Discourse Stu Likes Discourse Theory
An analysis of meaning in The Simpsons as it relates to democracyBy Michael Frost
Lisa Simpson: Oooh, a political discussion at our table. I feel like a Kennedy. (Simon & Swarzwelder, 1990)
This thesis argues that the study of meaning in cultural theory is relevant to political science. This comes from the relationship between cultural theory and the agency/structure debate in political science. It is also evident in that meaning is the subject of political action in democratic politics and international relations. Examples of this can be found in contests over identity in democratic politics and in critiques of the 'rationalism' of international relations theory (Nash, 2000: pp. 100-155). This thesis also argues that meaning is indeterminate in that there is no authoritative way by which it can be interpreted, hence it is open to contest. This is demonstrated in an analysis of The Simpsons as it relates to democracy.
Meaning is a concept used in cultural theory to denote the message conveyed by a text, custom, or other symbolic practice. This concept is related to agency and structure in political science in that the literature addressing it examines the degree to which it is either constitutive or reflective of individuals. The main issue here is that meaning must be understood as both constitutive and reflective of individuals (van Dijk, 1985: passim), in the same way that agency and structure exist in a mutually interdependent and dynamic relationship (Hay, 1995: pp. 197-199). Chapter One expands these arguments and presents cultural theory as addressing both the interpretation of and effects of meaning.
Theories of meaning can be placed into two broad categories based on the importance given the material, or economic, organisation of society: materialist and antimaterialist. In materialist theories, this is considered of primary importance, whereas antimaterialist theories see it as but one of a number of factors in understanding meaning and its effects. Chapter Two presents an analysis of "A Streetcar Named Marge" (Martin, 1992), an episode of The Simpsons, to demonstrate the two main approaches to the study of meaning. The materialist approaches are exemplified by the theories of Gramsci, Adorno, Hall and Williams. Foucault, Lyotard, Fairclough, and Lee and Poynton are exemplary of the antimaterialist approaches to meaning. This thesis adopts the antimaterialist approach of 'postlinguistics', combining the theories of poststructuralism and linguistics, because of its flexibility in application to various purposes. In this respect, 'postlinguistics' is more appropriate to the study of meaning within political science than the materialist approaches considered.
The Simpsons is chosen for analysis because it is popular and ambivalent with a political 'edge'. It has demonstrated a broad appeal in its distribution across many countries and in its lasting over a decade to date, making it a significant object of analysis. It is ambivalent in its content, appealing to both adults and children, to the 'highbrow' and the 'lowbrow', as such, it is an appropriate test of the interpretative effectiveness of the approaches considered in this thesis because it can be expected to have several meanings. The Simpsons has also engaged with the political world in which it is situated, giving it a political 'edge' which makes it a relevant study of meaning in political science. Democracy is chosen as the focus for this analysis to provide another point of engagement with politics. The aim here is to provide a political frame of reference to this analysis, but one to which the study of meaning is particularly relevant. These arguments are expanded at Chapter Three, including justification of the episodes selected for analysis.
Chapter Four is an analysis of "Much Apu About Nothing" (Cohen, 1996), an episode of The Simpsons. The postlinguistic methodology of this analysis is drawn from the poststructuralist and linguistic theories of meaning presented at Chapter Two. This involves performing textual analysis within the context of a wider social discourse. In this case, the episode's narrative, characters, and intertextual references are examined for the presence of either the message that democracy is populist, or the message that democracy is popular. This approach is not aimed at finding a definitive meaning of "Much Apu About Nothing," nor is it aimed at learning about democracy from the episode. This approach is aimed at examining possible meanings of "Much Apu About Nothing" and the ways these can be found. Most importantly this approach highlights the ambiguity, or indeterminacy, of meaning and its reasons. In short, this is the result of the lack of an authoritative determinant of meaning.
In summary, this thesis examines meaning in cultural theory in a manner which relates it to agency and structure making it relevant to political science as an influence on political actors. However, meaning is shown, through an analysis of "Much Apu About Nothing," as indeterminate and therefore contestable. This makes it both a realm of political action, and an object of analysis requiring particular, or contextualised, analysis, rather than analysis using general principles.
CHAPTER ONE: Meaning and the agency/structure debate
Homer Simpson: Oh Marge, cartoons don't have any deep meaning, they're just stupid drawings that give you a cheap laugh. (Meyer, 1991: emphasis added).
Meaning is the central concept of this thesis. This chapter uses Saussure's theory of the sign as a means of conceptualising meaning as the message communicated by a text. A text, in this context, is any cultural artefact, such as a book, film, advertisement, or a television programme such as The Simpsons. Saussure's theory is also useful in understanding the problem which theories of meaning address, and the relationship of this to political science through agency and structure.. This is not an original enterprise, meaning has long been related to the concepts of agency and structure. Rather this thesis relies for its originality on the object of its analysis. This chapter lays the groundwork for this thesis, providing an explanation of the problems addressed by cultural theory and the way they relate to politics.
1.1 Saussure's theory of the sign
For Saussure the sign is the fundamental unit of language. It is the combination of two elements which are linked in the mind: the signifier and the signified (Saussure, 2000: pp. 25-27). The signifier is the sound element of a sign, the signified is the idea it expresses. Each must be present as the sound without the idea means nothing, and the idea without the sound is inexpressible (Saussure, 2000: pp. 25-27). Essentially, the sign in language is the word. This understanding of linguistics has been expanded to a general understanding of the study of signs (semiotics), which informs much of cultural theory (Gottdiener, 1995: pp. 3-6; Storey, 1996: p. 20).
Culture can be juxtaposed to Saussure's theory if the sign is understood to be the custom or the text, referring to two different conceptions of culture respectively, the anthropological and the aesthetic. The anthropological notion is that it is "... a 'whole way of life', the entire mental and material habitat of a distinct people or other social group" (Burns, 1995: p. 1). Culture is the way 'we' live 'our' lives, that is, custom. The aesthetic focus is narrower, viewing culture as "coterminous with the arts" (Burns, 1995: p. 1). In this sense, it is the concatenation of artefacts (that is, texts) that are 'our' representations and interpretations of the world 'we' live in and how 'we' live in it. Given The Simpsons fits the aesthetic notion of culture, it is with reference to this that the thesis proceeds. However, the two notions are used throughout cultural theory so it is necessary to keep both in mind.
So, the text is the sign in cultural theory (Gottdiener, 1995: pp. 3-6). Its sounds or images are the signifier, its meaning the signified. The analysis of meaning then is to seek what is signified by a text, that is, what message it communicates (Gottdiener, 1995: p. 9). Yet it is problematic to simply assert that the aim of cultural theory is to interpret meaning in texts. Rather, these theories address the problem of whether meaning can be interpreted from texts, and if so, how. This problem can be extrapolated using Saussure's conception of the immutability and mutability of the sign. This also highlights the relationship of the interpretation of meaning to agency and structure through its effects on the social world.
1.2 The immutability and mutability of the sign
Saussure's conception of the immutability and mutability of the sign (Saussure, 2000: pp. 28-31) is useful in explaining agency and structure in meaning. In essence, the immutability and mutability of the sign indicates that its nature is both unchanging and changing as a result of its use in communication (Saussure, 2000: pp. 28-31). This is because the sign must be unchanging to be comprehensible across a language community, but it changes as it is used. These characteristics of the sign can be theorised as representing structure and agency respectively (Burke, et al., 2000: p. 14). This also applies to cultural texts that must appeal to structure for comprehension, but which change over time.
The unchanging nature of the sign is a product of the structure which makes it comprehensible in communication between two or more individuals (Saussure, 2000: pp. 28-29). To understand this communication, the link between the signifier and signified in the listener's mind must be the same as that in the speaker's mind, otherwise meaning is not communicated. As such, the sign must be the same in both the speaker's and listener's minds and consequently is not subject to change (Saussure, 2000: p. 28). Signs are socially normalised and beyond the control of individuals, that is, they form a structure. Conversely, the changing nature of the sign is a consequence of agency in the communication of meaning. That is, despite being socially normalised signs change over time as they are used by speaking individuals (Saussure, 2000: p. 29). As such, signs, and the meanings they convey, must be structured to be comprehensible, but must also involve agency in their articulation.
Saussure set out this theory of the sign to locate the 'proper' focus for linguistic, or semiotic, analysis in the structure that enables communication. That is, Saussure focuses on the unchanging nature of the sign, dismissing change as the product of time. This gives a structuralist account of meaning in that it is understood as constitutive of individuals. This can be demonstrated by example:
Lisa Simpson: ... but, in a way, isn't he everyone's son. For you see, that little hellraiser is the spawn of every shrieking commercial, every brain-rotting soda-pop, every teacher who cares less about young minds than about cashing their big, fat, paychecks. No, Bart's not to blame. You can't create a monster and then whine when he stomps on a few buildings. (Doyle, 1998)
In this explanation of Bart's destructive behaviour, Lisa locates the blame in the society of which Bart is a product. In this case, the culture that surrounds Bart has made him what he is, where 'shrieking commercials', for example, are the signs that give meaning to the world for Bart. In this way culture is viewed as constitutive of individuals. This is the same kind of reasoning used by Levi-Strauss when he makes the argument that kinship structures give meaning to life in a manner which upholds social order (Levi-Strauss, 1973: pp. 288-311).
