Thursday, July 29, 2010


I remember, in my doctoral seminar on rhetorical criticism, nailing down the difference between a diachronic and synchronic angle of attack on communicative practice. Diachronic refers to movement through time, while synchronic is identification of relationships at one moment in time. The simplest illustration of the concept involved a game of chess: you might map the moves made by one piece, say, the queen's bishop, all the way through the game, and that would be diachronic. Or you could stop the game about five or ten moves in, identify the strategic potential of every piece on the board, which pieces were under attack, which side had the stronger position, etc., and that would be synchronic.

I learned those lessons in a classroom in Georgia, where the home folks have an especially deft grasp of the concept. Small town Southerners want to know two things when they meet you: where are you from, and who are your people? Effectively, those are the two dimensions that Einstein identified as a continuum: where did you come from in space and in time? What is your place and your lineage? Who came before you, and who surrounds you? They ask because they're looking for that one clue that will sum you up.

The answer, in my case, is cartoons. Cartoons play a major role in both my heritage and my neighborhood.

I grew up in Richardson, Texas, a little suburb of Dallas. My mother still lives there, and I go back to visit every summer. Put a blindfold on me and I could probably find almost any square inch of the town. Mike Judge didn't grow up there, but he did live there for part of his childhood, and it was from the Richardson Public Library that he checked out his first books on animation. In case the name doesn't ring a bell, he's the creator of Beavis and Butthead, as well as the second longest-running animated show on network TV, King of the Hill, which, he's said in interviews, he modeled on his memories of Richardson.

The longest running animated show on network TV is The Simpsons, created by Matt Groening. He didn't spend any part of his formative years in Richardson, but rather in Portland, which means he's not from my town. He is, however, one of my people: he's my fifth cousin. On my father's mother's side of the family, three more generations back, one of my female ancestors was a Groening who married into Schmidt-ness. Her great-granddaughter, Anna Schmidt, married Glen Srader, and about fifty years later, I came along. Admittedly, both of these links are pretty tenuous -- Mike Judge and I shared city limits only for a handful of years, and Matt Groening and I are as closely related as, oddly enough, Franklin and Theodore Roosevelt.

But that's a wild enough coincidence to make me stop and appreciate it. Animated shows that have long, healthy runs on network TV are not common as houseflies; the only two people in my generation that have succeeded in creating such works both show up in my heritage, one each on each of its axes, the diachronic one and the synchronic one, my place and my people.

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