The Subversive Role of Verbal Aggression in the Sarcastic Language of Njuz.net
In the last years, Serbia has witnessed coming into being of various media forms that all provide social, political and cultural criticism through acrid comedy, parody and satire. The paper centers on sarcasm as one of the key aggressive rhetorical devices used in the language of popular satirical portal Njuz.net, with an overview of the structural and functional characteristics of sarcasm in contemporary communication. The paper explores how language aggressiveness manages to create an affirmative context in which the domineering structures of the official discourse are undermined by marginalized alternative discourses, as well as how such content, disseminated mainly through social networks and blogs and charged with verbal aggression and intertextual allusiveness stemming from deeper political, historical and social issues, succeeds in providing a narrative of kinship among those who often see it as the last recourse to sanity.
Keywords: sarcasm, violence, language, popular culture, Njuz.net
In unfinished societies inclined to non-freedom, the trenchant satire of a Voltaire has incited more change than sentimental tears of a Rousseau ever could. Đorđević, Internet
Previous decades have seen numerous examples of harsh criticism as a reaction to media representations of various socio-political events all around the world. These critical reactions have centered on the major role that mainstream media plays by campaigning in favor of the interests of leading political and economic structures that directly or indirectly participated in those events. “If news was once expected to be the watchdog, the ‘hot light’ of public accountability” says Geoffrey Baym in his essay on satirical television programs, now “a docile, corporatized press corps largely has refused to confront an executive branch and its media guard dogs whose rhetoric most often is designed to manipulate mass opinion rather than inform public debate” (126-127). The propaganda apparatus has been said to manipulate the public and to prevent different voices from providing an alternative discourse to the official version of the story. During the 1990s and the civil war in the former Yugoslavia, the Serbian public was subject to a strongly biased media that contributed greatly to creating an atmosphere of pseudo-patriotism and war hysteria. In Žižek’s words, the “belief in the power of the Word” uttered by the State and the Ruling party and disseminated through the mainstream state media was almost “paranoiac” (“Cynicism” 207). However, in the aftermath of the war years when the scope of media manipulation was revealed and it became clear that the political elites were failing to advance from pursuing populist politics in the face of continuing crisis, the Serbian public took on a different attitude towards media representations. In Žižek’s words “a kind of cynical mistrust of the Word, of the symbolic pact, of its binding authority” took hold in Serbia, along with other ex-communist Eastern European countries (“Cynicism” 206).
One of the aspects of this prevailing attitude of cynical mistrust is that nothing seems to be sacred in Serbia today. I remember casting a glance at the British media coverage of the 2011 Royal Wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton and being unable to think of one single event in Serbia that had inspired such nationwide enthusiasm. The all-pervasive feeling of disappointment and self-blame rooted in the recent Serbian history and accompanied with the often-recycled contention that we “don’t deserve any better anyway” has been materializing itself in brutal and often hilarious language scrutiny of everything that constitutes daily life in Serbia. It may be difficult to imagine that healthy humor can arise from such dreary circumstances. Still, in this article I would like to examine how this particular state can incite a creation of an insightful and humorous discourse that inspires critical thinking and provides relief through comic effect. This article focuses on the satirical entertainment newspaper Njuz.net and the phenomenon of “fake news” or “news in the mirror” and how sarcasm functions as one of the constituent parts of its language. Sarcasm is recognized as one of the chief components of media language today. Although sarcasm is defined as a form of verbal aggression, this article aims to uncover how sarcastic violence in language does not always seek destructive ends. On the contrary, sarcasm is able to provide an affirmative context in which the domineering structures of the official discourse can be undermined by marginalized alternative discourses. In the same context, I will further attempt to demonstrate how laughter, as an accompanying part of sarcasm resulting from the ridiculous, represents “the pleasure of temporarily evading the social order and escaping ideology” (Weinstock 51).
Sarcastic Language in Serbian Entertainment Media
Njuz.net and the Phenomenon of Fake News
In Borislav Pekić’s novel The Golden Fleece, humor is seen as an important constitutive element of Serbian mentality and sense of humor as the nation’s only historical chance for surviving their own history. Pointedly, he locates the possibility of national salvation in humor and not the Orthodox Church. With such an understanding of the nation’s mentality and keeping in mind recent Serbian history, perhaps it’s no wonder that, in the last few years Serbia has witnessed the creation of various popular forms of satirical media. These include the entertainment newspaper Njuz.net, the blog Tarzanija, the short TV form “Državni posao” (“The State Job”), the popular Belgrade-based hip-hop group Bad Copy, the entertainment morning programs such as “Dizanje”/ “Buđenje” and “Mentalno razgibavanje” (“Getting (Your Spirits) Up” and “The Mental Warm-up”), the fictional Twitter character “Pokojna Mileva” (The Late Mileva), the satirical talk show “Ćirilica” (“The Cyrillic”), etc. All of these various media projects aim to provide social, political and cultural criticism through acrid comedy, parody and satire.
