Sunday, April 15, 2007

Goin' Down to South Park by Way of John Mandeville

Something's bothering me, but I'm not sure how to articulate it. So forgive me if this post isn't fully polished or even fully coherent. Because I am going to throw out some random and free associations that collided in my world this week and made me think, "what the f*#k?" Which was partly prompted by one of my first-year writing students also asking, "what the f*#k?" [with "what the f*#k?" being understood here as a literalization of a sudden awareness of a certain obscene irony].

What is bothering me is what I will term, rather clumsily, an always-visible but non-provocative anti-Semitism that is always just . . . there and not-there [a kind of "background noise" of anti-Semitism that ultimately becomes a mainly unnoticed backdrop]. Because I had to deal with this in two wildly dissimilar contexts this week, via my first-year writing students' reactions to the most recent episode of South Park ["The Fantastic Easter Special"] and in the contemporary critical reception of Mandeville's Travels [which my M.A. seminar students are currently reading], it was especially jarring and . . . strange.

So, in my first-year writing class, we've been spending the last few weeks watching episodes of South Park and discussing various of the so-called "controversies" the show has provoked over the years [in some ways, by devising this segment of the course I was really just giving myself permission to finally watch a show I had somehow managed to never see for almost ten years. I now fully understand why it is so popular: because, frankly, it's funny as hell while also managing to push every red button that has ever existed, and yes, I've never laughed so hard nor been so amazed at the risks taken]. My students in this class have, for the most part [and somewhat disappointingly] shown themselves to be mainly blase about and accepting of everything: nothing really works them into any kind of a blather and even though my university is situated in a fairly conservative and fundamentalist Christian part of the country [southern Illinois], almost every provocative aspect of South Park I have raised with them has been met by a general consensus that the show is funny and no one should really be bothered by any of it because: a) most of the jokes reveal certain truths no one can really dispute without shame or lying, and b) no one should be bothered by what is ultimately just a joke [note the strange alliance of these two points, though: the show is funny because it is true, but don't be bothered, because it's "just a joke"--i.e., "real" but "not real" simultaneously].

Cut to this past week, when we were continuing our usual discussions [this time: was it okay to make fun of Steve Irwin, the Crocodile Hunter, just after he was killed by a stingray? was it okay to make fun of people with disabilities, such as "Conjoined Fetus Lady"? etc.], and one of my students confessed that, thanks to last week's "Fantastic Easter Special," he had finally been offended. In a nutshell, the show is a parody of Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code, in which St. Peter is revealed to have been Peter the Rabbit and the Pope is actually a rabbit whose mitre-cap hides his long ears, and in a related thread Jesus appears and ends up imprisoned in a cell, where he tells Kyle [South Park's token Jew] that his "super-powers" can only work if he is dead and he needs Kyle to "kill" him so he can "resurrect" himself outside the cell. Kyle isn't too happy about this, recognizing that this would mean the Jews--in the eyes of some--will have killed Christ not once but twice, but he reluctantly agrees and stabs Jesus in the neck. My student felt that this time, the creators of South Park had finally gone "too far." I asked him if he thought that it was wrong of the show to make fun of Christianity or of religion in general, and he said, no, it was okay to make fun of religion, but by depicting Jesus being stabbed in the neck, the show had violated something that should never be violated: the image of Christ. Another student agreed and said that, while he also agreed making fun of Christianity in general was okay, Jesus was an "iconic" and "sacred" figure that should not be violated in that particular manner [apparently, Jesus and George Bush shitting on each other and the American flag--"Cartoon Wars, Part II"--is okay; also, an anatomically-correct chocolate Jesus, titled "My Sweet Jesus" on display in a gallery in New York last week is also okay in the eyes of my students]. In point of fact, the image [iconic, sacred, or otherwise] of Jesus is being "violated" all the time on the show, but the Easter special, for whatever reason, had finally struck a chord with my students. After class, one student approached me in private and told me, in effect, that she was not religious [not Christian and not anything else] but she was disturbed at the fact that in every single episode, as far as she could tell, there were always several anti-Jewish jokes and no one ever seemed to care about that, and why was that? I told her that was a smart observation and that I did not have a ready answer for it, but that she should definitely think about it some more and see where that leads.

