<-- Back to J388 Homepage

Homer Simpson Explains Our Postmodern Identity Crisis, Whether We Like It or Not: Teaching with, for and against "The Simpsons"

A presentation prepared by:

Carl Bybee and Ashley Overbeck
School of Journalism and Communication
University of Oregon
Eugene, Oregon, U.S.A.
(541) 346-4175/ cbybee@ballmer.uoregon.edu


Summit 2000: Children, Youth and the Media Beyond the New Millennium
May 13-17, 2000, Toronto, Canada
"The show illustrates how you can live with the craziness of the contemporary family and tolerate people who drive you mad. The Simpsons are out of their minds and cause incredible grief, but love each other. You can look at them and go, 'As bad as my life is, it isn't that bad.' There's a universal trait in humans to feel misunderstood, and one of the messages in The Simpsons and Futurama is 'You are not alone.' Others are as messed up as you, so laugh at it. Another point I make over and over is that the authorities don't always have your best interest in mind. That's a good lesson for kids."
---- Groening, Radio Times, September 1999.

"I hate [advertising] because it irresponsibly induces discontent in people for one myopic goal, and then it leaves the debris of that process out there in the culture. An advertiser will happily make you feel bad about yourself if that will make you buy, say, a Bic pen."
--- George Meyer, executive producer and lead writer for "The Simpsons"

A word is a bridge thrown between myself and another. If one end of the bridge depends on me, then the other depends on my addressee. A word is territory shared by both addresser and addressee, by the speaker and his interlocutor."
--- Volosinov (Bakhtin), 1973.

1. The Simpsons Go On: From Teachable Moment, to Teachable Decade, to Never Let a Good Brand Die

2. Eleventh year of unprecedented popularity. Loved by kids and TV critics alike. Give statistics on audience ratings and popularity. Illustrate popularity with critics.

&Mac183; College students rate it the best show on TV.
&Mac183; Time magazine named it the best television program of the 20th Century.
&Mac183; Loved by highbrows and the masses. U.S. poet laureate Robert Pinsky states that it "penetrates to the nature of television itself."

3. Teachable moments:

&Mac183; Masterman: "Media education is topical and opportunistic."
&Mac183; Canada’s Media Awareness Network: "Teachable Moments."
&Mac183; Giroux/Freire?

4. Ongoing success of The Simpsons must also take into account, in addition to the popularity among kids and critics, the vested interest of the News Corporation. The Simpsons served as one of the key programs that helped engineer the rise of the Fox Network. It continues to be a key "signature" of the network and is an enormously profitable brand. FLAG FOR EXPAND

5. SLIDE: "If The Simpsons is the answer, what is the question?": What questions should we ask when we teach The Simpsons? SLIDE


&Mac183; How many have taught TS?
&Mac183; Why? Motivations and Goals.
&Mac183; How? Specific examples of how TS are incorporated into lessons.
&Mac183; Spend some time discussing and listings answers to all of above (if group is large, consider smaller groups— if using groups, be sure to instruct groups on basic introductions, orientation, etc). Finally move to: What problems/challenges do you encounter, conceptually or in concrete terms, when teaching TS?
&Mac183; Send around a sign-up sheet to establish a resource base for TS lesson plans and materials. Perhaps suggest that we can organize and post on the Media Awareness Network.


6. SLIDE: The troubles with teaching TS: "Who’s teaching who?" SLIDE


* media are constructed, and construct reality.

* media have commercial implications.

* media have ideological and political implications.

* form and content are related in each medium, each of
which has a unique aesthetic, codes and conventions.

&Mac183; receivers negotiate meaning in media.

A Report of The National Leadership Conference on
Media Literacy

Author: Patricia Aufderheide
The Aspen Institute Wye Center
Queenstown, Maryland
December 7-9, 1992
Source: Strategies For Media Literacy


&Mac183; Need to revisit earlier discussion and ask: If TS is already teaching these five concepts, what are we doing?
&Mac183; Call attention to Masterman, Buckingham, Lewis and Jhally, Hobbs [ADD CITES] call to recognize that the uniqueness of teaching media literacy is that we are already working with a media literate audience.

As Buckingham has put it:

"Broadly speaking, this research [on children’s complex understanding of media texts] suggests that children are a much more sophisticated and critical audience than is conventionally assumed, not the least by many media educators themselves. This is not, of course, to say that the media have no effects on children, or that there are not areas they need to know more about. There is a significant danger here of merely replacing the romantic image of the innocent, vulnerable child with an equally sentimental conception of the sophisticated, media-wise child. There are bound to be gaps in children’s knowledge, although those gaps may not necessarily be where they are often assumed to be." SLIDE


7. SLIDE: Themes of the workshop:

&Mac183; SLIDE: Level One---Our general argument for the is that because "The Simpsons" is such a sophisticated media text about media that it drags us, perhaps kicking and screaming, but drags us nonetheless, to teach "The Simpsons" and similar texts, in a manner that is more conceptually driven than we would like, but is becoming increasingly impossible to avoid. SLIDE

&Mac183; SLIDE: Level Two---Where is it dragging us? We will consider the idea that it is leading us to an encounter with postmodern theory--- whatever that is. And this will be one challenge of this workshop--- to begin to explore the meaning of postmodern theory and provide some resources to further engage it. SLIDE

&Mac183; SLIDE: Level Three--- Finally, this workshop would like to take up an illustrative example of what’s to be gained by opening up what many see as the Pandora’s Box of postmodernism. In particular we would like to draw on postmodern theory to examine two key ongoing themes in "The Simpsons": The changing conception of personal identity in these modern times, or rather postmodern times, and the fruits and futility of a relentlessly ironic world view.

This is, of course, a ridiculously ambitious agenda for a single short workshop, but it is our belief that "The Simpsons" leaves us little choice. If our teaching about media literacy doesn’t operate at least the level of media literacy that is already built into "The Simpsons" program, we loose a significant media literacy moment. SLIDE

8. SLIDE: "POMO Fear": Before beginning, a brief aside to address POMO fear. SLIDE

&Mac183; If everyone loves "The Simpsons", everyone seems to hate the term "postmodernism", nicknamed "pomo". At the same time many media critics feel resigned to use it.

John Leo, in U.S. News and World Report, writes about the "tower of pomobabble" arguing that postmodernism "has swept through our universities doing great damage." Leo suggests that postmodernism has created a language that no one can understand which is used to intellectually bully readers into agreeing with outlandish propositions. His examples of obscure and obscuring language are striking. However, the central outlandish proposition of postmodernism that he holds up for ridicule seems to substantially weaken his own case. Leo writes, "the jargon of postmodernism says truth doesn’t exit and all values serve the powerful." Now for Leo this may appear a ludicrous proposition on the face of it, but for those of us working in media education and literacy, the proposition rather than turning us off to postmodernism, may suggest that the issues it take up, the "truthfulness" and "politics" of media representations, would seem to be right up our alley.

On the academic side of the debate over postmodernism, we find University of Virginia Philosopher Richard Rorty. Recently Rorty, who is oftentimes identified with postmodern theory, stated that no one has "the foggiest idea" what postmodernism means. "It would be nice to get rid of it," he said. "It isn’t exactly an idea; it’s a word that pretends to stand for an idea." Hardly a ringing endorsement for the approach from one the foremost philosophers in the United States.

On the other hand, the academic world has offered some more equivocal assessments.

Media critic Douglas Kellner writes "In fact, the term ‘postmodern" is perhaps one of the most abused and confusing terms in the lexicon of contemporary critical theory. The terms "modern" and "postmodern" are used to cover a bewildering diversity of cultural artifacts, social phenomena, and theoretical discourses, and the concept of the postmodern requires constant scrutiny, clarification, and criticism."

Media critic Dick Hebdige argues that "we are in the presence of a buzzword," a word which while confusing appears to have captured some important social or cultural transition. In this view, Kellner notes that Hebdige and media scholar Raymond Williams appear to agree with Williams argument that:

"That the more complexly and contradictorily nuanced a word is the more likely it is to have formed the focus for historically significant debates, to have occupied a semantic ground in which something precious and important was felt to be embedded. I take, then as my (possibly ingenuous) starting point, that the degree of semantic complexity and overload surrounding the term ‘postmodernism’ at the moment signals that a significant number of people with conflicting interests and opinions feel that there is something sufficiently important at stake here to be worth struggling and arguing over."

