Lyndon Hood – Speaker in Jest, Lower Hutt

Sunday, November 19, 2006

The are certain terrors in publishing satire.

One of them is the lingering fear – verging on certainty – that someone will take you literally.

Partly because of the risk of accidental defamation. You end up saying some quite bizarre things about specific persons on surface reading; if a typical reader is likely to think there's something in them, you too could join the ranks of the sued, or a the least the recievers-of-angry-complaints. Thus, all the (intentional) satire I write for Scoop is explicitly labelled.

But also because it feels like an artistic failure. If you have spoken in irony and been understood to be straighforward, your prized act of communication has, in at least one case, bombed.

It's fair to say that those who choose literature's left-hand path are probably more attuned to nuances of language than the general population, so what seems obvious irony to the satirist might slip past some – especially in written media such as print or the web, lacking inflection and emotional cues. I for one am not prepared to follow each sentence that might contain more than one layer of meaning with a ;-), and I'm not convinced it would help anyway.

Even the fact that you obviously cannot be serious is not necessarily enough for some people. Even if they are smart enough, a the fearless reportage of Fighting Talk has shown some unfortunate might (particularly on the web) arrive at it without the context that makes it so obvious.

And, whether you use big flashing lights or always paste the word "satire" in front of every story, some schmuck won't get it. Even if they spot that it's satirical, they can miss the intent. Satire thrives on ambiguity, and ambiguity is the problem we are talking about.

Oh, the irony.

By way of example: when David Farrar tried his hand at a fake news story, it was so written that, despite satire from DPF being unexpected, you'd have thought readers would realise. But this is the internet we're talking about, and some of the comments do not support our initial assumption.

More topically, National Radio's afternoon 'Panel' slot has recently taken a break from it's most common theme of opinionated people proffering their opinions of things they know nothing about.

Deborah Coddington's vocal indignation (on Friday) at Matt Nippert's performance-art response (on Wednesday) to her article is perhaps understandable but rather misses the point. In fact, given that Nippert's piece was really a personalised demonstration of how (basically) accurate statistics can be used to cast some wildly unfair aspersions, the fact that Coddington was offended rather proves his case.

Incidentally, and not wishing to overly participate in the argument with having read the thing: Coddington's defence of the actual article was that it was actually about (from memory) how an entirely new kind of crime was rising, that it was coming from asia, was on the rise, and we needed to be more aware of it.

I don't know if the actual article supports these claims or the assertion that that's what the article is about. But I will observe that, if it does, Coddington has been done a tremendous disservice by the editor who came up with the cover line (perhaps another advertising standards case there). And also that her original Panel defender, Deborah Hill Cone (on Monday), seems to have got the wrong end of the stick too.

So in the midst of all this satire-related angst, it's really rather refreshing to see these guys. The Yes Men are couple of activist provocateurs who have turned phishing into guerilla political theatre.

Through their fake WTO website (man, but the WTO has a cheap-looking website), they secured an invitation to the ivy league Wharton Business School's Africa Business Forum. And took the opportunity to expound an intiative of corporate slavery for Africa.

Their press release (with a hastily-compiled article from me and some links), sent as the "World Trade Organisation", seems to me one of the better pieces of satire I've seen this year: barbed, wide-ranging, well-constructed and with a conceit that invites comparison with Swift's Modest Proposal. All presented in a form that also undermines the credibility of their targets.

My enthusiasm is no doubt influenced by a number of biases, and probably enhanced by a piquancy similar to that which makes graffiti more interesting than equivalent gallery art.

All sorts of interesting issues there, but the thing I felt compelled to blog about is that, contrary to what I said above, these guys do satire designed to be mistaken for the real thing.

Something else that happend on the Panel during the week was that Jim Mora quoted Peter Cook, quite possibly the funniest man ever, on the effecitiveness of satire. Something about: "... the satirical Berlin caberets of the 1930s, which did so much to prevent the rise of Hilter and fascism".


Nonetheless, I submit the The Yes Men should be considered awesome.