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Entries in Carl Matheson (1)

Wednesday
Oct102012

It's Cool to Be Cruel

City Hall is corrupt. The police chief is lazy and self-serving. Church leaders fulminate against nothingness, to no effect. Well-greased property developers stage phony religious miracles to promote the grand opening of the new shopping mall. The utility company tries to boost revenue at the local power plant by blotting out the sun.

Sound familiar?

The place is Springfield of course - not to be confused with the Rural Municipality of Springfield, which skirts the Manitoba capital, but rather that fictional, all-too-nasty, ultrasymbolic urban playground of television's The Simpsons.

"The Simpsons is the deepest show on television," observes Carl Matheson, head of the philosophy department at the University of Manitoba.

Meaning: ill advised

Matheson put forward several arguments in support of such cultural gravitas in a paper published more than a decade ago: The Simpsons, Hyper-irony, and the Meaning of Life.

And while I first wrote about Matheson's observations at the dawn of the millennia, today I feel more serene about the future of all our planet's shivering denizens, despite seeing local conditions morph from the metaphorical to the material.

Consider Matheson's blunt, post-structural dissection of our meaningless, corrupt, self-absorbed, urbanized world of a decade ago: if The Simpsons's world-view resonated for you back then then perhaps you were a cynic. Or at least a critical realist, or a good pessimist, or a phenomenalist.

Matheson suggested the world of The Simpsons is nihilistic in the extreme. And as such, it is good for us. This meaningless world is a bleak one - as bleak as the world of Dickens was in his time - but nonetheless very funny.

Indeed, he said that today's philosophers should spend more time examining our popular culture if they hope to parse the intellectual underpinnings of the age. As such, The Simpsons is the ultimate metaphorical archetype of our time, because it aptly reflects today's tendency toward nihilism and the consequential loss of any overarching moral law.

The show, starting its 24th season in 2012, remains a metaphor for society at large, offering us the chance to laugh at ourselves. It may also lend an opportunity to snatch some fleeting sense of meaning out of nothingness, although this is not necessarily advised.

Moral interregnum

Indeed, we might use the Simpson family as a focal point of contemplation, a kind of study guide to help understand the extent to which our modern world is ensconced in an intellectual and moral interregnum, where the old values are dying and the new cannot be born.

And even here, in a world devoid of ultimate meaning, there is an all-too-human quality. "The Simpsons," Matheson says, "consisting of a not-as-bright version of the Freudian id for a father, a sociopathic son, a prissy daughter, and a fairly dull but innocuous mother, are a family whose members love each other. And, we love them."

But despite the fact The Simpsons sometimes mimics a moral agenda, we should not be fooled. In fact, The Simpsons does not promote anything, because its humour works by putting forward positions only in order to undercut them. "This process of undercutting runs so deeply that we cannot regard the show as merely cynical; it manages to undercut its cynicism too."

Crisis of authority

For example, take Scenes from the Class Struggle in Springfield (from the series's seventh season). Marge Simpson buys a $90 Coco Chanel suit. Wearing it, she bumps into a friend, who's suitably impressed and invites Marge to the posh Springfield Glen Country Club. Bent on climbing the social ladder, Marge hauls Homer and the rest of the family to the club. Ultimately, they reject membership just as (unbeknownst to them) the mucky-mucks at the club are ready to bring them into the membership fold. Despite hints to the contrary, there is no moral lesson here. Nada. This is hyper-irony.

Matheson notes that most of today's comedies are a different kind of funny from those of decades past. In the sixties, seventies and eighties, TV invariably promoted some kind of moral agenda, or at least reflected the prevalent cultural mores of the time. But we now live in a crisis of authority. These days, it's cool to be cruel. Immanuel Kant's moral law is as dead as God, maybe deader.

In the face of this, we rely on our own cultural products to construct a kind of quasi-meaning.

Matheson does not contend that the makers of The Simpsons intended the show primarily as a theatre of cruelty - although that is quite likely.

"Despite the fact that the show strips away any semblance of value, despite the fact that, week after week, it offers us little comfort, it still manages to convey the raw power of the irrational (or arational) love of human beings for other human beings, and it makes us play along by loving these flickering bits of paint on celluloid who live in a flickering, hollow world. Now that's comedy entertainment."

A slightly longer version of this appeared in The Globe and Mail in October 2000 (you could write long for newspapers in those days) and it was later reprinted in The Simpson's Archive. Top Image: Big World 6x6 w/c on canvas David Roberts 2009.