Culture and Satire: Taking Offense - by Jeremy Richards

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This essay is about:

A. Culture.

B. “Culture.”

C. Culture

As with any keyword, the evocation and implication of “culture” lives beyond a bare utterance. Without speaking the word we know it is there. The constellation swirling around culture blossoms into a Pollockian splatter of art, ritual, religion, custom, community, performance, boundary, horizon, and beyond, so that the status quo of culture’s utterance—an inchoate nod, a muddled context—demands a defamiliarizing shock, a shift in context to tilt the horizon.

To that end, this essay meditates on a single cultural event and the controversy it sparked: The satirical New Yorker magazine cover depicting Barack and Michelle Obama as Islamic terrorists. The analysis focuses not merely in the textual artifact and its conjunctural reception, but in the force of positionality beyond earnest and classically ironic, toward the ethos of New Sincerity.

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"The Politics of Fear" by Barry Blitt (from The New Yorker).

Satire presents an acute challenge in the deflected trajectory of intention and effect. As humor and commentary, whether satire is “spot on,” “misses the mark,” or splinters reception into a million subjectivities, the stakes are always cultural. On July 21st, 2008, The New Yorker published Barry Blitt’s now-infamous illustration, “The Politics of Fear.” This title, however, did not accompany the image, nor did any other written text beyond the magazine’s title, the price, and the date. “Satire,” said New Yorker editor David Remnick, “doesn’t run with subtitles.” The target demographic for The New Yorker—upper-middle class, educated, current—presumably knew that conservatives had been portraying the Obamas as threats, as “secret Muslims,” as extremists who disrespected the flag and demonstrated coded “terrorist fist bumps” to signal their conspiracy. But even isolating a “target demographic” raises the spectre of the culture wars, essentializing a particular geography, income level, and cultural literacy as maintaining a monopoly on decoding intent.

While "The Politics of Fear" is more aligned with classic irony than New Sincerity, the latter contains and transcends irony, hence offering a revised sentiment of reception. Musing on this central text, we see culture as the production, reflection, and provocation of other cultures qua positionality. Obama spokesman Bill Burton took a safe position: “The New Yorker may think, as one of their staff explained to us, that their cover is a satirical lampoon of the caricature Sen. Obama's right-wing critics have tried to create. But most readers will see it as tasteless and offensive. And we agree." The McCain campaign’s Tucker Bounds echoed these sentiments: “Tasteless and offensive.” [1] What remains in the subtext is whether this position is cultural or political. Can the two be separated? Author and artist Art Spiegelman, who carries a “cultural cache” for his Pulitzer-prize winning work Maus, defends “The Politics of Fear”: "It seems to me that showing the fevered image directly will be a possible way of looking at and dissipating that image," Spiegelman said. "I think, as a result, it's a fairly brave thing to do." [2]

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Taleb Alkardai holds up a copy of the New Yorker magazine cover (from National Public Radio). Photo by Timothy A. Clary

This dissipation flows from the classic definition of culture’s “intellectual, spiritual, and aesthetic development” (Burgett, Hendler 71), in both the reception and generative efficacy that follows. But since the “developments” compete in this “culture clash,” the dueling trajectories often collide and ricochet back to their origins, only to fortify their original positions as intractable “organic” positions. The danger lies in Roland Barthes’s caution against (in John Storey’s words), “the attempt to make universal and legitimate what is in fact partial and particular; an attempt to pass off that which is cultural (i.e., humanly made) as something which is natural (i.e., just existing)” (Storey 3). Our productions of culture are humanly made; so are our meanings. The genealogies, while often not top of mind, will affect conscious and subconscious inferences in our uses of culture(s), either in subtle, interpersonal uses or, as Yudice says, “whereby diverse social groups struggle to establish their intellectual, cultural, and moral influence over each other” (72).

Instantly, cultures respond to this magazine cover with distinct stakes: Political culture, Islamic culture, African American culture, popular culture, media culture, and aesthetic culture, all entangled in Obama’s role as a pop culture icon—a role that lends itself to bright lights and characteristics both amplified and drained of distinctions. Though the edgy authenticity of culture jamming may be dampened by The New Yorker's mass media status, the ethos of turning away still presents the tools of irony, co-opting, and recontextualizing that aim to expose the familiar for its funhouse mirror interior. The backlash, too, is a product of that jamming. In Michael Warner’s Publics and Counterpublics, he addresses the rhetoric of defamiliarization and its sometimes hostile reception: “At stake in the dispute is not just a difference of views about style but different contexts for writing, different ways of imagining a public” (142). Barry Blitt imagined a public pushed past the point of earnest saturation in the attacks on Obama. Following Blitt’s expression, we witnessed a public that split between this recognition and their various positions of taking offense.

