<Book Review>
Satire + Dissent: Interventions in Contemporary Political Debate. By Amber Day.
[Indianapolis: U of Indiana P, 2011 | 240 pages, 21 b&w illus. | $22.95 (p), $65.00 (c)]

It’s fitting that I am finishing this review on the 4th of July, Independence Day. Despite all of the problems with US democracy and public discourse, at least this is a country where satire may be directed at the state, where dissent may be offered up in our art and entertainment without censorship or fear of reprisal. There are of course those who naively believe that politics have no place in those forms, or who cannot see the benefits from such interventions, making Amber Day’s Satire + Dissent all the more relevant.

In this compelling new book, Day manages to not only persuasively argue why political satire has gained such a foothold in our popular culture, but also convincingly argues why it matters. Satire + Dissent undertakes a critical examination of today’s parodic news shows, satirical documentaries and ironic activist efforts to not only assess where we are, but where we’ve come from and where we may be going.

One of Day’s major arguments is how this sort of work can and does lead to progress and change, even in the face of critics who dismiss the use of irony, parody or satire as too cynical, divisive, detached or damaging to “serious” discourse. She argues quite the opposite, that use of these forms creates discursive spaces, engages and reinvigorates communities, galvanizes counterpublics, and gives those who feel like they might be alone a sense of belonging through everyman stand-ins such as Jon Stewart or Morgan Spurlock. These hybrid performative forms have unique properties that their satirical literary counterparts do not possess, and Day makes those distinctions clear. She also astutely positions satire (as well as hegemony) as historically and culturally situated, therefore always in flux, and so avoids making pat conclusions in favor of looking at how particular incidents might be operating and effecting shifts incrementally. Her examination shows how important satire has become in contemporary American public discourse and leads us to believe that it’s not going away any time soon.

She is careful to take time in the introduction to discuss the contested terms irony, parody and satire so that she may distinguish and/or align herself with the scholarship that comes before her and also to clearly establish a common vocabulary with the reader, a helpful move that allows her points to be made more easily. She also allows these terms to have some slippage and bleed into one another as she considers them a register that all accomplish similar ends as a discursive strategy. Next she moves into a discussion about the effectiveness of irony - in itself a process of meaning-making - as a tool of communication in our current culture before turning to her specific examples in chapters three through six.

Day claims that this shift we’ve seen towards the ironic in so much of our culture (she speaks primarily to American issues, but also draws in Canadian and British examples on occasion) is in reaction to “the manufactured quality of contemporary public life.” (15) From Jon Stewart’s humorous but hard-hitting interviews to the activist efforts of the Yes Men, their ironic authenticity has drawn in those put off by the stage-managed spectacles that have become so common within our political and media landscapes. These satirical forms provide not only a refreshing space for real commentary that’s typically lacking, but has also elevated these entertainers to be respected (or loathed) as serious pundits. She claims that all of the forms covered in the book are linked in that they are cultural phenomena that offer political dissent, challenge mainstream narratives, highlight absurdities and inconsistencies presented in our media and by our politicians, and rely on a certain level of improvised person-to-person interaction which look to reveal or sabotage.

The chapter on parody news programming focuses on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report as well as Canadian efforts This Hour Has 22 Minutes and The Rick Mercer Report. It offers historical context as to why these current programs are so much more successful and impacting on serious politics than similar programs that came before. Her major claim is that it is the integration of the real into the mimetic that gives these new hybrid programs their power. These programs are performative in that they create “that which it names and enacts in the moment.” (69)

The chapter dealing with satirical documentary cites the work of Morgan Spurlock (Supersize Me) and Michael Moore (Fahrenheit 9/11) mostly, but does branch out into other examples. As with her examination of parody news, Day gives a historical chronicling of the documentary as a form, providing a very solid argument against those whom would claim that these filmmakers are not creating true documentaries but partisan propaganda. She claims these films can not only educate and inspire on a mass scale, but that they may also sustain a sense of community. Of the three forms examined in the book, the satirical documentary is the one positioned in the middle of the entertainment-politics continuum, with parody news focusing more on entertainment and ironic activism focusing more in the direction of politics.

Her investigation into ironic activism offers perhaps the widest variety of examples - from the San Francisco Mime Troupe to the Gorilla Girls - and once again places it all in a historical and cultural context. The main areas of emphasis in this chapter are the notions of culture jamming and identity nabbing. She also provides a concisely solid foundation of the performance theory of Bertolt Brecht (epic theater) and Augusto Boal (invisible theater), whom many of these activist performance groups are deeply steeped in. These activist efforts are more vital than ever with the ubiquity of technology and the ability of almost anything humorous to go viral at lightning speed.

She argues throughout the book that the community-building and maintaining accomplished by all of these forms may be perhaps their most important aspect, and that they are not cynical or locked in a negative bind with the very things they critique as detractors would claim. She argues these forms are engaged and “gesture beyond the problematic present, often even providing concrete suggestions for alternatives.” (189)

I found this book to be fairly well balanced and even-handed. She has no reservations in not only praising these activists and entertainers where credit is due, but also astutely points out where they fall short - such as Bill Maher’s Religulous or Spurlock’s sophomore documentary Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?. It’s not Day’s fault that the majority of this sort of work comes from a left-liberal position. She notes this, and spends a little bit of time discussing the ineffectiveness of right-conservative efforts in the same vein. This lack of satisfying satire from the right seems to be an unexplored topic worthy of some graduate student’s attention.

This book would be great reading for anyone with an interest in satire, political discourse, performance studies, critical cultural studies, or media studies. It’s not too theoretically dense or written so heavily from the interests of a specific discipline (quite the contrary, she specifically positions the text as interdisciplinary) as to make it inaccessible to anyone but specialists. The theory she does bring along for the ride is well presented, explained and cogently related to a general reader, though the academic frame may frustrate a lay reader with an interest in popular culture such as The Daily Show or the films of Michael Moore.

     — David M. Jenkins , University of South Florida

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