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Don’t Touch that Dial

George A. Reisch & Phillip S. Seng

If Congress had its way, Dorothy would have clicked her ruby slippers together and chanted, “There’s no place like home theater. There’s no place like home theater.”

The Wizard of Oz and Philosophy

Publisher: Open Court
ISBN: 9780812696578
Author: Phil Seng (editors)
Price: $18.95
Display Artist: Randall E. Auxier, Phil Seng (editors)
Length: 288
Formats: Paperback
US publication date: 2008-11

You might have thought that a recent congressional debate was about life and death. Millions of Americans, representatives argued, needed immediate legislation to help them avoid going “over a cliff”, or being suddenly unprepared for a “tremendous transition” in their lives. Representative Jared Polis, D-Colorado, got right to the point with his colleagues: Without this legislation, he insisted, “millions of televisions across America will go dark.” (Quotes from House debate on 2 February 2009, via

The problem stemmed from the FCC’s mandate that digital broadcasting replace analog signals. Since some Americans who will need digital converter boxes to make the transition had yet to purchase them, those viewers would have been out of luck and out of American Idol on 17 February. Unless, that is, congress voted to delay the transition, which it did. (The new deadline is 12 June. Stay tuned for a likely rerun of this controversy.)

At first, the urgency of this debate baffled me. How could anyone see TV screens going blank as anything more than a wake-up call for procrastinators or the uninformed? Some people (everybody knows one or two) are unable to meet deadlines or appointments regardless of the circumstances. So whenever the digital transition occurs, some screens will go blank. What’s the big deal? It’s not like a house was about to fall on anyone.

But it is a big deal. I was corrected by a vague, black and white memory of Frank Zappa playing “I’m the Slime” on Saturday Night Live. It was 1976 and I was young and clueless. But I could tell that Zappa was smart, subversive and (therefore) extremely cool. And now you can see him play it in full color, thanks to youtube. He sang,

I may be vile and pernicious

But you can't look away

I make you think I'm delicious

With the stuff that I say

I am the best you can get

Have you guessed me yet?

I am the slime oozin’ out

From your TV set

Zappa even passed the vocals for the third verse over to Don Pardo, the voice of ‘70s commercial television. And he rigged a slime-machine to ooze pink goo from the TV monitor above the stage.

Thirty years later, Zappa’s theatrics seem like a prediction born out by Congress’s behavior: TV is not merely entertainment. It’s an addiction harder to break than cigarettes, crack or heroin:

Your mind is totally controlled

It has been stuffed into my mold

And you will do as you are told

Until the rights to you are sold.

OK, Zappa did get one small thing wrong. As 17 February neared, the American people and their congressional representatives were not passive. They rebelled. They rose up. They looked the FCC straight in the eyes and said, in effect, “Don’t touch that dial!” Still, Zappa’s point remains unchallenged. Asking America to risk some downtime from national television is like asking a smoker to throw out the emergency cigarettes he’s got stashed in his freezer. It’s not going to happen, and it didn’t.

Which points us to Socrates, the Frank Zappa of philosophy, who urged his fellow Athenians to turn off their TVs and come out into the agora to talk, ask difficult questions, and try to figure out the real nature of things. It didn’t work out so well (spoiler: Socrates was put to death by his fellow Athenians). Perhaps that’s why Plato, Socrates’ friend and student, came to see humans as too-easily satisfied and controlled by the flashing lights, images, and sounds they see in front of them.

It’s all in Plato’s famous allegory of the cave, in which prisoners (read: couch potatoes) are bound and chained in a dark cave. For their entire lives, they’ve seen nothing but the shadow play on a wall projected from behind them by a fire and puppets wielded by a cadre of slimy and powerful network producers.

The fun starts when Plato asks, What would happen were one of the prisoners suddenly set free to examine the cave, the fire, the light and the objects casting shadows? As Phil Seng argues in his contribution to The Wizard of Oz and Philosophy: Wicked Wisdom of the West, such a prisoner would be kind of like Dorothy first opening the door into the Technicolor world of Oz. There would be wonder, confusion and perplexity about what’s real and what’s illusion.

It’s not easy to wrench yourself away from comfortable routines and face the questions reality poses. So who knows what might happen were millions of TV screens around the nation to go blank. But I’m still not as worried as our leaders in congress. Dorothy found her way home easily enough after a few exciting detours. So too will those Americans whose blank screens nudge them down the yellow brick road in search of a wizardly converter box.

