April 15, 2015 | Essays

Staring Down the Cool Kids

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An excerpt from the publication: Complex Social Change (2014)

“Does this even work? Has anyone actually used one of these successfully?” asked Wendy Coburn, during her Art Now presentation at the University of Lethbridge. We sat and contemplated the object in question: a turkey-baster projected on screen, nine feet high. Like much of Coburn’s work, this was a sly and witty commentary on our perceptions of particular kinds of lifestyles, making such perceptions salient while, at the same time, subverting them. The turkey-baster is obvious code for lesbian baby-making–the ingenious circumvention of the constraints of nature–but this particular baster, beautifully rendered in bronze, also bore an intentional reference to Jasper Johns’ Lightbulb I. In Coburn’s hands,[1] Johns’ metaphor for male genitalia thus became a meta-metaphorical homage (should such a thing be possible).

Sitting in the audience, I could appreciate art for art’s sake, but having spent a couple of hours in the library prior to attending her talk, I realized I was also in a good position to answer Wendy’s question. Yes, such things have been used, and yes, they really do work. Indeed, I had just been reading the first recorded description of artificial insemination in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, published in March 1799. The paper, by one Everard Home, Esq., is primarily “an account of the dissection of an hermaphrodite dog”, but, almost as an aside, it describes how “the late Mr. Hunter” had been asked to ‘remedy…[the] inconvenience” of a gentleman suffering from a condition known as ‘hypospadias’ that prevented impregnation by standard means (in this condition, instead of opening at the tip of the penis, the urethra opens somewhere along the shaft, or even the perineum between the scrotum and the anus). The ‘late Mr. Hunter”, a Scottish surgeon, thus suggested that the gentleman in question should “be prepared with a syringe fitted for the purpose, previously warmed; and that immediately after the emission had taken place, it should be taken up by the syringe, and injected into the vagina”. As Mr. Home goes on to note, “[t]he experiment was actually made, and the wife proved with child.”[2]

The parenthetical nature of this description is no accident. Despite the success of the procedure, John Hunter was so worried that his actions would be criticized, because of the way they transgressed certain moral boundaries, that he never formally reported on his experiment. Home’s description came some 23 years after the event, and after Mr. Hunter’s own demise[3] — a far cry, then, from the humorous public presentation of Coburn’s turkey-baster, and the knowing and delighted response of the audience.

This, for me, gets to the heart of complex social change: the process by which taboo subjects are transformed and achieve public acceptance; the way in which ‘received wisdom’ is questioned, undermined and overturned; the characteristics of those who effect change, who notice the problem and see the solution through to the end (or not, as the case may be). Finally, it highlights the way we must strive to avoid any form of Whig history, with its narrative of inevitable progress toward enlightenment, along with assumptions about when and where certain kinds of ideas first became possible. As Angus McClaren notes, Hunter’s findings deserve more widespread attention from historians because “no act so dramatically demonstrated the separation of the principles of sexual pleasure and procreation which is said to have occurred as the ‘modern mind’ emerged.”[4]

More specifically, this story sums up my experience of working as part of the Complex Social Change project: the serendipitous connections, the synthesizing of different sources to reach unexpected conclusions, and the marrying together of findings in arts, sciences and humanities in playful and creative ways, have all been tremendously rewarding. This is especially so, as these ideas feed into our teaching, as well as our scholarly endeavours, helping to reinforce the strong commitment to liberal education that we all share.

A scientist by training, my background is very different to the others on our team, but ideas relating to social change inform my work on both humans (where, as the above makes clear, I am interested in ideas relating to fertility control and reproductive decision-making in relation to the ‘demographic transition’ in Europe, the period that saw a shift from a high mortality-high fertility demographic regime to one of low mortality and fertility) and non-human primates, specifically monkeys of the cercopithecine family (where I am concerned with the evolution of sociality more generally, and the scope and limits of complex social structure and change among non-language-using animals). We have discovered how the monkey work in particular can inform the ongoing development of our project–which might seem surprising at first–by adapting the ethological methods we use to observe the behaviour of monkeys to conduct naturalistic studies of visitor behaviour and engagement in the gallery space. In addition, my involvement with the project has allowed me to develop other interests relating to social change and activism, encouraging me to broaden my understanding from a range of perspectives, and develop a more interdisciplinary approach. One such interest is the use of satire as an agent of social change. Again, Wendy Coburn’s work helps introduce the issue.

