Of heart and discourse

A few days ago, Gry Rustad wrote about cynical, “bullying” irony (“the joke that wasn’t funny anymore”) falling to the wayside as comedy focused on “community” and delivered with (nearly) wholehearted warmth has taken its place. This same shift caught my eye a few years ago. Ever since Napoleon Dynamite, my sensibilities were alive to the peculiar and increasingly ubiquitous predilection for the awkward in American and British popular culture: the Daily Show, the Office, Wonder Showzen, Family Guy, Extras, Flight of the Conchords, Arrested Development, Tim & Eric Awesome Show Great Job!; along with the work of Sacha Baron Cohen (Da Ali G Show, Borat, Brüno) and several comedians, namely Patton Oswalt, Brian Posehn, and especially Maria Bamford and Zach Galifianakis (the so-called “Comedians of Comedy”). They all somehow fit into the boundaries of another increasingly prominent aesthetic (the quirky) while also over spilling them. I ended up writing my undergraduate thesis about the links between and cultural shifts plotted by Family Guy, Borat, and the American version of the Office in an essay called “the Awkwardness of Being Earnest.” For the moment we’ll concentrate on a condensed treatment of Family Guy and the Office. Kyle Karthauser responds to Gry Rustad’s ‘The joke that wasn’t funny anymore’.

It is immediately obvious that Gry and I both agree on the motive force driving all of these works: what she calls “heart” and what I more generally call “the earnest.” Or as Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker would put it, “irony that is intrinsically bound to desire” as opposed to a more traditional postmodern irony “inherently tied to apathy.” (Vermeulen and van den Akker PAR 33) And while Modern Family and Community certainly fit the mold, they owe their existence to the Office, which pioneered the narrative techniques upon which they rely. Concentrating on them, we miss the forest for its canopy. We need to look at the trunks, and maybe the roots, too, while we’re at it.

One of metamodernism’s central metaphors is that of “oscillation” because it succinctly describes the aesthetic’s tendency to inhabit both modern and postmodern valences. Its attitude vacillates “between a typically modern commitment and a markedly postmodern detachment.” (Vermeulen and van den Akker PAR 2) We can easily parse this into an opposition between earnestness and irony. Earnestness is an expression of belief or desire untroubled by the meta-complexities of the postmodern perspective; (postmodern) irony is able to consider beliefs or assertions but unable or unwilling to defend their legitimacy in the face of every other conceivable possibility. Fittingly enough, the unambiguously affirmative cry of “awesome” has displaced “whatever” as the buzzword of a moment and of a generation. But why this sudden premium on forthrightness and sincerity? Why has the pendulum swung so sharply away from noncommittal snark?

The simplest explanation is also the most banal. Like any aesthetic or ideology that assumes cultural dominance for long enough, postmodernism played itself out. “You’ll find out once you reach the top, you’re on the bottom,” goes the Bob Dylan lyric. Family Guy is a perfect illustration of this simultaneous nadir and apogee. It emerged in a cultural moment completely comfortable with the idea of Jameson’s pastiche and just familiarizing itself with the implications of Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome. The former was ushered in by eclecticist architecture and pushed into the mainstream by music sampling and Quentin Tarantino; the latter is a metaphor based on natural phenomena (“every potato is a new beginning,” a former professor was fond of saying) and ballooned into an ecosystem of its own with the rise of the quintessentially rhizomic internet, where anything you can imagine is literally one degree removed from anything else you can imagine. Family Guy combined the two into an inexhaustible creative approach characterized by the attitude “anything goes.” Pastiche turns all of culture and history into a grab bag/junk pile from which to draw from, and the rhizome allows you to kaleidoscopically cobble together references to 1920s silent movies, Monty Python, Christmas, and Play-Doh and call it narrative:

The fruit of “rhizomic pastiche”[1] is a television show whose humor and narrative comes about through a sort of randomness which is more concerned with the number of connections it can make than reckoning with the distances between them. While this allows the series to cover an astonishingly broad cultural ground, throwing every conceivable combination[2] of styles, celebrities, tones, historical events, literary references, locations, stereotypes (et cetera) at the viewer, it never has anything to say. Or rather it never says anything for itself–not that it thinks that it has to, or would even be comfortable doing so. This is symptomatic of postmodernism’s historical anxiety, which relegates it to a paradigm based almost exclusively on cutting-and-pasting: “postmodernism conceives of the only relevant experience as the metaexperience of representation. Its works can be dated only on the secondary level of the choice of mixture of styles; it refuses the Sisyphean task of creating yet another latest style.” Relying on the “representations of earlier, less sophisticated observers” allows the postmodernist to dodge “the anxiety that [they] too live in a historical moment that will some day be seen from without” (Gans 214-8).

