The Heavens Fart


If you've read our interview with Trey Parker and Matt Stone and still can't get enough South Park, check out Paul Cantor's praise for the program at Here's a sample:

Before dismissing South Park, we should recall that some of the greatest comic writers—Aristophanes, Chaucer, Rabelais, Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Voltaire, Jonathan Swift—plumbed the depths of obscenity even as they rose to the heights of philosophical thought. The same intellectual courage that emboldened them to defy conventional proprieties empowered them to reject conventional ideas and break through the intellectual frontiers of their day. Without claiming that South Park deserves to rank with such distinguished predecessors, I will say that the show descends from a long tradition of comedy that ever since ancient Athens has combined obscenity with philosophy. There are almost as many fart jokes in Aristophanes' play The Clouds as there are in a typical episode of The Terrance and Philip Show in South Park. In fact, in the earliest dramatic representation of Socrates that has come down to us, he is making fart jokes as he tries to explain to a dumb Athenian named Strepsiades that thunder is a purely natural phenomenon and not the work of the great god Zeus: "First think of the tiny fart that your intestines make. Then consider the heavens: their infinite farting is thunder. For thunder and farting are, in principle, one and the same." Cartman couldn't have said it better.

The whole thing is here. While I enjoyed Cantor's essay, I think his analysis of the underwear-gnomes episode misses something obvious. The gnomes' famous three-step diagram ("Phase 1: Collect Underpants; Phase 2: ?; Phase 3: Profit") doesn't merely "encapsulate[] the economic illiteracy of the American public," who "can see no connection between the activities businessmen undertake and the profits they make." It's a funny parody of the poorly reasoned business plans that were all the rage during the dot-com bubble. (The episode first aired in 1998.) With more nuance than is sometimes acknowledged, the episode doesn't just endorse the free market; it satirizes both corporate and anti-corporate cant.

Bonus links: Cantor's Reason articles are here. Barry Fagin explains why he lets his kids watch South Park here. My appreciation of the show is here.


NEXT: Their Bodies, Our Selves

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  1. Does the article compare the portrayal Saddam’s penis with the engorged penises in Aristophenes’ Lysistrata? 😉

  2. In fact, in the earliest dramatic representation of Socrates that has come down to us, he is making fart jokes as he tries to explain to a dumb Athenian named Strepsiades that thunder is a purely natural phenomenon and not the work of the great god Zeus: “First think of the tiny fart that your intestines make. Then consider the heavens: their infinite farting is thunder. For thunder and farting are, in principle, one and the same.” Cartman couldn’t have said it better.

    Aristophenes (who is something of a critic of science and the “rational”) tries to place the label of “Sophist” on Socrates. It was a pretty brilliant manuevre because he essentially turns the differences between Sophists and Socrates into an issue of “insider squabbling” between two parties who are basically out of the same mold. Aristophenes was brilliant.

  3. BTW, I am pretty sure that Sterne and Montaigne (yeah, yeah, his biography isn’t fiction) are pretty annoyed for not having their names mentioned.

  4. I’m reading a great book called The Sleepwalkers and it talks about how Galileo wrote some great didactic prose meshed with the “barbed wire” of polemic attacks just as Kepler’s laws were hidden among “harmonic labyrinths” of writing.

    Kind of off topic, I suppose, but along the same vein.

  5. Yeah, I apologize for my “classics fit.” 😉

  6. Regarding dot-com boom business plans, if you replace “underpants” with “eyeballs” or “mailing list” in the Gnomes’ plan, you’ll see the correspondence to “real life” more clearly. Of course, “real life” plans (the thorough ones, anyway) also included IPOs and exit strategies for the founders.

  7. Lowdog,

    I read somewhere that Keppler once did over 900 pages of calculations trying to figure out the orbits of the planets only to decide that he had taken the wrong approach and throw the entire mess in the trash and start over. Think about that, 900 pages only to go “ah this is bullshit” and throw it away. Most people would have killed themselves after realizing they had wasted that much effort. Keppler just threw it away and started over and eventually figured it out. I can’t imagine having that kind of fortitude. He is really one of the great geniuses of all time.

  8. Lowdog,

    I hate to be an ass, and that’s why I was hesitant in making this comment, but that book is really, really dated.

