I have not been a regular viewer of a TV series since I watched I Love Lucy and The Honeymooners as a little boy, but I will admit to being something of a fan of Seinfeld. Although this year’s episodes give clear evidence of decline (of which below), the show has operated throughout its existence on a level unmatched by other supposedly sophisticated sitcoms, including the to my mind vastly overrated Frasier.
Seinfeld has just two axioms (dixit co-creator Larry David): no hugs and no growth–an absence of either synchronic or diachronic sentimentality. Sentimentality is the creation of unanimity through “sentiment” or desire. This unanimity derives, as we know from Girard, from that of the sacrificers before the victim. But what we call the “sentimental” in Judeo-Christian society appears insidiously in the guise of the unanimous defense of the victim. The sentimental calls us together to commune in a virtual utopia in which violence is simply unthinkable, and those who practice it, essentially inhuman. The sentimental indignantly expels violence, forgetting that human violence is really nothing more than this expulsion.
Popular culture, in contrast to high culture, is unencumbered with scruples concerning the sacrificial and its variant, the sentimental. To be “popular” is to be of the people, the mass, to espouse its collective wisdom and prejudice, not to identify with the sufferings of the unique center. High culture prepares the “elite” to assume responsibility for the sacrificial totality; popular culture refuses this responsibility on the ground that the “people” in hierarchical societies are not responsible for what takes place at the center and share little if at all in its benefits.
Our higher education was and still is dominated by the high culture of early modern Europe, with its great creators imitating and in some cases surpassing high culture’s classical models. Politics aside, it is difficult to deny the superiority of these cultural forms as models for our own acculturation. Even as we denounce “elitism,” we recognize the need to raise the general public to the responsibility of the elite rather than to lower the high to the vulgarity of the mass.
But in the postmodern era following World War II–a time that is “postwar” in the global sense that, whatever its local conflicts, the world can no longer tolerate full-scale war–the balance of authenticity between popular and high culture has shifted. This is not a mere artifact of technology or the “media”: on the contrary, the media evolve in response to ethical developments. Today the high arts–painting, sculpture, concert music, opera, poetry and the like–are increasingly dependent on popular models for their renewal. There is more human truth and, indeed, more intellectual sophistication in an episode of Seinfeld than in most collections of contemporary poems. Between the high and the popular arts it is surely the latter, which offer not only fame and fortune but the possibility of real cultural impact, that today attract the greater talents.
The central preoccupation of culture since the end of the archaic empires has been the deferral of “sentimental” unanimity. This would explain the centrality of high culture from the Greeks to our own time in weaning us from sacrificial sentimentality. But if the unanimity of the sacrificial crowd is the essence of popular culture, how can popular culture come to be our main source of cultural enlightenment? The answer lies in the historicity of all cultural categories. There is no eternal Idea of “popular culture” any more than there is an immutable set of social castes. With the spread of high-cultural sophistication to broad segments of the population, the “popular” spirit that sees itself as cut off from the center and the “elite” spirit that would take responsibility for its sufferings become increasingly permeable to each other, and the “middlebrow” world of television becomes their melting-pot.
Seinfeld is exemplary of this shift in relative authenticity between high and popular culture. No recent work of high culture has been nearly so effective at combating the sentimentality of the popular. As David Marc‘s fascinating studies Demographic Vistas and Comic Visions reveal, television is a very self-aware medium, and much successful television comedy is a pastiche (e.g.,Saturday Night Live) of “conventional”–read sentimental–television fare like soap operas and newscasts. (What could be more sentimental than the lugubrious tone of a newscaster announcing a disaster?) Seinfeld contains frequent spoofs of other TV series as well as movies. Its strength, however, lies not in parody but in the construction of a maximally unsentimental world.
Whether or not Seinfeld and David were aware, in creating their “series about nothing,” of Flaubert’s expressed desire to write “a novel about nothing,” in their success they have become Flaubert’s true successors. The novel/sitcom about nothing refuses to represent a center of interest; the stage, the formal center of attention, is a representational artifact, a seemingly inexplicable holdover from the days of ritual. The high-cultural equivalent of Seinfeld is the devaluation of dramatic time as a time of awaiting in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. But Beckett’s black comedy situates itself at the historical endpoint of the Western theatrical tradition. The stage on which the founding event is supposed to occur becomes an ironic locus of awaiting; this is the pastiche of a dying form. Hence Beckett’s “unsentimental” discourse cannot avoid being resentimentalized as an elegy for the theater. Beckett’s plays after Godot deal explicitly with this phenomenon:Endgame is an open deconstruction of Tragedy and Happy Days converts the stage into something very like a place of ritual sacrifice.
Seinfeld, on the other hand, is unapocalyptic, even in relation to its genre; it makes no pretension of being “the last sitcom,” and it will surely not be. In contrast with the soap opera, with its ever-evolving cast of characters, the sitcom is a serial genre in which no real change takes place from week to week; the characters’ hopes and fears of dramatic change for better or worse are never realized. Stability is itself a value to be sentimentally celebrated, as the I Love Lucy genre always did. But Seinfeld eschews any sign of return to order; there is no well-defined order to return to. It is significant that although the action nearly always starts in Seinfeld’s apartment, the foursome virtually never find themselves there at the end.
