Satire: From Alexander Pope to SNL

When Andrew Benjamin Bricker watches Saturday Night Live or the Jordan Peele film Get Out, he thinks of the eighteenth century. An Assistant Professor in the Department of Literary Studies at Ghent University in Belgium, Bricker recently published "After the Golden Age:Libel, Caricature, and the Deverbalization of Satire" in the Spring 2018 issue of Eighteenth Century Studies. Those modern comic works show the evolution of satire popularized in the eighteenth century by writers like Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope. Bricker joined us for a Q&A about his article. 

Why is the study of satire in the 18th century such a rich topic?

In part it is a rich topic because the early eighteenth century is such an exceptional moment in the history of literature. Not only is there a massive amount of satire being published and written, but it is also this new moment in English literary history when satirists are both famous and truly respected. Many of the satires we still read today come from this period--wonderful works of ironic tone like Gulliver’s Travels and A Modest Proposal, both by Jonathan Swift--and still feature regularly in courses on the history of English literature. Satirists like Alexander Pope were so important and widely read, in fact, that his poems are the source today of much of our common wisdom. “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread”; “to err is human; to forgive, divine”; and “a little learning is a dangerous thing” - all of these maxims come from one poem by Pope: An Essay on Criticism from 1711.

So it’s easy to say that eighteenth-century satire is such a rich topic because it was so important and central to this period and its modes of public discourse. But part of the reason I find eighteenth-century satire so interesting is because it in many ways helped to create the style of so much of the stand-up, sketch comedy, and parody news we have today. Whether it’s unflattering impersonations of Donald Trump on Saturday Night Live or really intelligent, cutting and funny allegorical evaluations of race in America, like Jordan Peele’s recent film Get Out, I feel like I’m always catching glimpses of the natural evolution of satiric practices that were first fully fleshed out in the early eighteenth century: pointed forms of extended parody, spot-on impersonation, mock-compliment and verbal irony.

What helped fuel the rise of visual satire in the latter half of the century?

Quite a few factors led to the rise of visual satire during the last half of the eighteenth century. One major factor - and perhaps the most important, in my view - is the rise of caricature in England starting in the 1740s. This entailed a radical but also gradual and dialectical change in the traditions of visual satire. Early modern visual satires, from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, tend to be dense and iconographic: they follow a more allusive, symbolic and one might say phantasmagoric model. They’re definitely cutting and satiric in their own way, but thanks to their complex iconographic vocabulary they require an advanced form of visual literacy, and no doubt many early modern viewers were confused by what, precisely, such satires meant. In the mid-eighteenth century, we start to see forms of satire that feel very familiar to us today - works visually much closer to the single-panel political cartoons of contemporary newspapers and magazines. These employ a method known as caricature: an Italian art form characterized by comic and sometimes grotesque physiological and physiognomic distortions (from the Italian caricare: “to charge” the features) that came in large measure to constitute the visual language of satire.

One major factor in the rise of visual satire, then, was aesthetic - that is, how artists began to visualize satiric victims and objects. But, as I also try to demonstrate in the essay, the law was also a major factor on the simultaneous diminishment of written satire and the massive growth of visual satire in the later eighteenth century, and a factor many scholars have missed. In short, during the first half of the century the courts were eager to mitigate the verbal ambiguity of written satire, the aspect of politically charged satiric works that gave both prosecutors and juries such difficulties. However, the rulings from this period, against common satiric tools like verbal irony and allegory, had little effect on later-eighteenth-century visual satires, which contained few words and tended to operate instead by repetition, juxtaposition, and intimation. My argument, then, is that satire began a period of migration, from written to visual works, and underwent a process that I call “deverbalization”: caricaturists often made at most punning and increasingly sparing use of words as the century progressed. As a result, the most libellous aspects of such satires were visual and often irreducible, legally speaking, to unambiguously prosecutable language. In short, the legal protocols of the first half of the century, which had focused intensely on mitigating the verbal ambiguity that came to typify written satire, later proved useless at policing largely deverbalized visual works.

How important is it to link examination of so many aspects of life (literature, art, law) in the 18th century in this essay?

In a lot of my research, one aspect of culture is rarely enough, in my view, ever to explain any given phenomenon. To explain a work of eighteenth-century satire, for instance, often requires knowing quite a bit about the worlds that helped to produce this odd form of literary discourse: things like rhetoric, emergent forms of literary theory and aspects of art history, of course, but also an awareness of libel laws, shifting political regimes of press regulation, the publishing industry, and the sociology of attacking a private or public individual in print. As a literary scholar, I think such interdisciplinary approaches are necessary to gain a clearer picture of how different literary genres and forms worked. My hope is that an awareness of the historical conditions that surrounded the production of a given literary text help to explain the text itself: the author’s approach, its means of publication, and how the text itself departs from and maintains certain conventions and why.

How critical was the support of the editorial team in allowing you to use so many images?

The editorial team was great and especially the two managing editors I dealt with - first Amy Dunagin at Yale University and then Matthew Wyman-McCarthy at the University of New Hampshire. One of the joys - but also challenges - of working on late-eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century caricatures is their often stunning visual density: they are rich works that are a lot of fun to look at, but often very hard to describe quickly. As a result, one of the pitfalls of scholarship on caricature is the need to verbalize such works so that readers can understand what they look like and the messages they seemingly communicate. This can often lead to longueurs of tedious description - and, as we all know, nothing is less funny than a joke explained. The editorial team at ECS helped me to avoid this particular problem by happily publishing 11 caricatures to accompany my already long article. The result is not only a visually interesting piece of scholarship but some wonderfully concrete examples of the phenomena I was hoping to document and explain. I could not have been happier with the editorial support I received at ECS.