This project started out as a joke. Behold my unique talent to make things very unfunny.
In one of my favorite episodes of SpongeBob Squarepants, Mr. Krabs is hospitalized after his own hubris gets the best of him when he tries to sell a several-days-old patty to his customers. After presumably dying, he meets the Flying Dutchman (sailor’s version of Satan) who had come to condemn him and take his soul. For his greed and “being so cheap,” Mr. Krabs is dragged into Davy Jones’ Locker (sailor’s version of hell) which is, amusingly, a gym locker wreaking from its previous inhabitant’s gym wardrobe. This is where Mr. Krabs will spend the afterlife unless he learns from the error of his ways (eternal damnation has never been so family friendly).
It’s degradingly obvious to draw comparisons of this episode to Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol which similarly depicts a greedy and miserly businessman and exploiter who is visited by spirits from the beyond who hint at his damnation unless he repents and learns the value of generosity. On the other hand, whereas Dickens’ character gains first-hand knowledge of the consequences of his apathy as he encounters Ignorance and Want and learns the fate of Tiny Tim, Eugene Krabs’ vices are presented without context. He is given a threat (an ultimately empty one) to be a better person or suffer the consequences without being made aware of why it’s a problem in the first place. This creates two problems for the story: the first is it cheapens whatever arc Mr. Krabs could have had. If he repents, it will be because he is afraid of what will happen when he inevitably dies and will have nothing to do with genuine concern for others or sense of enlightenment. Ethics is reduced to mere platitudes without concern for consequence or motive. The second is that it shuts down further study and implication of the character, setting, or story by making Krabs exist in a vacuum.
Here’s what I mean:
In Stave Two, the Ghost of Christmas Past forces Scrooge to explore his own history to reexamine why he became the man he is. We learn that he has a history that informs his present motives which include emotional neglect at youth (because it always has to be the parents’ fault) and his descent into the pursuit of wealth at the cost of his humanity. This last point is expressed by his soon-to-be ex-fiancé, Belle, when she informs him, “I have seen your nobler aspirations fall off one by one, until the master-passion, Gain, engrosses you (Dickens, 40).” I think what’s most telling, and naively missing from most adaptations is his defense: “There is nothing on which it is so hard as poverty; and there is nothing it professes to condemn with such severity as the pursuit of wealth! (40).” Scrooge is terrified of poverty and understands that wealth is the only true sanctuary. Belle interprets this fear as cowardice, “you fear the world too much,” which she concludes drives him to seek power. To be “beyond the chance of [the world’s] sordid reproach (40).” He insists that he is just being wise. As a sign of a true literary masterpiece, there’s truth in both of their arguments.
It’s a mistake for readers to eagerly read an author’s work as biographical, but I think it’s significant that Charles Dickens’ father was thrown into debtor’s prison when he was just twelve years old. He had sold all of his possessions by then and had eight children depending on him. This fear of poverty is visceral, and Charles Dickens knows what he’s talking about. While it’s undeniable Mr. Scrooge must be held individually accountable for the loss of his humanity, there is ambiguity in his motivation which is impossible to resolve. Ambiguity that was born from the world which he belonged and in too many ways reflected our own. This ambivalence of motive is what makes it worthwhile for him to have a chance at redemption and to make things right. Ambiguity in life and literature are the reason mere justice, untampered by mercy or a chance at redemption, is often just cruelty.
But back to SpongeBob, Mr. Krabs has no such history to inform his present motive and no culture with which to inform the shape of his being. He exists in a void. Wikipedia informs us that the creator of SpongeBob made Krabs greedy to “give him more personality.” Everything about him is a given. The fact that he’s greedy is a given. The fact that it’s wrong to be greedy is a given (even if there’s no reason for it to be so in this universe).
There’s a voice in my head that says, “You do realize this is a cartoon for children, right?” This voice echoes all the doubters that tried to shut me down for speaking truths like I’m speaking now. Doubters that usually consisted of friends trying to enjoy a dinner party or enjoy their drink at the bar in peace.