Adapted from “A Sort of Homecoming: Growing Up with Dorothy” by Phillip S. Seng, in The Wizard of Oz and Philosophy: Wicked Wisdom of the West, edited by Randall E. Auxier and Phillip S. Seng, Open Court: 2008.

The basic Oz story in Baum’s first book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and in several movie adaptations of it, is built around homecoming: the need to return to and affirm one’s home. Dorothy searches for something better, something not available to her at home in Kansas, and she winds up finding it while in Oz. But whatever “Home” is, it is not in Oz, nor even Oz itself; Dorothy finds her home within herself. In every version of the tale, there is a strong connection between Home and self-knowledge.

The reigning Wizard of self-knowledge in Western history is Socrates, the hero of Plato’s dialogues. In Plato’s Republic—that ever constant touchstone of philosophy even today—Socrates tries to explain, among other things, the process of learning and education, as a process of acquiring self-knowledge. To explain it Socrates uses a visual metaphor that has come to be called the cave allegory. It’s a story about the journey a person (or soul or spirit or mind—it depends on which philosophical theory you want to align yourself with) makes when traveling from ignorance to knowledge, and I think it’s pretty obvious Dorothy travels this road in Baum’s story.

Socrates asks Glaucon and Adiemantus, his main questioners, to imagine what it would be like to have lived one’s whole life in bondage in the depths of a cave; you are bound in place, cannot even turn your head. You can only look forward, and all you see on the cave wall before you are weird shapes in flickering light and all you hear are garbled sounds (514a-b). Socrates describes the scene like this:

The men have been there from childhood, with their neck and legs in fetters, so that they remain in the same place and can only see ahead of them, as their bonds prevent them from turning their heads. Light is provided by a fire burning some way behind and above them. Between the fire and the prisoners, some way behind them and on a higher ground, there is a path across the cave and along this a low wall has been built, like the screen at a puppet show in front of the performers who show their puppets above it … See then also men carrying along that wall, so that they overtop it, all kinds of artifacts, statues of men, reproductions of other animals in stone or wood fashioned in all sorts of ways, and, as is likely, some of the carriers are talking while others are silent. (514a-515a, Plato, Republic, Hackett Publishing Co., 1974)

The fire behind casts shadows of the objects and people against the back wall of the cave, and, of course, their voices rebound there as well. These shadows and echoes are all the captives know—it is a world removed from actual truth and from any notion of who the captives themselves really are. They do not know they are bound, for they have never known otherwise. They do not know that the flickering shadows are unreal absences of light (and understanding) instead of real, actual object. What Socrates suggests, in other words, is that when a person is ignorant concerning some bit of knowledge, like when she doesn’t know the Pythagorean theorem or where Kansas is on a map, then she is like a captive who can do no better than to believe whatever someone else tells her.

A prisoner’s goal, naturally enough, is to get out of the cave and see the world for what it is—kind of like Keanu Reeves’s character Neo in The Matrix. And that is you, your condition, whether you want to admit it or not, Socrates says. When someone finally comes along and frees you of your shackles or you yourself manage to dig up the nerve to do it, you realize that the images on the wall and the sounds are nothing but shadows and echoes, pale imitations of objects and voices bouncing reflected from people and things between you and the fire, and still far removed for the entrance of the cave where a brighter light shines.

The most interesting thing is what Socrates tells us to do once we get outside our individual caves: we have to go back in (519d). This is because Socrates’s story is about the importance of knowing who you are, of gaining self-knowledge. While on trial for his life he even suggested, “The unexamined life is not worth living…” (Apology, 38a). But how, you might ask, is learning a way of gaining self-knowledge? When I learn about the stars in astronomy classes or rocks in geology exhibits, or even rock stars in the tabloids, I’m not learning about stars and rocks, not myself. But, in Socrates’s way of understanding how everything hangs together in the universe, all knowledge is linked in some pretty fundamental ways and has a similar origin. So to be able to place it all in the proper scheme, to link it together, is to have knowledge of your self. For Socrates, the “self” is a rationally-thinking soul, encased in a body (which acts suspiciously like a cave). So, the goal is for a captive to act on the potentiality of the soul in their own body, to find her true home even while being trapped in the cave, just as Dorothy finds her true home by returning to the very same place she left.

