Sassy Justice: Where Satire Meets Deepfake, and Rome Meets Wyoming - whynow

Sassy Justice: Where Satire Meets Deepfake, and Rome Meets Wyoming


Post-truth is stranger than fiction, Lord Byron might have said, had he lived to see our era of ‘alternative facts’, Pizzagate, and deepfake. 

 In fact, fuck it: ‘Post-truth is stranger than fiction,’ said Byron.

THE FRAUDSTERS CHASING THE FRAUDSTERS

Some say we live in a world far more outlandish than anything a satirist could dream up. I often check back on the story of Bob Geldof blasting Chicago’s ‘If You Leave Me’ as he chased Nigel Farage’s pro-Brexit flotilla down the Thames to see if I’ve missed the punchline, or if it has since been declared fake news. But no, it happened. If a comedian had cooked up that vignette, it would have seemed too contrived, implausible, and absurd. 

Before we call satire sunk, though, let’s remember that for as long as it’s existed, satire — Latin for ‘mixed dish’ — has been in danger of being taken off the menu. Even in the middle of mounting an attack on Roman society, poet Juvenal still feels the need to defend what he’s up to: ‘It is hard not to write satire,’ he says, as if someone has indicated it might be, ‘for who can be so tolerant of this monstrous city, who so iron of soul, as to contain himself’?

Nineteen centuries later, and it’s still true, as Juvenal suggests, that ‘no deity is held in such reverence amongst us as Wealth’. It’s still hard not to write satire – in fact, it’s paradoxically harder than ever in a world so shameless and reckless that it seems to have rendered satire kaput.

#CANCELSATIRE

With an Ouroboros logic, satire has always attacked itself in order to survive. When Juvenal describes the earliest Roman satirist Lacilius ‘roaring and raging as if with sword in hand’, he announces himself as a poet frightened of writing poetry, an impotent wielder of potentially dangerous power. 

See also a joke of the German Romantic poet Heinrich Heine that Sigmund Freud claims to admire: ‘This satire would not have been so biting if its author had had more to bite.’ It seems the satirist is a soldier with a tiny, wooden sword, a wolf stealing scraps with dentures.

It seems the satirist is a soldier with a tiny, wooden sword, a wolf stealing scraps with dentures.

In a similar vein, Trey Parker and Matt Stone — creators of South Park, Team America, and The Book of Mormon — have realised that if they are to skewer an ever more reactionary and angry culture, in which presidents can conduct storms of outrage in less than 280 characters like giddy little Prosperos, they — Parker and Stone, that is — must put themselves on the chopping block too.

To coincide with 2018’s release of the 22nd season of South Park, they launched the campaign #CancelSouthPark. Fortunately — while mocking cancel culture, keyboard warriors and previous attempts by protestors to get the series banned — their campaign to get their own show off the air fell short. Similarly, the script of South Park’s recent Pandemic Special constantly undermined its own existence: no-one gives a damn about a ‘pandemic special’ at a time like this, characters kept saying (used in context to refer to Randy’s 10% markdown weed.)

While we wait for season 24, Parker and Stone have released the first instalment of Sassy Justice with Peter Serafinowicz. The medium is the message: deepfake.

Not only is the technology getting good, but it’s becoming more widely accessible.

DEEPFAKE VS. DEMOCRACY

Deepfakes work by using neural networks of algorithms that learn how to create realistic videos of real (or fictitious) people after processing a database of example images. Not only is the technology getting good, but it’s becoming more widely accessible. ‘To deepfake’ has already entered the vocabulary as a verb, as ‘to photoshop’ did before it.

Understandably, now that anyone with enough computing power can realistically synthesise faces and voices, people are afraid that deepfaking poses a threat to democracy. Nonetheless, it’s a distracting idea, because (1) Deepfake vs. Democracy is already a much louder narrative than the technology’s overwhelming use as a weapon against women (in September 2019, AI firm Deeptrace found 15,000 deepfake videos online, of which a shocking 96% were pornographic; of those, 99% mapped faces from unwitting female celebrities onto porn stars); (2) misinformation and fakery is already rife in politics.

SASSY JUSTICE

Sassy Justice is based on a series of impressions that Peter Serafinowicz developed of a ‘sassy’ Donald Trump; as such, Trump’s face is superimposed on Serafinowicz playing Fred Sassy, a local television reporter. The scene is Cheyenne, Wyoming. The opening sequence sees a face-masked pedestrian walking past a mural of a galloping horse reading ‘Howdy, from Cheyenne’.

The largest outdoor rodeo in the U.S. has been held in Cheyenne annually since 1897. Historically, Cheyenne is a railroad town, and its first residents were men who moved west to work on the transcontinental railroad. In other words, it’s a vestige of the old frontier.

In Trump’s 2020 State of the Union, the word ‘frontier’ appears four times: ‘The American Nation was carved out of the vast frontier by the toughest, strongest, fiercest, and most determined men and women ever to walk the face of the Earth,’ he said. ‘Our ancestors braved the unknown, tamed the wilderness, settled the Wild West.’

In Trump’s revisionist telling of the ‘founding’ of America, he erases slavery, racism and brutality. If one of the goals of satire is to challenge boundaries — and Freud believed this type of ‘tendentious humour’ to be an expression of repressed aggression — we might note Sassy Justice’s setting as a subtle allusion to Trump’s obsession with the border wall and his invocation of the frontier: not so much a place today as a state of mind, a disciplinary mechanism; an expression of repressed aggression meets flat-out aggression.

