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‘The Failure of Satire in Campaign-period Kenya’

My friend Stephen Derwent Partington asked me to post this on my blog (Squatting has taken on a new meaning I think – you heard it coined here first: Blog-Squatting) and since he’s so smart and I have to increase the intellectual value of this blog, I thought it a bargain to publish his work. 

BY Stephen Derwent Partington

 A regular reader of the excellent Kwamchetsi Makokha’s Nation articles will know that his satirical pieces are just that: satires.  Yet, it is clear from the many online comments underneath his most recent article, ‘Foreigners need to mind their own business and leave us to mind ours’ (posted 22nd February), that his work is capable of being read as not satirical at all, but rather only at ‘face value’

I was first alerted to this article and the interpretative confusion it was causing by a respected online friend, the thoughtful Al Kags, himself an author and competent reader, who asked me via Facebook, ‘Stephen, this is satire, right?’, and who posed the same question to a larger online discussion group, the ‘Concerned Kenyan Writers’.  Kwamchetsi is himself a poet and poetry editor, but also a newspaper journalist and editor.  One would tend to assume that when such minds encounter one another over the same piece of writing, as author and reader, something like understanding would ensue.

But it didn’t, and this, I think, through no individual’s fault alone.  Similarly, I feel that we can’t blame those penners of comments at the Nation site who accused Kwamchetsi of bias against foreigners, nor those who on the other hand praised him for criticizing foreign intervention, because of their ‘misunderstanding’, calling them ‘ignorant’ or ‘illiterate’, as one fervent defender of Kwamchetsi did.  For Satire, frankly, is a swine of a genre, difficult to define, difficult to write, difficult to interpret, and dependent on so many specific contexts if it is to ‘work’.

So, what is satire?  Short answer: it’s not clear.  In the western satirical tradition, into which Kwamchetsi’s articles – like, to an extent, Ngugi’s, Achebe’s and other many other postcolonial novels – oddly fit, satire was claimed by the ancient Romans, specifically by the rhetorician Quintillian, as ‘all our own’, supposedly rooted in the satirical verse of the Roman poets Horace and Juvenal.  Of course, satire not only existed independently outside the western tradition – satire exists across the world, including, notably, in much East African orature – but also existed earlier in the Western tradition, in Ancient Greece; yet Quintillian wanted a ‘Roman only’ genre and, noticing that the Greeks had clearly ‘got there first’ in defining various other genres such as the epic, tragedy, and many more, he decided that ‘satire’, which the Greeks had not claimed by means of definition, would be ‘ours’.  However, while the Greeks were always usefully pedantic when it came to categorizing literary terms, defining them in clearly fixed ways, the Romans – who were possibly distracted by martial pursuits – were always rather more haphazard with regard to fastidious academic classification, and so ‘satire’ never really became defined in any manner more rigorous than, if you like, ‘that stuff Juvenal and Horace wrote’.  I am of course simplifying matters, flippantly, satirically.

Consequently, we are left today with a great big fudgy cloud of near-synonyms, none of which mean quite the same thing as each other, some of which later critics have tried to define, many of which overlap in some way, like a Venn Diagram that, in its totality, might reasonably, if clumsily, be given the name ‘Satire’: parody, burlesque, invective, toast, silloi, caricature, mimicry, mock-epic, mock-heroic, lampoon, travesty, irony, Utopian writing, and so on.  Try unpacking that lot.  As well as being able to blame the Romans for the tragedy of farcically imitative British Imperialism, we can from East Africa also blame the Romans for the confusion surrounding the answer to the question, ‘What is satire?’  Or perhaps, rather, the broadness of the genre is its strength, enabling satirists to be creative beyond classificatory rules?  I don’t know.

