< Nihilism in Pop Culture


Saturday, April 21, 2001

Nihilism in Pop Culture

April 21, 2001

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Bat Boy may be many things, but he is not a nihilist. Nihilism is the belief that all values -- religious, political, social, moral -- are meaningless. Bat Boy on the other hand not only pays his taxes; he wants to pay yours. No, the quintessential expression of nihilism in pop culture, according to Boston College Professor Thomas Hibbs is Jerry Seinfeld. Or so he writes in his book Shows About Nothing. Thomas Hibbs, welcome to On the Media.

THOMAS HIBBS: Glad to be with you.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now you borrowed your title, Shows About Nothing from the oft-quoted description of Seinfeld, so then is Seinfeld a nihilist sit-com?

THOMAS HIBBS: Yes, I think so. The humor often hinged upon the sort of pointlessness of, of the lives of these characters, the way in which they saw no ultimate purpose to their life - no way in which relationships, for example, especially marriage, could ever be possible for these characters because they had no larger vision of themselves apart from momentary preferences. [SEINFELD MUSICAL PHRASE]

JERRY: So Puddy wears a man fur?! [LAUGHTER]

ELAINE: He was strutting around the coffee shop like Stein Ericson! [LAUGHTER]

JERRY: And of course you find fur morally reprehensible.

ELAINE: Ah, anti-fur -- who has the energy any more? [LAUGHTER]

THOMAS HIBBS: If there is a best way of life in a nihilistic world, Jerry seems to have it, because Jerry seems able to live with few exceptions in a very detached way so that he never invests anything emotionally in any other person, and of course his hu--sense of humor which is a way - a kind of detached irony that mocks even the, the deepest sorts of human longing for love. I mean there were shows where they made fun of Schindler's List, made fun of AIDS Walks, I mean all - abortion - euthanasia -all the big debates in our society are satirized on that show in a way that - that enables Jerry to remain detached and sort of free from any connection to anyone, and I think in a world where there is no purpose or meaning, Jerry's way of going through life represents wisdom if there is such a thing in that context.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: But Mr. Hibbs, the characters in Seinfeld often get their comeuppance through fate-- [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]


BROOKE GLADSTONE: -- fateful coincidences and doesn't that suggest that there's a divine plan at work in the cosmos?

THOMAS HIBBS:You know if there is a divine plan in Seinfeld, it's a very dark one. When they're about to have the-- their pilot accepted at one point, George is worried the whole show about a, a discoloration on his lip, and, and he says I knew this would happen; I knew God wouldn't have let me enjoy my success, and Jerry says to him I thought you didn't believe in God. George says for the bad things I do. Say the episode where Kramer decides to go on the AIDS Walk for example, doing good, and yet he's beaten by the AIDS walkers because he fails to wear the AIDS ribbon, so that in this world it doesn't seem to matter whether you do good or whether you do bad, in the end your desires are always frustrated, so it seems to me that - it might be justice in the sense that not even the bad get away with anything but the good is never rewarded on the show either.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: What has to be present or missing from a movie or a TV show in order for it to be nihilist?

THOMAS HIBBS:Well I think for it to be fully nihilist in the way I'm suggesting that Seinfeld is, even the quest for happiness and justice and truth and beauty, friendship, love, all those great ideals inspiring the American regime from way back when, all of those things are mocked and seen as pointless.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what is the ultimate expression or, or example of nihilism in pop culture do you think?

THOMAS HIBBS:I started with Seinfeld and then said all right what are the roots of this? It seems to me a--another, another example of this that people wouldn't put together with Seinfeld is - or are films like Silence of the Lambs and the more - the recent sequel Hannibal and Pulp Fiction. It seems to me that those films are sort of on the way toward glamorizing evil.

JODIE FOSTER'S CHARACTER: What about it? Why don't you - why don't you look at yourself and write down what you see? Maybe you're afraid to.

ANTHONY HOPKINS: A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti. [MAKES CREEPY SLURPING SOUND]

THOMAS HIBBS: Her vision gradually becomes subordinated in Silence of the Lambs to Hannibal's what I've called "aesthetics of evil," and in the more recent film Hannibal, her vision is not really a threat to him at all. He becomes the central character, eclipsing any real concern with justice.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: What in your view is the ultimate impact of nihilistic pop culture?

THOMAS HIBBS:Pre-teenagers are being fed a large dose of this stuff, and what it does it seems to me is to shrink their moral imagination. The problem is not so much imitation. The problem is that children generally lack, if they're brought up in a kind of vacuum where pop culture fills in for that, that then they, they will not have examples of complex adult struggles with evil where they see people overcome evil or at least attempt to overcome it and where that struggle is depicted nobly, and if they don't have those images, stories to draw upon when their own lives get tough --which they do pretty quickly in our society --then my worry is that there might be a kind of despair. I think on the flip side of all that -- set aside the negative consequences -- it does seem to me that we can learn something from what Hollywood is doing in these films, because it does seem to me that what Hollywood typically does is to take certain assumptions that are just beneath the surface in American society -- I mean there's been talk for the last 10 years at least about the fragmentation of community. Well what happens if you were to take that fragmentation to its logical extreme? I think what you'd get if you had creative, funny characters living in that world is Seinfeld. What you would get is a kind of universal nihilism. We can all be thankful, I think, that those things haven't been made universal yet in our society.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well thank you.

THOMAS HIBBS: Thank you.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:Thomas Hibbs is a Boston College professor and author of the book Shows About Nothing which is subtitled like all good academic works, Nihilism in Popular Culture from the Exorcist to Seinfeld. [MUSIC] 58:00

BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Janeen Price and Katya Rogers, engineered by George Edwards and edited by--Brooke. We had help from David Serchuk, Kathleen Horan and Dylan Keefe.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:Mike Pesca is our producer at large, Arun Rath our senior producer and Dean Cappello our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. You can listen to the program and get free transcripts at onthemedia.org and e-mail us at onthemedia@wnyc.org This is On the Media from National Public Radio. I'm Brooke Gladstone.

BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield.