Does Satire Work?

Tony Reinke’s work at Desiring God has steadily drawn my attention over the last year. Here is an excerpt of his recent article on sarcasm, where he draws fruitfully from the late novelist David Foster Wallace:

Satire’s most potent work is in exposing phony facades. But it cannot accomplish anything more important, and there’s the problem, as Wallace explained in a 1997 radio interview: “Irony and sarcasm are fantastic for exploding hypocrisy and exposing what’s wrong in extant values. They are notably less good in erecting replacement values or coming close to the truth.”

Sarcasm is a free-swinging wrecking ball. It cannot construct.

So what happens when mocking sarcasm lives past its use and becomes the tone of a generation? Wallace explains. “What’s been passed down from the postmodern heyday is sarcasm, cynicism, a manic ennui, suspicion of all authority, suspicion of all constraints on conduct, and a terrible penchant for ironic diagnosis of unpleasantness, instead of an ambition not just to diagnose and ridicule but to redeem. You’ve got to understand that this stuff has permeated the culture. It’s become our language; we’re so in it we don’t even see that it’s one perspective, one among many possible ways of seeing. Postmodern irony’s become our environment.”

Did the Simpsons Ruin a Generation?

So you might say satire works on one level, in its proper season. A sarcastic word fitly spoken is a delight to me. Reinke, however, (channeling Wallace) prophetically points to the moral possibilities of an entire generation steeped in parody, irony and sarcasm. There is also a time for earnestness and sincerity.

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