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.
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.
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.