It has been increasingly noticed in America that obesity and junk food chains are more prominent in lower income group households. With increasing fears of America going brown, the immigrant populations – especially Latinos – constitute this income group in a dominant way. Illegal immigration remains a reality given the clear offer of cheap and supplementary labor that this immigrant population has to offer (Julier 550).
This cheap labour, largely illegal, is a cause for concern in debates over the larger American indices of growth. In terms of lifestyle, they seem to pull the high growth figures down posing a hindrance to the myth of the American development juggernaut. In view of the global economic slowdown triggered by the American subprime crisis of 2008, the debate over economic austerity as opposed to increased spending has interestingly operated in terms of consumption. Nobel laureate Paul Krugman’s columns have time and again stressed the need for increased government spending so as to fuel consumer demand, and spending consequently leading to a revamp of the markets.
For the working class of America this idea is of key importance given their castigation by the Wall Street elite as an unproductive segment. This challenges ideas of productivity in the economic domain: is entrepreneurship alone the mark of productivity? When production involves land, labor, capital and technology, with returns in terms of wage, rent, interest and profit, then can an enterprise be considered the sole preserve of an entrepreneur alone? The global rush for natural resources – minerals, power, land – to provide for production in these enterprises makes the inhabitants of resource rich areas pay directly for consumption by these economies/enterprises. They lose traditional land rights and provide a foil to the fear of a ‘brown’ consumption which is indiscriminate since unwarranted (illegal immigration).
The twin tropes of hunger and obesity together obfuscate the reality of poverty which is endemic to the appetite for authority. Appetite defines the norm in terms of taste, the power to consume and the will to consume. Hunger implies the inability to sustain oneself in a basic manner and, therefore, absence of the ability to exercise choice (Poppendieck 565). Obesity implies over-consumption, eating, drinking or buying beyond a limit, in terms of economic prudence. Hunger and obesity are excesses upon appetite in ways that both lead to a loss of control over the self and distance from authority. Both desire an intervention on the part of the dominant authority to control and normalise them towards proper consumption.
Hunger characterises lack of appetite for proper consumption, self-control and exercise of authority. Obesity on the other hand may be seen as an abuse of the ability to choose, whereby food choices are overindulged by an unnatural urge to consume, which again signifies relegation of control over self and stake in authority. Appetite implies the desire for consumption (food, object terms) or consummation (sexual); also, desire for power such that its exercise entails the sense of being in control. Agency for the hungry is limited to food choices within their economic means, beyond which the dominant section of society priding itself upon its appetite appropriates power on behalf of the former through food coupons and medical help.
Against this broad framework of power relations between the discourses of appetite, hunger and obesity Eric Cartman – one fourth of the four key protagonists of the American animated series South Park – negotiates his identity as a Caucasian, Christian, middle-class male child with the truth of his uncertain origins – his mother is often termed to be a crack whore and even a hermaphrodite while the identity of his father is largely unknown. As an obese kid he attempts to align himself with the forces of consumption perpetuated by a ‘healthy appetite’ in order to be able to secure agency in the sleepy, low income group town of South Park. He proclaims his allegiance to appetite by couching his obesity in the epithet of being “…big bones”. This allows him to be politically incorrect, for he becomes an agent for perpetuation of consumption and the consolidation of the appetite for authority. He incessantly rips on his friend Kyle for being a Jew and more often than not competes against him when scheming for ways to accrue a million dollars or acquire authority; Kenny the poorest of the lot, is never spared by Cartman for being poor and his family is often termed a burden on the tax payers’ resources.
