The Function of Satire
A tale is circulating that Sarah Palin is being considered for a position as Ambassador to Canada, for, after all, she can see Canada from where she lives in Alaska. She knows the difference between a beaver and a bear and is perfectly suited to engage with our politicians. As she ponders this imaginary offer, does she look at the possibility with fear and trembling, not at the challenges of being a plenipotentiary with America’s largest trading partner, but rather the distressing loss of the $12 million in speaking fees she earned over the last four years? Gladwell, in contrast, does not agree with giving Sarah Palin centre stage alongside satire. He argues that when Sarah Palin was allowed to appear beside Tina Fey, the point of the wit was lost.
The gentrification of satire (as at the dinner by the correspondents in Ottawa or, in the United States, the President’s annual Correspondents Association Dinner) humanizes satire even as it fails to achieve any metaphysical purpose. When Melissa McCarthy portrays Sean Spicer, Trump’s mouthpiece, in a wicked bellowing sketch, we watch an uproarious echo of Rabelais’ resurrection of the body and its deconstruction of language where nots become knots and what we have left over are turds. We are watching the rise once again of Chaucer’s Tale of a Tub and Erasmus’ The Praise of Folly, once used to eat into and eviscerate the destructive expressions of Christianity, but this time, when the body of Christianity in its destructive form has risen once again, this time with the face of a joker.
When we watched the episode of Black Mirror where everyone was being ranked by everyone else to produce a level of conformity unheard of heretofore at precisely a stage when the technology of smart phones was presumably to be used to enhance individualism, this form, as opposed to the lowest and second lowest form of satire, does provide the shift in perspective, an inversion; it at least points to the drastic need for change even if it does not point the way. When we return to the individual, but this time go beyond insult and put downs to reveal the moral and intellectual vacuity of the individual’s world view, we have risen, or rather descended upon yet another rung on the ladder of satire. And when we use the bully pulpit of satire to point out the terrible path towards tragedy that the system is headed towards, the enormous cataclysmic clash that we face, we are now next in line to the highest form of tragic satire, the black comedy which entrances my youngest son.
But if you look back at the path followed, you will only reach that level if you also leave behind the disdain you seem to have for these lower expressions of satire.
Satire can go one better when the target goes beyond the individual to the patterns and conventions that an individual holds to unveil their irrelevance in the face of reality, but even at this level there is only a little extra irony and very little direction about what action to take.
In sum, as Frye pointed out, there are levels of satire. Dissing and demeaning satire may only strengthen the willingness of the supposed voiceless masses that populate the vast stretches of America to cheer on their hero in his fabrications and fabulism. It may only leave the liberals bowled over in laughter with a relief valve rather than a firefighter’s hose to fight the incendiary storm in front of them. But that is its limitation, not its function. It is not a limitation that demands that such satire be tossed into a garbage heap. Nor are the artists who satirize just at this level to be remonstrated for not jumping to a lower rung that the one of base put-downs.
To adopt a moral, self-righteous tone is assessing the moral worth of such satirists, or their unworthiness, and arguing that the loss of that worth is disproportionate to the cost and investment in the show, is to miss two points. First, satire itself is caustic about any moral perspective while, paradoxically, implying, but not endorsing, such a moral angle. Second, the levels of satire are inherently pedagogical. Because we only progress from one level of satire to the next by taking one step at a time, getting on the first rung of the ladder requires a low threshold. To object to its populist appeal when it is precisely the populist appeal that can best begin the disintegration of the mythos of Midus, is to miss the very different ways satire works and the very different functions of each stage of the ladder.
If the satire of the left liberals or the liberals on the left fails to offer an out, fails to point to a program of action, is it a failure? Is it fundamentally flawed so that it betrays the liberal agenda? But what if the liberal agenda is part of the problem? What if the real object is not just the rigid and ideological right, but the weakness that underlies both the right and the left, then there is a real failure, an inability to deal with structures in the preoccupation with mannerisms. Is this not engaging basically in a parallel type of misrepresentation, a parallel world of alternative facts as the object being satirized? Should we not vow to refrain from speaking ill of any individual and resolve to confine ourselves to attacking, and laughing at, the underling belief system of our adversaries?
