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What is "satire" anyway?
April 10, 2013 11:45 AM   Subscribe

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.

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. 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.

And you can take that *fist pump* to the bank.
posted by Alterity (73 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

 
I didn't RTFA but Isn't that kind of like saying that people with no sense of humor cannot be satirized? Because that's my favorite kind.
posted by Infinity_8 at 11:49 AM on April 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


If something is not taken to be satire, it fails as satire.

Taken by whom? If you dumb down satire to the point where it's comprehensible as such by those with no innate sensibility of the kind that the satire is meant to invoke, beit introspection or moral grounding or a knowledge of history for example, it isn't satire then either. (It might however be SNL.) Also, I'll just repurpose G.C. Lichtenberg: "A book is like a mirror; if an ass peers into it, you can't expect an apostle to look out."
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:51 AM on April 10, 2013 [7 favorites]


Glad that's finally settled!
posted by El Sabor Asiatico at 11:52 AM on April 10, 2013 [3 favorites]


The Destructo thing is great. I usually like Aaron Bady's takes on politics and media a lot, but it's a trifle depressing to see such a lunkheaded grab for false certainty about an interpretive term coming from a student of literature. Satire is necessarily unstable and requires a well-tuned ear for specific interpretive circumstances, not a wishful bright-line definition.
posted by RogerB at 11:52 AM on April 10, 2013


Clearly, my definition of satire is totally lost on this guy. Wait, which of our definitions fails as a result?
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 11:52 AM on April 10, 2013 [3 favorites]


"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)."

Pretty sure you can't categorize "novels" as a genre.
posted by jbickers at 11:52 AM on April 10, 2013


This is a joke, right?
posted by Kabanos at 11:53 AM on April 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


This is a joke, right?

Not if you don't get it.
posted by griphus at 11:54 AM on April 10, 2013 [19 favorites]


Also, that the lunkheaded miss it is often one of the concomitant joys of satire. For example, when a subeditor of some propaganda mouthpiece press agency in one of the more totalitarian spots on the world takes an Onion story at face value, it just makes it funnier.
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:55 AM on April 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


Pretty sure you can't categorize "novels" as a genre.

Is this, too, satire? The novel is the original and defining genre of the modern era. The problem with Bady's argument is that he thinks satire is a genre, but it's actually a mode.
posted by RogerB at 11:55 AM on April 10, 2013 [9 favorites]


You had me reaching for my eye-stabbing pole the moment I read: "audited the word satire."
posted by Behemoth at 11:56 AM on April 10, 2013


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.

Arguably, ambiguity about whether something is a satire does more to highlight the ridiculousness of the subject matter that may be satirized, than blunt force telegraphing of the message. Meaning can depend on the audience, sure, but there are multiple audiences, each aware or not aware in their own way. While some conservatives may not "get" Steven Colbert, as one example, the rest of his audience does. The ambiguity of his presentation, I would argue, makes the satirical aspects of his parody of right-wing media figures that much more powerful.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:57 AM on April 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


The heart of satire, gentlemen, is cannibalism.
posted by boo_radley at 11:58 AM on April 10, 2013 [5 favorites]


If something is not taken to be satire, it fails as satire.

Okay. Good. Then, as long as we have Tina Fey, we don't need what'zername.

Even if you don't get it, it's still a joke. Jokes don't require that everyone think they are funny. Satire, then, doesn't require that everyone reside in the camp that makes fun of the object of the skit.
posted by mule98J at 11:58 AM on April 10, 2013


To be clear here - he is concerned The Onion may not be satire?
posted by Artw at 11:59 AM on April 10, 2013 [3 favorites]


That some people mistake The Onion for real news is more a commentary on the seriously fucked-up world we live in, than the fragility of satire. As they say, "You can't make this shit up."
posted by Thorzdad at 12:03 PM on April 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


It's a poor irony that isn't partway earnest.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 12:06 PM on April 10, 2013


"Irony may be defined as what people miss" -- Julian Barnes

Then again I think part of the problem is stupid people, and the other part is too many unfunny satirists. Satire itself isn't the problem.
posted by Mchelly at 12:07 PM on April 10, 2013


It's worth noting that something can be satire AND crap, unfunny or an intentional or otherwise example of the thing it is satirizing.
posted by Artw at 12:10 PM on April 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


What the Onion tweeted about Quvenzhane Wallis exemplifies the argument.
posted by Renoroc at 12:10 PM on April 10, 2013


What is "satire" anyway?

