Joe Alterio's blog on illustration, comix, design, animation, and other bouts of total awesomeness.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

We're all so damn smart

I was sitting in Dolores Park yesterday, on an absolutely perfect day, eating crackers and talking about The Simpsons with Molly. A more perfect way to spend my Saturday, I can't imagine.

We were discussing The Simpsons, abstractly because of the movie (a lukewarm affair), but more specifically because of my friend Annalee Newitz's post about why she hates The Simpsons. Annalee, if you ever picked up a copy of Wired, or happen to have ever been on the internet, is everywhere, and an especially deft commentator on our times and technology. Having said that, I realize my little rebuttle won't get much traction, but I'd feel deficit if I didn't at least give it shot.

Firstly, don't get me wrong: I don't think NewsCorp needs my help, nor is one of Murdoch's most profitable babies above reproach. I'm under no illusion about The Simpsons® brand laughter generating product. Long ago it forfeited any claim to cultural cool, or to subversive appeal. It is now as formulaic as Spacely Sprockets, ring the bell, watch Homer's pants fall down, laugh. Repeat. Rake in money.

But it wasn't always that way, and I think it has to a lot to do with the environment it was forged in.

Remember Pulp Fiction, and that how at the time it seemed so fresh, and it now seems so...Nineties? There's a particular element to The Nineties Cache that demands nothing more than the aggregation and coopting of different cultures and obscure references: whether Tarantino films or Beavis and Butthead, our post-glasnost sense of worldliness manifested itself in the urbane set as a knowingness of all cultures everywhere. The real Cold War was replaced with the cultural Cold War: you just got some Japanese food specific to Hokkaido? Well, we're going to see some Icelandic opera. Pulp Fiction was so groundbreaking because it was, when inspected, nothing more than just an aggregation: Hong Kong action cinema, 1940's noir, Eastern Europe pulp films. The media of the time embraced all that, and I hold that no institution did it, and enshrined it, better than The Simpsons. At it's best, The Simpsons references come so fast and furious that it takes a cultural swami to keep up.

The thing is, that stuff is not just Ninties: I hold that it's just about we have these days. For all it's shiny new hip and coolness, BoingBoing is endgame of that: it's nothing but links to other cool things. There is no creation on Boing Boing. Many posts are even just repeating the text of email tip sent by the tipper directly on the page. To that end, Boing Boing and The Simpsons share a very real commonality: the collection of cool, the currency of hipness, with the more obscure making the higher value denomination.

My thesis stands thusly: Post WW2, the cultural cache belonged to belonging; the status quo was the only route into society. Then, the maturation of the baby-boomers brought about a similar cache for status quo, but one in direct opposite
We are in the Age of Recognition: humor, insight, intelligence, artistic creation, all of it has the highest value when it makes an oblique reference to something else.

In this light, I can't see The Simpsons as anything less than one of the ancesteors of everything we hold up to cool throne these days. So I gotta give it it's props. The humor is old, the drawings are stale, and backgrounds have always been awful: but every time I laugh at Colbert or visit Digg, I'm paying respect. You gotta pay respect. D'oh on, brothers and sisters.

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