Blame Canada! South Park and Contemporary Culture
Toni Johnson-Woods Continuum, 271pp, £40
South Park and Philosophy: You Know, I Learned Something Today
edited by Robert Arp Blackwell Publishing, 256pp, £9.99
Some tenth anniversaries are worth celebrating. Imagine two visionary men who collaborate for a decade on hundreds of initiatives to promote fairness, fight extremism and raise standards through detailed criticism of failing schools. They have their detractors, who sneer that they are mere image-merchants, obsessed with celebrities; the Catholic Church tries to undermine them because they support equal civic status for same-sex partnerships. Yet they remain committed not only to their cause, but to each other. No hint of rivalry or suspicion clouds their long double-act, a friendship that future historians will surely regard as defining an era.
On 13 August 2007, it will be ten years since the first of more than 150 episodes of South Park was brought to us by the exemplary duo Trey Parker and Matt Stone. They come from Colorado, a state that before their appearance was Belgium-like in the slackness of its contributions to world culture, mustering in its Hall of Fame few more notable than Douglas Fairbanks - an exception being Alfred Packer, the first US citizen jailed for cannibalism (about whom Parker and Stone have patriotically made a musical film). The show is set in the grassland basin of Colorado, where you can still acquire "a beautiful hunk of untamed real estate" for under $250,000 and cattle-ranching continues - though the good folk don't celebrate "Cow Days", as in the cartoon, but "Burro Days" (in July) with Cowboy Church services and other fun events such as the "drunken husband throw". "South Park" is, in reality, the name of an area not a town, but Parker and Stone would probably have been accused of implausible wackiness had they called their creation after its original, the county seat Fairplay.
It's apt that Colorado should now be best known among the refined of mind not on account of its exceptionally high incidence of deaths by lightning or its unparalleled refusal to stage the Winter Olympics, but through the four boys - Stan, Kyle, Eric and Kenny - who are the victims and the perpetrators of havoc in the series, for it was in Denver that "child abuse" as we know it began. The great team of pediatricians in the university hospital there published The Battered Child in 1968 (the year before Parker was born) and set off the wave of genuine concern and factitious scares in whose wake we live.
Today there are myriad more or less trustworthy experts in cruelty to children; the creators of South Park have an extra, rarer alertness to the cruelty of children, having kept in rueful mind their own times in third grade, "when you are at your peak of bastarddom". Their talent for slapstick - that elemental, comic routine in which exaggerated violence carries a perpetual, anaesthetic alibi that no real harm has been done - keeps them cool and lucid amid the media tripe about these matters. Like other American humorists from Twain through Thurber (to both of whom their work pays homage), they easily spot the "ha ha" lurking in any brouhaha, as when they responded to a fan's question - "How the hell are you people so fucking sick?" - with: "We were dropped repeatedly as children. With extreme velocity, as I faintly recall."
Life is often tough for kids in Colorado. During the 1990s, endocrinologists were perturbed by an upsurge of gynecomastia (breast development) among prepubescent boys; they eventually traced the problem to a fad for soaps and hair gels containing lavender essence and tea-tree oil. Epidemics, whether of consumerism or of panic, spread easily amid the populace of South Park, young and old, because they, like their creators, are avid mimics. I got to know Parker and Stone's work through the movie, South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut (probably the best place to begin if you're sheltered to the point of deprivation and haven't encountered them), and their genius dawned on me when the boys, having just acquired new vocabulary from the song "Shut your fucking face, uncle fucker", show off by cursing their classmates - "you're all a bunch of ass-ramming uncle fuckers". One child turns to the only African-American pupil in the group (called Token) and sighs in rapture over the exotic insult: "We have got to see this movie, dude."
