Borat and the rest of us

Borat Borat has broken, and it’s star, Sacha Baron Cohen, is now in the ascendancy.  Without much thinking about it, I assumed this guy was another trickster figure in a long line of trickster figures (John Belushi, Jim Carrey, Tom Green, Dave Chappelle…). 

But no.

Borat was screened this summer for the likes of Garry Shandling, George Meyer, Judd Apatow, and Larry David.

When the movie ended and the lights came up, everyone realized they had just seen something totally original, perhaps even revolutionary. Capturing the sense of collective astonishment, Meyer turned to Apatow and said, "I feel like something just played me Sgt. Pepper’s for the first time." (EW, as below)

"Totally original"!  ""Revolutionary"?  What a good way to get our attention. Post modern cultures, as Baudrillard would say, keep things in circulation, creating novelty out of precedent.  By this account, originality is impossible.

So what happened?  What’s new? Rottenberg speculates that Cohen offers us satire that never acknowledges itself.  Borat never once gives the audience an ironic wink, no "get a load of this" respite.  This could be true, but I don’t remember Tom Green ever acknowledging his satire, at least in the early years. 

It could be that Cohen is more daring than other tricksters.  His Ali G character could be read as racist.  Borat is unmistakably anti-semitic.  Borat holds the nation of Kazakhstan up to ridicule, a character assassination of vast proportions.  But this is a difference of degree, not kind.  Many comedians are rule breaking.  To say that Cohenis more rule breaking does not, cannot, sustain a  claim to originality. 

Perhaps what matters is a daring of another kind.  The filming of Borat took star and crew into peril.  Director Larry Charles says,

We walked into extremely hostile situations that we then exacerbated into incredibly hostile situations.  (EW, as below)

Well, maybe.  This exercise in comedic ambush looks as if targets were chosen with the advice of Michael Moore (i.e., all targets are the favorite liberal ones).  Unless you are prepared to subject your own world to satire and ridicule, it’s not really courageous comedy.  (When you make fun of your own, there is no place to hide.)

Strickly speaking, the expert here is Leora Kornfeld and if she would grace us with a study of Borat I would be proud to host it.  In the meantime, may I offer this suggestion?

Borat is about boundaries.  We live in a time of porous boundaries.  If you will forgive a moment of self reference, here’s something I posted in 2004. 

Selves, groups, institutions, nations, cultures are all now more porous and less bounded than they used to be.  Once we were like silos.  Now we are now more like bird cages: positively breezy in our willingness to admit influences from outside.  (lightly edited, McCracken, as below)

In a culture with diminished boundaries, some are consumed by the spirit of adventure.  Is there anything I cannot say or do?  Is there anyone I may not be? 

Borat is the last moment in a longstanding cultural development, one that takes on new power and definition from the avant garde of the 20th century.  Artists and poets (the predecessor of our comedian) looks to see what sensibilities may be scandalized.  French painters and their successors the American beat writers lay seige to several of the pieities and clarities of bourgeois culture.  And it worked.  Eventually the movement was embraced even by the middle class.  Once unmistakeable ideas are now marked not by boundaries but quotation marks. 

Enter Borat.  This character comes to offer a last test, a mopping up exercise.  Are there any boundaries left?  Well, in certain social circles (both conservative and radical), there will always be boundaries left.  (It is interesting to see how often these groups devote themselves almost entirely to what the boundaries are.  Much Punk discourse is about Punk boundaries.)  Borat is the last enemy of our fixity.  He is the new champion of our fluidity.  Borat is proof that we can go anywhere and be anyone…or, at least, that there are no cultural categories or prohibitions left to constrain us. 

I like the fact that Cohen is never interviewed except in character.  I think this says that the Ali G./Borat exercise is not about him.  And this makes him profoundly different from another rule breaking exemplar, the now downright tedious Madonna, for whom each successive manifestation and the larger transformational exercise is most distinctly about her. 

As proof of Borat, I offer Monk.  Borat will go anywhere, beard anyone, say anything, however much it makes us cringe.  Monk (someone to whom I think I am a little closer in temperment) is a man squeamish about every kind of boundary and category confusion.   While Borat plays the storm trooper, Monk wants nothing so much to stay home and wonder if that place mat is really, truly at right angles with the table on which it sits.  Even tiny inconsistencies and imperfections are, for Monk, assaults on the senses, outrages against expectation, a tipping point from which chaos must surely follow.  Such a character is inevitable when all placemats are matter out of place. 

