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Taking Seinfeld Seriously: Modernism in Popular Culture
New Literary History, Volume 37, Number 4, Autumn 2006, pp. 761-776
Published by The Johns Hopkins University Press
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Taking Seinfeld Seriously:
Modernism in Popular Culture Robert Hurd I n the wake of an increasing interest in Pierre Bourdieu’s sociology of culture, much recent scholarship in both literary and cultural studies has addressed the issue of the relationship between aesthetic value and economic conditions. While literary and cultural critics have fruitfully applied and adapted Bourdieu’s theories in their respective fields, I would like to bring these fields closer together by drawing here a detailed comparison between the central importance of Gustave Flaubert for the history of the French novel as Bourdieu theorized it and the similarly pivotal emergence of the television series Seinfeld as a phenomenon within the history of the American television sitcom.1 Such a comparison not only shows how finding similarities between seemingly disparate cultural practices can perhaps illuminate some universal features of how such practices develop in “the advanced capitalist world,”2 but also points out the limits of such comparisons and the specificity necessary to examine any particular cultural emanation in detail.
First of all, we must dismiss the notion that a comparison between the history of the novel and the history of the sitcom contrasts a high and low genre respectively. On the contrary, both the novel and sitcom have been considered merely popular forms. While many significant differences exist between their histories, development, media, and audiences, they differ most starkly in their current cultural status. When the novel emerged in the eighteenth century in its modern form and was recognized as a discrete literary genre, critics censured it as a “low” form.3 As Victor Brombert describes the status of the novel in France when Flaubert was writing: “Although the French novel was to assume in the nineteenth century an unprecedented prestige, usurping as it were the traditional preeminence of dramatic and epic poetry,... fictional literature was on the whole not taken seriously.”4 Since this time, the novel has—through the very efforts of writers like Flaubert and Henry James—gradually attained respectability as a genre of “Literature.”5 While the process of legitimation began in the mid-nineteenth century, the hesitancy to recognize the novel as literature lasted well into the twentieth. But by the
1970s, the novel had become firmly established in American universities: Dickens and Austen were read alongside (and later preferred to) Shakespeare and Wordsworth.6 The sitcom, on the other hand, still maintains a relatively low cultural status in contemporary society. In fact, the sitcom is dismissed as a popular genre not only because of its development on the least prestigious popular medium—television—but also because even within the hierarchy of television programs it occupies the most subordinate position. Television critics and viewers have often viewed the sitcom as the most formulaic, repetitive, or mindless entertainment available. Sitcom writers themselves recognize that the sitcom has never had cultural prestige. In an episode of Seinfeld, the neurotic character George attempts to impress a woman in a bar by claiming to be a writer. He swaggers, “What do I do? Well actually, I’m a writer. In fact, I’m writing a comedy pilot for NBC right now.” Her response is half-astonishment, half-laughter: “A sitcom? How can you write that crap?”7 The lowbrow ethos that Seinfeld evokes by disparaging the sitcom in particular is reinforced by the show’s main characters’ attempts to distance themselves actively from high culture in general. In an episode titled “The Opera,” for example, Jerry reluctantly agrees to accompany the other main characters to see Ruggero Leoncavallo’s tragic opera I Pagliacci (The Clowns). At the mention of the word “overture,” he gives an impromptu performance of the familiar opening of the Warner Brothers “Looney Toons” cartoons (“Overture, curtain, lights!”).8 Any reference to high culture comes either in the form of parody or sheer rejection.
Elaine responds to Jerry’s gag by remarking that “it’s sad” that his only “knowledge of high culture comes from Bugs Bunny cartoons.”9 Thus there has never been any pretense on the part of Seinfeld to take itself seriously as “high culture.” As we will see, this distancing from high culture makes it all the more difficult to detect the processes of modernist aesthetics at work to legitimate the sitcom as a cultural form.
Given how Seinfeld pointedly sets its unabashed silliness in opposition to high cultural seriousness, it may at first seem odd to compare Seinfeld to the writings of Flaubert. Flaubert wanted his work to be taken seriously and toiled vigorously for perfection, conducting laborious and tedious research—carried out to often absurd extremes—to ensure the historical and scientific accuracy of his fiction and agonizing over le mot juste.
Superficially, perhaps, nothing could be further from Seinfeld’s ethos than Flaubert’s. But if we set aside this only apparent dispositional incongruity, some striking structural similarities emerge between the upheaval that Flaubert inaugurated in the history of the French novel and the one Seinfeld effected in the history of the American television sitcom.
