Classics, South Park, and Nostalgia

One of the most difficult aspects of the presentation thus far has been establishing how my major discipline of Classics can/does feed into my analysis of South Park. This is primarily because I was reluctant to make arbitrary links between classical culture and the animation series – I wanted to make observations that had value.

To further complicate my ‘problem’ is the scope of Classics itself, as defining what exactly is included within the discipline has shifted over time. Originally, the classics have been defined by two ancient languages, Latin and Greek, but more recently cultural and reception studies have been investigated by classical scholars. Moreover, after reading Carles Miralles’ paper ‘The Use of Classics today’, it became clear that Classics today is inherently interdisciplinary, and as a result I do not approach research from a singular angle, but a combined stance of historical, cultural, and popular culture. Carles states:

  • It is becoming advisable to distinguish between to study of philological and historical knowledge on the one hand, and  on the other, the contemporary use of the classics in fiction and in commentary.

Thus, Carles is suggesting that the discipline has become so wide that it perhaps there is a need to distinguish between classics in the historical sense and the reception of classics in contemporary popular culture. My specialism within Classics lies within the reception branch – my dissertation, for example, examines the use of myth in Kate Tempest’s poetry. Comparatively, I know little about the history of antiquity (other than life in Pompeii leading up to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius) and I think it is a lack of historical and linguistic knowledge that has been partially responsible for my anxieties around using Classics as an angle of critique and investigation; up until now, I didn’t feel qualified to make classics motivated judgements.

However, Carles’ paper argues that classical reception is as much ‘classics’ as knowledge of antiquity is. Furthermore, I realised that I can draw links between HOW the discipline is taught/approached with South Park, rather than having to stick to to then content of the discipline itself.

Since the beginning of the twentieth century classics evolved from the confinements of ancient language, as techniques for newer disciplines were applied to the study of antiquity. As stated by Miralles, this put ‘the features and issues arising from the study of the ancient world into the framework of other humanities and social sciences’. As a result there has been an explosion of specialities within classics, which can complicate attempts of synthesis. Classics now demands its scholars to be ‘in a living dialogue with literary artistic creators, with the media, and with public opinion concerning how classics are being used.’

However, it is the traditional learning style and connotations of Classics that allowed me to draw parallels with episodes of South Park, particularly season 20. Carles points out that traditionally, the classics has been a provider of ‘models and moulds’ and were treated as ‘the very roots of modern western society’; antiquity was looked back upon as an exemplar of perfected society and something that contemporary society should aspire towards.

‘Nostalgia carries cultural prestige’

Moreover, nostalgia for the past in order to better the future runs throughout season 20 of South Park under the guise of ‘member berries’. Member berries are talking fruits that act as a relaxant/quasi-drug and they feature in most, if not all, of the episodes of the most recent season (which follows the campaign and election of Donald Trump). ‘They remind the user of the good ol’ times of Chewbacca and the original Ghostbusters (i.e. the one without the women)’ (Jack Shepherd). On a deeper level, they are used as a ploy to show the electioneering tactics of Donald Trump as they remind the character Randy of a time “when there were fewer Mexicans”, “feeling safe”, and “when there was no Isis”. In the final episode of the season, Donald Trump is pictured sat in The White House with an army of member berries in the foreground, thereby suggesting that nostalgia for the past triggered a triumph in fascist politics.

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A compelling link can be made with the Classics discipline here as it has traditionally been used ‘as a touchstone to make sense of the present’, and this idea of looking back to better times has often caused nationalist and imperialist appropriations of antiquity. The film ‘300’, for instance, uses The Battle of Thermpolyae as a vehicle to push forward anti-orientalist, xenophobic, and homophobic views through placing the macho Greeks (represented by their chiseled, symmetrical physiques) against the emasculated oriental ‘other’. By extension, the film used antiquity as a means to justify an expansion of the War on Terror.

Thus, South Park shows the dangers of nostalgia in a similar way to how receptions of the ancient world have enacted nostalgia for the Classics. Carles’ concluding comments are pertinent here as he states that ‘Classics should lead us not to cherish a nostalgic recollection of some better past but rather to renew our commitment to playing an active role in a globalised society in securing recognition for the value embodied in the Greeks and Romans’. Thus, interdisciplinarity within the discipline of Classics can be used as keeping the discipline relevant for the present moment, rather than being reliant upon looking back.