Statement itself only mentions Vietnam once, the SDS eventually helped focus the New Left’s social activism on opposing the Vietnam War, working for free speech and civil rights, and practicing civil disobedience. Unlike the Old Left, the New Left drew its supporters from college campuses more than from industrialized capitalism’s working class, which tended to constitute the rank and file of earlier leftist movements and organizations. For my purposes, the most important differences between the Old and New Left are the latter’s turn away from Marxism, especially economic analysis and materialist critique, and its attention to individualized concerns (the individual’s sense of alienation with which C.
The Dude as Faithful to the Event
What if we, as viewers, along with most of The BigLebowski’s characters, misrecognize the Dude as a loser, a bum, a ringer for authentic politics?
What if the Dude does more than embody a parody of the New Left’s ruins and, rather, remains faithful to the New Left and, in particular, to the “event” of the publication of the Port Huron Statement in Alain Ba- diou’s sense of an “event” as an occurrence that punches a hole through its historical moment’s established knowledges and reorganizes its “situation” (42-43). The Dude’s fidelity to that event, to what Badiou would name the “truth-process” whose possibility emerged with the event (41-42), manifests itself throughout the film as the Dude’s refusal to give up on the ideas of the SDS and the Port Huron Statement. The film’s most glaring sign that everyone around the Dude misrecognizes his fidelity to an event begins with the first scene after the credits, in which two of Jackie Treehorn’s thugs mistake him for the millionaire Jeffrey Lebowski until, realizing their error, they dismiss him as a “fucking loser.” In fact, though, the misnomers precede this scene, beginning instead with the Stranger’s opening narration, in which he comments authoritatively that the Dude is “a lazy man . . . the Dude was most certainly that. Quite possibly the laziest in all of Los Angeles County, which would place him high in the runnin’ for laziest worldwide.” But when is the Dude lazy? Apart from the bird’s-eye shots of him lying on the purloined Lebowski rug listening to, appropriately enough, cassette tapes (a soon to be completely superseded medium, not unlike the SDS and perhaps the Dude himself), we never see the Dude exercising (if this is the correct word) his supposed laziness. The Big Lebowski cult members). What if he abides precisely in Badiou’s sense that he continues? Badiou’s slogan, his maxim for those who remain faithful to an event, is “Keep going!” (79).
Another point that undermines the Dude’s supposed indolence lies in the film’s structural pairing off of his idleness against the Little Lebowski Urban Achievers and, more exactly, against The Big Lebowski as the ultimate Urban Achiever. Maude’s eventual revelation that her father is no Achiever, big or little, folds back on the Dude’s supposed laziness and tempers it. The Big Lebowski married into his fortune, was briefly allowed to run one of the companies that his wife owned but “wasn’t very good at it,” according to Maude, and was finally positioned by her as the titular director of a charitable foundation. In short, Lebowski is a ringer; he brought no capital to his marriage and only plays at being a tycoon. What if the Dude similarly plays at being lazy? More to the point, what does laziness mean within the context of the Port Huron Statement? Wouldn’t the realization of its aims render laziness anachronistic? In short, hasn’t the Dude found a way to fulfill his means of subsistence without laboring at alienating jobs, preferring instead to enjoy his “authentic” path to meaning, which he tells Maude includes driving around in his car, bowling, and “the occasional acid flashback”? Taking the Statement seriously, or living as if its aims have already been realized, means more leisure and no guilt. Units of time no longer serve as measures of their possible valorization through labor. So the Stranger, an impossible and over-the-top homage to sarsaparilla-sipping singing cowpokes, functions not as an unreliable narrator who begrudges the Dude his leisure and fantasizes over the end of ideology in the early 1990s, hence the end of American imperialism (“westward the wagons,” as he expresses it) but as our culture’s mythic narrator who ushers out the old capitalist myth of the Big Lebowski and ushers in the new myth of the Dude. In Los Angeles, where the Pacific perforce stopped the North American expansionism—mythologized as the Stranger—The Big Lebowski undergoes a transformation and becomes the Dude, who embodies the individualism explicitly praised in the Statement (which in one register reads as a paean to American liberal democratic individualism). And it is the Stranger who benevolently oversees this metamorphosis of 1950s into 1990s America. Yes, he labels the Dude as lazy but not pejoratively; rather, he grants the Dude his imprimatur and is glad that the Dude is “out there taking it easy for all us sinners.” Speaking from within his patently obsolete vernacular, he has yet to find a word other than “lazy” to describe a person who does not labor for others, who does not “achieve” at useless but surplus-value-producing tasks, but his approval of the Dude’s situation nonetheless shows through.
