Hibbs examines `Seinfeld,' other shows about `nothing'
By JOHN HUSTON
The sitcom "Seinfeld" uses comedy to camouflage its nihilism, said Thomas Hibbs, professor and chair of philosophy at Boston College, in a lecture Thursday night on "Nihilism in Popular Culture: Seinfeld, The Simpsons and Ally McBeal."
Hibbs said that "Seinfeld" is "a way of thinking through what nihilism really means." Applying his ideas to today's culture, he explained how the nihilistic humor in the show comments on modern relationships and family life, as well as society in general.
Hibbs relies on Nietzsche to define nihilism as the devaluation of important values, as a life "devoid of fundamental meaning or final purpose."
Compared to the basic, classical structure of older sitcoms, such as "The Honeymooners" or "I Love Lucy," " Seinfeld" marks a decisive break, said Hibbs. While older shows depended on a resolution of a dilemma in order to end the episode happily, the catastrophe in an episode of "Seinfeld" is frequently left unresolved. "[`Seinfeld'] goes for the art of the unhappy, but the very funny," said Hibbs.
The role of the modern family also comes under nihilistic analysis, he said. While older shows concentrate on the family unit, Seinfeld focuses primarily on single individuals. Whenever a familial situation is addressed, it is usually with a feeling of impossibility or unfeasibility.
Shows like "The Simpsons," which Hibbs also classifies as nihilistic, combine family and nihilism through character development. Homer is more a child than a father figure. Homer is "barely rational" and "inarticulate" and demonstrates a "primitive, subhuman state of nature."
While the nihilistic sitcom formula "destroys the possibility of the family," Hibbs said it is secondary to the relationships themselves. "Cold calculations replace love and romance," he said
The characters on "Seinfeld" deal with trivial things in relationships, said Hibbs. For instance, Jerry breaks up with a woman because she has "man's hands." If not complaining about relationships, the characters display the "sense of being literally trapped. Love becomes sadomasochistic. It becomes a one-up on the other person," said Hibbs.
A state of perpetual adolescence drives the "Seinfeld" characters as well. The goal, Hibbs said, is to attain the advantages of an adult while retaining the responsibilities of a child. The characters can never achieve this, or anything else they want, which leads to the show's overwhelming skepticism about the pursuit of happiness, he said.
These "adolescent power struggles" also aid the "irrational obsessions" that lead to the destruction of the characters' love relationships.
"The amoral tone of `Seinfeld' doesn't mean there aren't any rules," Hibbs said. "There's a medley of rules with no seeming relation to one another.
"Characters must never learn from what they are doing — they must remain what they intrinsically are," Hibbs said. They are doomed to a life of repetition.
In the show's final episode, "Seinfeld" and his friends are sitting in jail, talking about the buttons on George's sweater. "Haven't we had this conversation before?" George asks, which is a reference to a line from the first "Seinfeld" episode.
"There's no way out for them," Hibbs said. The characters are stuck in a life of eternal recurrence — a situation that Hibbs said the show applies to the real world.
His most recent book, "Shows About Nothing," examines "Seinfeld," "Ally McBeal" and "The Simpsons," along with movies such as "Seven," "LA Confidential" and "Pulp Fiction" to explore the growing nihilism in pop culture.
Hibbs is also the author of "The Practice of Virtue: Aquinas on the Good Life" and "Narrative in Aquinas: An Interpretation of the Summa Contra Gentiles."
All News Stories for Friday, December 3, 1999