After reflection, I contend not. For Malcolm Gladwell misunderstands satire in the end, believing that behind it is a moral frame and principles of truth when its real target in the end must be the falsity upon which both the liberal left and the anarchic right share. The objective in the end of this satire is to engage in such revelation. But the path in that direction may require more preliminary steps, steps that begin with mockery. For my youngest son, as for Malcolm Gladwell, the measure of successful satire is pedagogic. Does it help influence and shape the perspectives of the wider public or does it simply make the opposition to the reining madness revel in its self righteousness and disdain for the new ruling order?
But that is the false dichotomy. The function of satire is not pedagogy about the world, but is self-referential. It is pedagogy about itself. At the same time, satire is about opening windows to let the air in. It is to take the stuffiness out of stuff, including the stuffiness of left liberals like Malcolm Gladwell. Satire in engaging in simple entertainment, in its lowest denominator, is not watering anything down, but rather is beginning the process of the corrosive effects of dripping water. Criticizing a level of satire that is toothless, and the possibility that in the end all satire may be toothless, is to miss the central point of Blake’s satirical poem, “Fearful Symmetry.” It isn’t to speak truth to power, but to lead us to recognize that the truths we all supposedly hold dear have lost their sense of awe, fail to make us tremble and, with that loss of a sense of awe, allow charlatans to take over the realm.
A satirical writer is not out to change minds, but is out to open doors and windows so that minds can be changed and new visions articulated and realized. A satirist is a sceptic, not a sophist, an ironic poet rather than a philosopher. When, at its lowest level, satire represents the object of that satire as obtuse, as self-righteous, as arrogant even as that object has a monopoly on power, the intent is both incendiary and to defuse. In my next blogs on persuasion, I will continue the argument why, in some cases, one must abandon any effort to educate the Other, one must recognize the obtuse beyond salvation. That does not lead to the slippery slope from scepticism to cynicism, though it can. But there is a fork in the road. The road not taken does not lead to power in the real world, but to the appreciation of the power of words to create a new world, without offering a vision of what that world looks like.
The objects of laughter squirm. The subjects that join in the mockery laugh uproariously. The purpose is to allow us to take the first steps to freedom from the ropes with which those in power want to embrace us. Even when raucous and tasteless and prone to take the cynical path, if it is good satire at this initial level, it will at least show us that there are two paths and that cynicism is not the only route to follow. For in its outrageousness, in its fearlessness, possibilities are opened up and we can escape the feeling of entrapment. The main thing about satire is that its primary objective is not directed at the object of satire, but to allow those who laugh alongside to think and reflect while the laughers and those laughed at are incidentally united in the feeling of discomfort, sometimes extreme discomfort.
With discomfort emerges the possibility of thought and reflection. We do not gain an iota of power through satire. Nor an iota of truth. For satirists do not pose truth against power, but an alternate fantasy that ridicules its object and gains through that ridicule, not only a good stomach roll, but courage. For one needs courage to stand up to power with what you already know. You do not need a new revealed truth.
Nevertheless, my son is correct that laughter is not the only goal of satire. It has higher, or, more accurately, baser goals. But at its initial level, release is a prerequisite. For the more outrageous, the more fearless you are, the better you will be able both to crawl under the skin of the object of satire while puncturing the inflated balloons over his or her cartoonish head, as in the case of the cartoon pointing out the Heil Hitler Hail coming out of Donald Trump’s orange headdress. (Lalo Alcaraz) Satire imitates its target by offering imagery rather than ideology, using familiar aesthetic forms to unpack and even blow up a claim to represent reality in the name of widely accepted shared norms. For militant irony is founded on a bedrock of convention.
But if it is laughable to think of satire serving to influence others with substantive ideas, it is not laughable to have a vision of influencing others and being a teacher. Satire is at its very base militant irony, mean-spirited in tone but uplifted by laughter. I am not a viewer of satire on a regular basis, but was very impressed with John Oliver’s show, “Last Week Tonight” where the wit sparkled and the knives went in very deep.
This is the case even when a satirical show imitates the object of its ridicule with an almost equal obsession with ratings and, hence, ad revenues. In that sense, Comedy Central is almost as guilty as Trump and probably on a par with the rest of his cohort (the originator of “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” “South Park,” “The Colbert Report”) not only in its preoccupation with the size of its audience, but with the depth of rapport established with that audience. The one major difference is that satire engages the mind rather than numbs it. And to the extent that it does, it reaches for the higher – or, really, lower – echelons of the craft.
With the help of Alex Zisman