The question of politics in an age of satirical reproduction

Two years ago, wrote a paper for a journalism and politics class addressing the following question:

Does satire perform a valuable social function by holding politicians to account, or does it merely undermine politics?

This question is back at the fore at the moment with Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear in Washington D.C. tomorrow. Stewart and Colbert are already established names in the satirists’ pantheon, but this will prove a potential new testing ground for them to combine the comedic with the overtly political, coming as it does in the same week as the mid-term elections in the US. The main point of the rally is no doubt to have a bit of fun, but the question remains what if any political message or intent might they may choose to float out there, and how affective could they be with any such message?

It is an aged old question: how capable is satire of critiquing the political discourse without eventually making a mockery of politics alltogether? How many parts of the satirical equation can any potentially wise comedic insight take up against the exponential factor of the wise-ass? Stewart and Colbert have proved rather adept at toying with this question, playing off one another and the inherent absurdity of the media world in which all of politics is embroiled in today. One defining aspect of recent times is undoubtedly the rise of satire, not to mention its grizzled attack dog, snark. It seems an inevitable element embedded in any deconstructionist, post-modern pursuits, and Colbert’s “reason is just one letter away from treason” is a prescient choice of slogans, straight out of Derrida and succinctly capturing so much about the contemporary discourse. Stephen Wagg, a writer on English satire, refers to the brazenly irreverential, “hedonistic” brand of satire that protrays everything as fundamentally absurd – Peter Cook being Wagg’s prime example of this school. The Cook comparison is particularly apt, in that both Cook and Colbert had career defining instances in which they mercilessly lampooned the current leaders of their age directly to their faces. Cook’s moment came when he openly mocked Prime Minister Harold Macmillan during a Beyond the Fringe event, knowing full well that Macmillan was in the audience on the night, while Colbert created a brief media outcry with his infamous comedic invective delivered to President George W. Bush at the 2006 White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. Colbert clearly situates his comedic practice in the more hedonistic mode – albeit via his bespectacled, polished persona.  And how well it suits that particular strand of bespectacled, polished hedonism in our age.

One of the key strategies that we see in Stewart and Colbert is the way in which they play off one another. Thus Colbert’s typically off-the-wall and wonderfully loony routines can make Stewart look down-right commonsensical. Hence Stewart spearheading the Rally to Restore Sanity part of the weekend. It is a yin-yang strategy that works very well for both of them in the way that it regularly diffuses, or rather deflects the question of whether their individual efforts undermine any sense of a genuine politics behind their satirical surface. While the comparison is not as good as the Colbert-Cook one, there is a sense in which, thanks to Colbert’s outlandish posings, Stewart is by this helpful comparison able to present his own persona as more akin to an intermediating David Frost type. There are several different kinds of bridging abilities to political satire, and Stewart is clearly trying to reach out in that sense. He mediates the media for his viewers, and even gives politicians and others a chance to appear as guests in middle ground between outright politics and outright satire. Stewart is thus made to appear as the relatively sane moderator steering his tight course between Colbert’s more rigidly aggressive shtick on the one side and the stormy likes of Glenn Beck swirling on the opposite end.

James Gillray’s Britannia between Scylla & Charybdis

There is a certain, devil-may-care aspect to comedy that often finds its best outlet in satire. Like the Shakespearean fool, the satirist in full flow can often come out with some of the sharpest, and at times the seemingly only possible response to the issue in question. There are plenty of examples to choose from, here is a recent gem from Stewart’s Daily Show. But this slapdash bent of satire may potentially have certain unplanned side-effects which the satirist might not have in mind when caught up in the insurrectionary delights of their efforts. Consider the following particularly interesting excerpt from Wagg:

[M]any view ‘satire’ within a paradigm of British ethnicity. John Connor, for instance, wrote of Monty Python in 1989: “The real secret of Python wasn’t their surrealism – it’s the fact that they were the first to articulate the madness of the British, and in particular the English. Margaret Thatcher could have been created by Python (Guardian, 6 October 1989).” This is almost certainly intended to mean that Thatcher represented the narrow-minded, petit bourgeois English bigot that Python had been trying to subvert, but it seems to me that Python, and the other “satirists”, also helped to invent what became known as Thatcherism.

While most would suggest that it is preposterous to accuse the creators of Monty Python of laying the grounds for Thatcherism, there is something to this line of innuendo. Satire can be transmitted and absorbed in unintended ways by the same elements of society it may be attempting to critique. Despite injecting plenty of venom into their pantomime villain Margaret Thatcher, there is a sense in which the creators of a show like Spitting Image produced the unintended knock-on effect of making Thatcher’s ruthless nature such an amusing and even ostensibly endearing trait.