What I do know, is this: if I were asked to define satire as it is practiced weekly by Kwamchetsi, I would probably do it something like this, perhaps clumsily: Kwamchetsian satire is really a flat, extended prose type of low irony (almost sarcasm), in which the unreliable author matter-of-factly presents views that are opposed to his own as, slyly, his own strongly-held beliefs, possibly to create humour; he does this by parroting the topical utterances of those in the news whose views he finds reprehensible; the intention is to draw attention to the wrongness of the very views that he superficially presents as ‘right’.  This is precisely what Kwamchetsi did last week, for example when in his opening sentence he wrote, ‘Foreigners should stop meddling in Kenya’s forthcoming elections’.  By this, he really meant, and I paraphrase: ‘Some people from a certain coalition have been saying that European and American governments are biased and interfering, undermining our sovereignty, but I disagree’.

My concern with Kwamchetsi’s piece, and with his type of ironic satire in general, is that it is often destined to fail in its intent, and that we can only really understand it as satire rather than as genuine if we, say, understand that the title of his weekly column, ‘Politically Incorrect’, means ‘I do not mean any of this stuff’; or if we know Kwamchetsi and his own personal politics. For, there is really very little or nothing in his articles that give the clue that they are satirical.  I, for instance, would not have known that the article I mention is satirical, if I didn’t already have prior knowledge.  Consequently, like many others, I read his piece with my mouth wide open in disbelief, rather than with smiles and nods at the expense of the isolationists he was intending to criticize; simply, the piece didn’t ‘work’.  This is not because ‘Kenyans don’t get satire’, as some self-loathing Kenyans have in the past suggested, but because of certain factors both within and, more importantly, beyond Kwamchetsi’s control.

You see, satire only works if the reader is given clues that ‘this is satire’.  The most obvious way to do this is to be in some way ‘Over The Top’, so that the reader is let into the joke.  For example, in his classic satirical essay, ‘A Modest Proposal’, the 18thCentury English writer Jonathan Swift wishes to draw attention to the suffering of the impoverished Irish, in order to criticize England’s abuse of Ireland, and in order to oblige readers to consider the suffering of the poor.  While Swift’s tone and delivery remain as flat and deadpan as Kwamchetsi’s, he famously achieves satire through the ridiculously shocking nature of his ‘proposal’ to end Irish hunger: he suggests that the Irish should just eat their babies as they are born, in this way both sating their hunger and cutting down on population.  The reader first baulks at the suggestion, but soon realizes that despite its tone it’s not intended seriously, and laughs, and by this process comes to despise the English oppression of the Irish, becoming moved to act.  This, ideally, is how satire works – although there’s some argument that in fact it rarely ever promotes people to act, but rather just encourages cathartic laughter, after which people carry on, unmoved, but feeling better about themselves, proud that they’ve understood the ‘in joke’.  I’d often agree, pointing out, perhaps unfairly, that the satires of Achebe and Ngugi, for instance, were an integral part of the ‘disillusionment literature’ period in Africa, during which intellectuals threw up their arms, rightly as exasperated by the new Independence Governments as they had been by the terribly oppressive Colonial Governments.  Sadly,A Man of the People never led to a revolution, any more than Ngugi’s early novels did; for all their noble fury, they just set people moaning and mumbling complaints in the safe privacy of their own homes while dictators did their thing in the terrorized public sphere.

But Kwamchetsi doesn’t direct us toward the satire, towards his tongue-in-cheek intent, either by writing in an OTT style or by presenting an obviously foolish and extreme argument in his trademark deadpan style.  It is just as it is.  The fault is partlyKwamchetsi’s, by which I mean it is partly the flawed and abortive stylistic choices he makes that cause the failure of his satire, and he is not the first person to suffer the vicissitudes of the genre.  Because of his straight-faced delivery, Kwamchetsi becomes a mimic, not a parodist, and as such always runs the risk of being indistinguishable from those he loathes and seeks to undermine.

