Thomas S. Hibbs‘ Shows about Nothing: Nihilism in Popular Culture makes for an interesting confluence of genres. The examination of philosophy in pop culture is nothing new, of course – Open Court Books’ Popular Culture and Philosophy series covers any number of TV shows and movies, including The Simpsons and Star Wars.
However, Hibbs’ book weaves a discussion of nihilism with Cape Fear, Nip/Tuck, and a slew of diverse and seemingly unrelated films and programs. Granted, the subtitle is a trifle over-reaching. Hibbs sticks primarily to film and television, with a brief digression into Shakespeare in the early chapters. Music is left wholly untouched – a smart move, as it could easily be a series of books unto itself – but those hoping to see how video games tie into all of this will be left wanting.
Granted, it’s not as if you’ll be sorely disappointed might by Shows about Nothing. The early chapters are a bit underwhelming, and read like a Introduction to Philosophy textbook as Hibbs brings the reader up to speed on what exactly nihilism is. For the record, it’s a “philosophy or way of life characterized by alack of meaning or purpose.”
Once past those basic early chapters – one of which is quite literally an FAQ on nihilism – the reader gets into the nitty-gritty of the book, and it’s richly rewarding. While the book’s early chapters are pretty underwhelming, it becomes evident as the chapters go on that they are laying the groundwork for some serious dropping of knowledge.
The chapter “Defense Against the Dark Arts” adroitly demonstrates Hibbs’ ability to deeply analyze frequently overlooked facets of pop culture, putting MacBeth, Se7en, and The Dark Knight in a single chapter discussing the nature of good vs. evil. The thrust of Hibb’s argument states:
“The worst evil is not to be found in those who harbor a conflict within them but rather in those whose passions are under the complete control of their reason and who have a clear apprehension of their goal and the means to its attainment.”
That argument, and the chapter itself, are worth reading Shows about Nothing. It’s an intriguing concept, and while most will be picking up this book because of its obvious Seinfeld connotation (the title is taken from an episode of that program), it’s when the author steps away from comedic nihilism and into the more negative definition of the word that Shows about Nothing really draws the reader in.
Surprisingly, while tackling Seinfeld‘s idea of “a show about nothing,” Hibbs never addresses what is probably most people’s concept of pop culture nihilism. The nihilists in The Big Lebowski might as well not exist. Frankly, Hibbs missed a chance to easily address a major misconception and set people straight by not doing so.
That being said, Shows about Nothing is an accessibly entertaining text, in addition to an informative one. Whether a reader is looking for a text to make a philosophic worldview more easily understood, or simply looking to parse their entertainment more deeply, Hibbs delivers a book that illuminates some rarely-examined corners.
A note: this version of Shows about Nothing, from Baylor University Press, is revised edition of Hibbs’ 1999 book of the same name. Having not read the original, I’ve opted not to delve into any sort comparison between the two versions.