Club Spongebob and the Postmodern Wonder

In 1979, Jean- François Lyotard published The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, a text that brought into question a traditionally-held belief of modern philosophers. It responded to their assumption that rational thought was the cure to our problems, that by means of scientific inquiry alone we could explain our world and do away with myths, fables, legends, etc. Lyotard calls this totalizing view of reason a metanarrative, and, “simplifying to the extreme,” he defines postmodernism as “incredulity toward metanarratives.”[1] James K.A. Smith, associate professor of philosophy at Villanova University, puts it this way: “What is at stake for Lyotard is not the scope of these narratives but the nature of the claims they make.”[2] A metanarrative is “meta” because of the totalizing nature of its end, an end it adopts by virtue of its supposed legitimation by means of an external universal. In the case of the modern philosopher, this universal comes in the form of a universal reason which we can use to legitimate truth.[3] As we in the West have become increasingly obsessed with proof, we have classified narrative knowledge as “belonging to a different mentality [than science]: savage, primitive, underdeveloped, backward, alienated, composed of opinions, customs, authority, prejudice, ignorance, ideology”[4] as it does not require the same rigor of proof as scientific knowledge. We now believe that all knowledge must be scientific, but it has always existed “in addition to, and in competition and conflict with”[5] narrative knowledge. This conflict has led to an attempt by modern society to do away with narrative as a legitimate means of knowledge. In attempting to do so, there is something I believe we have lost, and that is what I want to explore in this paper. I will explore this by means of an analysis of my favorite episode of the children’s television show Spongebob Squarepants, an episode from season three (the best season) entitled “Club Spongebob.”

Standing in for the role of the modern philosopher is Squidward Tentacles, Spongebob’s cynical, unfriendly next-door neighbor who frequently rains on the parades of Spongebob and his best friend, Patrick Star. This is partially due to Squidward’s inability to entertain the childlike wonder Spongebob and Patrick have towards the world around them, that anything can be made fun if they have the imagination. In the beginning of this particular episode, Squidward leaves his house to find out that Spongebob and Patrick have built a precariously-perched treehouse on top of a very tall tree and have started their own club with its own secret language. He initially makes fun of their having done so, but, once they tell him he will not fit into the club, he insists they let him join and climbs the tree to force his way into their treehouse. In a fun play-on-words, Squidward finds out that Spongebob and Patrick very literally meant he would not fit into the club: there physically was not enough space in the treehouse for all three of them, and Squidward finds himself stuck. He tries to pull himself out of the treehouse with the aid of a tree nearby, but, in an impossible act of physics I do not think I can explain well in words, the treehouse ends up being catapulted miles away and lands in a dense kelp forest in the middle of nowhere. Stuck in the wild with nowhere to go, Spongebob and Patrick assure Squidward that they will be alright as long as they heed the advice of the Magic Conch Shell, a Magic 8 Ball-esque toy they brought with them that they believe has all the answers they need to survive.

Here, the episode pits two narratives against one another. Squidward adopts the rational metanarrative of the modern philosopher as he believes turning to a plastic toy for answers is inconsistent with reason and makes fun of Spongebob and Patrick for believing it could help them in any way shape or form. Squidward is smug and arrogant in establishing his narrative hegemony and in making sure that Spongebob and Patrick know that what they are buying into is ludicrous, especially when the shell tells them that their best course of action is to do absolutely nothing. That this meeting of narratives is characterized as a conflict is no accident. Lyotard himself says that “the universalization of narrative instances cannot be done without conflict.”[6] The dominance Squidward immediately tries to establish for his rational narrative is a form of universalization, that he would expect the irrational narrative of his neighbors to be explained away by his superior, rational one.

