Curb Your Moralia

image by Kyle Forest Lane-McKinley

“There is laughter when there is nothing to laugh at.”

— Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment

“It's not every day that you get to be affectionate around something German. It just doesn't happen that often.”

— Larry David to a German Shepherd

Over the past several months, since the finale of Curb Your Enthusiasm's eighth season, fans and critics of the HBO series relentlessly asked a single burning question: Will there be a ninth season? From interviews with the cast and producers, the development of another season is, by now, a fair assumption. Rather than if there will be another season, perhaps it should instead be asked why. Or more specifically, Why has the show been able to endure for so long?

Curb Your Enthusiasm is among the company of The Office, 30 Rock, and Arrested Development as part of a revisionary project for the American sitcom that coincided with the rather colonial project of reality programming in the past decade of television. However, with these other comedies ending or tapering off, Curb is unique in having left many under the impression that the series could — and indeed, must — continue. More than its contemporaries, which are perhaps overly invested in the plot device of character development, Curb understands that endurance in the culture industry is achieved through seriality. In Curb's persistent caricature of Larry David, the incredibly rich slacker persona of the Seinfeld creator, there is no progress, no change or hope, no impending experience of closure. Even when there is the ostensible intrusion of plot — as with Larry's divorce from his wife Cheryl in the beginning of the most recent season — the series ultimately reassumes what Guy Debord called a “pseudo-cyclical” temporality, “a time transformed by industry," "founded on commodity production" and "itself a consumable commodity.” Given this relation to time, Adorno's Minima Moralia can serve as the nearly perfect hermeneutic key to Curb Your Enthusiasm. It's so wrong that somehow it feels right.

Larry's situation in Curb mirrors that from which Adorno produced Minima Moralia — a Jew in exile in Los Angeles — though Larry is escaping from Seinfeld, not the Nazis. To arrive at a politicized reading of Curb, Adorno nevertheless lends an ideal starting point. In his time, of course, Adorno found television abominable — a form entirely subsumed by the culture industry, the epitome of late capitalism. But in Adorno's description of the “miser of our time,” Larry David can be easily recognized. He is a man who

considers nothing too expensive for himself, and everything for others ... Every good deed is accompanied by an evident "Is it necessary?," "Do I have to?" This type are most surely revealed by the haste with which they "avenge" kindness received, unwilling to tolerate, in the chain of exchange acts whereby expenses are recovered, a single "missing link."

For Larry, every gift, invitation, or gesture of apparent goodwill contains the implicit threat of a favor, chore, or obligation to be made in return. The conventions of his social world continually menace him, and the only way he sustains himself is by means of the logic of exchange.

Take the following fragment: Larry David meets Seinfeld alum Jason Alexander for lunch in a restaurant decorated with photographs of women's breasts and buttocks. The topic of their lunch is a Seinfeld reunion, with Alexander considering a return to his former character of George Costanza, known in the world of Curb to have been Larry's alter ego. Once the waiter brings them their split check, Larry requests that they “coordinate the tip,” with the suggested amount of $12. Alexander refuses, however, and immediately hands over his bill to the waiter, tip included. The next day, Larry returns to the restaurant and asks about Alexanders's tip. While the waiter insists that he cannot disclose, he eventually confirms that it was more than $30. Larry grunts, moaning that Alexander is an “asshole son of a bitch.”

The very premise of Larry's “coordination system” is, as Adorno describes of the miser of modernity, the tendency to think "in equivalents.” Larry, like the miser, subjects “his whole private life to the law that one gives less than one receives in return, yet enough to ensure that one receives something.” Tipping crystallizes Larry's social anxieties to the point that the waiter's service terrorizes him, and the quality of the service “ceases,” as Adorno writes, “to be essence and becomes the accidental appearance of value. The 'equivalent form' mars all perceptions.”

* * *

After the first season of Curb, which premiered in the fall of 2000, the series quickly became one of the few American residuals of worthwhile humor post-9/11, which, whether it changed anything else historically or metaphysically as an “event” or a “nonevent,” indisputably made for some extremely unfunny television. Perhaps it was Larry David's exile in Los Angeles that made this exemption possible. Certainly, in looking more than 10 years back, we can see a sudden sense of seriousness in U.S. comedy, especially from New York – the worst case  being Saturday Night Live's first post-9/11 episode, in which producer Lorne Michaels asks Mayor Giuliani “Can we be funny?”

Curb refuses to ask for the permission of its audience, much less of Giuliani. Especially in its early seasons, Curb is funny because it ignores the code of conduct which dominated the culture industry post-9/11. Like its antihero, the series dismisses the demand of tactfulness, being, as Adorno explains, “the reconciliation – actually impossible – between the unauthorized claims of convention and the unruly ones of the individual ... it confronts the individual as an absolute, without anything universal from which to be differentiated, [and thus] fails to engage the individual and finally wrongs him.” For Larry, this refusal of tact works as a means of asserting himself within a system that he perceives as wronging him — which is how Larry cultivates a certain likability.

Much of the series works toward a portrayal of Larry David as impossible, as someone whose inability to conform to social conventions makes him unlikeable to those in his social sphere. And yet his persona, like that of Adorno's miser, characterizes a shared everyday experience of oppression by capitalism. Under these conditions, as Adorno writes, individuals “react antagonistically to tact: a certain kind of politeness, for example, gives them less the feeling of being addressed as human beings, than an inkling of their inhuman conditions.” Still, Larry's likability is always already serially at stake.

