‘Satire: Deaths, Births, Legacies’: Conference Report

York St John University Student Researcher Tom Young reflects on his experience assisting at ‘Satire: Deaths, Births, Legacies.’

‘Is satire dead?’ This was the question posed by Drs Jo Waugh and Adam James Smith at their transhistorical, interdisciplinary conference, ‘Satire: Deaths, Births, Legacies’, held at York St John University on 2 June 2018. 

Given that three days earlier this photo was doing the rounds on social media, the question seemed an urgent one.

Kim Kardashian, pictured here flanking President Trump.

On the same day that this jarring image went viral, Smith and Waugh posted a collaborative work of opinion and commentary titled Satire Seems Dead When the Truth is Unsayable’ on Words Matter, the YSJU Literature Programme Blog. This thoughtful and provocative essay doubled as a manifesto for their then forthcoming conference, establishing the grounds for their intervention and foregrounding a host of scholarly lines of enquiry. 

The article identified the statement “satire is dead” as being itself a satirical device, deployed “when the truth is uncertain [or] when the truth is certain, but unpalatable”. Unsurprisingly, the image of Kim Kardashian’s meeting with President Donald Trump was used as the post’s cover image on social media.

Smith and Waugh’s essay established the idea that not only is the proclamation that satire has dies a satirical device, it is one that has been used in periods of social and political extremis since at least the eighteenth century.

The conference opened with an introduction from Smith (itself a gentle satire on the standard opening remarks heard at conferences all across academia), followed by four panels, a keynote address from Dr Daniel Cook, and concluded with closing remarks from Waugh.

The first panel was ‘Women and Eighteenth-Century Satire’, chaired by Smith. Katie Snow, PHD student at the University of Exeter, began the panel with her paper on ‘Failures of Femininity: Representations of Transgressive Maternity in Late Eighteenth-Century Satirical Prints’. Snow analysed eighteenth-century satirical prints that perpetuated the notion that women should be maternal at the expense of the self.

Snow was followed by Grainne O’Hare, PHD student at Newcastle University, whose paper was titled ‘Nasty Women: Caricature, Calumny and Celebrity’. O’Hare investigated the defamation of socially mobile, politically engaged women in satirical prints during the early 1780s and she identified that the meticulous exercise of analysing eighteenth-century prints can sometimes feel like picking apart a Taylor Swift music video for a Buzzfeed journal.

Rayna Rossenova, PHD student at the department of English and American Studies at Sofia St Kliment Ohhridski (Bulgaria), concluded the first panel. She presented her paper on The Sylphid and Mary Robinson’s Social Critique’, arguing that satire was Robinson’s method of resisting dominant ideologies through creative literary interrogation.

After a quick coffee break, Waugh chaired the second panel, ‘Satire In Extremis. The first delegate to present was Alice Monter, doctoral student at Universite Paris Diderot and University of Liverpool. Monter’s paper was titled ‘“The Very War is Made for Peace”: Uses of Satire and Plain Speech in Shaping the Narrative of British Peace Negotiations with France 1711-1714’, focussing specifically on the writings of Swift, Defoe and Arbuthnot. Monter identified partisan strategies prevalent in the early eighteenth-century of attributing the ideologies of political opponents with that of foreign powers. This paper also clarified that though satire is typically punitive and lacerating, defensive satire from a position of power is quite different and can often involve casual appropriation of an opponent’s rhetoric.

Following Monter was Phillip Cortes, doctoral candidate at the University of California, presenting his paper ‘The Lash and The Flesh’. Cortes addressed the biting, lacerating satire in the writings of Dryden and Swift, that sought to first punish their readers, provoking passionate reactions which ultimately prompted critical engagement and moral reflection with the world around them. 

To wrap up the second panel, Dr Penny Pritchard, Senior Lecturer at the University of Hertfordshire, presented her paper titled ‘“Dying for More Readers”: Satire in the Early Modern Funeral Sermon’. Pritchard’s paper identified the unusual practice of appropriating the funeral sermon form for satirical purposes and encouraged delegates to consider the problematic exercise of picking apart satire from invective and libel.

After lunch, the third panel, ‘Cultures of Satire in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Century’, was chaired Phillip Cortes. Dr Karen Williams of Roehampton University began with her paper ‘“They Are Such As Children Will Not Understand”: Satire in Early Nineteenth-Century Children’s Literature’. Williams provided an introduction to and investigation of satiric texts for juvenile readers, particularly Pappillionade narratives in thematic conversation with William Roscoe’s The Butterfly’s Ball and the Grasshopper Feast, such as Catherine Ann Dorset’s The Peacock at Home and John Harris’ The Council of Dogs. Echoing Cortes, Williams concluded that what it is that satire does, is that it defamiliarises the world. 