Fred Sassy’s tagline is ‘Taking the blindfold OFF of Justice’ — which sounds good, doesn’t it? Only, of course, Lady Justice’s blindfold symbolises her impartiality. Still, the question of vision and transparency is very much on Sassy’s mind, as he promises to help us ‘dive into the world of deepfake’, asking ‘what happens when scammers secretly want to trick our eyes?’

Soon faux-naivete slides into trademark toilet humour, as Fred interviews Al Gore (actually Trey Parker). What has politicians scared, Gore explains, is that ‘deepfakes can put words in people’s mouths, make people say things like vagina…and poop, and then you’ve got senators going around saying vagina poop.’ Scatology has a long literary association with satire. Here, as elsewhere, it serves to reduce complex issues to the most basic and crass condition possible.

Scatology has a long literary association with satire…

THE DIALYSIS KING

Don’t worry, the tone gets lower still when Matt Stone appears as Mark Zuckerberg – here, Cheyenne’s ‘Dialysis King’. ‘At these prices, you can’t afford not to get dialysis,’ he says in a kitschy infomercial. ‘Stop being a burden on your family and get dialysis today!’

It’s not the first time Zuckerberg has been a target of deepfake. Artists Bill Posters and Daniel Howe used Zuckerberg’s likeness to announce the danger of ‘One man, with total control of billions of people’s stolen data, all their secrets, their lives, their futures’. Posters and Howe synthesised their clip with one from September 2017, when Zuckerberg gave an address about Russian election interference on Facebook, thus creating a kind of Möbius Strip of meddling.

‘This is the point we are trying to make,’ Posters said. ‘How can we engage in serious exploration and debate about these incredibly important issues if we can’t use art to critically interrogate the tech giants?’

Sassy Justice, however, seems to go the other way: how can we take anything seriously when tech giants and health care systems view even your end-stage renal disease as manipulatable data?

USE YOUR NOODLE

As Trey and Parker have done increasingly with South Park, Sassy Justice questions its own place in society even as it emerges — a deepfake warning of deepfake. Far from meta- peacocking, the audience is alerted to just how exhausting it is to live in such a climate. Sassy Justice ends with its own version of the Jerry Springer Show’s ‘Jerry’s Final Thought’: ‘Sassy’s Second’. ‘Things aren’t always what they seem,’ Fred-Serafinowitz-Trump says, ‘sometimes you have to use your own noodle. We’re all gonna have to trust our gut, our inner voice. It’s all we have now.’

The reason this joke works has something to do with the way the high priest of postmodernism Jean Baudrillard was using his noodle back in the early 80s: ‘The media represents a world that is more real than reality we can experience. People lose the ability to distinguish between reality and fantasy,’ he contends. ‘They also begin to engage with the fantasy without realising what it really is.’ We’ve been trusting our gut and choosing to listen to (or to ignore) our inner voices for a while now.

Joseph Stalin understood this all too well when he airbrushed people out of photographs during his Great Purge: if you change the image, you change history.

Baudrillard continues, ‘We require a visible past, a visible continuum, a visible myth of origin to reassure us as to our ends, since ultimately we have never believed in them.’ Joseph Stalin understood this all too well when he airbrushed people out of photographs during his Great Purge: if you change the image, you change history.

‘SOME CORNER OF ANOTHER WORLD’

History is perhaps always, in a sense, airbrushed by the person documenting it; but this is not to undermine the indisputable power of the visual image. When a team from MIT’s Centre for Advanced Virtuality produced their work of science fiction ‘In Event of Moon Disaster’, they were commenting on the very real threat of political deepfakes, as well as demonstrating synthesised media’s artistic potential.

Synthesising Richard Nixon’s face and voice, his likeness addresses the viewer following 1969’s ‘failed’ moon landing. What makes this work all the more haunting is that the speech itself is real. Although it was never broadcast, speechwriter William Safire wrote it as a contingency, had history taken a different path.



‘Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay to rest in peace,’ Nixon’s likeness says to the camera. ‘For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.’

If Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had been stranded on the moon, this is a speech we might all now know by rote. Ever the canny speech-writer, Safire looked to a poet for inspiration, borrowing from Rupert Brooke, who died in World War I. The poem is ‘The Soldier’: 

If I should die, think only this of me:

That there’s some corner of a foreign field

That is for ever England.

Alternative history meets a real documentary archive piece, which itself evokes an earlier cadence; 1914 merges with 1969 merges with today with that counterfactual ‘If’. The film implies we are at a similar bifurcating path between success and failure; it is up to us to ordain our own fate and decide if we are to let technology continue to obfuscate the truth around us.

ROME WAS BUILT IN A DAY

On reflection, there’s a reason why I started off thinking of Juvenal — beyond the fact of him being a grandfather of satire. Freud posits in Civilisation and its Discontents that ‘in mental life nothing that has been formed can perish — that everything is somehow preserved’; he uses the analogy of the mind as the city of Rome, where several chapters of history share the same spot — a launderette sitting on the site of an ancient temple, for instance: ‘The observer would perhaps need only to shift his gaze or his position in order to see the one or the other.’

But, of course, we forget. Our minds are pliable, easily influenced. The question of layering faces is a question about the layers of history competing for our attention. In Juvenal, characters in mythology are compared to the vices of the modern day; Trump manipulates the mythology of the frontier to advance his ideology; Nixon might have called forth the ghost of Rupert Brooke, had Apollo 11 been a catastrophe.

As we use our noodles in a world of fake news, keeping tabs on those attempting to shift our gazes, and hopefully ensuring that Justice keeps her blindfold on, might satire be as true a document as any? Could you navigate Cheyenne with a map of Rome?

Rampa  They Will Be