And to this voice I assure there’s a larger point to be made before you kick me out.
Because while comparing a cartoon for children in the 21st century to a 19th century novella is comparing apples to oranges, to be sure, I think it’s worth asking how we got here. Because context-free and consequence-free action is the new normal. Entertainment media has decided that context matters less than personality. The industry of film criticism is pretty much built on this assumption. This fact is such a given that most people are confused about the very notion of asking why that is. Jason Alexander, George Costanza on Seinfeld, reflected in an interview that he had confronted Jerry Seinfeld over a reservation he had about his character early in filming for their television show. When Alexander explained, “I don’t think my character would do this,” Seinfeld retorted, “It’s not about characters! It’s about funny!”
This isn’t about artistic integrity but about the fact Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David understood that, above all else, they were providing a service. Viewers spend their time (and expose themselves to advocates for consumable products) because they want to laugh. This was a point of concern for Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer (A&H) who wrote Dialectic of Enlightenment in 1944 after fleeing Nazi Germany as academic Jews. In the Preface of the 1947 edition, they write, “What we have set out to do was nothing less than to explain why humanity, instead of entering a truly human state, is sinking into a new kind of barbarism.” In their most famous chapter, “The Culture Industry,” they argue, “Everything has value only in so far as it can be exchanged, not in so far as it is something in itself. For consumers the use value of art, its essence, is a fetish, and the fetish—the social valuation which they mistake for the merit of works of art— becomes its only use value, the only quality they enjoy” (Adorno, 66).
The problem is just as Ebenezer Scrooge can only be a realized character through the context of the world that informs him, so we can only be emotionally enriched individuals through our ability to contextualize what we are exposed to. This can be difficult when it is assumed that there shouldn’t be anything more to read in a character beyond their purpose as a commodity. Mr. Krabs is there to make children laugh. Leave it alone. Jerry Seinfeld makes adults laugh. Leave it alone. But this line of reasoning leaves our worldview exposed and unaware to a homogenized and uniform entertainment industry. To go back to Adorno and Horkheimer:
“Not only are the hit songs, stars, and soap operas cyclically recurrent and rigidly invariable types, but the specific content of the entertainment itself is derived from them and only appears to change. The details are interchangeable. The short interval sequence which was effective in a hit song, the hero’s momentary fall from grace (which he accepts as good sport), the rough treatment which the beloved gets from the male star, the latter’s rugged defiance of the spoilt heiress, are, like all the other details, ready-made clichés to be slotted in anywhere; they never do anything more than fulfil the purpose allotted them in the overall plan. Their whole raison d’être is to confirm it by being its constituent parts. As soon as the film begins, it is quite clear how it will end, and who will be rewarded, punished, or forgotten” (44).
While not all clichés have stood the test of time, we are riddled with clichés that have replaced the capacity for storytelling, nonetheless. New models replacing the old ones just like cars, evolved to reflect superficial changes in culture. Rian Johnson’s Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi made a stir for replacing established clichés of the Star Wars franchise with new ones (and that’s it). Reviewers don’t know how to identify a franchise without essentializing it with its clichés and icons, and so they found it “revolutionary” and “ground-breaking.” The maligned “fan base” has the same underlying self-imposed limitation, but they called it heresy. To be fair, the saner 90% of viewers thought the movie was “fine” or “meh” and moved on with their lives.
And thus, uncontextualized characters, icons, and paradigms can be moved in or out of any media filter or story to make an illusion of distinction. Mass production of new stories ensues (even without the endless stream of remakes, remakes, remakes, reboots, and sequels). So long as they provide the required services that audiences will pay for by being funny, lachrymose, dramatic, immersive, providing power fantasies or tediously feigning intelligence, all is justified and mission accomplished.