Of course, I am well aware that South Park is an equal opportunity basher of various icons, cultural and political beliefs, individual lifestyles, celebrity figures, religions, social trends, and human foibles, although at the same time, it has to be recognized that while they are supposedly "making fun" of everything and everyone, certain [I believe] pernicious prejudices are subtly reinscribed and reinforced [and I think this is especially the case with the show's anti-Semitism and homophobia]. Regardless of the fact that one show was a kind of "tear-down" of Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ ["The Passion of the Jew"], and therefore made anti-Semitism the chief object of its humorous cultural critique, for the most part, anti-Semitic jokes and references always percolate below the surface of most episodes' more primary plot threads, serving as, again, a kind of background "noise." [I have, by the way, done some research into Matthew Stone and Trey Parker's "politics," and all I will say there is that, though they are often evasive on the subject, their recent interview in Rolling Stone shows them to be dangerously close to the ideology of the Bush White House and to neoconservatism; Trey Parker has also been quoted as saying, "we hate liberals more than conservatives, and we hate them"]. It is well-known that Matthew Stone is Jewish, and that fact is often pointed to as a reason why the show can't possibly be anti-Semitic, even though I would argue that many of the anti-Jewish riffs on the show are reprentative of a certain Jewish self-hatred. Yes, yes, yes . . . I realize that, since many of the anti-Jewish statements in the show come from the mouth of Cartman, the most desipicable and unlovable of the four "child" heroes of the show [therefore supposedly leading us to exclaim: anti-Semitism must be wrong if Cartman is its chief spokesperson!], but that only represents about 1/3 of the anti-Jewish statements and images that appear throughout the episodes, but . . . .

it isn't really my intention here to interrogate whether or not South Park is anti-Semitic in "the good way" or "the bad way," but rather to think about the ways in which its anti-Semitism goes largely unremarked in the more public debates over the show's "controversial" episodes, such that, for my students, anyway, Kyle stabbing Jesus in the neck is disturbing and offensive, not because it [laughably-ironically or more sadly] reinscribes the historical lie of "the Jews killed Christ," but because it simply "kills"/violates the sacred image of Christ [and by implication, is obscene in the same way rape is obscene]. By way of the "random association" I mentioned at the beginning of my post, I was thinking about all of this at the same time I was reading Mandeville's Travels and some contemporary scholarship on that text with my M.A. students. I am in NO WAY any kind of expert on this text and I have no real grasp on the rich and long history of scholarship on the text, but just in my random reading [mainly: Mary Campbell's The Witness and the Other World, Lisa Verner's The Epistemology of the Monstrous in the Middle Ages, and sundry other items], I was struck by how much critical energy was being expended to laud Mandeville as, among other things, the rail-track-layer for the modern novel and the "name" that signifies a certain imaginative openness to all things Other, including Muslims and monsters. As Lisa Vener puts it, "Mandeville" [which I enclose within quotation marks since he may not have "existed" as he describes himself in his book; "Mandeville" is therefore an author-function] does not "suffer" from the "perceptual limitations" of more Christian-inflected texts such as the pseudo-Letter of Alexander to Aristotle [in the Vitellius A.xv manuscript], and he "sees," instead "a variety of interpretive possibilities in all his surroundings" [p. 124]. Further, unlike earlier travel and "marvels" texts with a more [supposedly--I demur, actually] monological Christian world-view, Mandeville's Travels "considers many and various apsects of Christianity and paganism and how they coexist and even intermingle" [p. 126]. Finally, in Mandeville's Travels "the east does not function as just another physical space waiting to be 'read' (by Christians) or misinterpreted (by Alexander the Great) but rather as a multi-thematic venue full of potential meanings--religious, mercantile, and political" [p. 127].

