Animated Nihilism: Rick and Morty, Bojack Horseman, and the Strange Fate of the Adult Cartoon

I was reminded of this talk last night, which I gave on February 18, 2018, at Marquette University at the invitation of Gerry Canavan, and realized I had never posted it anywhere. Events in both series have overtaken some of my claims, but I present it in its original form, for the record….

Thank you, Gerry, for the generous introduction and the invitation to speak here today on this urgent topic. You already provided me with the opportunity to publish my first peer-reviewed article on Star Trek—establishing me as an official Star Trek scholar, a title I brandish proudly—and here today you have given me a fresh chance to transmute my TV obsessions into academic productivity. It was a great pleasure to rewatch all of BoJack in the last month with the ready excuse that it was for my research, a trick that I have been pulling over and over in the course of my academic career.

Of course, this form of time-laundering is not always equally plausible. My partner and I have been watching old reruns of Frasier, for instance, and there is no possible academic project that would strictly require me to watch every single variation on their relatively narrow bag of tricks. The essence of Frasier, as with most sitcoms, could be distilled into ten episodes or less without really missing anything—other than the comfortable feeling of slipping into the grooves of a well-worn routine.

Things are different with BoJack Horseman and Rick and Morty. These are not shows that are designed to be watched half-attentively. They reward rewatching and reward analysis. Continue reading “Animated Nihilism: Rick and Morty, Bojack Horseman, and the Strange Fate of the Adult Cartoon”

Two remarkable moments from Aristotle’s Physics

After having a good experience teaching Plato’s Timaeus, I was dreading the next step in my Shimer Great Books seminar on great texts in cosmology: Aristotle’s Physics. Aristotle never seems to teach well, not simply because of his dry writing style, but because of his often confusing presentation — throwing out multiple ideas, some tied to specific names but most not, before gradually whittling the possibilities down to his own preferred solution. Undergraduate readers tend to find that approach uniquely impenetrable. It has been more fun teaching the Physics this year than I expected, though, in part because of how close it is to everyday experience — and also, perhaps, because my years of hard experience have helped me to give them reading strategies.

In any case, I want to highlight two remarkable passages from Aristotle that, to me, vindicate his stature as a real scientific thinker. Continue reading “Two remarkable moments from Aristotle’s Physics

The Political Theology of COVID-19, Part 2: The Pandemic as an Existential Crisis

In my previous post on the political theology of our world-historical plague, I wrote about the way the novel coronavirus of 2019 had called into question the legitimacy of our political order and our entire social bond. In this post, I’d like to talk more about the theological side of the issue, which I think has been crowded out by the political perspective — most exaggeratedly among those who see a grim eugenic conspiracy in our leaders’ alternately inept and malicious handling of this terrible situation.

There is obviously a lot of blame to go around in the pandemic response. The Trump administration’s actions were irresponsible and often simply incomprehensible. Other “smarter” Republicans stoked vile conspiracies in ways that made an effective response impossible, above all in the inconceivable decision to turn vaccination into a polarized political issue. The Biden administration has cleared the low bar set by Trump and the Republicans, but they have clearly been too beholden to big business and too eager to declare victory and move on. No political leader has come out of the pandemic looking good, at least in the US (which is the limit of my detailed knowledge). All of them could have done better. More people died than had to die, and our leaders bear that responsibility.

But it’s not anyone’s fault that the novel coronavirus jumped species in late 2019 — not Trump’s, not Biden’s, not Lori Lightfoot’s, not Chairman Xi’s. It simply happened. Continue reading “The Political Theology of COVID-19, Part 2: The Pandemic as an Existential Crisis”

The Bodily Fluids Game

By far the most successful teaching activity I’ve ever come up with – the most fun, the most memorable, and the most pedagogically effective – is the bodily fluids game I use in Week 4 of my Gender, Sexuality and the Bible module. Having shared it a couple of times with friends and colleagues, I thought it would be worth posting here so it’s more widely available. The goal of the game is to get people thinking about bodily fluids and the way that disgust functions within particular systems of gender, sexuality and society. The game consists of 16 cards, each with a different bodily fluid on it (it’s a non-exhaustive list so you could always tweak it). I’ve laminated mine but you don’t need to:


The game has two parts:

  1. In small groups, arrange the bodily fluids in order from the most to the least disgusting
  2. Take a look at the rankings you’ve produced in some groups. What makes some bodily fluids more disgusting than others.

Once we’ve played the game I talk the students through some of the theoretical arguments made by people like Mary Douglas and Julia Kristeva about gender, disgust, the self and society; but extensive testing suggests it’s fun to play even without the academic component.

