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In the wake of the January killings of French cartoonists in Paris, author and essayist Will Self - often labelled a satirist himself by academic or literary criticism – was compelled to reconsider the nature and purpose of satire. In an opinion piece tellingly entitled “What’s the Point of Satire?” , he explains: “We may like to think of our satirists as still speaking truth fearlessly unto power within a social realm bounded by commonly understood norms […] but such a view is largely delusory. In fact, it’s the managed anomie of our society today […] that allows for a satire at once savage and toothless.” Whereas most definitions of satire underline the indebtedness of the genre to a doxa or to an established social norm that it must expose and deride so that the opposite virtues can be implicitly extolled and ultimately reinforced, Will Self’s postulate prompts a revaluation of the very frame within which we understand satire. In this paper, based on selected fictions by Self - such as Cock and Bull, Great Apes or The Book of Dave - I propose to study the narrative and discursive strategies producing a satirical form able to accommodate a perceived current lack of common moral ground. My purpose will be threefold: I shall first look at various satirical tropes, such as the use of a grotesque aesthetics, the topos of mundus inversus and a telescopic or microscopic vision of the social body, in order to show aspects of the “savage” dimension of Self’s satirical prose. Secondly, working under the assumption that these topoi constitute a coping strategy to “manage the anomie of our society”, I would like to demonstrate that the inherent ambivalence of a hence “toothless” satire allows for an exploration of a deregulated social body rather than for the teleologic reconstruction of an implied moral norm. Finally, in keeping with Griffin’s notion of satire as an exploratory rather than a cautionary tale, I shall assess to what extent the rhetorics of provocation and display underlying Will Self’s bitter sense of humour may (or may not) sting and ultimately spring the reader into action.

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Vanessa Guignery
Professor of English and Postcolonial Literature at the ENS de Lyon and member of the Institut Universitaire de France in Paris.
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