welcome to the neutral ground podcast
i'm your host joe meyer
this is part two of our look at
postmodernism
in the first video we did our best to
kind of flesh out a bit of postmodern
theory proper
we talked about the skeptical eye that
postmodernists glanced toward the world
and we talked a bit about the positives
and negatives that come out of
postmodern theory
today however we're going to look at the
popular culture side of postmodernism
mostly television because that is the
medium by which post-modernism
really kind of came into its own
now
post-modern culture is also predicated
on the idea of skepticism
but unlike the actual
proper theory of postmodernism i would
argue that
the cultural side of post-modernism is
much more palatable to the public
and yet
potentially more subversive
and i know some of you who probably
listen to other podcasts about this
you're probably thinking what no way
right because a lot of
major cultural critics today talk about
how the postmodern theorists are the
ones at the the source of all of our
upheaval today in culture but
well
let me make my argument for why i don't
think we should completely dismiss the
cultural aspect of this as well
again however
i want to also remind you don't rush to
judgment
about hating or loving
any historical movement by itself
remember there are still both good and
bad aspects to all of these historical
movements
we just need to
break this information down and try to
parse out what we
want to take with us into the future
right what can kind of most help us
and what we should probably try to leave
behind
and by the end of this episode
we are going to be knocking at the door
of our current historical movement
neo-modernism
so
all that being said let's kind of
get right into it
now i want to begin this episode with an
anecdotal story
and i'm not trying to pass this anecdote
off as any kind of grand piece of
evidence
however i do think that it demonstrates
a part of postmodernism
that we're going to have to deal with a
lot in this episode
so about seven or eight years ago now
i visited a modern museum of art
on a trip in massachusetts
and i mean to be completely honest with
you i'm not a big modern art fan i tend
to prefer the much older stuff quite
honestly
but i do like museums a lot and so if
i'm ever in a particular
city or town or whatever that has a a
museum i'll tend to go if i'm on a trip
because i'm just always interested
and as i'm walking around and looking at
all the exhibits i'm not you know really
connecting with anything no surprise
there
but of course i can always appreciate
the work that went into
a lot of the exhibits
i i've learned as i've gotten older
especially that i can
not particularly like a piece of art and
yet still see a kind of greatness in it
so i'm open
to great art art even if i don't like it
i went into one room
with small glass enclosed exhibits
basically dioramas
and as i'm walking around
i start to hear this kind of faint sound
of sniffles
and i'm looking around to try to find
out what's going on and i i see a woman
staring at one particular exhibit
and she's just crying
and
i got this feeling in my stomach that
these were not positive tears
so i i went over just to make sure that
she was okay
and i asked if she was all right and she
just kind of shook her head as if a
almost like a spell had been broken in
me talking to her
and then she kind of looked at me and
and said something like
yeah yeah it's just so sad
i just feel
i just feel
sad from this
i looked at the exhibit
and it was the following
now forgive me as this is going to get a
little graphic here
there were slugs not real ones in fact
they almost kind of looked cartoony like
really bright colors and whatnot
and the artists had framed
the crucifixion of jesus
using slugs
now that's not the end
of the description
but let's stop there for a moment
had the artist just left it at that
you could make an argument that the
artist was perhaps
trying to tap into some kind of idea
that the the yearning for a messiah is
built into various species right almost
at a dna level
or you could propose an interesting
enough conversation
around the idea that if if animals
achieved human levels of discourse and
consciousness or human levels of at
least social interaction
you would eventually
end up repeating a kind of scene like
the crucifixion
because again there is this
simultaneous kind of yearning for
salvation while also propagating
destruction i think within the human
condition that you might be able to make
a
an interesting enough
argument or discussion out of what that
would look like
in other
species on earth
now i could have been fine enough with
those two interpretations and i think if
used correctly
again that the art could have maybe
prompted some interesting enough thought
and discussions
but that's not the end
of the description of the exhibit
on the backs of each of the slugs even
the one being crucified
were penises
now for me any potential
kind of connection with the exhibit
went right down the tube there
even though of course because i'm
kind of a a trained rhetorician and i
can of course develop arguments
you know with the best of them
yeah we could have we could have spun
off discussions of maybe
i don't know fallow centric
kind of stuff but
that wasn't what came to me
what came to me was something else
i kind of just stared at it in a stupor
and i soon
realized i think why the woman was
crying
now i'll come back to this
anecdote
a little bit later on in the episode
when we look back on the culture being
produced at the end of world war ii
an interesting narrative i think begins
to emerge through a fairly new medium
television
when we think of television in the 50s
