Friday, September 9, 2011

Seinfeld and Philosophy [A Book about Everything and Nothing] (2000)

     So the most important lesson I've learned about my first book in the Pop Culture and Philosophy series – this one being a Christmas gift from a few years ago – was that I am not going to be able to progress through the series (the ones I would want to read, at any rate) by getting them from the library.  As if this were an actual philosophy text, I could not resist the urge to write notes and underline lines – or entire segments – in an effort to keep my thoughts on the matters accessible.  I also learned that the current state of philosophical writing for a mainstream audience is horrifically inadequate; Dr. Cunning was right to warn me away from pursuing an advanced degree in the field if this is anywhere near the level of discourse I could expect from fellow students, let alone professors.
     What is good about Seinfeld and Philosophy [A Book about Everything and Nothing] (2000)?  At the top of the list I would suggest that it kindly reminded me of how good Seinfeld (1989-1998) was when it worked.  There were a few essays that did a good job of encapsulating the ideas behind very complex philosophical concepts.  And some of the essays were written in such a way that they weren't laborious ramblings devoid of a concise point.  Please allow me, if you are willing, to not follow that example and go on a seemingly pointless ramble not bound by a central theme, but done as bullet points.

Socrates, sort of
▸    Editor William Irwin (then Assistant Professor of Philosophy at King's College, now Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Honor's Program at the same institution) makes a common error – one that needs to be addressed – in asserting that "Socrates who was thought mad and ultimately put to death for trying to draw attention to such a higher plane of thought and reality." (Jerry and Socrates, p. 9).  This puts the onus of the political execution of Socrates not on his corrupting the youth (the most common misconception of why he was executed, perhaps because it the charge of which he was found guilty) but of advancing a deeper understanding of reason and the world.  Let us be clear: Socrates was executed because several of his students were agitators who opposed the Democracy in Athens and eventually led to the implementation of an oligarchical rule (supported by the Spartans) and a resultant civil war between the Men of the City and Men of Piraeus.  It is historical fact; the charge of corrupting of the youth was a more of a nod to the possibility that allowing Socrates to remain in Athens could lead to another generation who would try to destroy the Democracy.  As Socrates wouldn't accept exile as an option – Athens was his home – death was the only viable political option.  It is hard for me – as a reader – to take Irwin seriously when he wants to take such a simplistic approach to the fate of Socrates.

▸    Daniel Barwick (Assistant Professor at SUNY College of Technology – Alfred) may not misunderstand Aristotlean Virtue Ethics (more on this later), but he sure does like misrepresenting the context behind or the actual meaning of the lines he quotes from Seinfeld.  He takes George Constanza's pronouncement – to lawyer Cheryl – that "I'm disturbed!  I'm depressed! I'm inadequate! I got it all!" ("The Visa") to mean that George hates himself, and not that he feels he can work his less desirable qualities into something that can entice an attractive woman to sleep with him.  There is a difference between hating oneself – which it can be argued that George does – and believing that one's shortcomings can be used as an unlikely advantage in procuring sex.  Barwick likewise misunderstands George's desire to watch a movie at Jerry's:
     He hates that his life is boring:
     Because if I watch [a video] at my apartment 
     I feel like I'm not doing anything.  If I watch 
     it here, I'm out of the house, I'm doing 
     ("The Junior Mints") 
     – George's Failed Quest for Happiness (p. 21)
 This is so much bigger than George finding his life to be boring.  Instead, George needs to have an audience or witnesses to what he is doing in order for him to feel that there is something being done.  It is a statement, and one that fits much better with the accusation that George hates himself, that anything solely related to George is nothing worth noting; it may as well be nothing or simply not be done.  In context that is much closer to my life, there is little reward to be found in watching a bad movie, but I can attempt to manufacture some meaning behind it if I express my opinions on it and those opinions find an audience.  Simply having the opinions isn't much of an accomplishment. 
George Constanza
     Barwick takes the line: "She thinks I'm a nice guy.  Women always think I'm nice.  But women don't want nice." ("The Cafe") to represent George hating that his faults are obvious to women.  First, I think that the knowledgeable viewer of Seinfeld would not characterize George as nice.  Second, George is giving voice to the notion that he can be easily dismissed as a non-sexual entity by women who are simply looking for something he does not appear to be.  This is really more the bane of his existence, that he cannot get beyond his own vanity and insecurity to adopt a coping strategy that would allow him to approach women as something other than a bald, short, fat, often unemployed man who – at times – lives with his parents.  It isn't that he hates that his flaws are easily visible to others, it is that he doesn't know how to hide them from himself – to concoct the perfect lie that would enable him to believe he is more than he is – that keeps him dubious about his prospects with women.  And the writers aren't even consistent on this.
     On page 23, Barwick misunderstands George's line, "When you're hopeless you don't care.  And when you don't care, the indifference makes you attractive." ("The Fix-Up") as a surrender to his problems.  Instead, and I want to give the writers credit here, it is more of an astute observation that perhaps the least attractive quality one can have is a palpable aura or sense of desperation.  George knows this.  He is pondering why he cannot have a level of contentment in his current lot in life – just an acceptance of it – and that from this level of satisfaction and not desperately searching for redemption through the mercies of the fairer sex that he may not just find himself in a better place to enter into a relationship, but that he could properly appear as having attractive traits to quality women.
     Barwick also makes the semi-common argument that Aristotle argued that one can become a virtuous person.  I am not a scholar of Aristotle and will cede that there are many who read the Nichomachean Ethics in such a way that true virtues can be developed.  However, it was my understanding of the text – and one reinforced by Dr. James King – that Aristotle more properly argues that one's character is essentially a trait one is born with, and the best that can be accomplished with those who will not know true virtue is to get them to ape the acts of the virtuous (a prerequisite in learning how to be properly virtuous anyway), usually by means of threat.  Be good or else, which can be clearly seen in the Aristotlean influence in the early Roman Catholic Church.  Barwick may have a much greater understanding of Aristotle than do I, and he may be right in that real virtues can be fostered in individuals, but not in ones as deeply flawed as George (a point that Barwick does make).

