On Satire

Some comments on utilizing satire for social criticism (I think I’m qualified, having taken the genre to heart enough to write a 600-some page novel replete with it):

Listen to the wise words of absurdist-satirist presidential candidate Vermin Supreme, who was asked whether he wouldn’t have to raise taxes to fulfill his campaign promise to provide free ponies to everyone in America: “No, they’re free ponies.”

Satire of political economy is difficult when many genuinely think no further about economics than what they want, right now—and not at “what is not seen”* as Bastiat put it—but I think Vermin’s (feigned) assured refusal to get the question really nailed it. Vermin Supreme knows how to speak to, and for, (many or most) modern Americans.

Unfortunately, satire has no way to reach the people who don’t get it. It’s an unfortunate general weakness of social satire that the people who most need to get the joke are the people at whose expense the joke is made. Therefore it flies over their heads.

I remember much the same thing with the militarism of the movie Starship Troopers; those who found it just an enjoyable, thrilling action film romp (and those who didn’t, but also thought it had nothing much to say to them) are those immersed, naively, in a culture of normalized nationalist and imperialist propaganda.

Robocop had the same problem with becoming visible as satire to a generation raised on both absurdly violent films and cop-as-hero legends propagated by mass media. (Even recently, it’s unabashed in prolefeed like the CBS show Blue Bloods.) The mythology of police righteousness is only just now (I think?) becoming distinguishable, foreign and strange enough to be noticed—and potentially rejected—by a large number, instead of perfectly normal to the culture, and invisible as propaganda.

I love the genre of satire from an artistic standpoint and it can be very difficult to separate that affection from adequately, realistically measuring its effectiveness. I believe George Orwell, the writer of my favorite satire, had much the same problem. His favorite books included Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, and he felt drawn to expressing his own criticisms of automatic thinking (“the gramophone mind”**) collaborating with authoritarian impulses, in this form above others. It’s certainly entertaining to those who slyly get the joke, but remarkably impenetrable to those who do not.

Orwell’s intended preface to Animal Farm, rejected by the publisher, reflects some of his own ambivalence about satire. For there Orwell felt the need to render in explicit prose some of his intention, instead of letting the book speak for itself.

Personally, I know that I have benefitted from reading the implicit, humorous, artful criticism of satire all the more in the context of reading such trenchant, direct, and explicit statements and analyses, also.

Satirists generally forget that many of their audience lack education in the points necessary to understand the attack, and to fully benefit from the art of satire, much as abstract visual art speaks more (and more emotionally) to those who have some familiarity with its prerequisites. It’s no coincidence that the satirical novel evolved alongside the literary form of the essay.

PS. I’ve said so before, but I just want to append that an additional difficulty with satire is that inventing fictional exaggerations as means to mock reality becomes more and more challenging when extreme and absurd realities are already playing out. How do you skewer an intelligence chief who built himself an Enterprise bridge as a control center? How do you mock Trumpish narcissism?

* Examples of “what is not seen” (because these factors are invisible, or only appreciated on a delay, or on alternate possible timelines):
impositions upon other individuals and groups, opportunity costs of various relative priorities, financial costs and other unwanted and unforeseen outcomes like bureaucratic/state empowerment, loss of individual autonomy, decline or replacement of competitive services, and legal/regulatory burdens, and finally, alternate methodologies for actually obtaining desires besides demanding them by political dispensation, which may not actually work.

** “For all I know, by the time this book is published my view of the Soviet régime may be the generally-accepted one. But what use would that be in itself? To exchange one orthodoxy for another is not necessarily an advance. The enemy is the gramophone mind, whether or not one agrees with the record that is being played at the moment.” — from Orwell’s intended preface to Animal Farm

Video

Video Journal, Episode 1

The Ruling System of Moralistic Cliches

There are some political cliches that are—or have become—virtually meaningless except for emotional cant (e.g. “liberal”).

There are some that serve as shibboleths for a faction (e.g. “social justice”).

And there are some that signify immediately that a person has no idea how the real world works, at all—perhaps because they forgot their proper cynicism about the rent-seekers who swarm all over politics, or perhaps because they were always too ignorant about some relevant and necessary subject (political science, economics, law, journalism, diplomacy, strategy, technology, etc.).

A great many cliches manage all three failures of political language, like “shipping jobs overseas” or the supposed “invasion of our borders.”

