January 25, 2005

You Could Play With Your Magic Nose Goblins

If there’s one thing I hate trying to do in a classroom, or in a scholarly work, it’s defining the word “culture”. (Defining “postmodernism” is a close second.) It’s an essential word, but it means so many things in so many contexts. There’s culture as in expressive or artistic practice, there’s culture as in the sum total of the everyday practices and rituals of a particular society, there’s culture in the sense of high art (“cultured”), there’s culture in the old Tylorian sense of a single animating ur-concept or idea that defines the particularity of a given “people” and can be found disseminated throughout all of their expressive or everyday life practices. And much more. Not to mention being something you do with bacteria and Petri dishes.

So “cultural history” is hard to define as well because of collateral damage from its source term. Loosely speaking, I think there are really two very different kinds of cultural history. The one is a variant or commentary on social history as it was practiced in the 1970s and 1980s: basically taking the foundational methodologies, interests and content of social history and adding in narrative, whimsy, individual or idiosyncratic experience, expressive art, and so on. Sometimes that shift is undertaken by cultural historians in a very methodologically pointed manner: Carlo Ginzberg’s microhistories. Sometimes it’s a very modest freshening up of the room: social history with a few novels and entertaining stories tossed in. Sometimes there are very satisfying, thoroughly worked-out hybrid approaches, as in Alan Taylor’s William Cooper’s Town, which I don’t think you can really characterize cleanly as social history or cultural history.

The second kind of cultural history is done by historians, cultural anthropologists, literary critics and by scholars in cultural studies: it’s about tracing the genealogy and influence of a particular text, artist, performance style, musical form, genre. I personally find this kind of work unsatisfying many times, partly because it often draws its boundaries too narrowly to make the kinds of claims it would like to make.

I want to illustrate this a bit by talking about the 1991 cartoon series Ren and Stimpy, which I’ve been watching on DVD. Doing cultural history of a single work is much harder than it looks. You could just start by trying to understand the series in its own terms, as it changed over time. Just from viewing, if you didn’t know anything else, you’d probably pick up some shifts in tone and content near the end of the three-disc set. Doing a bit of research, you’d find that the later episodes were made after a bit of a production gap, and after the series achieved its first wave of fame as a cult hit. Then you might discover some material about internal conflicts between Nickelodeon’s management and John Kricfalusi, the central creative figure behind the series.

Before going back to view these episodes, I knew quite a lot about those conflicts, partially based on some conversations my brother and co-author Kevin Burke had with Kricfalusi while we were working on Saturday Morning Fever. Viewing the episodes again myself, though, I personally thought that had I been a Nickelodeon executive, I too might have tried to pull the plug—the later Kricfalusi episodes appear increasingly self-indulgent and miss the delicate balance of elements that makes an early episode like “Space Madness” so perfect. (Though the late episode “Stimpy’s First Fart”, which was sort of the last straw for Nickelodeon, is one of the best.) So actually viewing the material tends to make one think twice about the authority of Kricfalusi's bitter account of Nickelodeon's neutering of the program, because the later episodes that Kricfalusi and his most ardent fans (including my brother) tend to champion actually kind of suck. They don't suck anywhere near as much as the episodes that were produced after the show was taken away from Kricfalusi, of course, and that's also worth remembering. When Nickelodeon had control over the series, the shows got stupidly offensive and rigorously unfunny.

So there’s an interior history where you can relate the actual texts to each other, and then relate those to an immediate history of their production and comment on them as you see fit. Then you can go back from there. There are immediate precursors: Kricfalusi’s work on the 1987 version of Mighty Mouse was a direct warm-up for Ren and Stimpy. That in turn has to be understood as a reaction to the programming of the early 1980s, both directly (in that Kricfalusi has said that he was trying to cleanse himself for having worked on low-quality kidvid) and indirectly, in that the bottoming out of the kidvid market in the mid-1980s and the growthy of cable created an opportunity for new kinds of cartooning on television.

But you can’t stop there. Ren and Stimpy in its best episodes is funny because it riffs both on specific cartoon sources and because it offers a brilliantly ironic, visually hyperkinetic, compact reconfiguration of a whole range of cartoon tropes, particularly the Warner Brothers cartoons and the series Tom and Jerry. Cat/dog pairings, buddy pairings, chase-and-mayhem antics, and so on. The episode “Space Madness” isn’t half as funny if you haven’t seen “Duck Dodgers in the 24th 1⁄2 Century”.
Carry it forward. Ren and Stimpy looks like a revolution in the history of cartoons on American television. Afterwards, everything looked different. Virtually every original program produced by the Cartoon Network, with the exception of the material that derives from the equally influential Warner Brothers’ Batman series, has Ren and Stimpy’s fingerprints all over it. It’s impossible to imagine Sponge-Bob Squarepants without Ren and Stimpy.