Kellner appears to feel the same way writing, "… the term ‘postmodern’ is often a placeholder, or semiotic marker, that indicates that there are new phenomena that require mapping and theorizing."

In the media literacy literature, in the few instances where it does show up, again the ambiguity surrounding the term is foregrounded. For example, David Buckingham and co-author Julian Sefton-Green, in their effort to begin charting the challenges posed by multimedia education in an increasingly digitalized media environment, hesitantly invoke the "postmodern" label, on the one hand concerned about its "glib and sweeping" character, on the other because they believe it offers a useful to characterize a number of broad social and cultural changes.

Some of these changes that interest Buckingham and Sefton-Green include: the changing nature of consumption, the blurring distinctions between production and consumption, the poaching of texts and symbols, the rejection of the "elitist and sterile oppositions between high and popular culture" and the "polylogic" of postmodern texts which move beyond a dialogic relationship with the past, either accepting or rejecting, to an interaction with and transformation of the past.

&Mac183; For our purpose, we will join the "resigned critics" such as Kellner and Williams and our media education colleagues such as Buckingham and Sefton-Green, to conclude that even given the slipperiness of the concept, it seems to have marked some critical new moment in the study of media and representation that we need to attend to.

6. Which quickly brings us right back to the questions of "what is postmodernism" and "what can we do with it?" In the interest of allaying any initial "pomo fear" in our session today, we can all develop an immediate mastery of it (or at least the illusion of mastery, which some postmodernists say is all there is) by referring to a sample from a helpful guide on "How to speak and write postmodern" written and circulated on the web by one of our Canadian colleagues from the Sociology Department at Trent University in Petersborough, Ontario. Let’s have a quick look.


How to Speak and Write Postmodern
By Stephen Katz, Associate Professor, Sociology
Trent University
Petersborough, Ontario, Canada

The Rules

&Mac183; First, you need to remember that plainly expressed language is out of the question. It is too realist, modernist and obvious. Postmodern language requires that one uses play, parody and indeterminacy as critical techniques to point this out. Often this is quite a difficult requirement, so obscurity is a well-acknowledged substitute.

For example, let's imagine you want to say something like, "We should listen to the views of people outside of Western society in order to learn about the cultural biases that affect us". This is honest but dull. Take the word "views." Postmodernspeak would change that to "voices," or better, "vocalities." or even better, "multivocalities." Add an adjective like "intertextual," and you're covered. "People outside" is also too plain. How about "postcolonial others"?
To speak postmodern properly one must master a bevy of biases besides the familiar racism, sexism, ageism, etc.
For example, phallogocentricism (male-centredness combined with rationalistic forms of binary logic). Finally "affect us" sounds like plaid pajamas. Use more obscure verbs and phrases, like "mediate our identities." So, the final statement should say, "We should listen to the intertextual, multivocalities of postcolonial others outside of Western culture in order to learn about the phallogocentric biases that mediate our identities." Now you're talking postmodern!

&Mac183; Sometimes you might be in a hurry and won't have the time to muster even the minimum number of postmodern synonyms and neologisms needed to avoid public disgrace. Remember, saying the wrong thing is acceptable if you say it the right way.
This brings me to a second important strategy in speaking postmodern -- which is to use as many suffixes, prefixes, hyphens, slashes, underlinings and anything else your computer (an absolute must to write postmodern) can dish out.
You can make a quick reference chart to avoid time delays. Make three columns. In column A put your prefixes: post-, hyper-, pre-, de-, dis-, re-, ex-, and counter-. In column B go your suffixes and related endings: -ism, -itis, -iality, -ation, -itivity, and -tricity. In column C add a series of well-respected names that make for impressive adjectives or schools of thought, for example, Barthes (Barthesian), Foucault (Foucauldian, Foucauldianism), Derrida (Derridean, Derrideanism).
Now for the test. You want to say or write something like, "Contemporary buildings are alienating." This is a good thought, but, of course, a non-starter. You wouldn't even get offered a second round of crackers and cheese at a conference reception with such a line. In fact, after saying this, you might get asked to stay and clean up the crackers and cheese after the reception.
Go to your three columns.
First, the prefix. Pre- is useful, as is post-, or several prefixes at once is terrific. Rather than "contemporary buildings," be creative. "The Pre/post/spacialities of counter-architectural hyper-contemporaneity" is promising. You would have to drop the weak and dated term "alienating" with some well suffixed words from column B. How about "antisociality", or be more postmodern and introduce ambiguity with the linked phrase, "antisociality/seductivity."
Now, go to column C and grab a few names whose work everyone will agree is important and hardly anyone has had the time or the inclination to read. Continental European theorists are best, when in doubt. I recommend the sociologist Jean Baudrillard since he has written a great deal of difficult material about postmodern space. Don't forget to make some mention of gender.
Finally, add a few smoothing out words to tie the whole garbled mess together and don't forget to pack in the hyphens, slashes and parentheses.
What do you get? "Pre/post/spacialities of counter-architectural hyper-contemporaneity (re)commits us to an ambivalent recurrentiality of antisociality/seductivity, one enunciated in a de/gendered-Baudrillardian discourse of granulated subjectivity." You should be able to hear a postindustrial pin drop on the retrocultural floor.

&Mac183; At some point someone may actually ask you what you're talking about. This risk faces all those who would speak postmodern and must be carefully avoided. You must always give the questioner the impression that they have missed the point, and so send another verbose salvo of postmodernspeak in their direction as a "simplification" or "clarification" of your original statement.
If that doesn't work, you might be left with the terribly modernist thought of, "I don't know." Don't worry, just say, "The instability of your question leaves me with several contradictorily layered responses whose interconnectivity cannot express the logocentric coherency you seek. I can only say that reality is more uneven and its (mis)representations more untrustworthy than we have time here to explore." Any more questions? No, then pass the cheese and crackers.

With all of our postmodern fears allayed, we can move on.

7. SLIDE: "’The Simpsons’ drags us kicking and screaming into POMO". SLIDE

&Mac183; [Review troubles with teaching TS and why it seems we need to.] The objective is to provide a vocabulary to begin to name and discuss some of the new challenges in media representation that our students are being confronted with on a daily basis.

See following:

&Mac183; "The trouble with the Simpsons as a teachable text": MOVE DIALOG

Too popular. So engaging, it is difficult to achieve critical distance (Robert Allen’s "making strange")

Resistance to disrupting the pleasure of the program. A general challenge whenever pop culture is brought into the classroom. And a challenge that is heightened when teachers don’t honor student’s pleasure in text.

Too textually rich. Gag a minute. Hyperintertextuality. Extreme variation in levels of encoding: from slapstick gags, to standard narrative, to standard irony, to hyper-irony, to hyper self-reflexivity, sophisticated comment on current status of meanings of representation.

If one of the Aspen standards is the idea that "media are constructed, and construct reality", "The Simpsons" seems to blow away this important principle with a sophisticated meta-commentary on the meaning of representation--- into some of the debates over meaning precipitated by introduction of the famously unwieldy notion of postmodernity into media studies. Particularly difficult text for teachers not trained in media literacy or analysis and even many teachers who have been trained. For instance in Robert Kubey’s enormously useful Media Literacy in the Information Age, the term postmodern does not appear in the index. Nor does irony. And if "The Simpsons" is anything, it is ironic and perhaps postmodern.

Direct confrontation with authority. No authority goes unchallenged. Brought great deal of initial criticism, which has now receded, but challenge goes on unabated. Give example of criticisms of roles, institutions, beliefs, etc. [however, this fits well with Masterman’s notion that teaching media literacy requires a non-hierarchical teaching methods--- return to this in why teach the simpsons]

&Mac183; "And yet why we must teach ‘The Simpsons’":

Popularity/pleasure: Gateway to students---- something being addressed which connects with them deeply, in a way that connects with them deeply.
(standard enjoyment of kids for rebellion as a developmental issue, but is there more?)