The fact that Squidward assumes he is right before even giving Spongebob and Patrick any sort of benefit of the doubt is important as it reflects the level of certainty we have today towards the rational metanarrative. Lyotard draws heavily from the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein, a twentieth-century philosopher of language, who talks about certainty in the appropriately-named collection On Certainty. Wittgenstein says that in first beginning to believe something, “All testing, all confirmation and disconfirmation of a hypothesis takes place already within a system. And this system is not a more or less arbitrary and doubtful point of departure for all our arguments: no, it belongs to the essence of what we call an argument. The system is not so much the point of departure, as the element in which arguments have their life.”[7] These systems fulfill the same role as Lyotard’s metanarratives; they are meant to provide a totalizing legitimation for the statements made within them. But, in fact, they are the very systems that, when investigated, reveal why metanarratives themselves could never be fully legitimized (which is ironically the very issue scientific knowledge has with narrative knowledge). Think of the child who asks why the sky is blue. Somebody could provide that child with a perfectly acceptable answer about how air molecules scatter blue light from the sun, but then the child would ask why that was the case, and so on and so on until, at some point, the child’s interlocutor must concede and say, “Because it just does!” At some point down the line of explanation, an assumption has to be made, and, at the point where the assumption is finally located, the entire system falls apart. This is because the child is expecting a scientific response, and the interlocutor desires to give one because why shouldn’t they be able to? The problem is that this procedure now requires an endless stream of external means of legitimation for every time the child asks “why?” that we are not capable of giving. Every system is necessarily built on numerous, intertwining assumptions structured not too dissimilarly from Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s rhizome, which “connects any point to any other point, and its traits are not necessarily linked to traits of the same nature…”[8] unlike roots which work in a more linear fashion, a fashion we would hope for scientific explanation to follow. But even if the regress of explanation turns out to be more-or-less linear, the greater structure in which it is able to exist and in which all the auxiliary assumptions necessary for each assumption within the regress of explanation to be made are more muddled and codependent than that. For Wittgenstein, truth only exists in the contexts of these diverse systems of assumptions,[9] though Lyotard speaks of these systems in terms of the names contained within them as his approach is more linguistic than epistemological.[10] But all of this is to say that Squidward is not justified in his certainty that the rational narrative is the “correct” one as his assumption is just one of many assumptions that have not been and may never be legitimated.

Regardless, Squidward starts his own opposing club, one where he takes what he believes to be a more reasonable approach than his counterparts by building a small camp, starting a fire, and attempting to cook a bug for protein. He taunts his friends, reminding them of how hungry they must be after having done nothing for the entire day in adherence to the command of the Magic Conch. He tells them “If you had listened to me, you’d have food, shelter, and a roaring fire. But instead you listened to a talking clam that tells you nothing! As if the answers to solve all your problems will fall right out of the sky!”[11] It then cuts to an airplane falling out of the sky right as its two pilots decide to drop the plane’s load in hopes it will help them survive (this is not really explained, but hey. It’s a kid’s show). The plane happens to be carrying picnic supplies, all of which happen to land around the exact spot where Spongebob and Patrick are sitting. The two friends yell, “All hail the Magic Conch!” and proceed to consume their gift. Here we have the first of two instances where a miracle occurs thanks to the Magic Conch, although, in this instance, the audience knows that it was not the Magic Conch that caused the miracle — it was the timing of the plane dropping its load (or maybe the conch can control planes? The episode does not make it clear what the conch’s abilities actually are).

Squidward, desperate for food, insists that he was joking earlier when he said the Magic Conch was stupid, and he pretends to have changed his mind about the Magic Conch now that it benefits him to do so. Spongebob, being the merciful benefactor that he is, forgives Squidward on the condition that he consult the Magic Conch before eating. Oddly enough, every time Squidward asks the Magic Conch if he can eat a particular food item, it tells him he cannot. Patrick tries the same thing but is granted permission from the Magic Conch to eat the “yummy, delicious, super terrific sandwich” he wants to. Squidward, in a fit of rage, repeatedly demands that the Magic Conch allow him to eat, each time receiving the same negative response. Squidward seems like he is about to erupt when the three of them hear a voice call out from the woods. In enters a forest ranger who asks them if they need any help. Squidward is desperate and tells the ranger, “I have been stranded out here for weeks with these two barnacle heads and their Magic Conch Shell!” only for the ranger to reveal he too is a member of the Magic Conch Shell club. After sounding the club victory screech with Spongebob and Patrick, the ranger reveals it was his Magic Conch Shell that told him to come and rescue them. This is the second miracle of the Magic Conch that Squidward witnesses, and it is one that the audience too cannot explain given the information the episode gives us. The end of the episode finds Squidward giving up his dependence on reason, yelling “All hail the Magic Conch!” in defeat.

The point here is not that the modern philosopher is defeated. That someone is defeated either implies that the initial conflict caused by Squidward’s attempt at universalization is still somehow intact or that narrative knowledge can prevail over science in any meaningful way (by what means would we legitimize this placement?).[12] This conflict is meant to be resolved in the refusal to impose a metanarrative onto the smaller, more localized narratives that exist, by letting them exist even despite their contradictions and incommensurability. This is how Lyotard ends The Postmodern Condition. He states that his aim is to do justice to this diversity without resorting to forcing a consensus as there could not be one. He wants to do this by moving in the direction of paralogy.[13] “The etymology of this word resides in the Greek words para — beside, past, beyond — and logos in its sense as ‘reason.’ Thus, paralogy is the movement beyond or against reason.”[14] According to Lyotard, “A recognition of the heteromorphous nature of language games is a first step in that direction.”[15] The “language game” is another idea Lyotard borrows from Wittgenstein, a term meant to “bring into prominence that the speaking of language is part of an activity, or of a form of life.”[16] He wants to encourage us to think of language like we would think of a game. A game has certain rules that you have to follow in order to attain the end of the game. In looking at language games, we are asked to examine the certain types of ends imposed on language towards which it is used and the narratives that inform those uses’ coming into being. Those ends are what inform the “ways of life” Wittgenstein says language is a part of; similarly, the narratives we adopt inform ways of life as seen through how Squidward and Spongebob are considering the narratives they have adopted.

