The problem is that the cartoon accurately portrays a ridiculous real-life caricature that exists as literal fact in the minds of some people, and it portrays it in terms that are absolutely true to that caricature. An analogous instance would have been a cartoon without commentary appearing in a liberal Northern newspaper in the 1920s — a time when Southern violence against blacks was unabated — that showed a black man raping a white woman while eating a watermelon. The effect of accurately reproducing such a ridiculous image that dwelled unridiculously in the minds of some people would have been merely to broaden its vicious reach. The adherents of that image would have gone unsatirized and untouched.
In satire, absurdity achieves its rationality through moral perspective — or it remains simply incoherent or malign absurdity. The New Yorker represented the right-wing caricature of the Obamas while making the fatal error of not also caricaturing the right wing. It is as though Daumier had drawn figures besotted by stupidity and disfigured by genetic deficiencies — what might have been a corrupt 19th-century politician’s image of his victims — rather than the corrupt politicians themselves, whom he of course portrayed as swollen to ridiculous physical proportions by mendacity and greed.
But if that very same New Yorker cover had been drawn in a balloon over the head of a deranged citizen — or a ruthless political operative — it would have appeared as plausible only in the mind of that person. The image would have come across as absurd and unjust — a version of reality exaggerated to the point of madness.
By presenting a mad or contemptible partisan sentiment as a mainstream one, by accurately reproducing it and by neglecting to position the target of a slur — the Obamas — in relation to the producers of the slur, The New Yorker seems to have unwittingly reiterated the misconception it meant to lampoon.
Well, Siegel is more literate than I am since I can barely conjure anything at all to mind associated with the name Daumier. Good thing we have Wikipedia. And Google. The internet as a collective memory machine. In any case, Siegel’s point seems not so very far from my own when I said:
We could, of course, satirize the reader of the The New Yorker because the reader is at the scene of reading and so, in viewing the image, would view something grotesquely true about themselves. Instead, the New Yorker cover tries to laugh at someone else without referencing that someone else anywhere in the image. Thus the image seems to be “about” Obama even when we pause and have to say “No, it really can’t be.”
Come to think of it Siegel begins his piece by noting how wonderful it is that the world is obsessed with things normally reserved for literary scholars, kind of like my own notation that I’m thrilled that the world is abuzz with cultural theory. Or not. Is this a case of great minds–in this case my own and Siegel’s–thinking alike? Or is it possible that Lee Siegel is a secrete devotee and admirer of Read Write Now. And could it be a case of internet plagiarism. And does such a thing exist. INQUIRING MINDS WANT TO KNOW!
[Side note: Thanks to Monda over at “Theres just no telling” and to Jon Vaitl at “I have an Idea “for their comments yesterday. Monda, I actually just resubscribed to The New Yorker so I guess I haven’t given up on them yet, though I am tempted. Jon, I don’t actually think irony is always smug. As a literary device irony can depend upon the speaker knowing something that either his hearers or his subject do not, but it can also depend upon readers understanding a doubleness within a discourse that is not self-evident to the speaker. For instance, Satan’s effort to tempt Jesusare ironic because he is tempting Jesus to doubt his status, and also attempting through that doubt to displace Jesus as the central focus of the world’s story. The reader perceives the irony of this situation, however, in noting that Jesus demonstrates his heroism not by overt demonstrations of power, but through the simplicity of resistance. Satan’s temptation becomes the occasion for Jesus demonstrating his strength through weakness, a central feature of the the gospel narratives. Satan does not seem to perceive this, even when the reader does, or can. Similar kinds of doubleness exist throughout Christian stories: Joseph’s being sold into slavery as an act of evil by his brothers and an act of goodness by God; the story of the crucifixion as an act of evil by human beings and an act of love by God. Redemption, in this sense, is always ironic. I’ve wondered whether irony is present in unique ways in the Western World because of the centrality of the Jewish and Christian narratives. Rheinold Niebuhr’s notion of th irony of history might suggest so, but I’m not enough of an expert on how irony functions in non-Western cultures to say with any security.