Written by: Carol Zolnowsky, Special to CC2K
I will gladly admit that I only picked up South Park and Philosophy out of morbid curiosity. I tend to consider it, like fashion magazines and reality TV, a sign of all that is wrong with our society today. So when I considered the thoughts, and I didn’t think there could be many of them, that went into the writing and publishing of South Park and Philosophy, I assumed that it was an exercise either in philosophical satire (or satirical philosophy; either way, it’s a growing genre) or an experiment to write the most absurd book possible. I mean, Mr. Hanky the Christmas Poo meets Plato? Kenny meets Kant? Where are we going here?
To my great surprise and delight, this book actually had some serious scholarship in it. The first chapter was thoughtful and hilarious in the same time, something which philosophy seldom is and probably should be. Divided by chapter headings like “Oh my God! They killed Socrates! You Bastards!” and “Cartman gets a Banal Probe” this chapter manages to not take itself too seriously while at the same time make some absolutely incredible insights. South Park the TV show is not treated as the thoughtless time-waster that I consider it to be, rather, it is seen as a lens on society, and a way to point out the problems with ourselves we rarely consider. A direct comparison is drawn between the TV show and Socrates himself who was executed for corrupting the youth of his society and for questioning the existence, or perhaps competence, of the gods. Sound familiar?
But wait! It gets better. Moving on from painting South Park as a social criticism, Chapter One goes on to consider the question of evil. Cartman is seen as the epitome of evil in the show, using the definition by which Hanna Arendt* described Adolf Eichmann:** one so self-centered and uncritical that he was incapable of deciding the right action on his own and merely bowed to the influence of the times to make his decisions for him. Cartman is seen as equally banal, completely a product of consumerism and media influence, incapable of self-reflection or independent thought. And here you thought he was just this obnoxious fat kid.
The chapter winds up with a reflection on the importance of community in deciding the rightness or wrongness of certain actions, pointing out that Stan and Kyle, while they can be led astray when each is on the own, tend to discover and commit to right ethical actions when they question each other’s thinking about whichever moral dilemma is on the table. The author of chapter one, William W. Young III, a man so insightful and funny that I want to track him down and distill his genius and sell it, points out that Stan and Kyle may be stand-ins for the show’s creators and writers, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, who likely use the same sort of questioning and challenging to determine the right questions to ask and how far to go (way the hell too far, IMO) when writing an episode.
Oh yeah, and the rest of the book is pretty good too. Unfortunately, it has to come after this stellar first chapter, and suffers the same problem as many movie sequels: the idea is no longer new, so it takes more to impress the reader. The next few chapters discuss the ethics of humor: is it right to laugh at blasphemy, potty humor, or stereotypical representations of nearly every people group you can think of? I’m sure there’s good stuff in there, but I lost interest during a 3 page discussion of the difference between morality and ethics, something being morally right vs. appropriate, or something like that, and I kinda stopped reading. Sorry. But I wouldn’t really want to give the whole book away, either.
It’s incredible to me that something as seemingly thoughtless as South Park could generate as much thought as is evident in South Park and Philosophy. But wait, that’s not all! It turns out that this was part of a series–Pop Culture and Philosophy–that covers everything from Bob Dylan to Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Hip-Hop. My bookstore isn’t as well stocked as one could hope, so I only managed to flip through The Undead and Philosophy and it seems to suffer from the same problem as the last half of the South Park version: starts taking itself too seriously, gets a little repetitive, and a little boring.
First Chapter of South Park and Philosophy: Everyone should read.
Rest of SP&P: Eh…maybe if you have time, and there’s nothing good on TV.
Rest of Pop Culture and Philosophy Series: Definitely worth a browse. Bullshit and Philosophy is next on my list.
*Google it. Or Wiki it. Whatever. I’m not your history teacher.