Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Point-Counterpoint: Is Satire Even A Thing?

Last Monday, New Inquiry blogger Aaron Bady audited the word satire and made it clear. He wrote, "If something is not taken to be satire, it fails as satire. [It's] an effect, and everything depends on how the joke is received, what the author intended, what the circumstances were in which it was made, and so on."

It's an interesting definition, both for the way it's made and the assumptions on which it relies. He establishes criteria for the existence of satire based on its audience, citing people who mistake The Onion and The Daily Currant for real news as evidence for the genre's fragility, tying satire's ontology to whether it achieves food for thought for the permanently slackjawed. Leaving aside the fact that a satire's being mistaken for reality is often a satirist's dream, basing the existence of something on the perception of idiots is a powerful argument. Spend enough time hustling Gap jeans for the braindead in a deadpan tone and you could disprove the existence of sarcasm. Choose the right textbook, and there is no Enlightenment.

Needless to say, we were greatly exercised by Mr. Bady's essay. One of our contributors (Hitler) noted the date of Bady's essay's publication (April 1) and quipped that it says a lot about your criticism website when your jeremiad only works as satire—when one could only add argumentative heft to it by looking at the dateline and crying, "April fools!"

Even talking amongst ourselves, however, we noticed that our opinions on satire and Bady's argument were not in harmony. With that in mind, we chose to offer our first open-ended philosophical discussion. In so doing, we decided to examine the nature of satire via the old inquiry. We here at Et tu, Mr. Destructo? have always been partial to the old inquiry, wherein one asks questions or challenges the opinions of another in the hope of reaching consensus or synthesis. In the main, it is both arcane and bourgeois, but it is also a timesaver compared to newer inquiries, like asking a room full of people what something is, then asking them if the photographer has arrived yet. Then tweeting.

Come, join us for a free-ranging examination of the ideas that shape our media and ourselves, especially those of us in media. Welcome to our first ever "Destructo Salon."

POINT: 'Satirical Speech' Is Violent? 
Someone Stop Me Before I Kill Again!

I have no shame in admitting that our changing world often confuses and scares me. Fortunately, as a "literary cub" of some import, I worship before the altar of literature, as my intellectual hero, the shimmering Jonathan Franzen, might muse. I am proud of my literary prowess, evident in many web-based thought experiments and on GoodReads.

Even the life of the mind, however, is an oft rocky road to enlightenment—for how can I be sure what an author means? Was Hamlet mad? Why does everyone in Dune want to make so much curry? Is the Terminator innately bad or good, and can he know why I cry? And, most vexingly: Does an author mean to give offense? Does he say things of which I approve when he, in fact means something else? I would like to thank Mr. Aaron Bady's article, "Clear Satire," for answering these thorny, ancient questions definitively.

Bady offers a refreshing change of pace from the source-burdened, lucidity-mongering persuasive folderol that constitutes my usual reading material. He vows to the reader that he will "brandish [his] ignorance like a crucifix at vampires," and I think even the bloodsuckers at the New York Times Style section would grant him this achievement. A Ph.D student in African Literature at UC Berkeley, Bady claims no special expertise in crafting his 1,586 word essay radically re-conceptualizing "satire." For this DIY renegade, "Anyone claiming to be an expert is selling something." It takes a modern-day Nietzsche alongside a modern-day Sancho Panzerfaust (friend and amateur comedian Jonathan S.), to see the truth: "Satire" manifests as a conspiratorial whirl of shadow and fog, concealing a deep, dependent vacuity where a stable definition should stand.

Bady is too demure to admit the animating energy behind his assault on "clear satire"—namely, The Onion's broadside against nine year-old Academy Award nominee Quvenzhan√© Wallis. Calling Wallis a "cunt" was not, as one bigot argued, "using the language of vicious gossip rags as the vehicle for satire of said vicious gossip," coming as it did after a raft of bizarre press attacks against fellow nominee Anne Hathaway. Nor can we be sure Mark Twain approved of Jim the slave's unlawful escape down the Mississippi River. It is of no concern. As Bady convincingly argues, "there is no evidence you can point to in making [the] claim" that The Onion—which since 1988 has published tens of thousands of non-humorous articles advocating the supremacy of the white race—was in any way clearly satirizing Hollywood.

