Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Humor From Below

            Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve spent some time in class discussing whether or not satire can be an effect engine for social and political change. I’m conflicted on this topic, and that’s why it interests me so much. This week, we’ve gotten some readings that seem to really ask us to reconsider our own assumptions and beliefs. Some of the stories for this week are not satires as much as they are pieces of absurd speculative fiction—but maybe we should reevaluate why their premises appear so ridiculous. For instance, “Ngati Kangaru” imagines a mass re-colonization of New Zealand beachfront property that had once belonged to the Maori people. The image of the somewhat incompetent Billy and his companions taking up posh vacation homes is humorous, but why? As residents of a modern settler state, we Americans live on stolen land; of course, we make concessions to indigenous peoples, but those concessions will only go so far. Because we live comfortably, we do not permit ourselves to feel guilt over the original conquest that afforded us the property we now own or fret over the possibility that that property rightfully belongs to someone else. Patricia Grace allows the Western world to see its own horrors doubled back on itself, as Billy carries out his “high and holy work” in the renaming and redeveloping of reclaimed places.
The humor and absurdity of reclamation is evident in the other two short stories that we read for this week. First, in Thomas King’s “Borders,” a mother figuratively reclaims a space for herself when she refuses both American and Canadian citizenship and declares herself a citizen of the Blackfoot nation. While the border guard tries to coax the mother into giving a “real” nationality, the narrator’s eyes are fixed on the gun holstered at the guard’s hip. So even though the guard operates by legal mandate, the distinctions between American and Canadian and Blackfoot are backed up with a history of violence. The way that the mother stubbornly toes the line of citizenship is a little absurd and amusing, but it gets us to ask real questions concerning history, conquest and politics. Are the political borders of the modern world so concrete that we cannot allow for those who do not properly fit within them? Of course, the “borders” in the story are not only political boundaries, but also cultural distinctions: the Blackfoot natives speak two languages, inhabit two cultures and remember two distinct histories. And yet they can only belong to one political nation, as if the other had completely vanished. We see a similar thing in John Kasaipwalova’s “Betel Nut is Bad Magic for Airplanes.” The narrator similarly insists on the existence of his own unique way of life, even as its manifested in the mindless habit of chewing betel nut. Like the characters of “Borders,” Kasaipwalova’s narrator inhabits two distinct cultures: speaking in a broken English as a Papua New Guinean, but in proper “Queen’s English” when he confronts the ruling Australian authorities. In this, we find a profoundly modern absurdity: we are expected to have one coherent identity as individuals, even as we are made up of an amalgam of different places, cultures, and histories. Of course, this has dire political and social implications.

It is because Voltaire so rarely confronts these dire implications that I think Candide fails as a piece of political satire. Rather than exposing the mechanisms that allow bad things to happen, or investigating the reasons why bad things happen, Voltaire merely demonstrates that bad things happen. Candide is a philosophical satire; Voltaire uses the misfortune of the oppressed and marginalized to score a metaphysical point against Leibniz, all the while neglecting to cast a critical eye on his own position. In fact, I would say that Candide does more harm than good, especially in its treatment of women, the people of the Arab world, and the indigenous peoples of the Americas. The three short stories that we read for today come from displaced voices, and so their humor hopes to ameliorate the plight of the less fortunate. I think Voltaire has too much of a privileged place to truly speak critically of the world as it is.

Michael McGurk

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