Guest post: Syntax and form

Originally a comment by Dave Ricks on What does Silicon Valley think of women?

The Newsweek cover works for me as satire, and I’ll explain in terms of syntax or form. By syntax, I mean a claim is equally valid in the active or passive voice. By form, I mean (for example) that jazz musicians call the chord changes to I Got Rhythm “rhythm changes” and (for example) most of the Charlie Parker tunes I know off the top of my head are launching pads to improvise over “rhythm changes” being a 32-bar AABA form.

All of us can instantly parse a single-frame editorial cartoon that shows a bad person behaving badly. My analogy here is to the active voice, to show (for example) a greedy narcissistic Wall Street person gaming the system for personal gain but a net loss to society. That syntax or form says, “This person is behaving badly.”

But there’s another syntax or form that some people have trouble parsing, like (for example) The New Yorker Obama fist bump cover (with the US flag burning in the fireplace). The object of the satire is the bullshit I heard on the radio and read online in Obama’s first Presidential election that Obama is a Muslim (delivered with the implicit understanding that Muslims are anti-American). In this syntax or form, the satire mocks anybody who would think the things shown in the cartoons. In a cartoon with this this syntax or form, really:
• The Obamas are NOT Islamist militants.
• Christiane Taubira is NOT a monkey.
• Boko Haram’s rape victims are NOT demanding welfare money.
• Women in Silicon Valley are NOT faceless.

I respect Anne @6/8 for italicizing a preference for cartoons to show the subject of satire directly, like a preference to use the active voice over passive voice. The Newsweek cover says, “Women are disrespected by Silicon Valley”, and someone could wish for the same claim in the active voice, “Silicon Valley disrespects women”. I respect Anne @6/8 for italicizing a preference that stops short of saying one syntax or form is invalid or unethical, which some commenters seem to say here.


  1. carbonfox says

    In the context of the article, it might be arguable that the cartoon is satire. But alone, the cover itself merely implies that “Silicon Valley thinks” women are passive, sexualized objects, with no judgement one way or the other. Perhaps to the enlightened, peeking uninvited under a skirt is by definition a bad behavior, but I can easily imagine other works passing off similar situations as cute and playful (e.g. anime, where men trying to see women’s panties is a common gag mostly depicted as both harmless and humorous). Just as I am suspicious of cartoons featuring Obama drawn as an ape, I don’t find this cover of a faceless woman being harassed particularly brilliant, either. It might be satire, but I personally don’t think it has done a very good job.

    Artistically, what was gained by using passive rather than active satire? How is the message different than if active satire had been used? I feel the message would have been stronger with the active. Of course, this is all just my opinion and as the saying goes…

  2. Anne Fenwick says

    All of us can instantly parse a single-frame editorial cartoon that shows a bad person behaving badly.

    I’m not sure how much your argument depends on it, but I think this is unlikely to be true. Visual imagery almost always depends on the prioritization of certain elements even when it’s rather simple. In this case, the single-frame cartoon is made of a bunch of components with varying scales and the types of visual language.

    On the news stand, the purely representational part of the image (the woman) is surely always seen and processed first, often from a distance. This is partly because it is an image, partly because it is larger and more central than the other elements. It’s the ‘clickbait’, and recognition that a display of sexual harassment has been used as clickbait has caused the complaints of some people.

    If we assume an audience of English readers, the text will be processed next – if the viewer decides to bother – at which point they become aware of the magazine’s stance and angle. But it’s almost always something that happens next, and perhaps not at all. We don’t always realize this when an image is presented to us as this one was, blown up on our computer screens in a blog post which sets out to discuss its characteristics. Our attention was solicited in a completely different way.

    Visual symbols like the cursor are always problematic because they work like a written language which we haven’t been taught to parse in a standardized way. Although viewers ‘see’ them, interpretation can be patchy. I didn’t recognize the arrow as a computer cursor, or parse the association with Silicon Valley until I read the explanation somewhere else. So for me, even the cartoonist’s allusion to agency (the active role) was under-emphasized because it was encapsulated in a small, relatively discreet symbol I couldn’t/didn’t parse rather than in an image.

    PS – I appreciate you respecting me for only ‘preferring’ a certain type of imagery. I suppose I don’t think it’s always necessary to leap to an extreme position, especially when it comes to something like the grammar of visual imagery which isn’t often discussed in public or taught in schools and is sometimes practiced by instinct rather than analysis, even by professionals.

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