Richness of the text: Much of the pleasure lies in the richness, in the social commentary, in the acknowledgement (as Buckingham has urged) to realize that young viewers already have an enormous degree of media literacy at their disposal, they like this to be acknowledged and addressed, supported, rewarded (at the same time is it just matter of creating a sense of pseudo-sophistication/knowing like stats in sports Typical of kids to say "The Simpsons" is a more "real" portrayal of family and life than other programs. For young--- the discrepancy between the world in their textbooks and in official channels and their experience of reality helps prepare them to appreciate "The Simpsons". Economic boom and large class sizes, crumbling schools and fear in the hallways. Declining economic chances for students---- increasing college debts, low wage jobs, no health insurance or pensions, etc. Green marketing. etc. Wink advertising.

Question of Authority: teacher’s encourage students to be good citizens and watch the news, the news is filled with sex and violence to make money, the simpsons acknowledges this hypocricy.

In short we could argue that:

&Mac183; Our kids are immersed in a postmodern culture---- which ‘The Simpsons’ is seen as part of and also seen as commenting on.
&Mac183; And even if we as educators and parents want to ignore this phenomenon, marketers are coming to understand our kids as postmodern and explore this understanding as new ways to reach and exploit them. Ironically, one of the marking points observers offer as our culture having moved into the postmodern, is that everything is being commodified. But then, irony is what pomo is all about.
[Could add here anecdote about J388 class bringing clips from this episode in to illustrate new idea of the self.]

8. SLIDE: Okay, okay, okay. "So what is postmodernism?" SLIDE

It hasn’t moved very far into the media literacy literature:

&Mac183; Search of Canada’s Media Awareness Network turns up no matches.
&Mac183; Search of Oregon’s Media Online Literacy Project turns up four articles.
&Mac183; AS we mentioned earlier, not in the index of Kubey’s review, although Buckingham and Sefton- briefly touch on the concept.
&Mac183; Everyone hates the term, but most agree its surging resonance in popular culture must have something to do with an effort to name some important transition we are going through.

9. SLIDE: "The I know it when I see it approach: Postmodern Moments"

----- Video Two: PoMo List----------

10. SLIDE "Defining Postmodernism"

Before we get too entangled in the mess of defining exactly what postmodern is, perhaps we can just begin with what most people who use the term are trying to capture.

The idea of "post" is clearly being invoked to name a sense that something is new in U.S. and western culture. And whatever it is that is new, just doesn’t feel like the "modern" era. The comforting "modern" belief that societies, guided by rational thinking and scientific achievements are moving toward a more humane, more just, more economically prosperous world is coming undone.

In short, the modernist belief in progress, what cultural observer Christopher Lasch described as "the true and only heaven" is coming undone.

In this sense, the "post" in "postmodernism" stands for the pervasive growth in a belief that there are no longer any guarantees of "progress" and what’s more, there is less and less consensus as to what progress even means. And this loss of belief is particularly visible in a growing cultural schizophrenia over the benefits of unrestrained technological and commercial development.

Hopefully it is already becoming clear why addressing the "postmodern" becomes critical in teaching media literacy and why "The Simpsons" is an apt, but certainly not the only, popular cultural vehicle for doing so.

For instance, the concept of a future without guarantees is a very familiar notion to young people. Simpson-creator Matt Groening’s newest cartoon series "Futurama", whose basic premise is of a slacker pizza delivery boy frozen and brought back to life in the future, appears founded on this new reality.

This is a world where nearly of all the promises of traditional institutions and authority have been found to be bankrupt. Clearly this is the world relentlessly satirized in the "The Simpsons". This is the world Groening has detailed in humorous but oftentimes excrutiating detail in his long-running "Life in Hell" cartoon strip.

It has been an increasing popular vision reappearing across television and popular culture, from the "X-Files" where "the truth is out there", to what has been called loser family television such as the constantly rerun "Married With Children" to the new "Malcolm in the Middle." , This view of the future as empty and without guarantees has also often been associated with the core identity of Generation X, whose slogan might read "we have seen the future and it sucks."

SLIDE: For our purposes then, in its’ roughest, first sense, postmodernism is a term used to call attention to the fact that our idea of "THE" truth is in trouble. And "THE" truth that is most in trouble is the modernist idea of the truth, the idea that science and a narrow form of rational thinking could reveal to humankind, a single universal and empirical truth about the meaning of self, nature and society.

To move a bit deeper into postmodern waters, we would like to look at a tentative historical map of the postmodern suggested by social psychologist Kenneth Gergen, a scholar whose work we will highlight in the remainder of our presentation.

SLIDE: Gergen argues that postmodernists tend to divide history up into three epochs, although all three may be operative today.

First there is theThe pre-modern, or romantic period, when religion and myth provided a secure and absolute sense of what the world was about.

Second is the modern period, during which there was an ever growing faith in project of science to reveal an absolute truth, a truth that could lead to an unequivocable progress in the technological mastery of nature and the engineering of an ever more fulfilling rational utopia, founded on some unshakeable laws of physics and nature.

Third is the postmodern, the period in which the modernist promise has begun to crumble and the period in which there has been a growing disbelief that "the truth is out there" and growing belief that the final truths will be primarily what humans choose to create and agree to live by. The postmodern period is marked, perhaps most significantly, by what social theorist Anthony Giddens called ‘the looming threat of personal meaninglessness, a point we will return to shortly.

So how does The Simpsons drag us kicking and screaming into an encounter with postmodernism? First, as we suggested above, The Simpsons certainly appears to belong to a wide range of cultural products and arguments that have rabidly attacked all forms of traditional authority. But does this really make The Simpsons any different than other historical forms of satire, Mark Twain, "MAD" magazine or Dr. Strangelove?

We want to suggest that the connection between The Simpsons and the postmodern is more than that, and we want to do this by examining two aspects of the postmodern debate: the first being what we might call postmodern symptoms, the "look" or aesthetic of postmodernism. The second aspect we will call the postmodern condition, which attempts, in a very non-postmodern way, to get at some of the basic foundations of postmodern theory. Obviously these are related and we will talk about this more in a little bit, but separating them now, we believe will further help make clear our case for The Simpson/Postmodern link.

12. OVERVIEW SLIDE: "Postmodern Symptoms". Note that these symptoms vary from descriptions to critical observations. [SHOW OVERVIEW SLIDE, DEFINITIONS SLIDES, THEN SECOND SIMPSON CLIP].

&Mac183; Image overload
&Mac183; Authority undermined
&Mac183; Intertextuality: Random Quoting
&Mac183; Self-reflexivity: Representation as a Hall of Mirrors
&Mac183; Pastiche
&Mac183; Everything’s for sale: Commodification Overload
&Mac183; History as Nostalgia
&Mac183; Progress: The Emptiness of the Future
&Mac183; Irony Overload
&Mac183; Questioning Subjectivity: The Self as a Social Construction


&Mac183; Image overload

"One of the key preconditions of the postmodern condition is the proliferation of signs and their endless circulation, generated by the technological developments associated with the information explosion (cable television, digital recording, computers, etc.). These technologies have produced an ever increasing surplus of texts, all of which demand our attention in varying degrees of intensity…. Many critics on both the left and right insist that television [as part of the information explosion] is likewise instrumental in the devaluation of meaning--- the reduction of all meaningful activity to mere ‘non-sense,’ to a limitless televisual universe that has taken place of the real."
--- Collins (1992)

&Mac183; Authority undermined

"Where modernism prepared the way for the suspicion of authority, postmodernism furnished the coup de grace. For if the subject of knowledge is deconstructed, and tellings cannot in principle be true or false, then all authoritative claims (and claims to authority) are placed in doubt." In the universities, "in the postmodern context, the attempt is not so much to ascertain the underlying wisdom of the [literary] works (as in the romanticist case), or to locate their internal coherence (as favored by modernists), but to explore the works as expressions of ideology, culturally dominant values, and popular stereotypes."
--- Gergen (1991)

As authority is increasingly called into question, the borders that the authorized view upheld have been scrutinized, ridiculed, and challenged. Consider the borders between fact and fiction, between news and entertainment, between teacher and student, between advertisements and information, between men and women, between nations, between education and entertainment, and between public and private.