Bady knows that labeling The Onion as non-satirical via his say-so is not enough. That would be an ignorant appeal to authority, as I found out by Googling "Derrida." There must be a deliberative rummage through Critical Theory 101, the author drawing upon a wealth of knowledge, hard-earned while the rest of Berkeley snorted amphetamines and cavorted in dog cages. Despite protests to the contrary, we are witnesses to expert insights: "Post-structural theory totally pwned the new critics [sic] sometime in the 70's and 80's"; "Nathaniel Hawthorne did not write novels, for example; he wrote 'romances,'" and, "If you thought Tina Fey actually was Sarah Palin... you wouldn't be laughing." The author is not shy in referencing obscure texts, like Nabokov's Pale Fire, usually only read by seventeen year-olds with divorced parents, and Swift's "A Modest Proposal"—which Jonathan S. assures us was "was far from universally understood as satire, at the time." I can attest to this. I own all of these books, each copy in such mint condition, you'd swear they'd never been read.

Ultimately, Bady's conclusion is a radical notion: "The statement 'it's clearly satire' is never true, and can never be true," because, "texts don’t have objective meaning; all meaning is subjective." In my own life, this sad fact has been irrefutably true. Ordering off menus in restaurants is nigh impossible—the words "St. Louis-Style Ribs" and "Tuna Melt" uncontrollably reinterpreted as the honeyed whispers of past lovers. My drivers license was revoked after I mistook a "yield" sign for the last Christmas card my dead grandfather mailed me. As Bady argues, "If you don't take it as satire, it isn't." In much the same way, if you pretend your bullet wound is a love bite, you feel better.

I know very well the litany of arguments Bady's undead critics will bark at him: that he employs awful mixed metaphors ("a glass half full of water is a glass of water," "satire is like shooting an apple off someone's head"); that he is a meandering polemicist who lacks the balls to simply say, "Bad satire is anything I don't like," and that his horrid prose tastes like a shovelful of wilted lettuce. They will say he's a putative literary scholar who disputes the very existence of a concept any man on the street could define and which many, many other people feel is an easily identifiable and ancient tradition dating back to the Romans. The haters will say Bady larded an entire article to that effect with the drippings of eight years of academic inculcation. And they will say he said so from the ranks of petit bourgeois literary wannabes who, denied the big, easy money of past generations of tastemaking Eastern elitists, must suffer the quiet terror of New Yorker internships, parties and bourbon.

As objective journalist and social realist Flann O'Brien once wrote, "When a thing is intrinsically funny, it is possible to spoil it by comment. However, we'll chance it." What a fucking moron! "Intrinsically funny?" Beg pardon? If Mr. O'Brien hadn't drank himself to death decades ago—complaining unintelligibly about the dim provincial jackeens of Ireland who, with their liberal values and bottomless wisdom, reared back in horror at reading his words, censored O'Brien's (ostensible) satire, forced him out of work and killed his soul—I'd have paid for his New Inquiry subscription out of my own pocket. Even the international shipping cost. It would've been that important.

With "Clear Satire," Bady has shot the half-full glass of water off my head with an arrow, and all I can say is, "Touchdown!"

COUNTERPOINT: Satire? You Can Take That Concept *Fist Pump* To The Bank!

What is "satire" anyway? That was satire just now, that sentence asking what satire is. But could you have known it was satire? Yes. And how would you know? I'm not telling.

Satire runs like a river beneath the seemingly solid ground of terrible metaphors. If you use the word "satire" and don't put scarequotes around it, it begins to spread through the other words in your piece like a venom or cancer, causing them to become cheap simulacra of the once pristine letter combinations you intended. Just kidding. Or was I?

Take for instance the classic satirical work Daddy's Dumb Day by Hector Pinogree. Upon its release, Daddy's Dumb Day was hailed as an investment by a publishing company, one they "hoped would return a hefty profit if popular enough, and so please go out and buy it so we don't bust on this one like all the other 'satires' we've published."

