Q&A with Jeremy Wisnewski, editor of “The Office and Philosophy”

Most of us would agree that we are who we are. But could it also be said that we are who we think we are? Is that not a contradiction, or is it also inherently true? These are just a few of the questions explored in The Office and Philosophy, a series of essays that use examples from The Office – both the Emmy Award-winning NBC series, as well as the BBC series (created by Ricky Gervais) on which it is based – to explore timeless philosophical questions. Edited by Jeremy Wisnewski, assistant professor of philosophy at Harwick College in New York, it’s the latest in a series of books by Wiley-Blackwell that uses popular movies and TV shows as a vehicle to introduce philosophy. With The Office having recently aired its season finale, it’s a fun way to look back at previous episodes until the show returns in the fall. I recently chatted by phone with Wisnewski about the book.

ER: How did you come up with the idea for the book?

JW: I’m chronically philosophical. I really can’t help myself. The first time I saw the show, I immediately knew it was something I would like to write on and think about. In fact, at that time, I was already working on a book in the genre [Family Guy and Philosophy], so I was working in the genre. I saw a couple episodes [of The Office], and thought, “Wow, this is just so rich. The show really does tap into something universal” – at least, it’s universal in advanced capitalist nations. There is a kind of alienation that seems to go with 9-to-5 labor that they exploit, that they adequately represent, and enable us to look at through comedy (and hence, in a way that we can deal with). I think this also explains why it’s been successful not only in Britain and in the U.S., but also in France, Germany, and Canada. They all have their own versions of the show.

ER: There’s certainly a universal element to the series, in that there is always some degree of office politics and social mores and things that you can or cannot do.

JW: Right. Plus I should also say that The Office, in addition to presenting the work load and alienation and also ways of dealing with it – Jim in the American version, or Tim in the British version – are both great examples of people trying to cope with absurdity. They don’t get any particular fulfillment out of pushing paper, but they find ways to essentially invite meaning in their lives, through comedy and other things. But I also want to say, I think it’s just a great format to dealing with all these issues that we face all the time: issues about race, issues about sexual harassment, about diversity in general, and less business-centric views, like issues about self deception, and ethics, and humiliation. It’s all right there, and it’s wonderful to actually have a show that’s sometimes hard to watch.

ER: Let’s play devil’s advocate for a second. Do you think Gervais had that sort of social commentary in mind when he originally conceived The Office, or do you think he was more or less just trying to put a good show together?

JW: It’s so hard to say, although as a matter of fact, Gervais does a background in philosophy. But no matter what he was trying to do, he’s smart enough that he couldn’t help but offer commentary. He’s just a smart insightful guy. So even if he was just intending to do a good show, his intelligence seeps through… I’m sure he’d like that response!

ER: What’s the purpose of the Blackwell series of books?

JW: They’re meant to fix a bad public relations problem that philosophy has had for the past 2,500 years. The books are meant to introduce philosophy to a wider audience, and also to make people get a new perspective on stuff they really enjoy. And they’re meant to be fun, and I find that that’s really useful for some students. You might start exploring a particular philosopher by taking a look at one of these chapters.ER: Do you use The Office, Family Guy, or some of the shows that have been the basis of other books in the Blackwell series, in the course of your own teaching?

JW: You know, I haven’t yet… although I have been thinking of taking my standard Intro to Philosophy course, which uses a whole lot of actual philosophers, primary sources, Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, those guys, and supplementing it with a couple of the other books [in the Blackwell series] because they’re fairly inexpensive. I actually do think about how much my students have to spend, and you can get a good primary source text and you can put them all together for about 60 bucks. And thinking about it pedagogically, I think it’s really good for a certain kind of student….. I can see the pedagogical value in it.

ER: That leads to another question I want to ask you, which is the flip side. Is there a danger, for lack of a better word, in reading too much into popular shows – or at least, certain popular TV shows?

JW: I don’t think there’s a danger in that. Quite frankly, I think that everything can be an object of philosophical inquiry. And I think, when you get to a point where that’s true, where you can recognize the philosophy loitering around in everyday things, that’s a good place to be – and in certain ways, that’s the very goal of a liberal arts education. However, I do think there’s a danger in doing too much of pop culture stuff at the expense of other stuff.

ER: In other words, popular television has its place, but not as a substitute for the classics.

JW: Right. I could never imagine doing a course where we did Family Guy instead of Plato.

ER: What would you like readers in general to get out of the book?

JW: I’d like them, first of all, to enjoy the read. We’ve got no axe to grind. What we’re engaging in is the celebration of ideas, and I would like people to learn a little something, to be able to see things they haven’t seen before, and to do it in a way that they find rewarding and entertaining.

ER: And maybe look at television a little bit differently than perhaps they would have before.

JW: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.

Ed Robertson

Pop Culture Critic and Entertainment Journalist



Filed under Articles, Book, Book Club Suggestions, Book Reviews, Books Carnival, Contributor Authors, Entries by Ed Robertson, Literature, New Book Release, Nonficition, Publishing, The Writing Life, Writing

2 responses to “Q&A with Jeremy Wisnewski, editor of “The Office and Philosophy”

  1. Pingback: New book uses “The Office” to probe timeless philosophical questions « This is Ed Robertson

  2. Pingback: New book uses “The Office” to probe timeless philosophical questions « This is Ed Robertson

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