This approach is criticised on the basis that it assumes a homogenous understanding of meaning across a given community (Gottdiener, 1995: p. 20; Storey, 1996: pp. 21-22). This means it cannot account for change, because meaning is constitutive of individuals such that they have no agency. Secondly, this means that Saussure's approach to the sign ignores the effects of society on meaning, and of meaning on society (Gottdiener, 1995: p. 19). These problems require a more reflexive understanding of agency and structure in meaning, as set out below (Storey, 1996: pp. 21-22).
1.3 The reflexive nature of meaning
The criticisms of Saussurean linguistics/semiotics outlined above require a more reflexive understanding of agency and structure. By this it is meant that the communication of meaning relies on both concepts and their interaction. In this way, the social world can be understood in the way it affects meaning, and is affected by it. Such an understanding informs the materialist and antimaterialist theories of meaning examined at Chapter Two.
Saussure shows that the ability to convey meaning through culture relies on a structure which makes it comprehensible. This is not contested by the theories considered in this thesis. What is contested is that Saussure's focus on structure ignores its dependence on agency, and as a consequence, ignores the location of culture in a social world which it both affects and is affected by (Nash, 2000: p. 3). If meaning is instead understood as a product of the reflexive interrelationship of agency and structure, theories can be developed which can explain change and dynamism in culture, and its location in a social world, as well as what makes it comprehensible.
This argument brings agency into Saussure's structuralist account of the sign by arguing that the structure which enables communication, relies on agency in that it is perpetuated by speaking individuals (Lee & Poynton, 2000: p. 6). This makes meaning reflexive in that it relies on structure for its communication and on agency for its perpetuation. In this respect cultural theory must focus on both the changing and unchanging nature of the sign. Saussure explained the changing nature of the sign thus: "[t]ime changes all things; there is no reason why language should escape this universal law" (Saussure, 2000: p. 31). This is challenged by the above approach in that it is not time which changes language, or culture, it is its reliance on agency for the continuity of its structure.
These shortcomings in Saussure's understanding of the sign form the basis of two problems addressed by cultural theory. Firstly, the problem of how meaning can be interpreted, and secondly, the problem of the effects of meaning. In short, Saussurean structuralism is undermined leaving the interpretation of meaning and theorisation of its effects uncertain (Storey, 1996: p. 31). In this respect, the theories considered at Chapter Two are judged on the degree to which they address the problems of the interpretation and effects of meaning by understanding the interaction of agency and structure as reflexive.
In summary, the analysis of meaning in culture is about the messages communicated by texts. Such messages rely on a structure to make them comprehensible. However they also rely on individual agency for their articulation, and to perpetuate the structure which enables their communication. In this way, meaning relates to agency and structure. By virtue of this relationship, meaning reflects social and power relations, and as such, it can communicate an understanding of society to individuals (Lee & Poynton, 2000: p. 6). It can affect their understanding of themselves and the social world. The theories addressing meaning are both theories of interpretation and theories of the effects of meaning. In each case, agency and structure must be understood as reflexive. It is with reference to these issues that Chapter Two examines the materialist and antimaterialist accounts of meaning.
CHAPTER TWO: Approaches to meaning in "A Streetcar Named Marge"
Homer Simpson: Please, please kids, stop fighting. Maybe Lisa's right about America being the land of opportunity and maybe Adil has a point about the machinery of capitalism being oiled with the blood of the workers. (Meyer, et al., 1990)
Theories of meaning can be placed into two categories on the basis of what emphasis they give the economic organisation of society in influencing meaning. There are two categories in this respect: the materialist and the antimaterialist. Materialist theories posit that meaning is primarily influenced by the economic organisation of society (Abrams, 1993: p. 253; Hall, 1994: passim). That is, meaning can be interpreted by reference to the modes of production and consumption and its effects can be theorised in the same way. Antimaterialist theories do not hold the economic organisation of society as of primary importance. Rather, it is seen as but one factor affecting meaning if it does so at all. The point of this chapter is to justify the selection of an antimaterialist approach for the analysis at Chapter Four, on the basis that such an approach more adequately conceptualises agency and structure as reflexive in the interpretation of and the effects of meaning, and is of more use to political science in its flexibility as a result of this.
Methodologically, this involves examining "A Streetcar Named Marge" throughout the exposition of the different approaches. This episode of The Simpsons is chosen because of its appropriateness to the modes of analysis considered in this chapter. It contains the requisite elements to address these approaches to meaning in that it bears both a discourse on individualism and a gender discourse. In this way, "A Streetcar Named Marge" is a useful text in demonstrating the contrast between the approaches examined below. A plot synopsis of "A Streetcar Named Marge" is attached at Appendix A.
2.1 Materialist theories of meaning
This section presents two materialist approaches to meaning. The first approach, exemplified by the theories of Gramsci (1977) and Adorno (1990; 1992), emphasises the form of "A Streetcar Named Marge" to extrapolate its meaning and theorise its effects. The second approach, exemplified by the theories of Hall (1994; 1996a) and Williams (1981; 1994), gives consideration to both the form and content of "A Streetcar Named Marge." In each case, the materialist emphasis of these theories is a constraining factor in the interpretation of texts. This is because it precludes the reflexive understanding of agency and structure highlighted in Chapter One as necessary in addressing the interpretation and effects of meaning.
2.1.1 Formal materialist analysis
The theories of Gramsci and Adorno can be understood as differing approaches in the same theoretical tradition. In essence, the difference is over the focus of their approaches. Gramsci deals with the anthropological notion of culture, positing that culture under capitalism creates ideological hegemony, normalising the domination of the working class (Femia, 1975: p. 31; Gramsci, 1977: pp. 10-18). Adorno instead focuses on the aesthetic notion of culture. He argues that, what he terms, the 'culture industry' normalises capitalist relations in the processes of cultural consumption (Adorno, 1990: pp. 276-277). In each case, meaning in culture normalises and perpetuates capitalism, and capitalist values.
Gramsci's cultural theory is a reinterpretation of Marx's base/superstructure model of society (Dirks, et al., 1994: p. 23). In Marx's account, base represents the material or economic foundation of society (Heywood, 1994: p. 23; Williams, 1994: p. 585). It determines who owns the means of production, and thus, who is the ruling class. Those who do not own the means of production are the dominated class. History, in this view, 'unfolds' through class conflict over the means of production (Dirks, et al., 1994: p. 23). Change occurs when the dominated class becomes conscious of its domination, bringing about revolution (Dirks, et al., 1994: p. 23).
The superstructure is a mere reflection of the base in the wider social formation, its laws, political structures, and institutions (Heywood, 1994: p. 23). In this respect, the social formation in the superstructure is determined by the economic organisation of the base (Hall, 1994: p. 530). The superstructure cannot be changed unless the base is changed, and change cannot come from within the superstructure. In contrast, Gramsci argues that the relationship between the base and superstructure is two-way, such that the it reflects the base, but change to the base can be made from within it (Gramsci, 1977: p. 35). This can occur if the dominated class gains control of government in the superstructure, and nationalises industry and dissolves private property (Gramsci, 1977: p. 35). However, to do so involves confronting 'ideological hegemony' manifest in the superstructure (Gramsci, 1977: pp. 10-18).
Ideological hegemony is essentially cultural, in that it manifests in a way of life and of understanding the world, which normalises the ruling class' control of the means of production, hence preventing the dominated class from developing consciousness (Femia, 1975: p. 31; Gramsci, 1977: p. 17-18). In this way it is a socially normalised meaning which structures the understanding of the world, held by the dominated class, such that capitalist values are 'common sense'. This meaning is given to the world through all aspects of life. As such, "A Streetcar Named Marge" is part of this, but Gramsci does not explain the role of aesthetic culture specifically. An explanation of this role can be found in Adorno's account of the 'culture industry'.
The 'culture industry' is an aesthetic cultural form specific to capitalism (Adorno, 1990: passim). Here, the term 'industry' does not refer to the nature of cultural production but to the homogenisation of cultural products, and to the self-conscious commodity status of aesthetic culture under capitalism (Adorno, 1990: passim). This is best understood in contrast to what Adorno counterposes to the 'culture industry' as 'true' culture:
Culture in the true sense, did not simply accommodate itself to human beings, but it always simultaneously raised a protest against the petrified relations under which they lived, thereby honoring them. Insofar as culture becomes wholly assimilated to and integrated in those petrified relations, human beings are once more debased. (Adorno, 1990: p. 276)
'True' culture, then, is a realm for both the contestation and maintenance of social order. Under capitalism though, culture becomes the culture industry which deemphasises contestation leaving only the maintenance of social order. This occurs because the culture industry internalises capitalist relations in the process of cultural consumption (Adorno, 1990: pp. 276-277). That is, culture is a commodity which individuals consume, hence, it embodies capitalist relations and cannot contest them, even if it seems to in the messages it portrays (Adorno, 1990: pp. 276-277).
Using this approach, finding meaning in "A Streetcar Named Marge" involves analysis of the form of the episode to show how this gives it meaning. There are two elements of this formal analysis. The first revolves around the episode's commodity form, the second is its consequent narrative structure. In each case the form of the episode gives it meaning in a manner which creates false consciousness and so perpetuates capitalism.