The structural properties of our culture are changing.  We are becoming more fluid, more porous, more dynamic.  It is inevitable that we should produce characters like Borat who delight testing the freedom this change brings.  And characters like Monk who, like the rest of us, live in quiet horror. 

Does this make Borat original?  Not really.  But he might be the last man in, the character for whom there are no longer any rites of passage, only rights of passage.  And when he says and does things that are really impossibly rude, we cringe, but we don’t refuse him.  We get what he’s doing.  We know where he’s going.  He is, after all, one of us.


McCracken, Grant.  2004.  Culture Porousness.  This Blog Sits at the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics.  May 24, 2004.  here.

Rottenberg, Josh.  2006.  The Village Idiot Genuis.  Entertainment Weekly.  October 20, 2006, pp. 31-38.  (Quotes are from pages 34 and 38 respectively.)

17 thoughts on “Borat and the rest of us

  1. Lester Hunt

    A very interesting post! I have two comments, really:

    First, you may be right in saying that making fun of Kazakhstan is not be an act of courage, but it is not without value. Kazakhstan is one of those little countries left in that part of the world by collapse of the Soviet Union (sometimes called “the ‘stans”) that have mostly become police states, characterized by “flawed elections” and “human rights abuses” (two phrases that have always sounded like chilling euphemisms to me). It would be a good thing if the people in that part of the world (both victims and perpetrators) feel that the rest of the world is watching them and that, despite the pieties of cultural relativism, are willing to judge and disapprove.

    Second, saying that the significance of Borat is that there are few or no boundaries left for many of us is, again, a very interesting claim, but I wonder what a “boundary” is in that case. My friends and I do not steal each others’ wallets: that is, we respect the boundary between “mine” and “thine,” quite independently of any threat of its being enforced. So one sort of boundary is still very much in place. On the other hand, most of us are quite willing to step into a voting booth and vote that friend’s property shall henceforth be ours. So it is also true that another sort of boundary (or the same boundary in another context) has become “porous.”

    Clearly, once all boundaries have ceased to exist (by the way, would this be the same thing as “becoming porous”?) then we will no longer be able to live together in peace. We will be in the Hobbesean war of all against all.

    Bottom line: Borat is about violating certain kinds of boundaries, not all of them. But which kinds?

  2. Richard Shear

    We can even see that the lack of traditional boundaries for warmaking have begun to haunt our time. Who is the enemy, who is the target, who is the perpetrator, what is the punishment, what is the crime?

    The issue of no boundaries may be what worries people most when viewing the spector of global terror, with seemingly no rules or boundaries. One’s own death is no longer considered the ultimate boundary, merely a conduit to another world. And even the Geneva Conventions, the ultimate definer of proper conduct for 50 years, are being conveniently redefined by our politicians.

    As you say “in a culture with diminished boundaries, some are consumed by the spirit of adventure.”

  3. Abobtrader

    ‘Borat is the last enemy of our fixity. He is the new champion of our fluidity. Borat is proof that we can go anywhere and be anyone’

    Never had I heard such an eloquent description of what Borat represents…and we have had Borat over here in the UK for quite a few years. He started of with a small skit on another comedy show, and quickly became the best thing. Soon after he got his own show. And now the film.

    …most important, the character is laugh out loud funny, and we all need a good laugh!

  4. Grant

    Lester, thanks for the “hyperbole” check. I did get a little carried away. There ARE some boundaries that remain in place. The ones in question with Borat are the cultural definitions of person. What struck me after the fact was this: if EW is right to say that the important thing about Borat is that he never acknowledges the joke, never lets you know he knows that boundary violation is taking place, how do WE know that this is so. How do we know that this performance of anti-semitism is a performance and not in earnest. Because Cohen is a comedian? So he must be kidding? And this is a way of saying perhaps that we are pretty good at seeing that boundaries are in place even when they are being softpedaled or actually effaced. Thanks, Grant

    Richard, war is a really good example of something that is less formed, less marked, less boundaried than before. I wonder whether in fact this is not the more usual structural signature of war, though, what war looks like before and after the Chivalric tradition marks it off as a contest between special players. I would need to think about this more. Thanks very much. Best, Grant

    Abobtrader, yes, funny is, finally, culturally irreducible. Thanks, Grant

  5. Anon

    FYI: Baron-Cohen definitely has been interviewed out of character on Letterman. I’m not sure about elsewhere.

