October 4, 2010 / Perspective
Brett McCracken. Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2010. 255 …
June 4, 2007
Review: Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. Directed by Larry Charles. Dune Entertainment, 2006. 84 minutes.
On a recent trip to New York, I spotted a subway poster for public safety. It read something like “There are 16 million eyes in New York City, and we are counting on all of them.” The moral was relatively simple: watch for the unusual, and report it. Setting aside the problem of who is behind that “we,” the principle is obvious for anyone who has ridden public transportation, or walked in a crowd, or attended school. We know how we ought to carry ourselves, and we know that everyone else is watching us to make sure we do it.
It isn’t surprising, then, that one of the first American scenes in Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan takes place on a New York subway. Borat, the reporter from Kazakhstan, doesn’t know how one is to behave on the train, and his efforts to obtrusively introduce himself, complete with kisses, are met with stern rebuff. But what makes everyone so uncomfortable? It isn’t just the imposition of the Kazakh, probably not even the introduction. It is the violation of that unspoken standard of subway behavior, the crossing of the line from the acceptable to the un-.
One of French philosopher Michel Foucault’s most famous concepts, the “disciplinary mechanism,” precisely describes this cultural phenomenon. Simply put, Foucault claims that one of the most significant changes that brought about modern society is that power shifted from centralized, absolute, and concrete places (like the sovereign or the pope) and swarmed out into society itself as invisible, but ever-present, discipline. Think of the difference between a mob of unruly toddlers, kept in check via physical barriers and caretakers, and a class of high school students, after years of being told to stand in line, take their turn, not to talk with their mouths full. The 12th-graders are, we would say, disciplined–they keep themselves as individuals, and one another, in check. There is no need for the physical barrier or powerful monarch because the power has been diffused and internalized. At the same time, the 18-year-olds are granted the status of citizens: they are able to participate freely in society as responsible adults. This, according to Foucault, is the (dark) underside of the Enlightenment citizen: only because discipline took the place of raw force could we have free society; only through the diffusion of these mechanisms could liberty as a discourse and practice emerge. Consequently, there is the tendency to deny discipline, to make it invisible, in order to maintain the illusion of liberty. Or so goes Foucault’s story.
It could just as easily be Sacha Baron Cohen’s story. For if there is any genius behind his Borat, it is the precise way he violates America’s disciplinary mechanisms in such a way that we can no longer deny that they exist. By breaking through them, he reveals their power, their omnipresence. As an added complication, his character forces those he meets to admit that “this is how one acts in America”–even if the way one acts is to be “culturally sensitive.” My general impression is that much of the buzz surrounding Borat, particularly from commentators with a penchant for liberal fussiness, was that it was some sort of indictment of America’s cultural bigotry and/or isolationism.1 But such a reading misses the point: the bigger fish Cohen is frying, whether he knows it or not, is the way culture as such functions, the way “good behavior” maintains itself in the face of bad behavior, and the inherent contradiction one gets into when good behavior dictates tolerating bad behavior. Christopher Hitchens, in his Slate magazine article on the film, points out that, if anything, Cohen reveals how incredibly accommodating Americans can be.2 He is partially right. It is more accurate to say that Cohen reveals how accommodation is itself a product of discipline–and the problem of discipline, like ideology, is that you “know not what you do.” If accommodation is itself a mechanism of control, then maybe it’s not all its cracked up to be.
What’s fascinating is how the discipline of tolerance only goes so far, a veneer that ends up being rubbed off, revealing, perhaps, how frail it actually is. When Borat goes to a meeting of the Veteran Feminists of America in New York, keeps calling one of the members “Pussycat,” and claims that a scientist from Kazakhstan has proved that women’s brains are smaller than men’s, the feminists have no problem telling him that he’s wrong. Neither does the SPCA (The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) employee who tells him that worshiping an eagle is idolatry. Neither does the southern hostess who calls the sheriff when Borat invites a black prostitute to her dinner party. And neither do we as viewers when we see him throwing dollar bills at a couple of cockroaches he thinks his Jewish hosts have shape-shifted into.3 Any one of these scenes could be the most offensive part of the film, and I strongly suspect that part of the furor the film has caused is that something in it will offend everyone.
The question is will we recognize ourselves in that offended sensibility. Part of Cohen’s strategy, it seems, is to never leave anyone a way out, even as he buffers the pill with humor.4 It is too easy, and I would say dishonest, to watch the film from the perspective of pure condemnation: “Aren’t Americans (or Southerners, or Texans, or New Yorkers, or Pentecostals, etc. Pick your other.) racists, bigots, hypocrites, fascists, materialists, naïve, etc. etc.!” For then we fail to see that it is our vices and follies, hidden beneath a cultural mask of tolerance, that are on display. Foucault’s discipline has the strange effect of letting us off the hook; it keeps us from seeing what we actually believe, act like, feel, and what we simply will not tolerate. At its most basic level, then, Borat cuts right to the heart of what it means to be a product of culture, any culture, whether Kazakh, British, American, or fraternity house. In that respect, it may be a more radical interrogation than its fans, or foes, suspect.
1. Most exemplified, for me, in the rodeo promoter who tells Borat to cut his mustache because it makes him look like a terrorist, and later tells him that “we” (the ubiquitous, again) are trying to get gays hung. Or maybe in the white frat boys who tell him that minorities in this country have it made. Or perhaps the antique-shop owner who sells bumper stickers promoting secession.
2. “Kazakh Like Me,” Slate, November 13, 2006. http://www.slate.com/id/2153578/
3. The antisemitism, ironic though it may be coming from a Jewish comedian, is horrific, as others have pointed out. But so is the bigotry against “gypsies,” which few people note, not to mention the cracks about women, the disabled, Uzbekistanis, etc. Part of the effect of so much offensive behavior is the revelation of a hierarchy of value; we realize that we see some offenses as worse than others.
4. And sometimes, though rarely, apolitical humor. The naked wrestling scene is pure MTV Jackass ridiculousness, funny if you can handle it, revolting if you can’t. But it’s almost a relief compared to the unbearable discomfort so much of the film causes.
Paul Jaussen is a lecturer at Case Western Reserve University. He rides a motorcycle.