This is how people, possibly well-meaning people, habitually think and supposedly communicate when they engage in politics. And yet many expect to solve human social problems this way, instead of adding to them. Which is precisely what happens; rather than alleviating inequality or liberating people (or whatever people imagine they’re doing), such invested, balkanized ignorance is deeply useful to those who seek power or to capitalize on a position of power.

At best, largely powerless people experience a vicarious, illusory and temporary sense of power from crowing or venting their spleen.

Disappointment with the outcome is really ridiculous—absurd even. It’s obvious enough, should one stop to think about it. Repeating the same mistake over and over is not a formula for success.

Just imagine, say, taking the same moralistic, hierarchical, jabbering group approach to something practical, like building a house,* baking a cake,* balancing an account,* curing a diseased patient,* starting a business,* or writing a book*—all far simpler than meeting the needs of human society—and you may begin to get the picture.

Politics defined as mass problem-solving is a deeply foolish endeavor.

* Yes, all references intentional.

The lure of accessible, short, relevant writing

… It sounds good, all right.

Briefly considered a return to writing internet articles today, which came to mind from reading a couple of excellent ones from Jeffrey Tucker. Sure, he reminded me what a sociopolitical article can do well if written skillfully: apply a familiar and important theory to current events.

Well, it’s a familiar theme to me, at least, that modern economies incorporate (ha) far more economic fascism (corporatism) than generally recognized, and that the threat of fascist rhetoric mobilizing a more dangerous form of politics still lurks in modern day, outside of meaningless usage of these terms for political points, like “islamofascism” or calling every politician you hate a fascist. The point is really that the article is able to bring this theme to new people, for whom it isn’t familiar from reading Thomas diLorenzo and other Misesians twenty years ago. But I digress.

Then I came to my senses. Or rather, I decided to get back to work on the gigantic work I chose to undertake properly five years ago. Opportunity cost is real and working time is scarce. I’ve already decided that trying for a magnum opus that dwarfs and might eclipse all my previous commitments to paper (or, webpages) is worth the cost of creation, and I should see it through.

The thing is, extended literature can’t be matched. Short articles worth reading almost always descend from that kind of primary, essential work. Would Tucker have written this without the likes of von Mises in his education? I doubt it.

This means that if you think you have a shot at writing a great work of philosophy, political thought, literature, psychology, or anything else that might eventually inspire others to generate, second-hand, good articles like this, I think you really should. It’s not easy at all to work your way into that position, and not easy at all to do the highest level of work, for years. It has nothing to do with instant gratification, certainly.

Nor do you get the satisfaction of personally joining the barricades of civilization and intellectualism versus prospective President (!) Donald Trump. But sixty or seventy years from now, it might be nice (I say, understating the point) if enough people could think for themselves that a repeat of this travesty became impossible.

Resonating

Things the irrepressibly original Tom Ellard recently said:

Six years ago I took stock of the vampires and creeps that populate the ‘independent’ music industry and figured that there was nothing there for me anymore. The whole thing could blow it out its copious arse.

Thing is, music industry isn’t music, which I love and need and would still make if the last person on earth. So that wasn’t going to stop.

When we closed shop it signalled a whole bunch of new people in my life. Unlike the last lot they seemed bright and caring and to be really into what we had done. It was great to have new family but after a while it dawned on me that we’d swapped our vampires for undertakers. These new guys throw a hell of a funeral! They like funerals so much they dig up the old bones over and over again.

I love these guys, but they get all anxious if you mention any year past 1980 something and, you know, I ain’t dead yet. So I just did my music. The weird thing being that I started to get jealous of my old self.
Man, that guy got all the praise, the smug bastard.

Maybe I should have been working on some grand project that would throw music into the future but I like to listen to strange pop songs and so that’s what I have made. For the longest time I didn’t think they were worth sharing and then realised that was more pretentious than just putting them out here.

In a industry where every fool claims to be a genius all I am going to say is here’s my new tunes. I have reworked them 1000x each and have to stop.

Also, when his early 80s Severed Heads work was complimented:

Like many artists I am really happy with the things I am currently exploring, because it’s always about growing and learning. I’m happy that you like the things you mention but please understand that it was all awfully long ago, and so much has happened since that time it hasn’t the same meaning to me as it once did.