Along with presenting the work she has produced over the last few years, Coburn’s exhibition included a new piece produced exclusively for the University of Lethbridge. “Slut Nation: Anatomy of a Protest” documents the infiltration of a “Slut Walk” held in Toronto on April 3rd, 2011.[5] This protest took place following comments made by a police officer at a York University safety information session. The officer suggested that women should avoid dressing like “sluts” in order to reduce the likelihood of sexual assault. Although a formal complaint was made, and the officer subsequently apologized, some on campus decided enough was enough: the victim blaming had to stop, and the idea that responsibility for sexual assault should lie with women and their decision to wear certain kinds of clothing, rather than with men and their decision to commit rape, needed to be repudiated in the strongest possible terms. Hence, the public protest.

Coburn’s installation reveals how provocateurs, dressed as protestors, hijacked the image of the protest, both trivializing its message as well as acting in ways that might alienate those watching at home (and perhaps even some of those participating). As Josie Mills notes in her introduction to Coburn’s exhibition, had the protest focused on a highly contested or divided issue, the amount of time and energy put into the performance of the provocateurs might have been more easily explicable, but “given the peaceful, good-natured, and clearly justified goals of the organizers of the march, such intervention can only be understood as part of the pressures that discourage activism and support passive acceptance of the status quo.”[6] As such, it is a piece that resonates strongly with the Complex Social Change project, with its aim to understand how such pressures achieve their effects, and how they can be undermined, subverted and converted into positive action. Undeniably powerful, “Anatomy of a Protest” is exemplary in demonstrating how art can be an instrument of social change. It works both by encouraging us to laugh at the ham-fisted antics of the provocateurs while simultaneously inducing anger as we come to realize that tax-payers’ money has been used to undermine our democracy; it fires you up at the same time as it encourages you to laugh and let it all out.

This is no mean feat. Being British, I have a long-standing appreciation of efforts to poke fun at the so-called ‘establishment’, to prick pomposity and undermine the deference that characterizes our class-ridden culture. My admiration for the remorseless wit of Jonathan Swift, unstinting in his efforts to protest the treatment of the common people of Ireland, along with an appreciation of the somewhat less admirable antics of the Earl of Rochester, who dared to speak truth to power in the form of outrageously rude (in both senses of the word) poems about Charles II, led me to believe that prompting people to laugh at those who deserved to be laughed at was perhaps the most cunning route to changing the world. At Swim-Two-Birds and Catch-22 are among my favourite novels; South Park is one of my favourite TV shows; I have a long-standing love of the British satirical weekly, Private Eye, and its editor, Ian Hislop. Who doesn’t like to laugh, and who doesn’t hate to be laughed at?[7] If someone is clever enough to make you laugh and make you think, if someone has the capacity to use words as weapons to wound those whose behaviour is reprehensible, shaming them and forcing a reconsideration of their actions, then surely we have hit on the best way to remake the world for the better?

Well, maybe, maybe not. Recently, I have found myself retreating from this position. In part this is a reaction to the fact that we seem to have moved beyond satire, living as we do in a world that sells “Bic for her” pens (they’re pink! and shaped to better fit small lady-hands!), and where the spoof newspaper The Onion seems almost prophetic, rather than merely satirical (try this from 2001, for example: http://www.theonion.com/articles/bush-our-long-national-nightmare-of-peace-and-pros,464/ “Bush also promised an end to the severe war drought that has plagued the nation under Clinton, assuring citizens that the U.S. will engage in at least one Gulf-War level armed conflict in the next four years.”).

There is another reason, however, for my questioning of satire as tool of social change, one related to the above but distinct from it. All too often, laughter simply lets us off the hook. As the novelist, Jonathan Coe puts it, “laughter is not only an ineffectual form of protest, but…it actually replaces protest.”[8] Similarly, the political historian, Steven Fielding, argues that, in our willingness to accept amusing, satirical views of politicians as inevitably corrupt and useless, we embrace a ‘dangerous new stereotype’ that serves to reinforce our mistrust in the public realm; a mistrust that can be exploited by other political forces for its own ends. It is also “a convenient view, for it means we, the audience, the voters, are not to blame for anything: we are not to blame because we are the victims of a politics gone wrong.”9 Politicians are so appalling that there is nothing we can do but laugh at them.[10]

