Thursday, September 14, 2017

Functional Defenestration

It’s almost been a Friedman unit since I published anything in this joint so, with due deference to that old standby public service pamphlet, What everyone should know about blog depression, and a head nod to Bertrand Russell's note In Praise of Idleness, here goes some throat-clearing toli.

I. Defanging Satire (or Editorial Genuflections in the Internet Age)

Defanging satire in the age of the internet (New Yorker edition)

A highly paid editor at The New Yorker is now intervening to neuter the bite of Andy Borowitz's normally savage satire. The first injury came a few months ago with the retitling of the column and RSS feed from "The Borowitz Report" to "Satire from The Borowitz Report" as if to say “we must protect you from being a moron in a hurry”. Then the lasting, almost fatal, wound was the recent move to change the contents of the feed summary, which used to be the first few sentences of the article, to instead actively bash you over the head with a spoiler warning that each article is "a satirical report". Apparently the reader needs to be informed upfront that they are about to read a humorous article and protected from the dire possibility of being spoofed.

In other words, even for the most potent source of written content (and the New Yorker proclaims itself to have "the best writing anywhere"), it now of paramount importance to maintain its listing as a Google News "source" (and now with Facebook's Zuckerberg apparently faking concern about clickbait and fake news and the like, the audience needs to be coddled). The bean counters (and search engine optimizers) have run the numbers and, on the evidence, it is clear that telegraphing an article's intentions, and blunting its impact is worth the downside risk and what, I rather think, is grievous damage to art.

Up until a few months ago, the feed summary would have been the following (a pithy defenestration of age-old hypocrisy)

WASHINGTON (The Borowitz Report) — The pornography industry has likely suffered permanent damage as a result of its unfortunate association with the Texas senator Ted Cruz, industry sources said on Tuesday.

It is soul-deadening to contemplate the considerable effort expended to actively sabotage noble hatchet jobs.

The only concession to art is that the editor didn't additionally prepend "Satire" to article titles as I noticed smaller publications starting to do routinely 12 or so years when Google News started being a dominant source of web traffic.

And here Dear Reader, as I wrote the foregoing sentence and began winding up to a thoroughgoing rant, I realized that I had been down this path before. Indeed I left a community (Blogcritics) back when its writing guidelines started to ask that writers explicitly tag their work and the site started messing with titles. The injunction then was that we needed to telegraph and prefix "Satire" to titles '(if you "make things up" or "bend the truth" notably to make a point, or for comedic effect)'.

Searching through the archives, I even found a cri de cœur written on the topic, Husbanding the Blogcritics Commons, a jeremiad-in-vain as it soon became a case of This Boring Headline Is Written for Google.

It is a disappointing development a decade later, that ostensibly powerful media outlets have thoroughly succumbed, even as one cannot deny their economic logic, pace Buzzfeed. And yet I remain a maximalist on the issue.

The story, I suppose, is about capitalism in the internet age. Per Jeff Hammerbacher by way of Allen Ginsberg, it is a case of "The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads". Per contra, we could harken back to Slim Charles's folk wisdom from The Wire: "Game's the same, just got more fierce."

The existential question posed is how do we weigh the competing demands of popularity (as expressed by the Google News imperative) against whimsy (as expressed in satire). Sacrificing whimsy at the altar of attention is not a price worth paying, and I am yet to be convinced otherwise. Needless to say, I dissent.

II. Attention Mongering

Apropos attention, for a good decade, say right up to the Charlie Hebdo massacre, and much to my consternation, a note I had hastily written On the importance of biting satire was regularly the top search result on Google about satire. It has since found its proper obscurity, but my unexpected Googlejuice in the interim meant that the occasional student writing a term paper on “why satire matters”, “significance of satire”, “importance of satire” etc. would start mining this blog.

The early web was a great equalizer, one in which my rants occasionally trumped the combined insights of Jonathan Swift, Will Self and the like, hell even the encyclopedic Wikipedia was lagging in the Anglophone internet. Even as Jon Stewart and company started a revival of the satiric tradition in America, the clicks kept coming my way.

I don't know if I ultimately managed to convince 15 readers of the paramount importance of savage satire as opposed to the milder form that Americans favor, but I feel my ultimate insight is worth restating:

I like my satire savage. It should be vicious, biting and deeply heartfelt. The targets should feel a sharp wound. The whimsical and comic artefacts of the best satirists are side-benefits; their purpose is really to serve as social barometers and canaries in the mineshafts of our communities.

III. On Satire

Satire is a sort of glass wherein beholders do generally discover everybody's face but their own; which is the chief reason for that kind reception it meets with in the world, and that that so few are offended with it. But, if it should happen otherwise, the danger is not great; and I have learned from long experience never to apprehend mischief from those understandings I have been able to provoke: for anger and fury, though they add strength to the sinews of the body, yet are found to relax those of the mind, and to render all its efforts feeble and impotent.

Jonathan Swift - The Battle of the Books
Satire is an art form that thrives best on a certain instability and tension in its creator. The satirist is always holding him or herself between two poles of great attraction. On the one side there is the flight into outright cynicism, anomie and amorality; on the other there is the equal and countervailing pressure towards objective truth, religion and morality.

Will Self - Junk Mail
[Will] Self sees himself paradoxically both as a moral satirist and as a social rebel who is more interested in shocking his middle-class readers than in reforming them. "What excites me," he has said, "is to disturb the reader's fundamental assumptions. I want to make them feel that certain categories within which they are used to perceiving the world are unstable"

— Gillian Glover, as quoted in Brian Finney's The Sweet Smell of Excess: Will Self’s Fiction, Bataille and Transgression.
Of all the gifts of the pen perhaps the most fraught with danger is that which resolves itself into satire. It is indeed difficult to distinguish between cynicism and satire, perhaps the former is born of disappointment perhaps the latter is born of humour. Let it remain so and it cannot be called debased, let it become cold and let it die.

— Patrick Braybrooke writing on Hilaire Belloc as Essayist in Some Thoughts On Hilaire Belloc

Instability fundamentally disturbs markets which is why even the threat of boycotts so unmans even the most cynical modern corporations. The reverse of the coin however is that whimsy, that most valuable human concern, and its close counterpart satire thrive as disturbances to the mundanity of life. Reconciling whimsy in all its messiness to the demands of hard-nosed capitalism remains a struggle and yet struggle we must. For better or worse, we must humanize capitalism.

IV. Orphaned Thoughts

I once spent forty minutes on a subway sitting opposite a group of engineers and salespeople that worked at Functional Fenestration. They were attending a conference in Oakland about window hardware and automation, of all things. I was fascinated with their technical argot, the intricacies of the actuators, track and carriage systems and door automation that they were discussing. I marveled at the engineering arcana, and the fact that the windows and doors that we take for granted could have such complexity. Their deconstruction of the merits of some of their competitor's offerings and their strategizing about how to market the new feature of whatever widget they had just come up with (a slide handler if I remember correctly) drew me in. The intensity of the back and forth between the marketers and the technical folks reminded me of a comedy of manners of sorts, office politics writ large. Hypnotized as I was by the language and the context, I immediately imagined a novel or short story, something in the vein of Colson Whitehead's The Intuitionist and the title came unbidden, Functional Defenestration.

Most ideas are destined to be half-formed and ultimately, I never got beyond the few pages scribbled in my Moleskine, a meditation about a man unmoored by capitalism. The first sentence remains:

Man, it was hard to compete against those guys at Functional Fenestration, they were intense.
Run with it.

Soundtrack for this note

A playlist for those tilting at windmills.

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