Never mind for a moment the [I think] misuse of the term "paganism" above [a term often badly misapplied in my view to anything non-Christian]; what I am more distressed by [even more so in Campbell's account, where the Travels are seen as offering a richly textured and more "round" and "whole" world within which boundaries between "east" and "west" and between "same" and "Other" are problematized and "opened" to dialogic inter-formations] is the notion that the Travels offer a more generously imagined account of difference and Otherness than other predecessor travel and "marvels" texts, especially in its depiction of the Muslims and "monsters," while at the same time, the text is downright canonical in its use of standard anti-Jewish cliches. Therefore, as regards Jews [who are not, in point of fact, "encountered" or "faced" in the text in the same way various Muslims and "monsters" are, and therefore remain "spectral"], the Travels are decidedly not "full of potential meaning," but rather, foreclose the possibility of openness to the Jews at the outset. Of course, various scholars have remarked on the virulent anti-Semitism of the text, but then quickly pass over that to point out all the ways in which "Mandeville," again, "opens" the east to fluid and multiple meanings. But the Jews are accorded no such fluidity of meaning, trapped as they are within stock phrases that can be traced back to AElfric and Bede and beyond. Thus, in the Travels, while a Khan or a cannibal can teach a traveling Christian valuable life and moral lessons, a Jew is only good for being scourged [both metaphorically and more literally]. The point is noted by many, but bothersome to few.

I despair.


Jeffrey Cohen said...

About South Park I can't say very much, because I haven't watched it often. Sometimes shows like it make me feel like an outsider, because when shock and outrageousness become the single source of humor -- and are repeated ad infinitum -- they just don't seem all that funny to me. Then again I don't get Imus and Stern either -- and always worry that shock humor is popular not because it is so outrageous, but because what it stages is in itself and for itself enjoyable for its consumers. But I'm pretty ignorant about things made of electrons sent flying across the ether.

Mandeville on the other hand I've thought a lot about. To me his vigorous anti-semitism -- directed not towards a living people but a spectral one -- is (like his comparison of Arabic "extra" letters to the thorn and eth in the English alphabet, or his birth in St Albins) a symptom of his Englishness ... if not the best demonstration of his Englishness. Hating a people expelled from your country long ago and not giving them the same tolerance you grant nudist cannibal communists like the Lemorians: that's what 14th C Englishness is all about.

Eileen Joy said...

Even though you haven't been a viewer of "South Park," your comments, vis-a-vis Imus and Stern, about how shock humor is mainly humorous [and enoyable] for the ways in which it "stages" the very thing it is supposedly lampooning or satirizing, is really applicable to "South Park," too, where much of the humor is dependent on allowing its audience to enjoy what would normally be off-limits: violence, prejudice, body defilements of various types, etc. I, for one, though, don't want Imus fired or "South Park" off the air because I think whatever anyone is thinking--obscene or otherwise--should be out there in the open where we can all keep an eye on it [while also occasionally laughing at our own sanctimoniousness].

As to Mandeville, it isn't his "vigorous anti-semitism," as JJC terms it, that bothers me so much: it's what I expect from an 14th-century Englishman, as JJC also notes. It's the contemporary critical desire to make so much of his supposed "openness" and generous "imagination" that worries me.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

OK, but doesn't Iain Higgins note the antisemitism in his Mandeville book? And Sylvia Tomasch has done some work on it, as had Scott Westrem. So it's not completely unremarked.

You're right about the oddness of Campbell stressing tolerance so much while remaining blind to the text's hatred. The only thing I can say in her defense (and it is a weak defense) is that when she wrote Witness and the Other World, there was hardly any work out there on Mandeville. Her book opened up a whole new area of research that, in a field mostly obsessed with religious texts and Chaucer at the time, was revolutionary.

Karl Steel said...

Small point.

I think it's a mistake to conflate South Park and Imus.

First, I think it's telling that it's not easy to tell the political affiliation of Stone and Parker. That alone sets them apart from ideologues like, say, the very, very popular Michael Savage (né Weiner), whose politics are never in question. Second, South Park does deride groups traditionally derided by the powers that be, in other words, it beats up on the weak, but it also mocks the sacred cows of the powerful: Christ, gun nuts, republicans, antisemite Catholic Bill Donahue, &c. In that desire to inculcate a kind of free-ranging contempt against the powerless and powerful alike, to disestablish any belief in a System, in particular, any piety, it's utterly different from right-wing radio and television. I don't think Savage, Limbaugh, Beck, Coulter, &c. would ever mock Jesus, Santa Claus, or, heck, even Scientology.

