Contemplating Homer, Tony, Buffy, George. . .
The Wall Street Journal.
May 28, 2004.
Anyone who has recently scanned the list of papers presented to academic and learned societies in the arts quickly notices two things. They are written in a language that seems designed to exclude the general reader, and they deal with pop cultural phenomena as much as, if not more than, they do classic works of art or literature.
But publishers are at last beginning to bridge the gap between the language and the subject matter of contemporary scholarship. Most prominent in this enterprise is Open Court Publishing Co. of Chicago, whose series on "Popular Culture and Philosophy," under the general editorship of William Irwin, has now produced seven volumes.
Their titles couple "…and Philosophy" with "Seinfeld," "The Simpsons," "The Matrix," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "The Lord of the Rings," Baseball and, most recently, "The Sopranos." "In preparation" are Woody Allen and Harry Potter. All are collections of essays, mainly by academic philosophers, that are of three main types.
The most prevalent uses the dramatic situations of a particular show to illustrate certain well-known ethical or philosophical problems. Thus Sheila Lintott, assistant professor of philosophy at Appalachian State University, concludes in "Tony Soprano's Moral Sympathy (or Lack Thereof): The Sopranos and Subjectivist Ethics' that Tony is an unconscious adherent of the Ethical Subjectivism of the Scottish philosopher David Hume.
Likewise, in "Is Carmela Soprano a Feminist? Carmela's Care Ethics," Lisa Cassidy, assistant professor of philosophy at Ramapo College in the Sopranos' own New Jersey, finds that the mobster's wife exemplifies the ideas of the feminist psychologist Carol Gilligan.
Extreme examples of this type include Eric Bronson's "Why Maggie Matters: Sounds of Silence, East and West," which sees in the youngest Simpson an illustration of the theories of Sartre and Wittgenstein, or perhaps Confucius; and series editor Irwin's "Kramer and Kierkegaard: Stages on Life's Way," which deems the "Seinfeld" character an example of Kierkegaard's aesthetic man.
Mr. Irwin, an assistant professor of philosophy at King's College, in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., goes on to imagine what Kramer would be like if he moved on to Kierkegaard's ethical or religious phases of life -- so his analysis shades into the second type of essay, which purports to give a philosophical analysis of a particular episode or character. Thus Jason Holt, assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Manitoba, considers: "The Costanza Maneuver: Is It Rational for George to "Do the Opposite'?"
When George Costanza of "Seinfeld" concluded that, since every decision of his life had been wrong, he would go right by choosing to do the opposite of what he would otherwise have done, his short-term success may have been fortunate. But, Prof. Holt concludes, as a long-term strategy it was neither rational nor feasible.
In "'I Dunno About Morals, but I Do Got Rules': Tony Soprano as Ethical Manager," Ronald M. Green, chairman of the religion department and director of the Ethics Institute at Dartmouth, finds that Tony Soprano's methods of running "the business" exemplify many of the principles of ethical business management.
These two types of papers point up the (very large) extent to which the essays, at least in the Open Court books, are written with tongue in cheek. Prof. Green's thumbnail biography, for example, tells us that he is "currently thinking of introducing a new business ethics course entitled "Whacking Stakeholders.'" In the same spirit, the "Sopranos" book has a one-page foreword by Vincent Pastore, who played "Big Pussy" Bonpensiero on the show before he was sent to sleep with the fishes at the end of season two. He advises readers: "You should read this book—or else! It's got Bada-Bing! all over it."
Such attempts at humor seem to be aimed at defusing criticism from those who might otherwise be disposed to accuse the essayists of taking trivial things too seriously. See? We don't really imagine that a TV show has the answer to real philosophical problems, they say.
The third type of essay is the most difficult but also the most rewarding, as it makes a real attempt to describe the significance of a show. One such work is "The Simpsons: Atomistic Politics and the Nuclear Family" by Paul Cantor, professor of English at the University of Virginia.
Prof. Cantor is refreshingly unashamed in averring that "The Simpsons" "offers some of the most sophisticated comedy and satire ever to appear on American television." Now there's a man with the courage of his convictions! His point about what he calls "the deep politics of "The Simpsons'" is that, dysfunctional though the family may seem, it is ultimately supportive rather than subversive of family values. "'The Simpsons" shows the family as part of a larger community, and in effect affirms the kind of community that can sustain the family."
But the Open Court series, designed to be read by the lay reader, is really only a softer, jokier version of the more hard-core academic volume that takes its pop culture -- and itself -- very seriously indeed. One such is "Reading "Sex and the City'" (I.B. Taurus), Kim Akass and Janet McCabe's collection of works from a stunningly highbrow gang of contributors.
Here, having cut your teeth on the Open Court series, you may experience the thrill of sinking them into something close to the unadulterated jargon of real-life scholars in an essay like "The Museum of Unnatural History: Male Freaks and "Sex and the City,'" by David Greven, who teaches at Boston University.
A sample: "The freakshow mentality of "Sex and the City" ends up being neither a post-feminist nor post-gay interrogation of privileged white male heterosexuality -- despite the depiction of members of this group as freaks -- but a reification of the very privileged status of the category. It is the women themselves, shakily stuck in their haunted liminal position between representing both "real" women and gay men, who are ultimately revealed as the chief freaks."
As this example suggests, the more feminist the analysis, the less lighthearted -- and readable -- is the treatment of popular culture. Actually, the average reader might get a better idea of "Sex and the City" from the parody on "The Simpsons" called "Nookie in New York." Homer makes pretty much the same point as Prof. Greven, but more pithily, when he says that the show is "about four single women behaving like gay men."
Homer's mannish spinster sisters-in-law, Patty and Selma, claim to love the show because "that is so like our lives!"
It must be rather devastating to be criticized for unreality by a cartoon, but "Sex and the City," like other popular TV shows, is at least being taken seriously in the universities.