Monday, May 01, 2006

Word of the Day: Détournement

I never realized that Stephen Colbert was avant garde culture...

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."

And yes, it is amusing to hear GI Joe say, "Let's go shopping!"

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