we we tend to i think think of like
sugary sweet shows that
promoted family values and threw in some
fairly innocuous hijinks for our
entertainment right
think uh lucy right i love lucy and
ethel on the candy assembly line
trying to
you know wrap up the candies that are
coming down
so quickly they can't kind of keep up
that still remains i think some of the
best comedy you can find
in any episodic show
but i think what television did better
than even movies particularly is reflect
shifts
and fissures in
how popular culture in america viewed
the surge of postmodernism
in some ways television i think has
always been a tool for post-modern
appeal
take the
previously mentioned i love lucy show
right a show with a woman as a lead
a woman who is adventurous one who feels
as though she can do anything
and even though
kind of much of what lucy tries to do on
the show is is an abject failure she
nonetheless
tries them
she has a genuine sense of agency there
and in 1956 you have the nat king cole
show
the first show on television hosted
solely by an african-american
if you're younger and unfamiliar with
the dulcet tones of neck and coal you're
doing yourself a major disservice his
songs like mona lisa unforgettable
l-o-v-e you know love
those are treasures of our culture as a
species
and and they're fantastic and and i dare
say
when you're finished listening to the
the podcast here go look it up and just
kind of enjoy
that beautiful
that beautiful music
now i bring both of these examples up
because they were put forward as
post-modern attempts to destabilize a
largely monolithic structure of
entertainment
so that more individuals would have
opportunities to fully participate in
that culture
during post-modernism you can make an
argument that television had three
purposes really
one to entertain
two to disseminate information
and three to challenge mainstream
narratives
think about shows like all in the family
the jeffersons maude
and then even
the simpsons
which probably seems pretty tame by
today's standards however i'm old enough
to remember when buying a t-shirt with
bart simpson on it pretty much
guaranteed that you were going to be
sent home from school for being some
kind of agent of chaos
now i never had a simpsons shirt
but i
absolutely remember
a kid that i went to school with when i
was younger who was forced to go to the
bathroom and turn his shirt his bart
simpson shirt inside out for the
remainder of the day
why was the simpsons considered so
rebellious well because it challenged
the narrative of the perfect family and
it elevated the rambunctious bart to a
level of like an anti-hero
this was actually really genuinely
frightening for some people who believed
that decent culture was under attack
but i would argue that the simpsons
still made
efforts to put forward what we would
call family values right homer and marge
loved their kids and the siblings fought
with each other but they also fought for
each other i remember when
the episode where
lisa brings cupcakes to school
and there's bullies now trying to take
her cupcakes and whatnot and bart stands
up for his little sister and he
gets his butt handed to him for it by
the bullies
what the simpsons did do though
is they kind of paved the way
for more adult cartoons that would push
the postmodern values i think to the
edge of cultural sanity
specifically here i want to bring in
family guy
now family guy is an interesting case
study for post-modernism and for me
because i think it encapsulates both the
good and the bad of late post-modernism
we've already talked about the good
right destabilization and challenge of
dominant narratives really can be good
for
the social evolution of the species it
can help prevent tyranny in democracies
as well
however when you seek to destabilize all
narratives as post-modernism does
you can't really be surprised when the
bonds that
once connected human beings to each
other
just kind of begin to break down and
create fractures
now i'm going to make a nuanced point
here about family guy one that i've used
in class before to challenge my students
there's a scene in family guy where the
neighbor herbert and if you're familiar
with the show you know that herbert has
a descriptor to his name herbert the
pervert
herbert is asked to watch over the kids
meg and chris
and meg and chris are both they're not
children they're both in high school but
they're they're young
now herbert
is a pedophile
that's openly known in the show it's not
anyone reading into the character
it's just known a known fact
in this episode where herbert is
watching the kids while peter and lois
are away
herbert tucks like 15 or 16 year old
chris
in bed
and he reads chris a bedtime story
it's i mean really a cringy moment for
the audience right because we know what
we're seeing is wrong something wrong is
going on here
and then we get our postmodern
moment
after herbert finishes
whistling the theme to peter and the
wolf
chris just kind of blurts out
are you a pedophile
and the typical response that i get from
students
is laughter and not uncomfortable
laughter i mean genuine laughter
but let's break this scene down a bit to
better understand how the creator of the
show seth macfarlane
gets us to laugh here
now the whole time throughout this scene
the audience is placed in a kind of
tension
and with each passing second
that tension is building energy within
the body
we know it's wrong what we're seeing but
we continue to watch because
we can feel secure
in the fact that the genre of the show
is comedy
we know that the tension is going to be
released we just have to wait for it
that doesn't happen
if the genre is a more serious one
so we wait
and we allow that energy that potential