For Adorno, the products of the culture industry are mass produced, homogenous, commodities (Adorno, 1990: passim; Kellner, 1997: pp. 12-16). These characteristics perpetuate capitalism by normalising consumption in culture and homogenising cultural wants to ensure the realisation of value, or profit, for cultural producers (Kellner, 1997: p. 13). So, for "A Streetcar Named Marge" to fit Adorno's mode of analysis it must be a homogenous commodity.
Although Adorno did not specifically treat television, he commented on American radio programmes in a manner which is pertinent here:
In bringing cultural products wholly into the sphere of commodities, radio does not try to dispose of its cultural goods themselves as commodities straight to the consumer. In America it collects no fees from the public, and so has acquired the illusory form of disinterested, unbiased authority which suits Fascism admirably. (Adorno & Horkheimer in Burns, 1995: pp. 3-4)
This same reasoning can be applied to television, in that, even in the case of consumer subscription based television, its programmes are not offered directly for consumption (Tiffen, 1993: pp. 45-48). Rather, they are offered on the basis of advertising subsidies or payment for the delivery of a particular television package (Marc, 1997: p. 1; Tiffen, 1993: pp. 45-48). Nevertheless, most television programmes are produced and broadcast for profit (Fairclough, 1995a: pp. 6-7). The Simpsons is produced and broadcast for profit. It is also the basis of a substantial range of merchandise (Gerosa, 1990). In these respects, "A Streetcar Named Marge," is a commodity.
The second requirement of this approach is that of homogeneity. Adorno argues that the culture industry cultivates homogenous tastes in the masses through its mass-produced commodities in a process he calls 'pseudoindividualisation' (Adorno, 1992: pp. 217-223). In short, pseudoindividualisation is the process by which the culture industry creates a demand for the new, but for the new to be of essentially the same form (Adorno, 1992: pp. 217-223). This form is a particular narrative structure which both creates demand for more of the same while also advocating conformity to the status quo.
Such narratives follow a simple structure: in the beginning there is the 'good life'; a problem arises; the problem is solved, but within the rules, and within the confines, of the accepted order; then the 'good life' is resumed (Adorno, 1990: pp. 280-281; Parenti, 1992: pp. 1-10). In addition, the 'good life' is portrayed as that which 'we' have now, or at least that to which 'we' aspire (Adorno, 1990: pp. 280-281). In essence, there is a constant affirmation of capitalist values such as consumerism, individual rather than collective action, and the common sense of the current order.
"A Streetcar Named Marge" conforms to this narrative structure. The episode begins with the 'good life': the Simpsons sit in their loungeroom enjoying the 'Miss American Girl' pageant. A problem is introduced in the ignorance of the other Simpsons, especially Homer, to Marge's activities, in this case her involvement in a musical production. The following exchange is a pertinent example:
Marge: I thought it would be a good chance to meet some other adults.
Homer: (Without breaking his gaze from the television.) Sounds interesting.
Marge: You know, I spend all day home with Maggie [the infant Simpson daughter]. Sometimes it's like I don't even exist.
Homer: (Again, his eyes fixed on the television.) Sounds interesting. (Martin, 1992)
This problem is resolved when Homer enjoys, and is significantly moved by, the musical. Homer recognises similarities between himself and Stanley, a character in the musical 'Oh! Streetcar,' which is an adaptation of Williams "A Streetcar Named Desire." This represents an acknowledgment of his ignorance of and lack of support for Marge and he is forgiven. At the end the 'good life' ensues once again, in that the situation of the Simpson family does not change, normality is restored by the end of the episode (Martin, 1992).
In this way "A Streetcar Named Marge" has meaning by virtue of being a commodity with a status quo affirming narrative, that is, by virtue of its form. It takes a form specific to capitalist culture, and as a result, contributes to false consciousness of the dominated classes because it is uncritical in its adoption of capitalist values. These values are adopted, regardless of the content of "A Streetcar Named Marge," by internalising consumption within culture and by portraying a story which revolves around the resolution of a problem without altering the normality of the Simpson's life. This is an exemplary formal materialist analysis of meaning, in that the message of a text can be understood by reference to the mode of production as it manifests in a cultural form. The next section on textual materialist analysis questions this relationship between form and meaning in recognising the possibility of 'resistant discourses'.
2.1.2 Textual materialist analysis
The theories of Hall and Williams exemplify the movement of the materialist approach to meaning away from formal analysis toward content oriented textual analysis. This change of focus is the result of a different understanding of the Gramscian concept of ideological hegemony to that presented above (Hall, 1996a: pp. 26-28). In each case, it is considered as less powerful and less constraining in a manner which allows for the existence of resistant discourses (Storey, 1998: p. 14). Although Hall and Williams differ over the use of the term 'ideology', they each present similar theories with the same aim: the analysis of culture for resistant discourses (Hall, 1994: pp. 532-533). This is because they each view resistant discourses as emancipatory, in that their aim is the development of class consciousness (Storey, 1998: p. 15).
Hall and Williams differ over the use of the term ideology in explaining the manner in which materialism is important to understanding meaning in its interpretation and effects (Hall, 1994: passim). In both cases culture is a realm which gives meaning to the social world for individuals, affecting their perceptions and interpretations of it (Hall, 1994: passim). Each recognises the existence of multiple discourses, which give meaning to the world, and each argues that the material is the primary discourse giving meaning to the world (Williams, 1981: p. 225). The difference between Williams and Hall lies in the manner in which they account for the material, or the economic organisation of society, as primary in their accounts of culture and the way it gives meaning to the world.
Hall's approach uses ideology as the term to explain the primacy of the material in shaping the meaning 'we' give to the world. Ideology is a discourse like any other in that it is a manner of representing the world (Hall, 1996a: p. 28). However, ideology is different to the other discourses in that it is an explanation of the economic organisation of society. It is the dominant among a number of explanations of the economic organisation of society, because it is the discourse of the ruling class, in this respect it can be contested (Hall, 1996a: p. 43). Because it gives meaning to the very matter (hence materialism) that is the subject of other discourses, it is infused in all of them (Hall, 1996a: p. 45). In this way it becomes determinate, or it is the primary discourse, by which 'we' can understand the world (Hall, 1996a: p. 44). Hall is interested in the contest over ideology, or over what is 'our' 'common sense' understanding of our social world, because this contest can shape the economic organisation of society (Hall, 1996a: p. 36). With this in mind Hall examines culture for the presence of both ideology and resistant discourse, such as socialist or Marxist explanations of the social world. In essence, Hall is looking for resistance to the 'common sense' of explanations using terms such as 'market', 'freedom', 'property' and 'individualism', as examples of capitalist ideology (Hall, 1996a: p. 34). This is because his focus is on the emancipation of the working class from its oppression by capitalism (Hall, 1996a: pp. 36-44).
Williams is interested in a similar emancipatory project. However, his understanding of it, and of ideology, is different (Hall, 1994: pp. 528-529; Williams, 1981: p. 29). Williams, discards the notion of ideology, using instead, 'experience' as an explanation of the necessity of a materialist focus to theories of meaning (Williams, 1981: pp. 33-56). In short, 'experience' is a term used to indicate that individuals experience the social world through many and various discourses, and this is how they give it meaning. However, each of these many discourses is related to all the others, but not in a systematic manner such as that given by Hall's explanation of the dominance of ideology. Rather, they are all interrelated because they are experienced simultaneously by the individuals which use and perpetuate them (Williams, 1981: passim). In this respect, materialism becomes necessary to theories of meaning, not because it shapes all other discourses but, because the economic organisation of society is dominant in the experience of individuals, and is hence more pervasive in its intersections with other discourses (Williams, 1981: pp. 211-212). Albeit for different reasons, Williams is interested in the same emancipatory project as Hall, and is consequently also interested in resistant discourses.
At the surface, the narrative structure of "A Streetcar Named Marge" fits the homogenous narrative structure identified by formal materialist analysis. However, a deeper reading of the episode reveals an inconsistency in that it contains an antiindividualist discourse in the subplot of Maggie's experiences in the 'Ayn Rand School for Tots'. This is presented below using the textual materialist mode of analysis, in this case, juxtaposing the capitalist discourse of individualism to "A Streetcar Named Marge" to examine whether the discourse is perpetuated or resisted.
In the first instance the name of the 'Ayn Rand School for Tots' conveys certain ideas about the daycare centre. Namely, it is associated with the ideas of Ayn Rand, a libertarian philosopher and proponent of the values of laissez-faire capitalism. For example, in an introduction to The Fountainhead, Rand offers the following:
Since man acts among and deals with other men, I had to present the kind of social system that makes it possible for ideal men to exist and to function-a free, productive, rational system which demands and rewards the best in every man, and which is, obviously, laissez-faire capitalism. (Rand, 1968: p. x)
This association is reinforced by posters on the wall of the daycare centre bearing the inscriptions "A is A" and "Helping is Futile," notions associated with Rand's libertarian philosophy, indeed they are direct quotes of Rand (Baird, et al., 1994). It is also affirmed by the following exchange between Marge and Ms. Sinclair, the operator of the 'Ayn Rand School for Tots' when Maggie is being placed at the centre:
Marge: ... [Maggie] likes a bottle of warm milk before nap time.