Steve Almond, writing in The Baffler, makes this point even more vehemently in his dissection of the success of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. According to Almond, Stewart’s and Colbert’s political humour is merely therapeutic: programs like The Daily Show congratulate the viewers for being savvy enough to see things for what they are, while remaining careful to avoid any real questioning of the status quo.[11] Indeed, it is not in Stewart’s and Colbert’s own interests to do so, Almond contends, for their livelihoods depend on a continuing parade of appalling neocons whose views they can disparage and mock–without them, they have no show–and so change is not, therefore, on their agenda. “What Stewart and Colbert do most nights is convert civic villainy into disposable laughs…[treating] the ills of modern media and politics as matters of folly, not concerted evil….What’s missing from this formulation is the idea that comedy might, you know, change something other than your mood.”[12] Almond contrasts Stewart and Colbert with the late American comedians Bill Hicks and George Carlin, arguing that they, and Hicks in particular, understood that comedy’s ‘highest calling is to confront the moral complacency of your audience”[13], and it is this willingness to present radical ideas unflinchingly that makes comic work endure. Consequently, it is South Park, the often scatological cartoon featuring poorly drawn 10-year olds, that Almond considers to be the truly radical political comedy of our time. Its willingness to be actively confrontational, savaging both right and left of the political spectrum alike, exposes the lazy assumptions and complacency of the viewing audience. The taboo topics tackled by South Park’s creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, are almost too numerous to mention, but include abortion rights, race, religion, and sexual orientation–all topics that tend to give people the vapours and lead to a frenzy of pearl-clutching.

Like Fielding, Almond’s ultimate conclusion is that, by presenting pundits and politicians as the one’s who ‘prey on a noble citizenry’, Stewart and his ilk absolve us from any responsibility to change things. But, as he notes, it’s not that simple: we’re the ones who watch the pundits, and elect the politicians. We’re the ones choosing to simply laugh at the world, rather than take action.[14] Of course, the same may well be true if you choose to watch South Park rather than The Daily Show, but you certainly feel a lot more uncomfortable watching the former rather than the latter, and it is a lot more difficult to pat yourself on the back for holding the right kind of smart, right-on liberal views. What’s more, you’re never going to catch Cartman unironically mooning over Condeleeza Rice, like Jon Stewart did.

Another problem raised by modern-day satire is captured by “Poe’s Law”: it is now impossible to present a parody of any form of fundamentalism that someone, somewhere, won’t mistake for the real thing. This itself reflects the way in which so much lunacy now pervades our world, that even the most obviously ludicrous stories (breast milk cures homosexuality!) are taken to be deadly serious. There is a marvelous Tumbr (Literally Unbelievable) devoted to the outraged reactions of people who mistake The Onion’s satirical news stories for real reporting.[15] Luke O’Neil, writing in the New Republic, suggests the proliferation of such sites is another a reason for dialing down the satire, offering another twist on Coe’s and others’ argument. As O’Neil suggests, satire works best “when it takes a lie and makes it seem true, not when it takes a truth and twists it into a lie” as many of these stories do, as when, for example, a story circulates that the President of the NRA is looking forward to the return of slavery.[16] Satire of this kind fails because, as O’Neil points out, it deflects attention from the rather disturbing comments that Jim Porter, NRA President, actually did make about the civil war. Once again, laughter serves to obscure, rather than skewer, the real issues and, once again, it allows us to feel superior when we get the joke, as though we have somehow gained the moral high ground.

So, what to do? Is it possible to get satire back on track as a means of forcing us to deal with unpalatable truths? I can’t pretend to know the answer, or have even the suggestion of one, but it is an issue that, through the Complex Social Change project, I would like to continue pursuing. Not least because there is clearly some connection between Coe’s point about laughter as a replacement for protest and the phenomenon of “Facebook activism” or “slacktivism.”[17] Supporting a cause by ‘liking’ it on Facebook has now been shown to reduce the likelihood that people will contribute to the cause in a more material, tangible way. Posting, commenting and liking make us feel like we’re doing something, when nothing is actually happening. As with satirical comedy, Facebook activism lets us off the hook: we are seen to seem to be caring, we have expressed our outrage, our solidarity and our commitment to the cause, and now we are done. Bruce McKay, as part of his liberal education class on activism, discovered that many of our students are happy to engage with social issues online, liking posts or clicking to sign a petition, but are wary of actively meeting with and talking to people about such issues in real life, and by extension, helping to take action that can really make a difference. Again, we currently have no answers for why this should be, and we are developing programs and strategies designed to help people, both students and other community members, become more actively involved. This is a need which is clearly felt by many of our students: when DodoLab visited my class, there was much talk about how people felt unable to engage in any form of activism or protest, because “no classes or seminars” in such things were offered at the U of L. Marlaina Buch’s suggestion that they improvise and just give it a go anyway was met with a lot of enthusiasm but also a certain amount of nervous laughter.

