Volume 18 Numbers 2, 3, & 4, 2008
Irony, Community, and the Intelligent Design Debate in South Park and The Simpsons
Abstract: By examining two case studies from shows that are often considered to be similar cultural productions (The Simpsons and South Park), this paper attempts to ground discussions of irony and politics beyond fantasies of static texts. It argues that by looking at how television episodes that at first seem consistently oppositional and stable become less so when seen in contrast with each other and in terms of the same target of critique. In the ongoing struggle over evolution and creationism (or so-called “intelligent design”) in public schools, South Park and The Simpsons found a provocative and dangerous area. They dealt with provocation and danger in significantly different ways, however, that shed light both on the implications of the use of irony in popular culture and on the limitations of stable textual forms for sustained, emancipatory analysis.
In 2007 the Public Broadcasting Service aired a double episode of NOVA called “Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial.” The program gives a history of the U.S. debates on evolution vs. creationism, focused primarily on the recent uproar surrounding the Kitzmiller v. Dover federal court case. The case, a lawsuit brought against the Dover Area School District in Pennsylvania by eleven local parents, concerned the teaching of “Intelligent Design” (ID) as an alternative to evolution in high school science classes. Although eventually won by the plaintiffs, the case reignited a passionate and angry debate over evolution in schools dating back at least to the 1925 “Scopes Trial” (Scopes v. State of Tennessee). The debate has continued into 2007 and 2008; evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins was interviewed by reactionary pundit Bill O’Reilly on The O’Reilly Factor (FOX News) on April 23, 2007 (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wECRvNRquvI), and the aggressive marketing and publicity for the 2008 film Expelled, a right-wing documentary starring conservative actor Ben Stein and funded by Intelligent Design proponents (e.g. the Discovery Institute) exclusively targeted evangelical Christians with vitriolic and overtly partisan rhetoric.  I will avoid discussion of evolution or creationism themselves in this paper. Instead, I will compare two popular culture engagements with discourse surrounding the ID debate: the May 14, 2006, episode of The Simpsons (“The Monkey Suit,” episode twenty-one of the seventeenth season),  and the November 1 and November 8, 2006, episodes of South Park (“Go God Go” parts one and two, episodes S10E11 and S10E12). This comparison ill ustrates useful contrasts in the treatment of ID in contemporary U.S. culture, but it also allows us to point to irony as a potential method through which such a charged and polarizing issue can be discussed openly. Perhaps more important for this special issue, it provides communications scholars interested in emancipatory politics with the opportunity to engage irony as a political tool that is simultaneously powerful and limited; my purpose is not to make value judgments about whether or not popular culture (particularly satire) should be evaluated on its level of cultural intervention, but rather to suggest that irony holds a great deal of potential for (re)interrogations of the political. It is important, therefore, to examine the ways in which irony might succeed or fail in terms of pedagogy, community, and oppositional culture.
Over the past several years a growing group of scholars has begun to reexamine the concept of irony from a communications and cultural studies perspective. There are several reasons for this change, but three come to mind most readily. First, there is a perception of growing public disaffection with the U.S. political system as such, not only regarding policy but also as anger over the terms of debate and discourse themselves. Second, there is a marked rise in popular culture productions in all media that have seemingly abandoned sincerity in order to take it up again through displacement. Ironic aesthetics (e.g. genre parody), ironic narratives (e.g. satire), and ironic standpoints (e.g. embodiment and performance) allow popular culture to avoid discursive binaries or static subject positioning for “audiences” or “authors,” and thus have the potential to strategically reframe or refocus cultural tension and debate.  Third, ironic production has not only not abandoned or flattened politics, as critics ranging from Teodor Adorno to Frederic Jameson to Jean Baudrillard have suggested, but has rather marked the rise of communities based on various forms of (ironic) interpretation, whether that is in terms of appreciating “educational” films for children in the 1950s, fan culture surrounding Aqua Teen Hunger Force, or the many and rapidly evolving forms of performance détournement and culture jamming more broadly (e.g. the performances of the Yes Men or the circulation of bootleg videos of Stephen Colbert’s appearance and speech at the 2005 White House Correspondent’s Dinner). This paper will suggest that irony has the potential for concrete and aggressive political opposition, dependent as it is on shared acknowledgements of multiple conflict messages within a localized context (Hutcheon 1989: 94-5). It will also point out some limitations to a view of irony that relies too heavily on text rather than context, and suggest that ironic community can be both a contested space in which conflict itself opens discursive pathways and the potential for oppositional culture and a space of exclusion market by an oppressive field of what Bourdieu (1984) terms “distinction.”
Irony is rarely discussed in this way, however. Many critics believe irony to be a stable formation akin to simple communication models of encoding/decoding, and many others believe it to be either a tool of (late) capitalism or an “iron cage” of ideology. As they have been largely neglected within the fields of communications and cultural studies, I believe it is important to discuss each briefly in turn, referencing the Intelligent Design debates and their presence as a galvanizing force among the religious right as the theories develop.
For rhetorician Wayne Booth, who wrote A Rhetoric of Irony in 1974, irony can be understood in two sets of structuralist binaries: stable/unstable and local/infinite. Booth suggests that an ironic text, if read by a qualified reader, is often “stable.” That is, no reasonable person would misunderstand the covert meaning masked by the overt rhetoric of the text. Stable irony is marked by many characteristics, including internal inconsistencies or unreliabilities, factual errors, marked changes in aesthetic, etc. Unstable irony, by contrast, signals the absurdity of a rhetorical position in general, and opens discourse up to multiple interpretations (e.g. works by authors such as Brecht or Beckett). Local irony refers to specific locales, events, people, etc. (e.g. Voltaire and eighteenth century France), whereas infinite irony refers to life or the world in general (e.g. the futility of existence or justice in Kafka). These c ategories blur and overlap, of course, but Booth suggests them as a useful way to categorize and understand ironic rhetoric.