Importantly, however, just as Kwamchetsi – whose sociopolitical views I sometimes share – does not intend his criticism to be ad hominem (that is, aimed at the xenophobic men he’s seeking to satirise, but rather at their arguments), so too there’s no reason to place the blame for his satire’s occasional failure only at his own feet, any more than there’s reason to unkindly call those who ‘misread’ it ‘ignorant’ or ‘illiterate’.  You see, as a left-wing critic I believe that the success of satire – like the worth of all literature – is also affected by the myriad sociopolitical contexts into which any satirical text fits and functions.  By which I mean that if we lived in quieter times, with more sober political rhetoric and more mature electoral debate, Makokha’s satirical style might work – we might have been able to see it for what it is, as satire, because its utterances would have seemed OTT.  That first line, ‘Foreigners should stop meddling in Kenya’s forthcoming elections’, would have seemed like the foolishly dangerous statement of an extremist, of some sort of paranoid chauvinist xenophobe intent on a form of Syrian or Israeli isolationism and cross-border name-calling in a world that has globalised and loosened its borders.  But we do not live in such calm and sober times.  Instead, around our election-fevered country – in newspapers, on TV, in leaked documents of various types – we already have politicians whose ultra-nationalist utterances are indistinguishable from those that Kwamchetsi rearticulates in the article I quote from, or that are even themselves more vociferously extreme than Kwamchetsi’s attempted satirical parody.  Consequently, Kwamchetsi’s decent, polite piece – which smacks of the questionable decentness of the aristocratic President Hindenburg when he with disdain permitted that oik, Hitler, to become Chancellor – reads as merely more of the same, or even as complicity, which of course it isn’t, at least in intent.

But intent means very little in literature, and to overstress the importance of authorial intention is to support arrogantly conservative forms of top-down didacticism that are as despotic in their own way as Kenya’s ‘Old Constitutionalism’ was.  You can’t write something these days, say ‘I meant this, and anyone who reads otherwise is wrong, because I, the writer-as-deity, am the authority in all matters of interpretation’, and expect the reader to accept your One Party State dictates.  No, what matters in literature these days – and it’s all very New Kenyan Constitution – is the readers’, the people’s, reception; that is, how the work can be differently read despite the author.  An unpleasant, cautionary illustration of this often beneficial new method of ‘democratic readings’ is perhaps the very simple, fundamentalist reading that Mungiki, according to academic Peter Kagwanja, was able to perform with (dis)regard to Ngugi’s novel, The River Between, plundering it as a sourcebook for supposedly ancient ethnic customs while completely ignoring other aspects of Ngugi’s intended liberationist socialism.  Just as our Chief Justice has recently felt the need to state that he would give his life in defence of the New Constitution, so too I – with rather less drama and courage(!) – would always argue strongly in support of people’s rights to perform democratically dissident readings, but with the reminder (hinted at in my allusion to Hindenburg and Hitler, above, which events occurred under one of history’s most impressive Constitutions, that of the Weimar Republic) that democracy has strengths and dangers.

What we have here, then, in the case of Al Kags’ and many other readers’ online ‘Comment’ responses to Kwamchetsi’s article, is a similar situation of real mismatch between authorial intention (which has failed and lost its authority to impose readings) and readerly reception.  Ultimately, the winner is the cynical politician, the xenophobe who denounces ‘foreigners’, for he has won the game by making even his critics seem to be his allies.  By uttering the most extreme ridiculousness from rally podium to podium, he has ensured that he can never be satirized or parodied, for he is the ultimate fundamentalist who has turned fanaticism into everyday ordinariness.  His force-field is his zealotry, and not even our best journalists – our Kwamchetsi Makokhas – can successfully mock him, for the intended militancy of their chosen genre is neutralised.  However extreme the politician might seem under normal circumstances, he now, during times when we are polarized as a country (by politics, by our capitalism, which sets person against person) and when we struggle to feign a shared cultural identity under the slogan ‘We Are All Kenyans’, we find that the wise intended satire of the good amongst us is imperceptible, stillborn and as destined to be eaten by our bigots as Swift’s babies were to be consumed..  As the Marxist theorist Frederic Jameson might say, today ‘parody finds itself without a vocation’ and, in these new and worrying times, we find ourselves unable to laugh at it or those it seeks to ridicule, because so much, including lives, are at stake in the real world of election-period Kenya.  When literature – potentially one of culture’s most responsible mediums – is made impotent, and when language itself finds itself at a loss, trumped by those politicians who utter constant vitriol and hyperbole, we are living in very dangerous times.

SDP is a teacher, and author of the acclaimed PEV poetry collection, How to Euthanise a Cactus.
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