The Transmission of Political Critique after 9/11: “A New Form of Desperation”?

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Investigative journalist Bill Moyers interviews Jon Stewart of The Daily Show:
MOYERS: I do not know whether you are practicing an old form of parody and satire…or a new form of journalism.
STEWART: Well then that either speaks to the sad state of comedy or the sad state of news. I can’t figure out which one. I think, honestly, we’re practicing a new form of desperation….
July 2003 (Bill Moyers Interview of Jon Stewart, on Public Broadcasting Service)

2Transmission, while always fraught and ever-changing, is particularly so at a moment when coincidentally the exponential increase in access to new media communication is paired with the propagandized and state-dominated moment of war, in this case the U.S. preemptive invasion of Iraq in 2003. U.S. fighter planes drop paper propaganda along with bombs. Leaked into mainstream media by virtue of new media technologies, the violations of Abu-Ghraib represent the challenge of conducting war in a digital era. Transmissions are highly controlled and yet the proliferation of access poses a new challenge – explicitly named by Rumsfeld in December 2005 on the Jim Lehrer news hour:

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DONALD RUMSFELD: No, I think what is happening – and this is the first war that has ever been conducted in the 21st century when you had talk radio, the Internet, e-mails, bloggers, 24-hour news, digital cameras, video cameras, instant access to everything, and we haven’t accommodated to that yet.
… And what’s happening is the transmission belt that receives it spreads all these things. …

4Rumsfeld’s comments about the convergence of new media with a time of war highlights what those of us studying cultural communication see as a crucial site of study: the access and use of new media to transmit dissenting political commentary is arguably a sign of new counter-public spaces that coincide with increased mainstream media control and erosion of civil liberties surrounding free speech. In this particular instance, the strategic use of media by U.S. political administration to sell a morally questionable war to the public through deceptions and propaganda raises new questions about the transmission and phenomenon of truth claims in a digital age.

5In this essay I examine three sites through which satire is used to express political commentary in the convergent moment of repression combines with increased affordances. The examples I offer have been chosen because they illustrate what I recognize as a cultural shift, an emotional sea change even for staunch postmodernists: replacing Jameson’s characterization of the “waning of affect,” there has emerged renewed desire for truthfulness and accountability. What’s unique is that this insistence on the possibility of truthfulness is held in simultaneous contradiction with cynical distrust. The result is a paradoxical affective sentiment shared by many: the simultaneous belief that all truths are rhetorically constructed along with the shared certainty that we have been lied to, that this is wrong, and that there is a truthfulness that should be delivered. This demand is directed at the corrupted synergy created between media and politicians. The arguments used to counter the dominant content (and form) of transmission are made using new digital media. The sea-change in transmission is its multidirectionality, its frequency, and its own rapidly-changing modes of transmission. In short, communication and the political role of media has become exponentially complex in the simultaneous demand for truthfulness alongside the simultaneous awareness that all truth is constructed.

6Visual satire offers an ideal form to transmit the post-9/11 contradictions because irony turns on the unsaid; it uses the dominant forms of logic to express what is otherwise silenced as dissenting didacticism; it expresses horrors in forms that are palatable; it creates a sense of shared meaning and community by using the unsaid to create a recognition of the dominant culture as misrepresentation. While irony has been used for centuries as a political tool, what is unique about the digitally produced and disseminated cultures created through visual ironies after 9/11 is that these expressions explicitly reference again and again a desire for accountability.

7Much could be said about the history of political satire, and if space permitted I would develop here my discussion of affect and parody, best excavated beginning with a history of political satire moving up to current “fair use legislation” which legally protects those who perform parody, one subset of satire. A more general comment on the relation of humor to politics helps set a context for the relationship of satire to contemporary political transmissions I address.

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Humor … helps one only to bear somewhat better the unalterable; sometimes it reminds both the mighty and the weak that they are not to be taken seriously. …One’s understanding of political jokes obviously depends on one’s understanding of politics. At one level, politics is always a struggle for power. Along with persuasion and lies, advice and flattery, tokens of esteem and bribery, banishment and violence, obedience and treachery, the joke belongs to the rich treasury of the instruments of politics. We often hear that the political joke is an offensive weapon with which an aggressive, politically engaged person makes the arrangements or precautions of an opponent seem ridiculous. But even when political jokes serve defensive purposes, they are nonetheless weapons (Speier and Jackall 1998, 1352).

9The productions I am studying I define as digital dissent: the use of new media to engage in tactical media, culture jamming, or online civic participation that interrupts mainstream media narratives. The sites I am studying include multimedia memes, blogs, and mirrored streaming of cable-channel Comedy Central’s highly popular news satire. These three examples illustrate a key tension embedded in the activity of transmission: in their form (satirical) and content (U.S. mainstream media and U.S. politicians and mistakes) they critique prevailing (dominant) transmissions of mainstream media, and perform this transmission using mainstream media as the transmitter. The use of the existing forms to critique those same forms helpfully defines “tactical media,” so that, ironically, the transmission of mainstream news is satirized through content and form while in turn being transmitted via corporate-owned news show.