Satire is a reverent fart.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 12:12 PM on April 10, 2013


What the Onion tweeted about Quvenzhane Wallis exemplifies the argument.


(from the article)

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 Quvenzhané 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."

posted by dubold at 12:14 PM on April 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


The failure of someone to misunderstand satire can be just as much a failure of the audience then the performer/writer/etc. In addition to the Onion being mistaken for real, The Colbert Report has been, as well as the famous Boilerplate which I think has satirical elements.

I am however, reminded of the SCTV troupe trying to satirize Three's Company. They could not. They said it came out just like the real show.
posted by juiceCake at 12:14 PM on April 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


Grade 11. We focused on satire for a while in English. The teacher's position was that humor was a side-effect of satire, not the point. The point was disorientation, subversion, getting under the skin of what was really going on so that people might begin to question things.

So Swift's A Modest Proposal is Satire 101. It's not about making you laugh, it's about making you think. The laughter is more of a defense mechanism. Beats screaming in horror.

Good teacher.
posted by philip-random at 12:16 PM on April 10, 2013 [4 favorites]


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.

No, no. Listen, it's not that hard.

John Stewart = Satire
Stephen Colbert = Parody

Most of The Onion is parody ("Local Man ___"). However, I think the Onion/Oscars fail was satire, and effective at that.
posted by mrgrimm at 12:16 PM on April 10, 2013 [6 favorites]


Also, what the Sub Genius said ...

"The only thing worth laughing at is the fact that nothing is funny anymore."
posted by philip-random at 12:17 PM on April 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


So what's the term for when someone writes something in earnest, but I think it so blatantly highlights the horrible in their position and effectively displays the lack of logic in their argument that I can only read it as satire? 'Cuz that happens a lot these days.
posted by benito.strauss at 12:18 PM on April 10, 2013


Even if you don't get it, it's still a joke. Jokes don't require that everyone think they are funny.

And sometimes jokes don't work.

I spend a lot of my time writing shit I find to be humorous to me. I sometimes consider myself to be a satirist, but in my mind the best satire is trying to achieve something. It's a piece of potential propaganda (or anti-propaganda) with an agenda. Even it the goel is no more than to point out something is stupid or silly there is still a goal there.

Satire is alive and well. No everyone needs to get it. I would even argue that sometimes no one needs to get it as long as the person doing it knows what's going on. The Yes Men have often completely gotten away with their shenanigans. That doesn't make what they do any less satirical.
posted by cjorgensen at 12:19 PM on April 10, 2013


Satire has been misunderstood since, like, forever.

I say this all the time. Communication has (at least) four components. Sender. Message. Channel. Receiver.

If just one fails then misunderstanding happens. But the Receiver failing does not necessarily* mean that the Sender has failed.

*Which I work on in therapy all the time. But that has nothing to do with satire.
posted by bilabial at 12:21 PM on April 10, 2013


No, no. Listen, it's not that hard.

John Stewart = Satire
Stephen Colbert = Parody


Parody relies on satire and irony. They are not as disconnected as you seem to argue they are.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 12:24 PM on April 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


Last Monday, New Inquiry blogger Aaron Bady audited the word satire and made it clear.

