Nihilism and Popular Culture

Nihilism and Popular Culture

Hibbs' class strikes chord with students

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

Not every scholar of medieval philosophy is prepared to dissect the head-spinning special effects in "The Exorcist" or the tongue-in-cheek bloodletting of "Pulp Fiction."

That may be why 80 undergraduates crowd the ornate Fulton Debate Room in Gasson Hall three mornings a week to hear Assoc. Prof. Thomas Hibbs (Philosophy) hold forth, under the painted gaze of Cicero and St. Paul, on slasher pics.

Hibbs, an Aquinas scholar who professes to "a perverse liking for horror films," has introduced a new course this semester, Nihilism and Popular Culture, which mulls the connection between Nietzsche and today's Hollywood hits.

He also will give a public lecture, "Everything You Wanted to Know About 'The Exorcist' but Were Too Terrified to Ask" today at 7 p.m. in Devlin 008.

The course was inspired by Hibbs' recently released book, Shows About Nothing: Nihilism in Popular Culture from 'The Exorcist' to 'Seinfeld,' which tracks the trajectory of evil in American film and television and links it to the spread of nihilism in American culture.

Films on the syllabus are "Cape Fear," both the 1962 original and the 1991 remake; "The Exorcist;" "Pulp Fiction;" "Forrest Gump;" "The Ice Storm," and this year's Oscar-winner for Best Picture, "American Beauty." Readings from Nietzsche, Tocqueville, Walker Percy, Hannah Arendt, Cornell West and Pope John Paul II buttress the cinematic analysis.

Assoc. Prof. Thomas Hibbs (Philosophy) during a recent session of his class Nihilism and Popular Culture, which combines readings of authors such as Nietzsche and Cornell West with viewings of "Pulp Fiction," "The Exorcist" and other popular films. (Photo by Justin Knight)

"One of my goals for the course is to render students incapable of watching TV and film in the passive, mildly vegetative state to which they are accustomed," said Hibbs, whose reviews have appeared in the Weekly Standard and other publications.

"I want to get them to think critically about Hollywood's products, to see the way Hollywood draws out the logical implications of what is often just beneath the surface of American life."

And, he added, "I want to have some fun along the way."

Hibbs describes nihilism as a state of spiritual impoverishment in which "there is no higher or lower, in which the higher aspirations that have motivated mankind over the ages lose their attractions for the human soul," and in which "there is no fundamental meaning or ultimate point in human life."

He sees a trend toward such shrunken aspirations in the greater culture reflected in American films, television and music of the past generation. Films once presented evil as a serious threat that was to be overcome by virtue, Hibbs said. But in recent years, provision has rarely been made for the pursuit of justice. Rebellion has been all, he said, and the result has been a void.

"If nothing positive comes out of rebellion, both rebellion and convention seem foolish," he said, "and you're left with snickering irony," a smirking "detachment from everything" a la "Seinfeld" that is the seedbed for cynicism. Evil ceases to be terrifying and becomes merely banal, he said, resulting in a comic view of life as meaningless.

This year's Oscar nominees for Best Picture represented "an unprecedented walk on the dark side for the Academy," Hibbs said, with nominated films dwelling on abortion, capital punishment and a child haunted by the dead, and the winner, "American Beauty," presenting a dark portrait of the American dream as nightmare.

"Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky were on the opposite ends of the spectrum regarding God," mused Hibbs, "but both said that without God, anything goes." Take the route of nihilism, he added, again citing Nietzsche, and you choose "not only Jerry Seinfeld - but Columbine."

During a recent class devoted to discussion of the 1962 film "Cape Fear," students wrestled with questions raised by the movie that have eternally perplexed philosophers: Is there a fundamental law of nature that is outside or superior to man-made law? Is there some justice to the workings of nature, or is the sole principle "survival of the fittest?" Does nature require that good prevail over evil?

"Professor Hibbs is a great lecturer," said Kilian Betlach '02, "and it's simply rad to be able to watch really great movies for a class."

Betlach said he attended the re-release of the "The Exorcist" recently and "was horrified" as most of the theater audience laughed and giggled when Linda Blair's head rotated and she spewed green vomit.

"The inability of people to be affected by things like that, a general apathy with regard to things happening outside their immediate frame of reference, is terrifying," he said. "This class is about a society consumed by the insignificant."

Graduate assistant Shelia Olohan, studying for a master's degree as an English teacher, said she became interested in the topic of nihilism and pop culture after listening to her own high school students' views of movies and TV. "They were not surprised by 'American Beauty' or horrified by 'Silence of the Lambs,'" she said, "and 'Dawson's Creek' is where they go for guidance on how to be a teenager.

"In the wake of events like Columbine," she said, "Tom's course comes at a great time."

"Besides," said Bryan Rose, '02, "who wouldn't want to be in a course where 'Pulp Fiction' and 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' are on the syllabus?"


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