The Simpsons
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Why a Homer Simpson philosophy course isn’t as strange as it sounds

The Simpsons course at Glasgow University, “D'oh! The Simpsons Introduce Philosophy”, actually makes a lot of sense.

It seems every now and then the public are shocked and surprised by academic courses on popular culture. Be it a Tupac class at Berkeley, a Harry Potter module at Durham, a “Kimposium” on Ms. Kardashian West, or a Beyoncé course at the University of Texas, the idea that mainstream culture might be worthy of academic analysis always seems newsworthy.

The latest is a The Simpsons course at Glasgow University: “D'oh! The Simpsons Introduce Philosophy”. Course tutor Dr John Donaldson writes that “The Simpsons is one of the modern world’s greatest cultural artefacts partly because it is so full of philosophy.”

He adds, “Aristotle, Kant, Marx, Camus, and many other great thinkers’ ideas are represented in what is arguably the purest of philosophical forms: the comic cartoon.”

It shouldn’t be surprising that there is something to be gained in a philosophical study of one of the most popular TV shows of our time – and not just because creator Matt Groening was himself a philosophy student. Mainstream culture reflects – and shapes – the most prominent narratives and norms of mainstream society, and as such is fertile ground for analysis.

But if you need more persuading – here are seven Homer Simpson lines with analogues in quotes from some of the most well-known thinkers in history.

 “Kids, you tried your best and you failed miserably. The lesson is never try.” – Homer Simpson
“All human actions are equivalent and all are on principle doomed to failure.” – Sartre

“It takes two to lie: one to lie and one to listen.” – Homer Simpson
“Man permits himself to be lied to […] men do not flee from being deceived as much as from being damaged by deception.” – Nietzsche

“How is education supposed to make me feel smarter? Besides, every time I learn something new, it pushes some old stuff out of my brain. Remember when I took that home winemaking course, and I forgot how to drive?” – Homer Simpson
“To know, is to know that you know nothing. That is the meaning of true knowledge.” – Socrates

“Kids are the best, Apu. You can teach them to hate the things you hate.” – Homer Simpson
“No one is born hating another person […] People must learn to hate.” – Nelson Mandela

“Life is just one crushing defeat after another until you just wish Flanders was dead!”- Homer Simpson
“Since all life is futility, then the decision to exist must be the most irrational of all." - Emile M. Cioran

 “What's the point of going out? We’re just gonna wind up back here anyway...” – Homer Simpson
“The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started.” – T S Eliot

 “Cheating is the gift man gives himself.” – Homer Simpson
“Never attempt to win by force what can be won by deception.” – Machiavelli

 

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

Harry Styles. Photo: Getty
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How podcasts are reviving the excitement of listening to the pop charts

Unbreak My Chart and Song Exploder are two music programmes that provide nostalgia and innovation in equal measure.

“The world as we know it is over. The apo­calypse is nigh, and he is risen.” Although these words came through my headphones over the Easter weekend, they had very little to do with Jesus Christ. Fraser McAlpine, who with Laura Snapes hosts the new pop music podcast Unbreak My Chart, was talking about a very different kind of messiah: Harry Styles, formerly of the boy band One Direction, who has arrived with his debut solo single just in time to save the British charts from becoming an eternal playlist of Ed Sheeran’s back-catalogue.

Unbreak My Chart is based on a somewhat nostalgic premise. It claims to be “the podcast that tapes the Top Ten and then talks about it at school the next day”. For those of us who used to do just that, this show takes us straight back to Sunday afternoons, squatting on the floor with a cassette player, finger hovering over the Record button as that tell-tale jingle teased the announcement of a new number one.

As pop critics, Snapes and McAlpine have plenty of background information and anecdotes to augment their rundown of the week’s chart. If only all playground debates about music had been so well informed. They also move the show beyond a mere list, debating the merits of including figures for music streamed online as well as physical and digital sales in the chart (this innovation is partly responsible for what they call “the Sheeran singularity” of recent weeks). The hosts also discuss charts from other countries such as Australia and Brazil.

Podcasts are injecting much-needed innovation into music broadcasting. Away from the scheduled airwaves of old-style radio, new formats are emerging. In the US, for instance, Song Exploder, which has just passed its hundredth episode, invites artists to “explode” a single piece of their own music, taking apart the layers of vocal soundtrack, instrumentation and beats to show the creative process behind it all. The calm tones of the show’s host, Hrishikesh Hirway, and its high production values help to make it a very intimate listening experience. For a few minutes, it is possible to believe that the guests – Solange, Norah Jones, U2, Iggy Pop, Carly Rae Jepsen et al – are talking and singing only for you. 

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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