To Pee or Not to Pee: On the Politics of Cultural Appropriation

Calvin Sticker


Editor’s Note: This piece, originally published here in Volume 1, Issue 6, is reprinted here as part of our “Flow Favorites” issue, in which the coordinating editors (past and present) select an article for republication. While new images and video clips have been added, the original text remains the same. We have also included the original comments at the conclusion, as well as a new postscript by the author and an introduction by the co-coordinating editor of volumes 3, 4, and 5, Marnie Binfield.


Introduction:

In “To Pee or Not to Pee,” Brian Ott probes the “Calvin pissing on…” auto decal phenomenon. With wry wit and a genuine appreciation for the ticks and habits of “just plain folks,” Ott’s pointed attention to the use of Bill Watterson’s cartoon character illuminates a range of media issues from cultural appropriation to synergy, and, ultimately, what media, media characters, and the artists who help to create them can and cannot do and expect to do. I appreciate that Ott takes a close look at a small detail of the media landscape that is so familiar that I often forget to notice it or to think of it as media. As the original comments demonstrate, Ott’s piece raised very different responses among different readers. “Markus,” a native Coloradan who is exiled in Michigan points out that the battles represented by the different things Calvin pees on are not merely symbolic, but battles about resources, wealth distribution, and sometimes blood and physical pain. His comments get at a whole other layer of the types of “rebellion” to which Calvin and other appropriated cultural icons can contribute. I always appreciate Ott’s ability to make me laugh and to take a light tone, while raising provocative issues.

For more on Calvin and Hobbes, see this collection of research.

— Marnie Binfield, 2008


pee or not to pee logo

I live in a borderland, in a space of crossings, in an in-between. I live in Fort Collins. Sure, with relative ease you can locate and thus seemingly isolate it on a map. But a map lacks perspective, movement, and contour. It does not adequately capture how Fort Collins is pulled, even torn, between the mythical vision of cowboy country to the North and the magical wonders of Californication to the South. Fort Collins, you see, lies nearly equal distance from Cheyenne, Wyoming and Boulder, Colorado. It is perhaps little wonder, then, that while driving down the street one is as likely to see a bumper sticker for Pat Buchanan as for Ralph Nader. I grew up on the East Coast, so when I moved to Fort Collins seven years ago, I was immediately struck by the sheer volume of “automobile art” — alright, cheap car decals. But I guess when you live in a borderland, you feel an irrepressible urge to be immediately clear about who you are, where you stand, and what you like to pee on. With just one well-placed sticker, a driver can unequivocally communicate, “Howdy, I’m an American. I love my Ford F-150. And if given the chance, I — like this little cartoon boy — would relieve myself all over your foreign import.” Or if one prefers, a decal that informs fellow drivers, “Dude, I believe we ought to legalize marijuana. And later today, I — like this little cartoon boy — plan to … what was I talking about?”

Calvin montage

Although I appreciate the courtesy of my fellow drivers letting me know what pisses them off and whom they’d like to piss on, I can’t help but notice that they have adopted the same cultural icon to convey, at times, very divergent targets of distaste. That icon is, of course, Calvin from the Bill Watterson cartoon strip, Calvin and Hobbes. In graduate school, I quite enjoyed reading this strip; it was clear that Watterson had a familiarity with contemporary literary and social theory. And though I do not recall Calvin ever peeing on anything then, it seems to me that today he enjoys peeing on everything (see Examples). In fact, as near as I can tell, Calvin suffers from a serious bladder control problem and urinates utterly indiscriminately. He’s as likely to pee on a Ford as a Chevy, on John Kerry as George Bush, on Bin Laden as an ex-wife. When the wind’s blowing in the wrong direction, I’ve even seen Calvin pee on himself. Aside from the obvious fact that peeing indiscriminately de-politicizes one’s urine by transforming it from a sharp, stinging stream of social critique into a widely dispersed, gentle mist of cultural populism, I’m struck by the range of “calls” (nature and otherwise) to which Calvin has responded. One is just as likely to see Calvin praying, kneeling before a cross, or carrying a bible as Calvin urinating, though “spiritual” Calvin is apparently more comfortable on high-priced, gas-guzzling SUVs than on pick-up trucks. Now, I’ll admit I don’t know what Calvin’s praying for. Maybe he’s thankin’ God for this sweet ride or maybe he’s praying for a new bladder? But I do know that mass marketing has long since destroyed whatever counter-cultural meaning Calvin may once have held. Indeed, you can customize Calvin so that he pees on the thing you personally despise (see Link).

Black Bart

A “Black Bart” t-shirt

Calvin is, of course, not the only icon or even cartoon for that matter to be appropriated for counter-cultural use only to later be co-opted and mass marketed as a symbol of resistance and even a symbol of propriety and spirituality. I see several parallels, for instance, with Bart Simpson. When The Simpsons began its regular prime-time run in January of 1990, Bart was quickly appropriated as an icon of rebellion (Conrad, 2001, p. 75). A modified “Black Bart” became a popular image in African-American culture (Parisi, 1993, p. 125) and a plaster Bart wearing a poncho appeared as part of a resistive, performance art piece title, “The Temple of Confessions” (Gomez-Pena & Sifuentes, 1996, p. 19). Bootlegged T-shirts of Bart saying, “Underachiever and Proud of It” and “Don’t Have a Cow, Man” began appearing on street corners and in high schools everywhere. The response to this cultural appropriation was swift and harsh. It included both the prosecution of independent vendors for copyright violation and the banning of Bart Simpson T-shirts in many high schools across the country. In retrospect, it appears that the problem was not with the message of rebellion, but with who was profiting off of that message. Today, Bart Simpson T-shirts are widely available in stores such as Hot Topic, whose entire premise from store design to store employees is to sell consumers an image of resistance and counter-culture. But Bart Simpson T-shirts with the slogan, Eat My Shorts), just ring hollow now. In the early 1990s, that message truly meant something, namely, “I reject your authority, and, as such, I invite you to consume my underwear.” But today wearing a Bart Simpson T-shirt no longer marks one as “anti-authoritarian,” it simply marks one as a “consumer.” Perhaps the best evidence of this is the stunning array of Simpsons related merchandise now available.

bart nirvana

Having watched over the years as Calvin, Bart, Beavis and Butt-head, and the characters on South Park have gone from “subversive images” to mainstream commodities, I can’t help but wonder if cultural appropriation remains a viable tactic of cultural resistance in a postmodern consumer culture. It sure seems like the moment that an icon becomes a recognizable symbol of resistance that it is immediately co-opted and sold to the very individuals who subverted it in the first place. I have a large collection of Simpsons’ toys from the early ‘90s in my office at school. Seven years ago, I could tell that this made some of my colleagues uneasy, even uncomfortable. But today, none of them seem to care. They find my toys amusing, and that, well … really pisses me off.


Ott postscript

A Post-Script on Peeing, or Reflections on Being

When I wrote “To Pee or Not to Pee” more than three years ago, it reflected a deeper (though playful) desire on my part to understand the ways we outwardly articulate our ‘commitments’, our sense of self in the consumer culture of postmodernity. Car decals are, of course, just one of the many ways we appropriate iconic imagery to ‘mark’ ourselves. Indeed, such expressions come nearly as frequently in flesh today as on metal. We tattoo our bodies in an attempt to reassert our ‘individuality’ within the over-determined flow of signs and images that constitute mass culture. But the very signs we select-be they decals on our cars or ink on our skin-always run the risk of inviting unintended meanings, of carrying their own cultural baggage. I was so acutely aware of this conundrum when I got my first tattoo two years ago that I opted for a Japanese character that literally means “nothing” or “empty”-a decidedly ‘open’ sign that I could pour personal meaning into as context and desire dictated. And that’s when it hit me, Calvin and his propensity for peeing on anything and everything was an open sign too. He and his plethora of urine-soaked targets allow for a personal expression of being without fixing or over-determining one’s identity. Calvin is plural, not merely an “acceptable plural” as Barthes would say, but infinitely so. This is Calvin’s appeal; he is fluid/his fluid is he … peeing as being. :)

— Brian L. Ott, 2008


References

Conrad, M. “Thus spake Bart: On Nietzsche and the virtues of being bad.” In W. Irwin, M. Conrad, and A. Skoble (Eds.), The Simpsons and philosophy: The d’oh! of Homer. Chicago, IL: Open Court, 2001. 59-77.