The Scientologists got to satire, too?
posted by sweetkid at 12:26 PM on April 10, 2013


This is pseudo-logical nonsense. It's like some philosophical sophomore saying that all actions are selfish--that even acts of charity make the donor feel pleasure. So do they want to destroy the meaning of the word so we must replace it with another word that means what most people intend when they say "selfish"? OK, so let's invent another word for "satire" and use it the way we always have, and Aaron Bady can put the old word "satire" on the shelf to collect dust and point to it as a trophy of his linguistic pretension. Everything, including the baby's bathwater has shades of grey.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 12:27 PM on April 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


"Satire is a lesson. Parody is a game."

- Vladimir Nabokov in an interview with Alfred Appel, Jr.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 12:30 PM on April 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


Huh.

I stopped reading the Bady article half-way through because he throws out this nugget "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)," like it's true and deal with it. The rest of the piece is built on that and I disagree.

I think, instead, that genre can be a slippery, culturally negotiated phenomena rather than a hard-and fast taxonomy.
posted by Tevin at 12:32 PM on April 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


The issue isn't whether or not it's satire. That's an absurd question that is as fruitless a wondering if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it blah-blah...

It's whether or not its good satire.

From my view, the criteria for good satire writing are exactly the same as good news reporting: If the reader doesn't understand that what you've written is satiric or he doesn't believe it's newsworthy, then you failed as a writer.

Obviously the level of understanding among readers varies, but I write in the mainstream media, so that's what I aim for: mainstream readers.
posted by sixpack at 12:34 PM on April 10, 2013


I stopped writing this comment when
posted by George_Spiggott at 1:05 PM on April 10, 2013


Freddie deBoer has some kind of beef with Bady (and with the brand of feelings-based identity politics he thinks Bady represents) that goes beyond this particular point, but all the same his counterexample to the satire piece was pretty strong.
posted by gerryblog at 1:10 PM on April 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


I've been writing this comment all my life.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 1:15 PM on April 10, 2013


From the wiki:

Satire is a genre of literature, and sometimes graphic and performing arts, in which vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals, and society itself, into improvement.[1] Although satire is usually meant to be funny, its greater purpose is often constructive social criticism, using wit as a weapon.
posted by philip-random at 1:21 PM on April 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


using wit as a weapon

I know Kung Fool.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 1:24 PM on April 10, 2013


Quoting wikipedia on satire is itself an act of satire.
posted by George_Spiggott at 1:32 PM on April 10, 2013


This whole thread is ironic, expecially the next comment.
posted by Mister_A at 1:51 PM on April 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's like rain, on your wedding day.
posted by Kabanos at 1:54 PM on April 10, 2013 [6 favorites]


So what's the term for when someone writes something in earnest, but I think it so blatantly highlights the horrible in their position and effectively displays the lack of logic in their argument that I can only read it as satire? 'Cuz that happens a lot these days.

Self parody.

Parody relies on satire and irony. They are not as disconnected as you seem to argue they are.

They are not disconnected at all (much like Stewart and Colbert), but I think the analogy is a good one. Stewart uses sarcasm and irony to poke fun and posit opinion. Colbert is mocking via imitation.

It's like rain, on your wedding day.

Rain on your wedding day is a fine example of cosmic irony (as is the man dying on the day after he wins the lottery.)
posted by mrgrimm at 2:08 PM on April 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


If anyone would like to hear irony, denotation, and un-reliable narrators discussed by a man wearing a plastic bag on his head and speaking with an Irish accent, the Internet has got you covered.
posted by benito.strauss at 2:20 PM on April 10, 2013


"Rain on your wedding day" as it stands is a simple disappointment. Irony is like a workman suddenly realizing he forgot to put on his steel toed boots and in his haste to hurry back to get them stubs the living hell out of his toe. The idea is that he incurred the injury as a consequence of trying to avoid it. Some further correlative element is needed to make the rain/wedding thing work as irony, such as being a meteorologist (and even that's pretty weak).
posted by George_Spiggott at 2:22 PM on April 10, 2013


What if you marry an alien from Signs? And it rains? What then?
posted by Artw at 2:38 PM on April 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


Satire has been dead since 1973. Why are we even arguing about this anymore?
posted by Hactar at 2:40 PM on April 10, 2013


> If the reader doesn't understand that what you've written is satiric or he doesn't believe it's newsworthy, then you failed as a writer.