More importantly, South Park has never been granted legitimacy by the powerful, whereas santimonious Leiberman, let alone Maureen Dowd, John Kerry, and virtually the whole of the DC punditocracy has appeared on Imus, apparently not troubled by his (long history of racism (e.g., "Imus called Washington Post reporter Howard Kurtz a "'boner-nosed... beanie-wearing Jewboy'").

Q: what differentiates South Park from John Waters? That it's set in suburbia? What differentiates it from Even Dwarves Started Small or, better yet, The Loved One?

it was okay to make fun of religion, but by depicting Jesus being stabbed in the neck, the show had violated something that should never be violated: the image of Christ.

This is fascinating. Does the student know Affective Piety? Or, hell, just the crucifixion story in general? Fact of the matter is that Mssrs Parker and Stone are 'simply' presenting the monstrous core of the Xian faith (God saves humanity from a fate he himself concocted by torturing his son to death). The obscenity here is that this is the foundation of Christianity itself.

Thanks for this post, EJ. It does dovetail, I think, with what I was trying to get at here, my creeping annoyance at books titled "Blah in the Middle Ages" where the MA is Jewless.

Eileen Joy said...

I actually love the Mary Campbell book and have read it more than once; it's beautifully written and nuanced and so I didn't mean to disparage the book as a whole. And I remarked that my reading on Mandeville scholarship was cursory, so I'm glad to hear that other scholars have made Mandeville's anti-semitism more of a focus in their work on the "Travels." [I really need to read Tomasch, and not just for this.] I think I was mainly trying to say, perhaps clumsily, that, here and there, in my scholarly reading but also in my surfing of popular culture, that I'm intrigued by what does and does not bother people. You might say the Imus controversy initially triggered my thinking on this. I didn't want to bring Imus into an already overly long post, but he was in my mind as I was writing it, mainly because in all of the commentary on his racist remarks [and I listened to and read a LOT of that--from Rosie O'Donnell to Imus himself to Sean Hannity to Rush Limbaugh to Jesse Jackson to the Rutgers players and beyond--I had this horrifying feeling I always do whenever I listen to this kind of public media discussion: why is everyone so stupid and hypocritical? Why doesn't anyone touch on the real issues here: the ones that are difficult to talk about and that no one wants to discuss because it's all too complicated? Like: words really *have* become empty and meaningless [and in this vein, I wish the Rutgers players had said that Imus's words didn't affect them at all, and therefore they could have reduced the power of those words which were, in a sense, laughably outre and silly and did not hit even remotely near the so-called "truth" of their object: the women players themselves, but do they really need to have a press conference to point that out?]. Why, further, did Imus apologize? What is he apologozing for? He's still a bigot and always will be, but I'd rather have him on the air so I can find him and know what he thinks and then I can work however I have to against or over or around his thinking on any given subject. Or I can ignore him [as I do], but he and his audience would be locatable and researchable and that way, at least you know where everyone is at any given moment on an ideological map.

I despair, too, because between this and the paternity of Anna Nicole Smith's baby, bodies exploding in Iraq or being violently snuffed out elsewhere don't have a chance in the news coverage, and apparently, there's nothing "obscene" or "racist" about how we feel about that. But it is obscene. And our lack of care for, say, exploded Iraqi bodies versus exploded American bodies is also obscene, and also racist. But apparently, that matters less to us than a well-known bigot saying something similar to what he's been saying, over and over again, for years and years. But again, his statements pale in comparison to what you might see on MTV or Showtime or HBO or Comedy Central late at night. Have you seen Sarah Silverman's "Jesus is Magic"? I guess, because she's a comedian and is only parodying anti-semitism, racism, sexism, etc., it's perfectly okay [although you would think the fact that her boyfriend is Jimmy Kimmel might give some of us pause when we're laughing]. You can get away with anything around here these days, just make sure you package it the right way, and when people are being violently ripped apart in other countries, just pretend you can't see it, or better yet, make it the background noise, the "this is just what happens every day" *somewhere else*. I'm so disgusted. But then again, maybe I should just calm down; otherwise, I might lose my mind.

Karl Steel said...

