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Parodic practices carry implications for the study of social institutions and cultural frameworks because, especially when allied with satiric critique, they can lead to the clearing away of older modes of thought, and the opening up of alternate paradigms of cultural understanding. Not all forms of parody accomplish this skeptical questioning, emptying out, or overturning of an official perspective; normative parodies attack dissidents and divergences from the dominant cultural ideology and enforce established values. But parodies that reverse accepted hierarchies of value can serve as indicators of or even contributors to cultural change.
Parody—from the Greek para, “beside,” and odos, “song” or “derived from another poem”—involves both the repetition and inversion of some elements of an established work or genre, usually so as to lower what has been elevated or respected. Aristophanes, the first great parodist in the tradition, implies conservative cultural allegiances in his comedies (written between 427 and 385 BCE), which parody the style and thought of Euripides, the last of the great Athenian tragedians, the philosopher Socrates, and the Sophists, the new, professional teachers of rhetoric.
The Satyricon of Petronius (early 60s CE) probably constitutes the best example from the ancient world of the use of satiric parody to empty out established canons of value. The longest surviving episode of this novel, “Trimalchio’s Feast,” satirizes the vulgar pretensions and mangled learning of the immensely rich former slave Trimalchio. But the dinner conversation of Trimalchio’s guests, who are obsessed with money, mortality, and the passing of the good old days, also parodies the dinner conversation of the aristocratic Athenians in Plato’s dialogue, the Symposium. Contrasting the honest vulgarity and materialism of Trimalchio and his guests with the corruption and hypocrisy of the educated narrator and his friends, Petronius achieves a portrayal of the lowborn, newly rich class that is neither caricatural nor condescending, and implicitly places them on a level with Plato’s high-minded Greeks.
In Gargantua and Pantagruel (first two books, 1532 and 1534), François Rabelais satirically parodies as illogical, ungainly, and repetitive the scholastic learning of the medieval universities that was authorized by the Catholic Church, and proposes by contrast the graceful, thoughtful, and persuasive eloquence of students trained in the new humanistic model of education. Where Rabelais criticizes a system buttressed by religious authority, Miguel de Cervantes, like Petronius, achieves in Don Quixote (Part 1, 1605; Part 2, 1615) a satiric critique of a previously dominant aristocratic culture, through parody of the romance epics of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Cervantes adopts the episodic structure of such works and their concerns with love and adventure; however, by making Don Quixote, the reader who believes in the literal truthfulness of these romances, repeatedly collide with contemporary social reality, he suggests the inadequacy of this narrative form in the more commercial world of his own time. He thus opens up a cultural space for the development of the new genre of the modern novel. In Gulliver’s Travels (1726), Jonathan Swift parodies travelers’ tales in general and Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) in particular to satirize the arrogance of Englishmen and of Europeans in relation to the inhabitants of other parts of the world they were encountering through their voyages of discovery, commerce, and empire. In a similar way, Ubu Roi (1896), Alfred Jarry’s parody of the high genre of tragedy, and particularly of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, produces an acidic critique of middle-class intellectual and artistic culture that opened the way to such twentieth-century movements as dadaism and absurdism. Finally, to take a contemporary example, Thomas Pynchon’s novels from V. (1963) to Mason & Dixon (1997) consist almost entirely of parodic reworkings of established genres and discourses—from travel guides and spy novels to captivity narratives—to suggest a radical skepticism toward received understandings of history, technology, and power in the modern world.
Satiric parody has also affected cultures through popular media such as comics and television in the last halfcentury. MAD magazine made a mark in American culture during the 1950s and 1960s, puncturing pretensions by means of its irreverent parody of hit films and television shows. It was joined in doing so by a new form, the weekly satiric television news program, first with That Was The Week That Was (U.K., 1963; U.S., 1964–1965), then with “Weekend Update” (beginning in 1975 as a regular feature of Saturday Night Live). The latter lasted longer, but was more limited formally, consisting largely of comic anchors reading items based on stories in the news. The next most significant instances of parodic satire of politics and journalism in America consist of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, followed by The Colbert Report with Stephen Colbert, which appear back-to-back four nights a week on Comedy Central. Stewart usually maintains a smile as he reports, often verbatim, the statements of newsmakers, spokesmen, journalists, and commentators; only occasionally does he let outrage show. By contrast, Colbert’s adoption of the persona of a hard-right cable talk-show host enables him to say what others find impossible to express: by zealously criticizing even the most well-grounded skepticism of government officials, their policies, and their bullying manipulation of mainstream media, he makes clear what the authorities believe but do not say, and allows the commonsense criticism to be expressed along the way.
In a famously controversial argument first published in 1984, Fredric Jameson maintained that in the postmodern period parody had become divorced from satiric critique. For Jameson, all that remained of parody was pastiche, a toothless, complacently unhistorical mixing of incongruous fragments from earlier styles. A year after Jameson’s essay, Linda Hutcheon by contrast argued that twentieth-century parodic forms do not possess a fixed and unfluctuating ideological persuasion: parody can be conservative or transgressive, or can even combine the two in an authorized transgression. Although, as Hutcheon and others have pointed out, the thought of Mikhail Bakhtin could be utopian in its emphasis on the possibilities for inversion and renewal through parody, most critics would agree that Bakhtin’s works (written from the 1930s through the 1960s) constitute the essential and seminal reflections on the renovating cultural work performed by satiric parody from the ancient world to the present.
- Bakhtin, M [1934–1935] 1981. Discourse in the Novel. In The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, 259–422. Austin: University of Texas Press.
- Hutcheon, 1985. A Theory of Parody: The Teachings of Twentieth-Century Art Forms. New York: Methuen.
- Jameson, Fr 1991. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
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