Monday, December 10, 2012

Bias and Satire: Preschool Nothing

As soon as my Time Magazine comes each week, I flip it over, turn to the second to last page and read Joel Stein’s Awesome Column. During busy weeks when I can’t find time to read the rest of the periodical, this is the only part of the magazine I read—and my subscription is still completely worth it. Laced with sarcasm and a biting, intelligent sense of humor, this is always worth the time. Over the years, I've acquired the widest array of useless knowledge through Stein’s writing—soaking up everything from Stein’s attempt for someone to call him (maybe) to his wife’s experience with placenta pills. And though it may seem out of place within the context of a news periodical, the activity system surrounding its publication as well as it genre allow the Awesome Column to fit right in. In this particular article, biting satire challenges the actions of wealthy people—it certainly has bias against their decisions, but, presented as satirical, is acceptable.

This entire article is about trying to get Stein’s son into an Ivy-League equivalent preschool. Stein, as a well-known author, has the money to get him there, but he does not have the old-money social standing. The article contains bias against the very rich, poking fun at the people who can actually afford (and have the name) to send their preschoolers to class at the cost most of us pay for college. The reason Stein gets away with this is because of activity systems—the readers are expecting his style—and also through the use of satire as a device to mock old-money social norms. The use of satire not only makes Stein’s article entertaining  but it is a socially acceptable (and funny) way to critique other people’s decisions.

This piece is accepted because this is the writing that readers of Time have come to accept on the second to last page—it is part of the Time Magazine activity system. The subjects of the system are Time’s readers. An important thing to note about Time’s readership is that it’s very limited. I don’t mean this in the sense that people don’t read it, many do—and it will soon be the only weekly print news periodical in the United States. By limited, I mean that Time does a relatively thorough job of regulating its audience. Parts of the magazines can be read without a subscription, but most cannot. The Awesome Column specifically cannot be viewed without a digital or print subscription. This partly occurs because of conflicting motives within the activity system. Though the subjects, the readers, consume the periodical for information and entertainment, other communities don’t have the same goal. Time, as a company, for example, exists to turn a profit. In order to do this, they cannot give much content away for free—thus, the limit their subject group. By doing this, the activity system is tightened. Its players have a better idea of what goes on within it and there isn't as much worry about how it may be consumed by someone outside the activity system. An example of the purified activity system is through its norms. One of the magazine’s norms is its format, which it doesn't waiver from each week. This isn't just the design, but expands further to content as well. Certain columnists write weekly. Additionally, there is always a cover story. The magazine also has several pages that aren't stories—for example, it features the week in quotations. The Awesome Column, where this was printed, is at the second to last page of each publication. Readers, subjects, know what to expect when they skim through the magazine.

This is why information that seems so trivial—a story about an author’s sun not getting accepted to preschool fits in. Readers expect Stein’s column to not be headline news. Additionally, readers are expecting entertainment. Under this guise, satire, which is a genre of entertainment writing, can be used to make social comments. Though some readers might not understand the underlying class bias in this article, that’s the point. The article on the surface exists purely for entertainment. This is why the article even serves a function outside its original activity system. If a reader picks up the magazine who hasn't read it before, the Awesome Column is placed right where they may flip—the second to last page. And though it is sarcastic and snappy, it provides the perfect hook for a reader who may be otherwise disengaged by the traditional news—a reader who probably wouldn't hold a Time subscription. The article exists first for entertainment, but is also utilized as social commentary. This story is funny because its ridiculous. It is funny because most people would never ever consider putting their children in a preschool that costs more than some pay in college tuition. So the satire proves a point—that this whole operation is a little bit loony. This is all made possible through rhetorical devices which contribute to its satire. Below, I have outlined the devices I see as most important in this process.

Hyperbole is a device where the author uses exaggeration to prove a point. A few of Stein’s examples are:

           “I'm pretty sure he will now never listen to any advice I give him for the rest of his life.”

           “kids decide what project to do, which is yelling”

            “I was pretty sure we were going to be the first parents to end the preschool application process
            with a prison term.”

