Humor scholar James E. Caron discusses his new book on “Truthiness”

James E. Caron retired as Professor of English at the University of Hawaiʽi, Mānoa, where he taught American literature for thirty-six years. He has published articles on satire, the tall tale, antebellum comic writers, laughter and evolution, Mark Twain, George Washington Harris, Frank Norris, Nathaniel Hawthorne, William Faulkner, Charlie Chaplin, Hunter S. Thompson, and Bill Watterson. In addition, he has published Mark Twain, Unsanctified Newspaper Reporter (2008) and co-edited a collection of essays on Charlie Chaplin, entitled Refocusing Chaplin: A Screen Icon in Critical Contexts (2013). His new book, The Poetics of Satire: Postmodern Truthiness and the Comic Public Sphere, was published May 2021 from Penn State University Press. He is the former president of the American Humor Studies Association and senior associate editor of its journal, Studies in American Humor.

The book is divided into two sections. The first makes an argument for defining satire of all sorts in all historical moments as having four elements: play, critique or judgment, ridicule, laughter. In addition, two paradoxes structure satire: 1) it is both serious and nonserious speech; 2) it uses ridicule to promote social justice. Its potential for promoting change stems from its ability to a–muse its audience in significant ways, that is, satire entails a two-step cognitive and affective process, encouraging its audience to muse upon the issue(s) embedded in its comic performance after laughing. That process has the potential for a metanoia in the audience, a change of mind about a particular issue or issues at hand.

If Descartes had been a comedian, he would have said I think; therefore, I laugh (je pense; donc, je ris). My theory of a–musement to explain satire’s effect on its audience moves in the opposite direction: I laugh; therefore, I muse (je ris; donc, je réfléchis).

The second section uses speech act theory to sort through contemporary examples of satire. This section also contains my efforts to present the postmodern comic. In addition, I trace postmodernity’s Enlightenment lineage, a link crucial to understanding how satire operates in the modern world. In my view, postmodernity as an aesthetic is no impediment to the production of satire.

I will quickly summarize the book by describing its three foundational moves.

1) The first move is in the first part of the title: Satire as the Comic Public Sphere, which ties satire to the public sphere as its supplement. I mean to invoke Jacques Derrida’s logic of supplementarity, that is, an addition from the outside. Satire is a comic speech act that is meant to reinforce the ideal of communicative rationality that Habermas claims centers debate within the public sphere. Supplement, then, for my purposes, posits a conceptual relationship of two discursive realms, political speech and comic political speech.

It is very important to understand, however, that political speech is not the same as comic political speech: satire is not the public sphere but its comic supplement, suggesting not identity but supplementarity. This part of my argument has important consequences for debates about the efficacy of satire in the public sphere, but even more so for debates about the nature of satire itself. Most scholars discussing satire (or political comedy or political humor, as many phrase it) treat it as though it were political speech. The logic of supplementarity keeps them separate while at the same time acknowledging their decisive functional relation. One implication of that logic is that it makes no sense to judge satire by measuring its impact in the public sphere as though it were political speech.

2) The second foundational move is to understand satire as a particular comic speech act, borrowing from J. L. Austin’s speech act theory. This move reinforces the idea of satire as supplement, as its own kind of utterance different from political speech. It also allows for a way to sort through some contemporary examples of satire using Austin’s three categories of speech acts: locutionary, illocutionary, perlocutionary. (More on that in a moment.)

3) The third foundational move is to use Stephen Colbert’s neologism, truthiness, to indicate the postmodern context of our current cultural moment. (I step aside from arguments about the usefulness of postmodern as a descriptor or any of the contenders for its replacement.)

Truthiness has the advantage of implying the democratic value of the public sphere by describing the key feature of its opposite, the anti-public sphere. The claim for the truth of a gut feeling rather than facts—a claim that leads to obscurity and nonsense and feeds partisanship—is the hallmark of the anti-public sphere. Truthiness is the realm of alternative facts. Snarky insults provide entertainment for the anti-public sphere; true comic insults provide satiric a–musement for the comic public sphere.

What I call truthiness satire is a postmodern gambit to mock and otherwise ridicule the anti-public sphere. It is a way to present the news and facts, prominently in the form of mock news shows such as The Daily Show and Full Frontal and Last Week Tonight, but also in the way that late night hosts have taken to presenting the news in their ostensibly comic monologues. As supplement to the maintenance of the informed citizenry necessary for the public sphere, truthiness satire— with its irony and comic insults and other laughter-inducing techniques— creates the silly citizen, that is, the citizen who is at least partly informed by comic artifacts about issues of the day.

News and facts have always been crucial to the public sphere and representative governments, so the book focuses on comic artifacts that play with the news as a means to critique and ridicule and cause laughter and therefore could be labeled satiric. I argue we can usefully sort those artifacts with three labels, from Austin’s speech act categories:

examples that operate as locutionary speech acts: locutionary speech acts can be verified as true or false; a simple way to think of them is as descriptors in our full and normal speech; these examples most closely resemble actual news reporting—with comic techniques operating as rhetorical dressing;

examples that operate as illocutionary speech acts: an illocutionary act is the performance of an act in saying something; there can be different kinds of communicative force in saying something (for example, one can promise, pronounce, command, question)—for a satire, one ridicules; this group contains standard satiric examples, that is, full-blown comic presentations with clear satiric butts —sometimes complete with an explicit, serious statement of the needed action or reform, what the rhetoricians would call a paralipsis; we might just say they are the PSA moments, satiric public service announcements;

examples that operate something like perlocutionary speech acts— they are quasi-perlocutionary in my scheme: a perlocutionary act will, as Austin puts it, “produce certain consequential effects upon the feelings, thoughts, or actions of the audience, . . . and it may be done with the design, intention, purpose of producing them.” A perlocution characteristically produces certain effects by saying something —that is, there can be actual consequences—bringing about new states of mind or substantive changes in the course of events; this group of satiric examples moves significantly from an illocutionary function toward a perlocutionary function; that is, these examples have full-blown comic presentations with clear satiric butts and often include a serious announcement of the needed action or reform, the PSA moment, but in addition, these examples complete their satire with an explicit call to the audience as citizens to engage in the democratic process to achieve the needed reform. Examples from this last group therefore exhibit what I call the quasi-perlocutionary quality that distinguishes satiractivism, a term I borrow from a book by Sophia McClennen and Remy Maisel, Is Satire Saving Our Nation? Mockery and American Politics.

To finish: my book insists that there are at least three perennial topics for discussing and understanding how satire operates: 1) identifying comic butts within the comic public sphere that is satire; 2) the problem of variable audience uptake of a particular satire; 3) the importance of public sphere context for judging a supposed comic artifact as legitimate satire.