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Volume 10, No. 1 - February 2000
More in this Issue...

SOMETHING FOR NOTHING

They thought they could contain it--wedge it into American or cultural studies, staple a token page to the literature syllabus. But pop culture, like language, appears to be a virus from outer space. And it's replicating into the higher-minded enclaves of academia, borne by the most dangerous carriers of all: hard-core fans.

Take Exhibit A: Seinfeld and Philosophy: A Book About Everything and Nothing (Open Court), edited by William Irwin. Two years back, just as Seinfeld was going off the air, inspiration struck Irwin, a philosophy professor at King's College in Pennsylvania and the author of the more sedate Intentionalist Interpretation: A Philosophical Explanation and Defense (Greenwood, 1999). Driving home from the eastern-division meeting of the American Philosophical Association, Irwin mused over the significant chunk of time his colleagues had spent lamenting the end of their favorite show. At earlier conferences, professors had watched the program together. Couldn't these two great tastes taste great together--or, to switch metaphors, illuminate each other? Sipping coffee at a rest stop, Irwin made like his hero, the comedian Jerry Seinfeld, and scribbled the idea on a cocktail napkin.

Response to an exploratory e-mail was overwhelmingly positive. Even his dissertation director, SUNY Buffalo Distinguished Professor of Philosophy Jorge J. E. Gracia, gave the thumbs-up. "I thought he might say, hey, this is the kind of thing that would imperil your career," recalls Irwin. Instead, Gracia ended up contributing his own essay on "the significance of the insignificant," featuring a section titled "'The Outing': Queering Seinfeld?"

The book comprises four sections: "The Characters," "Seinfeld and the Philosophers," "Is There Anything Wrong With That?" and "Untimely Meditations by the Water Cooler," the last featuring explorations of philosophical questions raised by the show. For example: Is it rational when, in one episode, George decides to do the opposite of what he normally does? Other essays in the book include "George's Failed Quest for Happiness: An Aristotelian Analysis," "Kramer and Kierkegaard: Stages on Life's Way," and "Plato or Nietzsche: Time, Essence, and Eternal Recurrence in Seinfeld."

Are Irwin and his contributors serious? It can be hard to tell. In contrast to the clotted jargon you'd find in a cultural studies reader, this book's prose is studded with Seinfeld catchphrases. Yet contributors have also taken their task to heart, delving more or less deeply into Elaine's feminism and the Taoist underpinnings of nothingness. Several contributors interpret the show's ongoing arguments--about the proper way to conduct a breakup or buy a babka--as Socratic dialogues, attempts to define virtue and happiness. More dauntingly, in "Peterman and the Ideological Mind: Paradoxes of Subjectivity," Norah Martin argues that Elaine's boss, the fictionalized real-life cataloger J. Peterman, exemplifies Zizekian "performative ideology." As an empty subject enfolded in artificial narratives, Martin claims, Peterman reflects back to viewers their own position as creatures of desire and dissatisfaction. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

In a few cases, a contributor's enthusiasm for the show seems to have tweaked his or her interpretation. "Seinfeld, Subjectivity, and Sartre," Centre College philosopher Jennifer McMahon's otherwise thoughtful attempt to ground Jean-Paul Sartre's ideas in a relational theory of self, founders not on her understanding of the philosopher but on her unique interpretation of the acid Seinfeld quartet as an exemplary friendship circle. The final scene of the series--in which the foursome is confined, la No Exit, to a prison cell--features, she says, "friendly chatter" that "suggests that our reliance on others might not be so bad."

This mix of flippancy and moral seriousness, fanzine and critique, was deliberate, notes Irwin, who aimed the book at a general audience. "It's 'Seinfeld and Philosophy,' not 'The Philosophy of Seinfeld,'" he says. "I'm not claiming that there's some abstruse philosophy behind the show, just that the two can be linked in some ways." At twenty-nine, Irwin wryly admits to being part of "the first generation of Gen X professors," many of whom have "a pretty unhealthy healthy interest in pop culture." The professor himself is the perfect customer for his own book: His office is filled with Seinfeld paraphernalia, his home page includes pertinent links, and he even went out of his way to purchase a puffy shirt.