Through the use of hyperbole, Stein is able to “stretch” each phrase by amplifying its meaning or importance. His son will eventually listen to him, children make choices in ways other than yelling, and he is not going to end up in prison. Yet, by blurring the line between what actually happened, taking the action just a step further, Stein begins to prove that each of these things are foolish. This contributes to the work’s satire as it makes things funny, calling attention to them that wouldn’t be.

Like hyperbole exaggerates meaning, periphrasis literally overuses the number of words needed to form a message. It draws attention to something that would not receive as much without an overwhelming number of words, exaggerating the importance of an event when it could easily be more understated:

                “Laszlo met his trouble with great magnanimity.”

It’s odd to use the word “magnanimity” to describe a four year old. It is even odder to describe a four year old who hasn’t been accepted to a prestigious preschool but has no idea. Stein could have simply said that Lazlo wasn’t disappointed by his not getting into preschool, but he didn’t. In doing so we, as readers, are forced to see how silly it is that a very young child would be put in such an odd situation.

In addition to exaggerating words and meaning, satire also works because of its close ties to pop culture. Allusion is a device used to call on images that the reader would already understand, engaging the reader in things he or she would find familiar:

“I will offer 10-to-1 odds that Michele Bachmann uses poopy and pee-pee and that Ron Paul uses bowel movement and urination.”

“It's like a bad teen movie where I'd get the popular girl to take me into her clique and then tell her, 'I don't want to be in your clique.’”

“I spent Saturdays sitting on a tiny chair trying to look involved and shaking a tambourine and dancing around in a circle while Laszlo refused to move, staring at me with utter disrespect.”

Allusion works in satire because it provides connection to the reader’s world. If satire is too far into the clouds, readers cannot understand how it relates to their lives, and therefore, satire does not have its intended ridiculous effect. In these examples, Stein draw’s on a cultural knowledge and cultural connection to Michelle Bachmann, Ron Paul, bad teen movies, and entertaining young children. Additionally, we see in the first example a reference to very important, wealthy people, contributing to bias against the very wealthy.
Another way to mock a situation is through the use of diazeugma where one word is tied to multiple, unrelated words, creating humor in their contradictions. Stein is discussing questions on preschool applications, and the one question he though was most brilliant:

The brilliant one was "What's your word use for bowel movement and urination?" This should be asked at every job interview, first date and presidential debate.

Diazeugma takes the word “this” (which refers to the “brilliant question”) and applies it to “job interview,” “first date,” and “presidential debate.” Not only does this save word space—without the use of diazeugma, we would probably have three separate sentences to describe same idea—but it also compares three very different things because they all share one word. By doing so, we see how seemingly strange this question really is—applied to any of the mentioned circumstances (aside from a preschool application); it is a very odd question to answer. Showing how strange this question is by using the rhetorical device diazeugma contributes to the overall satirical narrative because it brings to light how abnormal it is to ask that question in any context.  

We also see a general use of comedy throughout this text. And though this is not a literary device, I believe part of comedy is being able to jokingly reference a previous part of the conversation. Satire works because it is biting, but also because it is funny. The comic work also jokes within itself, alluding to what Stein references previously:

            “One week earlier, Cassandra's grandmother, with whom she was very close, had died. She did not cry.”

Followed by:

“Cassandra cried the cry of a woman who has lost eight grandmothers.”

By referencing jokes within the text, Stein keeps up a tone he has already created.

Finally, in a championed use of the creative style, Stein pokes fun at the official style’s use of ambiguous terminology to describe everyday objects. The official style is politically correct and professional, just like the “old money” people Stein mocks. By writing in the official style, he portrays their lives as more elite than everyone else’s: their kids don’t play with blocks, they play with pedagogical tools.

The school administrators were clearly nervous about charging $15,000 a year for these programs, because they all described blocks as "pedagogical tools."

Stein takes play, something totally unofficial, and elevates it in status. In the same way, he makes fun of people who “officialize” childhood, elevating its status.  

We see the value of the article beyond just its words. Rhetorical devices create satire. Satire sets a tone. That tone mocks and jokes about very wealthy people—and the narrative mocks a situation that only very wealthy people find themselves in. Yet, the satire makes this article funny and entertaining, so it functions within its activity system even when readers don’t see its underlying social commentary.

By Karin Johnson

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