energy
to build up within us
then when chris utters his question or
you a pedophile
that's our moment to release the anxiety
the tension that we've built up the
entire time and we take our chance
to release that tension through our
laughter
but here's the challenge that i give my
students
and i'll pose it to you as well
what are we laughing at
now i'm not asking this question in
order to try and make anyone feel badly
that's not the purpose here i ask the
question
because i want people to see
what this level of post-modernism has
actually produced within us as a people
invariably i i get students who say
we're laughing at the awkwardness of the
situation
and probably many of you as well are
saying this
to which i say
what is the situation
say it
say it out loud
and the students can't do it
because there's no way around the
inevitable point
we're laughing at
a pedophile in the bedroom
of a young man
post-modernism has gotten us to laugh at
this situation
again
i don't do this
to try and shame anyone for laughing i
laugh at family guy i laugh at
irreverent jokes i am most certainly not
holier than thou in any way
but i do think it's important
that we understand
what historical movements can actually
produce
within us
and you might say well isn't that more
of a cultural movement than history
sure okay
but don't dismiss
the power
that historical movements have
in shaping
our cultural shifts
and then there's south park
south park is without a doubt the most
successful
form of satire
since jonathan swift gave his modest
proposal that we should eat children in
order to fix
problems of overpopulation hunger and
poverty back in 1729
and if you're not familiar
with jonathan swift's essay a modest
proposal
that's a must read for everyone
now people often confuse i think satire
with parody
what seth macfarland
does with family guy and a lot of his
other shows as well is mostly parody i
think when he tries to do satire
it falls flat quite a bit right but he
is wonderful at parody and parody is
kind of when you
mimic a particular event idea or even a
style or even a person but you give it
your own amusing take so
a good example of parody in in family
guy is when
the son chris is in a is in a store and
suddenly he's
he's grabbed when he's trying to get
milk and he's brought into
a a music video and the music video is
aha's 1980s hit take on me you know take
on me
that that video right
and
mcfarlane puts chris in the actual video
from the 1980s and we're seeing this
family guy character you know playing
the role of the the lead and the music
video
and it's actually really funny and and
really artistically well done and so i
give mcfarland a lot of credit he is
kind of a master of parody
but satire requires
social commentary
and it's incredibly difficult it's a
really difficult art form
to pull off effectively because
the outlandishness of your proposal
must make logical sense
people were really taken aback by
jonathan swift's modest proposal of
eating children because he included not
just an explanation of how it would
reduce overpopulation but he included
like math to help show that it could
provide poor families with
a means of producing
assets that could be converted into
money
it's horrible there's no way around
that stinging feeling
of reading a modest proposal the first
time
and of course his point isn't that we
should actually eat children his point
is that
we were consuming
people anyway
so he kind of says let's just do it for
real then
now south park
really thrived in post-modernism because
it did
kind of what i talked about with family
guy
oftentimes it lifted the veil of what
post-modernism was producing within us
as a culture and said
look at it
stare at it
be aware of of what is
there in front of you and come to grips
with what we are becoming
the episode that i always think of with
this is the britney spears one
at the time that the episode came out
she was struggling with her mental
health a lot and people were on the
internet calling her fat which is i mean
come on that this is that's ridiculous
and talking about how
she really needed to just kind of go
away
and that the populace was was we we were
through with her essentially
so in the south park episode she's aware
of all of this
and
she takes a shotgun and she blows half
of her head off
like from the nose up no brain nothing
and of course because this is south park
she's not dead this doesn't kill her
instead
she spends the remainder of the episode
just trying to get away from the public
who really seem bent on kind of
finishing the job everybody wants to
take pictures of her and
and and make fun of her and and get
money for these pictures even the boys
in the show right stan kyle
kenny and cartman
until
they become aware of of what of her
humanity essentially
and once they come in contact with her
humanity it changes and they kind of
just
want to help her get away
so what happens what's the show actually
about why is everybody
you know after her in the town well in
the end
we learned that the episode is about how
the town needs brittany to kill herself
in order for the crops to grow for the
harvest
south park utilizes culture from our
past right human sacrifice
and shows us how we're essentially still
sacrificing people
now can you make the argument that she
entered the public sphere on her own
absolutely sure that's fine
but does that take away from the fact
that she still is a human being
does it make it any better that there
are actually people
not simply even just rooting for her to
fail
but almost rooting in a way for her to
be erased to actually like just die and
move on already so that we can move on
to the next big thing
there's no way around