But again, his statements pale in comparison to what you might see on MTV or Showtime or HBO or Comedy Central late at night.

Yet, but Imus, uniquely, was given the imprimatur of the media and political elite. That's what differentiates him from the other shock 'comics.' It's also what merited his firing.

he and his audience would be locatable and researchable

They still are. The people didn't just go away. Tracking the audience of Michael Savage, Catholic League's Bill Donahue, or Fred Perkins is probably more important, given that they all truck in eliminationist rhetoric, are enormously popular, and mostly, like Imus, have the ear of the political and corporate elite.

But apparently, that matters less to us

Maybe, but I think you want to swap in "them" for "us." You may want to track what the American people want (by a majority, I believe, the US out of Iraq right now and universal health care) v. what the corporate media want (neither one of these things). See Krugman's latest column for some commentary on this.

Watching TV, controlled as it is by people and interests that are our enemies, is certainly going to fill you with despair. That's certainly part of the reason I don't watch it and get most of my news, and certainly all of my commentary, from online, mostly non-corporate sources.

Eileen Joy said...

Thanks for your comments, Karl. I re-read your earlier post and it is definitely apropos to a lot of what I've been thinking these past few days. I understand your desire to want to make some generic and other distinctions between an Imus and "South Park" or between a "Michael Savage" and Stone & Parker [although you really should read that "Rolling Stone" interview with Stone and Parker: they are not apolitical by any stretch of the imagination and they fully support the war on terror as well as the Bush White House's approach to that war].

I think I disagree with you, though, that since Imus's position/situation was such that he was given a certain imprimatur by the intellectual/political elite, that somehow merits his firing, but we can still watch "South Park" without guilt. And "South Park," by the way, *has* been given a certain imprimatur by the intellectual elite--there have been many articles and editorials written on the show that laud its edgy politics and humor as artistic, culturally important, and even moral. And Michael Savage is considered a kind of joke, even among the supposed "in-crowd" of the conservative media [Limbaugh, Hannity, etc.]--indeed, they want nothing to do with him. Also, if you really listen to "Savage Nation," and I do quite regularly, his politics are completely non-trackable. Indeed, he's just plain crazy and you never know what he is going to say. He's pure nonsense and everyone, even conservative pundits, agree on that [just not always openly].

I could save my sanity by not listening to or watching any of the standard media outlets, but I can't bring myself to ignore it: it has too much influence.

Profane said...

Karl stated most of my own views better than I could have hoped to. I would just note that I am a regular South Park viewer, count the show amongst my guilty pleasures, and despite being (or because I am?) a regular churchgoer I found the 'Fantastic Easter Special' hilarious.

Eileen Joy said...

I, too, count "South Park" among my guilty pleasures and I've never made a secret on this blog of the amount of low-brow entertainment I am willing to indulge myself in. I also do not believe there is any subject too sacred for humor; indeed, being able to laugh, at ourselves and others, is one of the few things that make life not only bearable but eminently pleasurable. My concern in my initial post had more to do with the ways in which people react to various aspects of "South Park"--what triggers outrage and what goes mainly unremarked? But I have to also admit that JJC's comment that shock humor is funny not just because it is outrageous [and maybe, also, critically astute], but because we also, enjoy, to a certain extent, what is being staged in and of itself gives me some pause [therefore, when we laugh at bigoted humor we are enjoying, on some level, the bigotry itself, while we are also, supposedly, laughing at bigots]. I was thinking about this last night as I was watching my Season 2 DVDs of "Wonder Showzen"--does anyone else watch this twisted show "for children" that is really not for children? In certain respects, it pushes the envelope even more than "South Park," while in other respects, it is more "innocent."

Karl Steel said...

EJ: in the midst of a move right now and likely not to have steady internet access for a day or two, so I thought I should pop in and say: thinking about your comments and hope to respond soon.

Anonymous said...

Eileen -

Perhaps the Easter special 'outraged' your students not because it represents a qualitative difference from the usual South Park stuff, but because you in your position as teacher have essentially told them they're supposed to be upset by what's onscreen? If your attitude toward the material is 'I can't believe you're not upset' rather than 'I wonder how you came to feel this way' it makes sense that the students would eventually give way to the approved attitude of mock-Victorian shock.

