Not long ago, the Internet was ablaze with talk of guerrilla artist Banksy’s contribution of a particularly-biting intro to "The Simpsons." It was witty and dark and had enslaved unicorns poking holes in Simpsons DVD’s. In Media Res offered a great commentary on the show’s intro, demonstrating how a hyperbolic depiction of the exploitation of its own animators, while obviously fantastic, represents the mystification of the process of cultural production. Because if one thing has defined primetime animation it is its (often self-implicating) satire of contemporary society. However, the conversation I hope to start is less concerned with that satire and more with our reception of it. How are we to read both Banksy’s piece—and our reading of the piece—in the context of a society in which no expression is exempt from institutional appropriation? Is it true--as the ancient maxim suggests—that “all our subversion are belong to culture industry”?
Seemingly endless panels, publications and conversations dedicated to The Simpsons and South Park’s anarchic wit is evidence of the scholarly cache of such animated cultural critiques. (I’m finishing up this post while attending a conference in which arguments will be made, mine included, of the political significance of pop culture).
The catch, though—and the self-referentiality that Banksy employs in the couch gag draws attention to this—is that our spectatorship of the intro implicates us in this exploitive process of cultural production and only increases the exposure and therefore the wallets of those responsible for such exploitation. I understand that Simpsons producers have denied the reality of any such working conditions. But I don’t know that whether or not those specific outsourced laborers are being mistreated is the point. Rather, it's that such mistreatment—and even the most biting critiques of it—have become a spectacle for us to consume.
I acknowledge that this Marxian argument will be viewed by many as passé. The monolithic political-economic power of Big Brother/The Matrix/insert-your-preferred-dystopian-future-superpower-here may not seem to fit a contemporary society characterized by such radical change (and recent revolution). And it’s trendy (and easy) to celebrate the supposedly revolutionary potential of Twitter, fan-fiction and graffiti art. But I think there is some value in asking whether in our blogging, paneling, tweeting, presenting and publishing, we are complicit in the perpetuation of the very issues that we hope to address? Banksy’s trying to be self-aware in this respect. Are we?