To some extent, whether you appreciate Family Guy depends on how well-versed you are in pop culture and whether or not you find its approach offensive or brilliant. But if you watch enough of it, the issue clearly crosses the boundaries of taste and passes into the realm of judgement. The problem with the postmodern approach vis a vis Family Guy lies precisely in the source of its creativity: the unblinking, gratuitous deployment of debris drifting among and constituting various discursive flows, resulting in scenes like this:


At a track meet, two white runners are allowed to start before the rest of the runners, who are black.


Aquaman (the superhero) is witness to a rape on a beach. Unable to leave the water to help the woman, the scene ends with the woman crying: “Help! You’re hurting me!” Aquaman responds: “Well, maybe you shouldn’t have led him on.”

About 7:10 in:

Peter: Hey… I know! Let’s play a little game called “taking the fall for daddy.” If you win, I’ll buy you a convertible when you get your license.

Meg: Really!? Oh, daddy, now I love you again!

Peter: Aw, you’re going to make some Jewish guy a great wife.

Unsurprisingly, the show has been controversial since its very inception, and even has its own Wikipedia page devoted to the subject. Sometimes its creator, Seth McFarlane, comes to its defense. After incurring the Facebook wrath of Sarah and Bristol Palin over a joke that touched on Trig Palin’s Down Syndrome, he responded by saying: “From its inception, ‘Family Guy’ has used biting satire as the foundation of its humor.  The show is an ‘equal-opportunity offender’” (Fernandez PAR 7). I love this phrase: “equal opportunity offender.” Not only is it the perfect epitaph for pop postmodernism, it gets at the core of the problem–which is also something of a paradox. While postmodernism allows us to see discourse for what it is–concealing arbitrary cultural beliefs and practices beneath the veneer of normativity–it provides us with neither the grounds nor the motivation to do anything about it. The fact that Family Guy’s position on anything it re-presents is ultimately ambiguous is, in cases like this, a vice rather than a virtue. It could ask itself questions such as “What is the problem with putting THIS next to THIS?” and “Why should this bit of bigotry, this corrupt social construction be uncritically promulgated on mainstream television?” but it lacks any standard for formulating a response. “Postmodernism conceived of contemporary culture as a spectacle before which the individual sat powerless, and within which questions of the real were problematised,” says Alan Kirby. “It therefore emphasised the television or cinema screen” (PAR 7). Discursive flows have become so many channels on a television screen, much like the tenuously connected narrative sequences comprising an episode of Family Guy. As postmodern subjects, all we can do is flip through them.

The doctrines of metamodernism insist that this is precisely the moment where cultural sensibilities swing from one extreme toward its opposite (Vermeulen and Akker PAR 18). And while there is a decided shift to the presentation, as plenty have noted here and elsewhere, the central concerns, namely the rhizome and discursive awareness, remain constant. With Family Guy, the rhizome manifests itself in a cartoon world–which is ideal, since it can blaze its wanton trail in a medium where the limits of time and space don’t apply, and its simplistic presentation blunts the realities of its transgressions (“Peter Griffin isn’t a racist, he’s a cartoon!”). In the Office, the rhizome is forced to reckon with the fraught and banal arena of everyday life: time, space, interpersonal relationships, and (generally put) context all mercilessly apply. Family Guy provided for the unchecked application of the rhizome in media; with the Office everything occurs in situ.

Much of the warmth generated by the Office has to do with its characters. This is also where Community acknowledges its deepest debt to the Office. The notion of “community”–no, the practice of community provides the non-ideological backstop to the postmodern excesses we saw with Family Guy. In the search for answers to questions of value and judgement, we need not appeal to something as lofty, abstract, and dangerous as a metanarrative–only the practical considerations of getting along. To make this interesting, the employees of the office are a mix of stereotypes and idiosyncracies: Andy Bernard, the white, early-thirties fratboy Ivy-leaguer with an anger management problem; Kelly Kapoor, the twenty-something Indian-American airheaded pop culture obsessive; Stanley Hudson, the stodgy African-American salesman; Oscar Martinez, the gay Mexican-American accountant; Creed Bratton, the white, drugged-out ex-rock-and-roller; Meredith Palmer, a white, dazed, over-the-hill alcoholic single mother; Phyllis Lapin-Vance, a white woman in her mid-fifties dealing with a (late) mid-life crisis; Angela Martin, a white, no-nonsense catloving buzzkill… This hodge podge sets the stage for plenty of friction. We, as postmodern viewers, derive a particular enjoyment out of the varying degrees of self-awareness and cultural rapport demonstrated by each character. But the show inevitably focuses on the manager of the office, Michael Scott (Steve Carrell). He is catastrophically glib and, though he tries to express it through knowing irony, desperately seeking an earnest affirmation from anyone in earshot.