Nonetheless, Irwin has a pedagogical point. Books like this one, he notes, can transfer complicated ideas to the public via the Trojan Horse of pop culture. The essays also demystify the discipline, says McMahon--revealing to the public "that philosophers talk about some of the same things people do over the coffee machine."

ELSEWHERE ON THE WEB

To prepare yourself for an evening at home watching Seinfeld reruns, browse the Voice of the Shuttle Philosophy links. Want to further ponder the nature of reality? Ask yourself: who is the real Kramer, the television character, or the Seinfeld friend who calls himself "the 'real' Kramer"?

Not everyone loves Seinfeld: Jedediah Purdy recently made news by decrying it as an emblem of all that's wrong with American culture today. Read Lingua Franca senior editor Caleb Crain's review of his book.

Indeed, it is incumbent upon intellectuals to engage seriously with their cultural enthusiasms, avers Kelly Dean Jolley, who contributed "Wittgenstein and Seinfeld on the Commonplace," which finds structural similarities between the Viennese thinker's Philosophical Investigations and the New York comic's show about nothing. "A lot of people have this conviction that you dirty the hands of philosophy when you try to do what this book's trying to do," observes Jolley. "But I think philosophy can learn from everything." Santayana put it best, says Jolley, when he wrote of the necessity to stand in philosophy where one stands in ordinary life: "If I find Seinfeld of interest in my ordinary life, then I ought to find it of interest in my philosophical life."

Professor Irwin's next project is a book on The Simpsons and philosophy. Turns out, it's a growing field. The University of Virginia literature professor Paul A. Cantor, author of books on Hamlet and Macbeth, won an award from the American Political Science Association for his essay "The Simpsons: Atomistic Politics and the Nuclear Family," a follow-up to an earlier piece, "The Greatest TV Show Ever." In his prize essay, published in the December 1999 issue of Political Theory, Cantor argues that far from offering a doomsday vision of domesticity (the argument presented by critics like William Bennett), Matt Groening's cartoon articulates the notion that the family, like democracy, may be flawed but it is the best option we have.

Homer Simpson, Cantor writes, "is the distillation of pure fatherhood." He adds: "Take away all the qualities that make for a genuinely good father--and what you have left is Homer Simpson with his pure, mindless, dogged devotion to his family." Cantor also disentangles the show's "strange mix of intellectualism and anti-intellectualism," analyzing an episode in which Springfield's Mensa chapter attempts a disastrous coup: When the Mensans dissolve into bickering, Homer rallies the masses with the cry "C'mon, you idiots, we're taking back this town!" The episode, Cantor writes, mixes gross humor with Frank Lloyd Wright allusions to "defend the common man against the intellectual in a way that both the common man and the intellectual can understand and enjoy."

Like the Seinfeld philosophers, Cantor has received only positive feedback. One generation's mass junk, he contends, is the next one's intellectual history. "In the 1950s, it was odd to study movies. Now it's a completely accepted academic field. When the great Victorian novels were being published, you would be hounded out of Oxford if you tried to deliver a lecture on Dickens." The Simpsons' cartoon within a cartoon, Itchy and Scratchy, he says, may not be the equivalent of Shakespeare (though he does point out that, structurally, it resembles the play within a play in Hamlet). But the Bard, he is convinced, would approve--after all, his plays were the mass craze of his day, delivered in a medium despised by the elite.

What will be the great art form of the twenty-first century? The video game, says Cantor: "It's what the penny arcade was in the1920s. If you said Citizen Kane was going to come out of that, people would have laughed in your face."

Emily Nussbaum is a Lingua Franca contributing writer. Her last article for the magazine, "Faith No More," was about the atheist Campus Freethought Alliance.

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