Only if you give a shit about that portion of your audience. Sometimes stuff is high brow (or low brow) and sometimes it exists only for a select niche. When I write I honestly don't care about 80% of my readers. They aren't my audience. I write mostly for the small minority that actually "get" it.

To me that's quality satire. It's the difference between "Family Circus" and "Farside." No one has to ask to have a "Family Circus" explained.

It's also more effective when it's not for mass consumption. If it fires people up because they get angry, think about it, only to then find out it's satire, then the point has a better chance of being taken. Again, I point to the Yes Men.

This all said I don't write for the main stream media like you, but I would argue most satirists do not either.
posted by cjorgensen at 2:49 PM on April 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


Irony is like a workman suddenly realizing he forgot to put on his steel toed boots and in his haste to hurry back to get them stubs the living hell out of his toe.

Not quite. That's a simple result of his not putting on his steel-toed boots. You would expect that.
Irony is the opposite of what you'd expect. Irony is the fireman's house burning down.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 2:57 PM on April 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


What if you marry an alien from Signs? And it rains? What then?

It's still a case of "rain ruined my wedding" only a bit more thoroughly.

Now let's say you're getting married because you're obsessed with the fear of spending the rest of your life alone, then on the way to the altar you fall down a well and die before anybody finds you...
posted by George_Spiggott at 2:59 PM on April 10, 2013


Irony is the opposite of what you'd expect.

I expected sunshine on my wedding day.
posted by mrgrimm at 3:00 PM on April 10, 2013


that's ironic
posted by philip-random at 3:04 PM on April 10, 2013


Okay, you're a shaman called to a farming village to summon the rain, and you fail day after day. Finally one of the villagers says "well, as you're here and the weather's so nice, would you mind officiating at my wedding?" And you say yes, and on that day it rains.
posted by George_Spiggott at 3:15 PM on April 10, 2013


The rain on my wedding day was totally ironic.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 3:20 PM on April 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


I expected sunshine on my wedding day.

*sigh* Irony is the opposite of what you'd expect, but the opposite of what you'd expect isn't necessarily ironic.
Unrealistic expectations, maybe. Confusing hope with expectations, perhaps.
It would be ironic if you had scheduled your wedding on the statistically sunniest day of the year, and in the midst of weeks of sunshine it rained on that day.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 3:24 PM on April 10, 2013


"Rain on your wedding day" as it stands is a simple disappointment.

Please refer to Ed Byrne ripping apart Alanis Morissette. About 2:04 he gets to the wedding day line, but the whole bit is good.
posted by Kabanos at 3:25 PM on April 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


"If something is not taken to be satire, it fails as satire."

No, it could just be that the person not taking it as satire is dumber than whale shit.
posted by Decani at 3:27 PM on April 10, 2013 [6 favorites]


Please refer to Ed Byrne ripping apart Alanis Morissette . About 2:04 he gets to the wedding day line, but the whole bit is good.

A friend of mine maintains that you couldn't possibly write a song about non-ironic things and call it "Ironic" by accident.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 3:30 PM on April 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


Irony is when a hipster does something sincerely.
posted by obscure simpsons reference at 4:18 PM on April 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


("Flight of the Valkyries" booms)

Kickin' the hip-ster
Kickin' the hip-ster
Kickin' the hip-ster
Kickin' him down!
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 4:33 PM on April 10, 2013


About 2:04 he gets to the wedding day line, but the whole bit is good.

so to be clear, it's ironic if it rains on your wedding day, and you're getting married to a weather forecaster, and he set the date.
posted by philip-random at 4:34 PM on April 10, 2013


No - it's ironic if it rains on your wedding day, and you're getting married to a weather forecaster, and he set the date, and it's an outdoor wedding, and he's made out of sugar, but he's only marrying you because you have green eyes, and if he marries a woman with green eyes Ching Dai will be appeased, the curse of the brown sugar will be lifted, and he can go on to rule the universe from beyond the grave, but he doesn't even bother to hold the wedding indoors, because hey! Weather forcaster!
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 4:45 PM on April 10, 2013


Just read the article, and stopped in to make sure somebody quoted
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."
Ironically (Or is it!? (Probably not) ) dubold already did, upthread. But nobody had favorited it yet! Which proves that metafilter (probably because it's American) just DOESN'T GET SATIRE.

