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the Irish for rights

Lust, Satire and Academic Insularity

As a counterpoint to the THE‘s piece on The seven deadly sins of the academy, about which I wrote here, Mary Beard has exasperatedly pointed out that the entry about lust was – as the author himself has also had to explain – satirical:

Sex with students? Is Terence Kealey as misunderstood as Juvenal?

Poster from Beard's article in TimesOnline

… I hadn’t realised that there was a storm about Terence Kealey‘s piece on Lust … So I took a look at it. … It was instantly clear to me that this was SATIRE. … Taking several more, careful looks at the Kealey piece, I was left in no doubt that he was aiming his darts at the ways crude sexual exploitation of female students gets justified, by satircally mimicking the locker room style in which it is discussed. Come on everyone, NO VICE-CHANCELLOR (not even of Buckingham) calls women students a “perk” unless satirically (and aiming a dart at precisely those assumptions). Honest.

It was however a dreadful experience looking not only at the press reports of all this but also the comments of the THE website (some of which were presumably written by academics, who showed no ability to read or understand satire AT ALL . . . maybe they were all computer scientist, but I rather doubt it). To be fair, a few did make the plea for humour and satire. But not many. …

The trouble with satire, as poor Kealey has found, is that the literal minded are always liable not to get it. And the satirist is inadvertently taken to support the very views s/he is attacking.

Perhaps, for the literal-minded, we should replace “lust” in the list with “academic insularity”, and then confine the literal-minded to their insulæ.

3 Responses to “Lust, Satire and Academic Insularity”

  1. I’m afraid I don’t buy this, Eoin. Even if it’s satire (and in that case it’s amazingly bad satire), he would have had to be the biggest fool alive not to realise how it would be picked up. But actually, it doesn’t even read like satire.

  2. sarah says:

    well as I just said over on F’s site – I think anyone who is SHOCKED and HORRIFIED that some women would knowingly use their sex appeal to try and ingratiate themselves with a man in authority in order to get some sort of advantage are being desperately naive. Why is the notion that women can only feature as the victims of men’s advances so prevalent? Just occasionally some possess the skill to manipulate the poor creatures…..and then giggle about it later. Haven’t you been watching Sex and the City?

  3. Eoin says:

    Becky Sharp, in Vanity FairThanks Ferdinand and Sarah for your comments.

    As with Ferdinand, political correctness is not in my vocabulary, but, unlike Ferdinand, I don’t condemn Kealy for being a bad satirist. Satire is very hard to do properly. It is neither humour nor ridicule. Rather, its power lies in the fact that the most outrageous of propositions are put forward with the straightest of faces and in the most temperate of language. It is only as the reader moves through the piece that, first, the enormity of the argument becomes clear, and, then, second, that the whole point is to undercut rather than to defend the outrageous. It is a very high bar to jump, and Kealy didn’t clear it. Indeed, his attempts at humour, ridicule and spice served to undercut rather than to emphasise the point he was making. But the fact that he did it rather badly doesn’t make him a misogynist, it just makes him a bad satirist.

    Of course, he might have been going for something less than outright satire: he might just have been trying to write something humourous and tongue-in-cheek. But if effective satire is stealthy, then effective humour has to be obvious. And, in that case, the leavening of humour, ridicule and spice were insufficient to make it clear that he was writing with his tongue in his cheek. This is not as a high bar to jump, but it still takes considerable skill to pull it off, and Kealy’s piece doesn’t demonstrate sufficient skill there either. But the fact that he did it rather badly doesn’t make him a misogynist, it just makes him a bad humourist.

    This is why Kealy is a scientist and university vice chancellor, and not – say – a participant on Mock the Week. I applaud him for the attempt, and am sorry that it was unsuccessful and misunderstood. I agree that “can’t you take a joke?” has been the chauvinist response to feminist objections through the ages. But sometimes a comment that is intended to be arch and witty is (mis)construed as chauvinist; and I think that this is what has happened here – the crime, it seems to me, is one of bad humour rather than of bad faith.

    As for Sarah’s point that young women do try to use their sex appeal to ingratiate themselves with men in authority, that I think is part of Kealy’s point. Even if he doesn’t know about Sex and the City (though I can’t believe that he doesn’t), his references to Middlemarch and The History Man suggest to me that he had both the manipulative young woman and the lecherous old man in his sights. I just wish that his skill as a humourist or satirist had allowed him to hit his target.

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Me in a hatHi there! Thanks for dropping by. I'm Eoin O'Dell, and this is my blog: Cearta.ie - the Irish for rights.

"Cearta" really is the Irish word for rights, so the title provides a good sense of the scope of this blog.

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