"'The social function of Art', as Adorno will echo, 'is to not have one.' Egalitarian promise is enclosed in the work's self-sufficiency, in its indifference to every particular political project and in its refusal to get involved in decorating the mundane world. It is owing to this indifference that, in the middle of the nineteenth century, that work about nothing, that 'work supported on itself' written by the aesthete Flaubert, was straightaway perceived by the contemporary advocates of the hierarchical order as a manifestation of 'democracy'. The work that desires nothing, the work without any point of view, which conveys no message and has no care either for democracy or for anti-democracy, this work is 'egalitarian' by dint of its very indifference, by which it suspends all preference, all hierarchy." (p. 40)
A few days later, while indulging in a nightly habit of watching Seinfeld reruns on TV before bed, I saw the episode that encapsulates the entire concept of the show. Any fan of the series will remember this scene:
A lot has been made about Seinfeld as "the show about nothing." In books like Seinfeld and Philosophy, for example, "nothingness" is connected to vast questions about existence itself. After the reading the passage I mentioned, though, I started to wonder if the "nothingness" of the show had more to do with creativity and aesthetics than "the philosophy of Being."
If you think that's a reach, check out this scene, which appears after George and Jerry have made their pitch to studio executives about a "show on nothing." Jerry is scolding George for his refusal to compromise:
There's no mention of philosophy in this clip, but there's lots about George's "artistic integrity." Jerry, who is this case serves as the voice of the commercial world, even offers the stereotypical mainstream media response to artistic ambition: "you must be crazy."
As the show develops over its seasons, this "art about nothing" shares something else with other types of "crazy" art: it begins to seem almost anti-social. Much of the humor in Seinfeld derives from the apparent indifference the characters exhibit to social proprieties. As a running gag, George and Jerry in particular stumble over ethnic, sexual and religious slurs of all varieties.
In fact, almost any "serious" matter is refused attention in favor of what the show celebrates: the minutiae (or nothingness) of everyday life. Jobs, politics, even death -- all become victims of the show's endless distractions. And this is democratic. Who, after all, can't relate to trivia?
But, does refusing to deal with "the big questions" enable the show to become entirely devoted to its own "free play" and wit? Not exactly.
Why Does the Seinfeld Crew End Up in Jail?
Watching Seinfeld reruns this time around, I was struck by how the characters get progressively nastier. Rather than just clueless, they almost begin to seem, well, bad. Think of the way Susan's death (George's fiance) is greeted with glee by George himself, and a characteristic ho-hum by the Seinfeld posse. Then, of course, in the last episode the gang ends up in the clink for laughing at someone who's getting mugged.
Does their incarceration mean that the show developed a guilty conscience? Perhaps. But, returning to Seinfeld as an allegory about aesthetics enables another reading.
Ranciere tells us that, in addition to the "art-for-art's-sake" impulse, the other pole of aesthetics is what he calls "engaged art". This is art that confronts social reality (rather than turning its back on it), and seeks to intervene directly (often by "bearing witness" to injustice). Ranciere theorizes that the battle of these two impulses is what gives modern aesthetics its dynamism.
You can read the last few episodes of Seinfeld as re-enacting this battle. One side insists that art, even TV comedy, must exhibit a social conscience. The other side resists, knowing that adopting an engaged stance will kill the show's humor. The mock judgement against the show at the end is as much aesthetic as it is moral. It says: art like this is flawed: reform.
Characteristically, even in jail Jerry and crew are unable to take this verdict at all seriously.