Perhaps the broader issue here concerns the uses of irony in modern culture. Indeed, we live in hyper-ironic times, times that make it possible for people to like the music of Celine Dion, say, in ironic fashion as a ‘guilty pleasure’, to wear certain kinds of clothes ironically, to dance ironically, to offer certain kinds of party foods in ironic tribute to the 50s (‘tuna Jello salad is the new sushi’). To look as though you really mean it can be social death, and the same may be true of activism and a desire to produce social change; it’s one thing to “like” something on Facebook, for this is, after all, an easily reversible action, and also one that allows a certain ironic distance to be maintained. It is quite another to act in earnest, and risk being seen as naive, idealistic and uncool by all the knowing, cynical cool kids. David Foster Wallace, writing about the influence of television on modern society,[18] says “irony and ridicule are entertaining and effective and…at the same time they are agents of a great despair and stasis.”[19] In particular, he discusses the “Joe Isuzu” commercials, that feature an ‘oily Satanic-looking salesperson’ telling a bunch of obvious lies about the Isuzu’s features, such as its ability to run on tapwater. As with arguments against current political satire, these ads “invited viewers to congratulate Isuzu’s ads for being ironic, to congratulate themselves for getting the joke, and to congratulate Isuzu Inc. for being ‘fearless’ and ‘irreverant’ enough to acknowledge that car ads are ridiculous and that Audience is dumb enough to believe them.”[20] Wallace argues that such tactics mark a shift from irony as liberating to enfeebling. Quoting Lewis Hyde, who said that “Irony has only emergency use. Carried over time, it is the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy their cage”,[21] Wallace expands on the view that irony can serve only a negative, ground-clearing function. It cannot be used to construct anything positive to replace the old hypocrisies it once exposed. For Wallace, persistent irony is ‘tiresome’ and ‘unmeaty’,[22] because it means that people’s views become impossible to pin down. In so doing, irony serves only to oppress. Irony means we don’t mean what we say, so what, Wallace asks, does it mean when irony is our cultural norm? That we never mean what we say? That it is, by definition, impossible to do so? Wallace suggests we most likely end up saying “how totally banal of you to ask what I really mean”, such that anyone who does so ends up “looking like a hysteric or a prig”. By suppressing the asking of such questions via the use of irony, ironic rebellion becomes tyranny.

Wallace does, however, offer an optimistic conclusion to his piece, although this can be hard to see at first, for he argues that the new rebels will be outdated before they even get started. They’ll be too sincere, quaint, repressed, backward. But they will be rebels because of their willingness to risk disapproval. The new rebels will stare down the cool kids. “[T]hey might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the ‘oh, how banal’. To risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Of overcredulity. Of softness. Of willingness to be suckered by a world of lurkers and starers who fear gaze and ridicule above imprisonment without law. Who knows.”[23]

Who knows indeed. And maybe the new rebels will not just be artists but young activists, who are willing to risk the same.

[1] I recognise this is rather unfortunate phrasing.

[2] Everard Home, An Account of the Dissection of an Hermaphrodite Dog. To which are Prefixed, some Observations on Hermaphrodites in General (London, England: Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 1776 -1886),162,

[3] Angus McClaren, Reproductive Rituals, (London, England: Methuen, 1984)

[4] McClaren, ibid. p. 14

[5] Nicholas Maronese, “Slut Walk Toronto: April 3, 2011,” Excalibur, Apr. 3, 2011,http://www.excal.on.ca/news/slutwalk-toronto/

[6] Josephine Mills, “Acting Out,” University of Lethbridge Art Gallery, November 7- December 20, 2013 http://www.uleth.ca/artgallery/?p=6419

[7] Of course, satire doesn’t always involve laughter, and laughter is not necessary for something to qualify as satire (and vice versa).