Americans are taught at a young age to see entertainment media as frivolous and therefore its discussion unimportant, but this ignores television’s uncanny ability to persuade viewers that reality is an extension of itself. To go back to A&H, writing during the invention of talkies, “The more densely and completely its techniques duplicate empirical objects, the more easily it creates the illusion that the world outside is a seamless extension of the one which has been revealed in the cinema” (45). Even animated marine animals can be relatable through shallow replications of the human experience. Combined with the knowledge of how hollow the whole process is it’s no wonder people find it so difficult to cope in the modern world.
That’s bad enough, but there’s a bigger problem. As Adorno and Horkheimer point out, “Added to this is the agreement, or at least the common determination, of the executive powers to produce or let pass nothing which does not conform to their tables, to their concept of the consumer, or, above all, to themselves” (43). In other words, studios are not going to support ideas they think run against their interests. Even fictional rebellions (often based on real and appropriated rebellions) are commodified to encourage young ones to buy more lightsabers and tickets.
“What about SpongeBob? I clicked on this link for SpongeBob and you’ve hardly talked about SpongeBob!”
Right. Well, to give an example of what I just said, there are only certain things that a protagonist can change (especially in a sitcom or children’s cartoon). What the protagonist can change are disruptions to the status quo, like Plankton’s attempt to steal the Krabby Patty secret formula (or Lex Luther’s attempt to take over the world). Certain elements of a status quo are perceived as simply necessary, and resignation is confused with wisdom. Attempts to hold Mr. Krabs accountable just happens to be either morally wrong or laughably futile (even the devil can’t set him straight). He’s just an entity of nature bestowed with stability and stagnation by the writers of the universe.
Squidward’s attempt at a better life, whether by unionizing for higher wages, sustaining a music career, or living in a community of more like-minded people are futile. The fact that Squidward seems to be the only person in Bikini Bottom who is poorly adjusted to his circumstance further isolates him and implies that his mental state is his fault and his alone.
SpongeBob, meanwhile, is the epitome of what Adorno considered a Culture Industry’s protagonist. His cheery attitude makes him obsequious to Mr. Krabs and his oppressive conditions. SpongeBob identifies him as a father figure even after Mr. Krabs momentarily fired him for a nickel’s worth of profits. His cheery attitude is also what makes him so happy, leaving the impression that one’s happiness and harmony with one’s circumstances are entirely within one’s grasp without the need for challenging soul-searching or disruptions to the status-quo.
Children might not be able to practice sophisticated media analysis, but they can draw correlations. Through SpongeBob and Squidward, gregarious subservience is associated with friendliness, exuberance, satisfaction, and harmony with life and colleagues, while sincerely struggling with life and identity for long periods of time are associated with dishonesty, unhappiness, snobbery, futility, and a loss of energy.
“I think you’re reading too much into this. The writers were just trying to be funny.”
That’s probably true, but it’s not an accident Squidward is the butt of most jokes where he’s involved. In the sad condition of the Culture Industry, “Laughter about something is always laughter at it..(54).” With entertainment like this, who needs propaganda?
The show might pay lip service to the contrary, there are episodes like “SpongeBob’s Last Stand” where Mr. Krabs’ short-sighted self-interest leads to public policy that momentarily ruins his business. There’s also the season 4 episode where Squidward tries to unionize. When this inevitably fails, he bemoans, “Nobody gives a care about the fate of labor as long as they can get their instant gratification,” (wink-wink-nudge-nudge). It’s worth noting that Squidward’s relatability made him the favorite of many fans as they got older. And while fans can convince themselves their favorite program is satire disguised as conformity, this is usually more of a wolf in sheep’s clothing situation than genuine satire given everything that’s already been said.