Gomez-Pena, G, & R. Sifuentes. Temple of confessions: Mexican beasts and living Santos. New York: powerHouse, 1996.

Parisi, P. “‘Black Bart’ Simpson: Appropriation and revitalization in commodity culture.” Journal of Popular Culture, 27 (1993): 125-42.

Links

“Pop Culture Appropriates Warning”
Intellectual Property laws and Negativland
The Che store
Boing Boing: The Folkloric History of those “Calvin Peeing” Car Stickers

Reprint image credits:

1. Calvin. Graphic by Peter Alilunas.

2. Calvin montage: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9.

2. Black Bart.

3. Bart Simpson in water.


Original comments

TV icons and resistance

I really understand what Ott has to say about the ways in which resistance through identification with icons can go awry. I wonder, though, whether television is ever really a good source for icons of resistance. I guess I agree that Bart has become less a symbol of anti-establishment sentiments, but I can’t help but feel that Bart himself has become less of a rebel. His trouble making these days seems like its all in good fun and never really anti-anything except perhaps “good taste.” When TV icons are automatically available for mainstream consumption, it seems they are inevitbly coopted. Perhaps, citizens hoping to express their “anti” attitudes need to look elsewhere for icons and images of resistance?

Posted by Marnie Binfield | December 18, 2004, 2:12 pm

A note from exile in Michigan

I grew up in Fort Collins. Even went to CSU for a bit. And I rue my dear F-150, which I sold a couple years back. I still go back several times a year, seeing as Colorado’s the Center of the Universe and all.

Brian’s got his geography all wrong. Maybe if you’re from East of the MIssissippi it’s easiest to see Fort Fun as a borderland, pulled by the twin poles of evil—Wyoming and California. Actually, it’s not about borders and directions, but layers.

Colorado is the West, which happens to end at the Sierras. No one cares about California; being somewhere back behind the Mojave, it doesn’t matter much. And as for Cowboy Country, Colorado enjoys just as much yokel ignorance as Wyoming.

Colorado is the West, and it’s layered. Old and New. Back at Fort Collins High, there were basically three crowds to choose from. There were the kids of lawyers, doctors, and CSU professors. There were the Cowboys. And then there were the Chicanos, who skipped the 20th reunion. (I wonder why?)

What’s strange about this, when I look back and give it a thought or two, is the absolute lack of contact between the Hispanic students and everyone else. And the, let’s say, excessive contact between the apré-ski crowd and the shitkickers (OK, you can guess which group I was in). If Colorado is, indeed, being ripped apart, it’s always between Old and New West. Both stake claim to the land, but one wants to climb the mountains and the other wants to rape them. One’s looking for a good campsite, and the other a place to run their damn livestock. The poetry in the shitter isn’t about Californians and Wyomingians (what they hell do they call themselves?). It’s about tree huggers and Texans—the only outsiders deemed worthy of derision.

To get to the point, both Brian and Marnie ultimately level the cultural difference of the West, absorbing everything I identify with into “post-modern consumer culture.” Sure there’s now a Walmart on every corner, and the drive-in that used to be behind our house (where I learned about Life watching from the roof) is now filled with cookie cutter houses. But the friction between Old and New West is very much alive. There are serious battles being fought over damn dams, old mining claims, water rights, old growth forest, and the general MacDonaldification of the mountain towns. Seen from the POV of these very real and very local battles—which are fought by proxy in DC and by tooth and nail on the school ground and everywhere else you look—even the most tired of postmodern iconographies can have teeth. Depends on your coordinates. Whether your map shows directions or layers.

Markus

Posted by Markus Nornes | December 20, 2004, 2:13 pm

Watterson: Martyr

Bill Watterson never wanted his character, Calvin, to be a commercial property, or to even approach that status; he simply wanted the boy to be in a comic strip, a good comic strip. Watterson could have cashed in, like so many other cartoonists, and licensed his hugely popular strip, Calvin and Hobbes, to be made into all sorts of merchandise, but he didn’t. In an interview in Honk magazine, Watterson said:

“Saturday morning cartoons do that now, where they develop the toy and then draw the cartoon around it, and the result is the cartoon is a commercial for the toy and the toy is a commercial for the cartoon. The same thing’s happening now in comic strips; it’s just another way to get the competitive edge. You saturate all the different markets and allow each other to advertise the other, and it’s the best of all possible worlds. You can see the financial incentive to work that way. I just think it’s to the detriment of integrity in comic strip art.”

What’s interesting to me is that Watterson could not keep Calvin from becoming a trash-culture icon, it was beyond him. Calvin was just too popular, and if Watterson wasn’t going to reap the benefits, then unimaginative clods would, and did (and do). Therefore, we now have stickers with Calvin urinating on nearly every brand logo known to man, and even kneeling before a cross! In the Calvin and Hobbes strips, Calvin is never seen peeing on anything, and he also never professed Christianity (Calvin has discussed the nature of God, but he belongs to no discernable religion.) It’s almost as if American culture itself has crucified Watterson for being unselfish, or maybe he was too selfish: He just wanted Calvin and Hobbes to be a work of art. But as the Calvin decal fiasco has proved, art does not stand on its own, it’s created to be sold, and it doesn’t matter by whom.

Source of interview:http://home3.inet.tele.dk/stadil/interw.htm

Posted by Matt Hassell | April 26, 2005, 2:14 pm

I can relate to the unfortunate cycle that Calvin and Bart have fallen into. I saw the same happen with the character’s from my favorite show Southpark.At first it made me uneasy to see something that I felt like I related to become something sold that everyone could relate to. But I don’t see the bigger picture, I don’t think this makes much of a difference when it comes to rebellion, anti-authoritarian or counter cultures. By turning these characters into “trash culture icons” it is only taking away the symbol used to identify whatever movement or way of thinking iit may represent, but the thought provoking nature of all these characters is manifested before they are able to be bastardized. I think that is most important.

Posted by Sean Christopherson | February 20, 2007, 2:14 pm


Please feel free to comment.




Hysterical Horowitz and The Culture of Television


The Professors: THe 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America

When the editors of Flow invited me to write the guest column for the inaugural issue of volume 4, I enthusiastically agreed. I saw it as an opportunity to take another light-hearted look at some aspect of our media culture. But I'm afraid this column is going to be neither clever nor funny despite the fact that its subject matter is hysterical. When people hear the word “hysterical” today, they often associate it with uncontrollable laughter. And I must admit that when I first picked up David Horowitz's new book, The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America, and began to page through it, I couldn't stop laughing. Now, that would scarcely be worth stating if the book was intended to be funny. I assure you, it's not. On the contrary, it's “hysterical” in the traditional, dictionary sense of the term: “behavior exhibiting overwhelming or unmanageable fear or emotional excess.”

Before I go any further, let me briefly describe this book for those readers fortunate enough not to have seen or heard about it yet. The Professors is a (black)list and brief biography of 101 left-leaning professors in the U.S., though the book refers to them as “radicals.” Now if books could crap their pants in fear, this one would be shitting itself by the inside flap, which barks, “Coming to a Campus Near You: Terrorists, racists, and communists–you know them as The Professors. … Today's radical academics aren't the exception — they're legion. And far from being harmless, they spew violent anti-Americanism, preach anti-Semitism, and cheer on the killing of America soldiers and civilians — all the while collecting tax dollars and tuition fees to indoctrinate our children.” As I said, hysterical!!!