Covid Doomerism as Conspiracy Theory

For a long time now, I have been periodically losing Twitter followers for lashing out at what we might call “covid doomer” online content. Often times when I do this, it “sounds like” I am adopting a right-wing or libertarian position, denying the reality of the pandemic, etc., because people either do not know about the kinds of extreme views I am talking about or — what seems more common — they think we should tolerate such views because they are pointing in the right direction and at the very least can do no harm. The former response makes sense, though I wish my comrades would trust that I have actually seen content like I describe. The latter is both frustrating and insidious, because tolerating misinformation just because it’s on our side is a recipe for becoming a mirror image of the right. We have a duty to tell the truth as we understand it, and we also have a duty not to share inflammatory or terrifying content without good reason to believe it’s true.

Continue reading “Covid Doomerism as Conspiracy Theory”

One-Dimensionality and the Uses of Transcendence

During my self-sabbatical, I have been using my commute time to read books that I have been vaguely meaning to read for a while. One of those was Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism. I enjoyed it — and may even blog about it some day — and decided to continue on the track of “obsolete social criticism” by reading Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man. I somehow expected it to be a, well, one-dimensional diatribe against postwar conformism, but I have found it very energizing — even moving. Perhaps it’s just landing differently because my brain is finally starting to heal from burnout, but I think it has a lot to say to our neoliberal moment and to the perpetual “crisis of the humanities.” For this post, though, rather than doing a book report or review, I want to focus on one of his simplest yet most powerful points — namely, what exactly he means by “one-dimensional” — and how this pushed me to rethink some things.

Continue reading “One-Dimensionality and the Uses of Transcendence”

The cruelty is the point

It’s a common refrain on social media. Someone will link to a story of a Republican lawmaker proposing or doing something evil, harmful, or otherwise malicious, and they will declare: “The cruelty is the point.” It’s admittedly difficult to argue otherwise. We are past the point where we can dismiss Republican policy as cynical machinations to motivate their base. The politicians themselves are clearly outrunning public opinion, devising new and ever more cruel punishments for their various enemies. I see no other explanation: the cruelty is indeed the point.

If cruelty is the point, then these people are beyond shaming. Calling attention to their actions will have no effect, because they proudly boast of them. So the function of “cruelty is the point” must be as some kind of warning. We are living in a country where one half of the political class — or essentially the entire political class, on the state or local level in some parts of the country — openly declares their intent to use public authority in order to do harm. For them, the state machinery exists to punish their enemies, or sometimes (as in the Republican governors who have shipped asylum seekers to Democratic states) to torment third parties in order to burden or even simply embarrass their enemies. Every time they gain power, they will act this way. They are not receptive to rational argument, empirical evidence, or appeals to duty or the public good. In fact, to the extent that they have any idea of duty or the public good, it is precisely to abuse state power in the way they are constantly doing even as we speak.

My question is: what now? Continue reading “The cruelty is the point”

It all comes down to the triangles

One of the most puzzling passages in Plato’s Timaeus describes the formation of the elements out of triangles. Without illustrations, it is nearly impossible to follow, but he is claiming that each of the four classical elements is made up of particles shaped like one of the Platonic solids — i.e., solid shapes with all equilateral faces. They will be familiar to fans of D&D, and I often provide my students with paper templates that they can cut out and fold into the requisite shapes. Every time I teach the Timaeus, at least one student actually does take the time and brings sample Platonic solids to class to show everyone. Extra credit is duly awarded.

One’s first temptation, of course, is simply to skip that section as a bizarre indulgence. Over the years, though, I’ve come to see it as absolutely essential for understanding Plato’s project in the Timaeus. Continue reading “It all comes down to the triangles”

On the Last Line of the Odyssey

In the last book of the Odyssey, Homer has written himself into a bit of a corner. Odysseus has slaughtered an entire generation of high-class young men — the hated suitors. While the moment is doubtless cathartic, it creates political problems, as the young men’s families obviously object to their sons being mass-murdered. Civil war threatens Ithaca, until Athena intervenes, imposing a peace settlement upon the combatants. Her words are accompanied by a divine sign — lightning from her father Zeus — and yet, as the last line abruptly states, Athena brokers the treaty while “still in her guise as Mentor” (in Wilson’s translation — others are similar).

As a Great Books instructor, I have taught the Odyssey more than perhaps any book other than the Bible, and that last line never fails to land with a thud. Continue reading “On the Last Line of the Odyssey

Scattered Speculations on Gorbachev and the Fall of the USSR

I’ve been fascinated with the Soviet Union for most of my adult life. It started with my reading of Zizek, but eventually took on a life of its own. Contrary to the stereotypes of the USSR as a grey and static country, it is a really sui generis social experiment that lurched through a lot of very significant changes — especially at the very end. The occasion for this post is that I just finished reading Vladislav M. Zubok’s Collapse: The Fall of the Soviet Union, which is a detailed and engaging account of the USSR’s last days. I learned a huge amount from reading this book, but as a more theoretically-oriented reader, I was a little frustrated by its “just the facts ma’am” mode. Hence I’m going to let off some steam by reflecting — very much in the mode of an enthusiastic amateur, not an expert — on the biggest can of worms of late 20th-century history: whether the USSR had to fall.

Continue reading “Scattered Speculations on Gorbachev and the Fall of the USSR”