In his recent article, “What Satire Does: Lessons from the English Renaissance for the Great Age of American Satire,” MSU’s Eric Vivier turns to old texts in order to offer new ways of understanding the role of satire in the present. The article is published in Genre: Forms of Discourse and Culture journal and is available through MSU libraries.
In the article, Vivier, associate professor of English and a faculty fellow in the Shackouls Honors College, explains the difficulty of finding an exact definition for satire, noting that many scholars disagree on its categorization and rely on different elements in their definitions. But Vivier’s comparison of satirical pieces across time shows that the elements that remain consistent have more to do with rhetoric—or the art of persuasion—than with form or tone.
Vivier first examines an English Renaissance text called The Whipping of the Satyre to demonstrate satire’s range of potential rhetorical effects. He then demonstrates that these qualities remain consistent throughout time by examining The Onion’s coverage of mass shootings.
Vivier argues that in both cases, satire works to make someone or something look bad. But he also demonstrates that satire can have a range of unintended rhetorical consequences: satire can make the satirist look bad, create unwanted associations between the satirist and the satiric target, reinforce rather than alter preexisting opinions, encourage oppositional satirical responses and even polarize the political community.
By highlighting the similarities between American satire and satire of the English Renaissance, Vivier offers to redefine satire as a rhetorical genre rather than a literary genre or mode. And by examining what satire does—both intentionally and unintentionally—Vivier challenges the optimism of recent scholars who have seen satire as an unambiguously good thing in American culture and politics.
Vivier will be teaching a class called “Satire and Its Discontents” this summer as part of MSU’s Honors Study Abroad Program in Oxford, England.
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