Satire is a lesson, parody is a game

This is a quote by Nabokov in a 1967 interview when asked if there was a distinction between them and why he preferred the term parody. Nabokov also stated in a 1964 interview with Playboy magazine:

“I have neither the intent nor the temperament of a moral or social satirist”

This explains why he disliked Orwell’s 1984, which he viewed as too didactic. It is true that there is a paradoxical area when satire of totalitarianism could become too preachy or partisan, and is in danger of telling you what to think. Parody however is an equal opportunities offender, even leading to the concept of self-parody. Personally I think Nabokov was rather harsh on Orwell, who I think was an important writer. Often an instructional viewpoint is needed to break through the apathetic layer of varying thicknesses we all cover ourselves in. Nabokov was probably being coy about his use of satire also. If you overtly declare your work as satirical it leads the reader to assume you are putting forth a specific political or social opinion, whereas Nabokov preferred the reader to be unburdened from the authors proclivities. In any event, it was Orwell’s 1984 that resonated in popular culture more than Nabokov’s Bend Sinister or Invitation To A Beheading (which, at risk of stating a truism, might be too funny to be taken seriously. There are certain passages Lewis Carroll would have been proud of)

I had been thinking recently about the differences between different approaches to satire on TV. For me there are variances but I found them hard to pin down beyond this is/isn’t funny, which is purely subjective. Nabokov’s thoughts on satire and parody seem to inform on the topic.
When watching US satire, like the Daily Show, the feeling I got was that it is very earnest and from a particular political viewpoint. The lack of right-wing or even conservative satirical voices seems to be the political right’s own fault, as many of those voices are a screeching incoherence. Stephen Colbert is a master satirist and often does poke fun at the left under the guise of a right-wing firebrand, but mostly his outrage makes fun of his own constructed persona . It’s a shame though because as a leftie liberal I don’t want just my own opinions reflected back at me offering no challenge. The informational content in satire presented in a journalistic context addressed directly at the audience is in danger of being didactic and the satire lapsing into sarcasm. On the other hand serious issues can be addressed in this format and a single clear voice on a topic can illuminate and inform.
This probably follows from the US taking its politics, or at least the political process, more seriously than the British. A part of the American dream is that ordinary Joe can one day make it to be president. There is no British analog to this, largely due to class cynicism and the PM being seen as the ultimate political wonk. When Americans see a broken political system they expect better and demand to know what fool was in charge, whereas the British see the whole political caste as fools and expect nothing better. The US satirists have distrust and the Brits have, not exactly apathy, but sometimes flippancy. These are big generalisations, anyway there’s more.

Currently on British TV what is termed satire is usually on game shows with a quiz format. These shows sometimes degrade into banter and a competition of who can get their voice heard or shoehorn in a part of their standup act. The serious content is often lost and your thoughts on any issue come down to who the funniest comedian on the panel is. The most popular show is Have I Got News For You, which has regular panel of a conservative satirist (small c) and a surreal improvisational comic. There is a strong root of surrealness in British satire, which could be more accurately termed parody (?). Even in groundbreaking shows like Spitting Image, The Day Today and Brass Eye there’s a sense of absurd spoofing and bizarreness, which aligns closer to parody than satire.
Commentators in the UK have often lamented at the lack of anger in British satire, probably due to lapses into silliness and light-mindedness. A strength of this approach however is that it’s nonpartisan; everyone, of any political stripe is open to mockery.

There are numerous other avenues for satire and parody of course other than TV, including standup comedians, newspapers, magazines, websites etc. I chose TV because it has a wide audience of viewers with general interests. As the lines blur between how media is broadcast and consumed maybe different satirical formats will be created and new voices heard by a general audience that hasn’t specifically sought out that content. In the meantime does British parody need more satire, and US satire need more parody? Do we Brits need to take back Orwell and Americans embrace their inner Nabokov?
These are questions dependent on my earlier hypotheses, which are probably wrong, so take them as rhetorical.

Pointless information

The internet is a repository of lots of useful information, but it’s also awash with pointless information. The largest seam of irrelevance, from which nuggets of throwaway statements and angry rantings can be extracted, is user opinion. Just look on any website comment section. Luckily these postings tend to be quite ephemeral and drift into oblivion after a while so it’s largely pointless getting worked up about their pointlessness.
No, the nuggets of pure pointless gold that I find quite amusing are an affliction of journalism. Below are two from the past few days of news browsing.

“The three-bedroom property from which Mr Young fell 60 feet is next door to an apartment once owned by the Beatles drummer Ringo Starr”
This was in an article that had already highlighted that Mr Young was a millionaire living in a swanky district. Maybe the journalist felt that finding a celebrity who once lived close by was great investigative journalism. The insertion of celebrity into journalistic articles seems to be increasing and indicates that writers often feel readers won’t find merit in the article unless it contains a relatable pop. culture reference. We can only imagine the shock of the neighbours to seeing the unfortunate Mr Young if we have a mental image of Ringo Starr stood in his doorway watching events.