That may have not been the intention of SpongeBob’s creator specifically, there’s technically no “political” agenda necessary (it certainly doesn’t require some centralized Illuminati-type conspiracy which holds very little explanatory power), but it’s the result of an entire industry driven by ready-made and easy to replicate elements with a laser focus on the bottom line. Any creator who wants to participate in this creative process must share this priority or behave as if they do. On a side note, if we assume A&H’s belief that the entertainment industry was a forerunner to how the broader economy would operate, it’s no surprise that the practice of requiring employees to “share the company vision” and have certain attitudes has spread to the modern job market. The job interview process, where an applicant is scrutinized on ultimately arbitrary standards of the decision makers, and the fact people are hired and fired based on “cultural fit” emulates this dynamic, and yet usually goes unnoticed by all of its participants.
Obviously not every expression of media falls into this trap (though the majority do). If this is your first time hearing these ideas, it’s understandable if 2500 words is not enough to convince you of the existence or impact of the Culture Industry. In my experience, it takes a long time to mull over. But I want to go into one last point as to why it is essential that people learn to mull over it in the first place.
During the time of this writing, Covid-19 has become a worldwide phenomenon. As elected policymakers grapple the pros and cons of every decision, one concern that many have is that everyone gets “back to work” as soon as possible, virus or no virus. If we don’t, they insist, unthinkable economic collapse will be inevitable. The most vulnerable among us will just have to risk exposure and make the ultimate sacrifice for the good of the market-economy. Lieutenant-Governor of Texas, Dan Patrick, was bold enough to declare as much openly on a national broadcast. President Trump is insisting we get back to work by Easter (a holiday dated and based entirely on a pagan ritual) against the advice of medical experts. Maybe Patrick (not to be confused with the character from SpongeBob) and Trump will pay a political price for their intransigence, maybe they won’t. But the fact that they were bold enough to openly take such an unconscionable stance says enough.
I think what’s more interesting is that this line of reasoning actually makes sense to a lot of people. If we don’t get back to work, people won’t be able to make money to buy products, therefore businesses will close, therefore people will slide into poverty and fewer people will be able to afford health insurance, therefore more people will die than if we take cautionary action. I don’t think those numbers check out, but even if they did, at no point does it seem to cross the advocate’s mind that there are plenty of policies that we could pass that would open access to health care to people in financial need. Or that there’s action that policymakers could take that would suspend the cost of living (like rent or mortgages) until the crisis is over and people can be reasonably expected to make ends meet. There are tens of solutions to avoid fatalism. Hell, almost every country of a similar development as the United States has taken such action.
People defending the position will claim they are just staying realistic in the face of cold hard reality. This delusion only makes sense if the status quo of going to work to earn your keep is given divine stature as an irrefutable force of nature of equal or greater caliber than Covid-19 itself. Such a stature is readily provided by an ultimately hollow industry that has seeped into every facet of reality from education to religion to our very notions of right and wrong. Thus, we may very well end up throwing bodies rather than money at the problem.
I don’t think there’s a silver-bullet solution to this phenomenon. If your idea was to turn off the tv and stop being influenced by the media, I’m afraid you’re already too late. Some philosophers think that we will never be beyond the influence of Culture Industries but that the solution is to think of it as an opportunity rather than a crutch. I don’t know. I do know that I may have cut off any real opportunity for gainful employment after posting this blog. So, if any place is looking to hire a hard worker who collaborates well with others and always sees his tasks through to the end, let me know.
Dickens, C. (n.d.). A CHRISTMAS CAROL. Elegant Ebooks. doi:https://www.ibiblio.org/ebooks/Dickens/Carol/Dickens_Carol.pdf
Jason Alexander discusses ‘George Costanza’ being based on Larry David- EMMYTVLEGENDS.ORG. YouTube. FoundationINTERVIEWS. (2014). 8:52. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4SgIH4tTtRo
Adorno, T. (1972). The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception. In M. Horkheimer (Ed.), Dialectic of Enlightenment (pp. 41-71). doi:https://analepsis.files.wordpress.com/2015/01/cultureindustry.pdf