Another Curb fragment here is helpful: Larry is whistling Wagner to Cheryl as they wait in line for a movie, and he is approached by a bourgeois Jew, who he later realizes is his neighbor. The neighbor asks Larry, with anger, “are you Jewish?” – to which Larry responds, in outrage, “Do you want to see my penis?” The neighbor lectures him on Wagner and claims that Larry is acting like a self-hating Jew. Larry, fuming, tells the neighbor, “I hate myself, but it's not because I'm Jewish.” Later in the episode, the neighbor's daughter vandalizes Larry's front door with the words “bald asshole,” and he attempts to file this act of vandalism as a hate crime. “We're a set, we're a group,” Larry argues to a black police officer. While his revenge cannot be executed through the police, he ultimately decides to exact his revenge otherwise. The episode ends with Larry hiring a quartet to play Wagner on the neighbor's front lawn.

Drawing from Dialectic of Enlightenment, an Adornian reading of this episode positions Larry as “already virtually a Nazi ... who can now only imagine friendship as a 'social contract'” because he is a “bourgeois whose existence is split into a business and a private life, whose life is split into keeping up his public image and intimacy, whose intimacy is split into the surly partnership of marriage and the bitter comfort of being quite alone.” Moreover, Larry's absurd racial identification as “a bald” brings out this seeming hypocrisy even more hilariously. Yet what is also being critiqued in this set of interactions is the neighbor's outmoded assertion of Jewish self-hate and with it, the outmoded assertions of Adorno's critique of anti-Semitism. Larry's retort to the neighbor that he hates himself but not because he's Jewish concisely articulates his “postmodern condition.” He is the post-historical individual, for whom the historical resonances of Wagner and anti-Semitism have been completely obliterated by the system he has become part of.

* * *

Larry David's world feels quite claustrophobic, so riddled with miserly characters that watching it is like walking through a funhouse, where you catch horrifying and (hopefully) exaggerated glimpses of yourself and everyone you've ever met. The series more than adequately demonstrates capitalism's totalizing nature, while in another sense, it is no more than a condemned product of that totality. An essay from the early 1960s, “Prologue to Television,” Adorno writes:

Television is a means for approaching the goal of possessing the entire sensible world once again in a copy satisfying every sensory organ, the dreamless dream; at the same time it holds the possibility of inconspicuously smuggling into this duplicate world whatever is thought to be advantageous for the real one. The gap between private existence and the culture industry, which had remained as long as the latter did not omnipresently dominate all dimensions of the visible, is now being plugged.

Here, Adorno sees the horizon of postmodernity avant la lettre: the saturation point, as Fredric Jameson has posed, at which the culture industry attains this omnipresent domination of “all dimensions of the visible.” This future is the key to historicizing Curb, which otherwise resists such a treatment. In Curb, there is no longer a “real” world to differentiate from the “duplicate world” of the culture industry. Adorno's critique of television is far from a postmodern resignation. “There is something to the claim that television makes things worse and not better,” Adorno writes, specifying the particular modes of sociality which TV has turned into conventions:

That awkward intimacy of television, which allegedly engenders a community through the effect of the television set around which family members and friends sit idiotically who supposedly would otherwise have nothing to say, satisfies not only an avidity that allows no place for anything intellectual unless it is transformed into property but, moreover, obscures the real alienation between people and between people and things. It becomes a substitute for a social immediacy that is being denied to people.

What Adorno identifies in television could be elaborated on a much broader scale: The “real alienation between people and between people and things” has paradigmatically shifted from television to the even more totalizing reach of a cyberspatiality. What might be asked of Adorno's critique of television, however, is whether it could anticipate a series like Curb.

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While a strictly Adornian reading of Curb would empty the series of its potential for social critique, the series demands a different sort of reading, a metacritique. As Adorno argues, the regime of the culture industry is “so fundamentally entangled with powerful interests that even the most honest efforts in its sector could not get very far." It would be of little consequence to measure Curb by its "goodwill" — even if that goodwill, as opposed to some notion of tact, were to be strictly a matter of asserting a "truth," the culture industry inevitably engenders a “perversion of truth” within all that it produces. There is no way to merely limit the perversion “to the realm of the irresponsibly anodyne or the cynically cunning,” Adorno claims, because the “sickness lies not in wicked individuals but in the system.”

In reading Curb through the polemics of Adorno, it becomes crucial to engage in a metacritique of Adorno as well. What must be asked, not only of Curb but also of Minima Moralia, is whether, as Adorno writes in his dedication, either project succeeds in “the teaching of the good life” in late capitalism. Curb responds to an Adornian problematic, as a mode of representation that will “make people who are no more than component parts of machinery act as if they still had the capacity to act as subjects, and as if something depended on their action.” In spite of Adorno's claims against television as a form, Curb closely approximates a TV serialization of Minima Moralia, with Larry's miserly persona declaring an end to our collective capacity to act as subjects.

The latest season of Curb, in which Larry returns to New York after finalizing his divorce from Cheryl, presumably marks a new chapter for the series. Larry's exile in Los Angeles is over, as is his obligation to master the social conventions that Cheryl insisted on. And after attempting to revive Seinfeld in previous seasons, Larry seems to have divorced himself from that project as well. Regardless of this ostensible sea change in the series, however, Curb's return — two years after what was assumed to be its last season — suggests that it has reached its own moment of incapacity as a mode of social critique. Still hilarious and still well-conceived through various technics of the "reality principle," there is nevertheless something stale about Larry's postmodern predicament. And with this distinct feeling of being tired yet ceaseless, the series — along with its Adornian counterpart — now resists a greater sea change taking place.