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"South Park: Imaginationland": … Than Are Dreamt of in Your Philosophy

by on April 6, 2008

South Park is a rare breed of television show for more than one reason. It manages to savagely satirise both the Left and the Right while still occupying a politically avowed position. It’s an animation show that is plainly only for adults. It still maintains the capacity to shock, no matter how outrageous it becomes. And, most of all, it’s rare because—even though it is now into its twelfth season—it still seems fresh, innovative and funny; it seems to be getting better. In fact, I don’t think I’m in the minority when I say that over the past couple of years South Park is better than it has ever been.

Imaginationland is a three-part episode that premiered in October 2007 and shown towards the end of season 11’s run (on Comedy Central in the US, on Paramount Comedy 1 in the UK). It comes here packaged as a completely uncensored “director’s cut” with two related episodes (“Woodland Critter Christmas” and “Manbearpig”), commentary from Matt Stone and Trey Parker, and storyboards.

Even by South Park‘s increasingly complicated standards, the premise of Imaginationland is not simple. Suffice it to say it features two main narrative strands. One revolves around Kyle losing a bet to Cartman about whether or not they saw a leprechaun—and the unspeakable consequences that (no surprise) Cartman demands and that Kyle would rather avoid. The other strand involves a group of Islamic terrorists attacking “Imaginationland” (the home of all the fictional characters ever created) and the subsequent retaliation of the United States Department of Defense. I won’t recount any more of the plot here, but by the end of the third episode, you will have seen a grand story-arc that includes Al Gore, Mel Gibson, Kurt Russell, and every cartoon and fantasy character you can think of—from Luke Skywalker, Aslan, and Gandalf to the Snarf from Thundercats and Skeletor from He-Man, and from Popeye, Morpheous (from The Matrix), Ronald McDonald, Jesus (from The Bible) to countless others. Indeed, Imaginationland warrants at least one repeated viewing in order to spot all the characters Matt and Trey include; there are just so many of them. The whole thing is an intertextual dream and a sure joy for pop culture fans.

To those of us who have watched South Park for a long time, its hilarious pastiches of genre conventions, cleverness and social satire are par for the course. The idea that “The terrorists have attacked our imagination!” is a snide but nonetheless brave recognition of the public and government’s ongoing obsession with Islamic terrorism. And the sight of Al Gore wearing a cape and running round like a super-hero decrying the “manbearpig” punctures the self-satisfaction, self-righteousness and self-importance of Liberals everywhere. As I said, South Park has always been brutal in its put downs of both the Right and the Left. But I believe that Imaginationland represents a concerted effort to move towards something a little deeper than that: it has philosophical ambitions. Academics have already attempted to apply philosophy to South Park, but Imaginationland seems to depart from the standard diet of smart satire and crude shocks (although it has plenty of both). It seems to burrow deep into the collective American psyche and makes a strong argument for the existence of our fictional characters. There’s nothing tongue-in-cheek about Kyle’s closing speech about these characters:

I think they are real. It’s all real! Think about it. Haven’t Santa Claus and Luke Skywalker affected your lives more than most real people in this room? I mean, whether Jesus is real or not, he’s had a bigger impact on the world than any of us have. And the same can be said for Bugs Bunny, and Superman … and Harry Potter. They changed my life, changed the way I act on the earth. Doesn’t that make them kinda real?

It’s a heartfelt message asserting the importance of our heroes and villains and characters and archetypes to the way we live our lives. It’s a message that I’m sure many of our readers on Toon Zone will be able to relate to and one they will appreciate it.

However, if South Park now has philosophical ambitions, it is only fair to subject it to a little philosophical scrutiny. The trouble is that in this respect Imaginationland falls under the weight of its own ambition. It’s amazingly clever, funny, entertaining, and even gripping in parts, but as a philosophical statement it just doesn’t hold water.

The thesis is clear: “Our imagination is real, please don’t nuke it” (in the third episode, the US defense team plan to nuke our imagination because it is “running wild”). But such ideas are not without precedent in philosophy. When Marx and Engels wrote The German Ideology they had similar ideas in mind. When Louis Althusser radically updated those ideas and asserted that “ideology [which is defined as an individual’s imagined relations to the world around himself or herself] has a material existence”, he was, in effect, arguing that the stuff of myth and storybooks was fundamental to who we are, how we think about and relate to the world and, most pivotally, that such apparently “imaginary” things have a real tangible existence. Since Althusser, there have been many other theorists that have produced similar conceptions about the way society shapes and conditions individuals in certain ways.

They all have something in common: Power—and, more often than not, state power—ultimately becomes central to their study of our “imaginary” representations and their relationships to ourselves and the world. There is no doubt that “the stuff of the imagination” has the capacity to affect us in the way that Kyle talks about, but often the narratives we read and watch as children confirm us in ideological thought-patterns. In Imaginationland, Matt and Trey depict characters from a huge variety of sources: major religious texts, Star Wars, He-Man, Thundercats, The Lord of the Rings and countless other works too numerous to mention, but these are far from ideologically neutral texts. In fact, there’s an argument to suggest that the classic Good vs. Evil narrative with which the US has always been so taken has produced the thinking behind “nuking our imagination.” The groups that South Park lampoons so viciously in Imaginationland – the Islamic terrorists, the reactionary American Right—are surely themselves the direct products of ideological conditioning, which is to say that they have been profoundly affected by the figures of imagination. I’m not suggesting that this process is necessarily a bad thing, or that the US government should have nuked our imaginations, I’m just pointing out that it seems to be a glaring error in the core reasoning of Imaginationland‘s “thesis.” If these characters and stories have led us to this situation, then surely there’s an argument somewhere to change some of those stories. It’s not a huge problem for the episode, but it is a fairly sizable oversight.

All that aside, I’d thoroughly recommend that anyone who even half likes South Park pick up this DVD. Trey and Matt’s commentary is great: they go at it for 47 of 67 minutes before getting bored. It’s hilariously censored: at one point they say “And now it’s time for us to talk about Tom Cruise and Scientology … [censorship music plays] … raping babies.” They also offer some interesting insights about their writing process. At one point they mention that they’d spent quite a lot of time studying the structure of 24 so they could apply its structure to their own, more scatological interests. I was also interested to hear about the “worried eyebrows and the number 8 mouth,” but I’ll leave that for you to discover for yourself! I ended up watching the whole thing three times: once for my own enjoyment, once to spot characters, and once more to listen to the commentary. The extra episodes are good too, in line with the generally high standards of seasons ten and eleven.

Even if its philosophical treatise is insufficiently fleshed out, Imaginationland is amongst the best South Park episodes made to date—not quite my favourite, but certainly in the top ten.

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