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Television in American Popular Culture Visit Press Americana
"I KNOW ENOUGH TO EXPLOIT":
SOUTH PARK, SATIRE, AND THE CULTURE INDUSTRY


Horkheimer and Adorno, in "The Culture Industry," separate art and entertainment as distinct entities divided by a rigid line, wherein a thinking subject can only be engaged through art, while the culture industry perpetuates the unthinking subject. However, the lines between the two spheres are not so unyielding: South Park, a satirical cartoon, provides entertainment through disagreeable humor (as satire does and should), thus creating a thinking subject even while still being considered entertainment. In the cartoon's problematic material, it is difficult to gauge not only whether South Park qualifies as entertainment or as art but also whether South Park can or should be considered enjoyable media. In either case, satire allows for the dismantling of the views that dictate a common need or desire in regard to agreeable entertainment. As such, it is possible, not only through the resistance of art but also through the humor of satirical entertainment, to escape the culture industry itself.
             
Horkheimer and Adorno discuss entertainment as being detrimental to the resistance of the culture industry; the only way to oppose said industry is through art. They state, "Amusement under late capitalism is the prolongation of work. It is sought after as an escape from the mechanized work process, and to recruit strength in order to be able to cope with it again."  Fundamentally, entertainment requires an unthinking subject so that the working class may continue to work under capitalism and employ their duty to society.

Content is to be eradicated in order to entertain the masses but also to allow them to forget their suffering. Essentially, only if one stops thinking can one be happy: "In the culture industry, jovial denial takes the place of pain found in ecstasy and in asceticism. The supreme law is that they shall not satisfy their desires at any price; they must laugh and be content with laughter." Entertainment is, thus, a distraction, first and foremost; in direct opposition to this, for Horkheimer and Adorno, is art. There is no suffering in entertainment; if there is suffering, there must be art, as art evokes a feeling of things as they are.

It is possible, however, that the spheres of art and entertainment are not so mutually exclusive. There are facets of entertainment that combine amusement with thought and/or resistance; consider satirical humor as one potential candidate. Whereas Horkheimer and Adorno note that "no independent thinking must be expected from the audience" and that "any logical connection calling for mental effort is painstakingly avoided" in entertainment, this designation of entertainment is undermined in the definition of satire. Satire must employ criticism as a technique. According to Robert Harris, "Inseparable from any definition of satire is its corrective purpose, expressed through a critical mode which ridicules or otherwise attacks those conditions needing reformation." It is not simply criticism, though. The "corrective purpose" that Harris notes is engaged alongside humor, that is, "the use of wit to make the attack clever, or humour to make it funny." It is the use of both of these techniques that allows for the undoing of entertainment as defined by Horkheimer and Adorno. While they separate art and entertainment into separate entities, satire joins both humor and criticism into one unit. As such, it is possible to both entertain and retain a thinking subject, as "satire...must be intellectually rewarding." Using the satirical cartoon South Park as an example, the preservation of mental effort through criticism while still maintaining a humourous approach is apparent. Thus, art and entertainment can be combined effectively.

South Park, a cartoon created by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, is infamous for its use of satire, combining humor with topical issues. For example, in the episode "Goobacks," underprivileged time-travellers arrive in the town of South Park seeking jobs, which has a negative impact on the economy (much to the disagreement of the current citizens). The episode is a clear satire for illegal immigration, but the addition of time travel allows for the immersion of the idea about how current actions can directly impact the future in a negative way. "Goobacks" ends with the political groups deciding to have an orgy instead of amending the problem. In considering this episode as an example, the humor is clearly defined as criticism with a satirical viewpoint, directly countering Horkheimer and Adorno's definition of entertainment. While it might be easy to say, "the product prescribes every reaction" as in "The Culture Industry," what is notable about the episode is that both sides of the argument are openly mocked and criticized, which allows for a reversal of what Horkheimer and Adorno suggest: that to be entertained is to be in agreement. It is up to the audience to decide, consequently not only allowing but also demanding a thinking subject through humor and thus entertainment. There are countless examples of this in South Park: "All About Mormons" explores seemingly outlandish beliefs, also questioning whether religion matters as much as treating others with respect; "Coon 2: Hindsight" investigates how the media looks for a face to blame versus combating the disaster at hand; and "Douche and Turd" provides a social commentary comparing voting between two electoral candidates to voting between the objects in the aforementioned title. Thus this episode investigates the importance of voting while also alleviating judgment from those who are cynical of the voting process. Whereas Horkheimer and Adorno state, "To be pleased means to say Yes," South Park contends that it does not matter whether one agrees or disagrees and that entertainment does not necessarily have to have all audience members in agreement.
           