The book goes on to “imply” — it doesn't squander its precious pages employing something academics call “logic” — that award winning teachers and scholars the likes of bell hooks, Fredric Jameson, Angela Davis, Howard Zinn, Dana Cloud, Noam Chomsky, and Robert McChesney are indoctrinating students with “evil” liberal ideology and an utter disregard for the truth. As near as I can discern, Horowitz's hysterical rhetoric is fueled by the fear that an immense army of “radicals” is teaching students what to think, rather than how to think (p. xxvi). I, too, think that educators have a professional responsibility to teach students how to think, so that they can form their own opinions and judgments on matters of social importance. But I also think that educators have a responsibility to teach students how to think well (i.e., rationally, soundly, and logically). That said, students should read Horowitz's book. More specifically, they should read it in an introductory argumentation class as an exemplar of fallacious reasoning.

My aim in this column is not to defend the professors on Mr. Horowitz's list. My sense is that most, perhaps even all, of them don't need to be defended. Instead, I'm going to take a few minutes and illustrate how The Professors can productively be used to teach college students the fundamentals of faulty reasoning. Let's start with a definition — a common tool for constructing arguments and something virtually absent from The Professors. “A fallacy,” according to William Foster (1917), “is an error in the reasoning process. It is an unwarranted transition from one proposition to another” (p. 190). You may have noticed that my definition comes from an expert — something else conspicuously absent throughout much of the book. If you've read The Professors, then you recognize that there is simply no way I could recount all of its logical fallacies. To quote a book I recently read, they “aren't the exception — they're legion.” So, instead, I'm going to highlight four of my favorite fallacies:

1. Hasty generalization – this fallacy arises when a broad conclusion is drawn from too small of a sample, from an unrepresentative sample, or ignores key exceptions (Foster, p. 193). For instance, if I concluded that Mr. Horowitz is simple-minded based upon his “logic” in The Professors, I would be making a hasty generalization, as I have not read enough of his work yet to properly draw that conclusion. For all I know, The Professors is an exception to his otherwise fine thinking. The central, if implied, claim of Horowitz's book is that American Universities are under siege from 30,000 radical professors, who are using their authority to indoctrinate students with leftist ideology (p. xlv). His “data” is drawn from biographical sketches (about 2-3 pages each) of 101 professors that he helped to edit and write (p. xlvi). Even if all of the professors Horowitz identifies actually do indoctrinate their students (a highly dubious assumption), they would constitute only about 3% of the total number of so-called “radical professors” in the U.S. — this according to Horowitz's own numbers (p. xivi). But since he selected faculty that he specifically considers “the 101 most dangerous,” they are by definition not representative. You can't study the “most colorful” fish in the sea, and then reasonably conclude that all fish are equally colorful. That's just plain stupid.

2. Ad hominem – this fallacy occurs when one attacks a person's character rather than his or her argument (Foster, p. 204). If, after reading his book, I were to proclaim, “Mr. Horowitz is a lunatic, who should be institutionalized to protect the public,” I would be committing the fallacy of ad hominem. Although most of his book is ad hominem, my favorite instance is the repeated character assassination of those professors who have raised questions about the war in Iraq or attempted to understand the motivations of the 9/11 terrorists. To even ask these “questions” gets one branded “anti-American” in The Professors (pp. 3, 7, 75, 110, 164, 178, and 189). Rather than debate the “justness” of U.S. foreign policy, the Iraq War, or even war in general (Horowitz is critical of the entire field of Peace Studies [p. xxv]), Horowitz lobs verbal grenades at the character of these distinguished professors. I suspect this is because if he were to engage them rationally on these issues, he would find himself on the losing side.

3. Ad populum – this fallacy results when one appeals to tradition or prejudice rather than to reason (Foster, p. 205). Were I to imply, without offering evidence, that The Professors is just your typical right-wing, extremist, fear-mongering, irrational malediction that would be ad populum. Likewise, when Horowitz lumps a tremendously diverse array of academics under the label “radical,” it is calculated to appeal to his readers' prejudices. Rhetorically, it works to erase their vast differences and to make them “guilty” by association … with each other (they are, after all, on the same list) and activist organizations. The book further appeals to readers' prejudices by “outing” various professors as Marxists, communists, socialists, feminists, and queer theorists (pp. 13, 23, 61, 64, 92, 120, 160, 169, 177, 180, 186, 217, 293, 308, 323, 329, and 346). Given that Horowitz does not define these perspectives or clearly articulate his objections to them, it would appear that they are deployed specifically to evoke fear, rather than as part of a rational argument. As the book is “A Main Selection of the Conservative Book Club,” such fear appeals may be effective, if fallacious.

4. Shifting ground – this fallacy involves unreflectively changing the proposition initially offered (Foster, p. 208). Should I posit that Mr. Horowitz loves poor reasoning, but only demonstrate that his book is poorly reasoned I have shifted ground. Horowitz is constantly shifting ground in The Professors. He claims that his objection is not to professors' biases, but to their imposition of those biases on students (p. xxvi), and yet example after example in the book is draw from professors' statements outside of the classroom. He repeatedly quotes their scholarship, public remarks, and other non-classroom sources to illustrate his point. But these things don't illustrate his point; they silently and unreflectively shift the ground of argument, fostering the false impression of evidence.


David Horowitz

I could go on and on, as The Professors is filled with logical contradictions, bold unsupported claims, and flat out non-sequitors. But what's my point and what does it have to do with our media culture? My point is that in a society flooded with information, it is more vital than ever that we teach students to critically assess and evaluate that information. If it is built upon faulty reasoning, then we should judge it accordingly. Poorly reasoned, hyperbolic rhetoric such as The Professors undermines healthy public debate. Let me close with a hypothesis of my own, for which I will proffer at least some initial evidence. Feel free to add your own. Thesis: David Horowitz's The Professors mirrors the decline of rational public discourse often attributed to television culture (see Hart; Postman). Argument by analogy: Like television, it is little more than spectacle and tabloid, a distraction from the truly significant social and political issues that deserve our sustained attention. Like television, it is a character driven fiction, not a rational expository argument. Like television, it privileges superficiality over substance, and surface over depth. Like television, it is entertainment, not scholarship.

In The Sound Bite Society, Jeffrey Scheuer argues that television is increasingly altering the very form of political discourse today (p. 9). The rise of sound bites and image politics, he further contends, serves the rhetorical and ideological interests of the Right. Since their messages tend to view the world in simple, absolutist, and binary ways, they are particularly well suited to the new fragmented, electronic landscape. The Republican majorities in the House and Senate, the majority of state governorships, and the occupation of the White House would all seem to support Scheuer's claim and to suggest that if there is a growing ideological hegemony in the U.S., it is not, as Horowitz hysterically decries, coming from the Left.

Works Cited:
Foster, W. (1917). Argumentation and debating (rev. ed.). Cambridge, MA: The Riverside Press.
Hart, R. (1994). Seducing America: How television charms the modern voter. New York: Oxford University Press.
Postman, N. (1984). Amusing ourselves to death: Public discourse in the Age of show business. New York: Viking.
Scheuer, J. (2001). The sound bite society: How television helps the right and hurts the left. New York: Routledge.

Hysterical Rhetoric in the Guise of Argument Cited:
Horowitz, D. (2006). The professors: The 101 most dangerous academics in America. Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing, Inc.

Image Credits:

1. The Professors

2. David Horowitz

Please feel free to comment.




