Seining Off 

On Seinfeld, or What Every American Needs to Know

Thursday, May 14, l998. The last episode of Seinfeld. I have never seen even one episode of Seinfeld. The reasons why may not be important. What does matter is that I've been cut out of certain conversations, conversations between people to whom Seinfeld equals core knowledge.

I am a bit disturbed that I have not seen one episode of Seinfeld. I feel that I have missed out on nine years of possibly important discourse and with my peers, no less, my disappearing peers, and by that I mean we, all of us, are disappearing. Seinfeld, the man, is, after all, exactly my age, although many of his viewers are probably younger.

Being a woman born in '54 can seem older than being a man born in '54, but don't fool yourself, born in '54, for anyone, is an age on the cusp.

I fear that, having missed out on the long conversation that was Seinfeld, I will be left out of future conversations, those that are not simply reminiscent (remembering Seinfeld) but also referential (including Seinfeld in the layers of experience). This second kind of conversation seems more important, somehow, more directly related to power. Whether that's true, it's the kind of conversation I like the best.

My problem is one in which people will be saying things like "sponge-worthy" or "master of my domain" and I will not know what they are talking about. If they have to explain it, I will become some equivalent of the tourist described in the bestseller Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know by E.D. Hirsch, Jr., a recent guest speaker at the UM.

The tourist in Hirsch's example can't be told the way to Boston's Central Square with the simple "First stop on the subway," but instead forces people to say: "Well, you go down on the subway. You can see the entrance, and when you get downstairs you buy a token, put it in the slot. You take the train headed for Quincy, but you get off very soon, just the first stop is Central Square, and be sure you get off there. You'll know it because there's a big sign. It says Central Square."

I'll be like that. An outsider to those in the know. A tourist in the land of the hip. (An aging tourist, at that.) I'm a writer. I spend some of my time writing reviews of movies, American movies, mostly. How can I adequately do that without ever, ever having seen Seinfeld? I won't have "the basic information needed to thrive in the modern world" (Hirsch's words).

No big problem, as long as I can opt out of the discussion, go back from where I came from. But what if my home gets co-opted? What if I can't martial other kinds of knowledge and parlay them into an equally-commanding power? My tourism will start to feel like exile. Maybe this will happen. It depends on how broad-ranging the thinking surrounding Seinfeld becomes.

Oddly enough, the more interesting the Seinfeld discussion, the less excluded are those of us who never watched it. Don't get me wrong-I wish I had watched Seinfeld. But the content of Seinfeld is not the most important thing about it. Core knowledge, as fact, is overrated. This is my suspicion.

Take 1492. It's near the top of Hirsch's list of "What Literate Americans Know." Fourteen ninety-two is a construct, the factual tip of an iceberg (to use Hirsch's imagery) of taken-for-granted information surrounded by the gently lapping question "So?" Hirsch is not so concerned with the question "So?" but I think 1492 needs "So?" If the answer is only "Columbus sailed the ocean blue," that is not especially interesting.

To be truly interesting-to transcend the hip, to bypass the zeitgeist (which, for all its delight, can get wearing), or to avoid an iceberg-ish sort of knowledge in which thinking is frozen-you need to ask the next question, the question that comes after the statement "Columbus sailed the ocean blue." You need to ask, "What does it mean?" Or, if that sounds tediously deep and thoughtful, you simply need to ask, "And then what happened?"

If the answer is "Columbus discovered the New World," that will lead you to the question I hope you were lucky enough to have been taught to ask, namely, "Whose New World?" And that question might cover the other question you also could have asked, which is: "Are we sure?"

Okay, this sounds like the detailed subway directions cited above. It can take a lot of time. So what? If you aren't from Boston (code for the mainstream), and aren't especially keen on moving there, that's the way it's gotta go.

Seinfeld is ending. And when it comes to Seinfeld, I'll need to be given the long answer. One part of me, the part that likes power, regrets this. But another part of me says, "So what?" Won't it be good for Seinfeld fans to puzzle out their experience, consider how it appears from different perspectives, struggle with the long answer?

Is there-was there ever-anything self-evident about Seinfeld? Even the short answer to the tourist's question depends upon where everyone is standing in the first place.


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