10The following illustrations of digital dissent employ irony and satire to transmit the contradictory emotional sensibilities: on the one hand, the awareness that all truth claims are constructed and on the other, a longing for truthful accountability from politicians and media.

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart

11The Daily Show (TDS) with Jon Stewart is a highly-popular news satire. “The most trusted name in fake news” is transmitted four nights a week in the U.S. and Canada on cable television and often on another local network channel. TDS format uses “real” news clips from mainstream media – generally about Washington D.C. politics – and offers satirical and ironic commentary about the media representations as well as about the actions and speech of the politicians represented. Aired in Europe through CNN as well througha half-hour once weekly version, TDS is also streamed online both through Comedy Central’s official site as well as on mirrored independent streaming. The Daily Show has been airing for 6 years, has 1.7 million television viewers, a wide audience who view TDS online, and a larger segment of age 18-31 viewers than any other U.S. nightly news show (Friend 28).

12Jon Stewart has become an icon of a cross-partisan North American critique of George W. Bush in particular (though Stewart claims himself as non-partisan). Particularly since his appearance on CNN news debate show Crossfire and now poised to host the Academy Awards (two days until Oscar broadcast as I write), Jon Stewart emblematizes a faith in democracy, and demand for media accountability to standards of civic discourse seen as central to democracy.

13(In a March 2, 2006 blog-letter to Jon Stewart, Ariana Huffington warns him against losing his current political legitimacy by blowing it at the Oscars:

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“Interjecting too much political commentary – no matter how trenchant or hilarious – is like interrupting the eulogy at a funeral to make a political point … . At the same time, there is no denying the fact, Jon, that you are going to have the rapt attention of some 40 million Americans. Or that political satire – done right – can alter people’s perceptions (there’s a reason emperors have always banned court jesters in times of crisis). Or that a heaping dose of your perception-altering mockery would do the American body politic a load of good.”)

15“Stop hurting America” Stewart pleads with two mainstream news show hosts on the now-infamous Crossfire appearance, (an 11 minute clip easily found online or through ifilm.com). Stewart’s public shaming of mainstream media as partisan hackery theatre, “helping corporations and leaving all of us alone to mow our lawns,” became the top-cited media event in the blogosphere in 2004.

16The satirical form of The Daily Show illustrates how the unsaid functions as truth. Within the range of roles classically defined within the history of humor and satire, Jon Stewart represents the court jester (Jones). First, the unsaid often occurs literally through Stewart’s responses to material: the camera often shows simply his facial expression and speechlessness, which “says it all.” The unsaid also occurs visually through the ironic adoption of the familiar visuals of a news show: for example, situating the anchor person (Stewart) behind his obscenely large news desk. Part of this unsaid is an implicit questioning of the performed legitimacy of a news report. For viewers, The Daily Show displaces a dominant and enforced hegemonic cultural pastime: individuals in isolated living rooms tuned in to (and alienated by) the 11 o’clock dose of media spin about politicians’ and military versions of reality have been replaced by a new virtual solidarity of 1.2 million living rooms who share a recognition of deception. Ironically, as Bill Moyers expresses to Jon Stewart, “but when I report the news on this broadcast, people say I’m making it up. When you make it up, they say you’re telling the truth” (“Transcript”).

17The unsaid also functions by using actual existing logics, discourses, and even various familiar reiterated truth claims (the location of WMD; claims made by Hans Blix, etc.) and shifting the locutionary context of these slightly in order to create irony – putting “real” words into displaced contexts in a way that reveals the constructed-ness of the “real” and thereby creates an unsaid, shared commentary about the experience of feeling deceived by the media and by the Pentagon. Through its use of both “real” news footage combined with ironic “false” commentary, The Daily Show allows viewers to occupy the simultaneous space of cynicism and desire for truth: pleasure and satisfaction followed by a moment of panic or horror.

Bush in 30 Seconds

18The Bushin30seconds campaign was begun by the organization MoveOn, who solicited entries from the public and received over 500 which were streamed as QuickTime videos on their Website. The guidelines were to use the form of a campaign ad, and the popularly-selected winner would be aired on major network television during the 2004 Superbowl. The majority of the Bushin30Seconds ads include content that directly addresses Bush’s deception and make pleas for truth, many explicitly addressing the demand for truth, the immorality of lies, and the problems that political deception pose for democracy (along with a research team, I am currently working on a three year project analyzing all of these in terms of their content, rhetorical form, and discursive strategies and will be surveying and interviewing the producers of the Bushin30Seconds. Our other two sites of study include political blogs about the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and online networks sparked by The Daily Show). The demand for truthfulness is well exemplified in the ad called “Polygraph” (see also #27 A Big Puzzle).