So what, if anything, is wrong with the Dude’s fealty to a middle way that is neither capitalist liberal democratic nor ardently leftist? My concern lies with the Dude as a cipher of vulgar communism. Finally, it is not we who misrecognize the Dude as lazy but the Dude who mis- recognizes the Port Huron Statement as an event rather than a compromise. He takes its praise of individualism seriously and thereby upholds the New Left’s concerns but sacrifices the Old Left’s attention to communitarian concerns. In short, he should have adhered to the authentic first draft of the Statement—the Communist Manifesto-rather than the lazy drafts (first and final) that became the Statement. One telling difference highlights his mistake. While the Statement concentrates on improving the quality of the labor experience, the existential and individual experience of working, the Communist Manifesto makes a different demand: “Equal liability of all to labour” (Marx and Engels 490). The brevity of this commentary on labor is not an oversight on the part of Marx and Engels, because, as historical materialists, they assume that the character of labor cannot be rehabilitated using a top-down, superstructural approach. Rather, the material underpinnings of labor, the social relations within which it occurs, will ultimately determine its quality. In sum, the Port Huron Statement fails to be materialist enough, dictating a series of superstructural changes, including the “feel” of labor (a phenomenology of labor), in place of the materialist ones of the Communist Manifesto: “Abolition of property in land and application of all rents of land to public purposes”; “Abolition of all right of inheritance”; “Extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the State” (490). The Statement wants to leap peacefully over the revolution that will reshape the mode of production and the exploitative social relations of labor under capitalism to alight upon the better future of enjoyable work and creativity. The Communist Manifesto rejects that option, recognizing that the nature of labor won’t change through an act of collective, but idealist, willing.
The Dude as Cipher of Vulgar Communism
It is with the Communist Manifesto in mind that I want to present a third possible reading of the Dude, not as a mediation of the first two but simply as another option. There is a hopeful side to this reading, albeit not as positive as the narrative of fidelity to an Event that I have just sketched. To begin to talk about the Dude and the Communist Manifesto, though, I need to revisit the issue of labor, to the fact that the Dude has no job within the capitalist economy, while Jeff Dowd, his namesake, does. If we leave behind The Big Lebowski as an ultimately unconvincing celebration of laziness—although a laziness that now figures as an avoidance of exploitative social relations—then we return to the Dude who does not work, who pays no rent, who somehow acquires food, clothing, and Kahlua, and whose healthcare is provided for by others (Maude arranges for it). What intrigues me about these characteristics of the Dude’s life is that they parallel the characteristics not only of the New Leftist gone bad (see above) but also of a mythic “citizen under communism.” In other words, maybe the film encourages us to connect it to the wrong manifesto. In 1998, the year that the film was released, the Port Huron Statement was 36 years old, but 1998 also marked the 150th anniversary of the publication of the Communist Manifesto, a document that I think has more to tell us about the film than the SDS’s manifesto. This earlier, more famous and infamous manifesto is the pivot around which the film turns. While Walter, The Big Lebowski , Maude, Marty, Jackie Treehorn, and all the other broadly drawn character types spread a postmodern veneer over the surface of the film, assuring us that we aren’t really seeing representations, not even parodic ones, of Vietnam vets, feminist artists, etc., the Dude is different. He goes to the end. Maybe he takes his stereotype (failed New Leftist, failed communist) to its logical conclusion and beyond, and thereby dialectically passes through it and comes out the other side.
For this third reading, we must first think of the Dude as traveling along a different trajectory than the film’s other walking stereotypes. To do so, we need merely see the Dude as the negative embodiment endpoint of all myths that Marx and Engels’ manifesto aims to dispel. The second section of the Communist Manifesto is organized as a series of theses and antitheses, where the former are myths about communism or socialism and the latter are their negations. For instance, Marx and Engels write that it is commonly claimed that under communism, “all work will cease, and universal laziness will overtake us” (486). The Dude instantiates this fear; he’s unemployed and, in spite of the fact that he’s kept hopping throughout the film, would probably prefer lying on his rug listening to old bowling league games to the more arduous task of sleuthing. No rent or mortgage payments compel the Dude to work for a living, so he doesn’t. In 1991, he has discovered the impossible situation, a landlord in Los Angeles who lets him live rent-free. Marty does make a half-hearted attempt to remind the Dude that the rent is late, but no one is fooled. The Dude almost completely misses the oblique reference to arrears, and when he finally grasps it, he betrays surprise that it was mentioned at all and barely troubles himself to go through the motions of agreeing to pay. Clearly, no money has passed between these men in years, unless the Dude has borrowed some. So he has shelter provided for him; he needn’t work, and he seems able to keep himself in food and clothing, judging from his waistline and lack of concern about his next meal. The only time we see him buying anything approaching food, he is writing a check for less than a dollar—that for all we know will bounce—to pay for the half and half that goes in his White Russians. Again, isn’t this a slightly veiled image of someone who needn’t work any longer for his means of subsistence and, consequently, has become fat and lazy? Didn’t the U.S. government once drop doctored pictures of Castro, corpulent and happy (the antithesis of the image of the hardworking communist) on Cuban citizens to turn them against their government? The Dude’s food, clothing, and shelter are taken care of somehow, perhaps by the state, and it is precisely their satisfaction that frees the Dude to pursue unabashed laziness. It is as if he has found an odd communist space in L.A. that’s just large enough for one.
