Lecture: "Satire and the Public Emotions"

March 25, 2019 - 4:00pm

Location and Address

Humanities Center, 602 Cathedral of Learning

“Poetry makes nothing happen” (W.H. Auden, “In Memory of W. B. Yeats”, 1940): what if this is also true of satire? Satire is the most obviously worldly of artistic modes, commenting directly on current events and people. When we read or view a really good piece of satire, we are confident that its targets must have shrivelled up in their hearts and changed their ways—or at least that the public subsequently rejected them, leaving them to die in ignominy. It seems our intuitive reaction is broadly wrong. At least as defined by political results, the gloomy, Audenesque conclusion is much closer to historical truth than the heroic view. However, if satire never (or very seldom) changes the course of history, that it achieves nothing does not follow. It functions to mobilise and express the harsh emotions of anger, contempt, disgust, and disdain on the part of creators and audiences. Some of the robustness of free political expression in liberal democratic traditions derives from the interplay of shaming and shamelessness generated by satirical practices.

Satire is a mode that appears across many art forms and communication media. Saying broad things about it beyond truisms is difficult because ‘getting’ satire is particularly dependent on publics having the context front of mind. Rather than scatter my illustrations across many fields, my project is to concentrate on a classic field, eighteenth-century British literary satire, and a current one, political cartoons and some of the controversies they raise. In doing this, I aim to revive a debate about satire, one focused more on its public effects than its forms and
meanings.

Event Flier

with Robert Phiddian (Flinders University, English)