Nietzsche, Socrates, Foucault, Larry David: On the Philosophy of "Curb Your Enthusiasm"

"Curb Your Enthusiasm" is a philosophical show. It deploys a certain vision of how the individual stands towards the world — towards its written and unwritten rules, towards other people, towards friends, towards romance. It's a show of ethics.

No doubt, one could argue that every show does this. "Friends," for instance, deploys a vision of the world — what a friend is, what romance is, what work is and how to stand towards it. But unlike "Curb," "Friends" never explicitly addresses its stance, never goes out of the way to question other stances, never offers any alternative ways of going. "Friends" offers us the ideology of what we might call a heteronormative, achingly dull way of life — which may involve a philosophy but the show is not philosophical per se.

"Curb," on the other hand, focuses on one character who stands towards the world in a clearly different way  — and that difference is precisely what drives the show. If "Friends" gives us characters acting on a stage of accepted terms, "Curb" moves those terms to the foreground. "Friends" is propaganda, offering its ideology as the norm; "Curb" is philosophical, opening up fissures within the normative ethical while proffering a different ethical stance. (And, yes, I am conflating "Curb" and Larry David just as I'm conflating Plato's dialogues with Socrates; more on this below.)

Like Plato's Socrates, "Curb" gives us Larry, a character who interacts with the world in a fundamentally different way. And, like Socrates, Larry refuses inherited terms, questioning them at every turn and even more adamantly when he confronts someone who is so sure of themselves. But whereas Socrates is really only concerned with big ideas about truth, morality, language, politics, Larry takes on the micro interactions of the social.

This is a dramatic break from Socrates. David is not concerned with big questions. On the contrary, he solely focuses on the stuff of the everyday. When he's in front of Nancy Pelosi, the big issue for him is dry cleaners — who get away with all kinds of things! For David, "philosophy" is no different than anything else — it's a way of standing in the world driven by desire, stupidity, appetite. In this sense, David channels Nietzsche who also rejects big questions for the matters of everyday life such as diet, weather, and recreation. It's this world that matters, David and Nietzsche tell us, not the philosophical life or after life.

Like Nietzsche, David is a radical individualist. Which is to say, he avoids what Nietzsche calls the herd or mob mentality. The show skewers those who take stands, who take sides, whether they're the Ayatollah or zionists. He is not on anyone's side — which is often the source of conflict with a world that tends towards mobs, tends towards fixed belief systems. I think of Kramer in the AIDS walk, refusing to wear a ribbon — and being beaten up by this mob of "do-gooders." That's the David position (even though he didn't write that episode).

Or this scene from "Curb" in which Larry, not knowing what a baptism is, tries to save a man he believes is being drowned — and triggers a war of sides. Note the particularly vile portrayal of both sides, Jews and Christians. And then look at his face at the end: it's a look that implicates himself: What have I done? But if that were all it expressed, this would be a sit com about a buffoon. As it's a philosophical show, his look says: What's wrong with these people? And then: I don't care either way. Can I just go home? This is ugly. In this one scene, we are given an entire ethical philosophy.

This episode, in what is seemingly a small moment, reveals the depths of Larry's individuality and, finally, his social isolation. He and Cheryl, his wife, are packing for the wedding — he's yet to disrupt the pre-wedding baptism. Larry is trying to understand the Christian will to proselytize the world, comparing it to demanding others eat lobster. Eat lobster! Eat lobster! You should eat lobster! Cheryl, in a devastating look of dismissal I know all too well from my own life, utters, "Lobster and religion. I really don't see the similarities."

But that's Larry's whole point! They are the same!!! This life is nothing but things we do, driven by desire and will, not truth or holiness. Eating lobster and believing in Jesus: for David, they are not different in kind. They share a fundamentally common fabric of existence — namely, an all too human will and action. Life, he tells us, is what we do not what we believe. What seems to be a casual, even heretical, conflation of lobster and religion is in fact a profound philosophical reordering of the world. And Cheryl's absolute lack of understanding leaves Larry out on a ledge, utterly alone.

If I may offer a personal aside, this is an experience I know all too well from my own life and failed romances and fundamental social isolation. Parrying the dominant discourse which masks itself as self-evident truth is exhausting and, finally, isolating. But David, unlike myself or Nietzsche or Zarathustra, insists on social participation. He does not offer or seek a line of flight, no mountain top where the air is too cold for others. No, he remains within the social fold despite never fitting in. And while Buddhist detachment might offer him a way to exist within the social with greater peace, that fails him too as we are run through with the social, all the way down. There is no outside.

And so, as there is no outside, Larry operates at the limits of inherited social discourse, finding his freedom, as it were, in the rupturing of assumption. All rules are up for grabs. When he and Cheryl are told there might be a terrorist attack in LA and she says they have to stay in the city anyway for the NRDC fundraiser, he suggests maybe he can leave — and, from the look on her face, we know he's broken some rule about romance and eternal love, as well as about political commitment, a double faux pas. This comes up again when they renew their vows and Larry wants exemption from the eternity clause. Many no doubt feel he's just being an unromantic lout; I am sure no one blames Cheryl. But Larry is in fact making a radical move, breaking the terms of inherited romantic discourse even at great risk to his emotional well being.

