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SpongeBob 101

The philosophical approach to high and low culture.

Nov 14, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 09 • By DAVID GUASPARI
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Superheroes: The Best of Philosophy and Pop Culture expounds Immanuel Kant’s defense of retribution as a duty intimately related to “respect, honor, and what it means to be a valuable person living a worthwhile life in a community of other moral persons. When,” on the other hand, “Rorschach administers punishment, say by drowning Big Figure in the toilet,” that seems barbaric. “Indeed, drowning a midget in a toilet isn’t aesthetically pleasing; it doesn’t look ‘right.’ ”

Photo of Sponge Bob

The weirdly comic juxtaposition of pop culture with the philosophically sublime—Rorschach appears in the (absurdly overpraised) graphic novel Watchmen—is the MO of a decade-old, commercially successful genre known as “and Philosophy” books, e.g.: The Simpsons and Philosophy; SpongeBob SquarePants and Philosophy; Metallica and Philosophy; The Atkins Diet and Philosophy: Chewing the Fat with Kant and Nietzsche. Open Court has published 63 such titles in its Popular Culture and Philosophy series and has announced a dozen more; Wiley-Blackwell’s Philosophy and Pop Culture offers 34.

A typical “and Philosophy” book consists of short essays from different hands, each providing an outline of some philosophical topic (justice vs. mercy, personal identity, forgiveness and redemption.  .  .), historical name checks (Aristotle, Locke, Bishop Butler.  .  .), and examples familiar to fans of the titular TV show, movie, pop group, or comic book. Most of the authors belong to academic philosophy departments, which may explain why the outlines are generally reliable and why the prose often lacks, shall we say, the light touch—sometimes pedantic, sometimes the verbal equivalent of your dad trying to get funky.

William Irwin, who teaches philosophy at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, inaugurated the genre with Seinfeld and Philosophy. (He is not to be confused with the great clown Bill Irwin, the one sound argument against making “performance art” a capital crime.) S&P comes with a blurb from the distinguished octogenarian philosopher Nicholas Rescher of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Royal Society of Canada, and Academia Europaea. The blurbs for Irwin’s Metallica and Philosophy have less heft but, in some circles, better name recognition: “The most elucidative dissertation on Metallica ever written. And a kick-ass read to boot!!!—Scott Ian, guitarist
for Anthrax
.”

Irwin is the reigning impresario of “and Philosophy” books, series editor for the first 25 Open Court titles and now general editor of the Blackwell series. In response to emailed queries, he says that the books for which he has been editor or series editor have, altogether, sold more than a million copies. Who buys them? Mostly, it seems clear, fans wanting tchotchkes. The Open Court web page solicits suggestions for new titles and emphasizes that they should “focus on specific television programs, hit movies, books, video games or trends. Proposals for titles such as ‘Video Games and Philosophy’ or ‘Action Movies and Philosophy,’ are much less appealing than (for example) ‘Grand Theft Auto .  .  . ’ or ‘Kill Bill and Philosophy.’ ”

Do books like this do any good? Any harm? Do they say anything about The Way We Live Now? I chose a convenient sample: Seinfeld and Philosophy (in which I have subject matter expertise); Superheroes: The Best of Philosophy and Pop Culture (a free ebook); The Simpsons and Philosophy (available at the public library); The Ultimate Harry Potter and Philosophy (seen the movies). I intended to hate them. They would be, I assumed, the dreary academic blahblah that disdains all distinctions between low culture and high—as epitomized by the much-quoted dictum that choosing between Pearl Buck and Virginia Woolf is “no different from choosing between a hoagie and a pizza.”

In our email exchange, however, Irwin said that his intellectual hero is E. D. Hirsch—best known to the general public for his book Cultural Literacy—and that his own aim is “to communicate with people in terms of what they know, pop culture, to teach them what they don’t know, philosophy.” His editorial introductions take pains to assert that the books use pop culture as a source of examples, not of philosophical wisdom or depth.

Popularizing philosophy, he has written, should be as respectable, and valued, as popularizing science. That argument does have a weakness: A popular book on science assumes that readers are interested in its subject; an “and Philosophy” book assumes that they are not but hopes that something might rub off. A quick test of the rub-off theory: The Amazon.com page for Seinfeld and Philosophy lists the works it cites, beginning thus: Philosophical Investigations; Being and Nothingness; Thus Spake Zarathustra; The Sublime Object of Ideology (can’t say I’d heard of that one); War and Peace; Dialogues of Plato. It also lists the books that “customers who bought this item also bought”: Seinlanguage; Seinology; Scene it? Seinfeld; the Seinfeld Trivia Game; and, branching out, The Simpsons and Philosophy.