By virtue of his identity as a consumer and a promoter of consumerism, Cartman comes across as a foot soldier for the market forces which are driven by a voracious appetite. In this capacity he seeks to carve a position of power for himself in South Park and restore a semblance of balance to his problematic origins. If food is intertwined with the nostalgia of memory, consumption in general is hinged upon the nostalgia – of the – present1 by virtue of which an individual simulates the possibility of nostalgia in the future with respect to the current act of consumption. This enables Cartman to enjoy his very short trip to Casa Bonita, a multi-chain theme restaurant, as a ritual. In fact each act is a gratification of a pre-conceived nostalgia of consumption, a nostalgia planned meticulously so as to involve a kidnapping and result in Cartman’s arrest. The short interval of enjoyment at Casa Bonita also thrives on the prospect of nostalgia which makes it in Cartman’s own words “Totally!” worth it.
Cartman’s appeal to the viewership lies in his seemingly non-conformist stance. He doesn’t exercise propriety, does not subscribe to political correctness, and is pretty liberal with cussing, irrespective of who is at the receiving end (at times Lian Cartman, his mother). Yet this rebellion lays the ground for the market forces of consumption to establish themselves in South Park.
He aligns himself with the popular choice of food and gadgets (KFC and IPad- 3G, Wi-Fi, and 64 GB) in order to gain credence as an agent of the forces of appetite and consumption. This allows him to gel in with his immediate environment (most of his classmates share his love for these products). At the same time he stands out as a promoter of consumerism at its extreme when the spirit of Wal-Mart summons him to prevent the citizens of South Park from destroying its heart. Wal-Mart’s heart surreptitiously mirrors the people of South Park, and attempts to present a human face to its politics of consumption on behalf of its management. Thus, if Wal-Mart is a monster Cartman does its bidding against his own friends and fellow citizens in order to ensure the prospect of his position as an active stakeholder in the power equation of the town. However, Cartman fails to protect Wal-Mart but ends up consolidating consumerism in South Park as citizens replicate their new found semblance of appetite by raising a local grocery store to the levels of a Wal-Mart. The spirit of Wal-Mart is actually replicated in the citizens.
Cartman’s appetite for irreverence fuels his appetite for authority and he employs abnormal ways to satiate these appetites. He fakes Tourette’s Syndrome2 in order be able to utter anything he wishes to anyone he wants. He inverts the idea of respect for himself by soliciting pity or at least an understanding from the people regarding his condition. He feels powerful due the volitional state of his mind. Yet this power outdoes itself when used to speaking his mind as Cartman’s subconscious leaks through his tongue in the absence of the fear of the superego3. As a result he utters the following insecurities/ truths about himself on a T.V. show:
“I wet my bed last night.”
“I’m making this all up…”
“I cry at night cos I don’t have a Dad.”
“I’m secretly in love with Patty Nelson…I fantasise about kissing Patty Nelson!”
“My cousin and I touched weeners…”
“Jews are shit!”
This need for respect also leads Cartman to make a public spectacle of making a school senior Scott Tenorman indulge in cannibalism by coercing him to eat the entrails of his parents in a bowl of chilli. Cartman is meticulous at planning the death of Tenorman’s parents and exudes a planned and calculative streak quite unlike a person whose physiognomy would suggest him to be obese and not in control of himself. The consumption of this public spectacle problematizes Cartman’s position as just another in South Park.
Cartman possesses a huge appetite for money but instead of fuelling an appetite for consumption it fuels his appetite for authority in vicarious ways. His appetite for authority is individualistic in the sense that he seeks to distinguish himself in public memory in his own right rather than be identified as an institution. This displays a narcissism whereby the prospect of nostalgia perpetuates his need for money (a million dollars to be precise). He takes to preaching the fear of Hell amongst fellow school kids after he and his friends find the priest fornicating in the confession box at the Church. In the midst of his sermon he claims divine conference and on this basis extorts money from his listeners. In another instance he starts a Christian Rock Band by replacing the lyrics of popular boy band songs to accommodate a sense of reverence towards Jesus. He cuts a platinum album meaning he earned a million dollars in revenue to win his bet against Kyle as to who’ll be the first to earn that much. When accused that he didn’t know anything about Christianity, Cartman utters “I know enough to exploit it.”
