February 24, 2015


Why Satire Matters  (Justin E.H. Smith, 2/23/15, The Chronicle Review)

The anthropologist Mary Douglas explained some decades ago that humor typically involves a sort of unexpected downward thrust back into the body. Kant offered a variation on the same point when he defined laughter as "a sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing." Life, when taken in earnest, is filled with great hope. This hope draws an adventurous young soul out across the frontier, for example, only to be brought low by a flying fragment of carved obsidian. The expectations of life eventually come to nothing, and in this respect jokes are small anticipations of death. Humor doesn't describe different facts from those of straight-faced reportage on the sufferings caused by human cruelty or by indifferent nature. It reports the same facts, but does so in a different mood. The humorous statement is in some sense exactly the same as the declarative one, yet it carries a different charge. It is typical of authoritarian regimes and blunt-minded individuals alike to be unable to detect this difference.

Not all satirists concern themselves with the precarity of life. Some are more concerned with their own precarity, with their own absurdity, with the way they themselves teeter always on the brink of nonexistence. But often this self-absorption inadvertently serves a double purpose as social commentary. When the cartoonist R. Crumb depicts himself as a scrawny, pathetic excuse for a man, in the shadow of an overwhelming Amazonian woman, he bares his own soul and offers a point of entry for reflecting on gender. He does not tell us that the conditions he depicts are a product of nature or of contingent features of our own sick society: Such instruction is the work of pedagogues, not satirists. He only lays pathologies bare, and while the literal-minded see this labor as a condoning of the pathologies, others will see it as an occasion to reflect on them.

When in turn Crumb reproduces the "pickaninny" caricatures of an earlier era of American visual culture, he is also working out the pathologies of American history, and not, or not simply, perpetuating them. Kara Walker, too, channels similar fragments of racist visual culture, and plainly not for the sake of perpetuating them. One significant difference between how we evaluate the two artists is that we suppose Crumb, a white American man, is capable of harboring the same pathologies that generated the racist images that are the focus of some of his art, while Walker, an African-American woman, could only possibly be reproducing them as a form of opposition. But this point of difference should not be exaggerated. If there is a racial difference between Walker and Crumb, there is a species difference between both of them and the blunt-minded ideologue or crass hawker of goods who would use a racist caricature in a political pamphlet or an ad for soap.

Twain and Crumb can help us to establish a general point that has been systematically misunderstood since the attacks in Paris. Charlie Hebdo, as the cliché has it, is an "equal-opportunity offender," whose sole purpose is to épater la bourgeoisie, to aim its low mockery in all directions, but particularly at the smug, the self-serious, and the hypocritical. Inevitably, the leaders of conservative Islam, and of the political distortions of Islam we call "Islamism," were not spared. Since Muslims are in serious respects a persecuted minority in France, many on the Anglophone academic left felt that in targeting Muslim leaders the magazine had gone too far.

There is, in fact, a widespread view that humor abandons its true purpose when it ceases to punch upward from below, when it ceases to play David to the great Goliath of state or society, and instead punches down, targeting the weak and the downtrodden, the suckers and the yokels. But we would have to scrap a good deal of history's most treasured works of humor if we were to apply this criterion rigorously. If Thomas Hobbes is correct that humor is an expression of one's own superiority, to the humiliation of the inferior party, then we would have to scrap all of it.

There's much debate over comedy, but this we can safely say ; no one ever writes satire from what they think is a morally inferior position.  It is always meant to humiliate our inferiors.

Posted by at February 24, 2015 2:12 PM

blog comments powered by Disqus