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Zunguzungu
By Aaron Bady
Anyone claiming to be an expert is selling something. I brandish my ignorance like a crucifix at vampires.
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Clear Satire

What is “satire” anyway? When the whole Oscars/Onion fiasco happened, my friend Jonathan vented his frustration to me about what he saw as the term and its misuse; an amateur comedian himself, he had come to decide that “satire” simply isn’t a thing, and that when people say any variation on “Well, it’s clearly satire,” they are talking nonsense. There is nothing clear about satire, he declared to me–at great and convincing length–and this fact is central to what satire is (or, rather, what it isn’t). Because what satire isn’t is: a genre. Novels, tragedies, sonnets, horror movies, musical theater, and so on are all genres which you can identify as such by pointing to a fairly limited set of formal features that identify them, features which can be more or less treated as objective (a novel is a long, fictional, prose narrative, and so forth). But basically, if it resembles a sonnet even a little, it is a sonnet. If it resembles a tragedy, it is one. And so forth.

With these kinds of genres, the glass is always half full, and we always round up: a glass half full of water is a glass of water. Take the novel: “novel-ish” is good enough. The most interesting novels are often the ones that rest in the uncanny valley between resembling a novel and being not-quite a novel, but that fact doesn’t make them not-novels, but the reverse: it makes them more interesting. Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate or Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, for example, are written in verse but that’s precisely what makes them interesting evolutions or variations on the novel form. The fact that they are also poetry does not make them less novelistic.

“Satire” is not this kind of thing at all. If something is not taken to be satire, it fails as satire. If the glass is half-empty, it is an empty glass: satire is a bomb that either goes off or doesn’t. In this sense, 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.

All of which is to say this: if you tell me that Pale Fire isn’t a novel (or even if Nabakov denied that it was), I’ll nod my head, and I will then continue thinking of it as a novel. You can’t convince me that it isn’t a novel; the total set of novels in the universe includes anything that is even the slightest bit novelistic, because being one thing (novel) doesn’t make it not another thing (poetry). It can be both, and I’d venture to say that all interesting writing is more than one thing. And that multiplicity is how genres grow and change; “poetry,” today, includes a lot of things that wouldn’t have fallen under that name a century ago, just as the “novel” includes lots of forms that are were not originally understood by that name.In the 19th century, for instance, the difference between novels and romances was different than it is now; Nathaniel Hawthorne did not write novels, for example; he wrote “romances.”. Not only don’t we police these boundaries, but it would be nonsensical to do so. Pale Fire can be a poem and a novel, and it enriches both forms to see it as both.

The stakes are completely different when we talk about satire, and we do police those boundaries, for good reasons. For one thing, the difference matters. Whether to shelve Pale Fire in the poetry or fiction section of the book store is pretty much the extent of the dilemma. But if a statement is recognized as satire, we treat it differently than if we decide that it is not. When a tea party politician says something “crazy,” we get enraged; when Stephen Colbert says the exact same thing, we laugh. The former is monstrous; the latter is satire. When we read a headline and assume it must be from the Onion—or when an article from The Daily Currant is taken to be real, as seems to happen constantly—we react differently than we would have if we had known what it really was. And when we find out, we adjust our reactions accordingly.Oh, that’s from the Onion? Thank God. or That’s NOT from the Onion?! FUCKING HELL. Watch the difference between Sarah Palin and Tina Fey saying almost exactly the same words, and note that when Tina Fey says it, it’s funny:

If you thought Tina Fey actually was Sarah Palin, though, you wouldn’t be laughing. The person who is saying those words and the context in which they said it are the things that matter.