[8] Jonathan Coe, Sinking Giggling into the Sea” London Review of Books, Vol. 35, July 18, 2013  http://www.lrb.co.uk/v35/n14/jonathan-coe/sinking-giggling-into-the-sea

[9] Steven Fielding, “Comedy and Politics: the great debate” Ballots & Bullets, September 29, 2011 http://nottspolitics.org/2011/09/29/comedy-and-politics-the-great-debate/

[10] Steven Fielding, “Why the Thick of it is Safe in Comedy” The Guardian, September 9, 2012 http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/sep/09/thick-of-it-safe-comedy

[11] Steve Almond, “The Joke’s on You” The Baffler Vol.20, 2012 http://www.thebaffler.com/past/the_jokes_on_you

[12] Almond (2012), ibid. p. 32.

[13] Almond (2012), ibid. p. 36.

[14] Almond (2012), ibid.

[15] Hudson Hongo, “Stories from The Onion interpreted by Facebook” Literally Unbelievable , May, 2014 http://literallyunbelievable.org/ (access DATE?)

[16] Luke O’Neil “No More Fake News! An earnest argument against satire” New Republic, May 10, 2013 http://www.newrepublic.com/article/113163/daily-currant-free-wood-post-satire-no-more-fake-news (access DATE?)

[17]Kristofferson, K., White, K. and J. Peloza,  “The Nature of Slacktivism: How the Social Observability of an Initial Act of Token Support Affects Subsequent Prosocial Action.” Journal of Consumer Research. DOI: 2014 10.1086/674137 .

[18] D.F. Wallace, E unibus pluram: television and U.S. fiction In: A supposedly fun thing I’ll never do again. (New York: Little, Brown and Company,1997), 21-82.

[19] Wallace (1997), ibid, p. 49.

[20] Wallace (1997), Ibid, p. 61.

[21] Wallace (1997), ibid, p. 67

[22] Wallace (1997), ibid, p. 67

[23] Wallace himself practiced what he preached and became a fine example of the ‘new sincerity’. His Kenyon commencement speech has now become a classic, but for another fine example, read his short story “Good people”.

Bibliography

Almond, Steve. “The Joke’s on You” The Baffler Vol. 20, 2012 http://www.thebaffler.com/past/the_jokes_on_you

Coe, Jonathan. “Sinking Giggling into the Sea” London Review of Books, Vol. 35, July 18, 2013 http://www.lrb.co.uk/v35/n14/jonathan-coe/sinking-giggling-into-the-sea

Fielding, Steven. “Comedy and Politics: the great debate” Ballots & Bullets, September 29, 2011 http://nottspolitics.org/2011/09/29/comedy-and-politics-the-great-debate/

Fielding, Steven. “Why the Thick of it is Safe in Comedy” The Guardian, September 9, 2012 http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/sep/09/thick-of-it-safe-comedy

Home, Everard. An Account of the Dissection of an Hermaphrodite Dog. To which are Prefixed, some Observations on Hermaphrodites in General London, England: Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 1776-1886.

Hongo, Hudson. “Stories from The Onion interpreted by Facebook” Literally Unbelievable , May, 2014 http://literallyunbelievable.org/

Kristofferson, K., White, K. and J. Peloza, “The Nature of Slacktivism: How the Social Observability of an Initial Act of Token Support Affects Subsequent Prosocial Action.” Journal of Consumer Research. DOI: 2014 10.1086/674137 .

Maronese, Nicholas. “Slut Walk Toronto: April 3, 2011,” Excalibur, Apr. 3, 2011, http://www.excal.on.ca/news/slutwalk-toronto/

McClaren, Angus. Reproductive Rituals, London, England: Methuen, 1984.

Mills, Josephine. “Acting Out,” University of Lethbridge Art Gallery, November 7- December 20, 2013 http://www.uleth.ca/artgallery/?p=6419

O’Neil, Luke. “No More Fake News! An earnest argument against satire” New Republic, May 10, 2013 http://www.newrepublic.com/article/113163/daily-currant-free-wood-post-satire-no-more-fake-news

Wallace, D.F. E unibus pluram: television and U.S. fiction In: A supposedly fun thing I’ll never do again. New York: Little, Brown and Company,1997.

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