Automatic For The People: Colbert, Stewart and the spacing of absurdity
XHerakleitos - 10/7/10
Somewhere deep in Fox News HQ there's a file on the disturbing phenomenon of Comedy Central's chief luminaries, John Stewart and Stephen Colbert. One of the documents has to be titled The Humor Gap: Not very fair and balanced. Meetings no doubt wrestled with ugly implications, the embarrassing situation where good comedy appears to be a monopoly of the Left. Embarrassment was only underscored with wretched forays such as The 1/2 Hour News Hour and unearthing Dennis Miller's routine from its ironic fate in the comedy composte pile of the arcane.
Whatever the motivations for this botched attempt, Roger Ailes likely had to supress rolling his eyes more than once over memos and reports casting the problem in terms of left and right. For if there's an emergency here, it's a deeper threat to the illusion upon which Fox News insinuates itself into the tissue of a marketing demographic. "Fair and balanced" is the hook of a very successful advertising vehicle.
When Mr. Ailes was a chief marketing operative in the 1988 Bush Sr. campaign, he likely picked up a gem of an idea watching CBN, vehicle of then annoying primary threat, Pat Robertson. The CBN News set Pat up as Jehovah's arch commentator on all the "news". But the key here was recognizing the balkanization of the news consuming demographic, a scene where one could get away with framing reality in such a way that "standards" of journalism were fittingly transformed in the mind of the consumer as engaged in courting Truth. Tweaked a bit here and there...and Max Weber's thesis about modern capitalism gains another point of traction, as the formula of success moves beyond its inaugural religious impetus. The secular and religious alike can revel in "Fair and Balanced", given that political reality so cleanly cleaves along the natural fault-line of "conservative" and "liberal".
Now as Colbert & Stewart ride a popular wave into a Halloween Eve rally, one suspects Mr. Ailes shrugs off any sense of alarm. From all quarters, they and their fans are roped into the the liberal corral. The mere fact it all transpires in the echo of Glen Beck means it must be liberal, even leftist. Nothing appears to really challenge the spell of the deeper marketing schema. And just days ago on the Daily Show, Ariana Huffington made a move to hitch her wagon to the rallies with bus transport. Though when catching drift of Stewart's questions over her reflexes, ("tea, coffee, any beverage...juice") she made a quick nod to the non-ideological.
But what on earth was that all about? Was it a facile gesture or did the aegis of the bi-valent, left/right meta-filter flutter evanescently up against the core pulse behind Stewart and Colbert?
A major clue indicating the latter shows up back in '04 when Stewart in a stellar moment of television history single handedly destroyed CNN's Crossfire (and not just figuratively). Amidst the spectacle of Tucker Carlson drawing back multiple bloody nubs, what stands out more obviously than Stewart's focus on absurdity, his sense of shuddering to breathe amidst a bogus left/right theatrics where dishonest arguments are featured as unchallenged brands rather than real debate?
Gone is the spirit embodied by the likes of Murrow and Cronkite, now progressively emasculated and effaced by a drive which replaces any aspiration to intelligent questioning with a purient angle aiming to leverage potential outrage. The evening news, left behind as roadkill writhing in pharmaceutical ads, is now displaced by the "brutish, slow-witted beast" of a 24hr cable news cycle where spin and public opinion are not challenged but appreciated in their extant state as goldmines from which ratings are extracted. This is the absurdity of journalism surrendering to a circus limned out so glaringly in Chayefsky's "Network". In today's media logic, challenging the torrent of feeling and received wisdom is akin to biting the hand that feeds. In order to truly appreciate Stewart and Colbert, we have to get this - we have to take Mr. Ailes seriously when he says "I'm not in politics, I'm in ratings...We're winning."
In a reflexive testimony to this absurdity, Colbert and Stewart are now arguably the most intelligent news anywhere. And before one is tempted to raise a hand on behalf of PBS or NPR, it only has to be noted that they are inert as a means to focus journalism on itself. Right now only comedy can supervene upon the sad reality where journalism has lost its mojo, its self awareness, and slipped into a theatrical "knee jerk" nothingness where nobody is winning. But countering one of the biggest absurdities of all, these acts are neither conservative nor liberal. They gesture at the banality of this rubric of simple flipsides - the one Crossfire was built on.
Though it remains a supreme challenge, Colbert & Stewart are true enough to comedy's power to pry open seams in the armor of the obvious to underscore this elusive point.
Ever since the 80's saw the Republican Party veer into vulgarism and sophistry, catching wind from Newt Gingrich's inflammatory house floor antics and cunning labor to frame the terms of debate with word games and the team echo of talking points, it has been paramount to advance the notion that there are only two sides. The loose pragmatism, the contextual reference to left and right as a hermeneutic device, loses its situational play and becomes a direct reflection of the real. Everything is either left or right. That's all there is. And up against the virtuous metamorphosis of the Republican Party into synchrony with the True Right lies only shades of leftist error. Everything other than the current Republican rage is leftist ...liberal, and logically a covert front for socialism and communism, given that the latter is of course the True Left.