The next paper was ‘Oscar Wilde v. The Establishment’ from Steve Folan, an independent scholar from the Oscar Wilde Society and editor of the Lewis Carroll Society Newsletter Bandersnatch. Folan addressed the apparent decline in the potency of satire in recent decades, identifying a cosiness of today’s establishment satirists in comparison to that of Oscar Wilde’s rejection of social safety and expectation.

The Thick Of It: A Cosier Kind of Satire?

Concluding the third panel was Dr Alice Brumby of the Centre for Health Histories at the University of Huddersfield with her paper ‘Tommy Talk: War Hospital Magazines and the Cartoons of Satire, Resilience, and Healing’. Brumby identified the satire appearing in WWI hospital magazines as defying our contemporary expectations; rather than the satirical humour being used as a weapon against ranking officers, it provided a healing platform of solidarity for wounded soldiers and the nurses who cared for them.

The final panel of the day, chaired by Waugh, was ‘Satire: Cycles and Traditions’. It opened with ‘Satire as History, History as Satire’ by Dr Morgan Daniels, Senior Lecturer at the London Centre of Arcadia University. Daniels identified the anxiety of the death of satire as a reluctance to accept that satire is childish, which he stated spoke volumes about the respect (or lack thereof) we have for children and their satirical capacities.

Ashleigh Whittle, MA Creative Writing student at York St John University, concluded the final panel. Whittle’s paper focused on the Black Mirror episode ’15 Million Merits’ and the way in which it reflects the commodification of the self at the expense of dignity and humanity in talent shows like The X Factor.

Over the course of the four panels, satire had been recognised, analysed and identified as a living entity in a variety of forms and genres, from every position on the political spectrum, throughout the past three centuries.

Dead? Not in the slightest. Undead? Perhaps.

Following a final break for coffee and introductions from Smith, keynote speaker Dr Daniel Cook of the University of Dundee delivered his paper on ‘Swift and Satire’, a crash course on the godfather of satire, Jonathan Swift. Cook began by inspecting a few of the many appropriations of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels in popular culture, including one depicting the recent grilling of Mark Zuckerberg.

Cook then addressed the problematic nature of Swift’s satire by highlighting the rules and ethics of the satirist according to political cartoonist Martin Rowson (who believes in “punching up, not kicking down”) and introducing Howard Jacobson’s “anti-Swiftian” novel Pussy, written in immediate response to the election of President Trump. Cook continued to stress the challenge of identifying irony in Swift’s satire due to the satirist’s conscious intent of vexing his readers:

“The Chief end I propose to my self in all my labours is to vex the world rather than divert it”

(Swift to Pope, 29th September 1725).

Cook showed that Swift’s desire to vex manifested itself in fascinating displays of meticulous dedication to his jokes; he wrote under the guise of a variety of personas, killed off his literary opponents in faux eulogies, and even bought land in Ireland seemingly for a gag in which he would propose building a monument to himself in his poem ‘Drapier’s-Hill’, only to then follow with ‘The Dean’s Reasons for not Building at Drapier’s-Hill’.

Swift did not do satire by half-measures.

Waugh concluded the day with closing statements. She addressed the entangling relationship between Twitter and satire (coining the term “Twatire” in the process) and identified the contemporary anxieties of the death of both. She identified anxieties of the conference itself being satirised by comedian Stewart Lee, following efforts to contact him for contribution, which were answered by his agency with a frank but expected “Thanks [but] this is quite unlikely”. Empathetic laughter ensued as Waugh expressed concern that Lee’s future stand up shows may “include some reference to the vain and foolish lecturers who presumed upon his time in this naïve fashion”.

Stewart Lee, the 41st Best Standup Evee To Stream on Spotify, for whom proclaiming the death of satire has become a regular routine.

I can’t help but feel it would be a hilarious victory on the conference’s behalf if it were to fall victim to the satirist’s sting.

Finally, Waugh addressed the notorious self-satirising entity: Donald Trump. Although he may seem too surreal to be targeted, the fact remains that he continues to be satirised regardless. Waugh argued that if the truth is unpalatable, and what Robin Williams once stated is indeed true, that “satire is alive and living in the White House”, then we can’t make it more palatable by satirising it. But that’s the point. By consistently dedicating ourselves to satire, we fight back against the dangerous temptation to concede to foul realities, allowing the indecent and unjust to become palatable. And as for the offensive, the unsayable, Waugh identified that this has never really been a concern for the best satirists: the challenge is to offend the right people, for the right reasons.

And after all, surely if the internet has taught us anything, it’s that even if satire was completely and utterly dead as dead can be, the relentless meme community would still flog the hell out of it. Why? Because they can.







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