The characters, as in the popular-sentimental tradition, inhabit a banal representation of a banal universe. But Seinfeld is the one situation comedy whose “situation” has dissolved all ties with the sentimental constitution of time by the institutions that preserve the social order, notably the family. A show such as Married With Children is unsentimental in its dialogues and story-lines, but the mere copresence of parents and children creates a configuration that gives meaning to time, and therefore implicitly consents to participate in the unanimous “yes” of the community. (The Simpsons, more ostensibly sentimental, is a more acute pastiche of the genre.)
In Seinfeld, the only significant parent-child relationship, that of George Costanza, is pointedly de-Oedipalized. George’s parents do nothing so violent as to disown him; they are simply indifferent to him, and to his prolongation of their genetic heritage. If we were to risk extending this observation to a “psychoanalysis” of the series as a whole, we would conclude that the characters’ lives mean “nothing” because their parents have not invested their own desire in their upbringing. In a world where parents are more concerned with their retirement leisure than with their children’s success, human interaction becomes a chaotic struggle for momentary recognition, a permanent cold war of all against all.
Although its characters live in the liberal milieu of New York‘s semi-intelligentsia–people like these have begun to dream of voting Republican only since Mayor Giuliani has cut the crime rate–the series treats PC as just another form of sentimentality. Even the most apparently virtuous collective causes are deconstructed into the product of resentful motives. When George finds himself obliged to play the role of neo-Nazi leader O’Brien, the only crowd violence we see on screen isn’t that of the latter’s followers but of the mob of liberal protesters. When Elaine takes a pregnant fortune teller to task for smoking (thereby preventing George from learning whether he should take a vacation trip), the satiric point isn’t that smoking during pregnancy is really OK but that, in the circumstances, Elaine’s remarks reflect not genuine human love but a resentful sense of superiority to the benighted–who just happen to belong to a lower social class. In an equal-opportunity putdown that may be television’s most daring antiracist gesture ever, the series has even shown a Black man boring Elaine with endless talk about George Washington Carver and the peanut.
Seinfeld‘s creators have a gut understanding of mimetic desire. Where Kramer is mimetic in blissful serenity, George is an heir to Dostoevsky’s Underground Man who becomes incapable of having sex with his girlfriend because he’s obsessed by another woman who treated him with contempt. The psychological base of Seinfeld’s deconstruction of sentimentality is that these characters are selfish not out of a sense of self, but from the lack of it.
The relationship of the four principals is entirely voluntary, unconnected with even the loose notion of an institutional center such as the bar in Cheers. Their stability, a formal necessity of the series, remains enigmatic on the plane of content, where the little community subsists on a ground of mutual betrayal. The frequent references to a common past are inevitably recriminations rather than reminiscences. Yet because the foursome must stay together, their unity becomes the object of our desire. The less sentimental their relations, the more we value their conjunctionquand même as a sign of what can only be, in the absence of any other explanation, the purest, most disinterested love. This implicit love is the secret and the charm of the show’s cynicism; it remains transcendental because it can never be articulated or thematized in any way.
Seinfeld has gone on for nine years. Although, on the lesser scale of the comic strip, serial stability can be maintained for decades and even for generations, this is not possible in a major creative endeavor. The end of Seinfeld is inherent in its project of deferral. Its lack of sentimentality is a means of deferring the creation of a sacrificial community. But sentimentality is not something one can simply eliminate. It is inherent in the formation of the community; it can be deferred, but it cannot be destroyed without destroying the cultural function of the work, which is after all to bring us together. However hard-headed its understanding of mimetic desire, the end of Seinfeld as of every other cultural phenomenon is the generation of love out of the transcendence of resentment. Its strength lies in its refusal to represent the love that it must generate. This attention to what I have called esthetic paradox was formerly the privilege of the high culture. The genius of Seinfeld is to have understood that, when wholly unmotivated by extraneous, i.e., institutional factors, the discontinuously stable community inherent in the sitcom format can itself become a model of this paradox. Seinfeld is the sitcom about nothing because it is the sitcom whose form, unmotivated by content, is at every moment a transcendental gift.
But, however unmotivated the community of its protagonists, the series’ very popularity fatally creates a motivated community among its spectators. Reading the recent articles on the series’ demise in Time and Newsweek, I was struck by the references to “named” episodes such as “The Rye” or “The Chinese Restaurant”–as though the world of Seinfeld watchers has found communion in a set of universally admitted preferences. The reader will excuse me if I find this less than appealing. The pleasure of Seinfeld is an individual experience to be shared with one’s special friends. Here is the one TV show that stands above the rest, that you and I, with our sophisticated esthetic tastes, may enjoy. Once this enjoyment has become just another of the banal unanimities that Time transmits weekly to its readers, it is indeed time for the show to leave the air.
This year’s episodes, having thrown off the restraint that formerly characterized the series, seem to be burning the bridges of plausibility that held the characters and their world together. But the real sense of this outlandishness is just the opposite. The resort to slapstick and the wild improbabilities of a paranoid world view reflect an unprecedented need to share the quiet desperation of the series’ protagonists with the outside world. (The recent “Thelma and Louise” scene between Kramer and a car salesman is a case in point.) This sharing reflects, within the series, the series’ own popularity. As the world has increasingly come to commune in the non-communing community of Seinfeld, Seinfeld itself cannot but increasingly mirror this contamination. How can Seinfeld continue to avoid sentimentality in a world that sentimentalizes over Seinfeld? The world of the nineties that the show depicts has become a world for which that very show has become the central cultural experience. This is too much for popular culture to absorb, too much even for the series’ considerable resources of self-reflectivity. Seinfeld has reached its end, and must come to an end.