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Interview: Dr Joanne Paul


Our New Generation Thinkers for 2017 were announced at Sage as part of BBC Radio 3's Free Thinking Festival. This week we talk to Dr Joanne Paul from University of Sussex.

The New Generation Thinkers for 2017 made their radio debut on Radio 3 Tuesday 4 April

Doctor Islam Issa

Her story so far

Joannes current research examines how ideas about political counsel shaped the culture and institutions of Renaissance England. Counsel occupied the greatest minds of the Renaissance, appearing in the works of prominent writers such as Thomas More, Machiavelli, Shakespeare, as well as statesmen of the Tudor age, such as William Cecil and Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth I’s right-hand men. Joanne’s work will shed light on this secret political history, examining how changing ideas about counsel and advice-giving were crucial for the development of political institutions, such as parliamentary sovereignty. It also highlights techniques for ‘speaking truth to power’, and forms of resistance which are still used today, including political satire and the ‘leaking’ of private documents.

At a time when wealth and influence seems to be increasingly concentrated in the hands of 'the few' it's important that society finds ways to effectively speak truth to power.

Satire provides a powerful tool for doing this. And for lessons in how to use it we should look back to the Renaissance, according to the New Generation Thinker Dr Joanne Paul, University of Sussex.

“I think the Renaissance was a key moment in the history of satire,” she says. “It wasn't where satire began. In many ways writers of the period were adopting modes of expression that date back to the classical age.

“But they were using these modes in a new way to enable political influence. It's that nuance that i think is particularly interesting in this period.”

Dr Paul's Radio 3 programme will explore how Renaissance thinkers laid the groundwork for modern political resistance and critique.

“Laughter has substantial political power; a lesson realized by Renaissance reformers such as Erasmus and More,” she says.

“We will explore their ridicule, including Erasmus's Praise of Folly and More's Utopia. In line with Reformation500 celebrations, we'll examine how these tactics were also applied in opposing the Catholic Church.”

In 1509 Erasmus described his satirical ambitions in Praise of Folly: 'Jokes can be handled in such a way that any reader who is not altogether lacking in discernment can scent something far more rewarding in them than the crabbed and specious arguments of some people we know.'

“One of the specific things I want to look at is political counsel and advise giving,” says Dr Paul. Satire was actually a way of giving advice. Thomas More or Erasmus might use satire to shame people in power. By appealing to their sense of pride they would hope to be able to guide them in a particular direction.”

One of the reasons Dr Paul chose to apply to be a New Generation Thinker this year is that she believes these themes are becoming increasingly relevant.

“I am becoming more and more aware of a growing sense of voicelessness in the world,” she says. “One of the powers of satire is the way it provides a means to speak truth to power in an environment where it might be dangerous to speak openly.

“I wanted to start a conversation about what that means for us now; about how we can speak truth to power and what we can learn from a time when satire was widely used.”

Interestingly, there was a real moral aspect to Renaissance satire that persists into the modern world. “We might have a more pluralistic idea of what morality is but we still expect our politicians to be truthful and honest,” says Dr Paul.

“Those values are at the foundations of our democracy and satire is used to hold politicians to those values.”

“I'd like the Radio 3 audience to think a little more about the various strategies there are to speak truth to power. Ones that may have been used in the past. Ones that may have been abandoned along the way. And perhaps even new ones that we can think of by reflecting on those past strategies.

“I'd also like them to think about the Renaissance in a new way, and perhaps shake off any idea that it was backward and completely different.

“They did things differently back then, of course. But that 'foreign perspective' can give us a new way to look at things that we share with them. But in a different way.”

Interestingly, another Renaissance political strategy that has strong echoes in the modern world of Wikileaks was that of using information leaks as a propaganda tool. These grow in significance through the period – and came into their own in the English Civil War.

“If the Parliamentarians came across a cash of Royalist letters, for example. Then they would publish them to embarrass their enemies.

“Leaks like this had a huge propaganda value and I think that's something that really echoes down the ages.

“Perhaps we're not so different after all.”

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