A similar claim could be made for the, at the time, seemingly never ending run of spoofs made of George ‘Dubya’ Bush during his time in office. No modern politician had been as widely ridiculed as Bush and yet he secured a second term in office. The popular American comedian Will Ferrell became well-known for his Bush impressions, and in 2004 was sponsored by the liberal political action group America Coming Together (ACT) to do a spoof election campaign video playing on Bush’s perceived dim-wittedness. While clearly portraying the president in a poor light, the video can nevertheless be said to soften Bush’s shortcomings by portraying them in just such an amusing light. The video encourages the viewer to laugh at the president’s stupidity but has little political bite beyond this. While meant to portray Bush in a bad light, its enduring effect in one important sense is the way in which it captures the “folksy” and down-home appeal that made him electable at the time. Thanks to such potentially palliating effects of satire even some of the politicians seem ready to jump on board the comedy express. From the madness of President George to Comical Ali’s Minister of Information, it would seem that we can turn the John Cleese quote on its head: satire can now be both “the defence of the rational individual against the irrational public” and also the defender of the irrational politician against the rational public. We can probably expect to see more such satirical turns by politicians in years to come.

“[N]estled deep in the bowels of an era” is a sense that in this new century we still haven’t come to terms with everything the 20th century put onto the table. Relativity in science, rapid changes to the scale and pace of human life and destruction, the advent of “post-” everythings and now the hyper-reality of the digitally mediated present. All such developments send up in an almost tragi-comic way what it might mean to be “sane” today. Comedians like the Pythons were of course partly just reflecting on and bouncing off the various elements of the absurd that they detected in their own times. And we see their real legacy in the flying circus of today’s remix culture, where the Pythons’ irreverent and slapdash approach to comedy has become almost the default starting point for humour in a digital age. Following on from the early efforts of Frost, now pretty much all of our major online news or political resources include a selection of links on their front pages to at least a few comic items. It seems that no longer is it enough that we the public are sent to bed happy, we now require a rolling supply of readily available comic outlets with which we can easily escape from the barrage of harder news stories.

So could one in any way suggest that Stewart, and later Colbert, in some sense paved the way for the likes of Glenn Beck and the Tea Party today? I think the title of the Stewart’s march gives us a clue as to what the answer to that might be. Rally to Restore Sanity. The Daily Show have proclaimed in the past, “We’re a fake news organisation covering a fake news event.” But perhaps Stewart now has qualms of some kind in this regard. He could certainly not have expected to become the figurehead of a media beast which research has indicated has become a de facto news source for increasingly large swathes of the US population. And all the while he has watched the concurrent rise of Fox News, first spearheaded by the containable Bill O’Reilly, but now riding higher than ever with its very own Colbertian alter-ego, the incomparable Glenn Beck. For Beck could indeed have walked straight off the sets of The Colbert Report or The Daily Show. What Stewart, Colbert and those working with them are perhaps having to ask themselves leading up to this weekend is whether they are willing to jump, in any way, into the overtly political arena – as Beck has been doing along with the Tea Party and his own march to Washington a few weeks back. Because for all the hilarity he provides Stewart and Colbert with, Beck is (for the moment anyway) possibly beginning to attain more direct political clout than either Stewart or Colbert currently lay claim to.

The title of this post is clumsily riffing off Walter Benjamin’s classic essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.’ The essay attempts to get a hold on the rise of technologies of reproduction (photography and film in particular) and their effects on previously long held notions around art. Benjamin can’t help but admire much of what these technologies allow for – for they do in many ways act as the kind of levelling forces in society that he seeks. Satire can of course also act as a similar kind of destructive leveller. Equally, whatever one thinks of him, Beck undoubtedly speaks to many of the disaffected and disenfranchised of this American generation. As much as Stewart and Colbert (in his Marinetti like persona) do regularly belittle Beck and his assorted Tea Party cohorts, there is still a certain kind of deference to their efforts that draw so much on imitation and reproduction of that which they parody. Likewise, Benjamin wrestles in the essay with the undoubtedly alluring and powerfully formulated revolutionary aesthetics that he witnesses in the fascist leaning Futurist movement of his generation. Benjamin’s rather blunt response to his dilemma was to conclude that “Communism responds by politicizing art.” The question that faces Stewart and Colbert tomorrow, like many satirists before them, is to what degree they believe comedy can effectively respond by satirising politics.

Epilogue: Never mind all that, if this is the Woodstock of political satire here’s hoping at least for a Colbert equivalent to Hendrix’s ‘The Star Spangled Banner.’

Epitaph: Teetotal party

Elsewhere: Daniele Luttazzi

//update: Jon Stewart and the Burden of History

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