Like the German-Jewish thinker Walter Benjamin and like Sigmund Freud, I’m one of those people who loves searching through the trash for treasures. For both Benjamin and Freud, the trash that they searched through is the trash of history and the past. Their work in philosophy, literary criticism, and psychology was to look through the past so as to find things that would transform how we look at ourselves and the world we live in. While Freud was interested in the trash people bury in the their personal histories (and, at times, with a nation: as in his book Moses and Monotheism), Benjamin was also interested in the material that is buried in cultural history. To be sure, these things, upon discovery and re-interpretation, can teach us about who we are; after all, who “we” are as North Americans, or as people who have grown up on media, cartoons, films, TV, etc is who we were. Therefore, the more we know about or reflect on who we were, the more we can understand who we are or rather who we might be. Strangely enough, however, this requires us to look, as Benjamin understood it, through things that we may consider retro-trash. This trash, for him, wasn’t trash so much as a treasure: it helped him to tap into a collective sort of historical self-awareness.
That said, I think we can learn something from cartoons. Like many people, I have grown up with cartoons. I lived in Upstate New York, but I would often see cartoons – after school – by way of my favorite channel (which hailed from New York City): 11 Alive. I also saw cartoons on the weekend. But, in addition to cartoons, I also watched the Three Stooges after school. To be sure, I really loved watching these episodes more than any comedy show on the boob-tube. Unlike many, I actually liked reruns of their performances.
First of all, as I noted in my blog entry, the crew (which consists of Captain Cornelius, Wet Willy Jones, and Axel Rod Magee) runs into a cartoon that is floating around the cartoon lagoon. (To be sure, this is a major part of the plot of every show.) When they run into the cartoon, they go down into a screening room to watch the cartoon and comment on it. The cartoon they view, to my surprise, was a cartoon of the Three Stooges entitled “Dentist the Menace.” What I found so interesting about this selection is that it has a “meta” quality: not only are we watching the characters from the cartoon watch another cartoon and comment on it; we are also, watching a cartoon that is based on the Three Stooges show.
There is an additional surprise to this since, while watching it, I am prompted to wonder whether there a) was another episode that this was based on (or if it is something new) or b) the gestures that are depicted in this cartoon “properly” depict the characters gestures from the show. In other words, the constant question in my mind, which the comments of the three comic characters watching the cartoon remind me of, is what to make of this interpretation which was made, most likely, in the 1970s or early 80s? How do we interpret this piece of cartoon trash (which may really be a treasure) that is floating around the Cartoon Lagoon. Like many things from the past, the submarine, so to speak, stumbles upon it. But, as with any dream or figment from the (cultural) past, we need to ask whether it is meaningful or just a piece of trash.
The first thing that strikes me, even before I hear the cartoon characters’ comments, is the fact that the speed of this cartoon, in contrast to the Cartoon Lagoon segment in the beginning, is much slower. There is already a lapse. And this may indicate that our sense of timing, today, is different.
In fact, the first comments focus on the represented space and on the time gap between the two: “I miss furniture tassels.” And when Curly says his “teeth are killing him,” one of the cartoon characters says that this “cartoon is killing me.” Already, he is agitated (perhaps by its slow delivery).
We are then reminded of the 90s (and a scandal which changed history) when, upon hearing Moe say “shut your trap and close your mouth,” one of the characters says: “That’s Bill Clinton’s motto.” This hits on the historical-political dimension.
Following this, the Cartoon Lagoon characters poke fun at the timing, design, and gestures of the cartoon Stooges. After Moe opens the door to attach Curly’s tooth, he makes an odd gesture with his leg. Upon seeing this, one of them asks: “Is he peeing on an invisible fire hydrant?” Following this gesture, Curly flies into the door. We see half of his body, the back half, twitching in the door. Seeing this, one of Cartoon Lagoon characters makes a reference to the present moment (namely, Miley Cyrus’s “twerking” on MTV moment): “Oh no…he’s twerking?” In contrast, the next comment focuses on the past (namely, on Vaudeville): “We didn’t save our money from Vaudeville.” Following this we hear a vulgar slapstick idiom which marks the time: “Hey, he’s talking out of his ass!” At this point, the commentary is interrupted. And we notice there is a technical difficulty – most likely in response to the vulgar commentary. But the Cartoon Lagoon doesn’t end with a reflection on the past. It ends with an ad for Squish Cereal. And this break, juxtaposed with the previous dated comments and scenes, suggests a way of thinking the past against the present cartoon moment.
To be sure, the attention to gesture (dated and not dated) that we see in this clip is an attention to the fine points of the past and its cultural translation into the present. What we need to ask is: What is translated and what is not? This question, necessarily, is a meta-commentary on cartoons. And I think this question is prompted by the fact that, by virtue of the plot, the characters and their submarine are bound to run into old cartoons and the fact that when they comment on them they often reference historical moments.
This implies that the cartoons as well as the commentary they use are historically embedded. And this calls for us to carefully read the translation into the present. We are, in effect, asked to consider whether the Cartoon Lagoon has discovered Cartoon Treasures or….trash that comes from the depths of cartoon history to the surface of our comic historical consciousness.
This exercise, I believe, is important since, in a postmodern age where, as Fredric Jameson argues, history itself is in the dustbin. And any form of historical consciousness, especially when articulated through the cultural imagination, is timely. What interests me most about this gesture is that at least two people of the Cartoon Lagoon commenting on these cartoons are schlemiels. This suggests that at least one variety of the schlemiel is caught up in reflections on the culture past. And this suggestion, to my mind, is right on the money. To be sure, Walter Benjamin would subscribe to this whole-heartedly. Indeed, one of the things that worried him most about his thinking is that the more he remembered the past, the more addicted he would become to its translation. For Benjamin, this was a good thing and a bad thing. The good thing is that it provided a relation to the cultural past (as in his reflection on the telephone, which I have blogged on). Yet, on the other hand, it is bad because too much reflection on the past may keep one from politically acting in the present. But, as Benjamin later realized, reflection on cultural artifacts (even if they are cartoons – which have never been of interest to philosophers but were of great interest to Benjamin) in itself had a redemptive and revolutionary act built into it. For as Jews have known for centuries, interpretation of the past has its benefits and can be the basis for a shared world.
Cartoon Lagoon steps along a similar path to Walter Benjamin and should provide us – just like the characters of Cartoon Lagoon – with lots of things from our animated-cartoon past to translate into the present. In a way, being addicted to the past makes schlemiels out of all of us; but in translating it into the present, we realize that, after all is said and done (and to play on the title of the Cartoon Lagoon episode), the game is far from over. Analysis is, as Freud once said, interminable…and so are the cartoons hidden and waiting for discovery in the cartoon lagoon!