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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Simpsons, Philosophy and the UMB Curriculum

I’ve been a fan of The Simpsons since I first set foot on American soil 11 years ago, and I owe a lot to the show for having helped me absorb and assimilate into American popular culture [for better or worse]. Last week at the Harvard Bookstore, I came across a book in the philosophy section entitled, The Simpsons & Philosophy: The “D’oh!” of Homer. I picked the book up not only for this reason, but also because I expected it to be, at the very least, an interesting conversation piece, and because philosophy was a subject I enjoyed discussing. The book’s jacket certainly piqued my interest with its promise that its authors would discuss numerous socially relevant topics from a philosophical perspective, using characters and cases from The Simpsons as the cruces of their essays. Certainly something like this would help any Simpsonian devotee watch the show from a whole new perspective.

The book certainly lived up to my expectations, especially in the early stages, in which the essayists use the show’s central characters as demonstrative examples of issues like America’s love-hate relationship with intellectualism; the danger of modern, Western nihilism and its abuse of the Nietzschean philosophies; hyper-ironism as a literary tool; and Western sexual politics. The essays are, by and large, exceptionally well written [one would expect no less, given the authors’ credentials] and organized in such a way as to maximize the layman’s comprehension of the points proffered [as opposed to many of the original, prosaic philosophical texts it cites, which were vernacularly outdated, even in translation].

While in its latter sections The “D’oh!” Of Homer loses some of its momentum, with the essays becoming increasingly based in difficult abstractions [“And the Rest Writes Itself”: Roland Barthes Watches The Simpsons] and preachy [“A (Karl, not Groucho) Marxist In Springfield”], the fact remains that it is a fascinating case study of how a pervasive pop culture phenomenon can be used just as effectively [if not more so] as a tool of pedagogy as more widely accepted, “classic” media. In fact, Jennifer McMahon repeatedly stresses this very point in her essay “The Function of Fiction: The Heuristic Value of Homer,” which is the book’s 15th chapter. A medium’s value in the conveyance of philosophical, social and political truths should not be undermined simply because it assumes the guise of an animated television sitcom, rather than a celebrated, centuries-old scripture like Plato’s Republic or Marx’s Das Kapital.

This brings me to my main point: having discovered the value of a book like The “D’oh!” Of Homer as a philosophical text, I propose that one of the first-year or second-year seminars at UMB be devoted to the study of shows such as The Simpsons with regards to the socio-political/philosophical values they communicate amidst the rapid-fire one-liners and visual gags. Many schools already use such courses as a springboard into more in-depth studies of such subjects, with Harvard apparently being one of them [I came across The “D’oh!” Of Homer at the Harvard bookstore, as I mentioned at the outset, and the volume is clearly optimized for use as a textbook, with its extensive footnoting and general layout.] And if “America’s finest university” is willing to accept The Simpsons and other shows like it for their relevance to academically significant issues [The “D’oh!” Of Homer contains several references to a similar collection of essays regarding Seinfeld, which leads one to believe that this show also be a major reference point in such a course], then certainly UMB is not too conservative to do the same? I would go as far as to say that the introduction of such a course [or courses] to the UMB curriculum may very well do wonders in increasing student interest in philosophy and sociology beyond a fundamental and perfunctory level by providing them with a familiar and accessible introduction to this profound subject matter. The only reason I would acknowledge for the school to not undertake this is the ongoing budget crunch, but putting that aside, all I can say is, “Why not?”