Question authority, to fuck authority and question reality

&Mac183; Intertextuality:Random Quoting

"The idea that we understand and make meaning from culture because of our dependence on other and older texts--- books, magazines, news, songs, movies, and television shows among them….It also plays to an insider status in that part of ‘getting’ postmodern TV like Letterman or HBO’s Larry Sanders Show is grasping cultural and TV references…."
--- Campbell (1993)

&Mac183; Self-reflexivity: Representation as a Hall of Mirrors

"One of the most visible, and often annoying, features of postmodern products is their habit of calling attention to the devices of their own construction. Annoying, because self-reflexivity destroys our suspension of disbelief in the magic of the moment; pleasurable, because it tweaks our anticipation and cynicism, adding a whole new level of self-centered amusement."
--- Campbell (1993)

&Mac183; Pastiche

"The wild, wanton, creative (depending on your attitude) opposition of styles, often ripped--- like collage cut-outs--- from their original contexts. In television, pastiche issues [in part] from the remote control, ad zapping, and channel hopping… MTV, which redefined the TV commercial in the 1980’s, holds the pole position where pastiche is concerned. This network virtually defines disorder: a ceaseless succession of disconnected 3-minute mini-musicals celebrate the sense of fragmentation and incompleteness that directly challenge the modern search for wholeness."
--- Campbell (1993)

&Mac183; Everything’s For Sale: Commodification Overload

"Another major concern of postmodern cultural analysis has been the impact of consumerism on social life. Fredric Jameson argues that postmodernism is best understood as the end result of capitalism’s relentless commodification of all phases of everyday existence." [Commodification is the ceaseless process within capitalism of converting all experience and objects into products which can be bought and sold.] "He sees pop culture’s radical ececticism as mere ‘cannibalization’ of the past and as ‘sheer heterogeneity’ without ‘decidable’ effects. For Jameson, all such cultural activity is driven by the logic of ‘late’ capitalism, which endlessly develops new markets tha it must neutralize politically by constructing a vision of success and personal happiness, expressible solely through the qcquistion of commodities."
--- Collins (1992)

90% of words in dictionary are registered .com.
&Mac183; History as Nostalgia

"Postmodernism’s view of history comes in two flavors--- ironic or nostalgic. The postmodern project, in part, attempts to recover, in its own spirited or satiric terms, certain traditions and mythologies--- romanticism for one--- that modernism tried to bury…. Radical postmodernism deliberately scorns one ‘virtue’ of a certain modernist perspective, namely, rationalism…. Postmodernism celebrates the recovered ideals of a downsized, multicultural community tribe, and the mythic beliefs discarded by modern science."
--- Campbell (1993)

"Historical narratives… are verbal fictions, the contents of which are as much ‘invented’ as found."
--- White (Quoted in Gergen, 1991, p. 109)

Recent made for TV movies: 60’s and then the 70’s.

&Mac183; Progress:The Emptiness of the Future

"There are compelling reasons to believe that ll that has passed for progress within the modernist conception is actually carrying the culture in reverse."
--- Gergen (1991)

&Mac183; Irony overload

"Since everything has already been said the challenge is to intentionally restate the ‘already said’ in such a way that your audience knows you know it has already been said, but now you are resaying it to make a new point. The result is a wave of ‘recycling’ of images, genres, storylines, names, and symbols."
--- Collins (1992)

"For once it is realized that all attempts to ‘tell the truth,’ to be wise, insightful, intelligent, or profound, are constructions of language--- borrowed, ambiguous, and beaten about by ideological factions--- then it becomes very difficult to make a deeply serious investment in such tellings….[This becomes] essentially an invitation to play."
--- Gergen (1991)

&Mac183; Questioning subjectivity: The Self as a Social Construction

"Yet there is reason to believe that modernism, while dominant, is now slowly crumbling as a cultural kernel. New cultural conditions have emerged which many characterize as postmodern. Not only do soul, passion, and creativity become suspicious as centers of human existence, but so does rational thought and the efficient control of one’s own actions. Slowly we are losing confidence that there is a coherent, identifiable substance behind the mask. The harder we look, the more difficult it is to find ‘anyone at home’."
--- Gergen (1991)


13. SLIDE: "Postmodern Conditions":

As we suggested earlier, the idea of conditions attempts to hold on to the modernist values of historical understanding and causality, searching for structural causes of the changes in culture, technology and the self. In this sense, we are very interested in the postmodern landscape and where it comes from, but we are not quite willing to surrender all hope for meaning, coherence or morality. We are interested in what has been called a "critical postmodernism".

The short story we tell is that the coming together of technology and capitalism with the manufacture of communication symbols, is changing the social landscape and even the meaning of what it means to be human--- but not necessarily in intentional, thoughtful or humanly beneficial ways. (Jameson; Harvey; See Best, pages 2-3.)

The defining conditions of this transformation are:

Postmodern Conditions:
&Mac183; End of faith in one truth,
&Mac183; End of faith in "truth" itself,
&Mac183; End of faith in progress,
&Mac183; And ironically, as all the other faiths fall away, the rise of the market as the new one truth, what theologian Harvey Cox calls "the market as God."

14. SLIDE: All of which brings us to: Our Simpsons Question: Given this background, there are obviously many postmodern questions, we could ask about "The Simpsons", but the theme we choose to focus on was the problem of the self in a postmodern culture. That is, against the growing dissolution of postmodern culture, what do we mean by the "self" and how does one construct a coherent sense of personal identity? Particularly against the backdrop of loss of hope, rise of irony, and the incessant interjection of commercial considerations into almost every communication experience.

[Could do slide here on the idea of "postmodern childhood"]

Obviously the problem of identity is a central concern for all young people. At the same time it is a problem that is clearly not being satisfactorily addressed as we look at the growing levels of hopelessness, cynicism, despair, and even suicide amongst young people. And not surprisingly, it is an issue of central concern in a great deal of a youth popular culture. Of particular interest to us, as we considered the ways in which "The Simpsons" drag us "kicking and screaming" into a confrontation with the postmodern, is that "The Simpsons" repeatedly focuses on just this issue: the problem of selfhood in an increasingly absurd culture pulverized with with images, symbols, values, irony, commercialization and hucksterism.

As media educators, our question became, "what lessons do "The Simpsons" teach and what lessons can be learned in their various battles for selfhood within the postmodern terrain?"

15. SLIDE: Max Power and the Problem of the Self: To this end we examine one episode of "The Simpsons" focused with particular vehemence on the quest for identity and ask the following six questions:

&Mac183; What is the definition of selfhood stated or implied by the episode?
&Mac183; How is the idea of the self understood in relationship to the blizzard of media images, symbols and values?
&Mac183; In what ways is the self shown to be in crisis?
&Mac183; How are the crises of the self resolved?
&Mac183; How does irony fit into the exploration and resolution of identity issues?
&Mac183; And finally, how do we understand "The Simpsons" confrontations with the self and identity in terms of what has been called the postmodern condition?

Before we examine "The Simpsons" exploration of the self, we need to take two final detours, first to layout some recent thinking about the meaning of selfhood and then to briefly consider the issue of irony.

16. SLIDE: Three Views of the Self

Returning to Gergen, he offers a brief historical review of the various conceptions of personal identity that have implicitly or explicitly guided Western thinking about the individual and society. These are:

1. The Romantic Self
2. The Modernist Self
3. The Postmodern (Relational) Self


&Mac183; The Romantic Self:

"It is largely from the romantic tradition that we derive our beliefs in a profound and stable center of identity… It was a compelling account of powerful forces buried beneath the surface of consciousness, in the deep interior of one’s being…. For some, the forces were identified as the soul; others saw them as fiery passions… Invariably, however, the forces were wondrous, and their expression (in committed love, loyalty, and friendships) was fulfilling if not heroic…. The deep interior was also held to be the source of inspiration, creativity, genius, moral courage--- even madness. Romanticism continues to be a pervasive cultural presence. It is alive in everyday life--- in our popular songs, television ‘soaps’ and epic films. The romantic vocabulary is essential to most courtships, weddings, and funerals. And if ever asked what makes our lives worth living, most of us will talk about these deep and vital forces."
--- Gergen (1991)

&Mac183; The Modernist Self:

"For, as most cultural commentators agree, romanticism has been replaced by perspectives, ways of life, and a conception of the self that we now call modernist. As a cultural kernel, modernism can be traced largely to industrialization, the world wars and major advances into science…. Through modernism, the self was slowly being redefined. The emphasis shifted from deep and mysterious processes to human consciousness in the here and now… To survive in a complex world, the modernist needed conscious capability for keen observation and careful reason…. Modernists valued efficacy of action, smooth and stable functioning, and progress toward a goal. The difference in attitude toward love is emblematic. For romanticists, love could be all-consuming; it was a reason to live (or to die), it was unpredictable, and for its own sake one might pledge a lifetime- or an eternity- of commitment. The modernist attempts to develop a technology of mate selection through the use of computerized software. Questionnaire compatibility replaced love by thunderbolt."
--- Gergen (1991)

&Mac183; The Postmodern (relational) Self:

The self is no longer viewed as a separate entity, whether driven by passion or reason. The self is increasingly viewed as a relational construction, defined by and spread across the people and life experiences one encounters. The idea of the self as a social construction is not new. In fact it has long historical roots, but has never achieved a position of dominance in culture. What is new, is the degree to which new social forces are making this idea of self-hood more visible and at the same time stretching one’s sense of self more and more thinly over more and more numerous social interactions, both direct and mediated.
--- Gergen (1991)

17. SLIDE: "From the Relational Self to Relational Responsibilty"

"In the Beginning is the Relation"--- Martin Buber:

These are not just three choices for how to define the self, nor are they a simply historical description of the changing nature of the self.

What is key is that the there is a growing consensus within the psychological literature that 1) the self is a relational construct; 2) that it has always been a relational construct, but its relational quality has been substantially underemphasized within the modernist/enlightenment emphasis on the idea of the sovereign individual; 3) that the contemporary insight regarding the relational meaning of self is due, in part, to a deepened understanding of the constituitive role of language, both for social reality and for personal identity; 4) that this growing recognition of the critical role played by language in culture came both as a response to as well as a cause of a growing sense of crisis over meaning and representation.

Here we use the concept of the relational self, following Gergen, to mean:
"That there are no independent selves; we are each constituted by others (who are themselves similarly constituted). We are always already related by virtue of shared constitutions of the self."

Critically connected to this idea is that we are brought into conscious understanding of ourselves as beings through language, which is itself a fundamentally relational concept, and that our identity grows and develops in relationship to the endless dialogs that we are inextricably a part of with others, with culture, and with ourselves. In this sense, our interactions with the media become deeply significant.

At the same time, this new consciousness of the relational meaning of the self comes at exactly the moment when the relationships we enter into and which contribute to our definition of self are multiplying at an expotential rate and are being increasingly spread over a greater and greater span of time and space.

It is one thing to contemplate the meaning of the relational self when we think of, say, two friends engaged in a mutually sustaining, and defining dialog. In this setting the idea of the relational self is seen as perhaps promising and even reassuring. It is quite another thing to contemplate the meaning of the relational self when we extend the idea of relationship to include every symbolic encounter we willingly or unwilling take part in, from our intentional relationships to our relational involvement in a morally uplifting feature length film to our unintentional and forced relationship with 3,000 commercial messages per day.

The postmodern perspective, in its critical sense, is a call to attend to a crisis of identity, a crisis in which the media of communication and their commercial foundations are deeply implicated.

However, before we briefly explore this crisis of identity and the related problem of irony, we also want to make clear that thinking in terms of the self as a relational construct does not only provide us insight into the crisis of the self, but it also may also offer a way of thinking about how to address that crisis.

In this more hopeful, positive sense the relational self may offer a glimpse of what aspects of human experience and identity we as communities, as societies, may intentionally hold on to as a moral foundation in the face of the deconstructive maelstrom of commercial postmodern culture.

In positive terms, the relational self suggests a moral compass that is based less in absolute truths of religion or science, than in the process by which we create ourselves and our humanity through our ceaseless and inevitible physical, linguistic, and psychological dependence upon one another. While many scholars have begun to emphasize this quality of relatedness, from Buber, to Bakhtin, to Habermas to Rorty to Bruner (dialogic turn, the turn to pragmatism, the turn to narrative), Gergen lays out a clear and thoughtful introduction to what a moral ethic organized around the relational self would look like. Not surprisingly he and his co-writers have labeled it relational responsibility.

Its key premise is this:

"We hold relationally responsible actions to be those that sustain and enhance forms of interchange out of which meaningful action itself is made possible. If human meaning is generated through relationship, then to be responsible to relational processes is to favor the possibility of intelligibility itself--- of possessing selves, values and the sense of worth. Isolation represents the negation of humanity."

It becomes immediately clear that this standard of relational responsibility stands in stark contrast to the deconstructive tendencies of postmodernism. It also suggests that as societies, as cultures, we need to intentionally attend to the cultural resources (or dialogs) we create for ourselves and our children to participate in and the conditions and processes under which we bring our "selves" into being.

At the heart of the crisis of identity is what Anthony Giddens calls "the looming threat of personal meaninglessness."

And it is this "looming threat of personal meaninglessness" that directs us back to a consideration of one of the central tropes of postmodern discourse: Irony. As we have repeatedly noted, relentless irony is clearly a hallmark of both "The Simpsons" and the postmodern. It is time to briefly clarify the term and consider its implications both for identity formation and relational responsibility.

19: SLIDE: Irony, Identity and the Dilemma of Responsibility

"The Simpsons" is regularly celebrated for its incisive wit and social satire, for its capacity to call attention through irony, to the absurdity of everyday social conventions and beliefs.


In this sense we are talking about irony as a critical form, helping us to break through surface meaning to see and understand the "true" nature of things in a new and deeper way. This is irony in both romantic and modernist terms, as a vehicle for enhancing critical consciousness. It represents a moral force of good in the service of eradicating conventional evil.

But this is not where the use of irony ends in "The Simpsons" nor does it capture the postmodern turn in the concept of irony.

This is the idea we attempted to introduce earlier in our notion of "irony overload."


In postmodern irony, the clarity in the moral delineation begins to disappear. For instance, in contemporary comedy, as in all social behavior, all actions are subject to satire from some perspective. As Gergen writes "All our attempts to do good works, to achieve, to improve, and to be responsible can be punctured with wit. The postmodern invitation is thus to carry the clown on one’s shoulders -- to always be ready to step out of ’serious character’ and locate its pretensions, to parody oneself."

Further, since postmodern irony begins with the assumption that language produces all meaning, a kind of "emancipatory indulgence in irony" is evoked---- an invitation to reconceptualize language as a form of play. Again Gergen, "Yes, we continue to speak, to act as if our language tells the truth, and to furnish ‘authoritative insights,’ but we need not take such activities seriously. We needn’t credit such linguistic activities with profundity, imbue them with deep significance, or set out to alter the world on their account. Rather, we might play with the truths of the day, shake them about, try them on like funny hats. The postmodern invitation is to play with the traditional forms. Avoid ‘saying it straight,’ using linear logic, and forming smooth, progressive narratives."

As we will see shortly, in our analysis, "The Simpsons" is also saturated with this form of postmodern irony. Where does that leave us as media educators trying to work with this enormously popular series, attempting to engage it fully in its challenges to our students and our ideas of representation and selfhood, but perhaps unwilling to lead our students to see media literacy as a form of deconstruction that leads only to meaninglessness or play.

Clearly a number of media scholars have framed the dilemma of postmodern irony in terms challenging to our commitment to linking media literacy with productive citizenship.


For instance Jedediah Purdy writes "Between Madonna and the fist-fight between Jesus and Santa Claus that opened the cartoon series South Park, there is less and less left in convention whose flouting can elicit shock. A culture without pieties is as flat as one whose piousness is unleavened by irony. The irony stance invites us to be self-absorbed, but in selves that we cannot believe to be especially interesting or significant."

Conway and Seery are similarly concerned in terms of the implications of postmodern irony for engaged citizenship. They write "although irony may equip the dispossessed with much-needed critical perspective and even underwrite a minimal political agenda, it is generally regarded as irremediably parasitic and antisocial." Hutcheon shares their concern, "irony can be both political and apolitical, both conservative and radical, both repressive and democratizing in a way that other discursive strategies are not. Metaphor, for example, typically is not associated with the collapse of belief in the possibility or desirability of global political transformation."
Gergen frames the challenge of postmodern irony, more specifically for in terms of its challenge to forming a coherent self. He writes "if all serious projects are reduced to satire, and one can only play, generate nonsense, or turn rituals into riot, then to be ’serious’ is self-deluding. All attempts at authenticity or earnest ends become empty—merely postures to be puncuated by sophisticated self-consciousness. Yet, if there is nothing left to us but satire, we may be escaping one rut merely to tumble headlong into another, even if a merry one."

