Thursday, February 28, 2008

Satire's layers

In the news today:
Increasingly autonomous, gun-totting [sic] robots developed for warfare could easily fall into the hands of terrorists and may one day unleash a robot arms race, a top expert on artificial intelligence told AFP.

~Agence France-Presse, via Yahoo! News [Australia], "Automated killer robots 'threat to humanity': expert", 27 February 02008.

It's always interesting, I find, to witness an outlandish science-fiction scenario migrating gradually towards mainstream credibility (a process that may culminate, at last, in canonisation as reality or common sense). That's Dator's second law at work, folks.

(See Neill Blomkamp's short videos, or the Terminator movies for earlier, more entertaining and vivid explorations of this type of possibility.)

Meanwhile, by another route entirely, this thematically related satirical segment from Onion News Network also came to my attention today:

In The Know: Are We Giving The Robots That Run Our Society Too Much Power?

The above spoof on the news channel roundtable discussion is worth a nod for thematic reasons, but remains, I think, good -- not great -- satire.

So let's aim our sights a little higher. Following the mention in my most recent post of the role of humour in some futures interventions (Oil and water), I want to pay tribute to the inspiration that great satire can offer.

Great satire inspires, in strategy and sensibility, what I consider to be a most promising direction for producing effective -- by which I mean aesthetically pleasing as well as perceptually transformative -- future artifacts. Whatever the medium (literature, film, performance, or something else), a coherent use of its familiar forms sets up the satirist to subvert the expectations thereby established. The medium+genre are the vehicle, and the satirical/futures value comes from the satirist's unexpected left turn. (This is more or less the strategy of culture jamming, as practised by Adbusters, among others.)

It seems to me that the more plausible and cohesive the usage of the medium and its tropes -- the better the voice, character, or genre is captured -- the more powerful the licence earned to comment upon it. Rhetorically, the medium+genre package seems to function as a sort of Trojan Horse: via verisimilitude to the familiar form, it can pass muster, yet allow other interesting things to creep through besides. Satire at its best is discursive deconstruction for hedonists. (This usually accessible form of deconstruction can be contrasted instructively with its linguistically ornate, and often humourless, philosophical counterpart, which seems dedicated to the enjoyment of intellectual masochists everywhere -- and, in true Sadist tradition, typically starts out life in French.)

So, one dazzling instance of satire from the annals of literature is Jonathan Swift's classic essay "A Modest Proposal" (01729) about poverty in Ireland. It uncannily captures a certain type of cold, bureaucratic analysis, allowing him to comment on its dehumanising and bloodless modus operandi when he gets around to suggesting, in an impeccably rational tone, infanticide and cannibalism.

Fast forward two or three centuries, jump to a different medium altogether, and the reality-TV look and feel of the BBC television series The Office (and to a lesser extent the U.S. remake) allows its creators to lay bare both the tragicomic emptiness of that lifeworld, and the delusory behaviour of some of its inhabitants. Similarly, consider the genius of a actor like Christopher Guest (for instance, as Nigel Tufnel in the classic 01984 mockumentary This is Spinal Tap), or Sacha Baron-Cohen (inhabiting any of his comic personas, but especially Borat). These are characters so convincing that a casual onlooker may not realise they're watching a performance; yet those who are aware revel in the layered duality, applauding both the real and surreal elements, the message and the medium.

The consummate political satirist may well blur the line between reality and play in ways that are deliberately, and strategically, baffling to its whole audience at least temporarily (and to some part of the audience, terminally). The convincing manner of the mischievous performance troupe The Yes Men, for example, gets them into conferences and TV shows where they audaciously go on to mount surprise campaigns of "identity correction", by posing as representatives of large multinational organisations. (For a discussion of identity correction, see this pdf, pp. 6-12.) Here's a terrific example of how they operate. In 02004, BBC World interviewed "Jude Finisterra", a spokesman for Dow Chemical played by Yes Man Andy Bichlbaum, making a shocking on-air announcement...

(For much more in this vein, see the feature-length 02003 documentary about the Yes Men here.)

And at its best, the mastery of writers at The Onion takes no prisoners in playing off the self-importance, vacuity, and other foibles of news reportage, using the whole range of tropes at their disposal.

The following Onion clip (which I also saw for the first time today) is, I think, a beautifully judged bit of satire...

Diebold Accidentally Leaks Results Of 2008 Election Early

Fantastic. It nails just the right tone, pacing, and visual style. (It compares to a great news-report satire show on Australia's ABC television in the early 00s, CNNNN.) Also, I think it's neat that, even though it has a real-life commercial sponsor, a similar comic sensibility has found its way into those lead-in and lead-out ads on the clip. (Often, video/TV ads do horrific violence to the universe of a show.)

Finally, the following lovely piece goes meta on diagrammatic abstractions, journalistic indifference, and the manufacture of reporterly expertise -- thereby dismantling their authority far more effectively, elegantly, and enjoyably than, for example, an essay. Or a blog post.

Breaking News: Series Of Concentric Circles Emanating From Glowing Red Dot

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