Stanley Fish’s critique of Booth’s structure in his 1998 article “Short People Got No Reason to Live” pokes several holes in the theory (as well it should, considering the twenty-four-year gap between them). Fish reminds us that there is never a fixed or coherent text, audience, or interpretation; therefore, because Booth builds his argument on the assumption that there is a text and an audience as such, his understanding of stability and locality are fundamentally flawed. Any “stable” ironic utterance is only stable as an enunciation interpreted by a specific person at a specific time with a specific understanding of the “text” and the “author” in question. Similarly, if a text is recognized as ironic (whether or not others believe it to be so), its range of possible interpretations are limited and thus are never completely unstable. Local ironies are only local, again, if one understand s them to be so. Allegories (and therefore much of literature at the very least) represent totalities and universals through limited events and understandings. Ironies can also never be completely infinite, as they must be continually contextualized and related to the lives and experiences of their readers. What Booth does allow us to understand, in spite of his structuralist leanings, is that irony is a powerful tool through which discourse and ideology are potentially destabilized, and therefore opened for alteration or critique. More importantly, Fish implies, irony is a force through which communities are built, maintained, and broken down, as various discursive interpretations of texts, events, etc. work with or against other social formations.
In the Scopes v. State of Tennessee trial, for instance, the famous interrogation of prosecutor Williams Jennings Bryan by defense attorney Clarence Darrow (depicted in the 1955 play Inherit the Wind and the many television and film portrayals since) can be understood in many different ways. As Darrow asked questions about Biblical stories (such as Eve’s creation from Adam’s rib, Joshua making the sun stand still, or the age of the Earth), it became increasingly obvious to the court that Darrow was using irony (sincere questions masking a covert disdain) to undermine Bryan’s reliance on the sanctity of a religious text and tradition. For the religious right, however, the irony of the event was that solid faith was defeated in court by the meaningless rhetoric of a godless atheist, thus empowering the right against “the system” or (in contemporary parlance) “activist judges.” Similarly, one could also just as e asily see that the “true” irony of the interrogation is that it has been used as a justification for a feeling of victimization and persecution felt by the prosecutors and instigators of the controversy.
In the Kitzmiller v. Dover case, such a “wound culture,” to use Mark Seltzer’s (1998) terms, allowed members of the religious right to mask their fight against science (testable and repeatable hypotheses) as a fight to protect faith against a “liberal media,” a “hostile left,” or, as in Ben Stein’s Expelled, “big science.” This strategy has been used repeatedly by reactionary forces in the United States in all sorts of circumstances, and should cause us to question the stability and localities of irony. Expelled’s writers, producers, and public relations staff played on this ambivalence of irony, or what Linda Hutcheon (1994) has termed “irony’s edge.” Notably, those who have attacked Expelled have also relied heavily on irony; each side has accused the other of hypocrisy, oppression, lies, a nd bad taste (e.g. when Ben Stein accuses Darwinian theories of evolution of setting the stage for the Holocaust).  The internet furor over critic Roger Moore and Richard Dawkins “crashing” an invitation-only screening of the documentary, in which irony is often used to affirm an ethical argument over the other side’s intolerance, demonstrates the limitations to irony when used for a sincere (or perhaps sincerely static) political viewpoint.
Mark Crispin Miller takes issue with another aspect of irony, however. Like many other authors influenced by the Frankfurt School (e.g. Althusser, Jameson, Andrejevic), Miller sees irony as a mark of contemporary capitalism. In his 1986 essay “Deride and Conquer,” Miller suggests not only that televisual standards are decreasing, in which TV “purports to offer us a world of ‘choices,’ but refers us only to itself” (192-3), but also that it relies on and flatters us for our own knowledge about TV.
By fusing together an argument about taste and an argument about capitalism, Miller appropriates Bourdieu’s sociological approach to cultural production while simultaneously adding an ethical argument in which capital uses irony to reappropriate and contain sincere audience skepticism.  However, this is a limited ethics at best. First, it suggests that audiences are sincerely skeptical rather than ironically sincere (i.e. that skepticism stems from sincere objections rather than a realization of the dark ironies of capitalism). Moreover, if irony since Socrates “is the resistance to a single fixed point of view” (Colebrook 80), it is not useful as a stable tool (either to use or to hold). That is, irony, like humor, is double-edged and breeds criticism and distance that conflict with the necessary appearance of ideological stability for a functioning hegemony (Meyer 2000).
However, Miller does have a point, especially when he points to the simulacrum of dissent apparent in much contemporary television. He attacks the family sitcom with particular vehemence:
There are still a few logical gaps to his argument, of course. Cultural production does not always reflect “reality,” nor should it necessarily. Oppositional culture similarly must be able to use a point of view that poses itself as somewhat outside (while still referencing) the existing power structure to have any efficacy. One must certainly wonder whether or not Married…With Children is oppositional in any way. But one must also wonder whether or not publishing criticism in The Baffler, a media studies compilation from a major publisher (Pantheon, in Miller’s case), or in an academic journal is any more oppositional, especially if such criticism does not foreground the conditions of its own production. Still more important, it is important to recognize that ironic productions (just like all cultural productions) can never be entirely resistant or oppositional. That is, as Gayatri Spivak (1999) recognized in her formation of “strategic essentialism,” one can never resist or oppose everything at once. If a filmmaker or television producer wants to make a political statement, it is just as logically flawed to make a “pure” statement to a small audience as to make a partially or subtly oppositional statement to a massive audience, especially if that small audience is watching to attain a measure of cultural capital that is itself oppressive.  We thus begin to approach what could be called an ethics of irony as a political tool. In the ID debate, both sides retain the problematic polarization of political discourse when they either launch “sincere” arguments or claim irony as a coherent tool by which one can both attack one viewpoint while simultaneously affirming another. If, as Claire Colebrook (2004) has suggested, all language is ir onic in that it is all inherently unstable (98, 105, 107), acknowledging instability becomes an ethical as well as an aesthetic decision. Privileging sincerity of fixity in discourse is thus itself disingenuous and limiting in political efficacy as such rhetoric, like the modern philosophy from which it draws, assumes static, coherent agency in both “audience” and “author.”