  6. LK

    right you are, anon…sacha baron cohen has been intv’d as himself, speaking about the ali G and borat characters, on jon stewart and jimmy kimmel…both of which can be found on you tube.

  7. Tom Guarriello

    Seems to me that Borat’s anti-semiticism is covered under that special clause of the Geneva Convention known as “the clause of the Fool.” The Fool, when clearly marked as such, can do and say practically anything and be protected from abuse simply by virtue of being The Fool.

    Until, that is, he ceases to be funny, in which eventuality he is summarily culturally executed. (See Kaufman, Andy.)

    Tough business, this Foolishness.

    Nice post.

  8. Tom Guarriello

    Seems to me that Borat’s anti-semiticism is covered under that special provision of the Geneva Convention known as “the clause of the Fool.” The Fool, when clearly marked as such, can do and say practically anything and be protected from abuse simply by virtue of being The Fool.

    Until, that is, he ceases to be funny, in which eventuality he is summarily culturally executed. (See Kaufman, Andy.)

    Tough business, this Foolishness.

    Nice post.

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  10. Enlightenment

    Somewhat off topic but bear with me because this is of paramount importance.

    One thing that struck me as odd in the days after 9/11 was Bush saying “We will not tolerate conspiracy theories [regarding 9/11]”. Sure enough there have been some wacky conspiracy theories surrounding the events of that day. The most far-fetched and patently ridiculous one that I’ve ever heard goes like this: Nineteen hijackers who claimed to be devout Muslims but yet were so un-Muslim as to be getting drunk all the time, doing cocaine and frequenting strip clubs decided to hijack four airliners and fly them into buildings in the northeastern U.S., the area of the country that is the most thick with fighter bases. After leaving a Koran on a barstool at a strip bar after getting shitfaced drunk on the night before, then writing a suicide note/inspirational letter that sounded like it was written by someone with next to no knowledge of Islam, they went to bed and got up the next morning hung over and carried out their devious plan. Nevermind the fact that of the four “pilots” among them there was not a one that could handle a Cessna or a Piper Cub let alone fly a jumbo jet, and the one assigned the most difficult task of all, Hani Hanjour, was so laughably incompetent that he was the worst fake “pilot” of the bunch. Nevermind the fact that they received very rudimentary flight training at Pensacola Naval Air Station, making them more likely to have been C.I.A. assets than Islamic fundamentalist terrorists. So on to the airports. These “hijackers” somehow managed to board all four airliners with their tickets, yet not even ONE got his name on any of the flight manifests. So they hijack all four airliners and at this time passengers on United 93 start making a bunch of cell phone calls from 35,000 feet in the air to tell people what was going on. Nevermind the fact that cell phones wouldn’t work very well above 4,000 feet, and wouldn’t work at ALL above 8,000 feet. But the conspiracy theorists won’t let that fact get in the way of a good fantasy. That is one of the little things you “aren’t supposed to think about”. Nevermind that one of the callers called his mom and said his first and last name, more like he was reading from a list than calling his own mom. Anyway, when these airliners each deviated from their flight plan and didn’t respond to ground control, NORAD would any other time have followed standard operating procedure (and did NOT have to be told by F.A.A. that there were hijackings because they were watching the same events unfold on their own radar) which means fighter jets would be scrambled from the nearest base where they were available on standby within a few minutes, just like every other time when airliners stray off course. But of course on 9/11 this didn’t happen, not even close. Somehow these “hijackers” must have used magical powers to cause NORAD to stand down, as ridiculous as this sounds because total inaction from the most high-tech and professional Air Force in the world would be necessary to carry out their tasks. So on the most important day in its history the Air Force was totally worthless. Then they had to make one of the airliners look like a smaller plane, because unknown to them the Naudet brothers had a videocamera to capture the only known footage of the North Tower crash, and this footage shows something that is not at all like a jumbo jet, but didn’t have to bother with the South Tower jet disguising itself because that was the one we were “supposed to see”. Anyway, as for the Pentagon they had to have Hani Hanjour fly his airliner like it was a fighter plane, making a high G-force corkscrew turn that no real airliner can do, in making its descent to strike the Pentagon. But these “hijackers” wanted to make sure Rumsfeld survived so they went out of