It’s not just the visuals or the narrative style. It’s the subject matter: gross-out humor, for example, had a completely different place in television cartoons afterwards. And yet, gross-out humor is a good example of where the job of this kind of cultural history tends to get extremely difficult, and why it can’t just be limited to a sort of pure lineage of cultural texts (this show leads to that show leads to that show). Once you start to think about the wider context, you notice that Ren and Stimpy, original as it was, nevertheless was also a product of its times. Its ironic, postmodern hipster position on its cultural roots was a pose broadly adopted throughout early 1990s popular culture. Scatological humor and humorous pairings of “dumb and dumber” characters were burgeoning at that time.

Trying to figure out where works of culture represent interventions into the wider world around them, where they reshape culture in their own image, and when works of culture are expressions of something moving in the unseen depths below, is an always-unresolved but always-essential analytic problem for any historical treatment of culture. Things get unmanageably complicated very quickly at this stage, but they almost have to be allowed to do so. One of the problems I have with older and more conventional styles of literary history or intellectual history is that they make “intertextuality”, the relationship between discrete works, into such a neat and tidy affair. This book influences that book, this author influences that author. It really is not and can never be so.

At its most abstract and ambitious, the history of cultural works begins not just to probe the impossibly complicated weave of creativity and consumption, but also something still more intricate and sometimes even more compelling. I’m often struck, like my graduate advisor David William Cohen, by the expansive generality of things that almost everyone knows about the past. We rarely can identify how we know things, because our knowledge is dispersed in small fragments across the wide span of our cultural world. It’s almost like public memory is a massively long cipher encoded into television, movies, toys, games, and so on. Every text has one small key to the total message.

Think about the ways that agrarian modes of life in 19th Century and early 20th Century United States reproduce themselves today. Half of my daughter’s puzzles and so on have barns, chickens, cows and so on, things which she’s only seen directly when we’ve gone out to a local heritage site that re-enacts a colonial-era farm and when she’s gone to the zoo. We sing “Old McDonald”. We watch Porky Pig cartoons where he’s an iconic farmer. And so on.

Every single image or trope in a cartoon like Ren and Stimpy has a narrow cultural history—you can trace it back through the direct linear ancestors of the program. But it also has a wider history of horizontal linkage to the expressive culture and social mores of its moment and to the pervasive cultural unconscious it inherits. When Stimpy wins a contest for Gritty Kitty Kitty Litter, there’s the specific history of Bugs and Daffy sparring over a somewhat similar contest to think of, but also the entire history of television game shows, the history of the Hollywood celebrity system and its mythography of “discovered” stars, and so on. If you’re a ten-year old watching the show in 1991, you probably don’t know any of that, any more than I knew as a six-year old that Underdog was based on Superman. But it’s all there nevertheless, and forms the leaping synapses of our collective cultural mind.

My friend Carolyn Hamilton wrote a book that I really admire called Terrific Majesty. Its particular subject matter is the cultural history of the Zulu ruler Shaka. One of the things Hamilton does that I find immensely useful, that takes her one step beyond the usual “invention of tradition” idea that sometimes hobbles treatments of historical memory and cultural representation, is that she insists that the “real” history of Shaka is encoded into all subsequent representations of him, and limits the things that can be said and known about him later. She doesn’t mean to suggest that we can ever peel away all the accumulating layers of later portrayals of Shaka to get at the unvarnished reality of the past. You not only can’t do that, but in her reading, shouldn’t want to. But the point is that the mighty tree grew from an acorn. The complexity of public memory grows from the simplicity of singular events and interventions. The culture we know and appreciate and consume today is not an arbitrary or instrumental reinvention of the world as it once was. It is constrained by the past, and in turn constrains the future.

This is pretty high-faluting language for a show that traffics in booger jokes, but it seems to me that the problems and possibilities of cultural history are the same whether you’re talking about Picasso or Picard, Renoir or Ren. Evolutionary biologists are now keenly aware of the folly of trying to represent evolution as a simple chart of linear descent. Properly speaking, it is a densely bushy affair of interweaving relationships, and that’s just if you confine yourself to relations over time between the exterior morphology of particular organisms. If you really want to understand it, you have to understand the interior genetic relationships between organisms, the environmental histories surrounding biological change over time, the ecological relationships between organisms over time, other factors that influence genetic change, and so on. Cultural history, ambitiously conceived, presents the same daunting challenge. You can never be satisfied with just saying that a show like Ren and Stimpy came from Mighty Mouse and gave birth to Sponge Bob, true as that might be.