"People Have to Watch What They Say": What Horace, Juvenal, and 9/11 Can Tell Us about Satire and History

By Jones, William R. | Helios, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

"People Have to Watch What They Say": What Horace, Juvenal, and 9/11 Can Tell Us about Satire and History


Jones, William R., Helios


In the days and weeks following the attacks on New York and Washington on 11 September 2001, a related assault began on the place of irony and satire in America's new post-9/11 culture. For example, on 18 September, Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter told the news website Inside.com that America had reached "the end of the age of irony"; on 21 September, Camille Dodero wrote in the Boston Phoenix of the end of "unbridled irony" for a "coddled generation that bathed itself in sarcasm"; and on 24 September, in a Time magazine editorial, Roger Rosenblatt also declared irony dead, its demise constituting "the one good thing [that] could come from this horror." (1) Although a small number of media pundits came to the defense of irony, events in popular culture seemed to reflect the accuracy of the views of Carter and Rosenblatt, as many television productions that relied on ironic satire went temporarily (and, in at least one case, permanently) off the air in the face of a wave of public animosity.

The attack on ironic satire after 9/11 helps to illuminate one of the most contentious theoretical issues surrounding the genre: the role of history in the interpretation of satire. What is potentially useful to the literary critic/historian about moments of intense cultural crisis is that such moments tend to make satire's 'historicity' (2) more readily apparent. Since satire unapologetically engages with "those things which men do" (quidquid agunt homines) (3) as Juvenal (1.85) wrote, the genre must invariably engage with profound shifts in the cultural ethos in a dialogic manner; however, it is when engagement turns to conflict during moments of crisis that satire is subjected to repression, and a repressive response often provides illuminating details about the nature of the conflict between the arbiters and the critics of a society. As one historical example, Annabel Patterson (1989, 83-4) describes the Elizabethan government's effort to ban satire in the politically unstable summer of 1599 as "a struggle not only for the popular imagination but also, obviously, for control of the media by which that imagination was stimulated." Patterson's (1989, 86) contention that Elizabeth's government could not tolerate "representational instability" resonates with modern times as well. During the heavily contested ministerial elections in Italy in 2006, for example, Prime Minister and media mogul Silvio Berlusconi invoked Italy's par conditio law, which ensures equal time for all political views, as a means to prevent Italian comedians and satirists from deriding his administration on those television networks that were beyond his control. Satire's historicity and the frequent desire to quell its unorthodox influence are recurring issues in cultural history; after all, if in actuality satire "has little power to disturb the political order," asks Dustin Griffin (1994, 153), "then why have governments thought it important to control?" The battle to control the tenor of representations of the social ethos is an inherently ideological battle as the forces of authority work to maintain the orthodoxies that sustain it by suppressing those who would undermine such orthodoxies.

The repressive acrimony leveled at satire after 9/11 provides a kind of case study of the dynamics involved in the dialogue between contemporary satire and historical change. The radical shifts in America's political, economic, and psychological climates of the time both influenced and were influenced by the prevalent modes of cultural criticism. Although space does not permit an exhaustive discussion of all the factors involved in the recent example of satire's historicity, a broad outline may help to illuminate not only the historicity of contemporary satire but that of Roman satire as well. Such a comparison of contemporary America and ancient Rome is open to a host of well-founded objections, yet the comparison is made with such frequency as to merit serious consideration. …

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