The Existential Status of The Simpsons
Pondering the Homeric Dasein of Springfield
One of the ongoing jokes on The Simpsons — which is currently celebrating 30 years on air, as the longest-running primetime scripted series on U.S. television — is that the viewer is consistently denied knowledge of which state Springfield is located in. In a recent interview with podcaster Marc Maron, Krusty the Klown lets slip that Springfield is not in Massachusetts, but is rather “near Tennessee, just south of Oregon.” The writers have a very good reason not to reveal the exact location of Springfield, given that The Simpsons represents the whole country — the generic American experience, untethered to any specific local flavor. (Family Guy, in contrast, aims to provide the very precisely lower-middle class New England vibe of Quahog, Rhode Island.) This now-iconic show resonates with us by virtue of its own autonomous existence: floating free of any anchoring geographical reference point, and yet existing very much on its own terms, and in its own way. (Remarkably, The Simpsons seems to resonate to an increasing degree in popular culture, even as fewer people remain faithful to watching the show. The “golden age of The Simpsons” — roughly the first eight or so years of its run — is less than a third of its total time on air. Yet those classic episodes continue to spool in the minds of those who grew up on the show, and perhaps had even presumed they had outgrown it.)
Springfield, of course, does not really exist. It is a virtual location — all the more so for being animated. (We can’t walk around inside the Simpsons’ living room, the way we can the kitchen set of Mad Men, for instance.) And yet The Simpsons universe exists, and it does so in a way that has real-world effects and a palpable influence on so-called reality. Take, for instance, the new Twitter account Simpsons Screens, which posts a random frame from the past 30 seasons of the show every half hour. The accumulative effect of these visual dispatches is the impression of a full and coherent world. While fans and critics talk of “the expanded Marvel Universe” — as only one franchise of many — The Simpsons universe not so much expands as contracts and congeals. With each passing year it increases in density and intensity. And it is this ongoing process — of the virtual asymptotically becoming-actual — that Simpsons Screens both reveals and accelerates. The most compelling of these images are not the classic compositions of Bart engaging in shenanigans or Marge fretting in the kitchen, but the exterior shots of random buildings and the frozen glimpses of anonymous background characters. The extraordinary richness of the world of Springfield is recovered in a kind of paradoxical ballet between televisual banality and forensic intensity. As if in homage to Giorgio Agamben’s esoteric writings on a secret truth of existence, the characters are “whatever beings,” living life beyond their own specific tics and characteristics, projecting a kind of transcendent generic nature, or profound impersonality. As are the locations themselves: anonymous courtyards, unremarkable strip malls, already forgotten conference rooms. To my mind, The Simpsons universe is infinitely more marvelous than Marvel’s, since it shimmers on the threshold of credibility. It threatens to wink into existence, broadcasting us cryptic signals in the meantime — signals that the writers or directors could not have anticipated or planned.
Every year on June 16, literary types celebrate Bloomsday. Joyce fans who find themselves in Dublin may even retrace Leopold Bloom’s movements, chronicled in such detail in Ulysses, hour by hour, in the course of a single day. Perhaps in time we shall also celebrate “Simpsonsday,” though it would be difficult to pin-point a single 24-hour period to re-enact, as The Simpsons’s diegetic universe constantly refracts and multiplies. (A tendency perhaps represented best in the episode “22 Short Films About Springfield” — itself a spoof of the famous documentary about Glenn Gould.) Homer Simpson is the televisual equivalent of Leopold Bloom, as the primary aperture for our access to this fictional world. Of course, Homer Simpson is not the first Homer Simpson, since his name was lifted from Nathanael West’s brilliant novella, The Day of the Locust. (West’s book is itself a remarkably prescient comment on the dark power of simulated worlds, written only a couple of decades into the first surge of the industrial production of hyperreality — specifically, all those phantasmatic feats of “imagineering” which were conducted under the sign, both literally and figuratively, of Hollywood.) Of course, the very first weaver of imaginative worlds in the Western tradition was also called Homer; a shadowy figure, lost to the mists and myths of time, and most likely the generic name denoting an entire tradition of oral storytellers. Indeed, one could — at the risk of being misunderstood as overly-cute — trace an arc from the pre-literate to the post-modern (and perhaps even post-literate) from this Hellenic Homer to the one who appears on Fox every Sunday night. (The late father of The Simpsons’s creator, Matt Groening, was also called Homer, named after the epic bard — as is Groening’s son.)