But sometimes the half-full glass is really only 49% full and claiming it is half full makes you a fucking liar in whom everyone is disappointed. Again, that last sentence was not satire, clearly, unlike this one, which is. Or it would be, if "satire" exists at all, but then again, what is "existence" anyway? A torture house of self-aware mortality, you say? Wrong, the correct answer is total silence, as the question was rhetorical. But what is a rhetorical question?

Possible satirist George Orwell once said, "The problem with satire is that it's full of satirists!" I'm paraphrasing here, not the previous quote, but this sentence itself is a paraphrase of the thought I'm trying to communicate, which means it must be satire, and if satire doesn't exist, neither does this—oh man, did you guys see The Matrix?

The murky business of satire can be cleared up by following a few simple rules. First of all, satire always ends with "And you can take that *fist pump* to the bank!" Secondly, writers of satire will give away their reptilian nature by unconsciously inserting words like "eggs," "prey," "venom" and so forth into their prose. If you do it right—satire that is, not sex, which is a satire of sorts—you'll know, because people will say to you, "Hey, nice satire, man. That really touched my satirical sensibility in a funny and harmless way." If you do it wrong, prepare to defend yourself against the metaphorical and literal stones hurled by satire-weary pinheads, each eager to point out your shortcomings just like your big brother used to do before he died in Iraq. See, that last part was satire, or not, whatever. Don't care. Say "whatever" and stuff, or whatever, who cares.

Satire isn't about making silly lists though. It's about referencing a half dozen college reading list novels to prove that what you're talking about is actually relevant to adults and not just another internet complaint. As Jonathan Swift said in "A Modest Proposal," "We must secure the future of the internet journalist." And if I may quote David Foster Wallace, perhaps the best known champion against irony, "Mmmblughgbgghaaaaackk."

If you don't get that something's satire, it's the fault of the satirist, not yours. Nothing is your fault, and I'll always love you no matter what. Or so Herman Melville said in his famous novel The Great Gatsby, where everyday everyman Clark Gatsby is bitten by a radioactive spider and becomes great, in order to solve the case of Jack the Ripper. (Spoiler: He was Jack the Ripper all along).

Some things are true and some things are lies and some truths are funny because they are actually lies and vice versa, making it very easy to determine why anything is said and what it means. But let's be clear on this one point: Satire doesn't exist, which makes writing about it all the more crucial—the eggs are easiest to steal when unguarded.

Satire, unlike non-satirical language, can be confusing and have double meanings and often tries to persuade its audience to a certain viewpoint. Other language (marked C in Fig. 23) speaks directly, clearly and never suffers from ambiguity or ideology. Was Derrida satire? Is referencing Derrida satire? These questions and others will remain unanswered for now, as we must turn our energies to defending against those who seek to impose their satire upon us.

Context is everything, but what is "context"? It's a term negative satire likers use. Context doesn't exist, as my friend Worshram Devitz told me in his skyrise apartment the other night over a flute of small batch champagne. Devitz explained at length, without making a single joke or self-aware aside, that context, like satire, is a mental construct. You don't want to be trapped inside a mental construct, do you? That's basically brainprison.

In all seriousness, the sentence began, what satire isn't is a way to expose the inherent contradictions in the target of the satire by following its logic to its conclusion. It definitely doesn't speak truth to power and it never serves as a tool to show people the underlying ideology of its mainstream discourse. Anyone who says otherwise may be or once have been a member of the satirist party and will make excellent prey.

Hopefully this has cleared things up regarding satire and its uses. You should now be able to go out in the world and identify satire. Distinguish nonsense from prosense, satire from Pale Fire and you'll be ready to interact with other humans successfully.

Clearly satire? Hardly. Policing boundaries? Absolutely. Sidebar snark? You betcha!

And you can take that *fist pump* to the bank.

COUNTER-COUNTERPOINT: The Only Satire Worse Than Being Talked About Is Not Being Talked About In New York

I eat bugs.