This fact becomes a lot more important when we don’t know who the speaker is, or why they are saying what they are saying. When a link comes across your timeline, or someone shares it on facebook, you have to take its authenticity on trust, and you do. That makes it easy to be fooled by satire (or to take something real as satire). We are, in fact, strikingly bad at telling the difference: if you search twitter for “The Daily Currant,” for example, a very large number of the tweets are either clarifications that something is actually satire, or they are people mistaking a TDC article as “real” news. Even a blogger for the Washington Post made that mistake, but it also happens on facebook constantly (and it happened to me just the other day, in fact). The existence of the theon1on is a nice demonstration of the problem this inability to distinguish between reality and satire creates. And even Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” the most classic example of satire one could come up with—I am told, again by my friend Jonathan Shelley—was far from universally understood as satire, at the time. You just can’t know for sure.

What this means, then, is that the statement “it’s clearly satire” is never true, and can never be true. If satire depends on context, audience, intention, and reception—and I put it to you that it does—then it’s impossible to say, of a tweet like the infamous Onion tweet last week, that it’s “clearly satire.” If you don’t take it as satire, it isn’t. Satire is like shooting an apple off someone’s head. If you do it right, it’s pretty cool and no harm done; if you do it wrong, telling people what you meant to do is beside the point, and no one will care. It either works or it doesn’t. And if you hurt someone while doing it, claiming that it was really satire is just special pleading, demanding that your speech-act doesn’t have to abide by the normal rules.

Comparing novels to onion tweets might seem like a stretch, but I do it because if helps clarify the principle at stake in determining how we interpret words, texts, and the entire range of speech acts: the distinction between what is “clearly” there—the words themselves—and the contextual framing around them. When we read a novel or a poem, we often include context (or we can introduce it, to everyone’s benefit, as in “Did you know that Herman Melville was actually a whaler? TRUE STORY!”) but we don’t require it. We can’t. The book stands on its own, and must, or it’s simply not very good. This has been a basic principle for literary criticism since the “new criticism” of the 1940’s, that any reading of a literary text has to be grounded in what’s actually in the text itself; if we found a diary entry from Herman Melville indicating that the whale symbolized his abiding hatred of pineapples, we would look for evidence in the text that this reading was tenable and could stand on its own. If not, we’d pretty much ignore it as a ridiculous misreading. And in such a way, we deny The Author the power to define the meaning of his own novel. We do the same thing when a reader of a text decides that such-and-such a thing in a novel means something, but can’t prove it.

Now, we can easily make this more complicated. When it comes to literary criticism, post-structural theory totally pwned the new critics sometime in the 70’s and 80’s, and the idea that there was anything “in” the text itself becomes much less tenable when you think about how indispensable framing and context and interpretation are to the making of meaning. Texts don’t have objective meaning; all meaning is subjective.

But let’s put that aside, not only because most readers—in practice—do put theory aside, but mostly because it only underscores the point I’m actually trying to make, which is that appeals to what a speech-act clearly is not only rely on some standard for empirically judging what’s there and what isn’t, but it’s impossible to actually find or define that standard, outside of ever-increasingly authoritative assertions that it is so. People have claimed that the stupid Onion tweet was clearly satire, but there is no evidence you can point to in making that claim; you end up, instead, relying on assertions of authority: the joke-teller might claim that it was satire, or a reader might try to explain to you that it was obviously satire. But what they really mean, simply, is that it was satire to them, and that, on that basis, it should be to you as well.

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35 Responses to “Clear Satire”

  1. Anonymous says:

    And when the Onion offends Christian conservatives, as it does constantly, your posts expressing sympathy for their hurt feelings– which, you say here, is what matters, not intent– are… where, exactly?

    • zunguzungu says:

      Why would I have sympathy for them? As usual, you’ve leaped so enthusiastically to calling out other people’s hypocrisy–the force that seems to give you meaning–that you haven’t really bothered to engage with where you and I actually *do* disagree. You see a double standard, but I would never deny that satire at the expense of Christians is meant to be hurtful; that’s precisely my point: having written something that is meant to and does “hurt feelings,” the claim that it’s “clearly satire” is just a way of disavowing the violence of the speech act, as it were. You and I disagree about the value of “free speech,” of course, as I seem to recall from the past few times you’ve called me out as a vapid hypocrite. But I don’t believe that free speech is very meaningful as an analytic or political touchstone. In the case of “when the Onion offends Christian conservatives,” it’s exactly the point that under the banner of free speech and satire we have highly educated cosmopolitan urbanites taking shots at people who are, demographically, very rural, less educated, and less well-off. If art is a blunt object, satire is a sharp one, and it’s meant to hurt, and does. And my effort to show that it doesn’t have much coherence as a formal structure, or genre, comes from the sense that saying something is “just satire” is a way of disavowing the effort to hurt.