The “Popular Culture and Philosophy” Books and Philosophy: Philosophy, You’ve Officially Been Pimped

The D’Oh! of Homer

The D’Oh! of Homer

Introduction: Ridiculously Obvious Observations

Unless you’ve been living under a rock the past four years, you’ve no doubt seen or heard of the Popular Culture and Philosophy books published by Open Court. Titles such as The Simpsons and Philosophy: The D’oh! of Homer, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy: Fear and Trembling in Sunnydale, and The Lord of the Rings and Philosophy: One Book to Rule Them All litter the shelves of local bookstores, where they can apparently be purchased in bulk. Turns out that popular culture is — well, “popular” — with young people. Philosophy? Not so much. But the Popular Culture and Philosophy books have managed to bridge this gap by exploiting the commercial success of recent cultural artifacts and releasing a new title dedicated to that artifact every couple of weeks.

Indeed, one might compellingly argue that the books themselves have become a popular cultural phenomenon. In the unselfish interest of bringing philosophy to even more young people, this book examines the philosophical importance of the Popular Culture and Philosophy books. Specifically, it suggests that their importance is “not much.” Like the fleeting character of the texts to which they pay tribute, these books will not have a lasting influence on philosophy. But in the meantime, there’s profit to be made. So, without further delay, let us examine these books before they, too, become passe.

Chapter 1: Plato: Philosophical Whore or Does This Guy Really Just Apply to Everything?
By Richard Fish, Assistant Professor of Philosophy, McBeal State University

Plato was a hip-cat who lived a long, long time ago. In his writings, which mainly took the form of dialogues, he pursued the notion of “the good,” which was rooted in his theory of forms. This theory proposed the existence of ideal, moral forms that were absolute and eternal. They were also conveniently accessible only to Philosopher-Kings, who were especially knowledgeable. Everyone else essentially lived their lives in a cave, albeit an allegorical cave. In perhaps his most famous work, The Republic, Plato suggests that most people are chained deep in the cave, where they see mere shadows of the “real” world projected onto the walls by the sunlight of the true world outside. This allegory is useful for thinking about the Popular Culture and Philosophy books, which feature shadow philosophy (i.e., poor approximations of real philosophy). So, yes, if you ascribe to perfect forms, Plato can apply to everything.

Maybe Logic Academy

Maybe Logic Academy

Chapter 2: You Want Kant to Do What?! That’ll Be $16.95

By Victor Ehrlich, Professor and Chair of Philosophy, St. Eligius College

With his famous claim that the “Mind is the law-giver to nature,” Immanuel Kant married empiricist and rationalist views of knowledge, suggesting that knowledge was a composite of both sensory experience and the structures of the rational mind. Simply put, indeed overly simply put, the object is, according to Kant, inevitably created to some extent by the subject. Thus, if we take as the object of our investigation the Popular Culture and Philosophy books, sensorily we are dealing with printed text on paper. But this printed text is meaningful only to the extent that the faculty of the human mind supplies it with form. This chapter argues that that form is perhaps best labeled, “philosophy as entertainment.” By severely bastardizing Kantian philosophy, we can rationally conclude that Popular Culture and Philosophy books are “pure fun” and that fans of popular culture will buy anything that mentions what they’re fans of.

Chapter 3: Philosophy as Cash Cow: A Marxist Primer
By Beverly Crusher, Visiting Professor, The University at Farpoint

Adopting the perspective of historical materialism, Karl Marx argued that the underlying conditions, forces, and relations of production shape the superstructure of ideas in society. In other words, the economic base or foundation in any given society conditions the realm of culture. To understand specific elements of culture, then, such as the Popular Culture and Philosophy books, we must examine the modes of production. These books — with their flashy covers and populist promotions, targeting of mass tastes, standardized, formulaic content, and relentless release — reflect a capitalistic profit-motive. As such, these books reproduce the economic interests of the ruling class, thereby exploiting and enslaving the working class of readers. Fortunately, according to Marx, the oppressed class will at some point rise up, stop buying these books, and will determine their own modes of production and thus forms of thought.

Chapter 4: Taking the “Pop” Out of Popular Culture: Philosophy Without Fun-House Mirrors
By Cordell Walker, Assistant Professor of English, Texas Ranger University

In Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Richard Rorty critiques the tradition of foundationalist, metaphysical philosophy, arguing that far from being absolute and universal, knowledge is local, constructed, and contingent. For Rorty, a philosophy without mirrors begins with the recognition that philosophers possess no special method for accurately representing reality. In this chapter, I contend that the authors of the Popular Culture and Philosophy books posses no special method for accurately representing the reality of popular cultural representations of reality. What they do possess is a shared disinterest in the communication technologies they analyze. Apparently, the fact that television shows are actually televised has no bearing on their philosophical messages. This chapter infuses the books in this series with deep philosophical meanings, while ignoring their status as literature targeted to a mass audience.

Chapter 5: Habermas Reads Popular Culture and Philosophy Books and Confirms Disintegration of the Public Sphere
By Jessica Lovejoy, Lecturer in Theology, Springfield University

While many scholars have declared the failure of Enlightenment reason, others such as J. Habermas have defended the project of modernity, claiming that intersubjective recognition and mutual understanding through communication can still lead to emancipation (i.e., egalitarian politics). For this to happen, however, the systematic impediments to understanding must be demolished. Informed by the Frankfurt critique of the “culture industry,” Habermas argues that the mass media is chief among these impediments, for it leads to passivity. Thus, mass media or popular culture such as the Popular Culture and Philosophy books impedes the development of an alternative, progressive public sphere by making readers the passive recipients of commercial philosophical messages. This chapter contends that Habermas would urge serious political and philosophical conversation outside of popular culture.

Chapter 6: Pop Philosophy and Postmodernism: Lyotard Asks, “Tenure Case or Just Language Game?”
By William Truman, Professor Emeritus, College of Connecticut, Metro Campus

Philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard is perhaps best known for his definition of the postmodern as “incredulity toward metanarratives.” A metanarrative, according to Lyotard, is simply a story that provides a credible purpose for action. In the postmodern condition, however, such stories and the grand narratives they legitimate have lost credulity because of the recognition that they lack any universal basis for grounding their claims. Social institutions, then, are constructed on little more than language games or self-legitimating discourses that follow internal rules. Drawing on Lyotard, this chapter examines the language game of tenure, and explores how the rules of this language game have been rewritten by philosophers to legitimate chapters in the Popular Culture and Philosophy book series as serious scholarship.

Forthcoming Titles in the Popular Culture and Philosophy Series from Open Court:

  • Volume 845

Maxim and Philosophy: Being and Toplessness

  • Volume 846

Paris Hilton and Philosophy: “Existentialism, That’s Hot!”

  • Volume 847

T-Shirts with Pithy Sayings and Philosophy: Hemlock Is So Last Season

  • Volume 848

Edible Underwear and Philosophy: Mmmmm, Tastes Like Neo-Pragmatism

  • Volume 849

Brad and Jen’s Breakup and Philosophy: Mr. & Mrs. Ubermench

Image Credits:
1. The D’Oh! of Homer

2. Maybe Logic Academy

Please feel free to comment.




Some Good News about the News: 5 Reasons Why ‘Fake’ News is Better than Fox ‘News’

by: Brian Ott / Colorado State University

Jon Stewart

Jon Stewart

There is no more destructive, deleterious, and dangerous institution in society today than the mainstream news media. It has so profoundly fallen short of its mission and responsibilities in a democratic society that it has become our greatest national disgrace. The dramatic problems with the news media and in particular with the network news are well documented, ranging from its information biases to its corporate concentration.[1] Given its utter failure to serve the public as a positive tool for civic engagement, public opinion of the news media–not surprisingly–has been declining for twenty years. Citing a 2003 survey, Tom Fenton reports that, “Americans think journalists are sloppier, less professional, less moral, less caring, more biased, less honest about their mistakes and generally more harmful to democracy than they did in the 1980s.”[2] Despite arguments to the counter, “the wide-spread public perception of journalists as ethically bankrupt” and “as moral pygmies”[3] is, in my judgment, well earned. We continue to consume the “news” at our own risk. But this column is not about how crappy the news is. As near as I can tell, the only people who don’t understand that are news producers. No, this column offers, “Some Good News about the News.” Simply stated, young and apparently bright Americans are turning away from traditional news sources in droves.

