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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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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 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.

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