In other words, the varied and multiple ways we use 'left', 'right', 'conservative' and 'liberal' as well as the contexts and the ranges of mutually grasped spirit are thrown aside in a peremtory lurch where these terms are taken so seriously as to become the stuff of comedy. Or should we say, rather, the stuff of cash.
Here's the trick Roger Ailes rides to the ratings bonanza, the talisman swinging left and right, hypnotizing friend and foe alike. "Fair and balanced" may be Orwellian but it's also ingenious. If you're styling an advertising vehicle to the tastes of people desperate for validation and simple formulas, what better way to reduce annoying complexities and stroke an audience with the illusion that their "values" represent a whole half of the spectrum? If there's only two sides, and one of those sides "hasn't been given its due", then a news operation that corrects the "imbalance" will appear to a cultivated audience as more trustworthy. Then, one can sell this to the advertisers.
Tell me are you locked in the punch?
Andy are you goofing on Elvis, hey baby
Are we losing touch?
If you believe they put a man on the moon
And if you believe there's nothin' up their sleeve
Then nothing is cool
Unbelievably, somnambulant critics focus on the foreground, attacking "fair and balanced" as if its fraudulence were a matter of execution. Suddenly the absurd atmospherics are cast in operational stone. MSNBC works to leverage the same architectonic left/right scheme, appealing to Real Balance™ for liberals and progressives. And so we have the Chris Mathews show advertised as presenting "both sides", just like families do over the "kitchen table". Juan Williams and Mara Liasson join other erstwhile journalists occupying the tacit "left" positions on talking head Sunday. Meanwhile CNN cuts a lame course focused on gathering instant twittered feelings, mining emotions, in the midst of a left/right soap opera. There's money in this shtick, even if scavengers have to wait on the sidelines until bigger predators are sated.
Even Mr. Ailes "opponents" can laugh all the way to the bank unless, that is, we really appreciate Stewart's interruption of Crossfire's left and right. Translation: "Please stop hurting America with this absurd, cookie cutter, pseudo-journalistic drag show you hacks". Ditching the silly left/right posturing is the gesture we need. If we wake up long enough to turn off talk radio, we may yet see two sides. But instead of "right and left" it appears to a more sober ken as a contorted, ahistorical and nihilistic sham versus a loose conglomeration of the marginally sane. Opposed to the Tea Party, and a GOP ironically surrendering to the uneducated mass it sought to harness, is not a "left" but a z-axis of varying points of view.
As our reality now bears the marks and scars of pure ideologies long ago absorbed and twisted into an obscene intercourse of history,biology and technology, today's problems and demands can no longer be addressed by dusting off yesterday's paint by numbers play books. And though there are those who "get this" and those who don't, the ones who do are presently more like a cloud of perspectives, groping for a mature ways to retrieve politics from its conflation with bullshit. This is not a Left. Some of these evolving viewpoints may be arguably more conservative than those who loudly seize the term to brand themselves against everything else and fixate on labels as an antidote to thinking. Yes, the marginally sane, unified only in the clumsy labor of trying to think amidst both the disasters and the promise of our time.
If Stewart & Colbert's genius leaves you in tears, you're one of them. You may not have all the answers. What you do have probably isn't so systematically determinate as to land you in any ism, much less pure leftism, but at least you can recognize ass-kicking cognition in action. You may harbor slight misgivings about Colbert's performance at the National Press Club and in front of Congress but you sense somehow that now, when politics is wholly subordinated by the Age of Marketing and the same style used to sell Viagra and SUVs, comedy is the most apt angle for intelligent subversion in the space of absurdity. One really just wants to ask "may I have 10,000 marbles please?".
Otter: ...Psychotic, but absolutely right. We gotta take these bastards. Now we could do it with conventional weapons that could take years and cost millions of lives. No, I think we have to go all out. I think that this situation absolutely requires a really futile and stupid gesture be done on somebody's part.
Bluto: We're just the guys to do it.
If you're packing your costume for the Halloween Eve rally and you run into the predicable "You are an L.. I.. B.. LIB", just before something suitably obnoxious, channel Belushi's impish transcendence and reply "See if you can guess what I am now".
When it comes to the serious side to all of this, that's what we are trying to figure out for ourselves. Who are we now? Whether we see ourselves as liberal in some way, even possibly as trapped (like it or not) in a Liberal tradition which includes both the modern left & right, we're struck by a vague foreboding sense that any way forward is blocked by an institutionalized scene where both politics and journalism have joined hands in becoming cartoons. While we scratch our heads in the face of 21st Century problems, right now we can agree that parody is the propaedeutic.
Jan 18th, 2011 >> Getting to know Roger Ailes