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Towards a Theory of Postmodern Humour: South Park as carnivalesque postmodern narrative impulse

The philosopher Martin Heidegger describes humour as a response to human 'thrownness' in the world. This thesis argues that there is a form of humour which can be usefully described as postmodern humour and that postmodern humour reflects the experience of being 'thrown' into postmodernity. Postmodern humour responds to and references the fears, fixations, frameworks and technologies which underpin our postmodern existence. It is further contended that South Park is an example of postmodern humour in the way that it exhibits a carnivalesque postmodern narrative impulse which attacks the meta-narrative style explanations of contemporary events, trends and fashions offered in the popular media. South Park's carnivalesque humour is a complex critique on a society in which television is a primary instrument of communication, a centre-piece to many people's lives, and a barometer of contemporary culture, while at the same time drawing attention to the fact that the medium being satirised is also used to perform the critique. A large portion of this thesis is devoted to examining and interrogating the discursive properties of humour as compared to seriousness, an endeavour which also establishes some interesting links to postmodern philosophical discourse. This can be succinctly summarized by the following: 1. Humour is a form of discourse which simultaneously refers to two frames of reference, or associative contexts. Therefore humour is a bissociative form of discourse. 2. Seriousness is a form of discourse which relies on a singular associative context. 3. The legally and socially instituted rules which govern everyday life use serious discourse as a matter of practical necessity. 4. Ambiguity, transgression and deviancy are problematic to serious discourse (and therefore the official culture in which it circulates), but conventions of humorous discourse. 5. Humorous discourse then, challenges the singularity and totality of the official discourses which govern everyday life. Subsequently, humour has been subjected to a variety of controls, most notably the 'policing the body' documented in the writings of Norbert Elias and Michel Foucault. 6. Humour can therefore be understood to function in a manner similar to Jean-Fran ois Lyotard's concept of little-narrative's, which destabilize the totality of official meta-narratives. Furthermore, this thesis proposes strong links between the oppositional practices of the medieval carnival, as outlined by Mikhail Bakhtin, and the produced-for-mass-consumption humour of South Park. However, it also demonstrates that although South Park embodies the oppositional spirit of the carnival, it lacks its fundamentally social nature, and therefore lacks its politically resistant potency. More specifically it is argued that the development and prevalence of technologies such as television, video/DVD, and the internet, allows us to access humour at any time we wish. However, this temporal freedom is contrasted by the spatial constraints inherent in these communication/media technologies. Rather than officially sanctioned times and places for carnivalesque social gatherings, today, individuals have the 'liberty' of free (private) access to carnivalesque media texts, which simultaneously help to restrict the freedom of social contact that the carnival used to afford. Further to this, it is argued that the fact that South Park, with its explicit derision of authority, is allowed to circulate through mainstream media at all, implies asymmetric conservative action on the part of officialdom. In this sense it is argued that postmodern humour such as South Park is allowed to circulate because the act of watching/consuming the programme also acts as a deterrent to actual radical activity.
Type of thesis
Franklyn, B. S. (2006). Towards a Theory of Postmodern Humour: South Park as carnivalesque postmodern narrative impulse (Thesis, Master of Arts (MA)). The University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10289/2252
The University of Waikato
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