Ms. Sinclair: A bottle! Ah-ha-ha-ha! Mrs. Simpson, do you know what a baby is saying when she reaches for a bottle?
Ms. Sinclair: She's saying "I am a leech!" Our aim here is to develop the bottle within. (Martin, 1992)
Consistent with Rand's philosophy, Ms. Sinclair aims to develop Maggie's self-reliance ('the bottle within'). Ms. Sinclair consequently confiscates Maggie's pacifier before placing her with the other infants (whose pacifiers have also been confiscated).
The above factors indicate that the 'Ayn Rand School for Tots' is an embodiment of Rand's libertarian values in this episode. These are essentially individualism, self-reliance, and the associated values of laissez-faire capitalism. However, in "A Streetcar Named Marge" these values are portrayed as cruel, through Marge's reaction to Ms. Sinclair's daycare philosophy: "That sounds awfully harsh" (Martin, 1992). More importantly, these values are undermined by Maggie's experience in the centre.
Once left to their own devices the infants cooperate to retrieve their pacifiers, in a scene reminiscent of "The Great Escape" (Baird, et al., 1994). This is significant in that the portrayal of the cooperation of the infants is counterposed directly to the pro-capitalist daycare centre, and occurs with the posters bearing such quotes as "Helping is Futile" in the background (Martin, 1992). Furthermore, immediately following this scene, Maggie is taken by Homer to watch 'Oh! Streetcar!', which closes with a song titled 'You can always depend on the kindness of strangers' (Martin, 1992).
So, despite its capitalist form, "A Streetcar Named Marge" presents a resistant discourse through Maggie Simpson and the 'Ayn Rand School for Tots'. This is evident in the counterposition of the capitalist value of individualism, in the 'Ayn Rand School for Tots', to the collective action, and success, of the infants in retrieving their pacifiers. Further to this, the negative portrayal of the daycare centre emphasises the cruelty of the individualist understanding of the world, a point which is also strengthened by the close of 'Oh! Streetcar!' with the song 'You can always depend on the kindness of strangers'. However, the antimaterialist theories of the next section, criticise this approach to analysis because of its undue focus on capitalist discourse as primary in meaning.
The main thrust of the antimaterialist criticisms of this mode of analysis is that it excludes consideration of other discourses in their own right. It is not that the textual materialist approach cannot consider other discourses, indeed this approach has been used to analyse texts on gender and race grounds (Hall, 1996b: passim). It is that its materialist focus places other discourses within the contest over the means of production. This is such that oppression through essential gender concepts, as an example, is considered significant in that it is an obstacle to the development of class consciousness. This is because it fragments a potentially united group of people oppressed by capitalism by casting some of them as 'other' (Hall, 1996b: passim). In this respect, the main object of political action relating to meaning is control over the means of production, even if sometimes it is apparently over something else, such as gender inequality. This limits the textual materialist approach to one analytical, and potentially emancipatory, project, the discourse regarding the control of the means of production.
2.2 Antimaterialist theories of meaning
This section presents two concurrently developing antimaterialist approaches to meaning: poststructuralism and linguistics or semiotics. Poststructuralism involves two elements of interest to the study of meaning. The first is the situation of the individual within discourses, which they can also affect (Foucault, 1990: passim). The second involves undermining the concepts of 'reason' and 'rationality' such that there is no authoritative means of explanation of the social world (Abrams, 1993: p. 259). Linguistics and semiotics are theories of the interpretation of signs extensively covered in Chapter One. This section highlights explanations of the role of power relations in linguistics. In each case, however, these approaches are inadequate to the purposes of this thesis. Poststructuralism is inadequate in that it lacks a method for the concrete analysis of texts, whereas linguistics is inadequate in that it is closed to social theory. However, a new development, entitled 'postlinguistics' (Lee & Poynton, 2000: p. 10) is bringing these approaches together to develop a means of concrete analysis of texts within a social context. Postlinguistics is shown, in an examination of gender discourse in "A Streetcar Named Marge," to be similar in its methodology to the textual materialist approach of the previous section without the constraint of a materialist focus. It is for this reason that it is adopted as the methodology for Chapter Four.
There are two principles of poststructuralism of interest to this thesis. The first is the notion that all utterances, texts and practices are shaped by discourses, which are, in turn shaped by texts, utterances and practices. Foucault (1972; 1990) provides a useful account of this principle through his understanding of the 'subject'. The second is its dismissal of the notion of a 'unifying principle' through which authoritative accounts of the social world can be given. Lyotard provides an exemplary account of this principle in his justification of "incredulity toward metanarratives" (Lyotard, 1990: p. 330). These principles provide an understanding of meaning based on a reflexive account of agency and structure, but which cannot be authoritatively interpreted. Overall, however, poststructuralism is not applied to the analysis of meaning in concrete texts, but its theories inform the postlinguistic approach of this thesis (Lee & Poynton, 2000: passim).
According to Foucault there is no means by which the world can be understood except by reference to discourses, hence, all 'our' theories and utterances about the world are shaped by them (Dirks, et al., 1994: pp. 7-8; Foucault, 1972: p. 22). At the same time, however, such theories and utterances contribute to, perpetuate, and change discourses (Dirks, et al., 1994: pp. 7-8; Foucult, 1990: passim). In particular, Foucault focuses on discourses as encompassing the knowledge, theories of knowledge, and disciplines of study, that constitute science (including social science) (Foucault, 1972: passim). What this means for agency and structure can be demonstrated through Foucault's notion of the subject.
Typically of Foucault, the term 'subject' here refers to two different concepts. The term subject refers both to the notion of subject, as in the subject of a monarch, and to the notion of subject, as in the concept of subjectivity. So, the subject (individual) bears a twofold relationship to discourse (Foucault, 1990: passim). In the first sense, the individual is the subject of discourse, in that it shapes the individual's understanding of herself or himself as an individual and the way he or she relates to the world (Foucault, 1990: passim). In the second sense, the individual is a discursive subject, in that she or he creates discourse (Dirks, et al., 1994: pp. 7-8). The former sense represents structure, in that it is constitutive of individuals, and the latter represents agency, in that it is the capacity to act. In that they both shape each other this is a reflexive understanding of agency and structure. Texts, in this account, are similarly located as subjects in this twofold manner, such that their meaning is a product of the reflexive interaction of structure and agency. Yet, such meaning cannot be authoritatively determined, as shown below.
Lyotard argues that there can neither be unifying principles of truth, nor legitimising principles of truth in metanarratives, where the metanarrative corresponds to Foucault's notion of the discourse (Lyotard, 1990: passim). In the first case, this is because the principles of knowledge of a metanarrative can never be justified with reference to themselves, they must instead be presupposed (Lyotard, 1990: p.330). This presupposition makes all 'truth' claims the product of preexisting discourses of what is knowledge (Lyotard, 1990: pp. 330-331). In the second case, legitimisation of a 'truth' cannot come from its commonly argued sources in consensus and effectivity (Lyotard, 1990: passim). Consensus cannot be achieved because the lack of an authoritative truth claim means that there is no means of arbitration of disagreements, leaving any consensus fractured (Lyotard, 1990: p. 333). Effectivity is problematic because it simply reproduces the problem of 'truth' with a different frame of reference (that is, 'what is effective' as opposed to 'what is truth' (Lyotard, 1990: pp. 337-338). In this respect, there can be no authoritative accounts of the social world, including of meaning.
Poststructuralism then has two main principles of interest to this thesis. Firstly, in so far as discourses give meaning to the world, then meaning is neither wholly constitutive nor wholly reflective of individuals, it is both. This provides a reflexive understanding of agency and structure in meaning. Secondly, the social world cannot be explained authoritatively, it can only be explained in a particular and contextualised manner. This means that there cannot be a unifying principle of the interpretation of meaning, such as materialism, there can only be particular accounts of meaning in specific contexts.
In this respect, "A Streetcar Named Marge" is both a product of its discursive environment, and an addition to that discursive environment which brings minor changes to it. This is because texts are located in poststructuralist theory in the same way as individuals are, that is, as twofold subjects. This is largely because texts, such as "A Streetcar Named Marge," are created by individuals, or groups of individuals. In addition, there is no authoritative means of interpretation of meaning in texts, it is for this reason that the particular and contextualised study of texts is necessary. However, poststructuralist theory does not treat texts specifically in that its focus is on theoretical explanation of the discursive nature of the social being and of truth (Lee & Poynton, 2000: p. 2). Yet a new development in poststructuralist theory brings an empirical focus on texts to it through adopting some of the analytical principles of linguistics.
Linguistics, in its systematic exposition as a discipline, originates with Saussure's theory of the sign, as discussed in Chapter One. In considering the sign as both immutable and mutable Saussure set forth the 'proper' focus of linguistics as that which makes it immutable, that is the structure of language. Given that this understanding of linguistics was covered in detail in Chapter One, the focus of this section is on a number of developments which have expanded the understanding of linguistics to encompass some elements of social theory. In particular, Labov's analysis of class divisions in language (Labov, 2000), and Derrida's criticism of the 'logocentrism' of linguistics, are important to expanding the frame of reference of linguistics.