The satirical site with a parodic name, Njuz.net (pronounced in the same way as the English noun “news” and transcribed according to the rules of Serbian language phonetics) is a Serbian site inspired by the American site The Onion. They started as a small group on Facebook, and went on to create a site that soon gathered a massive following. The site is conceived as “fake news” or a “news in the mirror” portal that publishes articles on current socio-political, cultural, sports and showbiz events, most of which have already been dealt with in the actual news. In other words, although it relies heavily on real news stories, the form that those news are tailored to fit includes satirical amplification and sarcastic double-coding, twisting and reversal of facts that serve as means to “to foster critical thinking and invite evaluation of aspects of the social and political world that might otherwise remain unquestioned” (Morreale 107). The topics tackled in the Njuz.net’s satirical representations cover the full range of Serbia’s actualities. The article titled “Evictions of ministers from the Government of Serbia will be broadcast live on Pink TV” connects the prolonged political struggles linked to the government reconstruction, most often reported in a sensationalist and tabloid manner, with the eviction procedures of the Big Brother reality show. “The buyer of Fiat 500L presented in Kragujevac,” aims at the severe economic hardship in Serbia where finding a single buyer of a new car seems to be worthy of a formal promotion (something that tends to be forgotten in the laudatory speeches of politicians during the ribbon-cutting ceremonies). The article “The ‘Insider’ team investigates how ‘The Cardashians’ got on B92 TV,” reports that the Insider team, a high-profile team of professionals working in investigative journalism, is focused on the “criminal” act of buying and broadcasting “The Cardashians” on B92 TV. Still, the most important article which placed the Njuz.net site on the global stage is most probably the article about the drunken Serbian tourist that jumped off a cliff while vacationing in Egypt and accidently killed a killer shark while only spraining an ankle. The impact of this article, titled “Serb killed killer shark in Sharm El Sheikh,” was so great that in 2010 when it was first published, all regional media reported it as real news. It was also reported by New York Post and the Russian newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda, which went as far as graphically reconstructing the fatal event and attempting at a scientific explanation of how the death of the shark had actually come about.
Perhaps the most interesting clusters of Njuz.net articles are the ones relating to the process of Serbia’s accession to the European Union. The prolongation of Serbian acceptance to the community of European nations, infinite as it appears to the majority is seen to be caused primarily by Serbia’s slowness and inefficiency in implementing political, social and economic reforms. The Njuz.net site has dealt with the problem in various articles, among which are “Asteroid Apophis gets Serbia into the EU in 2036,” “Astrologers Claim that the Position of Stars on the European Union Flag is Unfavorable for Serbia,” “Serbia Does Not Meet Conditions for Getting End of the World Date” or “The European Union Prohibits Use of Penises Curved More than 10 Percent.” The article “Asteroid Apophis gets Serbia into the EU in 2036,” for instance, informs its readers that the Asteroid 99942 Apophis will most probably hit the Earth in 2036, more accurately the south of Serbia “under a very low incident angle,” momentarily causing a massive earth movement of the whole of Serbia. As a result of that movement, “our country will find itself somewhere between the Czech Republic and Germany. In other words, we will be in the very heart of the European Union.” The person “interviewed” in this article is an imaginary professor Popov, who comments on the future event enthusiastically, as well as the then president of Serbia, Boris Tadić:
I welcome the news of the entry of Serbia into the European Union with joy – said President Tadić today. – The impact of the Asteroid 99942 Apophis is great news for all our citizens, because it means that we will not have to spend another hundred years putting costs and legislation in line with the European standards, as well as that we will not have to resolve our problems with corruption and war criminals’ extradition. Asteroid Apophis will get Serbia into the European Union regardless of the EU requirements, which is a great relief for all of our citizens, especially for those who are used to doing business involving corruption, as well as for the state administration officials who will not have to change their working practices from the days of communism and improve their level of education – Tadić said.
In the footnote below the article, the following “breaking update” is added:
According to the latest estimates, the impact of Apophis in southern Serbia will cause movement of the present territory of Kosovo and Metohija to the heart of Serbia around Kragujevac, which will then be near Duisburg. In that way Apophis, apart from getting Serbia into the EU, will also contribute to the resolution of Kosovo's status, and even the most belligerent opponents of our country acceding to this organization will have to recognize that Serbia fulfills all the requirements.