Elaine Benes
▸ Sarah E. Worth (Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Furman) tackles whether Elaine Benes is – or has the potential to be – a feminist icon (in Elaine Benes: Feminist Icon or Just One of the Boys?).  I was much more impressed with a criticism of how women are presented on television – "As the average female television character falls into a certain set of stereotypes, we presume that those stereotypes should work in the real world as well" (p. 27) – than I was with her take on feminism in general.  Worth is addressing the need (for lack of a better term) for writers to present female characters with girlish traits as a means of making them appear to be more real.  It is this kind of lazy thinking that leads to female characters who are, with no reasonable explanation, at odds with themselves.  It is why I have such a problem with how the main character of Against the Wall is presented when the writers/directors/producers feel she must be made real in some convoluted feminine manner.  It isn't so much that we (the audience) actually expect the stereotypes to really hold true in the real world, more that we want them to loosely apply.  Doing less would mean that the way women are presented on television is absolutely false and acts as an insult to our real-life experiences.
     At any rate, Worth ends up making the mistake of siding with Carol Gilligan (and not Kohlberg or Kant), thinking that there is some kind of defense of gender needed when what is at issue is cultural norms and how gender roles affect the application of reason.  Worth presents another feminist rebuttal to the application of reason when it comes to morality with Nel Nodding's ethic of care:
     "I should act always in such as to 
     promote the well-being of both the 
     others to whom I am in relation and 
     the self which is relationally 
     – Nel Noddings, Caring: A Feminine 
        Approach to Moral Education, 1984
Never mind that this approach is so narrow in scope as to allow one to take actions blatantly hostile towards others so long as those others can be constituted to be some kind of unknown, this is merely a repacking of a type of utilitarianism that puts the well-being of the self as one of the primary concerns of morality.  Few start the position of the good with the idea of what's good for me?, but we get to see it here.
     Worth goes on to reduce other NBC sitcom characters to being less worthy of feminist admiration than Elaine.  She characterizes Phoebe and Rachel from Friends (1994-2004) as a street performer and not especially well educated, respectively.  This is just factually wrong, where Phoebe is a masseuse and Rachel starts the show with a college degree (though not a post-graduate one) in some field related to fashion.  Worth calls Carla from Cheers (1982-1993) as "unattractive" (where I would have called her "brash" and "crude"), somehow making Elaine's appearance a boon for her feminism.  Still, Worth thinks that Elaine is too weak to be a feminist and is merely a product of feminism.

The Kramer
▸ Irwin returns to write of Kramer and Kierkegaard.  He misunderstands or misrepresents lines and scenes, and not always towards some valuable point.  He makes the point that Kramer is the only of the Seinfeld Four who could effectively survive without the others (p. 48), clearly ignoring that Kramer, left to his own devices, becomes the prime suspect in the hunt for a serial killer terrorizing Los Angeles.  But Irwin does not do a particularly good job of explaining the Kierkegaardian points he is trying to explain.  Given the length of the essay, this is what is most disappointing.  We learn nothing about what it means for Kramer to be living a life at the aesthetic level – and most of the other contributing authors make the point that Kramer may be the character most representative of trying to maintain some sort of moral semblance.

▸ Eric Bronson (Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at Berkeley College in New York) writes a short essay about Seinfeld and Tao.  I don't feel qualified to write on Tao, but I also don't feel that Bronson gave me enough of a sense that he does either.

▸ Mark T. Conrad (writer) does a decent job of explaining the Kantian notion of time and space – even though he is concentrating on the Platonic and Nietzschean concepts of time, understanding, and recurrence.  He also makes a few arguments about how a joke must be structured – that the punchline must be said (and not simply made obvious) – that I cannot abide.  He does have some idea of how to relate memory and the past to one's conception of the self, but much less than I could find in the typical cognitive psychology jounral article dealing with the same issue.  I respect what he was trying to accomplish with his essay, but found it to be lacking in proper focus and ultimately not making the points, but rather arriving at them when they are declared to be correct.

▸Jennifer McMahon (Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Centre College) gives a long examination of Sarte – one in which she essentially calls the majority of Sarte scholars idiots who have missed the obvious in reading him.  I HATE phenomenology; other than it allowing us to reformulate the Socratic/Platonic phrase "The unexamined life is not worth living" into the more meaningful (and helpful) the inauthentic life is not worth living, phenomenology primarily serves as an obstacle to using something other than observation to understand anything.

▸ My brief response to Kelly Dean Jolley's (Associate Professor of Philosophy at Auburn) essay on Wittgenstein was "Who the fuck cares?"  It is just another reminder of the endless bullshit that exists in the fields of philosophical inquiry, and Jolley presents it in such a matter that I must wonder why – except for lack of competition – one would endeavor to even take Wittgenstein and the conception of the commonplace seriously.

     There is more, but I guess I want to keep this from being seemingly endless.  Only a couple of the contributing authors presented both the philosophical concepts and the relation to Seinfeld in a clear manner (which wholly discounts the need to be entertaining).  Taken on the whole, the book is too simplistic to offer much in the way of insight about the concepts and too liberal with the interpreting the show to impress a fan.  I think there is something to be had with an approach like this, but it needs tighter editorial control and a better central theme.

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