Yes.

I love and need the processes of thinking, creating, and writing—cascades belittled by these bottled words, when they happen. The degree of overlap between meaningful philosophy and the publishing industry, or academia, or indirect interactions online for that matter, are really beside the point.

Like Ellard, I have a secret ‘album’ that isn’t all that secret. (All right, mine is a grand project, but no one will believe that until or unless they’re changed by it.) It will be done when it is. When it’s done, I’ll likely move on, and gradually stop caring about it so much as I have. That will be when other people get the chance to care about what’s finished for me—or not.

I have had occasion to find out that my former efforts were an influence on various people in the past, either because I was referenced, or (transparently) copied, or complimented. I also have more experience in lamenting receptions that were not what I’d hoped for. The truth is that a thousand awards would likely be irrelevant in equal measure to obscurity, or perhaps more horrifying. Short of the miracle of being understood by someone, which rarely happens but delights me when it does, I suppose the only thing that matters greatly is my understanding and experience of what I’m creating at present; surely it is also creating me.

How odd, really, sloughing off these skins. That’s how art works, it seems. (Otherwise, you’re in marketing! Clinging to old things…) Even stranger if strangers try your old skins on. They’ll never know what they felt like when you were living in them.

No, that doesn’t matter, either way. The creator has already lost something, and must make another skin.

One of Nietzsche’s loveliest passages comes to mind:

Alas, what are you after all, my written and painted thoughts! It was not long ago that you were still so colorful, young, and malicious, full of thorns and secret spices—you made me sneeze and laugh—and now? You have already taken off your novelty, and some of you are ready, I fear, to become truths: they already look so immortal, so pathetically decent, so dull! And has it ever been different? What things do we copy, writing and painting, we mandarins with Chinese brushes, we immortalizers of things that can be written—what are the only things we are able to paint? Alas, always only what is on the verge of withering and losing its fragrance! Alas, always only storms that are passing, exhausted, and feelings that are autumnal and yellow! Alas, always only birds that grew weary of flying and flew astray and now can be caught by hand—by our hand! We immortalize what cannot live and fly much longer—only weary and mellow things! And it is only your afternoon, you, my written and painted thoughts, for which alone I have colors, many colors perhaps, many motley caresses and fifty yellows and browns and greens and reds: but nobody will guess from that how you looked in your morning, you sudden sparks and wonders of my solitude, you my old beloved— wicked thoughts!

Suppose you were the very last…

It’s not true, but for sanity today it seems most useful to suppose I am the very last soldier of humanism, of civilization, potential, and progress beyond the material, technological, presently-understandable—the very last alive and fighting, a secret partisan for a reformation of intellect, creativity, and spirit in the midst of a dead culture—all echoes, reactions, politics and other devouring shallow sensations, a last vaunting glory of wastelands that still look like cities. For then I am not worried to feel cut off from comrades, whom I no longer expect to find. For then I do not question whether it matters if my sacrifices go unrewarded and unheralded. For then a clear, stubborn answer to despair wells up in words like: fight on alone! Go down fighting! —the bold sentiment of a soldier of civilization who marches unrested through the cold to a university bookstore without a single student in it, a scouting expedition, perhaps to recruit a few dead thinkers. Quick, boys, over the (lap)top! and let us grimly write a few more badge-of-honor books, out of step with these times and full of resolve to seek wisdom, before the grave. And all thoughts of resignation to a few softening pleasures are for a moment forgotten in struggle for its own sake.

WriteHard

A meaningful loss to my research bookmarks: The Unofficial Stephen Jay Gould Archive

My attempted email to the Stephen Jay Gould Archive bounced, so I reproduce it here.

Hello, I noticed that the website is down. In case there are no plans to continue on with the site I wanted to say that I have found it to be a valuable resource and a wonderful gateway to a very important thinker. A lot of my thinking/writing has drawn on evolution and I’ve increasingly relied on Gould’s clarity on the subject, and I’ve been thankful to have the archive handy on the internet. Thanks for providing it as long as you have. I hope it will return. I note in the meantime that some pages are archived on web.archive.org, fortunately.

thank you,
Colin P. Barth

PS. The Wayback Machine/Internet Archive link I mentioned above: https://web.archive.org/web/20120915010723/http://www.stephenjaygould.org/