It is argued that a relaxation of the assumption of a homogenous language community brings issues of the effects of society on language and of language on society to the fore in linguistic study (Gottdiener, 1995: pp. 19-20). In this respect social cleavages can be seen as mirrored in language and as effected by it (Lee & Poynton, 2000: p. 5). This argument places language as a social fact, and as such, language both affects and is affected by social forces. This view has been used extensively in linguistic analysis of gendered, classed, and racist language and the language of nationalism. An example of this is Labov's analysis of the language of the 'ghetto'.
Labov's analysis addresses the notion that 'standard' English is a more effective means of communication than 'non-standard' English (Labov, 2000: pp. 456-457). In particular he critiques the argument that 'standard' English is more grammatical, and as such has a greater appeal to the structure which makes meaning communicable (Labov, 2000: passim). His comparative analysis shows that there is nothing intrinsically more or less grammatical to either English to distinguish their effectiveness in communication (Labov, 2000: passim). Instead, the different degrees of effectiveness are a consequence of class and race bias which predispose people to be more receptive to 'standard' English than 'non-standard' English (Labov, 2000: p. 265). This study draws societal power relations into the study of linguistics, laying the foundations of critical discourse analysis (Fairclough, 1995b) and postlinguistics (Lee & Poynton, 2000).
Similar criticisms of linguistics have come from poststructuralist sources such as Derrida. Derrida criticises what he calls the 'logocentrism' of linguistics (Derrida, 2000: passim). Logocentrism refers to the central position of the sign in linguistic accounts and its consequent structuralism. The problem of logocentrism is, in short, that there is no universal referent to the sign in linguistics (Gottdiener, 1995: p. 19). This means that there can be no authoritative, or universal, explanation of the sign, its signifier and its signified. Instead, the system of signs that make up language is particular to each speaking individual, as well as being located in particular contexts (Derrida, 2000: passim). In this respect, the notion of a structure of meaning becomes fragmented by the particular social and individual contexts of communication.
This does not mean that signs are incomprehensible in any sense, such that communication is impossible. It means that meaning conveyed by signs is in constant flux, and the study of the structure of meaning, or of the grammar which gives meaning to signs in language, is immediately out of date. This is because each person is their own authority on meaning in signs. The point of this criticism is that the communication of meaning is a social process (Lee & Poynton, 2000: p. 4). Hence, any account of meaning must take adequate account of the social processes involved in the communication of meaning, involving both structure and agency.
The study of meaning conveyed by signs in linguistics and semiotics has largely been conducted without reference to the social world of which they are part. This is problematic in that it ignores the social contextualisation of meaning, hence ignoring the politics of meaning. Labov and Derrida are instructive in highlighting the shortcomings of this in both perpetuating social divisions, and in providing inadequate and outdated accounts of linguistics. Yet the approach adopted by this thesis draws its mode of analysis of concrete discourse from linguistics, as such it is a relevant consideration.
Both poststructuralism and linguistics are inadequate to the purposes of this thesis. In the former case, in not focussing on the analysis of concrete discourses, in the latter case, in not considering the social contextualisation of such concrete discourses. Postlinguistics draws on both poststructuralist theory and linguistics to develop an approach to examining concrete texts in their social contextualisation (Lee & Poynton, 2000: passim). The approach to such analysis is similar to the approach of textual materialist analysis shown in the previous section in that it juxtaposes a wider social discourse to a text. It differs, however, in that it is not limited to the analysis of discourses as they relate to the mode of production. The theories of Lee and Poynton (2000) and Fairclough (1995a; 1995b), exemplify this approach.
The methodology of postlinguistics involves juxtaposing a wider social discourse to a text, considering the degree of its reproduction and contestation through textual analysis (van Dijk, 1985: passim). The theoretical premise of postlinguistics derives from poststructuralism's understanding of discourses as manifest in all texts. Its empirical mode of analysis derives from linguistics, however expanding the frame of reference from the word or the sentence to the text. A text in this respect can be a conversation, a speech, a radio or television programme, or any other conveyor of meaning. This mode of analysis is demonstrated in a gender analysis of "A Streetcar Named Marge."
Postlinguistics does not adopt a materialist mode of analysis in the outset. Hence, in considering "A Streetcar Named Marge" alongside a discourse on gender, the gender analysis can stand on its own. This is not to argue that there are no relationships between class oppression and the oppression of women. Rather, the issue of examining that relationship between class oppression and the oppression of women in "A Streetcar Named Marge" is a question of the purposes of analysis. That is, a question of whether the analysis is to examine gender discourse in "A Streetcar Named Marge," or whether the analysis is to examine the interrelations between gender discourse and capitalism therein. The postlinguistic mode of analysis can be adapted to either. It is a more flexible approach than the materialist approaches. The gender analysis proceeds below.
As shown previously, the problem introduced in the narrative structure of "A Streetcar Named Marge" is that Homer is generally ignorant of Marge's activities creating tension between the two. The exchange between Marge and Homer shown above indicates this ignorance, as, when Marge informs Homer that she is rehearsing for a musical, his attention is not broken from the television. The following exchange indicates that Homer's ignorance is the result of a lack of interest in Marge's activities because he does not consider them as serious concerns, like his own:
Homer: I can't fake an interest in this, and I'm an expert at faking an interest in your kooky projects.
Marge: What kooky projects?
Homer: You know, the painting class, the first aid course, the whole Lamaze thing. (Martin, 1992)
Marge's 'projects' are considered 'kooky' and not interesting to Homer, who is facing more pressing concerns mastering his 'Bowling 2000' game. Yet Marge accepts this situation. Why she does so becomes apparent in her concerns over her role as Blanche Dubois in 'Oh! Streetcar!':
Marge: I'm sorry Llewellyn. I just don't see why Blanche should shove a broken bottle in Stanley's face. Couldn't she just take his abuse with gentle good humor. (Martin, 1992)
Marge takes Homer's abuse with 'gentle good humour', this is how she believes women should deal with the abuse of men. An interesting parallel begins to develop between Marge and Homer, and the characters Blanche and Stanley in the musical. The following scene where Llewellyn Sinclair convinces Marge to act the part is particularly instructive. Throughout this scene the screen shows Llewellyn's face at left and Marge's at right while 'we' witness Homer's attempts to purchase a chocolate bar from the vending machine in the background:
Marge: I just don't see what's so bad about Stanley.
Llewellyn: Stanley is thoughtless, violent and loud. Marge, every second you spend with this man he is crushing your fragile spirit. You can't let that happen!. (Martin, 1992)
This scene is punctuated by Homer's groaning and yelling as he fights the vending machine. The scene closes with Homer successfully extracting the chocolate from the machine by breaking it with a flying kick. Homer retires to the car with the chocolate, at which point rehearsals recommence. In rehearsal, Marge visualises Homer in the place of Stanley and is able to attack him with a broken bottle, something she was unable to do previously.
These parallels between Homer and Marge and the characters of 'Oh! Streetcar!' are significant if considered as a gendered discourse. This is because each couple represents the opposition of gendered stereotypes. In particular this highlights the notion that women are oppressed by being engendered as passive, where men are engendered as the active oppressors. This discourse confines Marge to the home, where she can occasionally take on 'kooky' projects. Marge's world is constrained by her passivity at the hands of Homer the active and oppressive man. Marge does not realise this until she draws the parallels between herself and Blanche Dubois.
By association with Stanley, Homer's ignorance and insensitivity towards Marge becomes oppression. This association is a negative portrayal of Homer, and consequently, of his oppression of Marge. It is not portrayed as normal, or as how things should be, rather, it is an injustice which must be addressed. This problem is resolved by Homer's realisation that he is like Stanley after viewing the musical and empathising with Blanche, played by Marge. This negative portrayal of gender relations draws attention to some of the problems faced by women, presenting these problems as resulting in inequality. As such it is a resistant discourse to gender inequality in society as it is perpetuated by essentialising gender discourses.
This demonstration of the postlinguistic approach to meaning shows its similarities to the textual materialist mode of analysis, although, with an important distinction. Postlinguistics does not approach meaning as necessarily related to the economic organisation of society, and as such, it can develop analyses of other discourse which stand in their own right. At the same time, however, it is capable of performing the same analyses as the materialist approach by simply adopting capitalist discourses as the contextualisation of texts. In this respect postlinguistics is a more appropriate approach to the study of meaning in political science as it is more adaptable to various purposes of analysis.
In summary, this chapter has examined some exemplary materialist and antimaterialist theories of meaning in culture. Each was used to analyse meaning in "A Streetcar Named Marge" to demonstrate their interpretative approaches and their effectiveness. By virtue of their materialist premise both the formal materialist and the textual materialist modes of analysis are inadequate. The formal materialist mode of analysis is ineffective in interpreting meaning in texts in that its formal focus precludes the analysis of the content of texts. As such, it cannot recognise resistant discourses in otherwise capitalist culture. It also does not recognise discourses other than those relating to capitalism. The textual materialist mode of analysis is an adequate means of interpretation of texts. It can recognise both resistant discourses and discourses other than those relating to capitalism. However, its materialist focus suits it only to analyses relating to a particular emancipatory project: change to the economic organisation of society. In each case, the emphasis on materialism is a constraint on analysis which makes such accounts structuralist.