      Of course, since you only seem capable of talking about other people’s motivations–since you’re not interested in the substance of my argument, just the cheap polemic of “where are your posts about X?” that allows you to call me out as whatever you are calling me out as–I should either respond to you in kind, or ignore this kind of half-ass troll of a comment altogether. But somehow, you piss me off enough that I find it hard to do so. So there you go.

      • Anonymous says:

        You haven’t answered the question: what compels you to defend Quvenzhane Wallis and not the poor rubes that your social cohort sneers down at from above, given that you accurately identify the source of that sneering as their socioeconomic status?

        By the way, all of that framing about me personally– that’s an irrelevant dodge, and you know that it is.

        • zunguzungu says:

          OK, here: when right wing Christians talk about being oppressed and victimized for their religion, they are talking at least 95% bullshit, and for that reason, I feel no need to spring to their defense. Yes, they certainly do get made fun of, but white evangelicals are NOT targeted for violence or discriminated against on the basis of their ethnicity, as such. Black girls are. The fact that many right wing Christians are poor, low educated, and rural makes it easy to make cheap and easy fun of them in the Onion, or wherever, but what is the result? Do white conservative christians suffer as a result, other than “hurt feelings” (a phrase you use to dismiss)? No. They do not, by and large. They do things like try to declare Christianity a state religion in North Carolina. They nurse their grievances like a precious infant. I don’t deny that those grievances are real, that the Onion is having fun with a cheap and easy target. But I also don’t feel the need to expend any effort on it; anyone who thinks that “white christians” are an embattled minority in America is full of shit.

          On the other hand, I judge anti-black misogynist hate speech to have real consequences, that not only include “hurt feelings,” but go far beyond it. Do you disagree?

          Finally, the idea that you of all people would object to being addressed personally is pretty rich. You use assumptions about other people’s motivations and ideological blindness like a painter uses paint.

          • Anonymous says:

            And there you go, Aaron: your objection is just like anyone else’s. You interpret them to be your political enemy; Quvenzhane Wallis, not. Which is essentially my position as well, or near enough. I didn’t participate in the grand freakout because, first, I am certain that absolutely nothing of any constructive consequence did or could have emerged from that showy batch of outrage, and second, because Ms. Wallis is an Oscar nominee who has just become a well-compensated actress. While she certainly still suffers under the yoke of considerable systematic inequality, thanks to her race and her gender, she is in far better shape than many other people, and will survive a slight that was not intended– yes, intended– as a slight against her at all.

            Why you can’t simply engage in straightforward disagreement on the merits with those with whom you disagree, rather than looking for some convoluted way in which their utterance is not merely incorrect but rather indicative of a authoritarian invocation of a presence beyond the reach of play, I don’t know. For myself, I think it’s better and more useful to simply own up to political difference in and of itself. I don’t generally spend a lot of time defending white conservative Christians because I think that they are wrong, analytically and morally, and I don’t waste a lot of time defending my political enemies. But that is irrelevant to the question of whether adults can exercise adult discrimination in adjudicating from the outside whether a piece was satire or not. I might get it wrong; you might disagree. That’s fine. But to work yourself to the point where you insist that there is no such thing as a responsible discrimination about what was or was not satirical is not a point of view that I think you apply at all times, and is indicative to me of the kind of politics that emerges from scratching around too long in one’s own brain.

