A friend of mine posted this cartoon from The New Yorker’s caption contest on Facebook the other day, accompanied by the comment: “Holy shit! They finally did it! And yes, I submitted ‘My wife is a slut.'”
This struck me as weird, because a) It’s sort of an unremarkable cartoon b) I had no idea this friend cared about New Yorker caption contests (I thought that was just Roger Ebert?) and c) the incongruous ‘shock’ misogyny coming from him.
I figured it must be some sort of pop culture “thing” that I just wasn’t recognizing. So, for what was without question the first time in my life, I punched “pig complaints wife slut” into Google, and wound up at this page from the fansite Seinology, the transcript from Season Nine, Episode Thirteen of Seinfeld titled “The Cartoon.” After a few moments, I started to recall a fuzzy memory of scenes of Elaine railing against the New Yorker‘s arcane humor.
In the last few days, various internet outlets (Gawker, Yahoo, the AV Club) as well as The New Yorker itself (via a 2-part essay from Cartoon editor Bob Mankoff on its blog and posts on Tumblr…yes, The New Yorker has a Tumblr) have written about the caption contest, which is undoubtedly the result that The New Yorker was looking for. It also, in the Mankoff piece, gives a talented and thoughtful guy a chance to reflect upon the kind of work he does, and how it’s received from the outside. But I find myself more interested in my friend’s “Holy shit!” response, and what it says about the pleasures we take in contemporary media.
“The Cartoon” is a solid Seinfeld episode, but is hardly a legendary one like “The Soup Nazi” or “The Contest” or “The Pez Dispenser.” It’s not even one of the best from the final season, an honor that I think would probably go to “The Merv Griffin Show” or “The Slicer.” I would consider myself a pretty big Seinfeld fan: In high school I wore a “THE K MAN” t-shirt so nerdy THEY DON’T EVEN SELL IT ON THE INTERNET, somberly attended a party for the final episode, and in retrospect my initial decision to study marine science as an undergraduate was more than a little influenced by my desire to begin stories with “The sea was angry that day, my friends…” I don’t think I’ve enjoyed a show on network television from week to week as much as I enjoyed Seinfeld. Still, when I saw my friend had posted that New Yorker cartoon to Facebook I had absolutely no recollection of it. This, I think, is part of the pleasure that my friend took from the cartoon.
Had the cartoon been a gag about a puffy shirt or a yadda yadda, I don’t think his response would be the same. Nor would the pleasure of recognition (his, or mine) be the same if this cartoon ran in the weeks following the episode’s original airing in January 1998. Part of why the connection is enjoyable is that it is not obvious, it takes either significant knowledge of the show (as evidenced by my friend) or a little bit of research (my route) to “get it.” But this kind of pleasure is only made accessible by changing modes of media consumption and circulation. If we had shifted this entire scenario 30 years into the past (say, if in 1995 a New Yorker cartoonist wanted to submit a cartoon entirely dedicated to a mid-tier All in the Family episode), it’s hard to imagine it making past the pitch stage, let alone being widely recognized and understood. Even if there were some Archie Bunker superfans that may have caught the reference, the chances that enough would also pay attention to New Yorker caption contests as to make it a valid talking point within a week is basically nil. Sorry Meathead.*
Every year I teach Roland Barthes’ “From Work to Text” as an introduction to the tradition of cultural studies, which among other things defines the object of study not as an inert ‘work,’ something that has intrinsic meaning and politics and pleasures, but as a ‘text’, a cultural object that “is experienced only in an activity, in a production.”¹ In the case of the Seinfeld cartoon, it was only rendered meaningful by my friend Paul’s engagement with it. The key concept here is that texts are activated by our readings, and that our readings are influenced by our experiences in the world, including our experiences with other texts. Barthes stresses the importance of intertextuality, the notion that each text is “entirely woven of quotations, references, echoes: cultural languages…antecedent or contemporary which traverse it through and through.”² This is why my friend’s initial reading produced pleasure, while mine produced nothing but confusion…until I re-encountered the Seinfeld episode that gave me access to a similar reading.
And it’s that ability to re-encounter the episode that is the crucial difference between my initial reading and my friend’s, and it’s also the difference between this real-world Seinfeld situation and my hypothetical All in the Family example mentioned above. I watched Seinfeld during its original run and enjoyed reruns in syndication, had a Seinfeld t-shirt and talked about the show with friends. That’s what being a fan of the show meant in the late 1990s. But being a Seinfeld fan now means having much greater access to the show–the entire series plus bonus material on DVD, ongoing discussion through online episode recaps and fan forums, free streaming episodes on Crackle and updates on the official Soup Nazi food truck tour of 2012 (coming soon to a city near you …no, really.) This is just the stuff I found in 2 minutes on Facebook.
These changes in fans access to, and media companies’ circulation of, cultural texts allow for increasingly more sophisticated and subtle intertextual relationships to be built for active fans. Because my friend owns the series on DVD, his familiarity with and access to episodes like “The Cartoon” far outstrips mine, and thus he can immediately recognize the cartoon’s referent. But because I am connected to superfans like him via social media, the New Yorker can rest assured that even those people not immediately in the know can be brought up to speed with minimal effort on their part. And we can all feel special for being in on the joke.
In the past I’ve explained the concept of intertextuality to students using examples from The Grapes of Wrath (with its biblical allusions) ICarly shouting out The Wire, Doomtree blending two underrated 1990s music institutions and even “My Country tis of Thee” giving a jolly old middle finger to the English crown. I’m not sure if I’ll use this example in my teaching (I suspect my students haven’t really watched much Seinfeld, and they certainly don’t care about New Yorker caption contests), but I think what’s interesting about the New Yorker cartoon is that it shows that the pleasures of intertextuality have penetrated into the marketing strategies of even the most stuffy of media outlets, and how important it will be to media production, circulation, and consumption in the coming years. However cliquey and insular the fan communities that take pleasure in intertextuality might be…these days even The New Yorker wants to get into the club. So hurry up, hipsters–you need to be able to say you were up on your media studies before it was cool.
¹ Barthes, Roland. “From Work to Text.” In The Cultural Studies Reader. New York: Routledge, 2007. p 83.
²ibid, p 84
* Thanks to twitter user @kbyme91 for the correction. I initially typed “Meatball.” In my defense, that’s clearly a better name.