their way to hit the farthest point in the building from where Rumsfeld and the top brass are located. And this worked out rather well for the military personnel in the Pentagon, since the side that was hit was the part that was under renovation at the time with few military personnel present compared to construction workers. Still more fortuitous for the Pentagon, the side that was hit had just before 9/11 been structurally reinforced to prevent a large fire there from spreading elsewhere in the building. Awful nice of them to pick that part to hit, huh? Then the airliner vaporized itself into nothing but tiny unidentifiable pieces no bigger than a fist, unlike the crash of a real airliner when you will be able to see at least some identifiable parts, like crumpled wings, broken tail section etc. Why, Hani Hanjour the terrible pilot flew that airliner so good that even though he hit the Pentagon on the ground floor the engines didn’t even drag the ground!! Imagine that!! Though the airliner vaporized itself on impact it only made a tiny 16 foot hole in the building. Amazing. Meanwhile, though the planes hitting the Twin Towers caused fires small enough for the firefighters to be heard on their radios saying “We just need 2 hoses and we can knock this fire down” attesting to the small size of it, somehow they must have used magical powers from beyond the grave to make this morph into a raging inferno capable of making the steel on all forty-seven main support columns (not to mention the over 100 smaller support columns) soften and buckle, then all fail at once. Hmmm. Then still more magic was used to make the building totally defy physics as well as common sense in having the uppermost floors pass through the remainder of the building as quickly, meaning as effortlessly, as falling through air, a feat that without magic could only be done with explosives. Then exactly 30 minutes later the North Tower collapses in precisely the same freefall physics-defying manner. Incredible. Not to mention the fact that both collapsed at a uniform rate too, not slowing down, which also defies physics because as the uppermost floors crash into and through each successive floor beneath them they would shed more and more energy each time, thus slowing itself down. Common sense tells you this is not possible without either the hijackers’ magical powers or explosives. To emphasize their telekinetic prowess, later in the day they made a third building, WTC # 7, collapse also at freefall rate though no plane or any major debris hit it. Amazing guys these magical hijackers. But we know it had to be “Muslim hijackers” the conspiracy theorist will tell you because (now don’t laugh) one of their passports was “found” a couple days later near Ground Zero, miraculously “surviving” the fire that we were told incinerated planes, passengers and black boxes, and also “survived” the collapse of the building it was in. When common sense tells you if that were true then they should start making buildings and airliners out of heavy paper and plastic so as to be “indestructable” like that magic passport. The hijackers even used their magical powers to bring at least seven of their number back to life, to appear at american embassies outraged at being blamed for 9/11!! BBC reported on that and it is still online. Nevertheless, they also used magical powers to make the american government look like it was covering something up in the aftermath of this, what with the hasty removal of the steel debris and having it driven to ports in trucks with GPS locators on them, to be shipped overseas to China and India to be melted down. When common sense again tells you that this is paradoxical in that if the steel was so unimportant that they didn’t bother saving some for analysis but so important as to require GPS locators on the trucks with one driver losing his job because he stopped to get lunch. Hmmmm. Yes, this whole story smacks of the utmost idiocy and fantastical far-fetched lying, but it is amazingly enough what some people believe. Even now, five years later, the provably false fairy tale of the “nineteen hijackers” is heard repeated again and again, and is accepted without question by so many Americans. Which is itself a testament to the innate psychological cowardice of the American sheeple, i mean people, and their abject willingness to believe something, ANYTHING, no matter how ridiculous in order to avoid facing a scary uncomfortable truth. Time to wake up America.

  11. Barry

    Whether or not Borat is original or not, he has been around for a number of years. Really good stuff. Try and get hold of the older videos… Where he goes interviewing fox hunters, or goes to a “gentlemen’s bowling club” where they would rather keep gypsies out.
    I havent seen the movie yet but the other vids went further than jsut pushing normal boundaries, they exposed alot of predjudices very cleverly… That the people being filmed did’t know what was happening is a very telling thing:-)

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