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All Dude Revue

Academic overanalysis strangles ‘The Big Lebowski.’

May 24, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 34 • By ZACK MUNSON
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The Year’s Work in Lebowski Studies
by Edward P. Comentale
and Aaron Jaffe
Indiana, 512 pp., $24.95

 Now, a pop quiz. Name the subject of the essay from which the following quotation is taken: 

[Jokes] thrust the listener and the teller into the complex economy that comprises lived experience. They force a recognition that life at its very core is—to use a fancy word—inter-subjective, by which I mean every person’s sense of self is constituted as a shifting psychic field of forces that includes the psychic input of other people. 

And the following: 

Unlike the consumer, who relates to pop culture first in terms of desire and thus acquisition, the fan approaches its object with an “affective sensibility,” seeking it out .  .  . as a way of organizing and thus establishing a certain mode of mattering in opposition to other available models. 

And the following still: 

In other words, can we see [blank] as a parody not of communism, but of our peculiar anxieties about the Stalinist version of it, as well as our linking of those anxieties to any sort of thinking that attempts to envision a non-capitalist and collectivist future? 

All right, pencils down. If you said anything other than The Big Lebowski, you are wrong. Yes, you heard right: The Big Lebowski, the Coen brothers’ wacky 1998 movie about bowling, pornography, Saddam Hussein, and bowling.
The movie that introduced us to The Dude, an easy-living, pot-smoking, bowling-loving, nihilist-fighting—well, dude. The movie that, after a dismal box office performance, has become the cult film of the last decade, inspiring all manner of devotion and imitation, everything from Halloween costumes and drinking games to trivia contests and a series of nationwide Lebowski-themed conventions.

Yes, some people, perhaps, love Lebowski a little too much; and of course, there are others who don’t care for it at all. And that’s fine. The movie is ridiculous, it’s profane, it’s violent, it’s weird. It’s certainly not for everyone. But it is a movie that I have always enjoyed. Until, that is, I read The Year’s Work in Lebowski Studies, the book of academic essays from which those opening quotations issue. Edward Comentale and Aaron Jaffe, the English professors who edited this volume, begin their introduction with a question: “So what’s a Lebowski, you might ask?” Or, if you’re not into the whole brevity thing (and with The Year’s Work coming in at a whopping 512 pages these academics clearly are not), “What kind of thing is a Lebowski? How does it exist in the world? How does it present itself to human consciousness?”

These are questions that most people have probably never found it necessary to ask. But as Comentale and Jaffe declare, “We’re academics. .  .  . Overachievers, if you will.” (Really?) Suffice it to say, the 21 contributing academics do ask these questions, and try, at length, to answer them—and a slew of other, even less pressing, ones. A quick survey of the subjects these overachievers have been hard at work overachieving at reveals a smorgasbord of the overthought and the overwrought: “The Big Lebowski as Medieval Grail Quest,” “Metonymic Hats and Metaphoric Tumbleweeds,” “The Big Lebowski and Paul de Man: Historicizing Irony and Ironizing Historicism,” “Masculinities in The Big Lebowski”—and these are just the titles. One contributor boldly states that “the citationality of Dudespeak is, of course, a meta-commentary on the condition of irony.” Another declares, “I could argue that in a world in which the signifier is not aimed at the conventional signifieds of presence (and especially those of Marxism and psychoanalysis that I have been emphasizing), it can aim at anything, so why not bowling?” 

Indeed, why not? Yet another proclaims:

Infinite frontings do not recede infinitely, but instead give way to the nothingness the optical illusion of their fronting tries to refocus as something, disappeared through infinite recession, but looming as a fact of accrued fronting.

I don’t even have a joke for that one. There are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of equally quotable inanities here, but the sad fact is that these scholars do not actually have anything to say; even sadder is that they use far too many words to say nothing. And saddest of all, these meta-commentaries on the matterings of signified frontings are all very serious, very uptight, very un-Dude. The obvious question raised by all this bloviating, jargon-making buzzkill is, Why? Or as the Dude himself might ask, “What the $%*@?” Well, these are aspiring academics; what else do they have to do but ruin everybody’s good time?

Zack Munson is a writer and comedian in Washington.

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