- "That's just, like, your opinion, man":Irony, Abiding, Achievement, and Lebowski
The terms in which the reception of The Year's Work in Lebowski Studies played out in the comments to Dave Itzkoff's New York Times review in December of 2010 rehearsed a number of the familiar questions that have long plagued academic studies of popular culture: What would it mean to take mass culture seriously? What would be left after refusing the fan's or the cult's uncritical enthusiasm and the elite's dismissal? Or, to put it rather differently, who is the audience for a collection like this? While many fans applauded the editors' and contributors' desire to engage with everything Dude, there were as many or more who substantially resented someone taking their fun seriously (thought apparently being the enemy of pleasure). And on the still more reactionary side, this volume's very existence was cited, variously, as evidence of the decline of the university as an institution, of the death yet again of the canon of seemingly self-evidently great works, and as evidence of the silliness if not sheer irrelevance of the academic study of popular culture. This last seems particularly germane, in so far as the Times itself regularly offers its own confidently commonsensical, ideology-free perspective by noting the daft pursuits of the humanities professoriate. The review, while guardedly sympathetic, continues that tendency toward condescension perhaps most egregiously manifested in Jonathan Kandell's shameful obituary of Jacques Derrida in 2004.
These sorts of reception suggest some of the potential pitfalls the editors of any collection about a cult object must navigate: a great deal of fan culture depends upon iterability, repetition and citation, and thus opposes academic analysis; and certain conservative ideas of what constitutes the "proper" object of academic study exclude the mass cultural object by fiat.1 Commendably, The Year's Work stakes out a variety of other possible positions, and, at its best, imagines a necessary rapprochement between academics—who are also always already fans—and a portion of the cult audience who look to deepen their pleasure. For the latter, The Year's Work seems to fit neatly alongside the seemingly endless "Philosophy and –" collections that constitute the bulk of the philosophy section at my big box bookstore, collections whose ubiquity suggests to me that someone needs to write a Philosophy and "Philosophy and" book. For the former, however, the Coen brothers' film presents a challenge that calls for the most delicate judgment: as both fans and scholars, academics here are forced to countenance the conflicting allegiances of immersion and distance. Some scholars here, seeking to respond to the Dude on his own terms, try to overcome this conflict with the ambivalent aid of irony, while others prefer the detachment of a more traditional academic perspective. Indeed, the volume's own title signals the extent to which irony is here a privileged form of address.
Ultimately, to take The Big Lebowski seriously would be to refuse or go beyond the fan's pleasures of citation in favor of elaborating a different context, moreover one that might, very explicitly, threaten to subsume the film itself. In order to deal with this deadlock, the editors have chosen, in an eloquent and spirited introduction, to cast academics as over-achievers, which is to say as a special case and fraction of the Achievers, the Lebowski cult's preferred self-nomination. Such a term neatly signals both identity and difference, the academic's fannishness and her intellectual "excess."2 There will be, then, a third term to make a constellation of the binaries of "to achieve" and "to abide": to over-achieve, to reach too far, to try too hard, to do too much. But as the introduction proceeds, it spells out another image of what it might mean to "work" on Lebowski, now in terms of the joint:
The film demands to be seen with bleary eyes, and this Year's Work is offered in this vein—laid-back, easy-going, comfortably dead-beat, slack.… Yes, the...