In many ways, David takes up the mantle of Michel Foucault, revealing the terms of discourse that dictate our lives. For that is where power exercises itself: in the everyday, the ways in which we are coerced by custom and assumption. There is no free exchange of ideas, say Foucault and David: we are always already enmeshed within the micro-mechanics of power. Indeed, that's where we feel power most intimately — in the ways we unknowingly conduct ourselves, assuming that's just the way things are, what Foucault calls being "in the true." David refuses such inherited rules of social behavior, offering other modes, other logics, different ways of standing towards each other. He is a freedom fighter, refusing to acquiesce to the terms of the social majority! He is the social assassin.

Rather than situating himself as a member of the herd blindly following the rules, David, like Zarathustra or Neo seeing the code, operates at the level of rule making itself. He sees that the social is dictated by rules that are more or less arbitrary and driven by some combination of idiocy, greed, and desire. When he walks in a room, he doesn't assume what everyone else assumes. Rather, he assumes that because rules are arbitrary, he can call them into question and even rewrite them. Needless to say, this makes him anathema — whether to Gil's wife or to the Ayatollah (in Season 9, the Ayatollah puts out a fatwa on Larry).

From one angle, Larry is a kind of ethics police. He considers a rule, assesses it, then decides if it's a rule worth following or not. As such, he runs the risk of being an ethical enforcer himself — a bit like Socrates who roams the city looking for people who think they know things then argues with them until they no longer think they know things. Both David and Socrates are kinds of cops, policing the world for transgressions. They are certainly both what my mother would call a nudge.

But, like Socrates, David is an ironist. Sure, he takes positions, but he's not a zealot, even if his behavior often becomes zealous. This is where the role of "Curb" comes in: it renders even his most zealous moments not serious. At his most adamant, the clown music kicks in. Larry's position in the show, like Socrates' in Plato's dialogues, renders him fundamentally ironic — making claims and undoing them in the same gesture. (The greatest irony of Plato's Socrates: he says not to write — in words you're reading; hence Socrates writes and doesn't write at the same time. And, let me say, George Costanza is a poor interpretation of Larry as George lacks irony. George has Larry's refusal to follow inherited rules, yes, but unlike Larry, George is never ironic; his face and expression remains univocal whereas Larry's is always double — saying it and not saying it.) 

The David philosophy is fundamentally an ethics — a posture of standing in, with, and towards the world. We live in a social, he tells us, that is inevitably defined by the micro mechanics of power driven by all too human idiocy and herd mentality. But David tempers that Nietzschean-Foucauldian position with echoes of Socratic irony. Where Nietzsche proffers the strength and health of the individual as a remedy to the herd, Larry offers a relentless contestation and rewriting of social rules. And yet rather than those rules being the birth of a new order, they are ironic as they, too, are inevitably idiotic. 

No one, not even the viewer, thinks Larry is ever the one who is "right." Such is how thorough this show is: it's never serious even as it proffers a radical ethical philosophy. No one believes he is the ethical one, a social freedom fighter, or a philosopher. The show ensures that he is never taken seriously. It's irony and idiocy all the way down.


Mat said...

This post just reconfirms the notion that everything is a fiction, a myth to enforce social order. Money, Laws, Government, Nations, Justice, Ethics, Politics, Philosophy, Morals and Religion. Useful fictions that allowed our Sapien ancestors to organize into the agricultural era as our tribes grew from 100s to thousands. Without these myths, it seems impossible that they would be able to arrange in such numbers before bloodshed erupted.

George Costanza is Larry before the Seinfeld success when he wasn't afforded the status and luxury to be invited back to dinner parties. If Larry David double-dips at a party, its an argument and a funny story. For George, there is a fight with no return. George can't afford to be ironic because he's fighting for survival and reproduction access. How can one be free when fighting the herd can lead to violence or death? You have to be more careful when your status is not secured.

However, the reality is that all of that is irrelevant, personally, I found myself laughing out loud more from George charades than Larry's.

And finally, would you mind checking out this song I wrote? It's an experimental beat poetry political rap. You are the ultimate cliche detector so it would mean a lot if you would listen.


Daniel Coffeen said...

Yes yes...but myths don't just enforce social order: they create it. They organize and distribute bodies by creating social relations and identities. This is important as these fictions are not external to us; they ARE us.

Your read of George is absolutely brilliant! Thank you for that.

And I listened to your rap and have some thoughts. Would you like to discuss in email? daniel.coffeen@gmail.com?

And thanks for reading and taking the time to add such considered comments. I appreciate it enormously.

JWo said...

My favorite scene is from A Disturbance in the Kitchen. Larry responds to being told his food will be delayed, beautifully written dialog on the utter failure of dialog. The 90 second leading up to the pinnacle of the absurd, ‘the tie is self evident’ get me every time.

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