Given that we live in postmodern times, we no longer simply absorb media artifacts, but excrete them as well. We have the tools to “talk back” to the shows, characters, and worlds that have helped shape our own personalities and outlooks. One such example of creative repurposing, when it comes to The Simpsons specifically, is the niche aesthetic of Simpsonswave, itself a subgenre of Vaporwave. Simpsonswave exhibits a knowing “nostalgia for the present” among the digital ruins of what critic Mark Fisher calls “the slow cancellation of the future.” (Though, some might say, no longer so slow.) Incorporating glitch techniques, Tumblr aesthetics, and memetic savvy, Simpsonswave tends to isolate a single moment in The Simpsons universe, and stretch it out for longer than any single episode, looping it over and over. The effect is ambient and, thanks largely to the forlorn music mixed for the visuals, melancholic. Take for instance, the video F O R G O T T E N, uploaded to YouTube by Noetic, which depicts the contentious character Apu sitting on a roof, slumped and depressed, opposite his beloved Kwik-E-Mart. Or consider the heart-rending retelling of the quasi-incestuous relationship between Bart and Lisa, reassembled to a song by Will Oldham. Before Simpsons Screens, this kind of meta-culture-jamming helped cement the notion that Springfield exists in a place beyond the original creators’ control, and outside any policing by copyright, trademark, or licensing. Springfield has accreted an aesthetic heft equal to that of Edward Hopper’s New York, with comparable alienation and muted yearning.
As it turns 30, The Simpsons universe has now existed longer than many of its die-hard fans (many of whom consider Springfield a kind of parallel universe, in which they live simultaneously with this one). Jean Baudrillard famously talked of the map becoming the territory, but in this case the map floats above, below, and inside the territory, as if teasing us with the possible realization of the collective imaginary. Springfield as Jungian unconscious, Debordian spectacle, and Latourian flat ontology, all at once. In 2019, who is to say that O.J. Simpson or Kim Kardashian have more reality than Troy McClure or Edna Krabappel. The question itself seems badly conceived. (Especially when we consider the parade of celebrity guest-stars, from Thomas Pynchon to the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who have passed through Springfield.)
To risk one more breezy philosophical reference, Martin Heidegger spent much of his life thinking through the “dasein” of Being. With this complex term, Heidegger wanted to name the exceptionalism of human existence, faced with mortality and contingency, and yet — potentially at least — “being there”; being present in a way that matched the mystery of being thrown into this world, without compass or map. What Heidegger did not consider was the dasein of nonhumans, such as animals, or even stones. But what if things can have dasein? What if places can embody and enact a kind of transcendent, or at least authentic, presence, in the midst of illusion, distraction, and what Heidegger provocatively called “the forgetting of Being”? Indeed, what if “being in Springfield” is a type of aspirational ontology that helps us be in the world — a world permeated by animated beings of all types, as much as by plastic, carbon, and dreams?The Simpsons has enjoyed an accumulating hyperreal dasein for 30 years, allowing a proxy “being (t)here” for viewers who no longer feel completely at home in an increasingly inhospitable American landscape. For younger viewers discovering The Simpsons through the shattered lens of the present, the parallel universe of Springfield is a seductive and paradoxical non-place, in which no one grows older, and yet time seems to pass at the same rate as in our own world. There is a comfort in knowing it is always there, just on the other side of the screen, no matter the chaos in our own lives and places; waiting for, and welcoming, us.
As Homer complains to Marge, when she wants to hit the town: “Why go out? We’ll just end up back home again.”
Dominic Pettman is Professor of Culture & Media at Eugene Lang College and the New School for Social Research.