the ugliness
the ugliness that's there in us
and what's interesting about south park
here is that south park actually uses
post-modernism to fight against itself
it says let's destabilize the dominant
narrative
by actually
what's the right word here not just
embellish it
but amplify it is probably the better
word
we're going to amplify
this dominant narrative
in order to try and jar people
out of this kind of
post-modern haze
and that's what made
south park such a force
to be reckoned with
in post-modernism
now
one of the problems that we're seeing
here with late post-modernism
is that it demands you sacrifice
sacred space
in fact in order to propagate itself it
must attack sacred space it needs to
remove it in order to work within
that tandem of building tension
and then waiting for the release
now
can this be used
positively well i i think so
i mentioned in a previous episode that
stand-up comedy has a boom of course
that takes place in post-modernism
and and there is a connection there
right it's not by chance
it's not as if stand-up comedy or people
standing up in front of an audience
making jokes
had never happened before
post-modernism but of course this
becomes like a genuine bonafide
career
in post-modernism
stand-up comedy also requires
the sacrifice of sacred space so that it
can freely explore
like all the ideas and idiosyncrasies of
the human experience
it takes things that we want to hold as
sacred like marriage relationships
religion
and it destabilizes them
by building tension
and then promising a release from that
tension
at least the really good stand-up comics
do this right and and here's the thing
about
about why
i think comedians
tend to be
fairly open actually
about kind of who they think is a good
stand-up comic and who who isn't it's
because there is a kind of science
and psychology that plays in the
background
it's not just that idea of the
importance of building up the tension
and then the release through the joke if
you've ever been to a bad stand-up
comedy show oh man
the major problem
is that they build up tensions but never
provide an actual outlet
for release through laughter
and if you don't have laughter as the
release point that tension still has to
come out in some fashion it has to come
out
physically
and if it doesn't have laughter then it
usually comes out through what
anger or frustration
it's why people get so angry and annoyed
when a comedian is bombing and not
making them laugh because there needs to
be that outlet
the release of that tension
so i think a fair question is how does
stand up
then differ from the example of family
guy that i gave earlier
surely you're thinking there are
comedians who joke about serious topics
and the answer is of course yes right
there are you anthony jeselnik is is one
that comes to my mind
um daniel tosh i think is another
one that does this too
the difference for me
is that the stand-up comedian presents a
fully enclosed show
in other words there's a beginning a
middle
and an end to the show
and when the show ends
the performer
ends as well
in other words that that particular
individual who stood up and gave the
jokes
almost ceases to exist
and that performer becomes
their individual everyday selves
again
there's no
extension of that performer after the
show
whereas with an episodic tv show
there is no real
end
there is the closing of the show right
the show obviously does end itself but
psychologically we extend
that show's world's ethos i think beyond
the end of the episode it carries over
until the next week when a new episode
begins and i don't think we realize
necessarily psychologically that we stay
in that ethos
throughout the entire week
or even if we're binge watching right it
just kind of continues from episode to
episode
now i
i openly admit
i'm not sure if what i just said makes
complete sense
it's not always easy to put these ideas
out there without
kind of people in front of you to just
bounce off of
i guess i guess what i'm trying to say
is i don't
find
stand-up comedians
to necessarily be subversive
in any way
because subversiveness is not funny
so person subversiveness is in some ways
antithetical to what the comedian is
trying to do its purpose the comedian's
purpose is to move your thinking
to as close to consciousness as possible
in order to make us laugh
right to take the little things that we
do subconsciously right like take again
like marriage right how many standard
comedians joke about marriage okay and
what does the stand-up comedian actually
do
it takes the things that we've sort of
automated in marriage and it makes us be
hyper conscious of it something like
doing laundry right they make a joke
about how like
you know i have to do laundry and it's
it just makes us hyper conscious of
these things that we tend to sometimes
put on autopilot to
make them
kind of just in the background that we
do
whereas i don't think that tv or movies
i think tv and movies
there is there is a kind of reward in a
sense for being subversive and in some
ways they do it because i think
we've
we've come to a point where we almost
expect it
and dare i say even
want it to a degree
and again when i say subversive i don't
mean in any
in any specific leaning right like i
don't care subversively
left subversively right i don't i don't
care about that what what i'm saying
though is
i think in some ways we've come to
expect it
subversiveness in
that entertainment media tv and and
movies let's say
whatever it is whichever
kind of subversiveness it is
and in truth that can
wreak havoc
on our psyches
so what do we do with all of this
information that i've proposed here
right
when we bring this information to our
neutral ground what exactly
do we learn