According to Mindich, for instance, “While more than 70 percent of older Americans read a newspaper every day, a habit they picked up in their youth, less than 20 percent of young Americans do so now.”[4] Similar figures are available regarding youth consumption of national television news broadcasts. While Mindich deeply laments these trends, I see them as cause for unrestrained jubilation. The fact is that young adults age 18-to-34 are increasingly turning to non-traditional news outlets to get their information.[5] I refer to these non-traditional outlets — which include Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, Internet blogs, and general interest websites such as Yahoo.com — as “fake” news. By inscribing “fake” in quotation marks, my aim is to question whether or not these outlets are actually worse than traditional news sources. Indeed, I refer to traditional sources such as newspapers and network broadcasts as “news” because they quite clearly don’t deliver anything approaching actual news. I am particularly encouraged by recent data suggesting that nearly half of the people under 30 use late night comedians as a major news source [6] and that Jon Stewart, the host of The Daily Show, is the most trusted TV anchor among persons who identify the Internet as their top news source.[7] Using The Daily Show and Fox “News” as exemplars, let me explain why I’m encouraged by this data in a segment I like to call, “5 Reasons Why ‘Fake’ News is Better than Fox ‘News’.”

1. “Fake” news fosters critical thought. The Daily Show operates on Kenneth Burke’s notion of “perspective by incongruity.” Rather than telling viewers what to think, as Fox “news” does, it teaches viewer how to think. “Fake” news encourages citizens to engage it inter-actively, rather than to consume it passively. “Fake” news invites citizens to draw their own conclusions based on the presentation of facts and information, rather than to blindly accept the opinions of political pundits and talking heads.

2. “Fake” news does not pretend to be objective. Although The Daily Show is clearly left leaning, it does not try to hide that fact behind ridiculous slogans like “fair and balanced.” Additionally, “fake” news does not pretend as though the prevailing methods of news gathering and reporting are natural or neutral. Rather, The Daily Show consistently exposes the arbitrary and often idiotic conventions of real “news.”

3. “Fake” news does not have a giant, overblown ego. Fox “news” is first and foremost about the personalities of its anchors, who report on themselves endlessly. The personalities on Fox seem to be convinced that everything they do is newsworthy. “Fake” news, by contrast, downplays and even mocks its own celebrity, as a way of reminding viewers that reporters ought not be at the center of the stories they report. Reporters are supposed to report the news, not be the news.

4. “Fake” news does actual research. Traditional news sources do not aggressively fact check the sound bites they use from politicians. Rather, they simply include sound bites from the other political party as a way of “appearing” fair and balanced. The Daily Show uses its massive archive of previous news footage to expose politicians when they make statements that are either false or directly contradict previous statements that they’ve made.

5. “Fake” news is not simply spectacle. Whereas Fox “news” uses fear, hysteria, and shock value to peddle its cheap imitation of news, “fake” news actually reports news. The Daily Show does not attempt to frighten citizens into viewing by promoting a culture of fear. Nor does it manufacture political conflict to create drama and increase ratings. Instead, it values facts and information over salacious storytelling.

I suspect that some readers will be tempted to dismiss my brief analysis of the current state of news as nothing more than liberal bias. After all, I praise the “left” leaning Daily Show and excoriate the “right” leaning Fox Network. But from my perspective, Fox “news” is just a particularly clear example of what is wrong with broadcast news generally, be it on Fox or CBS, ABC, and NBC. It simply no longer can be called news. The good news about the news is that young citizens are opting out of traditional news sources in favor of “fake” news. Additionally, “fake” news such as The Daily Show would seem to suggest that news and profit are not, as often thought, mutually exclusive. In the words of David Javerbaum, “The real bias [of the news media] is toward laziness, toward entertainment, toward confrontation, toward that which will drive the ratings. The real story is this incredible laziness. It seems like the whole institution has lost its way.”[8] Now, David gets it! Perhaps that’s why he’s the head writer for The Daily Show and not a network news producer.

References
[1] Bennett, L. W. (2005). News: The politics of illusion. 6th ed. New York: Pearson Longman.
[2] Fenton, T. (2005). Bad news: The decline of reporting, the business of news, and the danger to us all. New York: 10 ReganBooks, pp. 8-9.
[3] Coleman, R. (2002, Winter). Journalists’ moral development: Study shows they may be surprisingly good at ethical reasoning. Mass Communication and Society Newsletter. Available online.
[4] Mindich, D. (2005). Tuned out: Why Americans under 40 don’t follow the news. New York: Oxford UP, p. 3.
[5] Brown, M. (2005). “Abandoning the news.” Carnegie Corporation of New York. Available online.
[6] Mindich, p. 57.
[7] See Brown.
[8] Quoted in Fenton, p. 13.

Links
Kenneth Burke Roadmap

Image Credits:
1. Jon Stewart

Please feel free to comment.




Symbolic Inversion: Git-R-Done!

by: Brian L. Ott / Colorado State University

Jeff Foxworthy

Jeff Foxworthy

I was channel surfing late one evening when I stumbled upon a rebroadcast of Comedy Central’s Roast of Jeff Foxworthy. Although I did not view this special when it originally aired (March 20, 2005) and there were less than 10 minutes remaining in the show on this particular occasion, I decided to stay tuned. About half way through the final roast, comedian Bill Engvall quipped, “You might be Jeff Foxworthy if … you’ve shot everything except a successful TV show.” The joke was a stab at the dismal and thankfully short-lived Jeff Foxworthy Show, which ran for only a season on ABC (1995) before being moved to NBC where it was cancelled in 1997. But as is often the case with humor, this joke was operating on more than one level. The reference to hunting reflected the “blue collar” content that has made Foxworthy famous and the joke’s form mirrored Foxworthy’s well-known punch line, “You might be a redneck if … [fill in a stereotypical working-class behavior].” In the face of such comedic genius, there was only one acceptable response. Laugh. So, I did.

Redneck Joke

You might be a redneck if…

With humor, timing is everything — not just rhetorical timing, but also social timing. In this regard, Engvall’s joke is rapidly becoming “not funny.” You see, if success is measured by what one’s done lately, then The Jeff Foxworthy Show is the exception, not the rule. Best-selling author and multiple-time Grammy nominee Jeff Foxworthy is now “the largest selling comedy-recording artist in history.”[1] His 2000 comedy concert, “The Blue Collar Comedy Tour,” with fellow comedians Bill Engvall, Ron White, and Larry the Cable Guy sold out theaters coast to coast (grossing 15 million dollars), produced a best-selling live album, The Blue Collar Comedy Tour Live, and generated the highest rating of any feature film to premier on Comedy Central, Blue Collar Comedy Tour: The Movie.[2] But perhaps nowhere is Foxworthy’s current success more evident than with his sketch comedy show, Blue Collar TV, on the WB. The show, which Foxworthy executive produces, premiered July 2004 and was the second most watched program during its 8:00 PM time slot, garnering 5.4 million viewers.[3] Simply stated, you might be Jeff Foxworthy if … you’ve become a multi-millionaire by cracking redneck jokes.