The point is also not that Squidward is wrong in an ethical sense. If anything, he took the approach that most of us would take given the situation, and this is why it is so peculiar that we find ourselves rooting against Squidward. We would be just as skeptical! Granted, Lyotard is saying we need to approach skepticism with skepticism (incredulity), and I think that to an extent he is right. But this is not the pretentious skepticism of the modern philosopher, nor is it a Pyrrhonian skepticism where no positive assertions can ever be made because everything can be called into doubt;[17] this is not the sort of incredulity Lyotard is calling for. He is calling for a skepticism specific to a modern phenomenon that he sees as problematic, to a narrative that has emerged from modern philosophy and inhibits the sense of wonder and awe we could have towards the world if we only realized how much is unexplainable. This is what I believe the goal of postmodernity to be, to restore that sense, and this sense is what has been lost through the attempt to eradicate narrative knowledge.

A similar message is presented through Spongebob Squarepants. A good majority of the show’s narratives revolve around Squidward’s incredulity towards Spongebob and Patrick’s absurd ventures, and, in each instance of this, we the audience side with Spongebob and Patrick. Even as a kid, despite recognizing the ways in which Squidward took the approach I probably would have (I was a very logical kid), I never once preferred his method to the method of the characters who were at least able to gaze at their world and still feel amazed. I think this is an important message to send to kids, but more importantly I think it is a sentiment worth retaining into adulthood. Adults tend to lose this childlike astonishment, and maybe this is inevitable. But it also seems there is an extent to which it is inevitable because of the systems of assumptions we are expected to buy into as “mature” humans, that the rational narrative must always trump more absurd, mystical, fun ones.

The more I think about Spongebob Squarepants and reflect on the precedents it set as I watched it religiously as a kid, the more I realized the many ways I have internalized its message of not taking things too seriously, not needing to explain the absurdities of our world, and not letting our proclivity for rationalization get in the way of appreciating just how much there is we could not explain and maybe should not try to. Maybe things are more fun when we don’t. This is not because the venture of trying to explain the world is not worth pursuing but is because there is a profundity preserved through silence, in letting the world be as completely and utterly absurd as it is, in appreciating the fact that so many diverse narratives exist at the same time despite their contradictions. Otherwise, we carry the modern narrative to its unfortunate end, realizing that at a certain point its totalizing aim is futile, and in defeat proclaim, “All hail the magic conch!” instead of proclaiming it for fun.

[1] Jean- François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1988), xxiv.

[2] James K.A. Smith, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 64.

[3] Jean- François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1988), xxiii-xxiv.

[4] Ibid., 27.

[5] Ibid., 7.

[6] Jean- François Lyotard, The Differend: Phrases in Dispute, trans. Georges Van Den Abbeele (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1988), 157.

[7] Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty, trans. Denis Paul and G.E.M. Anscombe (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1972), 16.

[8] Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, “A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia” in the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism: Second Edition, ed. Vincent B. Leitch (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 2010), 1458.

[9] Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty, trans. Denis Paul and G.E.M. Anscombe (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1972), 21.

[10] Jean- François Lyotard, The Differend: Phrases in Dispute, trans. Georges Van Den Abbeele (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1988), 44.

[11] Spongebob Squarepants, “Club Spongebob,” Episode 42a, dir. Derek Drymon, written by Walt Dohrn and Mark O’Hare, Nickelodeon, July 12, 2002.

[12] Jean- François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1988), 7.

[13] Ibid., 66.

[14] Ashley Woodward, “Jean François Lyotard (1924–1998),” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: A Peer-Reviewed Academic Resource, accessed November 27, 2017, http://www.iep.utm.edu/lyotard/.

[15] Jean- François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1988), 66.

[16] Ibid., 11.

[17] Sextus Empiricus: Selections from Major Writings on Scepticism, Man, & God, ed. Philip P. Hallie, trans. Sanford G. Etheridge (Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing Company, 1985), 37.

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Tommy Kessler

Chicago-based writer and musician. 1970s drug-fueled private investigator.