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. 

Narrowing The Scope

In our last meeting, we discussed the value of satire, and specifically ‘the value of satire in a satirical world’. However, we decided that using this as our presentation question would be difficult due to its broad scope so we threw around ideas for more focused questions. Below are a list of potential ideas (although feel free to add to this guys if you can remember anymore):

– What is the value in depoliticising the hyper political?: A casestudy of SouthPark’s commentary on Donald Trump.

– What is the comic value in satire?

– Damaging Or Empowering? What is the value of laughter during a political epoch?

– Does satire challenge its audience, or does it preach to the converted?

– ‘The ability to shock’: Has satire lost its value in a world of extremes?

– SouthPark: Offensive or Subversive?

The Guardian and The Independent both have articles claiming that the makers of South Park are going to ‘back off’ Donald Trump jokes because he has become too difficult to make fun of. (Although Anthony did not believe that the producers would be so quick to back away, and that this is perhaps a media spin on a conversation with the two producers).

The articles are here:

http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/tv/news/donald-trump-adminstration-satire-south-park-trey-parker-matt-stone-the-book-of-mormon-a7560636.html

https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2017/feb/02/south-park-donald-trump-mr-garrison

 

We also discussed the idea of a ‘satirical world’ – can reality ever be satirical? Or does it have to be satirised in order to be so?

We set ourselves targets to read academic articles about SouthPark and select clips from series 20 that we find particularly compelling. We’ll then bring these ideas together in our next meeting.

How can we investigate value in South Park?

We’ve done a fair amount of planning but I don’t think we have spoken much about value. So, I will ramble a bit and we will see if it is helpful…

The attribution of value presents a conceptual problem. There is a sense in which everything is valuable. Racism is valuable because it provides an example of deplorable behaviour and faulty thinking. Racists who propound racists beliefs help us to refine our anti-racist arguments. Yet we would intuitively reject the statement ‘Racism and racists are valuable’. There are values and things which are valuable. Those things which are valuable must be qualified, they are valuable because of or for, that is, their value is contingent. Whilst South Park may appeal to our values, or more likely, subvert them, it seems that South Park can only be contingently valuable. A thing is contingently valuable if it is useful, if it demands critical engagement, if it satisfies personal desires and so on. Not only is something valuable because we think it is, if value is at least partially defined by utility, value is measurable. This presents some problems. Firstly, how do we measure value? Secondly, how can anything be valuable if everything is? The attribution of value to a thing implies that there are things which are not and cannot be valuable but there is a sense in which everything is.

Our project is not a strict investigation into value, but the problem of definition seems to be an immediate obstacle. If we begin with a definition of value and measure South Park by that standard it seems that we lack a focal point and are more likely to miss what makes South Park valuable. If we accept that all things are valuable, the interesting question cannot be ‘is South Park valuable?’ But, is South Park valuable for the reasons it purports to be? Why must we value South Park? What makes South Park more valuable than other objects of value? As a starting point, we should ask ‘what is South Park?’ and ‘what does it intend to do?’ If South Park possesses any value it must be in virtue of what it is and what it aims to achieve, if it fails at being what it is supposed to be (i.e if the real-world is satirical, it cannot be satire or even extreme) or doing what it is supposed to do (i.e provoking thoughtful engagement or changing minds) then it would seem to lack value.

Of course the questions don’t stop there: Does South Park’s value only lie in these features?  If not, where does the value lie? Can it be valuable because it makes us laugh or does this depend on what evokes our laughter? Are these other features sufficient to label ‘South Park’ rather than ‘this part of South Park’ as valuable? Lots of questions, no answers, much confusion, feel free to ignore.