Monday, May 08, 2006

Détournement & Politicszzz

If I can, I consciously avoid wasting the space of this blog to political topics. Alongside newspaper commentators around the world, tons of other blog writers with greater argumentation abilities than yours truly (or then not) have already commented such things as Dubya's politics, Danish Mohammed cartoons or the Mayday night riots at Helsinki's VR-Makasiinit (or the burning down of said Makasiinit), so I don't feel I've got anything to add there to those discussions already filled with enough banalities, finger-pointing, mindless bigot attitudes on both sides; not to talk about downright idiocy.

Of course, I read two newspapers daily (editorial columns of the biggest newspapers in Finland seem to be filled daily by the sermon-like scribbles of 60-year old men pushing insistently such topics such as why Finland should join NATO as soon as possible, and why neoliberalist economics and employment politics benefit everyone) and try to keep up with BBC's World News and Euronews on TV, but I really don't feel I could add any worthwhile comments there that would somehow open up any new points of view or add beneficially to the ongoing discussion.

However, this little news item from Ken Knabb's Situationist Website Bureau of Public Secrets caught my eye, so I feel it's somehow appropriate to reprint it here (again, apologies to all copyright holders, etc. etc.) [You might try to find more information about Situationism from Wikipedia, provided any related info pages there are not yet ravaged to death by pedantic Wikiwankers and Wikidiots]:

---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Wed, 3 May 2006 09:57:13 -0700
From: Bureau of Public Secrets

Subject: Colbert skewers Bush

[NOTE: Yesterday I sent out the message below to a few dozen friends. The response was so enthusiastic, and so many of them said they hadn't even been aware of the event, that I am sending it out to my larger, more general emailing list. Apologies for duplicate mailings. --Ken Knabb]

[NOTE ALSO: The fact that much of the mass media did not even mention this astonishing event, or dismissed it with a few contemptuous sentences, is one more demonstration of the media complicity Colbert was satirizing. And the fact that online video clips of his performance have now been seen by several million
people is one more indication that the Internet and other alternative means of communication are in the process of making the mass media increasingly irrelevant.


Comedian Stephen Colbert's keynote speech at the White House Correspondents' Association dinner last Saturday may represent a new stage in the crumbling of the Bush regime's image from within the dominant spectacle itself. The following link gives a Windows Media clip of the last 15 minutes -- . The entire
talk (about 25 minutes) can be viewed in three parts here --

It's a bizarre experience because most of the audience was decidedly not sympathetic. Not only was Bush himself sitting a few feet away at the same table along with various other political bigwigs, but the major portion of the audience was the very journalists who with rare exceptions have treated the Bush regime with kid gloves over the last five years, and who were satirized almost as scathingly as
Bush himself. So some of Colbert's funniest remarks are received with a deafening silence, and the rare moments of laughter are brief and uneasy, the audience obviously not having expected such a scandal and wondering how they were supposed to take it.

The following article, which originally appeared at the website, gives some information and commentary on the event, but is also of interest because the author makes a somewhat dubious and confused, but not totally inappropriate, link between Colbert's methods and the subversive tactics of the situationists.

On the latter, see:

"A User's Guide to Détournement"

"Détournement as Negation and Prelude"

"The Situationists and the New Forms of Action Against Politics and Art"


The Truthiness Hurts

Stephen Colbert's brilliant performance unplugged the Bush myth machine -- and left the clueless D.C. press corps gaping.

By Michael Scherer

May 1, 2006 | Make no mistake, Stephen Colbert is a dangerous man -- a bomb thrower, an assassin, a terrorist with boring hair and rimless glasses. It's a wonder the Secret Service let him so close to the president of the United States.

But there he was Saturday night, keynoting the year's most fawning celebration of the self-importance of the D.C. press corps, the White House Correspondents' Association dinner. Before he took the podium, the master of ceremonies ominously announced, "Tonight, no one is safe."

Colbert is not just another comedian with barbed punch lines and a racy vocabulary. He is a guerrilla fighter, a master of the old-world art of irony. For Colbert, the punch line is just the addendum. The joke is in the setup. The meat of his act is not in his barbs but his character -- the dry idiot, "Stephen Colbert," God-
fearing pitchman, patriotic American, red-blooded pundit and champion of
"truthiness." "I'm a simple man with a simple mind," the deadpan Colbert announced at the dinner. "I hold a simple set of beliefs that I live by. Number one, I believe in America. I believe it exists. My gut tells me I live there."