This article can be seen as arguably one of the finest examples of Njuz.net’s satirical deconstructive technique. A number of current political and social issues are touched on and fitted into the article’s satirical frame. Notably the continual media reports of the declarative eagerness of the political elites to take the responsibility that would initiate the reforms and meet the conditions that would actually get Serbia into the EU. Then, the political platitude “Kosovo is the heart of Serbia” is used twice here, first to state that Serbia will be “in the very heart of the European Union” after the Asteroid hits the Earth, and then to update the readers that, due to the force of the impact, Kosovo and Metohija will find itself first in the heart of Serbia near Kragujevac (a city that is, geographically, in the very heart of Serbia) and then also in the heart of Europe, together with the rest of Serbia. The corrupt and dysfunctional state administration that require urgent measures and in-depth reforms are also mentioned, as well as the readers and viewers, the consumers of media reports that have been inundated with updates of all kinds of political activity in a spectacle-like manner. In Njuz.net’s satirical contextualization of each of these issues, the sarcastic, or the “I don't mean this: in fact, I mean the exact opposite” ironical subtext lies in the message that Serbia’s political elite have failed to implement thus far any substantial change, as well as in the fact that Serbia is not in the heart of the EU and that a lot of time will pass before Serbia finds itself in the position to think about its geo-strategic position within the EU. The satire also touches upon the high resistance to internal changes and reforms of the state apparatus regardless of which parties have a term in office due to the populist political discourse led by political elites. Finally, the article relies on consumers’ weariness of the endless (and media-endorsed) domestic struggle for political power.
Sarcasm as a Rhetorical Device
If satire is a “particular kind of humor that makes fun of human folly and vice by holding people accountable for their public actions” (Marc ix), sarcasm can be recognized as one of the rhetorical devices that constitute it. The Oxford English Dictionary defines sarcasm as mocking or conveying contempt through the use of irony, while Haiman emphasizes calculation in the use of sarcasm as one of its key features. In other words that sarcasm, unlike irony, is very rarely used without previous premeditation. Such premeditated verbal aggression used as a ridiculing device is often perceived as the most vulgar and the least interesting form of irony (Muecke, qtd. in Haiman 20). However, its importance as one of the “higher,” more “sophisticated” and “decadent” aggressive rhetorical devices in contemporary communication cannot be denied (Haiman 12). Sarcasm has not been studied much in the context of language and linguistics, and in the acknowledgements of his study Talk Is Cheap: Sarcasm, Alienation, and the Evolution of Language, Haiman refers to his research as “the unconventional project of a study of sarcasm” (vii). The uncanniness of such a project most likely stems from the generally accepted belief that as Oscar Wilde put it, sarcasm is the lowest form of wit, and as such unworthy of any in-depth study. However, having in mind that the popular culture has been often accused of “its lack of sophistication and presumed pernicious effects” (Weinstock 3), it is clear to see why sarcasm, as such, is one of the key constitutive parts of the contemporary communication. In spite of its crudeness, mainly linked to the communicative part of sarcastic discourse that, being aggressive, seems often to close the door to communication rather than to open it, some recent scientific research has proved that understanding sarcasm requires a carefully orchestrated sequence of complex socio-cognitive skills in the brain. It leads to the conclusion that the highest functions of the brain are those that produce and detect the lowest form of wit that sarcasm is deemed to be (Adam, Internet).
The production of sarcasm involves complex polarities of meaning in every sarcastic message, which state something like: “I don't mean this: in fact, I mean the exact opposite” (Haiman 12). Gray emphasizes the polarity of apparent meaning and intended meaning in both ironic and sarcastic utterances, adding that the speaker “is fully aware that his statements embrace overtones that may or may not be understood by his listener” (221). Haiman, similarly to Gray, distinguishes “the ostensible message,” or the actual referential content that the sender of the message self-consciously alienates from, so as to be able to send what Haiman calls the “metamessage,” the intended, hidden meaning that still needs to be uncovered. Furthermore, Haiman also sees humor as the production of the correlation existing between those two messages, the ostensible message and the metamessage:
Sarcasm is often a form of humor. If […] we identify humor as incongruity, the humor in sarcasm (as in irony) lies in the contrast between the speaker's flattering or sympathetic words (his or her ostensible message, the “lyrics” of his or her song) and his or her hostile intentions (conveyed in the often deniable but far more fundamental metamessage, or the “tune”). (21)
The link between hostility and humor is notable here, more precisely how humor is generated from the discrepancy between the fake ostensible meaning and the true but hostile design. If the role of comedy is to provide a sort of “cathartic relief” in tense or frustrating circumstances, this specific link can be seen as a part of what Žižek calls a “life-force,” that is aggression as a “life-force,” as opposed to violence that is a “death-force” (“The Violence of Language” 63). Žižek asks: “[h]ow can one wholly repudiate violence when struggle and aggression are part of life?” Namely, violence should not be perceived as entirely bad or undesirable, since different forms of aggression are present in the man’s constant struggle through life, and in that sense they represent an affirmative constituent of human existence.
