Tuesday 28 March 2017

The Impossibility of Satire?

Yours truly was at the last Sociology Research Seminar Series at the University of Derby. On this occasion our speak was Simon Speck, also of Derby. His paper, 'The Cynical Image: The Critical Potential of the Political Cartoon in the Age of Self-Satirising Authority' took a look at how the powerful have absorbed the bite of satire and transformed it into something that helps legitimise them, and whether using humour to attack those interests was still possible. This was explored this through the medium of political cartoons.

He argued that satire takes the powerful as its target, and locates humour in the contrast between the lofty ideals they espouse and their often grubby practice. In this sense, satire is close to the immanent critique often associated with the Frankfurt School/critical theory, of the practice of confronting something with its foundational principles. For example, the controversial Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons send up the piety of Islamists by forcefully contrasting their sacred pretensions (Jihad motivated by the glory of God) with the profane (Heaven stuffed full of virgins).

In liberal democracies, however, satire has become incorporated, and in few places more so than the UK. The cutting Supermac cartoon by Vicky for the Evening Standard in the late 50s, early 60s sent up Harold Macmillan. They set out by taking the mick, but over time the demeaning caricature came to be a nickname and latterly the title of a MacMillan biography. And so the satirical monicker was incorporated into an appreciation of him, and the humour attached to it a sign of his sacralisation into the hall of the political establishment, of having made it. Similarly, former Tory education secretary Kenneth Baker, who on Spitting Image was regularly portrayed as a slug thanks to his slimy reputation, managed to recuperate the attack by noting how, as a self-described historian of satirical cartoons, his depiction was part of one of the fine traditions of British democracy.

The logical end of this incorporation is someone like Boris Johnson, who has astutely and assiduously built up a self-mocking, self-satirising image. He was quick to realise, helped in part by regular Have I Got News For You appearances, including four stints as the host, that not only does it raise his profile but the laughter directed by him and at him could be harnessed to confer legitimacy. Hence Johnson was once regularly referred to as the most popular/most recognisable politician in Britain, purely because he was a bit of an oaf. He exploited it to the hilt during his campaign for the London mayoralty, and drew deep once again during the EU referendum campaign. Like many other MPs, liking a joke and being able to laugh at yourself shows up your human side, it papers over power and interest by showing how "down to earth" they are. Johnson, however, took it a step further. His false bonhomie, which is entirely tedious for some, has another happy - for him - consequence: he can use it to evade criticism, and often "humorously" did so when he was in office. Satire then not only flatters, it can make careers.

In these conditions, following Sloterdijk's Critique of Cynical Reason, with the disappearance of political alternatives to the status quo, the more cynical society become about itself. This, for Simon, is also the lot of satire now. The spreading of cynical sensibilities means that satirical critique is marketable and feeds into open irony. Vicky's Supermac attack was an ironic attack on Macmillan as a blundering fool. In the 21st century, Johnson contrives to be a blundering fool.

Does this mean satire is now impossible? Not necessarily. Exploring Sloterdijk's use of ancient Greek understandings of satire, of kynicism as opposed to cynicism. This was an underdog perspective that set itself against dogmatism, abstraction, and the theoretical while celebrating the disinhibited, the embodied, the gestural, the shameless, and the animal. It has an insubordinate, profaning impulse that made the Greek authorities of the day uncomfortable?

In the realm of political cartoons, for Simon there is a cartoonist working with this sensibility: Steve Bell. His cartoons are able to avoid the kinds of incorporation suffered by Vicky because he eschews tradition (particularly the liberal tradition, despite most of his work appearing in a liberal paper, and established ways of doing political cartooning), but more importantly his depictions are viscerally materialist and shameless. Physiques are blown up and caricatured in grotesque ways, eyes constantly wander and possess a crazed look, bad language is a staple, and he merges the animal, the inhuman, the synthetic and, in Dave's case, the prophylactic. It's difficult to see Osborne finding flattery in his rendering as a ring-nosed gimp, or May her depiction as a scrawny clown, Bush jr as a simian, nor Blair as an unhinged grin-agog. This aesthetic doesn't make any grand statements or pay tribute to a tradition curated by the likes of Kenneth Baker, but captures the ground ceded by satire in the age of cynicism and ironic incorporation.

Is satire possible? Yes, it would appear. But only by abandoning tradition and getting visceral can it regain its bite.


Speedy said...

Back to the past....


Anonymous said...

Plato had defined Man as a featherless two-legged animal, and was applauded. Diogenes plucked a chicken and brought it into the lecture-room with the words, "Behold Plato's man." In consequence of which there was added to the definition, "with broad nails."

Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, Book VI

What I find fascinating about this anecdote is Plato's response--to correct his definition. Well, we should expect no less from the founder of the academy.

Blissex said...

«He was quick to realise, helped in part by regular Have I Got News For You appearances, including four stints as the host,»

Oh it gets even better. A commenter on "moderate Leaver" site reports:

«Attended a gathering with Ann Widdecombe last night. All only of historic interest but for one comment.
To get on in politics you have to have a political personality and the best way to acquire that according to the ladder climbers is to get on Have I got News for You.. That is the word from Widdicombe.»

As to "a political personality" I remember reading an interesting point (IIRC in "The Economist") about Eton: there are many student societies with prized membership and president-treasurer-secretary offices and they are all subject to election, so Eton pupil learn to sell yourself and be popular and funny and play image and positioning to win membership and offices in these student societies, preparing them for climbing the ladder in the Conservative party.