We have to ask if this is the dilemma that TS raises in its use of both critical and postmodern irony--- to what extent is it contributing to a social consciousness with a potential for social action verses to what extent is it contributing to a cynical numbness founded on ironic detachment? We will also need to examine what solutions the series offers to this dilemma, and what alternative solutions we might want to explore, particularly solutions that acknowledge the postmodern challenge to identity.

20. SLIDE: "Have we gone off the deep-end with theory?: Too much theory not enough cartoons."

Isn’t "The Simpsons" just a cartoon. Is it really necessary to get into issues of postmodernism, identity crisis and hope all over Homer Simpson? We may choose not to as media educators, but that doesn’t mean others aren’t taking these ideas very seriously.



"One of the prime features of the postmodern experience is fragmentation, where inherited self-identity of history is no longer a stable, secure fact but requires active construction. ‘A self-identity has to be created and more or less continually reordered against the backdrop of shifting experiences of day-to-day life and the fragmenting tendencies of modern institutions’ (Giddens, 1991, p. 198). This construction is partly achieved through developing coherent narratives of the self, and partly through finding opportunities for the investment of trust in institutions other than traditional ones such as the church. Brands offer consistency in an ever-changing world and this reassurance is a vital element in their added value….Brands can be used by the consumer as resources for the symbolic construction of the self."

---Elliot and Wattanasuwan, The International Journal of Advertising, May 1998

Or Ruth Shalit’s discussion of new trends in marketing research in Salon Magazine, where she interviewed Dr. Sam Cohen, president of PsychoLogics, a New York-based brand consultancy firm with clients like Toyota, Northwest Airlines, and General Foods. Shalit writes:

"As a specialist in objecti-relations theory, Cohen says, he consideres himself especially well-positioned to probe the purchasing decisions of consumers. "Object-relations theory is all about learning about the self in relation to the object world," he explains. "The orignal object, of course, would be the mommy." Brands, he says, "fit beautifully into the theory of object relations. Brands carry with them symbolic meanings or unconsious meanings, which the consumer can then use for his own-well being." Cohen’s clients love it. "It gives them such an advantage over their competitors," Cohen tells me. "When they own the consumer mind--- when they create such a perfect fit with her underlying identity needs--- they become that much more powerful… It’s fascinating to see how far companies have come in recognizing that."

"Whether as objects, identifiers, or standards, brands play a major role in children’s lives. At any point in time, a number of brands hve high value to them. Consequently, kids will try to hold on to them, call them "my" and "mine," and appear to be brand-loyal to them. In effect, brands become good friends. Frequently during their doodling, children may draw certain brand names, their symbols, or parts of them. Many even decorate their rooms with brands--- NFL, Pepsi-Cola, Tony Tiger. Whatever we call this--- brand loyalty, brand preference, brand affinity, brand fixation, or just simply brand consciousness--- the businesses that own those brands should be elated, for such responses could mark the birth of a lifetime consumer."
--- James McNeal, The Kids Market: Myths and Realities.

21. SLIDE: The Simpsons Exploration of Self in "Homer to the Max."


The episode:

Finally after all of the prologue we finally arrive at episode AABF09, titled "Homer to the Max" and originally aired on FOX on February 7, 1999.

First, we need to lay out a brief description of the episode.

The "TV Guide" synopsis for the United States tells us:

"Having the same name as a bumbling TV character prompts a name change for Homer, whose impressive new moniker puts him on Springfield’s ‘A’ list. Ed Begley, Jr. has a cameo."

The Canadian synopsis is equally cryptic:

"Homer is the laughing stock of Springfield when a TV character bears both his name and d’oh-pey personality."

The show begins with the standard site gags on the couch, the lampooning of television’s midseason replacement series, and the family settling in to deeply enjoy the new programming.

The program that finally captures the family’s interest is "Police Cops" which becomes a show within the show. As the two Miami-vice like heroes of "Police Cops" finally subdue the would-be bank thieves, lead writer John Swartzwelder interjects the plot twist that establishes the central story line for the episode. One of the police detective heroes, the millionaire cop surrounded by admiring babes, introduces himself as "Simpson, Detective Homer Simpson."

The Simpson family is shocked and Homer is particularly overwhelmed confusing himself with his television image

"He’s named like my name."

The plot then begins its humorous exploration of Homer’s confusion over his own identity. It unfolds in essentially five kernels :

First, Homer identifies completely with the television detective hero (Wow. They captured my personality perfectly! Did you see the way Daddy caught that bullet?"). In turn the entire community of Springfield validates Homer’s new pseudo-identity, treating him as if he were the television detective hero ("Hey, Mr. Simpson, sir, can I get your autograph?"/

Sign outside Moe’s Bar "TV Sensation Homer Simpson Drinks Here.").

Second, the producers of the "Police Cops" show change the character of their television detective from glamorous hero to bumbling sidekick, launching a series of gags over what is Homer’s true identity.

The new characterization is actually a near perfect replication of the "real" Homer Simpson. This outrages Homer

("Hey what’s going on? That guy’s not Homer Simpson! He’s fat and stupid!).

The town continues to respond to Homer as the television character, only now with ridicule rather than respect. Homer now has some insight into the confusion between the "real" and "fictional" Homer

("Well, I’m sorry to disappoint you gentleman, but you seem to have me confused with a character in a fictional show.")

Part of the pleasure for viewers derives from the irony of the cartoon character Homer making the claim that he is the "real" Homer Simpson as opposed to the fictional cartoon character within the cartoon. The writers of the episode then continue to play with this seemingly endless hall of mirrors between "real" and "fictional" identity, by immediately scripting Homer, after just making the claim that he is not the bumbling fictional character on "Police Cops" behave exactly in the manner of the revised fictional detective character--- spilling a fondue pot on the nuclear reactor control panel.

In Homer’s struggle with the media over his identity, he even takes his quest to Hollywood, where he confronts the producers of the "Police Cops" show, "By the Numbers Productions," to recast the detective character.

(I’m begging you! I’m a human being! Let me have my dignity back!")

Continuing to blur the lines between Homer’s real identity and his media identity, Homer’s efforts in the production office are used as grist for a new gag in the next "Police Cops" episode.

In the third kernel, the plot seems to radically shift gears dropping the "Police Cops" story line, however the shift is not nearly as radical as it first appears. The plot line stays squarely with Homer’s identity crisis, although it seems to shift away from the Homer’s struggle over his identity with his media representation, to Homer’s fixation on the idea that a new name will give him a new identity.

In this kernel, Homer goes to court to sue "Police Cops" for the improper use of his name, is immediately rebuffed in favor of corporate propriety, and then rashly decides to change his own name. The name he comes up with is Max Power. Homer’s life is immediately transformed.

Homer’s self-image becomes positive, forceful and dynamic. His co-workers and boss immediately treat him with respect

(Mr. Burns, "Well, who could forget the name of a magnetic individual like you? Keep up the good work, Max.")

He meets a member of Springfield’s elite with a similarly powerful name, Trent Steele, and is immediately taken under his wing and invited to garden party for "Springfield’s young, hip power couples," a party that turns out to be the jumping off point for an environmental action.

The critical moment in this kernel, whether intended by the writer or not, which sutures the identity crisis of "Police Cops" with the identity theme in the "Max Power" portion of the episode is the offhanded comment when Homer reveals to his new best friend Trent Steele where the name "Max Power" came from. Trent, upon meeting Homer, as Max Power, says "Hey, great name!" Homer replies "Yeah, isn’t it? I got it off a hair dryer."

"Hey, great name!" Homer replies "Yeah, isn’t it? I got it off a hair dryer."

Homer’s resolution to his identity crisis with his media self, is to redefine himself in terms of the brand name of a small household appliance. Self as brand. And the results are, at least at first, stunningly successful.

