18 December 2005

Doonesbury on Evolution and Creationism

This one from Doonesbury had me chortling into my cornflakes!

This Doonesbury comic is a great example of what is called Menippean satire. For those who like a dose of academics with their humour, here's an excerpt from my essay, "The Fifth Law of Media" that explains such comic shenanigans in a larger context:

Today, comedian Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart demonstrates both the form and intent of Menippean satire. All of these writers share a common purpose. “Menippean satire mirrors a world that is in ceaseless motion and where nothing is certain… [I]ts authors’ intentions seem, in nearly every case, to demonstrate the disabling and limiting conditions under which the human intellect operates” (Blanchard, 1995, p. 11). Eric McLuhan is more specific about the role Menippean satire plays in creating awareness among an otherwise oblivious public.

As an active form, a Menippean satire goes to any extreme necessary in order to frustrate objectivity or detachment on the part of the reader. … Cynics, and Diogenes in particular … were often referred to as ‘laughing philosophers,’ for they refused to take seriously any political, private, social, intellectual, or other kind of pretentiousness” (McLuhan, 1997, p. 5).

Instead they create what Eric McLuhan calls the “cynic effect” – a satirical response that creates new awareness by awakening the dulled perception of the reader. Thus, Menippean satire is not merely humour or irony, but humour or irony with a specific intentionality.

It is, according to Northrop Frye, the intentionality that distinguishes satire from mere irony, that is a component of many humorous – and even tragic – forms. “Two things, then, are essential to satire; one is wit or humor founded on fantasy or a sense of the grotesque or absurd, the other is an object of attack” (Frye, 1957, p. 224). Irony itself is the “humor founded on … a sense of the grotesque or absurd,” as Frye describes. Irony is the delivery vehicle; it is the attack that transforms irony into satire. As Frye observes, “The chief distinction between irony and satire is that satire is militant irony” (p. 223).

Eric McLuhan points out that in each age of an advance in technology, the Menippeans are there to reveal “the readers’ ignorance of and assumptions about that culture, and on the technology of language as an up-to-date storehouse of the culture’s experience and perception” (McLuhan, 1997, p. 12). For example, he associates Rabelais with the printing press and Flaubert with the newspaper. Sterne’s Tristam Shandy and Swift’s Tale of a Tub satirize the five divisions of classical rhetoric as an attack on “the prevailing abuses of religion and of learning” (ibid.). He concludes that today,
a Cynic would promptly stand you on your head and force you to see your world aright; your ground, anew, and long enough for the fresh awareness to settle into habit. In so doing, the Cynic writers simply bring up-to-date centuries- or millennia-old techniques for reading the Book of the World (McLuhan, 1997, p. 13).
The specifically Menippean forms of satire are not merely reactions to the absurdity of the modern condition, but rather create the consciousness of that absurdity. It is the consciousness and intentionality that gives these forms of satire their force and effect to heighten awareness, particularly of the underlying context, or ground, of the situation.

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Anonymous said...

Fifth Law of Media pdf link is broken.

Mark Federman said...

Thanks, anonymous! The link is fixed.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting.

What is the 1997 Eric McLuhan article to which you are referring?

Mark Federman said...

The Eric McLuhan reference is McLuhan, E. (1997). The Role of Thunder in Finnegan's Wake. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.