Saturday, June 3, 2006

How Does One Understand Irony/Satire?

"If you're going to tell the truth, you'd better make people laugh. Otherwise they'll kill you." ~(probably) George Bernard Shaw
I was just thinking about what Mr. Wang wrote about Dr Lee, our Information Minister. I've talked about him before, and this time, it's about mrbrown's podcasts. At Wang's comments section, there's an interesting discussion about whether mrbrown is doing the right thing, whether humour will dilute the message or make it less respectable. As I see it, mrbrown has totally neutralised the bizarre tactics of the Ruling Party with that single podcast episode, at least in the blog-sphere of influence. mrbrown is so good at this, he's been doing it for the past eight years. To be fair, it's sometimes quite difficult to 'get' what mrbrown is trying to do (especially if one's feels the same as Dr Lee), specifically, the idea of satire or irony to tell the truth about something, even if it's sometimes rude and irreverent. Although I think strictly speaking, these two terms are not exactly similar, but they do share some characteristics. These dramatic tools require one to become illogical. Yes becomes no, no becomes yes. 'There are no 300 taels of silver buried here' becomes 'there are actually lots of treasure buried here'. A different set of logic might thus be needed. Now, I'm fascinated by how folks understand or think about these sorts of things, but let me just sidetrack to non-humans for a second... I was at the zoo earlier this year. The zoo is actually quite an ironical and funny place, because it should occur to some that it's unclear whether humans are actually visiting the animals, or whether humans are being met by animals. This sort of bizarre relationship was not lost on one particular orang utan, at least that's what I thought.
From the zoo's website
There's a 'photo taking' area just beside the orang utans' enclosure where visitors pay a few dollars to have the opportunity to stand beside one orang utan to have their photo taken together. When I was there that day, there weren't any visitors queing up, so the orang utan and his keeper were just hanging around, looking a little bored. I could see from the expression of the orang utan (at the risk of being anthropomophic!) that he was getting restless, and had the 'this is bloody ridiculous!' look on his face. Waiting for people to pay us money just to take a picture with us?! What's wrong with those humans? The keeper was probably thinking the same thing. Then something bizarre happened. The orang utan started to punch the keeper on his upper arm! Now, those weren't just feeble punches. It really looked like he was going for it! And he started to hit the keeper again, again, again, again and AGAIN! And the orang utan was SMILING. And the smile was really WIDE! (It's hard for me to describe it, you got to see it yourself!) Real punches from an arm that could open up a coconut without any tools! Now the keeper decided to play along, so he started faking and twisting his face as if he were in real pain. The orang utan didn't care, and continued his assault, smiling. He was obviously having lots of fun. Moments later, the keeper decided he had enough, and started to bring his hands around the orang utan's neck and strangle him! Of course, it wasn't real, but the orang utan was STILL SMILING from ear to ear! It's very funny, but those two chaps were just bored out of their wits waiting for visitors wanting to take pictures with them. Now, I was just STUNNED as I watched this mock interplay of violence between animal and zookeeper. Aside from the fact that an orang utan's face looked like a human's face, this sort of behaviour seemed to me to require 'higher-level thought processes'. While it's not strictly satire or irony, I suspect it requires a 'different set of logic' to appreciate. How is the orang utan aware of this? Maybe I'll punch an orang utan next time and see what it would do... Anyway, coming back to court jester tactics, the only way to tell the truth around these places is to make people laugh. Getting killed for doing the same is just not worth it!

4 comments:

Salt * Wet * Fish said...

Er.. actually can we assume that the orang utan is "smiling" just because it looks like it is? This is the same with why dolphins look cute, because they have a smiley face, whether or not they are happy or angry or trying to kill you with their flippers!

In most of the animal world, showing of teeth is a sign of aggression (look at dogs, chimps, cats) and threat. But of course humans are the only ones where show of teeth means the opposite instead. Maybe the orangutan learned it, but then one wouldn't know unless we really know.

jeffyen said...

Yeah, you're absolutely right, that's why I mentioned that my observations might be anthropomophic (assigning human qualities to animals). The orang utan was making various forms of smiley faces; these are leant (as shown during animal shows). If this whole punching routine were learnt beforehand, it won't be very interesting. But if it's not, i.e., the animal was able to extrapolate meaningless actions into another more appropriate context like this impromptu zoo drama, then it's something else. But like you said, we'll never know...

Jeff! Lim said...

hey, man, interesting post - and quote too!! I'm probably going to mention it in my blog soon. Just how soon, though, i have no idea....

Regard anthropomorphizing the orang utan... are u sure we're that different from the OU? Better ask the keeper...

Jeff! Lim said...

hey Jeff, sorry that i havent found the time to talk about this article of urs, but... I thought you might be interested in this new article I have written up.

cheers...