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Jon Stewart (right) and Stephen Colbert (from Entertainment Weekly).

“Taking offense” is an active reception, even if that means moving the cultural target to greet the arrow. Once we “take” offense, where do we put it? The reaction to a modest satire as offensive implies that the target is vulnerable. In that, the pushing back against the putatively offensive text is less a counterattack then a defensive claim of fragility, a fear that a single text could deceive the collective perception of the culture at stake as other than it is. If the depiction of Islam, for example, were taken at “face value” through the symbols of militant clothing, weapons, and a burning flag, then the perpetuation of an ugly stereotype would undermine any intended value of the image. But that scenario requires an irony deficiency that speaks more to the crisis of reception than the culpability of the text. Even with the literacy to recognize irony and its inversion of the immanent, some stakeholders still perpetuate culture through “stories we tell ourselves about ourselves,” as Clifford Geertz would say, and in that narrative search out conflicts both real and imaginary. The cases where reflexive inquiry hits a brick or rubber wall are usually bouncing between the edges of a hyphenated blueprint--high culture, low culture, youth culture—or an assigned ownership of culture—yours, mine, theirs. In the OED’s recognition of “refinement of mind, taste, and manners,” there’s also the reflux of populism that dismisses any charge of refinement as “elitist” or otherwise tied to class, wealth, or pretense. In this case, is the way of thinking obstructed by the term or the reception? Self-righteous “offense” presumes a lack of agency and foregrounds an aggressively ignorant culture devoid of context and elasticity. The attitudes, sentiments, and ressentiments of a culture that prime reception and fuel response thus generate the further distinctions of that culture. New Sincerity does not feign an earnest naivete, nor does it hide behind errant irony, but moves through the spiral of critique and distance toward Paul Ricoeur’s conception of second naivete.

For a capacious culture, we need a capacious sentiment. Poet James Richardson recognizes an intimate portrait of this sentiment that could be a template for such a capacity:

"When a jet flies low overhead, every glass in the cupboard sings. Feelings are like that: choral, not single; mixed, never pure. The sentimentalist may want to deny the sadness of boredom in his happiness, or the freedom that lightens even the worst loss. The moralist will resist his faint complicity. The sophisticate, dreading to be found naïve, will exclaim upon the traces of vanity or lust in any motive, as if they were the whole. Each is selling himself simplicity; each is weakened with his fear of weakness." [3]

Any critical project that interrogates cultural production could be a legitimate enterprise, but so, too, could any cultural production that pushes beyond the status quo. In the scattered field of postmodern art, satire, pastiche, cultural mashups, and an array of other techniques have the potential to breach those occlusions of thought in the arid field of pure theory. Blitt’s original “Politics of Fear,” Entertainment Weekly’s visual quote with Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, and David Horsey’s meta-depiction of McCain’s analogous stereotypes each find a new ricochet of reflections between the cultures at stake. The “Trojan Horse” of popular culture cuts across layers of reception, using humor and novel stereotypes to encode a comment that keen observers can both laugh at and reflect upon.

In Zen Buddhist narratives, humor is often used as a shortcut to satori, jostling you out of a habit of thought or behavior with an unexpected smack. The koan is a special breed of interruption, in that it uproots certainty and leaves it floating between either/or, to a place of no-mind. Moving toward further development in our understanding of culture, the uses of New Sincerity may be one focus that has not been as exhausted as other approaches. Every question addressed in this project--genealogy and use, critical projects, occluded thought, and keyword constellation--can find an example through the lens of New Sincerity. More than a glib or aggressive use of its content, successful satire is an epi-phenomena of a certain saturation point of that content. The collective associations of the target audience must share a certain salience with the topic in order for the set up and the skewering to work. New Sincerity is not exactly “the future” of culture, insomuch as any sentiment could become a reified temporality. It is simply one front in Gramsci’s conception of multiplicity, and one that remains largely under-examined. A new culture invokes a new sentiment, but can only do so with a propulsion and grace that transcends its own weight.


Burgett, Bruce and Glenn Hendler. Keywords for American Cultural Studies. New York: New York University Press, 2007.

Storey, John. Cultural Theory and Popular Culture. Upper Saddle River: Pearson Education, 2006.

Richardson, James. Vectors. Keene: Ausable Press, 2001.

Warner, Michael. Publics and Counterpublics. New York: Zone Books, 2005.