Poststructuralist theory understands structure and agency as both dynamic and interrelated. However, it does not engage specifically with texts. In this respect, the adoption of some of the analytic principles of linguistics is useful. The approach of postlinguistics, drawing from the theoretical and analytic resources of both poststructuralist theory and linguistic analysis, is useful in maintaining the poststructuralist understanding of structure and agency in a manner which can be applied to texts. As it does not rely on an universal hermeneutic principle, postlinguistics does not confront the interpretative difficulties of materialist theories of meaning. Additionally it is more flexible in that it can be adapted to various purposes of analysis. It is for these reasons that this thesis adopts a postlinguistic approach in Chapter Four.
CHAPTER THREE: The Simpsons and democracy
Homer Simpson: Wait a minute. If Lisa didn't vote for him, and I didn't vote for him ...
Marge Simpson: You didn't vote for anybody.
Homer: I voted for Prell to go back to the old glass bottle. After that I became deeply cynical. (Keeler, 1996)
This chapter justifies the selection of the object and focus of this analysis, respectively The Simpsons and democracy. The reasoning for the choice of The Simpsons is threefold. Firstly, The Simpsons is a popular television programme. This makes it a significant text for analysis in terms of its wide appeal (Storey, 1998: p. 7). Secondly, this success is often attributed to its ambivalence, providing a test of the interpretative effectiveness of the theories of meaning examined in this thesis. Finally, The Simpsons has a political 'edge' making it relevant to the study of meaning in political science. The choice of democracy as a focus for the analysis of The Simpsons locates it within an area of politics to which meaning is particularly relevant. This point is demonstrated through an example of political action over meaning in relation to democracy. Additionally, the particular focus on the notion that democracy is becoming increasingly populist is expanded to provide the basis of analysis in Chapter Four.
3.1 The Simpsons as popular, ambivalent and political
The Simpsons is currently the longest running 'prime-time' animated programme ever shown on television (Sutelap, 2000). It has also been consistently high-rating and has received critical acclaim and numerous peer-awards throughout this time (Griffiths, 2000; Tingleff, 1998). The point of highlighting the success of The Simpsons is that if it has meaning, and if meaning has some effect on individuals and society, then its wide distribution makes its potential effects more significant (Storey, 1998: p. 7). In this respect, The Simpsons is popular: having run over ten years to a large audience in a number of countries. Its effects, if any, would be significant.
The reason for The Simpsons' success is more important to this thesis though, in that its success is often credited to its ambivalence (Cantor, 1999: pp. 737-738; Korte, 1997; Walden, 1999). This is evident in the popularity of The Simpsons across both children and adults, in that this requires that it have levels of meaning appropriate to both audiences (Walden, 1999). Such ambivalence, it is argued, broadens the appeal of the programme, allowing viewers to decide what it means for themselves (Korte, 1997). More importantly, this ambivalence offers a challenge to the interpretative effectiveness of the theories of meaning considered herein. This is important given the relationship between the interpretative function and the consequent effects of meaning such theories propose. That is, theories of the effects of meaning rely on adequate theories of the interpretation of meaning, as such, The Simpsons is chosen as it is a difficult text to interpret.
Additionally, The Simpsons is a text with a political 'edge'. An example of note involves a former President of the United States of America. During his presidency, George Bush stated in a public speech: "We're going to keep trying to strengthen the American family. To make them more like the Waltons and less like the Simpsons" (Griffiths, 2000). Shortly thereafter, Bart Simpson responds in "Stark Raving Dad," "Hey, we're just like the Waltons. We're praying for an end to the depression, too" (Jean & Reiss, 1991) a blunt reference to the state of the economy under President Bush. George Bush was also portrayed in a later episode as small-minded and out-of-touch, engaging in a neighbourhood feud with Homer Simpson (Keeler, 1996).
This is not presented as a significant event in American presidential politics. Rather, it is presented as an example of The Simpsons' political 'edge'. There are other similar examples available involving Al Gore (Griffiths, 2000), or California's 'Proposition 187,' which relates to 'Proposition 24' in the episode "Much Apu About Nothing," the focus of the analysis at Chapter Four. Such engagement with political institutions makes The Simpsons a relevant case study for this thesis as it indicates that the programme is a site of political discourse.
3.2 Democracy and meaning
Democracy as the focus of analysis gives this thesis a point of political relevance, such that it is not just an analysis of meaning but an analysis of political meaning. Furthermore, democracy is an area of politics in which meaning is particularly relevant. This can be demonstrated in relation to an example of a political contest over meaning. As this thesis has already discussed gender discourse it is with this focus that the demonstration proceeds. The main point here is that meaning is important in democracy because democratic governments make direct appeals to the 'common sense' of the people to stay in power, which can be categorised as appeals to meaning.
Nash observes that "[i]t is no longer assumed that women will sacrifice their individual desires in the name of being a good wife and mother, living vicariously through their husbands and children; nor that they will defer to men in public in exchange for men's protection and chivalry" (Nash, 2000: p. 268; emphasis added). These changed assumptions indicate that what it means to be a woman in society, particularly in the public sphere, has changed. This changed meaning has had the effect of bringing to bear new demands on the state to accommodate women in the public sphere. This is particularly relevant to democracy, because, by virtue of their accountability to the people at elections, democratic governments must appeal to the 'common sense' of the people (Nash, 2000: p. 244). This notion of 'common sense' parallels meaning in that it represents an understanding or view of the world. In this respect, the changed assumptions regarding women, as a consequence of contesting meaning, have had a direct influence on democratic governments.
In summary, The Simpsons is an appropriate text for the analysis of meaning in this thesis in that it is popular and ambivalent and in that it has a political 'edge'. Firstly, the popularity of The Simpsons makes its potential effects significant in that it has been broadcast to a large audience across a number of countries. Secondly, The Simpsons is a good test of the interpretative effectiveness of theories of meaning in its ambivalence. Finally, The Simpsons is a sight of political discourse in that it has a political 'edge'. The relevance to this thesis given to The Simpsons by these factors is enhanced by the focus on democracy. This is because meaning is relevant to the operation of democracy through the power of the 'common sense' of the people in democracies. In these respects the next chapter conducts a postlinguistic analysis of democracy in The Simpsons.
CHAPTER FOUR: Democracy in "Much Apu About Nothing"
Kodos: It's true, we are aliens. But what are you going to do about it? It's a two-party system! You have to vote for one of us
Man in crowd: Well, I believe I'll vote for a third-party candidate.
Kang: Go ahead, throw your vote away! Ah-hah-hah-hah-haaah! (Keeler, et al., 1996)
This chapter gives an analysis of meaning in "Much Apu About Nothing" as it relates to democracy. This episode is chosen for analysis because it contains an example of the political 'edge' of The Simpsons, highlighted in Chapter Three, in the parallels between California's 'Proposition 187' and Springfield's 'Proposition 24'. A plot synopsis of "Much Apu About Nothing" is attached at Appendix B. This analysis proceeds using a postlinguistics approach. Methodologically, this means developing an external discourse as a reference point for juxtaposition to detailed textual analysis. In this case, "Much Apu About Nothing' is analysed in respect to a discourse on the populism of modern democracy. In this respect its narrative, form, characters and intertextual references are examined to bring forth its meaning. This shows that the episode is ambivalent to the discourse on the populism of modern democracy.
4.1 Populism in modern democracy
This analysis of "Much Apu About Nothing" uses the discourse on populism in western democracy as its reference point. There are two positions in this discourse each of which is premised on an understanding of what is democracy and what are its goals. The first argues that modern democracy is becoming increasingly populist by virtue of the increasing complexity of modern society and the sensationalist media. This is considered problematic in regard to the democratic goal of reason in that the increasing populism of democracy undermines reasoned debate and consensus formation and hence undermines social progress. The second argument is a criticism of the first in that it views democracy as becoming increasingly popular, rather than populist. This is a positive development in that democracy is the 'rule of the people', as such, the popular nature of democracy is increasing the degree to which modern democracy is ruled by the people.
These two positions are expanded briefly below in order to juxtapose them to "Much Apu About Nothing." However, these positions are presented in a simplified form for the sake of analytical clarity. Indeed, to present a comprehensive exposition of the arguments in this debate is beyond the scope of this thesis. As a result, many of the subtleties and complex arguments relating to populism in democracy are not present in this account of the debate. Nevertheless, this should not affect the degree to which these discourses can be identified in the text.
Broadly, the first argument is that modern democracy is becoming increasingly populist (Nash, 2000: p. 249). On the most part, this is due to the increasing complexity of modern society such that the administrative arguments of democratic debate are so intricately detailed that no one can be across all the relevant issues. The mass media exacerbates this in simplifying the issues of democratic debate, creating controversy to attract an audience (Nash, 2000: pp. 215-220). Political leaders use this situation to their advantage, swaying voters with emotion and rhetoric rather than reason. In this respect, the democratic goal of reasoned rule for all the people is lost to populist majoritarian rule (Nash, 2000: p. 220).