Home on the Range

Dorothy finds her “Home” while in Oz—the sense of self she gains through her journey makes her a more complete person. Oz isn’t really her home, but in Oz she learns from Glinda that she always had it with her already, even when she was back home in godforsaken Kansas. Baum gives Dorothy the key to her shackles in the form of silver shoes (or ruby ones if we’re talking about the 1939 movie). They have the power of taking her home. Of course, Dorothy did not know about this power until informed of it by Glinda, but she possessed the shoes almost the entire time she journeyed in Oz. In a sense, then, she never gained anything that she didn’t already have with her.

Dorothy wants desperately to go home, to the physical home that shaped her life, but Socrates’ prisoner wants nothing to do with the idea of returning to the cave. A person accustomed to the light of truth, who then returns to the darkness of the cave, cannot be considered fortunate, yet Socrates suggests it is a duty that must be performed. Socrates finds home in the ideas of truth and goodness, of being a good person, and to return to the cave after seeing the light is like being the only human in a world of winged monkeys. But Dorothy takes the lessons learned and joyfully goes to her physical home with a fuller appreciation of her family. Socrates’ prisoner reluctantly returns home because he fears losing the wisdom he has fought so hard to earn, but tries valiantly to encourage those still in the cave that a better life is possible for them. Both Socrates and Dorothy love home, and each is trying to bring the physical and ideal together, but they act with different emphases, from different concerns.

The Color of Home

Consider how Dorothy’s home is presented to us. Baum’s classic first book sets the story in Kansas, with Aunt Em’s and Uncle Henry’s home surrounded by “the great gray prairie on every side.” The land is a sun-baked “gray mass” with both plowed soil and green grass wilting into the “same gray color” under the force of the sun. Even the painted house suffered the weather and depreciated into grayness. Not only did the prairie and buildings become gray, but so did Aunt Em and Uncle Henry, the former from “sun and wind” and the latter from years of working “from morning till night.” And, finally, the day the cyclone swept across the bleak plain “was even grayer than usual” (L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz from The Annotated Wizard of Oz: Centennial Edition, W.W. Norton & Company, 2000, quotes from pp. 18–20). So, Baum’s depiction of Dorothy’s home—the physical location of it and the people there—isn’t very appealing (except perhaps for Aunt Em’s care for Dorothy and Toto’s ability to make her laugh).

The shift from black and white to color (processed via the Technicolor process which is now all but given up in the U.S.) marks the change between Home and Away in the 1939 film. It’s magical to see the change to color for the first time, but it also reminds me of a more recent movie, Pleasantville, starring Toby Maguire. In Pleasantville Maguire’s character, David, is transported into a 1950s sit-com city called Pleasantville. He finds himself stifled with the “cute” morality of the time, and eventually begins spreading color to people and places he touches. Maguire’s David took his home with him, and altered Pleasantville into a more recognizable likeness of his own home. In Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz, Kansas never receives any color, but the same lines are drawn: Kansas is stifling, and the colorful land of Oz—even with all of its dangers and oddities—is the place where you go to grow and mature.

It’s no accident that the house is taken along with Dorothy in the story; the house encloses her for as long as it can. She is not safe outside, we are meant to believe, and especially so during a cyclone. When Dorothy is inside the house she seems safe, but out of doors she runs away from Miss Gulch, she runs after Toto, runs away from home, runs after Toto some more, and she runs to get inside to avoid the cyclone. Outside, while in Kansas, is very dangerous in Fleming’s movie. While in Oz, by contrast, almost everything occurs outside except when the group is held captive or meeting the Wizard.

Outside is also where Dorothy sings her anthem, “Over the Rainbow.” Incredibly, audiences don’t laugh when she sings this song. She’s talking about a rainbow, right? And the movie up to this point is in black and white, showing us just shades of gray. What on earth will a rainbow look like in sepia-toned cinematography? How can it be magical? In any case, we know now she is signing a song about getting out of the cave of her discontent, about finding something better for herself.

George A. Reisch is series editor for Open Court’s Popular Culture and Philosophy series.

Phillip S. Seng teaches philosophy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and grew up in Nebraska learning a thing or two about cyclones.

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