            Personally, I don’t trust Twitter liberalism, and I do believe that it is oriented far more towards the protection of class boundaries and social sorting than towards the commission of justice. Having observed it yourself, is that so hard to believe?

            Incidentally, you saw The War Nerds tweets last night, taking Charles Davis’s satirical piece on drones for sincerity. You must have defended him, right? After all, Charles’s piece cannot be thought of to be clearly satirical. To insist on that is tantamount to fascism.

          • zunguzungu says:

            You asked: “Why you can’t simply engage in straightforward disagreement on the merits with those with whom you disagree”

            I answer: Because that’s boring, and I’m not interested in it. And I think that has a lot to do with why you and I are always at cross-purposes. You read my post as another shot in the “Great Hate Tweet Wars of 2013″ and took up your position to knock it down. And sure, I do have a position on the question. But there’s a reason I talked about genre and used the language of lit theory: I am interested in genre and in theorizing different kinds of speech-acts, and I started writing the post after a discussion with a friend in the lounge of an English department. You seem to see that as a distraction from the real thing, but that’s a thing I’m actually really interested in, and the Onion tweet was an occasion for thinking about it out loud. But, perhaps the problem is that this is “the kind of politics that emerges from scratching around too long in one’s own brain.” And here, again, we part ways: if you think literary theory is just “scratching around in one’s brain,” then I’m not particularly troubled that you are unsatisfied with what I write. It’s a curious position to hold for an academic, though.

            I would also observe that calling right wing christians my “enemy” is a misreading of what I said, but an interesting one, given the hyper-martial frame you put everything into: it’s not because I disagree with them about particular politics, but because their opinion of themselves as an embattled and persecuted minority in America is wrong. They aren’t. So why should I defend people from persecutions that largely exist in their head? But you’ve mistaken disinterest in their hurt feelings for taking sides against them.

          • Anonymous says:

            Are you going to defend The War Nerd’s reading of Charles Davis’s piece as straightforward? How can you possible not?

          • zunguzungu says:

            Your presumption that I follow the NSFW people is incorrect, and there are few things I care less about than what the War Nerd tweets. Moreover, this is exactly it: you look at my post and then demand that I do or say X or Y, based on your very tendentious reading of what I wrote that I do not share. And you interpret my disinterest in a thing as a position taken on it. I disagree with both of those approaches.

          • Anonymous says:

            Well, I guess we do understand each other. Me, I’m not interested in your boredom; none of these concerns are aesthetic for me. As for my martial style, well, innocent people are getting crushed, every day, and that makes me feel like fighting. I’m sure it’s hard to countenance such a thing from the environs of Berkeley’s English department.

            It happens that some of the people being crushed are white. They are not getting crushed EQUALLY and they are not getting crushed IN THE SAME WAY, but crushed they are, and I take it to be my moral responsibility to speak out for them. What’s more, in a majoritarian system with a dominant white minority, it might happen to be the case that improving the conditions of the people of color you condescendingly hope to save requires outreach to white people.

            You can find that quaint, you’re entitled. I know the rarefied air of your academic station prevents you from caring about some poverty-stricken kid in rural Appalachia in the way I can. You work your work. I’ll work mine.

          • zunguzungu says:

            Being a graduate student who grew up in Appalachia, it’s disorienting to be accused of occupying a rarified station, especially at tax time. But hey, you’ve said your piece. Hope it did you some good.

      • You’re arguing two things Aaron: one is that one can’t say “It’s just satire” because satire is this extremely nebulous thing that no one can claim to identify. But then you’re also arguing that one can’t say “It’s just satire” because satire is designed to hurt and claiming “it’s satire” does not mitigate or excuse the pain it causes. Both of these things can be true I guess, but I think you are on firmer ground when arguing the second especially as it seems sort of predicated on the idea that satire is, in fact, a readily knowable thing.

  2. Ethan Gach says:

    Not sure how you got from:

    “What this means, then, is that the statement “it’s clearly satire” is never true, and can never be true. If satire depends on context, audience, intention, and reception—and I put it to you that it does—then it’s impossible to say, of a tweet like the infamous Onion tweet last week, that it’s ‘clearly satire.’”

