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The Simpsons Folder


The Sad, Cruel World of The Simpsons
Globe Interactive © 2000 DAVID ROBERTS Tuesday, October 31, 2000

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 their shopping malls. The utility company tries to boost revenue at the local power plant by blotting out the sun.

Sound familiar?

Quick, name the place where such malevolence and corruption occurs. Anytown, Anywhere?

The town 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,” contends Carl Matheson, head of the philosophy department at the University of Manitoba, in a blunt, poststructural dissection of our meaningless, corrupt, self-absorbed, urbanized world. If The Simpsons’s world-view resonates for you, then perhaps you are a cynic. Or at least a critical realist, or a good pessimist, or a phenomenalist.

In an academic paper entitled The Simpsons, Hyper-irony, and the Meaning of Life, Prof. Matheson suggests that 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.

Prof. Matheson says modern culture is a place where philosophers should look for the intellectual underpinnings of the age. The Simpsons is the ultimate metaphorical archetype of our time, and an insufficient number of budding Platos, Descartes, and Hegels are looking there for fodder for their latest argumentum ad ignorantiam.

“A lot of philosophers are pretty dowdy. They have PBS-like sensibilities,” he says. In 200 episodes over 10 seasons, Prof. Matheson argues that The Simpsons aptly reflects today’s tendency toward nihilism and the consequential loss of any overarching moral law.

Yet inasmuch as the show is a metaphor for society at large, it offers 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.

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,” he 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 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.”

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.

Prof. 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. Today’s comedies, The Simpsons foremost among them, employ what Prof. Matheson calls “quotational” techniques, where they quote other works of pop culture for thematic punctuation. They also use what Prof. Matheson calls “hyper-ironic” punctuation, making them “colder, based less on a shared sense of humanity than on a sense of world-weary, cleverer-than-thou-ness. . . . Comedy can be used to attack anybody at all who thinks that he or she has any sort of handle on the answer to any major question, not to replace the object of the attack with a better way of looking at things, but merely for the pleasure of the attack, or perhaps for the sense of momentary superiority.”

Prof. Matheson says he is not arguing that the makers of The Simpsons intended the show primarily as a theatre of cruelty — although it’s quite likely they did.

“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.”