I argue that such an ethics of ironic communication counteracts the critiques Michael Roth (1991) makes in “The Ironist’s Cage,” in which he argues that
He suggests that ironic critics like Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida are imprisoned in an “iron cage” of “critical pessimism,” in which they cannot conceive of a world outside the realm of oppression and domination embodied by institutionalized late capitalism (425). In Roth’s view, Foucault is “‘straddling the San Andreas fault of experience,’ emphasizing his hope to shake things up despite his inability to say anything about why one would have confidence in the quaking” (427). Roth suggests a more Heideggerian turn, in which critics turn to “being,” “experience,” or “utopia” for a critical distance; he is thus ultimately unable to come to terms with irony’s ability to create critical distance from within, and thereby educate in critical self-awareness rather than preach critical ontology. Although Roth clai ms that irony “does not displace but only expresses moral, political, and aesthetic engagements” (430), irony’s rhetorical basis is in fact the instability of any seemingly solid ideology or rhetoric. Moreover, his suggestion that ironic criticism cannot “count on the cumulative effect of [the] work in leading toward specific types of action, since [it does not aim] at a developing self-consciousness” (430), is hardly useful for political or ethical analysis, as Roth neither offers his own paradigm of stable criticism leading to stable political action nor demonstrates why he believes irony does not develop self-consciousness.
This is probably because Roth, like many critics of irony as a political method, does not himself define what he means by “political,” “activism,” or “self-consciousness.” Although I do not wish to enter into a discussion of postmodernism or irony as postmodern here, as such arguments often devolve into disciplinary or period definitions, it is Hutcheon’s (1989) The Politics of Postmodernism that begins to lay such a framework.  She reminds us that “postmodernism’s irony is one that rejects the resolving urge of modernism toward closure or at least distance. Complicity always attends its critique” (99). Far from removing its power as a political tool, however, Hutcheon argues that its “self-consciously intransitive representation…also milks the power of transitivity to c reate the spectator’s identification. In other words, it simultaneously destabilizes and inscribes the dominant ideology through its (almost overly obvious) interpellation of the spectator as subject in and of ideology” (108). Irony’s ethics is thus not an ethics of answers, in which an author addresses an audience, but rather a set of internally reflexive and destabilizing questions, in which “authors” address “audiences.” Hutcheon continues: “this kind of postmodern [media] never loses sight of the appeal of that humanist-modernist wholeness; indeed, it exploits it. But the exploitation is done in the name of contesting the values and beliefs upon which that wholeness is constructed – with the emphasis on the act of construction – through representations” (109-110).
Several media studies scholars have similarly drawn on theories of critical pedagogy to make this connection between irony and poststructural criticism, particularly when discussing dissonant shows like my two case studies, The Simpsons and South Park. I will not engage these authors in depth, but a brief overview is a useful starting point. Several scholars have pointed to South Park as a (critical) pedagogical tool, and indeed most of the early scholarship on the show centered around its place in education or critical development.  Similarly, several authors in the edited volume Leaving Springfield: The Simpsons and the Possibility for Oppositional Culture (2004) discuss The Simpsons in pedagogical terms. William Savage in particular provides us with two useful arguments: first, he suggests that since satire relies on multiple levels of interpretati on, it bypasses institutional and cultural censors in such a way as to allow discourse that would normally be prohibited in the public sphere (201). Second, in response to critics who assert that irony’s polysemic potential results in political ambiguity (and thus reactionary politics), he reminds us that “the danger of misinterpretation inheres in any utterance complicated enough to be worth discussing and should not in any way disqualify The Simpsons or South Park as potential sources of cultural critique” (220).
Other media scholars seem to agree. Jonathan Gray’s Watching With The Simpsons (2006), the most sophisticated book written about either South Park or The Simpsons to date, for instance, argues that The Simpsons relies on its identity as a gently critical show and its use of highly sophisticated cultural intertextuality to engender a potentially critical community. Drawing on Gray, Simone Knox (2006) suggests that we view The Simpsons as an example of “double-coding,” in which a cultural production can be both complicit in its status as a capital-generating enterprise and critical of the process of capital accumulation (76).  The critical aspect of the show comes primarily from The Simpsons’s use of complex sets of references, parody, and intertextuality “that works in conjunction with the invisible quotation marks to ‘enlist’ audiences by addressing them as and rewarding them for being culturally conversant and ‘in the know’” (75).
Although double-coding is useful as a rearticulation of Bourdieu’s critiques of television and, more generally, what he calls the “field of cultural production” (1993; 1998), it does not in fact address the central question here about an ethics of irony in emancipatory politics. The Simpsons’s rare moments of deep self-awareness as a capitalist project should thus be seen somewhat apart from its other two main aspects: first, that The Simpsons relies on allusions to other texts to comment on (and educate in, drawing on Freire’s (2000) Pedagogy of the Oppressed) the mediascape, and second, that the show’s commentary and pedagogy create a strong community around those processes of ironic identity and criticism. It is of course absolutely essential to recognize that both The Simpsons and South Park exist within systems of (global) capital. Double-co ding is useful precisely as a reminder that late capitalism internalizes and requires dissonant productions in order to affirm or recreate cultural commodities. That said, it is also important to recognize that there are many ways to internally address the conditions of media production, just as there are many ways to create community or to encourage media literacy. It is the differences between the methods by which ironic productions reach, create, and educate community that inform their ethos.