The criticism of this position is that rather than becoming increasingly populist, modern democracy is becoming increasingly popular (Nash, 2000: p. 244). This critique accuses the former position of elitism, in that it considers the people ignorant. That is, it sees the argument that modern democracy is populist as based on a conception of the people as unable to understand the complex issues at stake in the running of government and hence easily misled (Nash, 2000: p. 249). Instead, this view holds the people as capable of understanding the administrative issues at hand to a sufficient degree to resist misleading rhetoric and emotive argument. In this respect, the increasingly populist nature of democracy means political leaders become more reactive to the wishes of the people. As such, modern democracy is becoming more popular, and more accountable (Nash, 2000: p. 245).
The question to be considered in examining "Much Apu About Nothing" then, is to what degree does the episode portray democracy as becoming increasingly populist as opposed to popular. This revolves around the degree to which 'the people' are presented as misled by rhetoric and emotive argument. Or, are 'the people' presented as understanding the issues at hand and demanding action on their concerns from their political leaders. These issues are considered below in relation to "Much Apu About Nothing."
4.2 Textual analysis
The following is an analysis of the narrative, characters and intertextual references of "Much Apu About Nothing" within the context of the above debate over whether modern democracy is becoming increasingly populist as opposed to popular. Each of these factors is considered separately to show the development of meaning through the various elements of texts. This is followed by a summation which brings together the elements to consider the meaning of the whole. In short, the meaning of "Much Apu About Nothing" is ambiguous because the contributions of the various elements to the whole are contradictory.
This section sets out the main plot developments of "Much Apu About Nothing" and their relationship to the meaning of the episode. In particular, it focuses on how the citizens of Springfield are portrayed throughout the episode. The main issue of consideration, in this respect, is the degree to which they are shown to be ignorant and easily led by their political leaders. The plot developments of this episode revolve around a ballot to decide on 'Proposition 24', legislation to deport illegal immigrants. They show the citizens of Springfield to be easily led by their leaders, hence giving the meaning that democracy is populist.
The first evidence of this is that on two occasions they march as a mob on the mayor's office. In the first, it is in relation to a bear wandering around Evergreen Terrace (where the Simpsons live), in a generally passive state. Yet the citizens demand something be done and are given the 'Bear Patrol', with which they are satisfied. This is an absurd overreaction: 'Bear Patrol' vans patrol the streets with sirens sounding as helicopters and B-2 bombers fly overhead. The absurdity of this situation is brought out in the following dialogue between Lisa and Homer:
Homer: Not a bear in sight. The Bear Patrol must be working like a charm.
Lisa: That's specious reasoning, Dad.
Homer: Thank you dear.
Lisa: By your logic I could claim that this rock keeps tigers away.
Homer: Oh, how does it work?
Lisa: It doesn't work.
Lisa: It's just a stupid rock.
Lisa: But I don't see any tigers around, do you?
Homer: Lisa, I want to buy your rock. (Cohen, 1996)
That the mob are satisfied with the 'Bear Patrol' as a response to a one-off bear incident indicates that they are both unreasoning and easily led by the mayor.
The second occasion is in relation to the tax increase which is funding the 'Bear Patrol'. The mayor in this case, blames the tax increase on illegal immigrants, and the townspeople leave his office satisfied once again. What this says of the citizens is brought out by the dialogue between Mayor Quimby and his assistant as the second mob approaches the mayor's office:
Quimby: Are those morons getting dumber or just louder?
Assistant: (Consulting his clipboard.) Dumber, sir. (Cohen, 1996)
The people of Springfield instantly take up the anti-immigrant case. No-one, other than Lisa and Marge, questions the logic of the 'Bear Patrol', or of 'Proposition 24'. The people are shown to be ignorant in their understanding of the intricacies of government in that the increase in tax, in the 'Bear Patrol Tax', is blamed on illegal immigrants. They are also shown as hypocritical in their reasoning, accusing the immigrants of shortcomings which they possess themselves. For example:
Moe: You know what really aggravazes me? It's them immigants. They wants all the benefits of living in Springfield, but they ain't even bother to learn themselves the language.
Homer: Hey, those are exactly my sanctimonies.
Barney: (Unintelligible babbling.)
Moe: Yeah, you said it Barn.
The mayor (Quimby) is portrayed as a corrupt politician manipulating the citizens of Springfield to maintain his livelihood. As the first mob approaches Quimby's office, he is seen applying white-out to some documents. When the second mob approaches his office, chanting "Down with taxes!", Quimby says: "Ducking this issue calls for real leadership" before blaming high taxes on illegal immigrants and putting forth 'Proposition 24'. So, not only are the people of Springfield unreasoning and ignorant of the complex issues of government, they are manipulated by a mayor interested only in his own well-being.
In short, the narrative of "Much Apu About Nothing" shows that the citizens of Springfield are not capable of understanding the complexity of administrative issues. This enables Mayor Quimby to manipulate them with emotive arguments which are counter to reason. In this respect, the meaning of the episode obtained from its narrative is that democracy is populist.
The main characters in "Much Apu About Nothing" are also important conveyors of meaning. In this respect, the positions of Apu Nahasapeemapetilon and Homer are particularly important in their effects on meaning as they are the central characters of the story. Apu's adds to the portrayal of democracy as populist in that the explanation he gives for overstaying his visa are reasonable, thus casting 'Proposition 24' as unreasonable. Homer, on the other hand, has a contradictory effect on the episode's meaning because of his dual role in this episode: he is both a part of the ignorant mob, and a persuasive speaker on the side of reason. This dual role draws parallels between reason and emotive speech consistent with the critique of the notion that democracy is populist. Thus the central characters of "Much Apu About Nothing" convey different meanings. These arguments are expanded in turn below.
Apu is presented as the victim of 'Proposition 24', he suffers prejudice and a picket of his store, bearing placards with slogans such as 'Get Eurass Back to Eurasia' and 'The Only Good Foreigner is Rod Stewart'. His case is especially unfortunate in that he overstayed his visa in order to repay his student loans because he thought it wrong to leave before doing so. This is presented as a reasonable explanation, counterposed to the unreasonable 'Proposition 24' and its cruel supporters. In this way, the people are shown as unreasonable, but also as uncaring and self-interested. This adds to the argument that democracy is populist, even though Apu passes the citizenship test, resolving his problem.
The role of Homer in shaping the meaning of the story is more complex. In the first instance, he is a part of the ignorant and easily manipulated mob. He is a fervent supporter of the 'Yes On 24' case. Yet he is eventually convinced to vote no in the ballot when he realises how much Apu loves America. He also speaks persuasively at a barbecue celebrating Apu's recently acquired citizenship, on the reasonable position of 'No On 24'. This association of Homer, the embodiment of unreason, and the reasonable 'no' case presents a different meaning than the story of Apu above.
The conversation between Homer and Lisa regarding the 'Bear Patrol', shown above, is typical of Homer's character throughout The Simpsons. He is the embodiment of everything that is not reason. He is shown as ignorant, and as easily misled, by television, political leaders, his peers, his family and anyone else who cares to try. Despite this Homer eventually acts on the side of reason, giving a speech which leaves a large number of citizens chanting 'No On 24'. Homer's association with the 'no' case, and his persuasive speech against 'Proposition 24', show that reason can be argued with equal emotive force.
This is an important point when considered alongside Homer's statement, in the penultimate scene of "Much Apu About Nothing": "[w]hen are people going to learn, democracy doesn't work" (Cohen, 1996). This is an ironic statement on arguments that 'democracy doesn't work' such as the argument that the increasing populism of modern democracy is removing reason from public debates. From Homer's original point of view, democracy has worked for 'Proposition 24' because he initially supported it. Yet, from his changed point of view, democracy has not worked.
However, democracy has worked, in one respect, in that Homer was convinced to change his view to the more reasoned view. When considered alongside the fact that Homer was not convinced to change by reason, but by emotion, and that he consequently convinced many others to change in the same way, this presents the argument that 'democracy doesn't work' in a new light. In short, it is not democracy that is failing, but those who would argue for 'reason' that are failing by not engaging in debate on the terms of the people. In this way, the argument that 'democracy doesn't work' becomes the 'catchcry' of the elitist loser in a given democratic contest, based on the self-perception of superior understanding. In short, democracy is becoming more popular, not more populist.
So, a consideration of the stories of the two central characters in "Much Apu About Nothing" finds that they convey contradictory meanings. In the first case, Apu's experience of victimisation as a result of 'Proposition 24', when considered alongside his reasonable explanation of his illegal overstay, gives the meaning that democracy is populist. In the second case, Homer's change of mind on 'Proposition 24' presents the meaning that democracy is instead popular. In the case of its central characters, this episode is ambivalent on the issue of the populism of modern democracy.
4.2.3 Intertextual references
There are two intertextual references of note in "Much Apu About Nothing": California's 'Proposition 187' ballot in 1994 and Emma Lazarus' "The New Colossus." Each has an affect on the interpretation of meaning in the episode. 'Proposition 187' is ambiguous in its relationship to the episode's meaning in that it could either locate it as a critique of a particular event in American politics, or it could be drawn as an example of the populism of democracy. "The New Colossus" is not so unambiguous in that it highlights the notion that America was founded on immigrants and makes 'Proposition 24' a counterpoint to that. In this respect, the legislation is a populist attack on the American tradition of immigration.