Okay, that was a cheap shot. Here, for balance, are nano-essays that I call “ ‘and Philosophy’ and Philosophy”:

1. Aristotle. Each of the books I examined based at least one essay on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, which presents the best life as the result of cultivating and developing virtues, habitual dispositions to appropriate action. That is a natural fit, since the pop culture referents of these books tell stories; and stories are about characters, and therefore about character. If any Aristotle rubs off, it’s also a public service, since his account of ethics is the best one going.

2. Kierkegaard. Seinfeld’s Cosmo Kramer proves a surprisingly apt illustration of Kierkegaard’s “aesthetic” mode of life. Aesthetic man is in flight from boredom and despair, but trapped there in “rotation”—living in the moment, in constantly and arbitrarily changing worlds devised in his own imagination. But the author of this essay (unlike Kierkegaard) errs when he domesticates the truly eerie Kramer as merely a “beloved nutball.”

3. Desperation. One contributor was saddled with tying Seinfeld—“The Show about Nothing”—to the philosophical concept of nothing. And nothing is what he had to work with, as suggested by this desperate segue: “Jerry and George clearly do not know Chinese philosophy, but they do know Chinese food.” That is a frequent failing: essays for which the pop culture is merely a hook, and a flimsy one.

Is it likely that a passing reference to Maggie, Homer Simpson’s nonspeaking baby, will lure an otherwise uninterested Simpsons fan into a discussion of the relation between words and thoughts?

4. Who is Slavoj Žižek? A “Marxist Lacanian” and author of the aforementioned and hitherto-unknown-to-me Sublime Object of Ideology—since whose publication, according to a Wikipedia entry seemingly written by a nonnative speaker of English (or a graduate student), “he has continued to develop his status as a confrontational intellectual.” Žižek’s work is used to explicate the way in which Seinfeld’s J. Peterman reveals to us that “the Subject .  .  . is constituted and maintained through ideology.” I approached this essay phenomenologically, to experience it as it would be experienced by a typical reader of S&P. I skipped it.

5. Harry Potter. Of the books in my sample, The Ultimate Harry Potter seemed most likely to realize Irwin’s stated goals. Many of its essays ruminate, in a pleasingly old-fashioned way, on what the Harry Potter story says about such things as love, death, destiny, loyalty, self‑knowledge, and the soul. One of the best discusses the redemption of Snape by love, understood as St. Thomas understands it—which is not to be in the grip of a feeling but “to will the good of another.” Try not to be put off by the occasionally reverential tone: The foreword, for example, speaks with a straight face about “Potter scholars,” and an essay concludes with the sentiment that “As we follow Harry .  .  . we become better people.”

6. Funny vs. jokey. The Seinfeld and Simpsons books can be very funny—when they quote dialogue or summarize plot twists. Jokey is different: an elbow in the ribs, an exclamation point at the end of a punch line. The dutifully wacky entry in each contributor’s biography is jokey (“Kelly owns the world’s largest Malibu Stacy collection”). So is “epistemology tries to answer questions about how we know stuff.” “Stuff” is not, as its author presumably intended, “nonthreatening,” or hip, or a show of learning worn lightly. It’s an insult.

7. Where credit is due, and where it is not. Might these books disserve their readers, empty calories dulling the appetite for, and the ability to savor, the real thing? I think not, for they don’t pretend to be what they’re not. The gluttony of Homer Simpson offers less matter for reflection than the gluttony of Falstaff—but to offer it as a topic for bedtime reading is not vandalism. It’s not like offering an academic program of Simpsons studies. A Google search suggests that a degree in that specialty is not (yet) available, but suitable merchandise has appeared on term paper websites, which presumably respond to demand. There is, for example, an “analytical essay” with insights like “As a moving, ever expanding satire, [Homer Simpson] is at once the best and worst of American dadness.”

My attempt to hate “and Philosophy” books failed, although I think their edifying potential is modest and I dissent from the cover blurbs praising their “brilliance” and “fun.” The contributors are no doubt intelligent and well meaning, but it takes a kind of genius, an Orwell or a Robert Warshow, to mine deep things from shallow subjects.

David Guaspari is a writer in Ithaca.

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