Against Satire and For Personality Cults

The Shitter

Embarrassingly, one of my first breakthroughs on the road to taking Marxism seriously was when, as a young boy, someone explained to me that the queen must piss and shit like anyone else. It came as quite a revelation to the embodiment of sheltered suburban decency that I then was (and, depressingly, still more or less am).  That she was somehow ‘human’ like the rest of us was almost unthinkable, the discrepancy between regal appearance and faecal truth too much to grasp.

But the saddest thing is that most current political satire hasn’t really moved beyond this infantile act of revelation: in public, politicians are virtuous statesmen, whilst behind closed doors they’re fallible, vindictive, power-hungry maniacs. In public they are eloquent spokesman, in private they shit all over themselves and all over us. The problem is that everybody already knows this, and hence there is no revelatory or liberatory potential in such comedy. ‘Cameron’s a good, immigrant-loving man, nudge nudge, wink wink!’ is not exactly explosive stuff.

As Žižek, following Peter Sloterdijk, has long been telling us, we live in an age whereby ideology functions through cynicism. Everbody knows that politicians are corrupt, that capitalism is unjust, that the poor are being screwed over, but we act as if we didn’t know. Ideology used to be conceived as ‘false consciousness’, which could be remedied by revealing to someone the truth of his or her situation. In other words, it was an epistemological affair. And this, we might argue, was when traditional satire was politically progressive. But now ideology is no longer ‘false consciousness’; it is that which we do despite knowing that what we’re doing is perpetuating a system we know to be destructive of humanity.

It is in this age of cynicism that satire becomes a reactionary force. What do shows like Have I Got News For You? or The Daily Show effectively do? They make us laugh at what we already know. They constitute a sort of balm, soothing the daily pain of knowing that I’m acting in a way contrary to almost all reasonable evaluations of the state of the world.  They create an atmosphere of entertaining resignation.

And here I’d like to move on to a related topic. Part of this whole age of cynicism, it seems to me, is that obsession with debunking the aura of greatness surrounding certain revered figures. If you want to make a film of Homer’s epics these days, you can’t present these figures as towering above their epoch; you have to drag them down into the nitty-gritty of the daily grind. If you want to make a TV program about Caesar, you have to show him shagging half the women of Ancient Rome. Even superheroes now have to have a ‘human’ side!

Back in the day, of course, this was progressive. If the Establishment told you that Dante was great, you went looking for the material historical circumstances that made Dante possible in the first place. But today I have the sneaking suspicion that this simply plays into the hands of the enemy.

And that is why I would like to suggest the benefits of the personality cult. Liberals shy away in horror from those massive icons of Stalin and Mao, symbols of dictatorial atrocity, but they forget their hidden powers. In Soviet or Chinese propaganda it was common to be told tales of superhuman heroics – Stalin takes on a whole battalion of the imperial army with his bare, crop-coarsened hands…and wins! – which no one could be expected to believe, and which no one did believe. The point, however, was that instead of dragging these figures down into the depths of bureaucratic mundanity, it swept gazes up and out, and into the impossible gyres of history! What we need now is not to engage in apathetic satire, posting re-runs of the ‘Ten Best Anti-Thatcher Gags’ so as to make us chuckle into our spreadsheets; we need to outsoar the easiness of cynicism and dare to be great, dare to be mocked, dare to be epic heroes in the age of Peep Show.

(The comic bathos of that last sentence should give you some idea of how difficult is our task).


3 thoughts on “Against Satire and For Personality Cults

  1. saki says:

    “the biggest warm handshake, glass of sherry, pat on the back, pair of fluffy slippers to the Establishment you could possibly dream up”
    Chris Morris on HIGNFY

    Satire is effective when it’s incisive and provocative, when it challenges us, the satire you criticise doesn’t reveal anything we don’t already know. Yes, it might be to a point witty, but it isn’t really saying anything new about the system.

    A second point, and I’m not entirely sure what you say is meant to be taken entirely seriously, but by your admiration of the personality cult are you suggesting that having caricatured leaders would be better than having real ones? The obsession with the human side of politicians annoys me, they can be spreading nutella on their scrote and paying rent boys to lick it off, buying all the pay per view porn they want and I wouldn’t give a toss as long as it didn’t affect their ability to do the job (as long as I’m not paying for the porn of course).

    1. Daniel Hartley says:

      You’re quite right: what I say isn’t meant to be taken entirely seriously. It’s more a provocation to thought than an attempt to convince. On the other hand, I wouldn’t want to say that it’s only a provocation. 90% of satire these days is reactionary (I love the Chris Morris quote!). My point with the personality cult wasn’t so much the idea of caricatured leaders (I’m certainly not suggesting a return to Stalinism!) as the element of heroism involved. The problem with British humour, and with British thought more generally, is the same as its strength: it drags things back down to earth, to boring empirical reality. Often that can be really useful – when Obama makes his great speeches, it’s important to drag him down to the US-backed decimation of Gaza and the West Bank. At the same time, however, the default position of someone British is a self-mocking, sarcastic mindset, unable even to take itself seriously enough to want to bring about dramatic change. Hence why I like the old propaganda – no one believed it literally happened (the mythical murdering of an entire imperial battalion) but it nonetheless sets one’s sights on the vast horizon of history, and not on the bathetic follow-up to that in the form of a cock joke. I love stuff like Peep Show, but in an age of general apathetic, sarcastic resignation, I’m wary of its political effects.

  2. Ira Nayman says:

    I would have to disagree with you about the nature of modern political apathy. I would argue that many people are apathetic about politics because they realize that their interests are not represented in political discourse or by the choices they are given for their elected representatives, and they feel there is nothing that they can do about it. Think rats getting random electric shocks (eventually, they lose they desire to do anything). Bad satire may reflect, and even reinforce this perception, but it certainly does not create it.

    I also think your brush is too broad. The Daily Show is often juvenile and often trades on the easy political stereotypes that you rightly criticize. However, it also features incisive satirical commentary on American political ideas across the spectrum, as well as the American media. I think you do the show a disservice by dismissing it in toto.

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