Saturday, October 02, 2004

No Pants

Did anyone catch the Spongebob Squarepants karate episode?

Spongebob and the squirrel (what’s her name again?) were practicing their karate on one another. The sexual analogy was very obvious (One time, Spongebob was about to fight, then remembered ‘Safety first’, and rushed off to put a large round helmet on his head).

It was all very entertaining, but near the end of the show something unexpected happened. The analogy broke down. There was no continuity in the subtext. Abruptly it was impossible to sustain a coherent thematic reading. The surface narrative thread was unbroken, but there was no thematic conclusion. (At least I hope – the show ended with Spongebob and squirrel karate chopping crabby patties for a crowd of customers.)

My first instinct was that this was simply a narrative flaw, or worse - a cop out. But I now realise that the writers were aiming for something more nuanced and, I think, quite daring. This was not a failure of resolution, but a refusal.

The language of metaphor is suggestive, and thus subjective. We interpret, make comparisons, impose meanings, invent consistencies. What does the failure of my imagination – too fallow to balance the incongruence, overactive enough to get me in this mess – have to say about the show’s creators? A simple tale about two people having fun with karate – what did you think it was about?

This is why the break had to be sudden, unexpected – I had built up certain expectations, subliminally, only to have them obliterated in a single moment. This was an eloquent demonstration of the vagaries of knowledge, an exploration of the connectedness of subjectivity and uncertainty. If we construct our own realities, does this make us masters of our world, or is the relationship between truth and subjectivity a tenuous one, inevitably to come apart: disillusion in the deepest and most frightful sense of the term.

More powerful yet was how this commented on my psyche. Fine, we create our own meanings, truth is elusive, but why was my truth so misleading? Is my failure to create a story that works a personal failure, is it a moral one? Why did I choose that reading? Was does it say about me?

But of once I recovered from the initial shock, I realised that the creators were not merely playing psychological mind-games. It is good to be shaken out of one’s private complacency, but it is unfair to place culpability on the individual for the ills of the community. The symbols and codes that I use to read my world have been internalised to the point where they are, arguably, a part of who I am. But my experience and my reaction to this experience follow the language of my community. This does not absolve me – just as an addict is not absolved of crimes he could not resist – from my personal responsibility, but at least the burden is one that we share. Our guilt (not guilt – our failing) is collective. Perhaps this points the way toward redemption. Only by a thorough diagnosis of the condition of the collective experience can begin to grasp the self.

There is another layer of suggestion, a more ambiguous set of ideas. The interpretation is ours, we impose our own meaning; but where did the thrust to so imagine come from? If we were acting passively (and no less irresponsibly for it) wherefrom came the directive with which we failed not to comply? The answer is obvious, the meaning uncertain. It was the creators of the show themselves who implanted the kernels of suggestion. It is they who toy with the archetypes, who play with our psyche. But why?

Introduced is the notion of complicity. Our guilt is their guilt, we were only following order (or failing not to). Is this honesty? Who are we, they might say, to put ourselves outside the collective, to presume to stand beyond a very social failure. Perhaps it is merely a structural requirement – they did what was needed to create this type of work.

I suspect something else, and I’m not sure what to make of it. I detect a hint of assent. ‘Yes we are guilty – so are you. But the power of the subjective is the power to out-imagine our guilt. There is only subjectivity – let ours be the strongest and the most successful. Our real failure was the failure to imagine in our favour. Don’t you see that compliance with the accepted semiotic structures is keeping us down?’ I worry about unfettered relativism - is theirs restricted to the metaphysical or also the moral (can they be separated)?

Who is immune from the politics of power? How dangerous might this be?

I suggest we analyse carefully how future episodes play out, and mobilise for any possible action.


Blogger jermaine noble said...

what time is it on? and what channel? MTV? the SABC season had finished, i thought,

5:16 PM  
Blogger jermaine noble said...

anyway, sounds like a classic case of sexual energy sublimated into food craving. plus light exhibitionism.

5:23 PM  
Blogger jermaine noble said...

is the sexualization of cartoon interaction (which the show, as you have portrayed it, suggests only to suddenly and cruelly yank away) a moral failure?

5:34 PM  
Blogger jermaine noble said...

i suppose the amorality/'guilt' is implied through the denial to assert our expectations, making us perverse.

5:36 PM  
Blogger jermaine noble said...

"(not guilt - our failing)"

i didn't see that.

5:38 PM  
Blogger Kaiser Gestalt said...

No way! I was concerned only with the potential misuse of the subjective universal.

This was an MTV episode. Can't remember what time. I think the SABC ones were better (older?), but I haven't watched enough to be sure.

5:46 PM  
Blogger jermaine noble said...

but why does the breakdown of subjective universal lead us to respond with guilt, rather than, say, despair or confusion?

5:53 PM  
Blogger jermaine noble said...

am i misreading/misthinking the argument?

6:08 PM  
Blogger Kaiser Gestalt said...

The 'no way' was directed only at "is the sexualization of cartoon interaction ... a moral failure?"

Yes, I think the guilt is largely psychological. Are our interpretive expressions projectiong some internal perversion; were we mistaken all along - is our reality tainted by a moral, or other personal, failing?

I would say no. But that surely does not licence truth-by-majority. What are the legitimate constraints on interpretation?

6:30 PM  
Blogger Kaiser Gestalt said...

And are we obliged to ask this question? Why not simply answer it in our favour?

6:31 PM  

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