The problem of glibness is especially glaring in light of the vastness of contemporary popular culture and its discursive preoccupations.  When the dominant paradigm emphasizes the moral pitfalls of pronouns, self-consciousness and cultural fluency are imperative.  Being glib relegates Michael to an inferior social sphere where his attempts at signification are fragmentary: he is unaware of how the free-floating “parts” of his signification connect to and suggest various cultural wholes.  Not only does this fragmentation frustrate communal cohesion, but the byzantine discursive network from which these utterances are drawn have their own disruptive implications.  In his worst moments, Michael is rhizome made flesh.  As opposed to its niche in postmodernism, where it facilitates endless deferral and wanton supplementarity, now the rhizome becomes fundamentally problematic: the localized implications—the “distance” between the invoked connections and their “fit” in a given context—precipitate a potentially awkward moment.

In order to see how the Office puts this to use for critical purposes, consider the episode “Diversity Day.” In this episode, a “sensitivity trainer” arrives at Dunder-Mifflin’s (the paper company around which the Office revolves) Scranton, Pennsylvania branch to address an incident involving Michael Scott. The incident was Michael’s performance of an infamous Chris Rock routine about the “two different kinds of black people,” which, as you might expect, is wildly inappropriate for the workplace, especially when performed by your white middle-manager. Michael, angered by the session, deems the seminar insufficient and announces his own campaign to reform the office.

Malapropism mounts on malapropism, faux pas trips over faux pas in the execution of whatever Michael thinks he’s doing.  He sets the tone with a video (made in the office with another employee, Dwight Schrute), where he somberly intones “Abraham Lincoln once said, that if you’re a racist, I will attack you with the north.  Those are the principles that I carry with me in the workplace.”  The workshop begins with a round of introductions, where everyone is encouraged to discuss their ethnic background.  Oscar Martinez, an accountant, after speaking about his Mexican parents immigrating to the United States, is asked by Michael if “there is a term besides Mexican” that he prefers—“something less offensive?” The most egregious display of glibness is saved for last. He concocts an exercise involving index cards with “races” written on them (“race,” for Michael, apparently includes “Martin Luther King Jr.,” “Jamaican,” “Brazil”).  He instructs his employees to pick a card and, without looking at it, tape it to their forehead for everyone to see.  “I want you to treat other people like the race that is on their forehead.  Everybody has a different race—nobody knows what their race is.  So, I want you to really go for it!  ‘Cause this is real.  You know, this isn’t just an exercise, this is real life.  And I, have a dream, that you will really let the sparks fly!  Git ‘er done!” He moves through the crowd, coaxing his uncomfortable employees to “stir the pot—stir the melting pot!”  When Pam Beesly (“Jewish”) and Stanley Hudson (“Black”) refuse to let fly with the outrageous stereotypes that Michael’s hoping for, he whines “Come on, Olympics of suffering right here!  Slavery versus the holocaust!”  Eventually Kelly Kapoor (an Indian-American) walks into the meeting room. Grinning, he launches into his best/most insulting impression of an Indian convenience store owner.  Kelly slaps him and walks out of the room, leaving everyone—even Michael—in silence.

All this by virtue of the rhizome.  Michael thinks “race” and the office runs wild with hegemonic traces: slurs, stereotypes, caricatures; white guilt, sexism and racism masquerading as humor; et cetera.  Admittedly the rhizome can be devastatingly repugnant—but only as repugnant, of course, as its available links.  And that is exactly the rhizome’s utility in this era: underscoring the need for the construction of boundaries in order to scrub, as it were, corrupt supplements and traces from the discourse that has come to dominate our social and individual spheres. The Office attempts to balance the perils of value systems by binding them to common human dignity and communal integrity.

From time to time, we receive an interesting email responding to one or more of our contributors’ posts. This week, the American film and television critic Kyle Karthauser responded to Gry Rustad’s recent post on television comedy. With Kyle’s approval, we have posted his response integrally.


[1] This trope does not manifest itself equally in each of the examples listed at the outset. Flight of the Conchords leans more heavily toward pastiche than it does the rhizome, whereas with Sacha Baron Cohen pastiche is rarely seen.

[2] Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of South Park (another hugely popular cartoon with the 18-34 crowd), dedicated two episodes of their show to lambasting Family Guy.  Here is their critique, featured in “Cartoon Wars II” as described by Wikipedia: “Cartman [a character in South Park] is introduced to the Family Guy writing staff, who turn out to be a group of manatees. The aquatic mammals, who live in a large tank, pick up ‘idea balls’ from a large pile of them, each of which has a different noun, a verb or a pop-culture reference written on it, and deliver them, five at a time, to a machine that then forms a Family Guy cutaway gag based on those ideas. For example, ‘Laundry’ + ‘Date’ + ‘Winning’ + ‘Mexico’ + ‘Gary Coleman’ becomes a clip of Lois asking Peter to do the laundry, after which Peter recalls winning a date in Mexico with Gary Coleman.”

Image taken from Southpark, ‘Cartoon Wars’.

There is one comment

  1. Micah Giardetti

    This is an excellent observation and a great addition to the discourse. The juxtaposition of the earlier British version of “the office” and the later American version seems to capture this shift from cynicism to sincerity best.

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