In yet another instance Cartman starts his own burger outlet which threatens to put all other fast food chains out of business. He is supposed to use a taste enhancer that seems to combine the taste of all food chains put together. It turns out he stuffed the finished burgers in his ass to enhance their taste much to the chagrin of his friend and business partner Kyle. These instances enable Cartman to assume a position of authority no matter how short lived. He employs the façade of dependability in order to dupe individuals into giving him money. Accruing money power doesn’t make him a better consumer but gives him the semblance of being in power for a restricted time span.
The instance of Cartman’s million dollar inheritance from his maternal grandmother underlines his inability to become a consumer and a true stakeholder in the business of authority. Defying economic prudence he withdraws the entire sum from a bank and buys a local loss-making theme park for his sole use. Advertisements depicting any person’s attempt to enter Cartmanland, the theme park’s new name, as trespass increase people’s curiosity. The need for security and upkeep of park rides force Cartman to open the park to record footfall. As the media appreciates Cartman’s “You Can’t Come!” business strategy, he increasingly resents the presence of others on what he conceived to be his private space4. He sells it off only to lose his money to the federal government’s revenue department for discrepancy in earnings from the park and as indemnity to Kenny’s parents for his death. Unlike true authority figures Cartman is unable to realize the potential of consumption as a builder of fortune and a guarantee of his position of authority.
This is further seen in the instance where he enters a deal with Colonel Sanders of KFC to expand the illegal peddling ring of Chicken and Gravy in South Park in view of the government order to do away with KFCs in low income towns to prevent obesity. Since this decision may have resulted from celebrity chef Jamie Oliver’s activism against consumption of junk food by school kids, Colonel contracts Cartman to kill him. In his zeal to align with the Colonel Cartman agrees to the deal. But having setup the illegal trade in his town he is unable to take the next big leap towards authority. He eats up more than thirty percent of the total smuggled supply and fails to take out Oliver. He reneges on his promise not to “…fuck with” the Colonel and escapes death by a whisker.
In the most significant instance, Cartman takes to worshipping Mel Gibson in secret after watching his movie The Passion of the Christ. In a dig at Kyle on him being a Jew, Cartman asks him to watch the movie. Kyle feels a genuine sense of guilt even as Cartman plays on the fan following to organize people in a regimented fashion. He himself dons Hitler like Nazi fatigues and utters slogans in German that talk about the extermination of the Jews. Mel Gibson lands in South Park in order to retrieve the money taken by Kenny and Stan as reimbursement of their ticket costs since they found the movie worthless. Mel Gibson indulges in antics that leave much of South Park aghast and Cartman – who proclaimed Gibson as his savior and fuhrer – short of his dream of assuming absolute power. Though Cartman worships Mel Gibson and is responsible in ensuring a viewership in a perspective that may not have been imagined by, Gibson he is not much concerned with the latter. Even as he proclaims subservience to Gibson the latter doesn’t care much for the aspirations of his servant. Probably, he is just as imperfect as other inhabitants of South Park in the eyes of Gibson – a seasoned consumer and manufacturer and authority figure himself – who satiates his appetite by culling out movies open to mixed interpretations but doesn’t give much importance to his consumer base.
Despite his painstaking attempts to carefully cultivate an appetite and a position of authority for himself by aligning with the dominant discourse on consumption by couching his obesity in rhetoric of innate strength (big bones), Cartman is unable to break out of South Park in terms of his sensibility. All his schemes are aimed at belittling or spiting Kyle and other inhabitants of South Park and not at the creation of an institutionalized consumer base that would fuel his appetite for power. Given his specific economic situation Cartman’s diet shall result in bad (incomplete) authority.