*fist pump*

BUT SERIOUSLY FOLKS I do love some Mr Destructo, and maybe if people wouldn't concentrate so much on the original ill-thought essay here we'd see more insightful yukking about the much-more-interesting um destruction of it in the 2nd link. So glad to see that site showing back up in my RSS feeds,

Speaking of which, despite the fact that it's on gawker, this might even be worth an FPP in itself- it's a lovely piece of writing, from the former Mobutu Sese Seko himself, about the consequences of having been a massive (albeit fiendishly clever) dick on the internet, and how he lives with them.

but I did not fpp it, because half the reason I'd have for doing so is that something about his style makes me suspect he might already post here, and that's none of my damned business. But if he doesn't he should!
posted by hap_hazard at 4:46 PM on April 10, 2013


Although some of the Daily Show is satire, and some of the Colbert Report is parody, both men, in their monologues, are really just commentators on the absurdity of life/politics. Stewart is pretty straight-up in his very smart head-scratching about "this life"; Colbert consistently creates fabulous lines of "logical thinking" from the factual, absurd, point A to the logical consequences of that starting point of thinking.

Still, satire, good satire, is a great device. I agree that "good satire" does not mean that the whole audience gets it (and certainly not that they appreciate it), and that a part of the satisfaction of well-done satire is just that. I'm terrible at it, by the way. But "I know it when I see it."

New here, and so grateful to Mobutu Sese Seko for pointing me in this direction.
posted by geerue at 6:28 PM on April 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


So what's the term for when someone writes something in earnest, but I think it so blatantly highlights the horrible in their position and effectively displays the lack of logic in their argument that I can only read it as satire? 'Cuz that happens a lot these days.

I know you were being hypothetical, but isn't the term just Poe's Law (aka the observation that extremism and parodies of extremism are nearly identical).

Anyway, more on topic. My English teacher once said writing was like building a bridge: if you leave any holes some people are going to jump through them. I'm pretty on board with the idea that its the writers responsibility to plug all those holes and build sufficient guard rails but after that I still think some readers are going to jump over the side for some reason. I don't think its the writer's responsibility to worry about those people.
posted by john-a-dreams at 8:47 PM on April 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


If you write with lots of holes at the beginning you can get rid of those people quickly.
And if the bridges are really high you get to hear those loooong screams.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 10:08 PM on April 10, 2013


If you write with lots of holes at the beginning you can get rid of those people quickly.
And if the bridges are really high you get to hear those loooong screams.


See: Ada.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 10:11 PM on April 10, 2013


Speaking of self-parody.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 6:34 AM on April 11, 2013


/writes modernist dream home for children.
posted by Artw at 6:38 AM on April 11, 2013


What if, on your wedding day, you gave your wife combs for her long, beautiful hair with the money you got pawning your pocketwatch, and you discover that she sold her hair to buy a chain for your watch? And then it rained. And at the reception there were bugs in each and every glass of white wine. That's just a ruined wedding and a lifetime of misery with a spouse you never learned to communicate with and now she's bald which is a total turnoff because you were all psyched up about the hair, it's your fetish, see. What then? What are we even talking about? On preview, sorry, I meant to post this in the Thatcher thread.
posted by Cookiebastard at 7:01 AM on April 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


The wedding is on Venus. It is too hot. You were hoping for rain to cool things down. It rains but the rain is sulfuric acid.
posted by Artw at 7:06 AM on April 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


Speaking of satire and/or parody: 50 Arrested in Game of Thrones Reenactment
posted by juiceCake at 8:57 AM on April 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


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