“The power produced by the three engines is equal to that from 12 Hoover Dams”
This is in reference to Nasa’s new Orion space craft, but what are we supposed to take from this information. It’s to simplify and give a sense of scale I suppose but an article could be written about a dam being built that will generate the same power as a Nasa Rocket. Without useful information about either it simultaneously insults the readers intelligence while assuming a level of knowledge they probably don’t have. This is a version of the ‘if the national debt was dollar bills piled up it would reach the moon!’ sort of statement. This is more succesful at generating a sense of scale as everyone knows how thin a dollar bill is compared with the distance to the moon. Care needs to be taken though to put these comparisons in context to avoid the reader drawing incorrect conclusions; While the national debt might be enormous, is it large or small in a historical context

Pragmatism Ex Machina

Following the recent news of the Virgin Galactic malfunction and crash I thought I’d write something about these type of endeavours. Many have said limiting these projects would hold back science. Virgin Galactic, SpaceX etc, aren’t scientific pursuits however, but merely joyrides for millionaires. I don’t agree with limiting them either; if people with enough cash want to go into space and peer at the earth that’s great and they’ll have an incredible experience, but they’re not pushing back any scientific frontiers.
If I was offered the prospect of going to Mars and being the first person to set foot on the Martian soil I’d gladly take it, even if it might be a one way ticket. My name would go down in history. I wouldn’t be taking a tiny step towards getting humanity to the stars though.
We’ve just about reached the theoretical efficiency limit of jet engines and chemical rocket engines. We could maybe squeeze another 10% out, but that’s it. Rockets are not going to get people into space in the way space travel is often thought of i.e. beyond Mars, the Solar System or even across the galaxy. This might seem obvious, but it could be that no future technology can take us very far from this massive rock we currently reside on.
A corollary to all the amazing scientific discoveries of the past 150 years is that the knowledge we gained has also put a limit on what we can achieve. We know, for instance, all the stable chemical elements and their isotopes. That there’s an element lighter than hydrogen or a stable element with 300 protons is extremely unlikely if all the universe obeys the same laws (there’s no reason to think it doesn’t). This means there’s a limit on the strength, robustness and longevity of anything you can construct. We don’t know what a lot of the universe is made of but it would be a logical leap too far to say that one day we will know what dark matter/energy is… and we can manipulate it, and it can solve a tangible engineering problem we have. The effects of the fundamental physical forces at a macroscopic level are understood for all practical purposes. If one day electromagnetism and gravity are combined in a unified theory this wouldn’t make getting a payload into orbit any easier.
If science is limitless then you are free to believe anything. This type of thinking is more akin to religious faith rather than scientific thought. Whenever there is an insurmountable problem regarding space travel the argument generally goes that ‘we’ll figure it out in the future’ or ‘if we use this unproven (and often impractical theory) we can do this or that’ or ‘if we can travel at 0.1 times the speed of light then…’ (an ambitious premise to build an argument on). This is akin to an ontological argument; that if we can conceive of an idea then it can exist in reality. This is flawed logic. The idea that mankind has a grand destiny in populating the galaxy and beyond is analogous to a theological framework. It’s instinctive to think this way; we like to think there is a point to our existence and are predestined to greatness, set apart somehow from the natural world.
These statements could come across as overly pessimistic and similar to statements made at the end of the 19th century when some thought every useful object had already been invented. Many point to the car and air travel as proof that seemingly impossible things can be done. The car was not a scientific problem however, it was an engineering one. Small explosions producing a force on a piston, changing its momentum and driving an axle wasn’t outside of known physics and chemistry before the first auto-mobile. The engineering problem of making parts small and robust enough was the major hurdle. Likewise with flight, even though the equations were unknown people knew flight was possible just by looking at nature. Humans are incredibly impressed by their own constructions; the pyramids, skyscrapers, computers etc. Termites and ants have been building giant elaborate constructions for millions of years and the brain is much more complex and efficient than any computer. Through the relatively simple trial and error process of evolution nature has accomplished more than we have in many areas. Yet we think we can manipulate gravitons (not even known to exist), fold space or journey through wormholes.
In fiction there’s often the story of bringing a person from the distant past back to life in the present day. It’s true that person would initially be amazed by the modern world. After a few weeks and months what may strike them is how similar life is however. The main changes that have occurred are that we can journey from place to place quicker, we can exchange information almost instantly and we die less from disease. Major steps forward, but in all other aspects life is generally the same. Electric lights, kettles, fridges etc. are wonderful inventions but they all work using the same fundamental forces and heat exchanges as their crude predecessors.
Christopher Nolan’s space epic Interstellar has just been released at the cinema, which portrays a journey to find a new world after the earth has become unable to produce food. I haven’t seen the film so can’t make any judgement on how good or bad it is. There is a slightly worrying political message in the film that if we ruin the earth and its environment it’s not a major problem because we can just move to a new planet. This set-up is a convenience so the film’s protagonists and the audience can journey into space, but if taken totally seriously seems to indicate some curious priorities on behalf of mankind. I’m not sure if the film addresses the problem that scientists and engineers can’t work out how to produce food after an environmental disaster but can construct an Alcubierre drive or similar enabling faster than light travel (speculative, unproven, impractical). It’s a science fiction film so plot devices can be fantastical without being a major problem, but confusing science fiction with reality can be a problem.
There’s an incredible amount of exciting research at the moment in genetics, neuroscience, biochemistry, robotics, cybernetics etc. that are pushing forward our knowledge of the world and ourselves. Research that seeks to make our lives sustainable and the earth environmentally secure seem to have more to offer in the long term.

TL;DR – I’m not advocating limiting science research. I’m saying that what we know of the natural world limits what we can achieve and our flesh and bone bodies limit what we can endure.