Just killing Kenny or ontological boredom?

Dubiously linking South Park to philosophy works better than you’d think

The last decade-and-a-half has seen pop culture swell to enormous proportions and engulf almost every aspect of our daily lives. Increasing numbers of people seek to find meaning and gratification in the ephemera of the pop culture market, while at the same time, more and more artists and intellectuals are using pop culture as a medium for the exchange of ideas. Add to this the tremendous cultural shift resulting from the steady commercialization and commoditization of childhood and youth that has, since the 1960s, threatened to sweep away such storybook staples as Aesop’s Fables and Mother Goose, replacing them with the televised world of Disney and Saturday morning cartoons.

This generation gap has created problems for academic disciplines like philosophy that rely heavily on a classical heritage increasingly foreign to most students. Students are still interested in philosophy, just not so much from guys named Socrates and Plato. South Park and Philosophy attempts to recast more traditional philosophy within a context that younger, more television-attuned readers will identify with. The contributors draw upon a wide range of episodes, from “Cartman Gets an Anal Probe” to “Death Camp of Tolerance” and “Go God, Go!” for examples to help tackle standard, undergraduate fare. This includes the nature of evil, proof of God's existence, the possibility of time travel and the ethics of fetal stem cell research, but the authors also embrace South Park's style, littering their essays with name-calling and profanity in a refreshing way.

At least, it's fun for the first half-dozen essays, until it becomes evident that, stripped of its style, few of the authors featured in South Park and Philosophy have actually critically engaged with the show. Some admit that their particular readings of episodes might go against the grain or wishes of the show's creators, and this only heightens the sense of superficiality. While the goal of philosophy is to explore the problems of everyday life, a show like South Park is popular because it somehow resonates with everyday life. Very few of the essays here tackle this conjunction in any meaningful way.

The sole exception is Randall E. Auxier's “Killing Kenny: Our Daily Dose of Death,” where he connects our fascination with South Park to fundamental pieces of South Park's architecture, with embedded philosophical concepts that repeatedly draw our attention, regardless of where they appear.

Auxier accomplishes this while also keeping the tone light and tongue-in-cheek, beginning by applying a Freudian structure to the trio of Stan (ego), Kyle (superego) and Cartman (id). Rather than simply suggesting Kenny as representing the death-urge (thanatos), Auxier reaches for the Jungian concept of the “transcendental function” that mediates between the three to solve problems. However, he further suggests that Kenny acts as a go-between for us as viewers, bringing in Martin Heideigger, angst and “ontological boredom.” To simplify greatly, Auxier claims that Kenny's repeated deaths helps us grow comfortable with our own inevitable ones, hence our own discomfort (and the boys') when Kenny is killed for good in a later season.

South Park and Philosophy is unlikely to increase anyone's understanding of South Park. It may, however, increase one's appreciation of the show, as well as provide colourful arguments the next time someone asks about the existence of God.

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