We’ve been watching a lot of Seinfeld lately and came across this gem. It’s a masterpiece. Jerry, Elaine, Kramer and George are at their tops as a comedy quartet and the plot lines blend seamlessly. But there is a meta-level to this episode that makes it more than just a comedy about nothing. There’s a lot of somethingness in this nothingness. It is this precise duplicity that drives the comedic themes and is exemplary of post-modern ideology.
The episode is called “The Race,” the 10th episode of the 6th season of Seinfeld, and aired on December 15th 1994. The title is ostensibly about Jerry’s footrace re-do with an old classmate. But the episode has another meta-dimension about the arms race with the Soviet Union, and recalls a Cold War based on lies and deception.
First a summary of the episode, which takes place at Christmas time. Jerry opens the show with a stand-up bit about how Christmas in New York is like a drunken stupor, and that the Christmas tree is treasured for a short time, and then wasted on the curb like a dead hooker. Elaine begins the episode by announcing to the others that she is dating a communist. Meanwhile, Jerry is dating a woman named Lois, which reminds him of playing Superman, his boyhood comic book idol. Then Kramer gets a job with his dwarf friend Mickey to play Santa at a department store.
Trouble arises when Jerry runs into Lois’s boss, Duncan Meyer, his old classmate and he tells the story of having a footrace in gym class with the old rival. Jerry won the footrace but was victorious with the nagging thought that he jumped the start and cheated – only no one but he and George know the truth. They have been living with the lie that became a legend. He was always challenged for a do-over, but Jerry always responded, “I choose not to run,” echoing something LBJ once said about not seeking re-election.
Everything in this episode is about living out and maintaining misunderstandings – which is precisely how ideology functions. Elaine chides her communist boyfriend Ned about the Soviet Union with flat statements, “well, you had a good run there for 80 years!” But as a good capitalist, she laughs off the competing ideology as a misguided delusion.
Meanwhile Jerry is adamant about keeping the illusion of his victory over Duncan, saying that to tell the truth “would be like a kind finding out there is no Santa Claus”. George trades phone calls with a woman from the Daily Worker personals and the Yankees office begins to think that he is a communist.
George knows nothing about communism but likes the idea that he can be with a woman comrade. Kramer, who is exhausted from being Santa, is convinced by Ned to start reading the Communist Manifesto. But Kramer is confused by it and regurgitates misunderstandings of the text to Mickey. Elaine tries to get Ned to wear better clothes, thinking he will snap out of it. Elaine then finds out that she has been blacklisted like a pinko from one of her favorite Chinese restaurants. George then gets probed by Steinbrener to be his emissary to Cuba to recruit pitching talent.
Jerry gets coaxed into racing Duncan again and everyone is gathered to watch, including the old high school coach to fire the starting pistol. Kramer is nearby however starting up his Chevelle and it backfires. Jerry lunges forward, and the coach is not even sure if he fired the pistol or not. Duncan does not stand a chance as we see Jerry in slow motion set to the Superman movie theme.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Global West responded with a renewed hubris of late capitalism. It perceived itself without a significant rival ideology. Francis Fukayama’s 1992 essay The End of History and the Last Man set off a storm of controversy because it functioned as a polemical statement for neo-conservatives presaging the Project for the New American Century. The idea of the essay was that global capitalism is here to stay and new globalized markets would expand corporate power throughout the world. This has happened in the markets, but not without some sort of backlash.
Jacques Derrida responded to Fukuyama in 1993 with Spectres de Marx, and surprised some by tossing his prestigious hat in the Marxist ring. The idea was that Marxism continues as an unconscious ghost to capitalism, haunting it as a negative dialectic.
But in a sense, capitalism needed a competing ideology in order to maintain itself. It needed an old rival, even though the basis of the rivalry is a lie. In the early 1990s, the demise of the Eastern Block left a kind of ideological vacuum. The States would need to find a new enemy, and would a decade later do so with their war on terror.
“The Race” typifies the 90s sentiment on communism – the feeling that we are not sure why the Cold War ended. We were unsure of how these events came about. Reagan and Bush would claim credit for winning the Cold War, but this too was another lie. The Soviet Union failed to manufacture descent consumer goods and focused too much on heavy industries. They collapsed under their own failing bureaucracy. But this mattered little to the West, which turned it into an endzone-touchdown-hot dog dance.
How communism is dealt with in “The Race” is as a drunken stupor. These jokes would not have occurred ten years earlier on Cosby or Mary Tyler Moore. Seinfeld specializes in a kind of awkward comedy dealing with how to maintain one’s delusions. And in doing so, exemplify ways in which Americans maintained ideology after the cold war. We did it by going through the motions again – ridiculing others, and going through the race again over in our minds. Only there is a crucial difference. When Jerry first ran, he knew that he jumped the gun. He knew he cheated. But when he ran the second time, he did not distinguish the starting gun from Kramer’s car backfiring. Now everyone – Duncan, Lois, George, Elaine, Kramer, and even Jerry, do not even know. There is no longer a nagging doubt. Which is how ideology kind of goes unfettered in our time, a time that is even called post-ideological because it wipes its prints thoroughly from the initial lie. The lie becomes mythic, just like Jerry’s alleged speed, as he transforms himself into Superman, the modernist hero, fighting for “Truth, Justice and the American Way.”
To function, a society must keep re-invigorating stories about itself to keep itself going. Even if this means re-buttressing capitalism with ever-larger myths about itself. As an audience, we alone can see that it is empty. And Jerry in the final frames breaks the forth wall in a Brechtian move, winking to the camera. This is not Jerry the character, but Jerry the writer/producer, letting us know that a fast one has been pulled over the whole show and country.
The new postmodern ideological move is that while our own society is empty and the plain old narrative no longer works, we must continue to act as if it does. We must believe without really believing. We can no longer even speak about a competing ideology because we have long since turned it into a banal anecdote. Yet we also turned the free market into a joke while we chained ourselves ever more to it. We can only be woefully yet doubtlessly complicit with our own inescapable system. The ideological stories have a kind of momentum that continues despite our growing cynicism about our society. And it, like the Christmas time drunken stupor, must be engaged with, even though we can plainly see how many trees are wasted on the curb.
From the archive at my site “Green Fissures in an Otherwise Pristine Robot”2012.