Return to Syllabus   Dr. Andrew Wood
Office: HGH 210; phone: (408) 924-5378

Hull, M. B. (2000). Postmodern philosophy meets pop cartoon: Michel Foucault and Matt Groening. Journal of Popular Culture, 34(2), 57-67.

Note: These comments are not designed to "summarize" the reading. Rather, they are available to highlight key ideas that will emerge in our classroom discussion. As always, it's best to read the original text to gain full value from the course.

Hull draws from Michel Foucault’s [learn more] book Discipline and Punish to interpret Matt Groening’s [pronounced GRAY-ning] celebrated television show The Simpsons and his book School is Hell. The author focuses much of the early part of her essay upon important components of Foucault’s study of modern power as manifested in institutions such as the hospital, the military barracks, the prison, and the school. Initially, she explains how Foucault differentiates the local micro-practices of power found in modernity from the kind of power found in a monarchy that is embodied by the decree of a person.

This Foucauldian power might remind you of hegemony, given that “we all share complicity” in its maintenance (p. 58). Hull adds that modern power does not merely discipline bodies; it constructs the very definition of knowledge and truth, of normality and abnormality. Foucault’s disciplinary power works through a range of strategies [a better term than the ‘tactics’ cited by Hull]. These strategies include hierarchy, individuation, and surveillance. Certainly, Foucault imagines some limited potential for resistance to modern power. However, one's effort to challenge the power structure can rarely succeed with grand gestures. Rather, resistance may be found in the “fissures and breaks in the tightly controlled disciplinary surface” (p. 61). At this point, Hull turns to Groening’s apparent use of Foucauldian concepts.

This section begins by noting Groening’s appropriation of classroom imagery -- his use of dominant culture to mock dominant culture. Hull draws from School is Hell and various Simpsons episodes (most notably Stark Raving Dad and Team Homer) to illustrate Groening’s rebuke of Foucauldian discipline. The article focuses on power/knowledge, individuation, and repetition. Throughout, “Groening’s consistent message to young people disgusted with the banality of the school system is to recognize the inanity of it all and to create fissures, to resist the normalization” (p. 64). According to Hull, this resistance draws not from dour critique but from boisterous laughter, the kind celebrated by Friedrich Nietzsche [learn more]. Such laughter, perhaps, can move mountains.

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