Then again they could well be offended. But frankly I'd be surprised.


it also mocks the sacred cows of the powerful: Christ, gun nuts, republicans, antisemite Catholic Bill Donahue, &c.

...shouldn't reactionary identity politics also be on this list? And the escapism of 'self-esteem' as a social good, etc.?

The religious right isn't the only 'powerful' bloc in this country, of course.

Eileen Joy said...

Wax--I don't model "mock Victorian shock" for my students, and I never set up a dialogue on the program that began with a statement like "why aren't you shocked?" We discussed together some writings/editorials that presented multiple viewpoints, from SP is "offensive" and "tasteless" to SP is "moral" and "high art." I would ask them, somewhat blandly, after we viewed a particular episode together, what they "thought" about it, from any particular angle they could conceive. Sure, I was hoping that, by offering the show as a segment within the course [which is structured around the theme of "everything's an argument"--not my trope but imposed upon me by the-powers-that-be in the Rhet/Comp segment of my department] that it would be provocative, but more specifically, that it would be conducive to argument[s]--as to which particular arguments, I mainly left that up to my students with some contextualizing provided by various articles and editorials on the show, as well as by interviews with the creators of the show themselves. Yes, I was surprised that most students in the class appeared unwilling to publicly "take on" some of the show's more outrageous moments in general class discussion, but in their written work, of course, some of them did, anyway, as was to be expected.

But there's a larger issue, too, which I dismayingly ran across when I was discussing the film "Children of Men" with another set of students [in an Intro. to Literature course]: sometimes students aren't thinking anything in particular about anything. They can't get worked up about an episode about "South Park" because they can't get worked up about much of anything, whether it's the idea that global warming may be the end of humans or that over thirty students and professors were shot violently at Va. Tech. or ideas in general. In the schools within which I've taught at least [not counting one], students seem devoid of passion, about anything, and it frightens me sometimes. Yes, I know it's my job to do something about that, and I'm trying.

Karl Steel said...

...shouldn't reactionary identity politics also be on this list? And the escapism of 'self-esteem' as a social good, etc.?

Nope. If a group representing one of these interests has lobbying power, GOTV capacity, or media outreach at all similar to the Catholic League, the Family Research Council, the NRA, or any number of Scaife/Weyrich/Coors/etc.-funded/founded groups, I'll change that 'no' to a 'yes.'

The religious right isn't the only 'powerful' bloc in this country, of course.

Of course. There's also the Corporate Right.

The question is whether any group on the left/liberal spectrum has the media impact of the WSJ/NY Sun/Fox/CNN (thinking here of Beck and Dobbs in particular). Answer is clearly no.

Anonymous said...

If a group representing one of these interests has lobbying power, GOTV capacity, or media outreach at all similar to the Catholic League, the Family Research Council, the NRA, or any number of Scaife/Weyrich/Coors/etc.-funded/founded groups, I'll change that 'no' to a 'yes.'

Oy gevalt. Therapy culture doesn't need a spokesman - the dismal rhetoric of post-60's self-conception is everywhere - and the avatars of identity politics couldn't choose one without bloodshed. Let's not go 'round the park on this one, it's not worth it.


Yes, I was surprised that most students in the class appeared unwilling to publicly "take on" some of the show's more outrageous moments in general class discussion, but in their written work, of course, some of them did, anyway, as was to be expected.

Your followup description of your argumentative strategy with students is clarifying and gratifying, thanks for that.

Still, this is what I'm talking about ('Victorian shock') - your surprise is largely irrelevant to the students (who are after all a hell of a lot more familiar with the show and its cultural baggage than you or me), and your own viewing habits are by no stretch a neutral reference point for judging theirs. It's not obvious that being shocked by prurience and the banality of evil is a desirable stance, though the same can be said of the opposite stance as well. What you say about Children of Men is dismaying (see below, though), of course, but perhaps there's a more abstract question going unasked here, namely: is your outrage, and presumption of same on the part of 'critical' viewers, worth teaching? I have mixed feelings on the subject (complicated in this case by my very mixed feelings about South Park) but it seems to me that question might be as helpful to students as anything else.

sometimes students aren't thinking anything in particular about anything. They can't get worked up about an episode about "South Park" because they can't get worked up about much of anything, whether it's the idea that global warming may be the end of humans or that over thirty students and professors were shot violently at Va. Tech. or ideas in general.

