May 19, 2006

Cartoons and philosophy.

Why philosophy fits so well in cartoon form (like "The Simpsons"):
Philosophy needs to be real in the sense that it has to make sense of the world as it is, not as we imagine or want it to be. But philosophy deals with issues on a general level. It is concerned with a whole series of grand abstract nouns: truth, justice, the good, identity, consciousness, mind, meaning and so on.

Cartoons abstract from real life in much the same way philosophers do. Homer is not realistic in the way a film or novel character is, but he is recognisable as a kind of American Everyman. His reality is the reality of an abstraction from real life that captures its essence, not as a real particular human who we see ourselves reflected in.

The satirical cartoon world is essentially a philosophical one because to work it needs to reflect reality accurately by abstracting it, distilling it and then presenting it back to us, illuminating it more brightly than realist fiction can.

9 comments:

Richard Dolan said...

"The satirical cartoon world is essentially a philosophical one because to work it needs to reflect reality accurately by abstracting it, distilling it and then presenting it back to us, illuminating it more brightly than realist fiction can."

Oh, please. "Philosophical" has been drained of all meaning here. "Reflect reality," "distill it" and "present it back" -- exactly what form of communication does that formula leave out? Is the supposed contrast here between "philosophical" reflection and, say, wholly fanciful science fiction or just sheer incoherent madness?

These articles about pop culture are typically among the worst, most inane things churned out by journalists.

Too Many Jims said...

I think there is more than a grain of truth to the premise that cartoons can do things "philosophically" better than live actors. I also think that some of the intellectualization about the Simpsons is because it is the only way that some intellectuals can justify their love for such a childish and American work.

Balfegor said...

Homer is not realistic in the way a film or novel character is, but he is recognisable as a kind of American Everyman.

I think this is intrinsic to a certain kind of cartoon stylisation, rather than a particular "satirical" kind of cartoon. Because certain kinds of cartoon designs are divorced from recognisable human individuality (they are not attempting to be "realistic," in the sense that a Marvel Comic character's face might tend to be), they can stand in for everyone in a way that an actual human actor, with all his individual attributes, cannot really do. Homer can be an everyman because the Simpsons style, while flexible enough to allow for a diverse cast of characters, is also not one that strongly calls to mind particular characteristics of real individuals. Indeed, Simpsons caricatures of real people are generally unrecognisable unless you know who they are supposed to be from the start.

To take another example, my favourite example, there is an animated and a live action version of the movie Grave of the Fireflies (Hotaru no Haka). Both have the same basic plot (a young boy and his younger sister gradually starve and die) but the cartoon is much more affecting (i.e. I weep like a baby. Every time.) I think this is because the particular style used has that universalising potential that a real human face hasn't got.

That, and animation is a more forgiving medium, in terms of special effects, child actors, costuming and wardrobe, etc. But even leaving those aside, I do think that the choice of a particular style allows for this possibility:

His reality is the reality of an abstraction from real life that captures its essence, not as a real particular human who we see ourselves reflected in.

CB said...

This article seems awfully anachronistic. The episode mentioned--Homer the Heretic--was from 1992, and that picture of Homer that accompanies the article looks even older than that. Plus, The Simpsons hasn't been big in pop culture for about 10 years now. I'm a huge fan of the show, but it's been embarrasingly bad for several years now.

Ann Althouse said...

Balfegor: "Grave of the Fireflies" is one of my favorite movies. (See my Blogger profile.) I think it is the saddest movie I've ever seen (and also very beautiful). I get chills just starting to think about it. I do think the abstracted reality of the cartoon makes it more affecting and saves it from being phony or maudlin.

CB: As to the time warp, the article is from Britain. I'm guessing they are on a different season.

I haven't watched "The Simpsons" in a long time myself. I do watch "South Park." The insights are the same. You can do things with cartoons that would be insufferable with live actors.

And I mean flat cartoons. I detest those 3-D things.

Bruce Hayden said...

I think that South Park has gone a ways beyond the Simpsons. What is amazing to me is how well they can get a message out, using such crude graphics and only a limited number of people for all those voices.

AlaskaJack said...

After this "bunch of naked apes" has exhausted the thought of Homer Simpson, I predict the next source of deep wisdom for them will be the chattering of chimpanzees.

Chimps and Homer Simpson as "the true heirs of Plato and Aristotle"!!

The contributions of post-modernism to western civilization are breathtaking.

Wickedpinto said...

Could the author of the original document make their point using a few more words? I don't think they demonstrated their vocabulary nearly enough for me to believe them.

All personal forms of expression are the most powerful, because they don't have to follow any rules. Did anyone go watch "Superman" and say "uh uh! you can't turn time back like that!" when they saw it? Does anyone say "Yo! Whats the gig with kenny? his ass was dead in "The Spirit of Christmas" how am I gonna believe this show anymore!"

Cartoons, Comics and Movies that don't take themselves too seriously are able to convey complex opinions not because they are so brilliantly combined, but because their is an instant and absolute suspension of reality allowing the individual to accept only the story being told, without having to deal with the specifics of an issue.

I hate this big word BS for the purposes of self acknowledgement.

Karl said...

Here's the problem as I see it. On an IQ scale, the relevent people involved in
this discussion are:

Simpsons Writers > Avid Simpsons Watchers > General Public >
Journalists writing about The Simpsons

The general public can easily poke holes in the journalists' theories,
thus reinforcing their opinion that the The Simpsons is stupid and
low-brow humor. The avid Simpsons watcher doesn't really care one way
or the other what the people below them on the scale think.

My take? At its inception, for the first 8 years, and occassionally
when it's still done well, it's the smartest and most "philosophical"
show on television (in the opinion of this Chicago educated
philosopher; take it for what you think it's worth).