February 16, 2015


What's the point of satire?  (Will Self, 2/14/15, BBC)

With its feudal class system intact - if moth-eaten and vermiculated - British society exhibits small but crucial differences in its satiric temperament. Cleaving to a myth of organic gradualism, whereby things - no matter how bad they are now - can only get incrementally better, the apparent violence of British satire is surely just that. Violent in appearance only. Certainly, political and religious leaders, the rich and powerful are mercilessly guyed, but this is surely the mot juste, because the disjunction between these effigies and the people they represent is understood by all. It's a disjunction that is richly enshrined in the institution of British irony - a commitment to never saying what you mean, but only indicating it to those who are in the know. It shows how deep our collective perception is of the difference between appearance and reality, between the word and the deed.

However, I don't want to descend into that cesspit where it makes sense to speak of a "national character" - after all, once you have a national character it becomes that much easier to believe that such an entity might require a close shave from a national razor. Western civilisation in general has developed inside a Judaeo-Christian ethical tradition within which - granted some local peculiarities - there has been general consensus about what's right and what's wrong. Given such a context it's been relatively easy to apply the satire test and secure agreement about appropriate targets. Of course, as long as right and wrong were understood to be to be divine attributions, and rulers' power was conceived as a divine franchise, afflicting the comfort of potentates and prelates alike was a risky, life or death business. But the onset of secularism - wrongly viewed, I think, as some sort of "gateway drug" for the rationalist trip called atheism - elided the ethical entirely with the political.

We may like to think of our satirists as still speaking truth fearlessly unto power within a social realm bounded by commonly understood norms that allow us to make effective distinctions between speech acts and physical ones, but I venture to suggest that such a view is largely delusory. In fact, it's the managed anomie of our society today, in which competing ethical codes are viewed as alternate lifestyle choices rather than stairways to heaven and hell that allows for a satire at once savage and toothless. In Britain the rich and powerful get more comfortable, the poor are increasingly afflicted, and the satiric volleys are fired with greater and greater frequency and have less and less effect. In the days when I still considered myself to be a satirist, I would tell people that in a society in which there was little true agreement about the fundamentals of morality, the best satire could do would be to prick people's consciences sufficiently to make them think about right and wrong at all.

It's because we recognize the traditional norms and the Left does not that they can not find deviance from them amusing.

Posted by at February 16, 2015 9:19 AM

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