    To:

    “If you don’t take it as satire, it isn’t.”

    You claim in the previous two sentences that satire depends ONLY IN PART on audience. In which case something can still be satire even if I don’t take it as satire.

    You are dipsensing with the idea of soemthing being “clearly” satire, and I get that–but you seem to also be implying that there is no possible defense that can be mounted if someone doesn’t take satire as satire. It’s not just that it isn’t clear–it’s not satire at all if recipient X doesn’t see it as such.

    Likewise, Y isn’t a good argument if the person it’s aimed at doesn’t think it’s a good argument.

  3. I’m sorry, but I don’t understand the point of this post…you’re saying that nothing is clear satire, but there are other genres that are clear? And yet every definition is dependent on interpretation, i.e. you consider Pale Fire to be a novel despite any evidence to the contrary, and we consider Hawthorne to have written novels despite his contemporaries disagreeing? So are you saying that satire is similar to other genres in that it’s open to interpretation, or that it’s dissimilar in that other genres aren’t? Not trying to be snarky, just clarifying.

    • zunguzungu says:

      My point is that with genres like novel or poetry, being a novel doesn’t make it less a poem, or vice versa; those genres can stand hybridity, and even thrive with it. But “Satire” isn’t a genre in that sense, because all the conditions have to be met for it to function as satire; a thing which is part satire and part jeremiad is not really satire. Does that makes sense?

  4. Matt says:

    Jeez, luhhhhhhh-weez. You took a big pile of obnoxious right in the face of these here comments. Therefore, I’d like to offer a simple: Well-argued. Oddly amusing, as well.

    • Inverness says:

      Still, kind of nice to see some discussion, for a change. I guess you need some upstart to get things going — polite conversation isn’t quite enough.

      There’s something really competitive and masculine about that.

      • Or it could be that two people just disagree on something they feel very strongly about.

        • Inverness says:

          Quite possibly true. I just find that DeBoer doesn’t necessarily find the most sophisticated arguments, just the most reductive ones.

          This young Wallis actress is probably not so “well-compensated,” that she shouldn’t be shielded from being called a cunt. More nuance could be appreciated — and perhaps there are gendered ways of discussing that can be alienating.

          • I don’t think your paraphrase encapsulates the claim DeBoer was making, but I do agree that his focus on Bady’s motives and ostensible hypocrisy didn’t really speak substantively to the points Bady made in his essay.

          • ovaut says:

            In claiming the tweet is not satire, we’re making judgements about the satirist’s intentions in the way that we would if we were claiming it was satire.

            Can something be too offensive to be satire? It can be too offensive for us to accept that a satirical intention removes responsibility for the nonsatirical interpretation of the satire.

  5. Internet Personality says:

    Mention Swift’s “Modest Proposal,” but reassure the NI readers that you’ve never read it yourself. Mention “Pale Fire” like it’s this crazy new thing you gotta try and not a long-revered novel from decades and decades ago. Ignore olde Greek and Roman satires, even notions of satire. Elegance like “…the difference between novels and romances was different than it is now.” New Criticism. Post-structuralism. “pwned.” Yes, you’ve covered all the Lit-Blogging in 2013 bases.

  6. I wrote a very long response to this and slowly realised I was on your side the entire time, give or take a couple of things. I think your first paragraph, though, really sets the piece up to be something it’s not. Otherwise, well-argued, though I disagree that satire isn’t a genre – I think there are certainly generic hallmarks which prevent it from being simply an “effect”. The “effect” in question is to either make us laugh or push someone or something toward improvement, using satire as the vehicle.

    Anyway, the tweet was dumb, though it was certainly satire in my eyes. I understood, and frankly admired, the point it was supposed to make, but the crudeness of the delivery was clearly too much (I can only imagine how much less outrageous it would have been if the language weren’t so connotative of hatred of women).