It is an Aristotelian moment, for the philosopher observed that "one of man's natural advantages over the lower animals is that he is the most imitative creature in the world, and learns principally by imitation". This is a one-eyed and rosy view of how mimesis acts in the human world; we are also trained in competitive desires through imitation, as René Girard has shown in his searching books on the genesis and purging of frenzy. Because of the ambiguity in our imitativeness, schools are arenas of tribal conformism as well as temples of learning. Exclusion from schools is not the only problem; there is also exclusiveness within them, their rituals of belonging and bullying. They cannot, therefore, be the solution to our woes, as Coloradans know, for their state educational system hosted two of the most vengeful massacres in the past decade, at Platte Canyon High and Columbine ("a good, clean place except for those rejects", as a member of the football team described it after Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed a teacher and 14 students, including themselves for once).
Though about half the show's episodes begin in South Park Elementary, neither of these academic studies of the programme has anything to say about schooling. The index of Blame Canada!: South Park and Contemporary Culture skips from "scatological humour" through "self-reflexivity" to "sex and gender". It should in fairness be added that both books amply but unwittingly illustrate the dire assortment of tyrannical civics ("Eric Cartman, you respect other cultures this instant!"), shrunken history ("Did you know that not one of your students knew who Sam Adams was?", "Well, who cares about a guy that makes beer?!"), mealy-mouthing ("So remember, kids, dressing like Hitler isn't cool. Now, do you have any questions?") and well-intentioned mendacity ("Don't lie, Stan. Lying makes you sterile") that passes for teaching in South Park.
The scholarly contributors to South Park and Philosophy, meanwhile, inform their undergraduates that "critical reflection leads to harmony or balance and helps us to avoid extremes" in tones not far in their unreflective cosiness from Mr Garrison's when he infantilises his fourth-graders: "Now, Stalin was a big silly . . ." These philosophers are against religious faith because "this kind of faith is in fact opposed to reason; quite simply, it is belief without good evidence" and "weakens the mind" (it probably also makes you sterile); they are, however, content that "a society in which there is more discourse and exchange of ideas is, on balance, happier than a society with less social discourse and dialogue", though they offer no evidence for this noble belief and even admit that no precise grounds for it could be found. Their skills in conceptual analysis are displayed by insights such as "This respect for the system of government might simply be due to America's reverence for its national institutions" or "Whatever humour is, it seems to have something to do with amusement or funniness". The "simply" minded authors have not heard of philosophers like Wittgenstein or Ian Hacking who might have prompted them to thought about humour, or following rules, or how we make up categorisations and what in turn they make of us.
Philosophy, even when taught as badly as this, is a recognisable discipline; we know more or less what to complain about when it doesn't do what it says on the label. Media and cultural studies, on the other hand, is a mindless agglomerate, like the Portuguese man-o'-war, with tentacles spiralling off in all directions, propelled by the action of wind on the bag of inert gas at its centre. Blame Canada! numbs everything it touches. Toni Johnson-Woods has no response to the style of animation in South Park except to parrot dead 1960s French theory as to how it "eschews the bourgeois love of 'realism'"; its humour stirs her only to journalese about "total irreverence for everything . . . postmodern pastiche par excellence" and to endless rehashes of Bakhtin's shaky notions of the "carnivalesque" (when the peasantry "let their hair down" - she doesn't consider whether medieval peasants ever put their hair up). Her forays into materialist analysis of the media include "distribution is critical to achieve maximum sales" and "lower-pitched, slower music can be sad music and indicates sorrow". The intellectual interest in her pages comes solely from spotting how many mistakes she can make about South Park: Pip is not French, as she and Cartman suppose; Blanket Jefferson does not appear in "Goobacks"; Wendy's surname is spelled "Testaburger" for evident reasons that elude her grasp though she teaches popular culture. Only enthusiasts for the show will be able to revel in these and other howlers, and they will already have tossed the book aside long before they reach them. Indeed, I may be the only person living who has read it all the way through - neither the author nor her editor has. Chapter 9 refers to "the previous chapter on gender and sex". Chapter 8 is a dismal account of the show's uplifting songs; sex comes in chapter 16. It's better things stay this way; I'm tough, I prefer to suffer alone.
Eric Griffiths is fellow in English at Trinity College, Cambridge