The contradiction of Seinfeld is that underlying its openly “popular,” antielitist ethos, the same exclusionary mechanisms usually associated taking seriously seinfeld with modernist aesthetics drive its dominance of the generic field of the “sitcom.” Columnist Caryn James summarizes this paradoxical formulation: “Knowing a ‘Seinfeld’ catch phrase like ‘master of your domain’ makes you an insider, even if you’re one of millions.”10 Sociologist of popular music Simon Frith, in his Performing Rites, has attempted to explain a similarly contradictory tension between popularity and exclusivity in the field of popular music. Frith notes that producers and consumers of popular culture, of ostensibly nonelitist cultural products, make distinctions between high and low just as their high cultural counterparts can only legitimate their own standards through some reference to the merely popular. For Frith, “there is no reason to believe a priori that such judgments [about aesthetic value] work differently in different cultural spheres.” Thus, “a similar use of accumulated knowledge and discriminatory skill is apparent in low cultural forms, and has the same hierarchal effect.”11 But Frith departs from Bourdieu when he asserts that it is impossible to “map these discourses onto social class, or trace ‘homologies’ between aesthetic values and social situations.”12 He suggests that discrimination occurs not, as Bourdieu maintains, as a process by which privileged classes accrue cultural capital, but rather as one that shapes social identity and foments identification with social groups, fan cultures, or subcultures. That Seinfeld’s audience to some degree exemplifies Frith’s notion of discrimination as subcultural identity can be evidenced by the many books, articles, and websites that ask fans to test their knowledge of the show.13 Furthermore, Seinfeld was able to offer a sense of distinction to “millions” because television, perhaps more than other forms of American pop culture—even film— most deserves the label “cultural industry,” in that so many people view its so commonly conventional and commercial productions. But how, then, can we account for such a simultaneously unconventional and popular program as Seinfeld? A look back at Seinfeld’s emergence before it became immensely popular will suggest some answers. Bourdieu can help us here by providing a good explanatory model for the distinction between the “short production cycle” of popular “low-brow” culture and the “long production cycle” of modernist art works—Samuel Beckett’s Molloy, for instance—that report losses in the first few years of their publication, but occasionally become in the long run “modern classics” (usually along with all previous productions by that author) selling moderately but steadily into the future. Likewise, only when viewed superficially and retrospectively can Seinfeld be considered a commercial success. The show actively resisted popularity: it even openly invited network disapprobation in its flagrant contempt for the firmly entrenched sitcom conventions so revered by network executives as indicators of commercial success. Creator Larry David, for example, flouted one such convention by adamantly rejecting the expected romannew literary history tic relationship between Jerry and Elaine. Likewise, his attitude toward the attempt to increase the popularity of the show by improving its time slot (a vital element for success in television) exemplifies the characteristically modernist anxiety towards popularity. When told by executives that the show was moving from a rather inconspicuous spot on Wednesday to a much-sought Thursday night spot following Cheers, he responded, “If they weren’t watching on Wednesday night, I don’t want them watching on Thursday!” Seinfeld, then, follows the pattern of initial failure and ultimate success characteristic of the economic narrative of the “modern classic,” even as the episodes themselves echo masterworks of modern drama: Luigi Pirandello in the metadrama of “The Pitch,” the futility of Beckett in “The Chinese Restaurant” and “The Parking Space,” and Harold Pinter’s reverse chronology narrative in “The Betrayal.”14 In addition to, and perhaps more significantly than, sharing the “long production cycle” with modernists such as Flaubert, Seinfeld has in common with them historical processes and specific mechanisms of taste formation that create hierarchies within specific genres that derive their existence from “industrial” attempts to stabilize generic attributes for marketing purposes. According to Bourdieu, certain producers can permanently transform a discrete generic field by taking advantage of opportunities available to them at specific historical junctures. And this is precisely where Bourdieu’s theories of generic and cultural change will prove most effective and where a comparison of a commercially successful TV series like Seinfeld and the commercial failure, but eventual artistic success, of Flaubert’s project might shed light on the internal dynamics of cultural production in advanced capitalist societies.
But to find universal characteristics of generic change, each genre needs to be rigorously historicized. As Jason Mittel has pointed out, cultural studies scholars “cannot simply superimpose genre definitions from film or literature onto television,” but should instead take into account the “particular attributes of the medium.”15 Flaubert was writing when the novel itself was as much a commercial genre as the sitcom is today, arising from a heterogeneous mix of existing popular and traditional forms and genres.16 By the time Flaubert was writing, different strands and subgenres developed, varying widely within national contexts, but even more so across national traditions. Bourdieu explains that as “Flaubert undertook to write Madame Bovary or Sentimental Education, he situated himself actively within the space of possibilities offered by the field...
. In choosing to write these novels, Flaubert risked the inferior status associated with a minor genre. Above all, he condemned himself to take a place within a space that was already staked out with the names of authors, names of sub-genres (the historical novel, the serial, and so on) and names of movements or schools (realism).”17 Flaubert’s ability taking seriously seinfeld to transform the French novel was then partially determined by the received forms and genres against which he situated himself. Bourdieu, in outlining the “relational” nature of the literary field, writes that “every position, even the dominant one, depends for its very existence, and for the determinations it imposes on its occupants, on the other positions constituting the field.” Furthermore, each position in the field “receives its distinctive value from its negative relationship with the co-existent position-takings to which it is objectively related and which determine it by delimiting it.”18 In any medium, this relational model of aesthetic value reveals the mechanism of negation that creates the distinction between high and low in media-bound genres.