    I think that’s a difficulty with something like The Onion – if they’re using an individual as an example, they should probably be sure that the individual will be able to delineate between reality and satire themselves. I think that might be the central failing of it, clarity aside, where the recent ‘Eric Bana being silent on gay marriage’ article was hilarious and effective. Another prescient example, actually, is the lack of uproar around the one where Sasha Obama called Barack a pussy in regards to the lost debate – she wasn’t the ‘example’, if you will, therefore no one was bothered even if they were putting some pretty filthy language in the mouth of an 11-year-old.

  7. I just don’t accept that satire isn’t as knowable a thing as a novel. Sure, pull it out of context — especially if it’s parody, like most Onion stuff, including the tweet – and it might be hard to tell. But the same is true of an anonymous unpublished memoir that shows up in your in box. Or a novel that unfolds via very authentic seeming diary entries. You know novels are novels as opposed to some kind of real-life scribblings in part because something apart from the text tells you they are.

    I think if a self-avowed satirist insists that something she wrote under the auspices of her employer, a satire magazine, is satire, the decent, civil and also sensible thing to do is to take her word. By all means, take her to task if you think her language was so crude or taboo-laden that calling it satire doesn’t get her off the hook entirely. But insisting that what she wrote wasn’t — like much traditional satire — an exaggerated example of the very thing she was attacking but was, in fact, some, bizarre momentary lapse into earnestness wherein she revealed what a horrible person she was is both deeply stupid and very mean.

    Also, despite your protests to the contrary, this is to a large extent about the Onion tweet dustup and as such, it seems a little disingenuous to take no account at all of how opinions on things like whether something is satire or not, morally defensible or not, get shaped in the hive mind of the social network. I sincerely believe that under the right conditions you could get thousands of people Twitter to believe just about anything simply by inducing the right bullies to insist on it.

    • zunguzungu says:

      You’re free to disagree with me, of course, and you probably will, but I think we’re still talking at cross purposes. When I say a genre like a novel or a poem, I am defining “genre” pretty generically, in terms of objective facts about the kind of text it is. A novel is a long, prose, fictional narrative. If it has those four elements, it’s easy to argue that it’s a novel: I can say “look, it’s long! look, it’s prosey! look it’s untrue!” And so forth. Same sort of thing with a poem; I can make the logical claim that a thing is a poem by pointing out its verse structure, or prosody, or whatever. My point is that in both cases, I’m making an argument about what the text is by looking at the text itself.

      With satire, you can’t do that. It isn’t satire’s *formal* features that mark it as satire; it’s the fact that the author says it’s satire, or its audience receives it as such. Which is to say, it’s essentially subjective; a thing is satire if author/reader agree that it’s satire. But there’s nothing in the text itself that you can point to; you *have* to rely on extra-textual evidence, like context, intent, or the fact that people recognized it as untrue and ridiculous.

      Where we disagree, I think, is that I’m drawing a sharp distinction between genres which can be declared as such on objective terms–a novel is a long fictional prose narrative–and those, like satire, which cannot. I think you disagree with that distinction, and the terms in which I’m drawing it; for example, you wrote “You know novels are novels as opposed to some kind of real-life scribblings because something apart from the text tells you they are,” but I disagree with that. If I want to prove that a thing is a novel, I can draw up a list of fairly empirical aspects of the text in question that support my view. But if I want to argue that a thing is satire, I am saying, I can only argue from authority: the onion tweet is satire because you or the author says it is. But you don’t make that argument by looking at the text’s own objective qualities; you call upon the social context in which it exists.

      I’d write more, but I’m going to bed.

      • zunguzungu says:

        God, “genre pretty generically.” I *do* need to go to bed.

      • I don’t concede you can know with certainty that in the absence of someone telling you, a text is a novel and not, say, a memoir or a biography, especially if you are looking at a small, decontextualized fragment, which is how we sometimes first come upon satire.

