Dr. Toon: The Animation Critic’s Art - Defining Our Terms
In a medium as wonderfully variegated as animation, one hates to deal in generalities. There’s simply too much individuality sprinkled in among the assembly-line mentality and the detachment of overseas production that plagues television animation today. Yet, every time a cartoon pokes a bit past the edges of conventionality, some critic slaps the term “postmodern” on it. Indeed, the term is rapidly becoming amorphous, a catchphrase signifying nothing.
Postmodernism does not predate animation. It dates back only as far as the late 1970s, the conceptual masterwork of philosopher Jean-François Lyotard. There is considerable academic dickering on what constitutes the postmodern, as it can apply to artistic, cultural, or economic definitions. Definitions of Postmodernism convey more sense if it is seen as a movement with somewhat defined tenets.
Modernist thought is supposed to represent the primacy of objective knowledge and the unity of that knowledge with reason; Modernism is optimistic in nature and allies itself with notions of progress. Knowledge is sharply defined and with an assumption of certainty There is a unified perspective of truth, resulting in what the Modernist mind called “The Grand Narrative”, or “meta-narrative”, with reason an science providing dependable answers to, well, everything.
Postmodernism calls all of this into question. Its most definitive characteristic is the questioning of any Grand Narrative, order, or rational, scientific explanations for anything. It appears in retrogressive art forms, thrives on irony and parody, and realizes itself in the practice of extreme self-reflexivity. There is a general breakdown between high and low cultural standards and forms, and disorientation, rather than certainty, is the order of the day. Finally, Postmodernism accepts the notion of “secondary orality”, in which information is totally conveyed by visual and aural means, as written literacy breaks down as a form of communication. From there it’s a short hop to deconstruction, where a text is seen to have no author and is only interpretable according to the individual reader.
Thanks a lot, Dr. Toon. Now tell us how this relates to animation criticism and why is it important to know. Simple, dear readers. You want to avoid being misled, misleading others, and you always want to keep your criticism honest and correct. Also…um…it’s important to know exactly what you’re talking about when you present your ideas to a readership.
The problem with postmodern interpretation, you see, is that postmodernity has been a coherent concept since, oh, 1979. What, indeed, did analysts call The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show (later called The Bullwinkle Show) back in the days from 1959-1964? The adventures of moose and squirrel, along with its accompanying short features such as Fractured Fairy Tales, met every current criterion for postmodernity. Where are retrospective analyses and academic studies on The Bullwinkle Show today?
If we are to identify postmodernism in animation, we must apply the rules rather stringently. It is possible for a given cartoon to meet one or two of the criteria above and still not qualify. This mostly happens when the work in question is derivative of true postmodernity, or is simply presenting itself as trendy and cool.
The animated series most often tagged as “postmodern” is The Simpsons. If you care to combine the search terms and send Google on its happy way, you will come across countless references and quite a few scholarly texts that have indecipherable content relating to intertextuality, semiotics, Marxism, and other marginally entertaining nonsense. It is highly fashionable to label this series as “postmodern”, but is that really the truth?
I’m going to argue against legions of deconstruction-obsessed scholars and pedantic media analysts and present why I believe it is not. Then we’ll take a look at a series that truly earned the title.
To begin with, The Simpsons is actually a satirical sitcom. It takes place inside a meta-narrative. Springfield exists with a defined set of citizens and families, recurring characters that inhabit an established universe. There are schools, homes, recognizable businesses and work environments. The focus is usually on a single family of yellow humanoids, but their being so does not make them postmodern, any more than animated talking animals are.
There is nothing particularly retrogressive about the cartoon. It apparently takes place in modern times, with modern technology and media extant. The family Simpson exists in a single time and place, and their roles generally do not vary. Although Homer may meet celebrities or be replaced on the company softball team by Darryl Strawberry, he remains Homer Simpson. Although there are definite (and invariably hilarious) instances of self-reflexivity in the show, there is also considerable consistency. Maude Flanders died and never returned, Sideshow Bob remains unrepentantly evil, and Homer still works for Mr. Burns. Even the surprises are no surprise: As social critic Mark Dery explains, the paradoxical clown embodied by Krusty is a common social archetype.
The Simpsons, in fact is not half as obsessed with obscure in-jokes as its weaker clone, Family Guy (which may be slightly more “postmodern” in that regard). The Simpson’s universe does not truly upset the established order; they are a clever, and for the most part, gentle parody of it. The dreary parade of academic papers extolling arcane Marxist interpretations of the show are, in the end, as useless as broken skateboard wheels would be to Bart Simpson. While the show can be subjectively enjoyed and interpreted, it is presented in a coherent and objective manner, that of an off-kilter family sitcom.