Theoretically, therefore, the allusive quality of The Simpsons bypasses many of the criticisms espoused by irony critics. Rather than Booth’s reliance on static “texts,” “readers,” and “authors,” it is in fact the show’s use of unstable interpretations that creates the basis for a stable community in which instability is an aesthetic and mode of self-aware critique. Similarly, as a community of readers that concentrate on the instability of a text are aware of its constructed nature, they to some degree operate outside the limited capital-user (or superstructure-base) binary on which Miller relies, just as they can propose cultural and political change through an education into the modes and techniques by which ideology operates and hegemony is established/maintained. However, in other ways The Simpsons falls prey to some of the criticisms placed on irony in the public sphere. Whether or not they are base d on intertextuality or irony, interpretive communities are not necessarily aware of their own place within the logic of capital. Even if they are, to be critical of some modes of ideology is not necessarily to be aware of others (note, for instance, the blindness mainstream oppositional groups like feminist or ethnic minority movements have to other forms of oppression). This is particularly the case with The Simpsons’ reliance on a problematic “American every-family,” in which the privileged point of view is almost exclusively from a white, lower middle class, Christian, Midwestern family with three kids and a stay-at-home mother. More importantly, that point of view is not questioned (as it often is in other shows, such as King of the Hill or Beavis and Butthead) but rather gently rendered broader than it really is (e.g. with frequent expensive vacations and adventures, encounters with Others, etc.). Structural racism, sexism, and a lack of cla ss awareness (among many other issues) are thus completely imbricated into the world of The Simpsons, with occasional moments of critique overshadowed by a return to a status quo of harmony and happiness without consequences or enduring social developments. This renders the allusive strategies of the show politically neutral beyond their pedagogical role in media awareness. South Park often runs into similar issues, but as we will see the differences between the two are striking. The implications of ironic community created through self-aware polysemy allow not only for challenges to a single point of view, but a multiplicity of points of view challenging the terms of debate itself without necessarily providing a sustained (i.e. long term or outside a single episode) political critique.
The similarities and differences between The Simpsons’s and South Park’s treatment of the Intelligent Design debate suggest both the potential and the limitations of this theory. “The Monkey Suit” (S17E21) is a classic example of intertextuality in The Simpsons. As with most episodes of the series, it relies on a powerful blend of reality (through narrative and character devices) and unreality (through the use of animated forms/transitions and cultural references). In other words, it presents a world of relative realism, with believable or empathetic (if exaggerated) characters and events, combined with or portrayed through anarchic formal sensibilities. Many critics relate this combination to the view of postmodernism proposed by Frederic Jameson, Hal Foster, and others, in which surface levels of play create a system of camp, pastiche, and an “anti-aesthetic” that conveys a detachment or hedonistic/nihilistic overinvolvement with th e status quo and popular culture (Foster 1983, Jameson 1991). The Simpsons is certainly not apolitical, at least on the levels of media and cultural literacy. It remains to be seen, however, how that literacy plays out in terms of engagements with contemporary politics. “The Monkey Suit” begins with Bart Simpson’s final days of summer vacation, in which he races against time to win a baseball game, appear in a summer stock play, see a summer blockbuster, and have his first kiss. Each comes with its own cultural references (e.g. to The Natural (1984), the Happy Days television series (1974-1984), and Men In Black (1997)), and in fact S17E21 is filled with such seemingly random, fast-paced intertextuality, in scenes drawn from The Saint television series from the 1960s to multiple references to other episodes. I will therefore not dwell on these instances, but will only mention a few over the course of the analysis. It is important to recognize one side-effect of this form of narrative, however. Because The Simpsons relies so heavily on intertextuality, and indeed privileges it over narrative coherence or strength, the opening sequence of S17E21 is in fact overflow material from an earlier episode (S14E12) that was cut due to time constraints. This two and a half minute sequence, when combined with the one and a half minute opening credit sequence, accounts for twenty percent of the episode.
The episode’s primary narrative begins after a four-minute introduction to the Springfield Natural History Museum, as conservative Christian Ned Flanders is confronted by exhibits on the theory of evolution and the “myth of creation.” His children ask questions like “was mommy a monkey?” and “but you said a stork brought me,” to which he responds in exasperation that “there’s no such things as storks! It’s all God!,” before pulling his sons out of the exhibit (one of whom has begun praying to a stuffed stork).
When Flanders complains to his pastor, Rev. Lovejoy holds out the Bible and says sardonically “Ned, you’ve got to take this thing with a grain of salt. I mean, come on!” Lovejoy’s wife, however, piques his interest when she suggests that evolution might be a hot topic through which they could reinvigorate their church’s flagging attendance. He takes Flanders to the elementary school, where they blackmail Principal Skinner into teaching creationism as an alternative to evolution. He agrees, but when he introduces the topic in class Lisa Simpson (the show’s stereotypical “liberal voice”) objects, saying “but that’s not science!” Skinner responds “it is now!” The show further accentuates the absurdity of the situation: when Ralph, the class idiot, asks the question “are oceans God’s tears?,” Skinner looks at Lovejoy and Flanders. They glare and nod, at which Skinner exclaims &ldq uo;they sure are! A+!” with exaggerated enthusiasm. Lisa also objects at home, but she meets with relative ambivalence. Forced into the public sphere, she finally raises the issue at a town meeting; she argues that evolution and creationism are “incompatible” and a choice needs to be made between the two. The town agrees with her immediately; however, when the scene cuts we learn they have chosen creationism over evolution, and subsequently ban evolution from schools. Horrified, Lisa creates an underground evolution study group at school; she is discovered, arrested, and placed on trial.
The episode thus far is hilarious and brilliant in its virtuosity of aesthetic and intertextual allusions. However, it is interesting to recognize that the irony in the episode relies on, rather than displaces, subject positioning. “Victimized” Christians exist alongside defensive “liberals,” both of whom sincerely refer to truth. Ironic treatments of the absurdity of religious discourse allow “liberal” communities distance from evangelicals, and similar treatments of whining “activists” allow conservative communities distance from historical objections to (and failures of) creationism in state institutions. The center-left is thus able to sneer as they enjoy the episode, and the right is able to affirm their own (victim-based) identity claims. The lack of sustained dissonance thus creates a community based on allusions without challenging the underlying pathways and patterns of discourse or the terms of debate. Without ch allenging anyone, therefore, the episode’s masterful construction retains a patina of political engagement.