This seems unfair. Of course many college students have a hard time getting worked up about things like climate change and anti-Semitism; most experience those problems as purely abstract, academic concerns, and bringing them up in the context of a discussion (nominally) about literature isn't likely to change things for them. I went to a 'tech school,' and political discussions often swerved toward technolibertarian rhetoric ('information wants to be free' and other such bullshit), which makes sense: it's an outlook that aggrandizes the young would-be hacker, and it allows very, very, very busy 19-year-olds to give loud, angry opinions by which nothing at all is risked (and which defer responsibility for the world's ills by their content). I didn't care about politics when I was in college either; there wasn't time, and I had been told nearly every day since I was a kid that I didn't make a difference politically.

Which is, let us say, the fault of my teachers, in and out of classrooms and on TV and movie screens. About which I despair too, thanks.

It's depressing and disgusting to think that anyone could hear about the VaTech shootings and not be cut to the quick. But then I felt nothing in response to the Columbine shootings in 1999 - I was 20, caught up in college life, and came from a rural high school that was nothing like Columbine in a town nothing like the ironically-named Littleton. When I heard about VaTech I imagined it happening on the campus I used to live and study on, and the image was terrifying. I imagine that as regards South Park, there's a point to be made in there about cartoon (iconic) representation, identification, the comforting ability to abstract away responsibility...and the painful process of emerging into the world outside school, which makes the simplifying abstractions of cartoons vastly less appealing. Don't despair: a central element of American education is the realization, sometime in the middle of your 20's, that you've actually learned something from college, and that you didn't know how to apply it until just that moment. Which is psychically draining for professors, but in general they're fairly compensated for their trouble.

Lastly, j.j.:

But I'm pretty ignorant about things made of electrons sent flying across the ether.

You do realize this is a gross state to be in, 60 years after the advent of American TV, 30 years into the cable era, and 15 years into the Age of the Internet...right? I don't mean to be overwhelmingly negative, but it worries me that a teacher can say this without crippling shame, even in jest.

Anonymous said...

Have you seen Sarah Silverman's "Jesus is Magic"?

Incidentally, what was the concern about this film? I think Silverman enjoys getting away with lightly racist bullshit in the guise of self-referential detached hipster lipstick-liberalism, and I think she wouldn't have an audience if she weren't a cute female, but the film wasn't any particular affront; it doesn't come close to South Park's level of coarseness and TV transgression.

Eileen Joy said...

Wax--thanks so much for your comments; they're just the kind of provocation we occasionally need around here in order to further sharpen our thinking [and also our praxis as scholars and teachers]. One problem with this medium, though, is that we often just kind of "shoot out" random ideas and associations and anecdotes that can only ever be partial and don't always represent our more "whole" scholarly and pedagogical selves. If you knew me better you'd know that I totally already "get" what you're saying about where my students' heads are at, and yeah, when I was an undergraduate, I wasn't paying attention to the news, either, I was fairly narcissistic [who isn't, in a way, all the time?] and pretty apolitical [although I was passionate about Kafka, punk rock, getting high and talking about Kafka and banging heads in punk clubs, and being a "radical" artist and Marxist, which I really thought I was at the time--oh, youth!]. I and my friends were passionate about a lot of things our professors weren't necessarily passionate about, although the professors I had who clearly *loved* something are the ones who stuck in my mind and who I emulate in my own teaching.