As a media critic, one could take up Blue Collar TV from a wide variety of perspectives. The TV show — an unapologetic recycling of much of the Blue Collar Comedy Tour — certainly lends itself to a political economic analysis of corporate ownership, cross-promotion, and media synergy. AOL Time Warner has successfully repackaged Foxworthy’s image and material in a wide array of products. Jeff has had his own HBO special (HBO Comedy Hour: Jeff Foxworthy: Totally Committed) and (surprise!) won TNN’s “Comedian of the Year” three years in a row. His Blue Collar Comedy Tour: The Movie and corresponding soundtrack were produced by Warner Brothers, as were his comedy albums You Might Be a Redneck If…, Games Rednecks Play, and Have Your Loved Ones Spayed Or Neutered. The Roast of Jeff Foxworthy aired on Comedy Central, and Blue Collar TV was produced for the WB and re-airs on Comedy Central. HBO, TNN, Warner Brothers’ movies and records, the WB, and Comedy Central are, of course, all owned by AOL Time Warner. In other words, you might be a massive media conglomerate if … you own Jeff Foxworthy.

I would like to come at Blue Collar TV from another critical perspective, however — one that aims to understand the appeal of the show. Structurally, Blue Collar TV is a sketch comedy show similar in format to Chappelle’s Show (Comedy Central, 2003-present). It typically opens with a monologue by Foxworthy that is followed by a series of themed skits. Past themes range from family and television to bad jobs and marriage. Each episode also features a word being added to the “Redneck Dictionary.” Sample words from Season 1 include “fascinate” (Usage: “Clem ordered a light beer because he was getting too big for his shirt — it had nine buttons on it and he could only fascinate”) and “mayonnaise” (Usage: “Mayonnaise a lot of pretty women in the bar tonight”). This may be sufficient data for many TV enthusiasts to determine they are not fans. And believe me, Blue Collar TV has plenty of “not fans,” particularly among critics. In his review of the show for popmatters, Terry Sawyer comments, “When I watched Blue Collar TV, I couldn’t help but think of how homogenized images of ‘working class’ folks have become. Now, ‘blue collar’ means white, Southern, alcoholic redneck. Blue Collar TV is a comic blight, a bastion of jokes well beyond their expiration date culled from e-mail forwards sent by the least funny of your coworkers.”[4] I identify with Sawyer’s critique, as Blue Collar TV is decidedly sexist, classist, racist, and homophobic.

But that still does not explain its appeal. Why do so many people watch and enjoy the show? One possible answer is suggested by Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin’s discussion of “carnival” — a concept he borrows from the work of Rabelais. “Carnival is,” explains Ferguson, “a particular kind of humour, characterized by vulgarity and excess.”[5] In the Middle Ages, carnival was a time of celebration that involved the reversal or abandonment of “normal” and “polite” social codes. In privileging the macabre and the grotesque–particularly the grotesque body — carnival offered “temporary liberation for those whose lives were bleak and oppressive.”[6] By celebrating drunkenness, corpulence, sexual excess, and flatulence, Blue Collar TV offers a similar release for working class viewers. Symbolically, it inverts the codes of “refined” (read: wealthy) society. It gets right up in the face of elite culture and breaks wind … loud, stinky wind. That said, Blue Collar TV does its work through the voice of a multi-millionaire, who is “owned” by a transnational media conglomerate. To coin a phrase, you might be a postmodernist if … you appreciate the irony.

References
[1] Roast of Jeff Foxworthy
[2] Blue Collar Comedy Tour
[3] Roast of Jeff Foxworthy: Bios
[4] Blue Collar TV on Popmatters
[5] Ferguson, R. The media in question. New York: Arnold, 2004. p. 146.
[6] ibid. p. 147.

Image Credits:
1. Jeff Foxworthy
2. You might be a redneck if…

Links
Blue Collar TV homepage
Jeff Foxworthy homepage
Time Warner homepage

Please feel free to comment.




Set Your Cathode Rays to Stun(ning)

by: Brian L. Ott / Colorado State University

I’m coming out … and I’m doing it on FLOW. I suppose that, in some ways, I’ve always known that I was a bit “different.” But the real signs started to emerge in high school, where I was frequently teased by other students. It was my taste in media, fashion, academic interests, and career aspirations that gave me away. Despite years of attempting to “project” otherwise, the truth is I am a bona fide flaming … nerd. What can I say, I loooove the sci fi, think space suits are sexy, enjoy reading about physics, astronomy, and mathematics, and desperately wanted to grow up to be an astronaut. Not long after I “graduated” with my wings from Space Camp in 1984, I quickly earned the nickname, Astro-Ott. Although I hated it at the time, in retrospect, I think it’s kind of a clever pun. So, today, I proudly announce and embrace my nerd-dom. In that spirit, this column is about what I like to call, “The best damn three hours of television in the known galaxy.” That’s right, the Sci Fi Channel’s Friday night lineup of Stargate SG-1, Stargate Atlantis, and Battlestar Galactica.

Stargate Atlantis

Science fiction (not unlike myself in high school) frequently takes a beating from “popular” critics. When Stargate Atlantis premiered last season, New York Times critic Virginia Heffernan described the pilot episode as “tedious” and “dull,” adding that it is destined to become “nothing more than a relic of our own unenlightened time” (p. E22). Ouch! That hurts more than a Wraith bite or a Goa’uld Zatn’kitel Energy Pistol blast. Ok, I’ll admit that some of the criticisms of science fiction are well-grounded: the “science” is often not very scientific, the plotlines are as improbable as they are formulaic, the dialogue is filled with ridiculous techno-babble (though I am still determined to build a phase-converter), and the acting is frequently wooden. Heck, William Shatner owes much of his status as a cult-celebrity to his “unique” acting style. “So … perhaps it is …time … for us sci fi nerds to … activate … our own … self-destruct … buttons.” Not!!! No, instead, I’m going to try to make a few converts … and without the aid of my brainwashing device, the neural neutralizer. My love of science fiction is pretty simple: I believe that it stages contemporary social and political concerns in a manner that allows for critical self-reflection better than any other television genre.

Despite its spectacular spaceships, exotic aliens, and dazzling special effects, science fiction is about the present, and in particular, the social and political concerns of the present. Take Stargate SG-1, for example, a series that will soon surpass The X-Files as the longest running sci fi series in television history. The “Welcome” on the official SG-1 website reads, “Step through the Stargate with General Jack O’Neill (Richard Dean Anderson) and his SG-1 team of soldier-explorers as they travel instantaneously to other planets–meeting aliens, forging diplomatic ties, establishing trade … and best of all, kicking intergalactic-terrorist butt!” (See Stargate on SciFi). Sound like the foreign policy of any nation you know? The U.S. deploys its soldier-explorers (read: just soldiers) around the galaxy (read: globe), meeting aliens (read: anyone who is not an “American”), and kicking terrorist butt (read: sanctioning and sometimes bombing those who reject American ideology). By “staging” contemporary foreign policy in a fictional intergalactic setting, Stargate SG-1 allows us to reflect on the ways we name and respond to “cultural difference.” It raises questions about when and if we should become involved in the affairs of other worlds (read: nations). You may not agree with the policies of Stargate Command every week, but you can’t help but reflecting on U.S. policy as you watch.

Battlestar Galactica

Still not compelled to release your inner nerd? Let’s reflect for a moment on the Sci Fi Channel’s latest venture, Battlestar Galactica. This program is not so much a staging of current U.S. foreign policy as it is a staging of current U.S. fears about global politics. On the surface, the series appears simply to be a re-hashing of the short-lived 1978-79 series by the same name. Although both versions story a clash between humans and robotic Cylons, their narratives differ markedly. In the original series, the Cylons were obviously mechanical; they symbolized the fear of losing our humanity to technology (at a time of rapid technological innovation no less). In the new series, by contrast, the Cylons “look” human — a fact that viewers are reminded of at the outset of every episode. Describing the premise of the new series, Ned Martel writes, “The Cylon attack is sudden, in violation of a shaky truce, and perpetuated by sleeper agents. The eerie onset of cataclysm on the various planets … deliberately evoke[s] Sept. 11 horrors” (p. E10). In the new series, the whole of humanity is threatened by a few Cylon sleeper agents (read: terrorists and insurgents) who “look” human (read: but aren’t “really” human). Battlestar Galactica, then, is a symbolic “working out” of social fears, namely the fear that a network of not-really-human agents could suddenly and without warning destroy us and our world. But as Commander Adama (played brilliantly by Edward James Olmos) intones in the premiere episode, “We still visit all of our sins upon our children”–a statement that Martel interprets as a warning to viewers about the dangers of “colonialism or any paternalistic form of arming future enemies” (p. E10). Now that’s a message worth reflecting on–one that resonates, I hope, as something “more than a relic of our own unenlightened time.”