The rest of the episode (five minutes, or twenty-five percent), revolves around Lisa’s trial. Interestingly, The Simpsons continues to place creationism at a higher popular plane than evolution, as the jury and trial audience are obviously biased towards the creationists (who, unlike in contemporary cases, are the prosecutors rather than the plaintiffs). The introduction to the scene is narrated by Kent Brockman, “reporting live from the trial of God v. Lisa Simpson,” who declares that “if [the prosecuting attorney] doesn’t win, I’m resigning from the jury!” The defense attorney, ACLU lawyer Clarice Drummond (a reference to classic ACLU lawyer Clarence Darrow, attorney from the Stokes case), introduces herself by saying cheerfully “I’m from New York!” before getting booed down by the audience. The prosecuting attorney, “humble country lawyer Wallace Brady” (a reference to Stokes attorney William Jennings Bryan), introduces himself with a similar loaded-yet-meaningless identification: “as the little chicken said to his momma, ‘I just hope I don’t cluck up!’” We hear from two witnesses: classic Simpsons scientist Professor Frink, who responds to questions about God’s existence by suggesting that evolution does not claim God does not exist, but rather that “God is an impotent nothing from nowhere, with less power than the Undersecretary of Agriculture.” In response, Brady puts his own “scientist” on the stand, who has “a Ph.D. in truthology from Christian Tech.” This new scientist claims that evolution is “hogwash,” with no fossil evidence to link monkeys to humans (i.e. the “missing link” argument). The absurd parodic identities of these four characters do of course tease each side of the debate. However, it is once again important to recognize that although it appropriates the social binary of the evolution/creationism debate, The Simpsons does nothing to challenge the subject positioning allowed by that binary.
When Drummond becomes angry as the trial continues, its bias spins to new levels of absurdity (e.g. Brady appears feeding a fawn from a bottle of milk, and asks it “now Bambi, who started that forest fire that killed your momma? Evolution! My my my.”). Disheartened, Lisa throws away her copy of The Origin of Species, but Marge picks it up, reads it over the course of the night, and in classic Simpsons narrative form comes up with a plan to win the trial. While Drummond questions Ned Flanders in court, who has no doubt that humans are completely different from apes, Marge gives Homer a bottle of beer. Unable to open it, Homer regresses to ape-like behavior, inciting Ned Flanders to yell “will you shut your yap, you big monkey-faced gorilla!” The jury is shocked, and the judge dismisses the case. Lisa and Ned make friends at the end of the episode, as Lisa tells him how much she respects his beliefs and Ned tells Lisa he wishes humankind would evolve more children like her. The debate, it seems, is resolved by a simple agreement to disagree. The tension is dissolved by displacing it on Homer’s absurdly hyperbolic character, and the narrative only resolves in the absence of resolution (i.e. the trial has no repercussions for characters or narratives later in the series). 
By using the Stokes trial as the primary form of parody along with a relatively small amount of time afforded to discussion of evolution and creationism in schools, “The Monkey Suit” does not examine the intricacy of either the creationism and evolution arguments, preferring instead to caricature the debate as an argument over “missing links” or a genial clash of personalities. Moreover, the place of evolution and creationism in the courts is not updated to contemporary debates and court cases, but remains with evolutionists (read urbane, cultured, educated, East Coast) defending progressive politics against creationists (read rural, conservative, uneducated, Midwest) as outright aggressors. More than anything, the episode is used to critique the demonization of evolutionary theory by religious propaganda, by an instructional video used in the school (that shows a drunken Charles Darwin passionately kissing Satan) as well as by the prosecu ting attorney. This allows for a somewhat leftist discussion of the issue, but ultimately is unable to address the rise of Christian fundamentalism in the United States or the “wound culture” used by the religious right to galvanize its base (Seltzer 1998, Frank 2005, Brown 2006). More importantly, irony in the episode certainly relies on media knowledge for its intertextual encounters, but it does not encourage media or cultural literacy; that is, it does not engage contemporary manifestations of the debate or the specific locations and contexts in which it appears. Instead, it relies on allusions within an ironic framework to speak to a centrist audience who wants evolution taught in schools, but also does not want to anger evangelical Christians. It pokes gentle fun at media rhetoric and the questioning of evolutionary theory (which has been “accepted even by prominent conservatives l ike George Will and the late Pope John Paul”), but is unable or unwilling to address the rise of Intelligent Design or contemporary court battles (in Pennsylvania, Kansas, and elsewhere) that might encourage debate in its audience. Thus the political impact of The Simpsons is here almost completely limited to the creation of an ironic, media literate “in crowd,” and isolates that community from deeper (and potentially polarizing) social issues.
The South Park episodes “Go God Go” parts one and two rely on a very different set of aesthetic and narrative tropes, although they too mobilize complex intertextual imagery. South Park also seems to mirror The Simpsons in its formal approach (animation), although a few differences begin to point out deeper, more systemic alterations in the show’s ethos. South Park carries The Simpsons approach to abstraction to an extreme, with highly derealized visual aesthetics (made from computer-simulated cardboard cutouts rather than intricate drawings and smooth movements). In addition, narrative in “Go God Go”, like those of many South Park episodes, are both anarchically unrealistic and empathetic. That is, it both abandons claims to coherent or believable reality while simultaneously presenting issues, characters, and character traits that are recognizable from either everyday life or from contemporary events. This makes the show notoriously diffic ult to analyze effectively, but its differences from narrative in “The Monkey Suit” should become immediately apparent.
“Go God Go” begins as Eric Cartman paces in front of a video game store in the mall, saying “come on … come on!” When his mother comes to get him for school, he pulls away, telling her that he’s waiting for the release of the new Nintendo Wii. When she finds out it comes out in three weeks (which is, in fact, the exact time between the original episode airdate and the system’s release), she takes him to school in spite of his protests. The episode cuts to the school, in which his teacher, Ms. Garrison, angrily refuses to teach evolution in school because she “cares about [her] students,” and “will not fill their heads with lies.” The irony here, for fans of the show, is that Ms. Garrison is a notoriously bad teacher, who repeatedly teaches the children about popular culture narratives (e.g. The Facts of Life or Barnaby Jones) and encourages racist or sexist points of view. She continues: “evo lution is a theory … a hairbrained theory that says I’m a monkey! I’m not a monkey. I’m a woman!” Again, the episode relies on previous knowledge of the show to question her statements, since the character has changed over the course of nine seasons from a homophobic heterosexual to an openly gay man to a homophobic transsexual.  This knowledge cannot of course be assumed in all viewers. However, because the show has a solid fan base and is made up in large part by so-called “appointment viewers” (viewers who tune into Comedy Central specifically to watch each new episode) and is heavily syndicated, an understanding of Mr./Ms. Garrison’s changes is not outside the range of many viewers, and the episode relies on it heavily.
