“I’m Bart Simpson; who the Hell are you?”: A quick look at Bartesque philosophy

I was having a bed-time gander through Chris Turner’s Planet Simpson the other night, and I came across his chapter on Bart as Punk Icon. Turner’s observations are astute, and more than valid (his basic contention is that Bart Simpson rekindled for the West a sense of jubuliant individualism and anarchy that had most notably been achieved in the past by the likes of Joey Ramone and Johnny Rotten), but reading his argument, I came across the quote that both spawned the conception of this jotting and gave it its title. I found the idea interesting, so I thought I’d write it down real quick, float it, see what people make of it.

The gist: no one will disagree that Bart Simpson does indeed embody individualism and anarchy. This little hypothesis assumes that it’s agreed he therefor pretty well rejects any kind of institutionalized philosophy or religion, anything that can be affiliated with authority. Key point. More later. Firstly, a few words on Punk.

Punk is singularly and extraordinarily revolutionary because it is so fucking postmodern – its a philosophy that was begotten not from an understanding about life or a dissent/extrapolation of pre-existing philosophies, but from the institutionalization of philosophy itself. Even nihilism faced the void – Punk knows nothing of the void, because it’s never looked that far. All it sees is a society that won’t let individuals “do what [they] feel like”, and that’s what it’s against. The philosophy of Punk, it’s grand comment on the human condition, is ‘fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me.” And that is also, essentially, the philosophy of Bart.

That’s the first half of my thought.

The second half is about trying to diffuse the cynicism of this conclusion. I don’t believe it cynical, nihilistic, misanthropic or apathetic. I believe that, despite himself, Bart’s character says something quite grand about the human condition, and all schools of philosophical thought. It is of my own personal assertion that all Philosophy is born out of a need to try to understand oneself, and the all-encompassing nature of the result is simply the reasoning that all personal crises are inherently (being, as we all are, human) of the human condition. I believe Philosophy is the long-winded answer to human uncertainty, the posited Because to the posed Why. Descartes’ famous consensus “I think, therefor I am,” is fine, but it leaves open another query: “While I’m at it, I might as well think about this, too: what am I? Who am I?”

Bart Simpson, as the quote that started all this so brazenly demonstrates, knows exactly who he is. He’s Bart Simpson. He has no need for any kind of traditional philosophy, because they are answers to a question he never asked. Unnessecary to wonder the nature of man; he knows his own nature. So in lieu of philosophy, he adopts Punk, the cultural insitution of rebellion against a society that would not allow these pioneering men and women, knowing who they were, to be themselves. In doing so, he embodies also the real threat that Punk and Punk rebellion represents to the West at large – “Who the Hell are you?” The rude question, asked simply because Bart doesn’t care for respect or manners, has more meaningful implications. Don’t you know who you are? Why aren’t you as comfortable with your own place, and your own identity, as I am?

Now, I realize, in closing, that I’ve presented a pretty rosy and idealistic visage of Punk and anti-establisment sentiments. A lot of Punk philosophy is, I admit, simply a manifestation of selfishness and irresponsibility. But Bart is not these things. He has a fundamental, almost innate sense of morality, of social responsibility, of kindness. It is submerged heavily and readily below his irrepressible anarchy, but when Bart Simpson has to do the right thing, Bart Simpson does the right thing, with ferocity and aplomb, and not because he’s told to. Because he knows what’s right, he knows who he is, and he knows what do about both.

Food for Simpsonian thought.

(For further and much better studies of this ilk, I do recommend Planet Simpson. It’s a good read, if far from legitimately academic. I also pass on Martin Kingsley’s recommendation of The Simpsons and Philosophy.)

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~ by baileysmith on February 17, 2009.

4 Responses to ““I’m Bart Simpson; who the Hell are you?”: A quick look at Bartesque philosophy”

  1. Well, you’ve reminded me that this site can be used for good and not just silliness…

  2. What then, to wallow in geekery, do we make of Bart Simpson’s cult-like attitude towards Krusty? As Bart has said, “I’ve based my life on Krusty’s teachings!”

    There’s also the weird way he can completely throw himself into highly anti-indivivdualistic groups or philosophies (such as his time in military school or his brief flirtation with self-negating Zen or even his keen sense of the “rules of the school yard”) only to pop out on the other side completely unchanged.

    Is Bart more Sid Vicious or Zelig?

    Or is that just his weakness the way Stacey is the ideological soft spot of Lisa?

  3. Good points, all. And may I take this opportunity to reiterate the half-baked nature of my theory 😛

    But, in the interests of good-natured discussion:

    Perhaps Bart’s adoration of Krusty is the show’s demonstrative gag of why he is (at least in the Simpson universe) absolutely *right* to detest and distrust authority – Krusty is a lousy role model, he never retains any gratitude for any of the selfless and heroic feats Bart endeavours on his (Krusty’s) behalf, and he doesn’t give two shits about children, or anything that isn’t money or himself. He is, in many respects, the spitting character image of Mayor Quimby, a figure for whom Bart has no respect or interest because he’s a politician, not a clown. Bart is, in many cases, foiled by his own inescapable pre-pubescent nature (much the same, as you say, with Lisa and Malibu Stacy).

    I would argue that the military school stint and Bart’s own adherence to “the rules of the schoolyard” are examples of how his drive to do destructive things (the source of his Punk Icon status) trumps all ideology – in most cases, it is more destructive to fuck authority and institutions off than to obey them, but in the case of the military (“my killing teacher says I’m a natural”) and the schoolyard rules (“Hey Bart, do you have a best friend yet? Cuz I’ve been looking for someone to boss me around”), social institutions are *encouraging* this behavior, so he has no problem with them. Again, Bart is a ten-year old, helplessly lacking the strength of his convictions.

    …How’d I do?

  4. Please don’t think I was attacking your theory. I thought the first post was great and I’m digging on your close reading of Bart. I was just wondering if we could fit his bizarre tendency to suddenly become a follower into the mix.

    Your answer is great.

    And it touches on the disturbing thing about punk’s radical individualism: How quickly and harmlessly it can be assimilated into any system willing to pandering to its desires.

    Now what subcultural movement does Millhouse embody?

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