I guess I want to disagree with you a little [while I also found myself nodding my head and up and down to pretty much everything you wrote in yout last post] about the issue of what we might call student desire: I don't care what it's for, I just want to *see*/*feel* some of it, you know? I did teach at one institution where the students were always practically jumping out of their seats with excitement at something, anything, almost every day. I would walk into class and they would already be arguing with each other over some arcane detail in Milton--it was truly wierd, but I'd be a liar if I didn't tell you that it was exhilirating and fun for me as a teacher. It had nothing to do with me, of course, I was just a tourist in their midst. In other institutions where I have taught, I have always felt it is partly my responsibility to try and spark some of that excitement about, I guess, *ideas* of almost any sort. Again, you don't really know me, but believe me when I tell you that I'm not one of those "kids these days!"-type of professor, and I actually really dislike it when my peers put students down for their supposed unlearned ignorance or supposed apathy. I'm not in that camp at all. I just want to have some fun and maybe also challenge my students and I want them to enjoy themselves, too. I want them to care, about anything, and I don't believe youth is an excuse for not caring, like, "don't bother me now 'cause I'll care later." Because, really, there are just way too many teenagers and 20-somethings who *do* care now, but they're usually situated at more elite institutions than the ones at which I have taught [we could discuss the class issues related to this, of course] and I am just not of a mind to treat my students as the chaff that got "left behind," the stuff that sunk to the bottom, or whatever. I kind of expect more and I'll ask for it, too, then I exit the classroom with a "whatever, dudes" sign-off and leave it to them to sort it out. I know that "sorting" often happens long after I'm out of the picture. I get that.

Having said all that, and because I'm now in my 11th year of teaching at the college level, I have noticed some distressing trends in what I'll call a vanishing of emotional affect among my students. It worries me. I think I should keep worrying and thinking about it, and I'll even share those worries with my students, quite openly, in fact. On most days, I think the world is quite fucked, and I'd like for my students to help me out with that--not to save the world: I'm not that naive!--but to maybe help me figure out what we should do *with* each other in the meantime. I want to be *together* with my students somehow in a genuine way; I want to "spend time" with them in a *real* way and try to take some of the artificiality out of the structures [architectural, socio-cultural, etc.] of this thing we call a college education.

As to Sarah Silverman's "Jesus is Magic," I laughed okay? And, like you, I don't class it with "South Park" in its level of "coarseness" and "transgression." It's just another [albeit "lite"] example for me of how we seem to be very comfortable these days laughing at hate-based idioms and tropes. And because we supposedly laugh in a way that is self-knowing, we let ourselves off the hook for it. But I'm not sure we should let ourselves completely off the hook.

Karl Steel said...

the dismal rhetoric of post-60's self-conception is everywhere

Not to forget the dismal rhetoric of sacrifice, which has been 'everywhere' since at least the 60s (BCE) too. As for 'self-conception,' I suppose we could direct blame at discourses of authenticity, which have been around, I suppose, since some hoary Greek sneered at writing. The point here--to unhijack the thread--is concrete political power and the willingness of South Park (as compared to the unlamented Imus) to mock groups that have it. I'll have a look at the Rolling Stone interview, EJ.

It's depressing and disgusting to think that anyone could hear about the VaTech shootings and not be cut to the quick.

What's rather more depressing is that nearly 200 people were killed in a series of bombs in Iraq on the same or next day with nary a murmur in the traditional media. It's distressing, again, to think how central self-projection and identification is to compassion. I'm not innocent here, either.

Having said all that, and because I'm now in my 11th year of teaching at the college level, I have noticed some distressing trends in what I'll call a vanishing of emotional affect among my students.

If it's any comfort to you, EJ, I taught my first college class in 1997, and I haven't noticed any trends either way in my students' affect, either at the non-elite institution where I first taught or the elite institutions where I'm teaching now (and I'll check in with the non-elite institution where I'll start next year). More students are engaged at Barnard than were engaged at Columbia, but "even" at Western Washington U, the ratio of excitement to apathy was about 1 to 5.

(Anecdotal department: if it's at all relevant, I've been 'political' since I was 14, when I concocted a political philosophy built around reactionary Reaganism and the cynicism of Mad magazine. I became an equally ardent leftist two years later when I became an atheist, and have stayed in the left since then. That said, despite my high school interest in attacking the Republican murder regimes in Central America, my politics was often totally disengaged and self-deluding: when Rwanda and the Balkans came around, I didn't track them at all; when Iraq 1 happened I was sick with anger when the bombing starting, but during the campus-wide protest, I used the day off to stay home and work on a seminar paper; and, in the mid-90s, I voted for a 'three strikes' law. More foolish even than my Nader vote in 2000).