Rabelais Rewind Satire That Tries Men’s Skunks Ohdave / Candide’s Notebooks, July 15, 2008
ça tire fort
When I was teaching I spent a great deal of time defining things. I guess you could argue that definitions comprise a large part of what learning is really about. We spend a lot of time as teachers talking about vocabulary and how new words and concepts fit in with words and concepts already learned, how to apply those new words and concepts, and so on. In Harold Bloom’s taxonomy, this can mean a fairly low level of defining things—concrete objects, like a chassis, or a pencil, that require mere memorization to conceptualize, the kind of vocabulary study that the first couple years of learning a foreign language consists of, but in more advanced levels of study of any subject area, more complex types of definitions emerge and become the basis for abstract thought. (See here this lecture by Douglas Hofstader, who argues that analogy is the core of cognition, being used to define new concepts and help sort out new experiences in the world.)
So with my high school students, we would always begin with a simple abstract concept like “love” and work our way through it. What are the conditions that must be present for “love” to take place? What are the various kinds of things that fall into the categorization? Is love for your dog or cat the same as love for a mother or father? Are there degrees of the thing we call love? How so? What other features constitute love? What is it like? And my favorite, the exclusionary analogy: What is like it but so substantially different in important ways that is becomes a different thing.... like, lust for example, or infatuation: Like love, but not quite. There are so many opportunities for Socratic dialogue to take place in this kind of lesson that it makes it invaluable, and infinitely repeatable.
Were I teaching in the last few years, I might have posed the question to my students, “What is torture”? And suggested the ridiculous Bush Administration definition of treatment which leads to “organ failure or death” just to see how easily and quickly a group of high school juniors can outthink the legal minds in the White House. Can anyone think of an example of something that might be called torture that might not include organ failure or death? How about bamboo under the fingernails? For that matter, cutting off a finger. Torture? Not according to our President.
So where am I going with this. At some point I tried to teach satire in my classes by using some of the defining strategies I’ve used elsewhere in my teaching and I thought the discussion of satire might be illuminating given the New Yorker cover this week (to the right). Now Ryan Lizza argued today on Fresh Air that the cover is a satire. Here’s my take on satire.
1. The first conclusion that one draws in defining satire is that it is ironical. Now that could take us into a whole new direction, defining irony, but to stick to the point as much as possible, satire is a humorous depiction of a set of facts or circumstances that makes some sort of point that is the opposite of what is stated in an explicit way. Swift doesn’t really want babies to be eaten, for example, in “A Modest Proposal,” his point is just the opposite. Irony involves this sort of inversion of what is said and what is meant and is a central feature of satire. (For the record, I think that’s a wholly unsatisfactory definition of irony, but it’s as close as I need to get for my purposes here. If anyone wants to attempt a definition of irony in the comments be my guest.)
2. Satire usually involves a fictional format. A narrative voice that takes itself seriously, a fictional story that presents the satire, or something. Some alternative, distorted reality. This is what many of my students struggled with when asked to come up with their own satirical writing. Inevitable there would be some papers in which the voice was the student’s own, in which the student just made cutting remarks about his subject. It’s not satire, it’s a stand up comedy routine. It’s ridicule. Not the same thing. Satire usually pretends to be something it’s not, and it’s usually making fun of the thing it’s pretending to be.
Saturday Night Live always provides some good examples of this point. Here’s a video from a recent faux commercial making fun of pharmaceutical advertisements.
3. Satire traffics in hyperbole. It’s usually through exaggeration that the audience is able to determine that the whole thing is a sham. Good satire gradually engages in more and more exaggeration until the point becomes clear.
By this brief definition the New Yorker cover is clearly a satire. It’s an exaggeration of the picture the right is creating around Obama and his wife.
So why is the Obama camp so furious about it? Even if the cartoon is a satire, it reproduces on newsstands everywhere the central images the right is trying to associate with the Obamas. It makes fun of the idea that Michelle and Barack Obama are radical Muslim terrorists—but in doing so it repeats the idea that Michelle and Barack Obama are radical Muslim terrorists. In a sense, the cartoon shows us more or less what Fox News and Michelle Malkin have been saying. It’s difficult for a satirist to be adequately hyperbolic when his subject is so hyperbolic already that it can’t be outdone. To the Obama campaign, the New Yorker cover just hits a little too close to home, reinforcing the hit job from the right rather than ridiculing it.
The Colbert Report often struggles with the same issues. In trying to satirize the viewpoints of the right, Colbert often ends up simply imitating their outrageousness without really exaggerating it. But how do you exaggerate what is already outrageous?
Maybe the problem in our age is that some of our political leaders are simply caricatures of themselves. It’s hard to outstink a skunk.