The fourth kernel takes us to the denouement. In the third kernel Homer’s appropriation of the brand name of his hair dryer appears to have resolved his identity crisis in satisfactory manner. However, this solution soon falls apart. At the garden party Homer and Marge rub shoulders with celebrity environmental activists Woody Harrelson and Ed Begley, Jr., both of whom are lampooned, as well as others. The tone of these scenes is that Homer, as the buffoon celebrity Max Power, is among other equally shallow and ridiculous celebrities. Finally, Trent Steele calls for the attention of his party guests and announces it is time to board a bus to protest "the wanton destruction of our nation’s forests." This cause is set-up from a semi-ridiculous vantagepoint.

("We have to protect [our forests} because trees can’t protect themselves, except of course, the Mexican fighting trees.")

The partygoers travel to a stand of redwoods about to be bulldozed and are chained to the trees. The police (Chief Wiggum, Eddie and Lou) confront Homer, attempt to mace him, and end up chasing him around his tree. His chain works like a saw, cutting down the redwood, which, in domino fashion topples the entire forest. Homer, freed at last, throws his chain into the air killing a bald eagle. Homer, as the phony Max Power, is rejected by the phony celebrity activists.

In the fifth and final kernel, which serves as an epilog to the episode, Marge and Homer are laying in bed.

Marge says "Well, I’m glad you changed your name back to Homer Simpson." Homer replies "Yes, I learned that you gotta be yourself. Good Night, honey."

SLIDE: The episode through a postmodern lens:

The relational self:

What is intriguing about this episode is that, like so many others, is its insistent focus on the search for identity, and the methods by which we construct that identity, within the absurdities of the postmodern landscape.

As Gergen puts it:

No longer is our social existence tied to a small town, a suburban community, or an urban neighborhood. Rather, as we wake to Good Morning America, read the papers, listen to radio talk shows, travel miles to work, meet people from around the globe, answer faxes and electronic mail, drive children to cross-town games, check the answering machine, phone long distance, visit with old friends from out of town, order air tickets to the Caribbean, and take a late evening graze through cable-TV channels, we consume and are consumed by a social world of unbounded proportion. We are exposed to more opinions, values, personalities, and ways of life than was any previous generation in history; the number of our relationships soars, the variations are enormous: past relationships remain (only a phone call apart) and new faces are only a channel away. There is, in short, an explosion in social connection. What does this explosion have to do with our sense of selves, who we are, and what we stand for? How does it undermine beliefs in a romantic interior or in a rational center of the self?

Remarkably this is exactly the question "The Simpsons" appears to take up again and again. What is particularly engaging in this episode is the focus on this identity crisis with relationship to the media.

This is not, of course, a theme unique to "The Simpsons." As television critic John Caldwell has noted, comedy-variety shows in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s were repeatedly using the conventions of intertextuality and self-reflexivity about the constructed nature of the media image. Even Leave it to Beaver aired a media/self episode in the 1950’s titled "Beaver on TV." Filmmaker Woody Allen has constantly taken up the connection between self and media, perhaps most directly in The Purple Rose of Cairo when the film’s female protagonist is shocked to find her own film idol able to step off the screen and take up a flesh and blood relationship with her.

Nevertheless, when "The Simpsons" takes up this theme it often appears to explore it with a critical edge seldom found in mainstream television. In this sense, it serves as both an illustration and exploration of the mass mediated self. And it certainly stands as an acknowledgement of the degree to which identity is dispersed across our media encounters and the degree to which others respond to and validate these new media created selves.

Homer’s engagement with the television character bearing his name isn’t a simple one of identification, but a blurring of the boundaries between his "authentic" self, and the image of himself dialogically reflected back to himself by the media.

This episode takes the basic media literacy proposition that the media construct social reality and radicalizes it to argue that we too, our fundamental identities, are also socially constructed, and socially constructed in significant degrees by media experience.

The boundaries of our seemingly essential identities begin to fade. This is an idea that the episode playfully engages at several levels at once, from Homer’s confusion over who the "real" Homer is, the authentic Homer Simpson or the television detective Homer Simpson, to the episode writer’s play with his audience.

The writer engages in this play with the audience in at least two different ways. In the first, the writer forces us, through our identification with Homer, to acknowledge the ways in which we identify and even lose ourselves in the fictional characters we watch.

And to make sure this point is driven home, the writer pulls the rug out from under us: In the forgetful pleasure of our positive identification with Homer, who in turn is identifying with the glamorous protagonist, the episode switches the roles of the "televised" Homer Simpson from seductive hero to buffoon. Homer is left the fool and we too must confront our own identification with Homer and "The Simpsons" show.

At the same time the show is also playing with us by alternately encouraging us to identify with Homer’s search for his authentic self and reminding us that the character we are following and relating to, who is doing the searching, is a cartoon invention himself. This is the push and pull of postmodern irony, at once pushing us to critical insights about the conventions of representation and psychology, at the same time pulling us back to a safe level of detachment so that the stakes involved in unraveling our existential certainty about who we are does not become overly menacing.

At the same time the episode illustrates the crisis of the self, as detailed by Giddens and Gergen, in content and form.

In content by showing us the myriad of ways in which Homer’s sense of self is pushed and pulled, stretched and contradicted. In form, once Homer’s identity has been called into question, never letting his character, or our understanding of his character, settle into a stable a coherent self--- at least not until the epilog of the program.

The episode moves beyond illustration of the relational self to critique of the challenges facing the relational self in several instances, and it is certainly in these instances where some of the unique, potentially consciousness raising efforts of "The Simpsons" shines through.

The first instance is when Homer goes to Hollywood to beg the production company to give him back his dignity by recreating his television character. With of course, the endlessly ironic twists at each turn ("I’m a human being," cartoon character Homer cries out in desperation). The "By the Numbers Production Company" is completely undeterred in its willingness to shamelessly exploit Homer’s (cartoon) humanity. The message one can arrive at with the tiniest bit of reflection is that the keys to our selfhood are held, in part, in the hands of uncaring corporations, willing to exploit us and our identity for their own gain.

The second instance is in the critically sophisticated decision to offer Homer a second chance at achieving a dignified self by literally constructing his sense of self through total identification with a random phrase of a hair dryer.

In both cases, and particularly in the ‘branding" gag, these are subtle critiques that may or may not be processed by most viewers. Neither is amplified in any significant way semiotically or through the plot. Reading through the fan postings for the episode on the Simpson’s Archive site, there was no evidence that these critiques had been taken up. In fact there was little recognition of any of the identity issues that have been discussed beyond the humorous confusion over the naming. Nevertheless, embedding these critical moments loads the episode with an important critical potential, particularly from the point of view of media educators.

The critical potential of the episode allows for the thinking through of the crisis of the self in connection to the concept of relational identity as well as within the context of what critical postmodernism observes as the ever intensifying movement to turn everything into a commodity, even one’s sense of self---reducing us to believing that we truly are only what we own.

In fact, one might argue, that to both fully understand the attraction of "The Simpsons" for viewers, young and old, and harness the power of that attraction for media literacy pedagogy, we need to, as we have observed earlier, allow ourselves to follow the show into this postmodern landscape and then to reconsider what it means to be critically literate in postmodern terms.

Defusing Critical Themes

Nearly a decade ago, Jim Collins reviewed a short vignette within a "Simpsons" episode which was constructed in a similar fashion to the "Homer to the Max" episode we have been discussing. Homer and Bart are watching Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade on television and discussing the wisdom of the cartoon characters chosen to be made into balloon floats. Just as Homer tells Bart that if "you start building a balloon float for every flash-in-the-pan cartoon character, you’ll turn the parade into a farce", a Bart Simpson balloon float passes by.

Reacting to this vignette Collins asks:

"The ‘Bart watches Bart’ example may be emblematic of a postmodern textuality, but what are the effects of this hyperconscious irony on television viewers? Is its ultimate effect emancipatory, leading to a recognition that television’s representations are social constructions rather than value-neutral reflections of the ‘real’ world? Or does this irony produce a disempowering apathy, in which no image is taken at all seriously?"

In general terms, this continues to be a key question for us as media educators who are at once attracted and confused by "The Simpsons" and other postmodern media fare. We are attracted to the wealth of media literacy moments that they make explicitly visible and yet realize that these programs clearly often go beyond these illustrations, deconstructing the validity and importance of those same media literary principles. Truly the children and young adults we work with are surrounded by an extremely rich discourse about the very possibility of any meaningful communication.