Ms. Garrison’s gender, emotional, and intellectual stability are all questioned repeatedly even within S10E11: the school counselor, Mr. Mackey, responds to Ms. Garrison’s gender assertion with a blank stare and an drawn out “mmmkay,” and then haltingly states that “you realize that evolution has been pretty much, um, proven.” Ms. Garrison argues that “our students aren’t ready to hear this stuff,” but Principal Victoria pushes the point, and Ms. Garrison teaches the lesson. Her lecture on evolution, however, is as hyperbolic as one might expect. She begins by saying “now I for one think that evolution is a bunch of bullcrap,” and continues to explain that
The episode continues with another scene of Cartman pacing in front of the video game store, where he is once again pulled away by his mother. After several scenes depicting a stressful, sleepless night, he decides to ask his friends to help freeze him so that he can be thawed out in three weeks for the release of the Nintendo Wii. They categorically refuse, and he turns away in a huff. Meanwhile, Ms. Garrison’s explanation of evolution has had repercussions: a young female student appears with her parents and Ms. Garrison in the principal’s office. The parents, a “devout Catholic family,” are angry that “she now thinks she’s a retarded fish-frog… [after they] have worked years to instill the teachings of Jesus Christ” into their daughter. Ms. Garrison stands there smugly as the principal suggests that they simply remove the girl from the class, but the girl herself objects, saying “but dad, I want to learn eve rything!” His response as they leave the room, “no you don’t! Shut up!,” is telling.
Ms. Garrison doesn’t get off so easy, however, as Principal Victoria has her replaced with Dr. Richard Dawkins, a “world-renowned evolutionary scientist.” Dawkins is also a strong proponent of atheism, and has been known to fuse discussions of evolution with discussions of atheism, especially in the provocatively titled 2006 book The God Delusion.  At first Dawkins seems, like many celebrity guests on shows like The Simpsons, to be a simple cameo appearance (even a faked one). Although his accent and bodily appearance are not outrageous, and his rhetoric often seems calmly reasonable, when it becomes apparent that he is attracted to Ms. Garrison his “normality,” and thus his coherent, stable ethical position, begins to shift. His initial advances are rebuffed, however, with “shut up faggot,” which again draws attention to Ms. Garrison as a constructed and absurd figure. This rhetoric escalates in the classroom as Dawkins begins to lecture to the class. Ms. Garrison continually interrupts him, the first time by correlating the development with animals that could breathe air with his “retarded fish-frogs.” When Dawkins relies that she is making a “gross oversimplification,” Ms. Garrison responds with “well, you’re a faggot! Continue.” They begin to flash over human descent from apes, as Ms. Garrison refuses to believe herself related to animals that “crap in their hands and throw it at people.” Dawkins, who says “this isn’t theory, it’s scientific fact,” is unfazed by Garrison’s argument that “if I believe in this crap, you’re going to go to hell,” as he tells her that he is an atheist. At that point Ms. Garrison goes ballistic, calls Dawkins a “snake in the grass,” and begins to “act like a monk ey”; this culminates when she defecates into her hand in front of the class and throws her feces at Dawkins.
We should distinguish the absurdity of identity claims here from those made in “The Monkey Suit.” Rather than playing on media portrayals of “left” and “right,” South Park here accentuates the problematic identity associations made by both fictional and real individuals. Ms. Garrison’s identity claims, suspect in that they are overt and hyperbolically performed, are combined with Richard Dawkins’s sincere belief in himself. There is no common ground in ideology here; on the contrary, we are confronted with an overt “wrong” and “right.” Like the earlier identifications, South Park is so far primarily a satirical treatment of evangelical rhetoric, and places the viewer implicitly on the side of evolutionary theorists through their self-proclaimed atheist spokesman. As the scene cuts to the principal’s office, Ms. Garrison calmly explains that she was “simply trying to make a point to Mr. Da wkins about the incongruity of some scientific statements.” This reaffirms the episode’s contrast with “The Monkey Suit”; instead of the end point being the illogical arguments and beliefs of creationists, the episode begins there (at this point less than one third of the first episode is over) and continues by problematizing any affiliation with the accepted “sides” of the debate.
This process, a standard method by which South Park uses irony to, in Dominick LaCapra’s terms, play “a role both in the critique of ideology and in the anticipation of a polity wherein commitment does not exclude but accompanies an ability to achieve critical distance on one’s deepest commitments and desires” (as cited in Hutcheon 1989: 100-101). Such distance is inscribed first by deconstructing Dawkins as a reliable ethical source: feces-smeared, he not only asks Principal Victoria to leave Ms. Garrison in the classroom, he pulls her aside after they leave the office to tell her he “ [admires] her passion,” and asks her to dinner. A flustered Ms. Garrison consents, and runs off to tell everyone she has her first date as a woman. While Cartman finally gets help freezing himself (from a “fool” figure, Butters), Dawkins and Ms. Garrison go on their date. Ms. Garrison, after hearing that Daw kins does not want to seriously date someone that is not an atheist, becomes extremely “open” to the idea, and her “eyes are opened” (in a very ironic, fake-sounding voice) after he confronts her with the logical similarity between a God that cannot be disproved and a Flying Spaghetti Monster.  The newly happy couple move off to Ms. Garrison’s place “for dessert,” which, after the scene cuts, is revealed to be an explicit sex scene in which Ms. Garrison screams “oh yeah, yeah, I’m a monkey! Give this monkey what she wants!” In “The Monkey Suit, ” sexuality and references to earlier episodes in some ways take the place of allusions or Homer as a target of ridicule. Inscribed within a larger trajectory of sexual transgression in the show, “Go God Go” places itself within a social context that displaces the polarizing power o f the evolution debate without alleviating its critical edge. Only after this trajectory has been established does the episode launch into a complex system of allusions obviously influenced by The Simpsons’s style of genre parody.