  9. Zeno – no worries, I’m aware of how old it is.

    But many of the author’s observations shouldn’t be dismissed because the book was written almost 50 years ago. Besides, a lot of the translations, I suspect, haven’t changed much in that time. Maybe additional documents or the like have been found here or there, but I still think it is a very fascinating work.

    I may find things to dispute or refute things in the book at some point, which is fine, too.

    Knowledge = good. 🙂

  10. Oh, and the fact remains that hidden within pages written by Kepler there were buried 3 laws that changed the course of human knowledge. These were obscured by fanciful forays into perfect geometrical shapes that planets must move in and other nonsense that was a part of the medieval and Aristotelian mindset into which he was born – or at least that’s the way it’s presented in The Sleepwalkers.

    Again, if I find things to be interpreted differently in the future, that’s great, too, but it’s not like I haven’t gotten anything from the book. 🙂

  11. Comparisons to Shakespeare and Classical theater are way over the top, but I have to admit that I did find the “Fat Butt and Pancake Head” episode thought provoking.

    …and who knows? Mr. Hankey might have the shelf life of an Ariel, Shakespeare’s “airy spirit”, but I doubt it.

  12. I don’t see an amazingly long shelf life for this stuff, but there’s no denying that some of it’s brilliant.

    I laughed for days when they had the ‘school mascot election’ episode and brought out this little number…

    Let’s get out the vote
    Let’s make our voices heard
    We’ve been given the chance to choose
    between a douche and a terd.

    (key change)
    Let’s get out the vote
    Let’s make our voices heard
    A giant terd or a stupid douche:
    Let’s make our voices heard!

    Those two understand 2-party politics better than any journalist!

  13. Wow. Mr Cantor’s interpretation of the underpants gnomes and their business plan is so profoundly wrongheaded it kind of sours me on the rest of his analysis. He actually thought that ‘Collect Underpants’ was a reasonable and complimentary analogy for the activities of ‘businessmen’? Neat.

    I think there’s some traction in the idea that social mores and philosophical mores both rest on a shared foundation of a sort of authoritarianism, and when you’re busting one up with fart jokes it isn’t much of a stretch to bust the other up with ideological apostasy.

  14. Phase 1: Collect Underpants; Phase 2: ?; Phase 3: Profit

    Phase 2 undoubtedly has to be “Book a flight to Tokyo.”

  15. fart jokes are alive and well. as timeless as ever.

  16. The gnomes are introduced to make the point that corporations which don’t have a ‘Phase 2’ don’t last very long (Walker touched on this with a specific example that missed, methinks, the larger point). Collecting underpants is pointless/harmful; making coffee is neither. ‘Phase 2’ for Harbucks is selling said coffee. There is no ‘Phase 2’ for the gnomes because they are not engaged in fruitful activity.

    Parker/Stone are trying to point out that profit ill-gained is largely a mystical fabrication, as are the capitalist exploiters who attain them, like Wagner’s Alberich; and furthermore, that profit can only be attained by serving the fellow man – to put it another way, that profit is the best evidence that one has served society at large.

    I disagree will Cantor’s assertion that the main point is to illustrate economic illiteracy, and I definitely disagree that “[t]he gnomes represent the ordinary business activity that is always going on in plain sight of everyone, but which they fail to notice and fail to understand.” Collecting underpants is not “ordinary business activity,” for the simple reason that it does not lead to profit.

  17. Heh, you know, when I read “The Clouds” by Aristophanes (for a class) only a few weeks back, my first thought was, “This was the South Park of its time!” The play’s funny as hell, is chock full of toilet humour, and does to Socrates and his philosophy what South Park does to Scientology. It explains rationally what the author thinks is wrong with Socrates’ philosophy in the context of a completely ridiculous plot full of toilet humour. Also, it seemed to me that there was just something about the tone of the play that was similar. The ending is surprisingly dark, reminding me, a little, of South Park episodes like “Scott Tenorman” and “Stanley’s Cup.”

    I wondered if there was anyone out there who had come to a similar conclusion; it’s a pretty weird idea after all. I guess I know the answer now.

  18. A better example for Cantor’s contention would be the Walmart episode, in which the fever dreams of anti-Walmartists are rendered as true and people only shop at Walmart because a mystical power forces them to, even though they hate it, and their only salvation is to burn it down.

    A much clearer attack on economic illiteracy.

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