It is this postmodern dimension to current media fare like "The Simpsons" that requires that we take the meaning and uses of irony very seriously, that we carefully attend to the quality of hope that is offered to media audiences after the deconstructive play of postmodern ironies may have left us laughing but perhaps numbed and also take up the challenge of offering some vision of where an alternative hope may come from. If we can no longer trust any absolute realities, if traditional moralities keep revealing their human limits, does this mean that are the only viable options to retreat into nostalgia or go shopping? Or go shopping for nostalgia?

In terms of our concerns here with identity issues, Gergen focuses the question for us:

"Once we are aware of the ironies of self-reflection, how are we to regard them? What response can we make?" Is it simply an invitation to play and a surrender of any form of critical analysis or something else? More important here, however, is the effect of reflexivity on the traditional commitment to individual selves…. When one’s being as a professional, a spouse, or an American, for example, is constantly being doubted--- its constructed and contingent character made evident through other standpoints--- then daily existence as an objectively given self is threatened." Gergen. P. 137.

With these concerns in mind, let’s return to our episode and look at how the critical issues raised in the beginning of the program regarding the self, the media, and consumer culture are resolved.

Not surprisingly, this episode, as the series typically does, withdraws from its sophisticated illustrations of the challenges of postmodern culture in general and its more specific explorations of dilemmas of the self. It also withdraws from its use of critical and even postmodern irony, to a reconfirmation of both a romantic view of the self-contained, essential self and of a nostalgia for the idea of a "traditional" family as a "haven in a heartless world."

Let’s look at this turn away from criticism in a bit more detail. The point of this presentation has been that the nature of "The Simpsons" forces us as media educators to stretch beyond the basic premises of media literacy to confront the postmodern dimensions of the series and its postmodern implications for understanding media literacy. To this end we have been focusing on three postmodern media representation issues: the relational self; irony and commodification overload/hypercommodification. In the conclusion of this episode, it appears that the critical dimension of each of these pedagogical moments is surrendered.

First the idea of the relational self is rejected. When Homer turns to Marge as they lie in bed and says "I learned you gotta be yourself" we are comforted with the most obsessively repeated summary of romantic individualism in the vocabulary of popular culture. The threat of the blurring borders between one’s authentic self and one’s mediated self is contained. The threat of one’s confusion over "who I am" and "what I own" is contained. And contained literally within the confines of the marriage bed, symbolizing the modernist utopia of intimacy between two self-sufficient individuals in a committed "relationship". In this modernist view, to be in or not in a "relationship" is a choice. Relationship is not viewed as the inescapable foundation of our "selves" with its consequent responsibilities, obligations, and joys. That the self as fundamentally a relational construction could serve as the basis for a critical nonmarket ethic for both personal and social relationships is lost.

And in this modernist view, the separation of private and public, particularly in the realm of identity and relationship, is scrupulously maintained. Homer’s activism against the corporate world’s exploitative engineering of our identities is an isolated, individual quest that "humorously" reveals the futility of challenge. Of course we might also note that there is a carnivalesque that laughs at all human efforts of total control and a more confining humor which is a nervous laughter of acceptance. When Homer does join a group, to act in relationship with others, to achieve a social goal, his "joining" is both against his will and dependent on his phoniness. The members of the group are also viciously satirized for their insincerity, their self-servingness and their kookiness. AS much as the show may celebrate and even tenderly appreciate quirkiness of character, when that quirkiness becomes an organized resistance to corporate mainstreaming, it is viewed not so much as dangerous, but as "uncool."

What message, then, becomes foregrounded? The idea of the relational self, while illustrated and even used as the means by which corporate media culture and consumer culture are criticized, is in turn criticized. The very idea of the relational self is seen as a threat, held to be co-equal with corporate manipulativeness and celebrity phoniness. In fact, the solution to the issues of corporate and consumer manipulations of identity is held to simply require that we "just be ourselves" even though "our selves" are spread across the myriad of social and mediated interactions that we experience voluntarily and involuntarily every day. The idea that the relational self, understood in a positive light, could serve to both deepen the critique of commercial mediation of identity and to articulate an alternative ethic of responsibility is not on the screen.

Then, this retreat into the romantic, individualized self is heightened by the excesses of postmodern irony, which move the ironic trope from critique to detachment to nostalgia for real or imagined traditions. And in this movement, the critique of hypercommodification is also unraveled.

In this episode, as Homer makes his way from his encounter with the corporate soullessness of "By the Numbers Productions" to his encounter with the mindless environmental activism of the celebrity phonies, Homer learns and we learn along with Homer, that all social or political action is equally futile or absurd. This may help make the episode’s resolution fit, with Homer’s return to his "authentic self" and his marital bed but it denies the viewers any hope for dealing with the postmodern world, other than cultural regression and increasing privatization of experience.

Ella Taylor found in Primetime Families, her study of television families of the 1960’s and 70’s, that the central task of these shows was to help hold the together a conservative view of the nuclear family against whatever challenges and contradictions history had to offer. In this sense, it is ironic, that "The Simpsons", occasionally called the most dysfunctional family on television, to a large degree serves this same purpose, offering the family as sanctuary in a world gone mad.

What is new with "The Simpsons" is how well it recognizes that the challenges posed to culture today are less about external political threats or even domestic strife, but about the threat to meaning itself and to a meaningful existence. In this it opens much critical territory and thoughtfully charts contemporary life’s postmodern absurdities before shutting down the argument and debate over these very issues.

22. Concluding Remarks:

WE began with the question, "If the Simpsons is the answer, what’s the question?"
We ambitiously planned to address three themes that ranged from the abstract to the concrete. Let’s see how we did.

&Mac183; Level One---Our general argument was that because "The Simpsons" is such a sophisticated media text about media that it drags us, perhaps kicking and screaming, but drags us nonetheless, to teach "The Simpsons" and similar texts, in a manner that is more conceptually driven than we would like, but is becoming increasingly impossible to avoid. SLIDE

Clearly we are arguing that "The Simpsons" is not the end of postmodern culture, but only another instance of a tidal wave of media that are hyper self-conscious about meaning and representation.


A new late Saturday offering in the United States provides us with one more parting example:

How about a new syndicated television series called "Cleopatra 2525" about three great-looking chicks keeping the future world safe from evil? From the program literature we find out that "Cleopatra is the stage name of a 21st century stripper who goes in for breast augmentation, falls into a coma and ends up transported to the 26th century. Along the way, there are flying robots, gunplay, "Star Wars"-type creatures and scantily clad female mortal babes who somehow fly through the air without superpowers."

Also note the April 30 airing of the "X-Files" where they weave into the show a story line about an "X-Files" movie, which stars the two main characters, except they are played by two other actors, with Scully being played by David Duchovy’s real life wife.

&Mac183; Level Two---And where is it dragging us? For better or worse, to an encounter with postmodern theory. SLIDE

And in this encounter we argued that hopefully the outcome would provide us with a vocabulary to:

&Mac183; Recognize the descriptive postmodernism of symptoms,
&Mac183; Appreciate the deeper social and historical conditions leading to the postmodern condition,
&Mac183; And the ability to distinguish between a postmodernism of despair which focuses on meaninglessness and a critical postmodernism which recognizes our power and responsibility to intentionally create a system of values that recognizes our fundamental interdependence.
&Mac183; This is not to say we feel like we have the answers to these questions, but to argue that these are the questions we should be teaching toward. SLIDE

&Mac183; Level Three--- Finally, we got around to drawing on postmodern theory to examine two key ongoing themes in "The Simpsons": The changing conception of personal identity in these modern times, or rather postmodern times, and the fruits and futility of a relentlessly ironic world view. CREATE SLIDE

Here we hoped to provide some footing for us to engage the increasingly pervasive phenomenon of self-conscious media texts, which seem to be grappling with the blurring line between the real "real" world and the reality of the media world. We suggested that rethinking the meaning of identity and recognizing the critical and also destructive powers of irony are crucial to understanding a commercial culture that increasingly seems to be creating, celebrating and bemoaning meaninglessness.

As we said in the beginning, it was a ridiculously ambitious agenda for a single short workshop, but we hope that we have contributed to opening up a discussion about these issues.

<-- Back to J388 Homepage