As with most South Park episodes, the chaotic absurdity of the narrative continues to increase as Eric Cartman’s narrative unites with Ms. Garrison’s. He is unfrozen during a sequence depicting five hundred years of time passage, a quote from the opening of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, by a group that calls themselves the Unified Atheist League, who are revealed to be at war with two other groups, the United Atheist Alliance and the Allied Atheist Alliance (the latter of whom are a group of large, highly intelligent sea otters equipped with sophisticated technology). All three groups are rendered aesthetically absurd, with strange outfits and hats (including a set of hats that look suspiciously like dildos), and reveal that there is no longer any religion in the world. Instead, they worship Science; worse, they do not have the Nintendo Wii, sending Cartman into a rage (and eventually a quest to find the Wii). One member of the League laughs at him, for i nstance, for saying “Jesus Christ,” before being shot by a member of the United Atheist Alliance, at which point he says “oh, my Science.”
Meanwhile, Ms. Garrison begins teaching evolution with Richard Dawkins; she once again takes a confrontational approach, however. After Dawkins suggests that “evolution is not chance, it is in fact bound to happen,” Ms. Garrison continues his statement by saying “so you see children, there is no God.” Dawkins tells her to be careful, and Stan chimes in with “well, there could still be a God. Couldn’t evolution be the answer to ‘how’ and not the answer to ‘why?’” Ms. Garrison gets angry again, begins banging on a gigantic triangle while yelling “retard alert,” and makes Stan sit in a corner with a dunce cap on that says “I have faith.” At home in bed, Dawkins questions Ms. Garrison’s methods; in response, however, she straddles him and (with a visual and auditory parody of the 2003 miniseries Battlestar Gallactica, in which she correlates to a cyborg creature that convinces a s cientist to destroy the world) encourages him to create a world without religion. In Dawkins eyes, this would result in a world without war, terrorist attacks, and discrimination. This scene again demonstrates the critical edge embodied by an ironic approach to allusion when it is placed within context. A possible reference to John Lennon’s “Imagine,” in its displacement through a popular culture parody the scene at once references and critiques leftist utopian visions and the conservative fear of “godless atheists.” 
We see the impact of Ms. Garrison’s relationship with Richard Dawkins throughout the rest of the episode and the second part of “Go God Go.” Although they are abandoned in large part by the narrative, which combines an anarchic set of popular culture references to science fiction television shows and films, the suggestion that religion is itself responsible for human conflict is continually parodied by both the faith in Science as a supernatural entity that answers the fundamental questions of existence and the wars being fought over race (human v. otter) and, even more absurd, the rightful name of an atheist group (the Allied Atheist Alliance, for instance, declares that theirs makes the most sense because it has three As). They have come to this war over “the great question” through the legacy of Garrison and Dawkins, who knew that logic and reason were the way of the future… and learned that logic and reason weren’t enough, you have to be a dick to everyone who doesn’t think like you.” Cartman’s goal remains to play the Nintendo Wii, despite the fact that he seems to have spent a great deal of time as “the time child,” playing the Sea Otters against the United Atheist Alliance and is able to spit out phrases like “do me a favor. Next time I’m in a recessed biocave, don’t send me a level-2 homing call.” Unfortunately, Cartman is continually put off from his goal, and remains in the future as he tries to change the past (the future, in fact, seems strikingly like the present, with tons of commercials on TV, irritating technology interfaces, and useless technicians).
Although the narrative concentrates primarily on the war and Cartman’s efforts to get his past self (and Kyle and Butters) to keep him from freezing himself, there are other moments that are far more interesting for the present discussion. The elders of two of the parties involved, for instance, suggest that war is not the answer. The Sea Otter Wise One asks “science. Reason. Is that really all there is?” before they go to war, but is discounted by the younger, more passionate otters, who also look up to Richard Dawkins as a savior. The Wise One says that perhaps “he wasn’t so wise after all,” even though he was undoubtedly intelligent. “Who knows,” he continues, “maybe just believing in God makes God exist.” The Wise One is, however, killed by the younger otters and they continue on to attack the two human groups.
The only way to stop the war is for Cartman to change the future, and he is only able to do this by calling not himself or the other boys, but Ms. Garrison. Dawkins answers while the two have sex, and learns that Ms. Garrison is a transsexual. Upset and disgusted (while simultaneously revealing himself to be prejudiced), he leaves Ms. Garrison and changes the future. Unfortunately for Cartman, things don’t work out as planned. The future turns out to have all three groups working together with different religions, but still at war with “the French-Chinese,” who have taken Hawaii. While they do send Cartman back to his own time, it is in fact over a month earlier, changing his wait time to two months. The enraged Cartman then receives a phone call from a future self, telling him to once again not freeze himself; Cartman, unwilling to believe it is really himself and not a crank call from Kyle, discounts it, and the episode leaves with the implication th at Cartman is caught in a time paradox.
Like “The Monkey Suit,” “Go God Go” contains dozens of cultural references that do not necessarily add to the political point of the narrative. Several important differences must be recognized, however, and are helpful in understanding the different function irony, and particularly ironic community, might play in the political role of the series. Unlike “The Monkey Suit,” South Park’s use of cultural allusions contribute to a relatively coherent (if anarchic or absurd) narrative; its world is thus rendered believable, despite its abstracted aesthetics and hyperbolic traits (e.g. exploding heads, grotesque sexual scenes), by layering recognizable cultural clichés even if one does not recognize the reference themselves. They are relevant to the narrative trajectory rather than ancillary to the plot. In “The Monkey Suit,” The Simpsons uses narrative, thematic, and cultural tropes to construct an air of ir onic detachment and cultural literacy, and they are certainly done realistically (i.e. in a manner relatively faithful to the original sources). However, the randomness of the allusions does not render the world in which they exist believable outside of televisual references, and therefore draw on an “in crowd” of cultural knowledge without concentrating on evaluating or breaking down the issues or rhetoric that build the central narrative. Although this is in part because Springfield has already been established as an intricate environment, it also limits the episode to the conceptual boundaries of a small, conservative Midwestern town, and is thus unable to emphasize a sustained critical distance from its main narrative track (the evolution debate). This manifests further in the choice to parody/appropriate the Stokes trial rather than the Kitzmiller trial, despite the higher level of relevance in the latter.
