Wednesday, December 20, 2006

'South Park' misinterpreted

I'll pass on the book South Park and Philosophy. It should be right up my alley -- I majored in philosophy all those years ago, and I've probably seen every episode of the show.

But this review skewers the book just as effectively as the show skewers its satirical targets:

"South Park is a mini-representation of America, where different races, religions and types of people have to coexist, but have their problems as well. There is no right answer in South Park. Everyone has their faults, and everyone has their strengths, just like in America. South Park is great because of it's diversity, and it's acceptance of other people. When you try to loosely base an opinion-based argument on a show that clearly argues something totally different, then you're just using the South Park name to sell some books. "

The problem, claims the reviewer, is that the writers miss the point or misrepresent it. That's also the case in "The Invisible Gnomes and the Invisible Hand," which seems to be an excerpt from the book.

Paul Cantor, an English professor writing here on economics, starts on solid ground, insisting that South Park's vulgarity is merely the continuation of proud traditions of fart jokes in comedy and philosophy. And he rightly hails the surprise twist at the end of the Big Gay Scoutmaster episode, which has a resolution sure to confuse and challenge slogan-chanters on all sides.

But Cantor so desperately wants to claim South Park for the "right" -- the economic "right," anyway -- that he misreads the episode on which he bases most of his piece.

He gets half of it right, accurately summing up the town's misguided efforts to fight "Harbucks." Yet even in that section, the ideological blinders are evident. He labels the TV ad with the kids and the American flag as "a wonderful parody of a liberal political commercial." Take out the word "liberal," and this description is more precise. Kids and flags are equal-opportunity political pawns.

The great misreading concerns the Underpants Gnomes. A few quotes:

"The gnomes represent the ordinary business activity that is always going on in plain sight of everyone, but which they fail to notice and fail to understand. The people of South Park are unaware that the ceaseless activity of large corporations like Harbucks is necessary to provide them with all the goods they enjoy in their daily lives. They take it for granted that the shelves of their supermarkets will always be amply stocked with a wide variety of goods and never appreciate all the capitalist entrepreneurs who make that abundance possible."

The second and third sentences are a viable argument. The first is nonsense. The gnomes are sneaking into Tweek's room in the middle of the bloody night. That's "plain sight"?

"What is worse, the ordinary citizens misinterpret capitalist activity as theft. They focus only on what businessmen take from them – their money – and forget about what they get in return, all the goods and services. "

Dude, they're stealing Tweek's underwear. Not the model business on which you want to hinge this argument.

"Even the gnomes do not understand what they are doing. Perhaps South Park is suggesting that the real problem is that businessmen themselves lack the economic knowledge they would need to explain their activity to the public and justify their profits. When the boys ask the gnomes to tell them about corporations, all they can offer is this enigmatic diagram of the stages of their business."

He then offers up the chart -- Phase 1, Collect Underpants. Phase 2, ? ... Phase 3, Profit. So far, so good.

"This chart basically encapsulates the economic illiteracy of the American public. They can see no connection between the activities businessmen undertake and the profits they make. What businessmen actually contribute to the economy is a big question mark to them. "

No, I didn't skip a bit between the last two quotes. Cantor has jumped from laughing with us at the Underpants Gnomes' confused business plan to laughing at us for failing to understand it.

Again, Cantor could make a fair point on the "economic illiteracy of the American public." The mistake is tying that argument to a bunch of gnomes who raid Tweek's drawer in the middle of the night and have no idea what to do with the undergarments. You could make a better case that the gnomes are some sort of allegory for the dotcom bust circa 2001.

My dad, very much a traditionalist in terms of education, pushed me to go to Virginia. I wonder how he'd feel about a Virginia professor watching cartoons ... and misinterpreting them.

To be fair to Cantor, the segments of his piece not dealing with gnomes aren't bad. And I've seen worse in terms of misreading pop culture, from the other side of the political aisle. That would be one Michael Eric Dyson, who spoke at a graduation I attended in Chapel Hill. Dyson, whose entire speech was designed to shock the grandmothers who had come to see their little Tar Heels turn tassels, made reference to Alanis Morissette's You Oughta Know, saying many of us are stunned by the reference to fellatio in the backseat of a car.

Why yes, I would be stunned if that song had a reference to fellatio in a car. Because the act takes place in a theater. Way to do your research, Mr. Dyson.

Maybe I shouldn't go into academia. These guys don't seem any smarter or more intellectually honest than my colleagues in journalism.

1 comment:

Lex said...

You call that misreading popular culture? Try George Will trying to explain to America how Springsteen's "Born in the USA" was a "rollicking" (and, implicitly, pro-Republican) song.