Then he turned to the president of the United States, who sat tight-lipped just a few feet away. "I stand by this man. I stand by this man because he stands for things. Not only for things, he stands on things. Things like aircraft carriers and rubble and recently flooded city squares. And that sends a strong message, that
no matter what happens to America, she will always rebound -- with the most powerfully staged photo ops in the world."

It was Colbert's crowning moment. His imitation of the quintessential GOP talking head -- Bill O'Reilly meets Scott McClellan -- uncovered the inner workings of the ever-cheapening discourse that passes for political debate. He reversed and
flattened the meaning of the words he spoke. It's a tactic that cultural critic Greil Marcus once called the "critical negation that would make it self-evident to everyone that the world is not as it seems."

Colbert's jokes attacked not just Bush's policies, but the whole drama and language of American politics, the phony demonstration of strength, unity and vision. "The greatest thing about this man is he's steady," Colbert continued, in a nod to George W. Bush. "You know where he stands. He believes the same thing Wednesday that he
believed on Monday, no matter what happened Tuesday."

It's not just that Colbert's jokes were hitting their mark. We already know that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, that the generals hate Rumsfeld or that Fox News lists to the right. Those cracks are old and boring. What Colbert did was expose the whole official, patriotic, right-wing, press-bashing discourse as a sham, as more "truthiness" than truth.

Obviously, Colbert is not the first ironic warrior to train his sights on the powerful. What the insurgent culture jammers at Adbusters did for Madison Avenue, and the Barbie Liberation Organization did for children's toys, and Seinfeld did for the sitcom, and the Onion did for the small-town newspaper, Jon Stewart discovered he could do for television news. Now Colbert, Stewart's spawn, has taken on the right-wing message machine.

In the late 1960s, the Situationists in France called such ironic mockery
"détournement," a word that roughly translates to "abduction" or "embezzlement." It was considered a revolutionary act, helping to channel the frustration of the Paris student riots of 1968. They co-opted and altered famous paintings, newspapers,
books and documentary films, seeking subversive ideas in the found objects of popular culture. "Plagiarism is necessary," wrote Guy Debord, the famed Situationist, referring to his strategy of mockery and semiotic inversion. "Progress demands it. Staying close to an author's phrasing, plagiarism exploits his expressions, erases false ideas, replaces them with correct ideas."

But nearly half a century later, the ideas of the French, as evidenced by our "freedom fries," have not found a welcome reception in Washington. The city is still not ready for Colbert. The depth of his attack caused bewilderment on the face of the president and some of the press, who, like myopic fish, are used to ignoring the water that sustains them. Laura Bush did not shake his hand.

Political Washington is accustomed to more direct attacks that follow the rules. We tend to like the bland buffoonery of Jay Leno or insider jokes that drop lots of names and enforce everyone's clubby self-satisfaction. (Did you hear the one about John Boehner at the tanning salon or Duke Cunningham playing poker at the
Watergate?) Similarly, White House spinmeisters are used to frontal assaults on their policies, which can be rebutted with a similar set of talking points. But there is no easy answer for the ironist. "Irony, entertaining as it is, serves an almost exclusively negative function," wrote David Foster Wallace, in his seminal 1993 essay "E Unibus Pluram." "It's critical and destructive, a ground clearing."

So it's no wonder that those journalists at the dinner seemed so uneasy in their seats. They had put on their tuxes to rub shoulders with the president. They were looking forward to spotting Valerie Plame and "American Idol's" Ace Young at the Bloomberg party. They invited Colbert to speak for levity, not because they wanted to be criticized. As a tribe, we journalists are all, at heart, creatures
of this silly conversation. We trade in talking points and consultant-speak. We too often depend on empty language for our daily bread, and -- worse -- we sometimes mistake it for reality. Colbert was attacking us as well.

A day after he exploded his bomb at the correspondents dinner, Colbert appeared on CBS's "60 Minutes," this time as himself, an actor, a suburban dad, a man without a red and blue tie. The real Colbert admitted that he does not let his children watch his Comedy Central show. "Kids can't understand irony or sarcasm, and I don't
want them to perceive me as insincere," Colbert explained. "Because one night, I'll be putting them to bed and I'll say ... 'I love you, honey.' And they'll say, 'I get it. Very dry, Dad. That's good stuff.'"

His point was spot-on. Irony is dangerous and must be handled with care. But America can rest assured that for the moment its powers are in good hands. Stephen Colbert, the current grandmaster of the art, knows exactly what he was doing.

Just don't expect him to be invited back to the correspondents dinner.