The further complexity of sarcastic verbal behavior and its link to contemporary cultural contexts is found in a very strong connection that exists between the use of sarcasm and quoting, which can be defined as a form of intertextuality. Haiman emphasizes that use of sarcasm implies two acts that are crucial for its understanding. The first is the act of pretense, when the sarcastic person pretends to support a certain attitude or opinion and expects from the listeners, or perhaps just chosen listeners, to understand that it is the act of pretense that is taking place. The second act is the act of mention, when “the sarcast quotes or otherwise repeats other people's words (or possibly just the very words he or she used earlier) and, by repetition, draws attention to their peculiar inappropriateness” (Haiman 25). In other words, it is by means of repetition – Haiman talks about the recycling of language, De Certeau about techniques of re-employment – of one’s own or somebody else’s utterances, which comprise a certain belief, attitude or emotion, that the attention to them and to their unsuitability is drawn. It should be noticed that in the use of sarcasm, the act of pretense and the act of mention imply one another, or, more accurately, pretense most often implies mention. The pretence that one is someone or something that he or she is not almost invariably includes repetition, mentioning what one pretends to be. In the case of the Njuz.net site, the act of pretense can be defined as structural, since the act in question represents the adoption of high formalism of written journalism and the absence of direct commentary, as it is the case in real news that aim at truthfulness by means of dispassionate presentation of facts. The particular can be linked to the act of mention, where current events and news are taken and processed in a parodic way. The structural pretense, embodied in the apparent formalism that imitates “a closed, authoritative version of what the issues of the day are and why they are important,” combined with the particular mention of those “issues of the day,” creates a dialogic “comedically deconstructive frame” (Day 95).
Bearing in mind that the metamessage lying in the subtext of a sarcastic message expresses the exact opposite of the literal meaning of the ostensible message, the interlocutor can very easily miss it, unless he or she is highly receptive to sarcasm or has knowledge of the speaker’s communication habits and techniques.
Satirical forms such as Njuz.net presume that its consumers are familiar with the current events, the ongoing social and political situations, as well as the stereotypes of the society that they are part of. Nevertheless, the above mentioned article about the killer shark still confused and misled many, who “fell for” the typical stereotype that Serbs are capable of doing just about anything, especially if it is irrational, includes force and alcohol, and heedless of potential adverse consequences. Taking that into consideration, it is interesting to consider what the “payoffs” of sarcasm are. We can deduce that, by sending a sarcastic message, the sender sets a challenge before the receiver to decode the message, or, on the other hand, that the sender sets the challenge before himself to send a highly aggressive message in such an adroit manner that it may very easily go unnoticed and its meaning known solely to him or a chosen group of people. Considered in that context, the sarcastic language proves to be a very powerful and efficient tactic of verbal aggression. In the example of Njuz.net, it may be said that the newspaper journalism form proves to be a very good hideout for such linguistic adventures. Even today, several years after the site was made, there are readers who read the news and express their disappointment with the authors’ silliness and misinformation in the comments fully believing that the fake news is real.
Sarcasm’s Subversive Role in Contemporary Communication
As I have previously said, the act of mention in the particular case of the Njuz.net site implies the imitation of a specific style of journalism and in that respect at a first glance it may be seen as the acceptance of the official language register. However, the workings of sarcasm infallibly strive to achieve the opposite – the rejection of the language and the values that language epitomizes. The Njuz.net site was initiated by people who were not part of the media or entertainment industry and the ideas were first exchanged in informal meetings in coffee shops (Martinović, Internet).
