Irony’s gone from liberating to enslavingThere’s some great essay somewhere that has a line about irony being the song of the prisoner who’s come to love his cage.” -David Foster Wallace

“[Phoebe Hurty] was funny. She was liberating. She taught us to be impolite in conversation not only about sexual matters, but about American history and famous heroes, about the distribution of wealth, about school, about everything.

“I now make a living by being impolite. I am clumsy at it. I keep trying to imitate the impoliteness which was so graceful in Phoebe Hurty. I think now that grace was easier for her than it is for me because of the mood of the Great Depression. She believed what so many Americans believed then: that the nation would be happy and just and rational when prosperity came.

“I never hear that word anymore: Prosperity. It used to be a synonym for Paradise. And Phoebe Hurty was able to believe that the impoliteness she recommended would give shape to an American paradise. Now her sort of impoliteness is fashionable. But nobody believes anymore in a new American paradise. I sure miss Phoebe Hurty.” –Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions

In the previous exploration assignment, I posed several questions regarding the role of satire and comedy in political discourse, viz. the following: ‘what is this role?’; ‘are comedy and satire beneficial or even healthy to our society?’; and, ‘what do they say about the consciousness of the American people?’[1] It’s fairly well-documented and almost unanimous in our class’ discourse that the role of comedy and satire is to make politics more accessible to the American public, or, to use a more stigmatized word with a very different connotation, to make politics more consumable. But while there is little (if any) doubt among us that comedy and satire serve to making politics easier to engage with and therefore more appealing to a wider audience, there is some dispute over whether this service is always beneficial, and there are those who believe that this popular demand for something easy betrays something far more treacherous about our collective way of thinking than one might suspect.

Humor to Subvert Containment Rhetoric

Recently, however, in response to user pmurphy54’s “Containment Rhetoric in American Politics,” some have posited that satire has a beneficent function in addition to making political discourse accessible. Although the article itself doesn’t immediately relate to the topic of comedy, two classmates comment that satire is an effective tool[2] to subvert the rhetoric of containment, especially when it is disseminated through forums of pop culture like social media and television. One user petscortnyc comments that “the ladies of social media are fed up and have re-claimed and flipped the phrase [‘Nasty Woman’] through a series of funny tweets, tee-shirts that say ‘Nasty Woman’ 2016, and the resurgence of Janet Jackson’s ‘Nasty Video’. [sic]”


Then user yimchristina replies to this comment, “We can see women reclaiming traditionally derogatory terms like ‘bitch,’ ‘bossy,’ and ‘nasty’ on TV and in literature as well; Tina Fey and Amy Poehler on SNL’s Weekend Update come to mind (‘bitches get stuff done’).” In addition to the idea that satire can be used as a tool of subversion or a method of mass mobilization, both comments demonstrate how the discourses surrounding both satire and pop culture [viz. television and social media] are deeply intertwined.[3]

How is Humor Gendered?

In light of how humor and irony have been employed to subvert patriarchal rhetoric, a question arises about how humor might be gendered, as discussed by user benmizel in his exploration, “Authenticity, Competency, and Humor: The Triple Bind.” He writes, “Humor speaks of authenticity, of unguarded moments, of sincere and involuntary emotional responses, of femininity. And because femininity is conceived of as being incompatible with competence, the humor of a female rhetor is conceived of as being incompatible with competence.”


In this way, to use humor as a woman is to “sacrifice the perception of competence.” With reference to women’s reclaiming the phrase “nasty woman,” user juliacanzoneri writes in her synthesis,[4] “While turning the insult into an ironically feminist battle cry may have helped some people to better understand Trump’s apparent lack of respect for women, finding humor in the phrase may have also softened its offensive nature.” In other words, the use of humor may have dampened the sense of outrage and detracted from the feminist cause by trivializing the gravity of the situation and compromising their perceived competence.

Satire as Inherently Kairotic

Comedy and satire can be said to have a powerful rhetorical purpose given that humor is intrinsically attuned to Kairos, “a propitious moment for decision or action.” In response to “Hillary’s First 100 Days,” user juliacanzoneri writes, “Something I enjoy about political satire is that it touches upon timely issues, which allow viewers and readers the opportunity to research the relevant issues for themselves.” This comment, made back in September before we introduced the notion of Kairos to class discussion, took on new meaning as I returned to it with the kairotic lens. That humor touches upon timely issues, we simply need to see the definition of “timely” to see the kairotic nature of satire: “done or occurring at a favorable or useful time; opportune.” Satire by its nature strikes always at just the right time, when the right opportunity presents itself, called into existence by rhetorical situation a la Bitzer. It is this very timeliness inherent in satire that presents an audience with the opportunity to inform themselves on current issues and in turn mobilize (though it’s worth noting that the informing and mobilizing won’t be done for the audience; instead satire requires the agency of the audience if it’s to have any real utility, which raises questions of passivity and complacency with respect to TV political satire programs.)