So, yes, Stargate SG-1, Stargate Atlantis, and Battlestar Galactica do rehearse the tired conventions of science fiction. But chief among those generic conventions is the staging of contemporary social and political concerns. Star Trek storied the Cold War, The Matrix storied anxiety over simulation and network culture, and the Sci Fi Channel’s Friday night lineup stories contemporary global politics. So, I watch. Not because of some childhood dream of blasting into outerspace, but because I want to better understand how our culture expresses its concerns, fears, and feelings about the world and “our” place in it. And it is why I urge you to watch as well. As Captain Kirk might say, “Set … your cathode rays… to stun(ning).”

References
Heffernan, V. (2004, July 16). “Atlantis mystery is solved; Now, about the wormhole.” The New York Times (Late Edition – Final), p. E22.
Martel, N. (2003, December 08). “The Cylons are back and humanity is in deep trouble.” The New York Times (Late Edition – Final), p. E10.

Image Credits:

1. Stargate Atlantis

2. Battlestar Galactica

Links of Interest:
Alien Nation
Star Trek
Time Tunnel
Guide for Babylon 5
Famous actors in Sci Fi Hall of Fame
Stargate
Buck Rogers in the 25th Century

Please feel free to comment.




To Pee or Not to Pee: On the Politics of Cultural Appropriation

by: Brian L. Ott / Colorado State University

I live in a borderland, in a space of crossings, in an in-between. I live in Fort Collins. Sure, with relative ease you can locate and thus seemingly isolate it on a map. But a map lacks perspective, movement, and contour. It does not adequately capture how Fort Collins is pulled, even torn, between the mythical vision of cowboy country to the North and the magical wonders of Californication to the South. Fort Collins, you see, lies nearly equal distance from Cheyenne, Wyoming and Boulder, Colorado. It is perhaps little wonder, then, that while driving down the street one is as likely to see a bumper sticker for Pat Buchanan as for Ralph Nader. I grew up on the East Coast, so when I moved to Fort Collins seven years ago, I was immediately struck by the sheer volume of “automobile art” — alright, cheap car decals. But I guess when you live in a borderland, you feel an irrepressible urge to be immediately clear about who you are, where you stand, and what you like to pee on. With just one well-placed sticker, a driver can unequivocally communicate, “Howdy, I’m an American. I love my Ford F-150. And if given the chance, I — like this little cartoon boy — would relieve myself all over your foreign import.” Or if one prefers, a decal that informs fellow drivers, “Dude, I believe we ought to legalize marijuana. And later today, I — like this little cartoon boy — plan to … what was I talking about?”

Although I appreciate the courtesy of my fellow drivers letting me know what pisses them off and whom they’d like to piss on, I can’t help but notice that they have adopted the same cultural icon to convey, at times, very divergent targets of distaste. That icon is, of course, Calvin from the Bill Watterson cartoon strip, Calvin and Hobbes. In graduate school, I quite enjoyed reading this strip; it was clear that Watterson had a familiarity with contemporary literary and social theory. And though I do not recall Calvin ever peeing on anything then, it seems to me that today he enjoys peeing on everything (see Examples). In fact, as near as I can tell, Calvin suffers from a serious bladder control problem and urinates utterly indiscriminately. He’s as likely to pee on a Ford as a Chevy, on John Kerry as George Bush, on Bin Laden as an ex-wife. When the wind’s blowing in the wrong direction, I’ve even seen Calvin pee on himself. Aside from the obvious fact that peeing indiscriminately de-politicizes one’s urine by transforming it from a sharp, stinging stream of social critique into a widely dispersed, gentle mist of cultural populism, I’m struck by the range of “calls” (nature and otherwise) to which Calvin has responded. One is just as likely to see Calvin praying, kneeling before a cross, or carrying a bible as Calvin urinating, though “spiritual” Calvin is apparently more comfortable on high-priced, gas-guzzling SUVs than on pick-up trucks. Now, I’ll admit I don’t know what Calvin’s praying for. Maybe he’s thankin’ God for this sweet ride or maybe he’s praying for a new bladder? But I do know that mass marketing has long since destroyed whatever counter-cultural meaning Calvin may once have held. Indeed, you can customize Calvin so that he pees on the thing you personally despise (see Link).

Calvin is, of course, not the only icon or even cartoon for that matter to be appropriated for counter-cultural use only to later be co-opted and mass marketed as a symbol of resistance and even a symbol of propriety and spirituality. I see several parallels, for instance, with Bart Simpson. When The Simpsons began its regular prime-time run in January of 1990, Bart was quickly appropriated as an icon of rebellion (Conrad, 2001, p. 75). A modified “Black Bart” became a popular image in African-American culture (Parisi, 1993, p. 125) and a plaster Bart wearing a poncho appeared as part of a resistive, performance art piece title, “The Temple of Confessions” (Gomez-Pena & Sifuentes, 1996, p. 19). Bootlegged T-shirts of Bart saying, “Underachiever and Proud of It” and “Don’t Have a Cow, Man” began appearing on street corners and in high schools everywhere. The response to this cultural appropriation was swift and harsh. It included both the prosecution of independent vendors for copyright violation and the banning of Bart Simpson T-shirts in many high schools across the country. In retrospect, it appears that the problem was not with the message of rebellion, but with who was profiting off of that message. Today, Bart Simpson T-shirts are widely available in stores such as Hot Topic, whose entire premise from store design to store employees is to sell consumers an image of resistance and counter-culture. But Bart Simpson T-shirts with the slogan, Eat My Shorts), just ring hollow now. In the early 1990s, that message truly meant something, namely, “I reject your authority, and, as such, I invite you to consume my underwear.” But today wearing a Bart Simpson T-shirt no longer marks one as “anti-authoritarian,” it simply marks one as a “consumer.” Perhaps the best evidence of this is the stunning array of Simpsons related merchandise now available.

Having watched over the years as Calvin, Bart, Beavis and Butt-head, and the characters on South Park have gone from “subversive images” to mainstream commodities, I can’t help but wonder if cultural appropriation remains a viable tactic of cultural resistance in a postmodern consumer culture. It sure seems like the moment that an icon becomes a recognizable symbol of resistance that it is immediately co-opted and sold to the very individuals who subverted it in the first place. I have a large collection of Simpsons’ toys from the early ‘90s in my office at school. Seven years ago, I could tell that this made some of my colleagues uneasy, even uncomfortable. But today, none of them seem to care. They find my toys amusing, and that, well … really pisses me off.

References

Conrad, M. “Thus spake Bart: On Nietzsche and the virtues of being bad.” In W. Irwin, M. Conrad, and A. Skoble (Eds.), The Simpsons and philosophy: The d’oh! of Homer. Chicago, IL: Open Court, 2001. 59-77.

Gomez-Pena, G, & R. Sifuentes. Temple of confessions: Mexican beasts and living Santos. New York: powerHouse, 1996.

Parisi, P. “‘Black Bart’ Simpson: Appropriation and revitalization in commodity culture.” Journal of Popular Culture, 27 (1993): 125-42.

Links
“Pop Culture Appropriates Warning”
Intellectual Property laws and Negativland
The Che store
Boing Boing: The Folkloric History of those “Calvin Peeing” Car Stickers

Please feel free to comment.