“Go God Go” is neither the deepest nor the most amusing South Park production, of the tenth season or the show as a whole. However, it does manage to create a strong and rather intricate critique of the modes of discourse in which the intelligent design debate takes place. While The Simpsons relies on a supposedly leftist audience community that accepts evolution but does not want to anger Midwesterners or religious people, it is ultimately condescending and reduces the issue to a cultural and scientific binary. In South Park, however, the sustained debate coupled with an expansive narrative enables the show to engage and critique both religious discourse (e.g. the oversimplification of evolution, the oppression of children in education by religious interests) and “secular” discourse (e.g. the condescending and decontextualized “Pastafarianism,” Richard Dawkins’ inflammatory rhetoric). It therefore mobilizes all usive tactics, including montage and bricolage of popular culture references and references to contemporary political debates, to critique the manner in which those debates are conducted or framed. The ironic community constructed by The Simpsons is here directed not towards an “in group” that congratulates itself on media literacy (as per Mark Crispin Miller), nor is it directed towards an “iron cage” of irony that divorces irony from political critique due to its lack of conceptual grounding (as per Michael Roth). Instead, the “in crowd” is taught to apply media knowledge to a critique of media combined with a cultural literacy that presents not a solid or stable point of view, but a set of questions about the construction of mainstream discourse itself (e.g. The O’Reilly Factor).
As David Koepsell argues, this “in group” does not necessarily rely on an “out group,” but rather a “pragmatic” approach to cultural identity formation in a political system: South Park’s episodes mock not the belief, but the believer, and credit believers where their lives reflect good, ethical practice. They also point out hypocrisy wherever possible. Because the show treats nothing as sacred, this lesson comes across as genuine rather than as preaching (139).
Irony is thus here mobilized in a specific manner combined with an attention to politics as they operate in the contemporary U.S. mediascape. Although irony is inherently unstable and politically ambivalent, as a rhetorical tool it can both construct a community and direct that community towards a self-critical or self-aware set of practices. Its use of allusions retains the cultural cache so attractive to a “postmodern,” literate audience, but the method also avoids binaries and simplifications by rendering politics itself suspect as a discursive regime. While this method is limited, in that its narratives (and thus its political interventions) are not sustainable long term, it does demonstrate the potential for irony as a tool for emancipatory politics. When we engage the politics of irony, therefore, cultural studies scholars should remember that there is a difference between using irony as a primarily aesthetic tool, in which cultural production cites politics, and using irony as an ethical approach that foregrounds instability, fragments closed discursive pathways, and engages the political. This allows us to separate discussions of brilliance, virtuosity, and complexity from discussions of the possibilities for oppositional culture or emancipatory politics. Both have their value; indeed, the latter in many ways requires the former, both to break new ground and to affirm the desire for (and capability to comprehend) the multiple messages required by radical, ironic, blasphemous allusion.
 Ben Stein was also interviewed on The O’Reilly Factor, on October 22, 2007. The contrast between his interview and Dawkins’ interview is striking. Both videos are available on YouTube and other web-based video sites. The controversy over Expelled has become quite large and is growing, as many prominent evolutionary scientists (including Dawkins himself) were interviewed under what they claim to be false pretenses. The film, which claims to “expose” the silencing of creationists in the academe, seems to be obviously intended to generate such buzz after the harsh defeat ID suffered in the Kitzmiller v. Dover case, and just as obviously is timed to coincide with the 2008 Presidential elections. See Dean (2007) for a sample of the discourse in popular newspapers.
 Hereafter episodes may be referred to in the following fashion: S17E21.
 There are many examples of theorists that discuss elements of each of these categories. For expressions of ironic parody, see Butler (1990; 1993), Gray (2004), Sconce (2002); for ironic narratives, see Haggins (2007), Jones (2004), and Gray (2006); for ironic identity identifications, see Hooks (1990), Gray (2004), Butler (1990; 1993), and Gilroy (1993; 2001).
 The argument is still in development as I write. However, it might be useful to compare the rhetoric of articles such as Metcalfe (2008) and the review of the film on LifeSite (2008), the latter of which is called “Darwin, Hitler, and the Culture of Death.”
 This point of view is a popular one, as the popularity in media studies courses of Thomas Frank’s essay “Why Johnny Can’t Dissent” and the book from which is comes, Commodify Your Dissent (1997), demonstrates.
 “Double-coded” is often used to discuss the theory by which children’s programming (and animation in particular) is viewed as “coded” for two audiences: children and adults. This is a problematic theory at best, and should not be mistaken with Knox’s use of the term.
 Mark Crispin Miller’s argument in fact relies on this trope in contemporary situational comedies, in that they thus obfuscate the power of wealthy, white, conservative men in private and public life.
 Dawkins is in fact known for such books. His 2004 collection of lectures and essays is called A Devil’s Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love, and discusses everything from jury trials to religion to education. Similarly, his 1996 book on evolutionary science was called The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design. His appearance on The O’Reilly Factor is notable not only because he holds his own against Bill O’Reilly, but because his rhetoric is almost as offensive as O’Reilly’s own (and his logic almost as faulty).
 This funny, yet condescending ironic comment on creationism made its debut on a website (<http://www.venganza.org>) in 2005, and was made by Bobby Henderson, a graduate of Oregon State University. It was made to protest the controversy over the Kansas State Board decision to require the teaching of Intelligent Design, and preaches “pastafarianism,” a religion that worships a flying spaghetti monster.
 It is interesting to note that one of the controversies surrounding Expelled in fact stems from the lyrics of “Imagine.” The film cites and attacks Lennon’s song, and was subsequently sued by Yoko Ono for not retaining rights to the song. Its producers responded by pointing out the irony of using capitalism as a way to retain the intellectual property rights of a song calling for an end to possessions (“Expelled”).
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