19This ad invokes a simulated polygraph – the polygraph being a classic instrument of rational positivism and surveillance – which measures for the viewer the “truth” quotient of Bush’s own “real” words. Of course, the polygraph is not actually connected to Bush’s body, and hence offers a visual symbolic “stand in” for the viewer’s own internal or collectively shared sensibility or truth meter. Illustrating my central argument about the expressed desire for truthfulness, the ad concludes with the phrase “Americans are dying for the truth.” Having examined 150 ads, it is remarkable how many of these – albeit via different cultural forms ranging from hip hop to animation to drama to pseudo-advertisement for a toy action figure – make a plea for accountability, not only on behalf of one’s own desire but often out of altruistic concern for others.

The Yes Men

20I offer one final example to illustrate transmissions that disrupt dominant discourses. The Yes Men began their work when they created a website which “mirrored” the World Trade Organization site. Assumed to represent the WTO, they were subsequently offered invitations to give keynotes at various international conferences and press meetings of CEOs and business people. (Their work is documented in an hour-long film titled The Yes Men available at many video outlets and through their web site.) The main yes man, Bichlbaum, arrives to these large international meetings with careful attire and speech, and offers a straight-faced keynote with subversive content. For example, at a textile conference he suggests that slavery had been a very profitable form of labor and might be reintroduced as alternative to unionized labor. At another conference, he announced that the WTO had decided to disband because it has realized it is only causing harm to international trade and economy.

21In December 2004, the Yes Men struck again when they were invited by the BBC as representatives of DOW chemical on the 20th anniversary of the Union Carbide Bhopal accident in India. Those who watched the BBC news and Channel 4 and the hundreds of thousands who viewed these clips afterwards are made aware of the anniversary of the worst chemical accident in history; are apprised of the ongoing effects on the people of Bhopal; and hear an unusual primetime soundbyte lambasting the utter absence of social responsibility of corporations such as Dow Chemical.

22The Yes Men illustrate what some might call tactical media, some might call media terrorism, and what some aspire to in their own activism.  “They compare their work to that of a “funhouse mirror” – exaggerating hideous features. ‘We do that kind of exaggeration operation, but with ideas. We agree with people – turning up the volume on their ideas as we talk, until they can see their ideas distorted in our funhouse mirror. Or that’s what we try to do anyhow. As it turns out, the image always seems to look normal to them,’ Bichlbaum said” (Marchlewski). Another article describes their goal as follows:

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When newspapers and television stations out their acts, it’s not just the Yes Men who get attention, but also the issues they address … . The impersonations, which the two call identity corrections, are intended to show, in a colorful and humorous way, what they say are errors of corporate and government ways. (Marchlewski 2005)

24In conclusion, these three examples illustrate the new media terrain of access and distribution which enables transmissions that arguably construct significant new public spheres constructed around a desire for truthfulness and accountability. While some may prefer “civil society,” I find the concept of a public useful because its connotations imply less regimentation. If the public sphere is in part constructed through the reflexive circulation of discourse, the imaginary relation with strangers, and with affect as a social glue (my addition to Michael Warner’s six features of a public), we have described some of the ways in which counterpublics are produced (Warner 2002; Boler, forthcoming). If address (the circulation and reception of a cultural production under consideration) in part constructs a public, how does one imagine the interactivity between the listener/bystander/participant and the broadcast or image? To what extent do the kinds of transmission I have discussed here invite new kinds of multi-directional interactivity, and to what extent do they replicate problematic forms of broadcast? Which kind of subject is assumed or produced by different “mediated” publics? What is the relationship of discourse and propaganda to action and materiality? These are some of the eternally difficult questions raised when one analyzes ideology and culture in relation to social change.

25It is indeed very difficult to trace what action follows from any particular discursive construction of publics. One can think of the endings of the 150 Finalists in the Bush in30 Seconds campaign, each with an explicit or implicit imperative: “think!” or “act!” What subject is hailed and invoked, and what relationship might exist between the invocation or imagining of that listener and that listener’s actual reception and translation of any transmission? The construction of a public through address is a key feature of the politics of representation and visions of social change through cultural production.

26Each of the three sites of productions I have analyzed illustrate a renewed call for faith in media as an institution which owes a civic responsibility to democracy. The iterations of calls for truthful accounts from media and politicians stand in tension with the simultaneous recognition of the complex social construction of any and all truth claims. The uncertainty about whether such transmissions constitute “an old form of parody and satire…or a new form of journalism” reflects the ongoing paradox of what Jon Stewart describes as a “new form of desperation.” For those who live in Western democracies, I suggest that the study of political transmission is best understood within this moment of convergence and paradox when we are haunted by paradoxical desires for truths.