        But I also won’t insist on you proving otherwise because, as interesting as the differences between satire, poetry and novels may be theoretically, I’ve decided they have no bearing at all on making moral judgements about speech. Yes, I agree that in making a determination on whether or not something is satire, as opposed to say, hate speech, the text won’t speak for itself the way you claim a novel does. So what? Don’t let it. Get more information. After all, accusing people of hate speech is not something nice people do carelessly.

        Yes, perhaps we can’t ever know, beyond a shadow of all doubt, whether or not someone has committed a punishable speech offense, but, in many if not most cases, I think there is enough circumstantial evidence for individuals to determine whether or not they can join a public shaming campaign or boycott or whatever in clean conscience.

        These judgments are, after all, completely individual though of course we’re at liberty to influence each other. At the moment, i don’t think people do feel pressed to make these decisions with deliberation, kindness and humility and I don’t think essays like this one — which clearly aims to minimize the burden of proof for shaming campaigns — are really helping.

        For you, how certain audience members receive the satire is extremely important. For me, it’s completely negligible: a lot of people are really stupid while others are easily led by loudmouths and bullies. In these matters, as in almost everything else, I don’t give three shits what random nobodies think about something.

        In the case of the Onion, the context — tweeting satirist working for satirical magazine that doesn’t often trade in misogyny and racism ; timeline full of tweets in which an exaggerated voice was assumed to make fun of Hollywood; sexist Oscar host begging to be pilloried — was perfectly sufficient to take me out of the crusade and to make me feel supremely disgusted with people who threw in.

        I suppose a case can be made for intentions not mattering, though I am not the one to make it, since emphatically I don’t agree. Be that as it may, I don’t think the intentions in this case are at all unclear and for me this is so obvious, I have a great deal of trouble believing claims to the contrary aren’t in bad faith or the result of groupthink.

  8. f says:

    this is the stupidest thing i’ve ever read <– not satire, since you apparently need it telegraphed

  9. Ira Nayman says:

    As somebody who writes satire (I think) and has studied it, I have a stake in this debate. I have been arguing for some time that people tend to use the term incorrectly (ie: calling something satire when it is, in fact, parody without satirical intent). Any effort to clarify the nature of satire is welcome.

    As I learned as an undergrad, satire has three elements: the ostensible subject, the object of attack and the comic device. The ostensible subject is what the satire appears to be about. The object of attack (usually revealed in the subtext of the work) is what the author is really saying. The humourous device is what makes it funny.

    Consider Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.” On the surface, it seems to be about selling the children of poor people to the rich for food, solving the problem of poverty and giving the wealthy a new delicacy. However, towards the end of the piece, Swift writes that as a member of Parliament, he had tried to enact many laws that would alleviate the suffering of the poor, and each one was voted down; if reasonable measures would not be adopted, perhaps an unreasonable one would. Thus, the true purpose of the piece was revealed: to shame the ruling class for its indifference to the plight of the poor. The comic device in this case was obscenity (cannibalism).

    Because there is a difference between what is being said and what is being implied subtextually, satire needs to be interpreted. And, of course, whatever can be interpreted can be misinterpreted (as studies of the TV shows ALL IN THE FAMILY and THE COLBERT REPORT have demonstrated). I do not believe that this invalidates satire as a literary category (if that were the case, most great art would be invalidated, since it usually requires some interpretation). When confronted by claims that a certain piece of humour is satire, however, we should be rigouous in assessing whether or not it fits the definition.

  10. ovaut says:

    Not the most philosophically subtle post. You haven’t thought well enough about what the difference between something being ‘objectively’ and ‘subjectively’ satirical is. I can have subjective beliefs, for example, about whether my subjective beliefs about whether something is satirical are objective.

  11. Satire is almost always culturally and/or socially subjective, no matter how vague or ambiguous the material.

  12. deserti says:

    It’s truly very complicated in this active life to listen
    news on TV, thus I just use world wide web for that reason, and obtain the most recent information.

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