We return to the Manifesto and read the next myth: “We Communists have been reproached with the desire of abolishing the right of personally acquiring property as the fruit of a man’s own labour” (484). The Dude owns nothing. Granted, he does not work, either, but isn’t he the image of the man who will not labor because even if he were to do so, the fruit of his labor would be expropriated from him? He probably owns his bowling ball and his car, although the latter burns up in the course of the film. And unlike the famed aging American cars of Cuba, the Dude isn’t even inspired to maintain his jalopy, if not by an embargo then by necessity. Again we are faced with a Cold War propaganda image of communism gone bad, a bad faith version of utopianism designed to force us to choose capitalism as the only legitimate option.
Much more telling, though, is the film’s allegiance to—and the Dude’s embodiment of—a prevalent anxiety in U.S. culture in relation to any form of utopian thought. The film assumes that, to paraphrase Marx and Engels’s description of this concern, all desire will cease if all persons’ minimal means of subsistence can be met within a society. In other words, it is the film’s treatment of desire and its objects that highlights its apprehensions about the imagined shortcomings of a vulgar version of communism. For instance, how might we respond to the question, “What does the Dude desire?” He tells Jackie Treehorn, “All the Dude ever wanted was his rug back,” and his use of the third person nicely distances the Dude from his own wish. The rug is certainly the first obvious objet petit a, the first object that the film situates as something that seems to be a little piece of the Lacanian Real, the “Thing” that, if it could only be acquired, would fill out the gap in the Symbolic Order of representation and satisfy desire.3 Not surprisingly, then, it is precisely the loss of the rug that initially sets the Dude, and the film, in motion. For this reason, it is striking that the Dude’s interest in his lost rug inexplicably vanishes two-thirds of the way through the film. He never retrieves it (or its substitute from the Lebowski mansion, the second rug which he also loses), and the film doesn’t reference it again. In a documentary on “The Making of The Big Lebowski ," Joel Silver, the film’s producer, commented on this disappearance after his first reading of the script for The Big Lebowski . Ethan Coen remembers Silver suggesting, “The movie should have ended with [the Dude] getting his rug back or some mention of the rug, which would have been a nice resolution.” Ethan also mentions that he and Joel probably should have taken Silver’s advice but then, at a bit of a loss, admits, “but we never did do it.”
He was a man who loved the outdoors ... and bowling, and as a surfer he explored the beaches of Southern California, from La Jolla to Leo Carrillo and... up to ... Pismo. He died... he died as so many young men of his generation before his time ... [like] so many bright flowering young men at Khe San, at Lan Doc and
Hill 364____ And so, Theodore Donald Kerabatsos, in accordance
with what we think your dying wishes might well have been, we commit your final mortal remains to the bosom of the Pacific Ocean, which you loved so well. Good night, sweet prince.
As Walter carries on, it becomes clear that Donny’s death is directly related, in Walter’s mind, to Walter’s experiences in Vietnam, and that Walter didn’t really know Donny. The references to surfing seem particularly anomalous, since no one looks less like an outdoorsman or water sports enthusiast than pasty-skinned Donny, and Walter doesn’t seem to know exactly where Donny surfed. Walter also falls back on a cliché when deciding where to sprinkle Donny’s ashes, since he doesn’t know what Donny would have wanted, while the Dude’s silence during Walter’s impromptu ceremony indicates that he might have known Donny even less than Walter did. In short, Donny’s death is played off as a joke, and the punch line comes when Donny’s cremains blow back into the Dude’s face and stick to his hair and goatee. Having voiced his disgust with Walter’s Vietnam obsession, the Dude turns away, Walter says, “Fuck it, man; let’s go bowling,” and the scene has concluded.
1. For a founding definition of the New Left, see C. Wright Mills’s “Letter to the New Left.”
2. I have Aaron Jaffe to thank for several ideas in this chapter that emerged from his comments on an earlier draft. He proposed thinking of the Port Huron Statement as a lazy Communist Manifesto, raised the question of what laziness would signify in relation to the Statement, and noted that the Dude could be read as a cipher of bad faith utopianism.
3. I understand the differences among Jacques Lacan’s ideas of the “Real,” the “symbolic,” the “imaginary,” and “reality” as Alan Sheridan describes them. For
Sheridan, “[t]his Lacanian concept of the ‘real’ is not to be confused with reality, which is perfectly knowable” (x). The Real is “that which is lacking in the symbolic order, the ineliminable residue of all articulation, the foreclosed element, which may be approached but never grasped” (x). I see the objet petit a functioning as the object of desire, the object that one takes to be a little piece of the Real and that organizes desire. Knowable social reality, on the other hand, is covered by Lacan’s notion of the symbolic order.
In: The Year's Work in Lebowski Studies. Bloomington, 2009. pp. 124-148.