California's 'Proposition 187' has numerous parallels to Springfield's 'Proposition 24'. Firstly, both are anti-immigrant laws justified on the premise that illegal immigrants were the cause of higher taxes (Ana, 1999: p. 191). Although 'Proposition 187' was not legislation for forced deportation, as was Springfield's law, the association of illegal immigrants and higher taxes is a significant point of association. There are other similarities that strengthen this association. The question of language was an issue for proponents of 'Proposition 187' as much as it was for Moe, Barney and Homer (see the dialogue excerpt above) (Zuckerman, 1994). Education was also a concern to the Californians, in much the same way as Homer's concerns about Bart's poor performance in school as a result of money and resources being used to educate illegal immigrant children (Zuckerman, 1994). The parallels between the two pieces of legislation are quite clear, but how does this affect meaning in "Much Apu About Nothing."
Two interpretations can be made of the parallels between Propositions 187 and 24. The first is that this intertextual reference makes "Much Apu About Nothing" a critique of a particular event, not democracy in general. In this understanding, the episode is not sending the message democracy is populist, it is criticising the events surrounding, and the reasoning for, Proposition 187. The second interpretation is that by drawing parallels between the two laws the episode is providing a 'real life' example to strengthen the message that democracy is populist. In this respect, 'Proposition 187' is ambiguous in its relationship to meaning in "Much Apu About Nothing."
The reference to "The New Colossus" is an ironic reference to the inscription at the base of the Statue of Liberty reading in part "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free...." Compare the list of people Police Chief Wiggum is preparing his forces to round up:
Wiggum: All right men, here's the order of deportations. First we'll be rounding up your tired, then your poor, then your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. (Cohen, 1996)
This reference is particularly important considering the close to "The New Colossus," which reads: "I lift my lamp beside the golden door" (Lazarus, 1889) This is a metaphor referring to the place of the Statue of Liberty in the minds of the many immigrants for whom it was their first sight in America. Abraham, or Grampa, Simpson provides an account of the migration of the Simpson family to the United States which revolves around the Statue of Liberty. This is given shortly before Police Chief Wiggum is shown preparing his men.
This reference points to the irony of a nation founded on immigration, and bearing a strong symbol of this in the Statue of Liberty, deporting its illegal immigrants. Proposition 24 is thus an attack on one of the foundational stories of the United States. Although this does not relate directly to the issue of populism in modern democracy, it does pose the Proposition 24 argument as one which is hypocritical. That is, immigrants built the United States, and now it is turning its back on them despite a welcoming message on the Statue of Liberty.
So, the intertextual references of this episode draw in both a 'real world' parallel to Proposition 24 and the way it contradicts a principle of American folklore. In the former case, Proposition 187 bears an ambiguous relationship to meaning in that it can be interpreted such that democracy is populist or such that it is not. In the latter case, the inclusion of a reference to "The New Colossus" emphasises the lack of reasoning in the 'Yes On 24' argument, hence holding democracy as populist.
4.2.4 An overall meaning?
This textual analysis of "Much Apu About Nothing" has shows different elements within the episode which can give it meaning. However, there is not a consistent message across these factors. For example, the narrative of the episode and the experiences of Apu indicate the meaning of the episode is that democracy is populist. Yet this is contradicted by the role of Homer, and by a particular reading of the link developed between Proposition 24 in the episode and California's Proposition 187. These contradictory meanings in the episode make the authoritative account of an overall meaning for "Much Apu About Nothing" impossible. This is because to provide such an account would require knowledge of how individuals read meaning into texts. Rather the point of showing these different elements of meaning is to highlight the indeterminacy of meaning. This is just one such account, others could be made with different focuses and reference points resulting in different meanings, or a different meaning being presented (Tolson, 1996: p. 7). But, by this account, "Much Apu About Nothing is ambiguous in addressing the discourse on the populism of modern democracy.
This chapter presents an analysis of meaning in "Much Apu About Nothing" using a postlinguistics approach. Postlinguistics involves analysing texts within a wider social discourse to provide a point of reference. The aim in this respect is to show the manifestation of and contestation of discourses within texts as its poststructuralist theoretical foundation would argues that texts are a site of the perpetuation and challenging of discourses. In this case, "Much Apu About Nothing" is juxtaposed to the discourse of populism in democracy. Broadly, this is an argument that democracy has become increasingly populist as societies have become more complex, with a consequent increase in the complexity of their administration. As a consequence public debate is less about reason and more about emotive argument and rhetoric. The analysis of the narrative, characters, and intertextual references of "Much Apu About Nothing" identified contradictory messages in the episode depending on the depth and focus of interpretation. In this respect, and overall account of the episode's relationship to the discourse on populism is not possible as these contradictory meanings could be read differently by different individuals.
This thesis makes two main arguments: firstly, that the study of meaning is relevant to political science, and secondly, that meaning is indeterminate. These arguments are demonstrated through an analysis of meaning in The Simpsons as it relates to democracy. The foundations of this analysis are developed throughout the thesis in a systematic manner. Firstly, meaning is presented as reflexive, by which it is meant that it is both constitutive and reflective of individuals in a manner which parallels the dynamic and interrelated understanding of agency and structure. Such a reflexive understanding turns questions of meaning into questions of power, making them relevant to political science.
Secondly, the theories which attempt to address meaning in this fashion can be categorised as materialist and antimaterialist. The materialist approaches are unable to theorise meaning as reflexive by virtue of their understanding of it as determined by the mode of production. The antimaterialist approaches have no determining principle by which meaning can be understood other than that it is a product of both structure, in making it comprehensible, and agency, in its articulation and interpretation. It is thus antimaterialist theory, particularly postlinguistics, which forms the basis of the analysis of The Simpsons.
The Simpsons is chosen for analysis as it is a popular and ambivalent text with a political 'edge'. Firstly, this makes The Simpsons a significant text for analysis. Secondly, it provides a useful test for interpretative theories of meaning. Thirdly, this means that The Simpsons is a site of political discourse. The focus on democracy within The Simpsons gives this thesis a link to an area of political inquiry as well as relating it to a form of government in which contests over meaning are particularly important. An example of this is provided in the women's movement.
Postlinguistics is adopted as the method of analysis for this thesis because it is based on a reflexive understanding of meaning, yet is still focused on the analysis of texts. This is achieved by bringing together the theoretical and analytic principles of poststructuralism and linguistics such that meaning in texts can be, to some degree, understood by juxtaposing such texts to wider social discourse. In this respect, "Much Apu About Nothing" is juxtaposed to the discourse on modern democracy as populist. This shows a number of elements in the episode which give it contradictory meanings in a demonstration of the indeterminacy of meaning. Meaning is indeterminate because, although there is a structure of meaning which makes texts comprehensible, each individual has their own understanding of meaning based on their experiences, their location in the social order and so on. This understanding is brought to bear in 'reading' texts, hence no authoritative accounts can be given of meaning as this requires a full knowledge of the ways in which all individuals give meaning to texts.
This indeterminacy is what makes meaning contestable through political action because it places meaning more firmly in the hands of political agents. This is particularly the case in democracies, as they rely more on appeals to the 'common sense' or assumptions about social life, of individuals, who can hence inform the future's 'common sense'. This makes meaning more relevant to political science as it can be expanded beyond the analysis of texts to the analysis of political debates over how 'we' can understand the world.
A plot synopsis of "A Streetcar Named Marge"
This episode opens with the Simpson family watching the "Miss American Girl" pageant on television. Marge announces that she is rehearsing for a musical production of "A Streetcar Named Desire," titled "Oh! Streetcar." None of the others notice until she leaves, she then must explain again at their behest. Marge is cast as Blanche Dubois after the producer, Llewellyn Sinclair, witnesses a telephone conversation between Marge and Homer. Homer is not at all interested in Marge's involvement with the play. Maggie interrupts rehearsals and is consequently placed in the "Ayn Rand School for Tots," the daycare centre of Llewellyn's sister. The "Ayn Rand School for Tots" allows neither bottles nor pacifiers, hence Maggie's pacifier is locked away from her. The babies at the daycare centre implement a scheme to retrieve their pacifiers, at which they are successful. Marge develops into her role in the play through rehearsals, and an increasing anger at Homer. The play is a success, Homer and Marge are reconciled. (Groening, 1997; Martin, 1992)
A plot synopsis of "Much Apu About Nothing"
"Much Apu About Nothing" opens with a scene of a bear rummaging through garbage bins and destroying letterboxes in a Springfield street, which it turns out is outside the Simpson house. Homer attempts to leave the house and has an encounter with the bear. Following this, Homer leads a mob to the mayor's office demanding something be done about the bears. The mayor institutes a 'Bear Patrol' to deal with the bear problem, which involves marked vans patrolling the streets and B-2 bombers patrolling the skies. However, to do this the mayor has had to impose a 'bear patrol tax' on the citizens of Springfield. Again, a mob marches on the mayor's office chanting 'down with taxes'. The mayor blames the high taxes on illegal immigrants and puts forward 'Proposition 24', legislation for the deportation of all illegal immigrants. At first Homer is for 'Proposition 24', however he is swayed by the predicament of his friend Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, to turn against it. In the end 'Proposition 24' is passed, however Apu escapes deportation by passing a citizenship exam. (Cohen, 1996; Groening, 1997)
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An honours thesis in Government and International Relations, the Faculty of Economics and Business, University of Sydney
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