Such beginnings of the project indicate an unassuming attempt at articulating semi-private satirical commentaries between individuals whom de Certeau calls “anonymous hero(s),” the common man who “does not expect representations” and is “the murmuring voice of societies” (Dedication). De Certeau sees those anonymous heroes as “common people” who struggle for a dignified existence in the structures of dominant social orders that frustrate or constrict them, but are, however, constrained by lack of means that would provide them with fairer conditions in their fight. Being in a subordinated position, the “anonymous hero” uses the elements of the dominating structures in order to fight them, and very often beats them at their own game. The key to the successful fight, according to de Certeau, is in the “consumption” procedures of the structural elements of the dominating orders, in the “intricate strategies of simulated support” according to Yurchak (162), or, in Haiman’s study of sarcasm, in the creative use of “the difference between acts of manipulation and acts of communication,” which is also the functional vs. formal, the symbolic vs. instrumental (4). If we say that the newspaper journalistic form is one of the central forms used for the dissemination of the officially approved discourse, than it is the procedures of “consumption” or the manner in which Njuz.net uses the officially accepted journalistic form that serve as the main tool by means of which the anonymous hero is able to escape and subvert the dominating order without ever being able to leave it. (de Certeau xiii)
De Certeau’s “common people” are the majority of every system, political or any other, and it is from the marginality of “groups or individuals already caught in the nets of discipline” that the “dispersed, tactical, and makeshift creativity” comes from (xiv-xv). In the absence of power, the forms of the official discourse are used for its subversion, and one of the ways for doing it is sarcastic displacement. According to Haiman, sarcastic communication enables “the avoidance of the stigma of non-originality; the scope for putting down one's interlocutor; deniability, self-camouflage, or the avoidance of commitment; and the opportunity for asserting one's superiority over social conventions while nonetheless adhering to them” (64). In order to be able to make this kind of sarcastic language “diversion,” where the language structure that imitates the form of serious news also contains a critical twist, one still has to use the same language that an interlocutor who is not being sarcastic would use. The use of the same language is yet another indicator that an individual “is in the same boat as everyone else” and by means of sarcasm he “begins to laugh. An ironic and wise madness is linked to the fact that he has lost the singularity of a competence and found himself, anyone or no one, in the common history” (De Certeau 4). It is the artful verbal aggression, covered under the surface of sameness of language that provides the superiority over the dominating language structures, or, in de Certeau’s words:
Although they are composed with the vocabularies of established languages (those of television, newspapers, supermarkets, or museum sequences) and although they remain subordinated to the prescribed syntactical forms (temporal modes of schedules, paradigmatic orders of spaces, etc.), the trajectories trace out the ruses of other interests and desires that are neither determined nor captured by the systems in which they develop. (xviii)
Such ruses create give “the ‘knowing wink’ of shared recognition,” creating communities of the like-minded within marginalized majorities (Nadkarni 616). Sarcastic language is only one of the ways to reject the invasive mediocrity and conformism and to undermine the pretensions of infallibility “of what passes for discourse, political or otherwise” (Morreale 112). Every sarcast feels the pleasure in provoking the interlocutor to uncover the hidden meaning, to understand an allusion made at a certain person, event or convention, a facial expression or bodily movement that accompanies the message verbalization. Sarcastic verbal communication represents an expression of discontent and superiority in the world in which all the quests for finality are outdated, and offers an opportunity to question the dreary reality, often absurd and worthy of contempt, in a manner that uses the absurd and the derisive only to expose and deconstruct the failings of that reality. Still, the critical commentary within the sarcastic discourse is far from obvious – as we previously have stated, the requirements for understanding sarcasm are rather high. In that respect, Njuz.net articles do not impose directly a social commentary, but leave an open possibility for its creation, while the humor, as much as it is aggressive, it is also reviving.
Emptied of all sentimentalism or condescension, contemporary satirical forms that exist in Serbia today as a part of popular culture have managed to make political incorrectness, violent discourse and excessive parody a legitimate weapon in the battle for an alternative discourse. Njuz.net has gained widespread popularity as well as critical acclaim for its fight for a different version of truth. Its sarcastic discourse, at the same time imbued with humorous and caustic oppositions between what is said and what is meant provides a satirical context in which a mode of subversion of dominating structures is possible. However, to what extent is sarcastic activity only defensive in its subversion, without encouraging actual change? No matter how intelligent or creative a sarcast is rarely does true constructive passion hide behind the tearing powers of a sarcastic utterance, and therefore “makes no attempt at corrective or political action to close the distance between ideology and reality” (Groening 115). In other words, a sarcast will readily and deftly articulate the doom of the man’s pitiful existence, but in a way that is non-committal, “luxuriating in the freedom that comes from playing at conversation, tossing out statements that can be taken in a variety of ways” (Cross 132). In doing so, the sarcast fails to display willingness and capability of effecting some change, believing that in the fragmented and uncertain reality that we inhabit, one cannot ask for more than a possibility of a cathartic comic relief. Taking that into consideration, sarcastic verbal behavior proves to be incomplete: on the one hand, it tears apart ignorance, the absurd, the ridiculous and inspires critical thinking, but stops there, failing to take responsibility by expressing something with an unambiguous meaning and thus advance to some kind of corrective process.
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