Contemporary Television Criticism: State of the Art or Stuck in the Past?

by: Brian L. Ott / Colorado State University

The launch of FLOW — an innovative project designed to engage scholars, students, and citizens in conversation about television and media culture — provides a unique opportunity to reflect on the current state of television criticism. Thus, in this essay, I pose the critical question, “Is contemporary television criticism state of the art or stuck in the past?” My bias is probably already evident. The wording of the question supposes an affirmation of the latter, otherwise why pose the question? If I thought contemporary TV criticism was state of the art, then this would be a very short essay. In fact, I’d be done. Everything is wonderful, and you should go back to whatever you were doing. But, as the question suggests, I am at least concerned that the “state” of the art may not be so “state of the art.” So, posing the question was just a thinly veiled attempt to appear “objective” as I highlight some growing concerns I have about contemporary television criticism. Specifically, I examine what I take to be two questionable practices and assumptions that widely (though certainly not universally) animate contemporary television studies.

Practice 1: The analysis of individual television programs in isolation. Much of the academic and popular TV criticism generated today concerns itself with individual programs. Indeed, entire scholarly books are published about individual television programs. I find this practice flawed on two counts. It both ignores the specific character of television today and the specific practices of viewers today. To analyze a single TV program (in isolation) is to tear it from the very fabric of its context! I take the decision to name this forum FLOW as evidence that the editors and creators of this site recognize that contemporary television and media culture is a powerful, unending torrent of images and information (see Gitlin, 2001). It is a steady stream, in which particulates swirl and mix indiscriminately without beginning and end. There was a time, of course, in television’s history when “programming” entailed providing a limited menu of predetermined (and some would say, predigested) options. One watched television like dining out at a restaurant. Choose something off the menu (no substitutions please!), consume it, and leave when the restaurant closes, or in the case of television, go to bed when the networks stop broadcasting. But that was the now bygone era of broadcast television, three dominant networks, and limited programming.

In the information-saturated culture of cable and digital television, multiple networks and content providers, 24-hour programming, technological convergence, interactivity, and Internet fandom, television critics ought probably remove the term “program” from their vocabularies. Programs no longer exist. Rather, as “the postmodern medium par excellence” (Sim, 1999, p. 112), “Television’s regular daily and night-time flows of images and information, bring together bits and pieces from elsewhere, constructing its sequences … on the basis of collage techniques and surface simulations” (Strinati, 1995, p. 231). Television’s already fragmented flow of images is further enhanced by ancillary technologies such as the VCR, TiVo, and remote control, which allow for time-shifting, channel surfing, and even watching several shows simultaneously (see Connor 1989, p. 168; Fiske, 1992, pp. 58-60; Flitterman-Lewis, 1992, p. 217). Television viewers no longer consume programs; they produce Texts. Reading, in the traditional sense, is about consumption, about following the path prescribed by an author. One does not regularly pick up a book, turn to a random page and begin reading backwards. But many television viewers think nothing of tuning into a so-called “program” already in progress, and then channel surfing (in either direction) as they continue to watch. Television criticism needs to attend more carefully to both televisual flow and the culture of fragmentation. How precisely do viewers construct meaningful experiences out of the shards of televisual flow? What difference does it make to claim that television viewers produce or write Texts (in the Barthesian sense of intertextuality), rather than consume or read products? As critics take up these questions, I would urge them to stop treating the “Author” as the privileged site of meaning. Like web surfers, television viewers increasingly furnish the “form” — the start, movement, pace, direction, and end point — of their own viewing experiences.

Practice 2: The obsessive ideological critique of television and the assumption that it will make television “better.” Ok, I’m likely to ruffle some feathers here, but I take up this subject because I’m concerned by what I see as the increasing (ideological) homogeneity of television criticism. Since the interpretive turn in the 1970s, TV critics have produced a massive (and some would say, obese) body of scholarship on the hegemonic ideology conveyed by television. My concern is not over whether or not television is hegemonic. Of course it is! My concern is over whether or not the obsessive repetition of ideological critique has done anything to make television less hegemonic and more democratic? After nearly 40 years of ideological critique, we get The Man Show (1999-2004)? How can this be? Why has the production of oppositional codes not transformed television and, more importantly, can it? I want to propose that ideological criticism, as it currently is practiced, is ill equipped to bring about progressive social change for two reasons. First, ideological criticism rooted in oppositional codes destroys the dominant pleasures of television viewing — what Barthes (1975) terms plaisir — without providing a language for the pleasure that derives from breaking with culture — what Barthes terms jouissance. Without developing an alternative pleasure, viewers have a powerful disincentive to read oppositionally (at least after they earn a grade in our classrooms), particularly since oppositional reading destroys the only type of pleasure (plaisir) they know (see Mulvey, 1988, p. 59). We need to begin to develop modes of criticism rooted in pleasure, what Susan Sontag (2001) calls an “erotics of art” (p. 14), so that viewers have an incentive and desire to read transgressively. We’ve also got to teach students to generate their own codes for viewing television, rather than simply urging them to adopt the oppositional codes developed by critics. Oppositional codes have become so identified with a Leftist ideology that they risk shifting the site of ideological domination from television to teachers. Replacing one ideology with another is still hegemony. We need to fragment ideology, to break up it.

Second, ideological criticism rooted in oppositional reading does little to alter the underlying relations of production. As Walter Benjamin (1986) noted in 1934, the way to change social conditions is not simply to critique the attitudes or ideologies of messages, it is to alter their position within relations of production (pp. 142-143). The problem with ideological criticism and oppositional reading in particular is that it protects and preserves the existing conditions of production by both treating television as a set of unified, holistic products (e.g., programs) and treating viewers as consumers. We need a critical practice that helps transform consumers into producers. Ironically, the very technologies associated with television are poised to assist in this practice. For Benjamin, a progressive intelligentsia is not defined by its opinions, attitudes, or dispositions, and its mission is not merely to “report” ideological domination. Rather, a progressive intelligentsia is interventionist; it seeks to disrupt, to transform the forms and instruments of production by dissolving the conventional distinction between author and reader (Benjamin, 1986, pp. 223, 225, 228). I offer these observations because only by regularly examining and interrogating our current practices and assumptions can television criticism become and remain state of the art.

References

Barthes, R. (1975). The pleasure of the text (R. Miller, Trans.). New York: Hill and Wang. (Original work published 1973).

Benjamin, W. (1986). “The author as producer.” In W. Benjamin, Reflections: Essays, aphorisms, autobiographical writings (E. Jephcott, Trans., pp. 220-238). New York: Schocken Books. (Original work published 1966).

Conner, S. (1989). Postmodern culture: An introduction to theories of the contemporary. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers.

Fiske, J. (1992). “Postmodernism and television.” In J. Curran & M. Gurevitch (Eds.), Mass media and society (pp. 55-67). New York: Edward Arnold.

Flitterman-Lewis, S. (1992). “Psychoanalysis, film, and television.” In R. Allen (Ed.), Channels of discourse, reassembled: Television and contemporary criticism (2nd ed., pp. 203-246). Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.

Gitlin, T. (2001). Media unlimited: How the torrent of images and sounds overwhelms our lives. New York: Metropolitan Books.

Mulvey, L. (1988). “Visual pleasure and narrative cinema.” In C. Penley (Ed.), Feminism and film theory (pp. 57-68). New York: Routledge.

Sim, S. (1999). The Routledge critical dictionary of postmodern thought. New York: Routledge.

Sontag, S. (2001). Against interpretation and other essays. New York: Picador USA.

Strinati, D. (1995). Introduction to theories of popular culture. New York: Routledge.

Links
The PoMo Page
What TV Ratings Really Mean
Are National Television Systems Obsolete?
Todd Gitlin’s Media Unlimited
Susan Sontag’s “Against Interpretation”

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