September 25, 2010

Situation and Kairos: A Quick Lesson

Here’s what happens when you get it wrong:

Thanks to long-time Rhetorica reader Sven for calling my attention to this “performance” in the comments to my previous post. I wasn’t planning to pay any attention to this at all, but Sven knows I have a soft spot for kairotic train wrecks šŸ™‚

Click here for my commentary (3 posts) on Stephen Colbert’s appearanceĀ at the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2006. For the most part, I think his performance there worked, i.e. he achieves his rhetorical intentions as I understand them.

The Colbert schtick didn’t quite work (there’s anĀ understatement) in a formal, Congressional hearing room. But the key to understanding this train wreck is what the audience represents for Colbert– how he uses them.

His powerful performance at the 2006 dinner relied on merciless satire of the very people sitting in front of him. They were not the audience. They were the fodder. Colbert was performing for people watching on television — aka. citizens of a democratic republic.

Yesterday, power was the audience and policy was the issue. Bringing Stephen Colbert the character to the hearing was simply bad kairos.

9 Responses

  1. Sven 

    I suppose one could say that anything that made me that uncomfortable is great art.

    Re: the formality of the setting. This is part of what grated on me, and I’m not exactly sure why. I think Congressional hearings are eminently mockable. Much like Colbert’s shtick, they’re a performance by people speaking “in character” and only nominally about the issues they address.

    Perhaps that’s it. His farcical performance brings the farcical nature of these hearings to the foreground, challenging my naive notion that governance should actually involve governing.

  2. Colbert combines shallow character parody with occasional provocative juxtaposition of ideas.

    It is predictable who does, and does not, find humor in Colbert’s shallow character parody and when questions of decorum will arise.

    This was an interesting thesis on Colbert’s 2006 performance:

    Ultimately, if it does not produce a favorable reaction (be it a wry smile, an appreciative groan, or a knowing chuckle), it may not qualify as humor. However, if it produces instant laughter, instant adherence, is it really doing anything political, is it really provoking thought? It is when the meaning is in doubt that thought must follow.

    In examining the the hearing’s chronology, I wanted to point out the following:

    Rep. Lofgren, chairman of the subcommittee, got out her ruler and rapped their knuckles just in case:

    “I would like to remind all of the visitors in the audience that they should refrain from any manifestation of approval or disapproval of these proceedings or any other disruptive actions. If necessary, the capitol police are here to remove anyone who disrupts the hearing… we certainly hope that won’t be necessary.”

    … when Rep. Judy Chu (R-Calif.) asked him: Why are you interested in this issue?

    “I like talking about people who don’t have any power,” Colbert said quietly and seriously – and totally out of character.

    “It seemed like one of the least powerful people in the United States are migrant workers who come and do our work but don’t have any rights as a result,” he continued while the room became pin-drop quiet.

    “And yet we still invite them to come here and at the same time ask them to leave. That’s an interesting contradiction to me. And whatever you do for the least of my brothers — and these seem like the least of our brothers right now..” Colbert continued, trailing off.

    “A lot of people are least brothers right now because the economy is so hard,” he continued.

    “I don’t want to take anyone’s hardship away from them or diminish anything like that. But migrant workers suffer and have no rights.”

  3. re:Yesterday, power was the audience and policy was the issue.

    Hmmm ….

    So why was it not funny in front of the very people he regularly satirizes? Kairos plays a role here, obviously. But thereā€™s more. One clue perhaps: In this case, the audience has real power.

  4. acline 

    Tim… Lofgren’s warning to “refrain from any manifestation of approval or disapproval” is interesting. If Colbert knew this, he then knew he’d be playing to a “tough room.” (Does one show approval/disapproval by laughing at a joke? Hmmmm…) I’m thinking that should have played some role in how he approached the hearing. I’m not suggesting that satire couldn’t work. I’m wondering if in that particular setting, the character Stephen Colbert may simply be ineffective. I wonder what might have happened had it been Jon Stewart.

    My thoughts on how power play into this are contradictory as you have pointed out. I’m not at all sure how to resolve it.

  5. I think Colbert knew to plan for a “tough room” before sitting at the witness table:

    The aide said there were no prerequisites for his testimony. The only thing she and her staff reminded him was that he could not perjure himself and should adhere to the decorum of Congress.

    Interesting report from a different room:

    I imagine reactions in the committee room are much more subdued than in overflow rooms. Laughter followed many of the more inane comments offered up by both witnesses and congressmen.

    Rep. Lofgren expected decorum to deteriorate during Colbertā€™s speech, as evidenced by the warning she gave to the audience. But in the wilderness of the overflow room, free from gavel bangs and looks of disapproval, unfettered reactions became the norm early on.

  6. re: power and satire

    Could Colbert’s performances in different forums (his TV set, WHCA Dinner, Congressional hearing) be important comparisons of theatrical rhetoric (poetic: comedy/tragedy) with Aristotle’s 3 branches of oratory?



    A poem of the satirical kind cannot indeed be put down to any author earlier than Homer; though many such writers probably there were. But from Homer onward, instances can be cited- his own Margites, for example, and other similar compositions. The appropriate meter was also here introduced; hence the measure is still called the iambic or lampooning measure, being that in which people lampooned one another. Thus the older poets were distinguished as writers of heroic or of lampooning verse.

    The Birds

    Yes, spectators, our madness is quite different from that of Sacas. He is not a citizen, and would fain be one at any cost; we, on the contrary, born of an honourable tribe and family and living in the midst of our fellow-citizens, we have fled from our country as hard as ever we could go. It’s not that we hate it; we recognize it to be great and rich, likewise that everyone has the right to ruin himself paying taxes; but the crickets only chirrup among the fig-trees for a month or two, whereas the Athenians spend their whole lives in chanting forth judgments from their law-courts. That is why we started off with a basket, a stew-pot and some myrtle boughs! and have come to seek a quiet country in which to settle.

  7. acline 

    Tim… Yes. Interesting idea. Man, gotta go back and read Poetic. Been a really long time.

  8. Tim 

    I appreciate the introduction to rhetoric and Aristotle that you have given me.

    I really enjoy learning about both, and transactionalizing it with you!