With that known, satire can imbue strong rhetoric “by cultivating an attunement to kairos” in the rhetor; indeed the writer of Louis C.K.’s ‘Weird Ethic’: Kairos and Rhetoric in the Network concludes his article thus: “By cultivating an attunement to Kairos and a recognition of the rhetorical value of exposedness in the network, as C.K. does, rhetors can learn how to practice in public and avoid the trappings of snark.”[5]


Satire and Agency

In my own exploration paper, I discussed the potential for comedy and satire, specifically on television, to both unite and alienate, mobilize and anesthetize the American public, and social media seems similar in his regard. Among us there has aptly been some dispute over this question of agency, and this question I think is the heart of this synthesis because, really, this question of agency is about whether satire, in plainest terms, is good. We’ve seen above how humor and irony have been used on social media, television, and T-shirts to subvert containment rhetoric and deconstruct patriarchy, as well as how satire is intrinsically kairotic in that it responds to current issues and seizes the opportunities presented by the present; in these ways, satire holds on the potential to mobilize. But does satire always breed activism? When it does, as user hweinberg707 states in her exploration, it “must be executed in a tasteful manner,” and I would add that it must be consumed tastefully as well, for if we are not conscious consumers we may fall prey to passivity, complacency and false consciousness, the mere illusion of doing something when in reality we are doing nothing and are complicit in the status quo.


In response to my post “Hillary’s First 100 Days,” user clogan10 writes:

“The popularity of [television satire programs]… show[s] that there is want among consumers to receive their political information in the form of humor, as opposed to the more stately and studious formats traditionally used.


“The growing place that humor hold[s] in our political rhetorical discourse could possibly be linked to the lack of agency many people feel within our current governmental system… The ability to be an agent of change seems out of reach for many…, but the insertion of humor, while a decisive indication of our times also sets a dangerous precedent for our future. A lack of political agency, coupled with a lack of political seriousness does not an informed and empowered electorate make.”


So it all comes down to this question of agency. Does satire on its own have the capacity to be an agent of progress, or does it merely present information and it is our responsibility as consumers to act on the information presented to us? Given the pervasive feeling of powerlessness, is it not dubious that TV political satires cater to this niche audience by instilling a sense of empowerment, regardless of whether that empowerment is real? And if we as an audience fail to act on the information presented in such satire programs, who is accountable for our passivity, the programs or us?


Whose Tool is it Anyway?

We’ve all heard that the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house, but I’m left wondering, when we use satire to dismantle the master’s house, just whose tools are we using? Do we truly believe that the impoliteness recommended by satire, the snark recommended by social media, will give shape to an American paradise? Now that this sort of impoliteness is fashionable, subsumed by the political mainstream, what tools should we use? And whose?

Irony is an Ouraboros.

[1] In a very Marxist sense of the word “consciousness,” meaning that consciousness is something inherently political, at least in the present context.

[2] And if you would be so kind as to indulge a solitary academic moment, I can’t help but wonder aloud whose tools we are using when we use satire to dismantle the master’s house.

[3] Obviously truncating this dialogue with an abstract platitude makes the whole thing seem really vague and undeveloped, but hopefully you were distracted by the abstract platitude, and the real point is you’re supposed to see how undeveloped it is and hopefully realize there’s a lot to develop. E.g. consider that TV and social media can be characterized by their culture of irony, which is an essential component of satire. Indeed, it could be said that TV and social media normalized the rhetoric of satire in political discourse, although n.b. satire is by no means something new to politics, e.g. political cartoons, but consider how these have evolved into “dank memes” and ‘snark.’ Talk about impoliteness being fashionable.

[4] Aptly titled “The Last Laugh…,” which I think ties nicely together with my question of who the tool of satire belongs to. If it is the political mainstream that is getting the last laugh, i.e. if it is the Master’s house that is appropriated the use of humor to serve its own agenda, the whole satire tactic seems to have backfired. How, then, are we to proceed dismantling the Master’s house?

[5] N.b. this writer praises Louis C.K.’s ability to attune himself “to the possibilities and predicaments of Kairos by not only responding to unpredictable rhetorical situations but also by constructing his own predicaments.” Here I’ve neglected to comment on how comedy and satire also construct timely rhetorical situations (a la Vatz) as a way of cultivating attunement to Kairos, perhaps because in the current political arena this sort of situation-constructing is, erm… not so, uh, cogent, to put it nicely. You know who I’m talking about, and here is a gap in the conversation where I would encourage further research.

*I wrote this footnote before the election, and in turns out that this sort of situation-constructing may be more convincing than I suspected, though I don’t think it’s clear or logical in accordance with the word “cogent.”