Appetite for authority and power does not lie in logocentric spaces or people, but is dispersed through institutions, bodies and imaginations. Consumers are never actors – at best choosers or nodes in a web of power; yet neoclassical economics project them as something more. Markets, economics, and science are the pillars of truth in the modern era. Authority stemming out of welfare and intervention – be it at the level of any of the extremes of hunger or obesity – is then the ultimate cover of gradual co-option of subjects into regimes of truth. Caught in the very category he seeks to escape, Cartman in the end, is just another fat ass incapable of being a proper ‘authoritan’5.
1 Arjun Appadurai extends Frederic Jameson’s idea of ‘nostalgia for the present’ to mean “the stylized presentation of the present as if it has already slipped away”, rendering nostalgia without memory. Subjects who act as modern consumers are inculcated with the pleasure of ephemerality, where the present is already represented as a nostalgic past. It is in this aesthetics of ephemerality that modern day mass merchandising takes place mainly through rigorous advertising. In short, consumption constructs time that is very much within the present, but the working of nostalgia within this time frame is such that it seems to echo a distant past.
2 Tourette’s syndrome is a neurological disorder that is characterised by movements and speeches over which one does not have control. Cartman abuses this disorder to speak whatever his mind wills which are mostly creative abuses. Finding parallels in the liberal approach to freedom of speech and expression opens up to larger discourses around modernity.
3 Eric Cartman’s immediate family consists of his mother alone and his father’s whereabouts are not known for the majority of the series. There is an absence of an internalization of the father figure and a fear that his imperfections will be let out.
4 Capitalism strives on innovation and a stable graph is the last endeavor that the system wants. Profits are not just made but recurrent investments inform capitalism as a system. Even while Cartman is applauded for his technique, it is the individualistic motive that drives him to failure. Does this hint at the system being more than a conglomeration of capitalists?
5 Cartman’s play on the word authority underlining the fact that he is essentially a nine year old boy who shall at some point, in the middle of his machinations, reach his wit’s end given his age. Such references keep the viewer aware of the boys’ identities as children, lest the former may begin to identify with them as cult figures (which they already do).
Appadurai, Arjun. Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalisation. London: U of Minnesota Press, 2005. Print.
“AssBurgers”. South Park. Comedy Central. Television.
“Cartmanland.” South Park. Comedy Central. Television.
“Cartman’s Mom is a Dirty Slut.” South Park. Comedy Central. Television.
“Cartman’s Mom is Still a Dirty Slut.” South Park. Comedy Central. Television.
“Casa Bonita.” South Park. Comedy Central. Television.
“Christian Rock Hard.” South Park. Comedy Central. Television.
Julier, Alice. “The Political Economy of Obesity: The Fat Pay All.” Food and Culture: A Reader. Ed. Carole Counihan, and Penny Van Esterik. New York: Routledge, 2013. 546-60. Print.
“Le Petite Tourette.” South Park. Comedy Central. Television.
“Medicinal Fried Chicken.” South Park. Comedy Central. Television.
“Nanny 911.” South Park. Comedy Central. Television.
Poppendieck, Janet. “Want Amid Plenty: From Hunger to Inequality.” Food and Culture: A Reader. Ed. Carole Counihan, and Penny Van Esterik. New York: Routledge, 2013. 563-71. Print.
“Probably.” South Park. Comedy Central. Television.
“Scott Tenorman Must Die.” South Park. Comedy Central. Television.
“The Passion of the Jew.” South Park. Comedy Central. Television.
“WalMart.” South Park. Comedy Central. Television.
Ishaan Mital is notorious in his circles for a ready and sharp wit, an almost inexhaustible capacity for many kinds of humour, and an increasingly well-substantiated taste for the good things in life, food most of all. A self-confessed wannabe scholar, he is as of now a self-confessed wannabe babu as well. He enjoys doodling, going to the movies, eating out, and shopping. He may be contacted at email@example.com.
Safwan Amir is currently pursuing a Ph.D from the Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai, and counts modern institutions and culture, material culture and knowledge production, and secularism and religion as abiding research interests. He is also a Research Fellow with the Indian Council for Social Sciences Research, ICSSR. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.