Shows About Nothing: Nihilism in Popular Culture From The Exorcist to Seinfeld, by Thomas S. Hibbs, Dallas: Spence Publishing, 208 pages, $22.95
Are Homer Simpson and Jerry Seinfeld symbols of a spiritual rot in American popular culture?
Philosopher Thomas S. Hibbs thinks so. Like William Bennett and Michael Medved, Hibbs charges that popular entertainment is suffused by an aesthetic of nihilism—a belief that life is random, that the choices we make are largely meaningless, and that there are no objective standards of right and wrong. What's more, popular culture is fascinated with evil and violence. But unlike Medved and Bennett, Hibbs doesn't believe nihilism has been foisted on Americans by a Hollywood cabal. Hibbs, a professor of philosophy at Boston College, holds the audience for this material at least as responsible as those who purvey it. In the end, his argument isn't with the entertainment industry as much as it is with modernity itself. Nihilism, he says, is the inevitable product of certain strains of Enlightenment thought.
Although he is a more subtle analyst than the typical cultural conservative, Hibbs exaggerates both the pervasiveness of nihilism and the degree to which it reflects a fundamental social problem. There's no doubt much of popular entertainment is morbid and grotesque. From the satanic messages in the music of Marilyn Manson to the misogynistic lyrics of gangsta rap to the casual violence of many Hollywood films, there's material out there that can offend the most tolerant of persons. But in careful readings of films such as The Silence of the Lambs, The Exorcist, and the 1991 remake of Cape Fear, Hibbs argues that those who focus on the explicit elements of such material miss the real danger: the warped metaphysics shared by these films.
In Cape Fear, which was directed by Martin Scorcese and starred Robert DeNiro, the nuclear family is portrayed as corrupt, set against itself by lust, adultery, and dishonesty. Into this world comes convicted rapist Cady, looking for the father, the defense attorney who helped convict him. Cady is the only person in the film who is allowed any admirable character traits. Although he's brutal and violent, Hibbs writes, Cady practices the virtues of courage, of heroic individualism, the virtue most lacking in modern society. In his desire for revenge, he has a clarity of purpose all the other characters in the film, caught up in their bourgeois lives, lack. This film and many others center on, even celebrate, a Nietzschean anti-hero who is beyond good and evil. In these films, there is no higher order in life, no justice. There's only violence, and victory goes to the strong or lucky.
Jerry Seinfeld may not seem to have much in common with Cady. But for Hibbs, the world of his TV series is, in its own way, just as nihilistic as that of Cape Fear. The main characters on Seinfeld are ruled by their passions, he notes. Their obsessions are revealed always to be arbitrary and irrational and the Seinfeld universe is ruled by chance. The four main characters consistently find their plans rewarded or thwarted not by their own actions but by circumstance. For instance, in one episode, Kramer goes to California and meets a girl. Unfortunately for him she is murdered by a serial killer, and he is blamed for the crime. "Luckily, so to speak, there is another murder while he is in jail," Hibbs writes. The precariousness of one's present choices divests the ultimate issues of all significance, Hibbs writes.
Most Seinfeld episodes turn on questions of social protocol, not on moral issues. When someone does take a moral stand, it is ultimately revealed to be mere posturing. In one episode, a loud argument breaks out over the issue of abortion. Just a little while later, another loud argument starts over when a pizza becomes a pizza. "Pizza, abortion—it's all the same," Hibbs says. Moreover, the rules of etiquette are also revealed to be arbitrary and meaningless. Instead of the nihilistic era eliminating rules, initiating a lapse into a kind of anarchy, there is a medley of rules with no clear relationship to one another, Hibbs writes.
Most famously, the central characters in Seinfeld never learn from their mistakes, never grow. The final episode ends with the same conversation that began the series. Seinfeld treats the aspiration for transcendence, for permanence or wholeness, as misguided, Hibbs says. There is nothing but banal repetition and the experience of eternal recurrence as unending frustration. Jerry Seinfeld, the character, is Nietzsche's Last Man. He looks into the void and shrugs.
Drawing on the work of Nietzsche and Alexis de Tocqueville, Hibbs argues that liberalism tends to generate such nihilism. There are two dominant passions in a democracy, he says: the love of liberty and the desire for equality. The two are at odds, and the more powerful of the two is the desire for equality. When allied to the longing for physical well-being, Hibbs writes, the passion for equality leads to a remarkable sameness of condition and to uniformity of opinion, even as it dissipates the soul by immersing it in the pursuit of consumer goods and petty pleasures.
Hibbs sees the love of liberty as equally problematic. Radical autonomy is an illusion, he says, but the attempt to live a life unbound by the constraints of tradition or faith separates us from each other and from our past. The pursuit of happiness too often becomes the desire to accumulate more and more goods. The pursuit of happiness has always been problematic, Hibbs notes, because it invites an endless and ultimately unsatisfying search and diverts our attention from the past and the present to the yet-to-be-realized future.
