Having purchased the hulking big mega-box set of Seinfeld off the Insta-Amazon-shopping list at Christmastime, and having recently produced a video that mentions Nietzsche, I’ve been re-reading wide swatches of Thomas Hibbs’ brilliant 1999 book, Shows About Nothing. As you might have ascertained from his title, Hibbs places the long-running Seinfeld TV series within the context of the nihilism that has pervaded Hollywood since at least the late 1980s, and arguably going back to much earlier, when the New Left took out the Old Moguls who founded the industry.
This passage from Hibbs on “the Pyrrhic victory of radical individualism” seemed telling:
Instead of the nihilistic era eliminating rules, initiating a lapse into a kind of anarchy, there is a medley of rules with no clear relationship to one another. There is something capricious and comical in the continuing hold that rules have on us; they operate like taboos, making little or no sense but nonetheless exercising an irresistible psychological pressure. Seinfeld’s insight into the odd ways rules now function in our lives is a remarkable bit of comic genius. Nothing illustrates better the Pyrrhic victory of radical individualism. We have successfully thrown off the encumbrances of authority and tradition only to find ourselves subject to new, more devious, and more intractable forms of tyranny. Classical liberalism thought that the most just form of government was one that recognized the natural and inalienable rights of human beings to self-determination. There was a kind of naïve faith in the ability of untutored individuals to choose for the best, to act on the basis of their long-term interests. The belief was that the only rules to emerge from such a system would be rules reasonably consented to by a reflective majority or by their duly elected representatives. But the advent of democratic nihilism renders dubious the assumption of a link between autonomous individual choice and reason, between the fleeting desires of the self and the self’s long-term interests.
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Each character on Seinfeld has his or her individual limits, but these are not moral limits; they are more like the limits of one’s personality or lifestyle. This is most pointedly illustrated in the episode where Jerry and George are suspected of being gay. They spend the entire episode vociferously denying the accusation and vigorously defending their heterosexuality. Yet after each denial, they feel compelled to add, “not that there’s anything wrong with that.” Like other conventions once thought to reflect a natural order, heterosexuality has become an inexplicable remnant from the past. Instead of the body as ensouled, as the locus for the reception and expression of meaning and intimacy, the body is now a neutral and mute collection of organs and parts. The parts can be manipulated to produce pleasure. In one episode, Elaine attributes her failure to persuade a homosexual to change “teams” to her limited access to the male “equipment.” When George’s mother surprises him and interrupts his self-stimulation, she objects to his treating his body like an “amusement park.” The fixation on the body does not unveil any deeper significance; it blinds the characters to the complementarity of the sexes. Seinfeld matter-of-factly confirms Renton’s revolutionary prophecy [in 1996’s Trainspotting] that we’re heterosexual by default, that in one thousand years there will be no men and no women: “It’s all about aesthetics and f—k all to do with morality.”
And 21st century morality really is all about aesthetics at this point, isn’t it?