Satire, the art of lampooning the powerful, is in crisis
What do you do when the satire of the past, by definition an exaggerated, lampooning, grotesque imagination of society, looks a lot like society of the present? When actual, critical satire operates like a cheat sheet for the rich and powerful on what to do next, on how to further fortify power, on how to better trick the public?
Our constant exposure to advertising psychology, which is the cognitive research that informs advertising best practices to ensure it will leave a lasting and positive impression, and social media have caused us to unconsciously prioritize narrative over truth: the facts are less important than how you spin them. In this context, satire operates as a form of image-management, where, for example, YouTubers criticized for hateful rants can shield themselves from accountability by retroactive claims that their words were “satirical.”
Satire is meant to tear at the root and face the reader, without relief of tension, with the exposed source of the suffering. It is not meant to dance around symptoms of oppression with deadpan memes printed on T-shirts.
At its ideal, satire is a form of comedy that examines and criticizes the stories, systems, and people that subjugate others. It uproots carefully planted ideas that hold together harmful ideologies. By its function, satire cannot simply look at the symptoms of the problem, but the source.
It should come as no surprise that the best satire bleeds into political rhetoric, systems of power, and ideology. Did you know that the slogan “Make America Great Again” originates from a line uttered by the totalitarian government in the graphic novel “V for Vendetta?” Did you know that many gruesome technologies featured in Netflix’s “Black Mirror” either already exist or are in development?
There is a scientific term for the feeling you get when considering a science-fiction horror film come to life, and it’s called the “yuck factor.” The yuck factor is the instinctual resistance you feel to a new idea or technology that violates your sense of morals, sanitation, or safety.
We feel yucky, for example, at the thought of eating lab-grown meat, despite the need for an alternative to our current, over-polluting meat source. The solution, researchers found, was that a generation born into a world where meat is lab-grown won’t feel the same hesitation as those who’ve had lab-grown meat introduced in their lifetime.
This begs the question, what are we putting up with simply because we were born into it?
As a form of comedy, satire is unsettling in how it manipulates tension. In typical comedy, a jokester builds tension with details, with pressure, with delay even, and then relieves it with the punchline. In satire, this “relief” comes when the reader realizes that the author is joking, and that they actually intend the opposite of what their words superficially mean, thus inviting the audience in on the joke.
But how can we click into a relief of tension when satire either gives frightening ideas to frightening and capable people or operates as a convenient alibi for cruel-minded people to create wealth by propelling the very ideas they swear they contest?
In order for satire to diffuse tension to make the reading palatable, it needs to sacrifice the honesty and integrity of the work.
As a society, we are fixated on our symptoms and how to mitigate them. Depression and anxiety result in medication, tempers result in anger management training, overconsumption results in rehabilitation, homelessness results in temporary beds.
Late-stage capitalism is structured as a consolidation of wealth at the top of the pyramid built on a foundation of an underclass literally working themselves to death.
The cultural values that facilitate this structure define the worst thing you can be as lazy, unproductive, or degenerate. These are not antisocial traits but symptoms of a deep social suffering from and resistance to our social context.
But how can satire accomplish its goal when the work needs to be done by both the writer and the reader, and one or both parties is unwilling? Really good satire, charismatic and bold, would impose a resizing of all that we have adapted to without knowing it.
Do readers really want to walk through a museum of every yuck their conscious mind suppressed and absorbed into the unconscious?
Do writers want to examine the way their dark parodies of culture can speak themselves into reality? Are writers impelled to depict uncomfortable truths despite the risk of it damaging their publishing potential or “objectivity?”
Are any of us willing to examine the way culture requires our complicity?
Getting to the root of things requires digging. It’s work. The world creates the misery we call comedic tension. Really good satire showcases the tension and never relieves it. It’s up to the reader to decide how willing they are to engage in the discomfort, to examine their assumptions and their self-image, and to create that relief themselves by engaging with the world differently.
Punch? (There, a punch-line.)
Graphic by @the.beta.lab