When Hollywood produces nihilistic films and TV shows, Hibbs argues, it is both responding to and encouraging trends that have deep roots in the American psyche. Michael Medved says the idea that "Hollywood just gives the public what it wants" is a lie. "We know it doesn't," he said. But Hibbs suggests that Hollywood's values aren't that alien to America. Rather, nihilistic films and TV shows reflect a very real spiritual void, the product of a society that encourages both extreme atomism and conformity. That void is a consequence of the Enlightenment, says Hibbs, not of any Hollywood conspiracy.
Clearly, we cannot return to a pre-Enlightenment era. Nor does Hibbs suggest that we should try to. Following Tocqueville, he says the answer is to foster a shared morality that battles the excesses of democratic liberalism. People have to learn by example the virtues and sacrifices needed to keep alive a nation such as ours. And that's where popular culture comes in. Without being explicitly religious, Hibbs writes, popular culture should contain a kind of civil religion that teaches us to cherish, love, and care for our common life. It should also draw us out of our concentration on the present and our immersion in the limited circle of family and friends to take a long-term view of our lives and to participate in the political life of the nation.
Hibbs offers some examples of popular entertainment that do what he has in mind. Films such as The Lion King (1994) and Groundhog Day (1993) show us the importance of taking our place among others and living up to both our potential and our responsibilities. Even dark, violent films such as Pulp Fiction (1994) and Seven (1995), which were reviled by many cultural conservatives, aren't entirely negative, Hibbs says. While finding much to criticize in Seven, he singles out the character of Detective Somerset, played by Morgan Freeman, for some praise. Somerset exercises a kind of ancient Greek moderation, a practice of reining in one's ambitions and expectations that is prudent in a world that is tragic at best, he writes.
Similarly, he focuses on the character of Jules, played by Samuel L. Jackson, in Pulp Fiction. While the film paints a bleak, violent picture of the world, it offers a ray of hope in Jules' transformation from cold-blooded thug to would-be spiritual wanderer. It suggests that even a violent man may awaken to the possibility of an entirely different way of life, to discover the possibility of an integrating and ennobling purpose, and thus embark on a quest, this time not for evil, but for goodness.
Hibbs also breaks with other cultural conservatives in his assessment of 1994's Forrest Gump. That film, which was much loved by some conservatives, suggests that the only way to be good is to be a simpleton. Gump never struggles to determine what is right or to be good. Part of the reason nihilism has triumphed in art, Hibbs says, is that artists who know better have failed to present goodness in complex, realistic, and attractive ways. Given that, Forrest Gump is part of the problem, not the solution.
Hibbs is silent on the question of why artists have such a hard time presenting attractive portraits of virtue. The problem may be what we consider to be virtuous behavior. Too often, we are told that virtue lies in sacrifice, meekness, service to some good or authority higher than ourselves. When writers and directors try to create a character who embodies such virtues, they almost inevitably come up with a simpleton like Forrest Gump.
By contrast, consider the Iliad and the Odyssey. Those works present many characters who meet Hibbs' call for complex, realistic, and attractive portraits of virtuous men (and, on occasion, women). But those works upheld an ethical framework that valued cunning, pride, and self-interest as well as honor and bravery. When greed, sensuality, and self-interest are considered vices, it stands to reason that only the villains will display those traits. And maybe that attitude, not a fascination with evil per se, is one reason the bad guys in film and TV are often much more interesting than the good guys.
Contemporary nihilism may be even more deeply rooted than Hibbs believes. Nietzsche held that nihilism grows out of a religious tradition that opposes this world to the next and denigrates the former in favor of the latter. By doing so, it robs our lives in this world of all meaning. A popular culture that portrays this world as having meaning, a culture that applauds success, pride, and the right of each person to live for himself, would help battle the nihilism we see around us. It could also help counter the passion for equality that Tocqueville warned against. But this almost certainly isn't the sort of art that Hibbs has in mind. It would reinforce the individualism and egoism he thinks so destructive.
In any case, must all art be morally uplifting? Perhaps nihilistic art performs a useful function. Take Seinfeld. We can agree with Hibbs' reading of that show and still ask, so what? Yes, the characters in the series seem to live in a world governed by chance. Yes, they are driven by irrational passions, and the rules they seek to conform to are baffling and contradictory. But does the series teach us that our lives are that way, or does it show us how life is for the shallow and immature? Does Seinfeld mock the meaninglessness of life, or does it mock those who lead meaningless lives?
Hibbs and other critics of popular culture assume that a person's taste in art reflects his deeply held values, and that this is true for a society as well. If many Americans devour nihilistic entertainment, then, it is because they are seeking a reflection of the views they already hold.
There may be some truth to that assumption. If someone listens only to harsh, misogynistic music, watches only dark, nihilistic films, and plays only violent video games, it could be (though not necessarily) cause for alarm. And if a culture is dominated by decadent, nihilistic popular culture, that too may be reason to worry. But what are we to make of a person who was moved by Schindler's List and who also enjoyed The Silence of the Lambs? Or of someone who laughs at The Simpsons or Seinfeld and cries during Touched by an Angel?
More important, what are we to make of a culture that allows all of these shows and movies to be hits? Maybe such persons, and cultures, suffer from basic spiritual conflicts and have a mixed view of how life is or should be. Or perhaps the occasional nihilistic film helps a spiritually healthy person, or society, confront the occasional fear that life is meaningless and, by facing that fear, overcome it.