As previously noted, although Horkheimer and Adorno note that the audience "must laugh and be content with laughter," there are many who laugh and are not content with their laughter. As Catherine Yu notes in her essay,"“Is it Okay to Laugh at South Park?", there are two separate concerns in determining the morality of entertainment: "one is the aesthetic question, which has to do with when it is fitting to laugh at something, while the other is the ethical question, which has to do with when it is morally wrong to laugh at something." Here, Yu mirrors the language and thus the definitions of the terms utilized in "The Culture Industry," wherein "aesthetic" point to entertainment while "ethical” points to art. For Horkheimer and Adorno, entertainment is aesthetic, whereas art occupies the realm of ethics, as art evokes suffering by displaying the world as it is to the thinking subject. Yu demonstrates how South Park blurs this distinction, as the cartoon exposes social commentary to the masses in an intermingling of suffering and humor: satire, essentially. South Park, by forcing the viewer to determine both when one is supposed to laugh and when it is okay to laugh, forces ethics into entertainment. As Yu states, "There is, in short, a middle ground between endorsing pernicious attitudes and merely knowing about them." By bringing the audience two sides of any view, as South Park does, the audience is also brought knowledge, at the very least. However, to designate a piece of media as wrong is to think about the divide between right and wrong. Satire, especially in the case of South Park, disjoins the consumer from being a comfortable, agreeable subject, allowing them to consider the moral implications underlying the content. As such, South Park does not evacuate content, instead creating a form that engages the viewer. Satire demands thought and immersion in entertainment, where previously this was only thought to be possible in art.

However, it would be foolish to say that South Park is exclusively in the realm of art. While South Park began as an online video completely separate from the process of commodification, it has since become reabsorbed in the culture industry and made a commodity. Where Horkheimer and Adorno propagate art as resistance, South Park is, of course, problematic in many ways and at times unable to escape certain ideologies. The show can be downright crude and extremely inappropriate, especially for younger viewers. South Park clearly occupies the realm of entertainment, holding an esteemed position in popular culture; as Horkheimer and Adorno state, "Pleasure always means not to think about anything, to forget suffering even where it is shown." South Park is not shy to show the current state of affairs and suffering, but it still, as entertainment, provides a relief in the acknowledgment of this suffering while affording no real way to escape it. Not only does South Park allow the viewer to "believe that the deception it practices is satisfaction, but it goes further and implies that, whatever the state of affairs, he must put up with what is offered." For some, though, the offensive humor provided by South Park does evoke a true feeling of suffering. The concern, then, is if it is possible to be entertained without relinquishing morals and thought, that is, to simultaneously suffer, be entertained, and "put up with what is offered" even when it contests one's moral code of ethics. Ellen Miller asks if it is possible to engage in feminist thought and still enjoy a show like South Park. In examining a few episodes, Miller concludes: "In spite of and, oftentimes, because of its gender stereotypes and offensive language, South Park confronts important philosophical questions about autonomy, power, obscenity, sexual commercialization, gender roles, and sexuality...some of the episodes actually endorse moral principles that feminists can support." Thus, so long as the subject can remain a thinking subject, offensive humor can prove to be more beneficial than dangerous.

The use of humor in the form of satire can be enough to empower, and its effects can help to dismantle the culture industry. In looking at this type of humour after the effects of a traumatic event, it is possible to eradicate views of the culture industry that dictate a common need or desire in regard to entertainment. As Ted Gournelos notes, "The uses of humour and irony that sparked after the period of immediate shock following September 11th...demonstrate the importance of understanding the events beyond the constraints of dominant, unified, or rational strategies of argumentation." South Park, of course, dealt with the topic of September 11th in order to uphold its status of topical humor but did so (unsurprisingly) alongside toilet humor, though not in the way one might expect. "The Mystery of the Urinal Deuce" revolves around the secrecy surrounding which boy defecated in a urinal. However, the show satirizes the event to deal with 9/11 conspiracy theories, which the show paints as ridiculous and attempts to demolish through satire. Using humor in the face of trauma may be viewed as blasphemous, but it is possible to view the satire in another way. Gournelos states, "Humour [has] the potential to bridge social gaps or work through traumatic social changes...allowing for humour, satire, parody, and irony to be mobilized as tools through which individuals or communities differentiate themselves from or negotiate the politics of the dominant."

Thus, Gournelos illustrates that it is impossible for entertainment to dictate a common need or desire, as illustrated by the very fact that South Park is so offensive to so many. In actuality, entertainment allows for the eradication of a dominant viewpoint, permitting multiple angles of a problem to be addressed. As Murtagh notes, "Sometimes the message is good, other times it's bad. But, because there is a message, South Park has the potential to make people think." Entertainment, at least in the form of satirical humor, has the ability to perform a resistance in dismantling, allowing for the very escape from the industry that attempted to render it thoughtless: the culture industry itself.
           
By enacting satirical humor, South Park is not only able to illustrate the failure of the dichotomy of entertainment and art but to exploit it by intermingling the spheres and providing a space for thought within the culture industry. It is the very message that Cartman himself expresses in "Christian Rock Hard," where he is addressed of his ignorance concerning Christianity, to which he replies: "I know enough to exploit it." As long as the subject is given enough knowledge about the culture industry, he or she is able to engage in the manipulation of it. Through satire and offensive humor, the subject is reclaimed as a thinking subject, no longer content and thoughtless but instead immersed and critical. The satirical cartoon South Park demonstrates that this process can be achieved not only through art but also through entertainment, or rather, through an exquisite rendering of the combination of both. Murtagh asks and answers the question: "But why the blasphemy? Is it really necessary for the good consequences? Yes. People are too complacent. Unless they are somehow shocked, many people neglect discussing important moral and social issues." It is only through satire and offensive humor that entertainment and the thinking subject can be united and reclaimed; hence, despite the criticisms of Horkheimer and Adorno, the culture industry can be acknowledged, and thus negotiated, by the masses.


From guest contributor Jes D.A.

February 2019

 

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