15 August 2007

Cowboys In Suits

3. Are artists able, given this existing power structure that has co-opted irony and other kinds of dissent, to truly display bad manners? If so, how?

Examples:

Stephen Colbert at the 2006 White House Correspondents' Association Dinner, and the Colbert Report in general.
The Yes Men.
The Yes Men.
The Yes Men.
Jon Stewart's Jon McCain interview.

They are all operating from an actual powerful platform that has either been hijacked (The Yes Men only pretend to be representatives of Halliburton, the WTO and Exxon), or in the case of Comedy Central, repurposed.

These hijinks and face-offs are funny and effective (and can even happen) because they depend upon existing structures. It's not just the suit, it's everything. If these guys were poets, they'd be writing the strictest sonnets--not pumping out some exciting new free verse we've never seen before. They're simply leveraging facts and chutzpah against the existing forms, like:

O'ReillyLimbaughScarboroughCounty
CNNshitstream
Public Speaking
PowerPoint and its kissing cousin, the News Graphic

to arrive at a broader point about power, who's got it, how they keep it, and how tenuous the grasp is on it.

There is an unmodernness to this strategy that is fresh. It's not about the artist as an individual. Sure, Colbert and fils must have enormous egos to do what they are doing, but it can't be about them if it's going to work. This is why the Daily Show is increasingly straight, lameass satire--it's increasingly about Jon Stewart Being Funny and less about Playing Anchor And Yet Delivering More Actual Truth Than 24 Hours Of CNN.

This kind of rudeness is also not about invention or finding anything new. It's about pushing one form against another form:

Content v. PowerPoint
Facts v. Truthiness
News or Public Speaking v. Comedy

And seeing what happens. This is why actual context matters. It's why The Yes Men must be in front of a bunch of conventioneers, why Stephen Colbert had to do the dinner.

And of course, this work has nothing to do with dissent. I know it feels like it does, but in order for this satire to work, it has to employ, not destroy. It has to happen from the inside. It has to say Yes to what is happening on a very deep level. Stephen Colbert is consistently better and more incindiary than Jon Stewart because Colbert is on the Bush Administration's side. Jon Stewart was better as an anchor when he was actively attempting to work the impartiality axis. It gave his anchorship an existential problem and made the news look as broken as it is. Whenever Stewart departs from the form and depends on his own funniness, he is surrendering strength in service of his ego. And he is saying No when he should keep saying Yes.

I tend to think that these strategies can work outside of satire and don't have to be expressly political--that one could push whatever rhetorical strategy into the Full Structure Press and see what happens. And that this work is important if we (the big We--all of us) are to understand power as something we can wield and not just something that is wielded against us.

Power is not just political, it's not just about suits. And there are lots of ways to be bad by playing along.

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