With the appearance of Michael Moore's latest foray into the arena of American conflict and controversy, Farenheit ll/9, I find myself contemplating the significance of the documentary form itself in contemporary American culture. And as is always the case in the conduct of a semiotic cultural analysis, my aim is not to form a partisan opinion but, rather, to find a signification, something that may not be obvious at an initial glance but may well be hiding in plain sight. So here goes.
To begin with, we need to construct a historicized system in which today's popular documentaries can be situated, and I can think of no better place to begin than with Edward R. Murrow's legendary exposé of America's migrant labor morass, Harvest of Shame. First broadcast on CBS in 1960 immediately after Thanksgiving, Harvest of Shame joined such classic works of muck-raking journalism as the photographs of Dorothea Lange and Jacob Riis, and the writing of Upton Sinclair, in revealing to the American middle and upper classes what was really going on behind the scenes of the pleasant panoramas of the American dream.
Michael Moore's work fits into this tradition, but with some significant differences, differences that will be important to my interpretation to follow. These lie in the way that Moore openly presents himself as a participant not only in his muck-raking documentaries but in the political controversies that he courts as well. Very much an in-your-face documentarian, Moore presents a striking contrast to Ken Burns, who must be ranked as America's currently most popular (not to mention prolific) documentary filmmaker, in large part due to his propensity to smooth over the rough edges of American cultural conflict in his attempts to appeal to everyone (who else but Burns, for example, would have included footage of historian Shelby Foote describing Abraham Lincoln and Nathan Bedford Forrest together as the two "geniuses" that the Civil War produced?).
But Michael Moore's "shockumentary" style looks like something out of the Hallmark Channel compared to Sacha Baron Cohen's "mockumentaries." Having laid low for a few years (to lull his intended victims into a false sense of security?), Cohen is back with his Showtime series, Who Is America? A weird amalgamation of Candid Camera, reality television, and, well, "Weird Al" Yankovic, Who Is America? managed to snag a cross section of American political celebrity—from Sarah Palin and Roy Moore to Bernie Sanders and Barney Frank—in his take-no-prisoners approach to political satire in the guise of documentary-style programming (see Laura Bradley's "Sacha Baron Cohen’s Victims: All the People Who Fell for His New Prank Show" in Vanity Fair for a complete rundown of Cohen's hapless marks).
Now, aside from my rather unsemiotic curiosity about how such a list of prominent people—who must surely have personal staffs employed precisely to keep their employers insulated from such things—got so taken in by Cohen, I find a number of signifiers at work here. The first might be called "Poe's Law Comes to Comedy." Poe's Law is a label for the ambiguity that surrounds so much of the content on the Internet due to the general weirdness of what people say there. "Does he really mean that, or is he pulling my leg?" pretty much sums up the situation, and it helps explain how Cohen got such current and former politicians as Representative Joe Wilson of South Carolina and ex-Senator Trent Lott to endorse a fake PSA for a "Kinderguardians" program designed to put guns in the hands of little children—Lott, for example, is quoted as saying, "It’s something that we should think about America, about putting guns in the hands of law-abiding citizens . . . whether they be teachers, or whether they actually be talented children or highly trained pre-schoolers.” I will leave it to my readers to deduce just which organization Cohen was targeting here.
Beyond the Poe's Law signification, I find myself especially struck by the distinct trajectory here that runs from Murrow to Cohen, the stunning difference. The best way to put it is that Murrow found nothing funny in what he wanted to expose in Harvest of Shame, and had no intention of entertaining anyone. Moore, for his part, has been quite open about his opinion that even documentaries with serious purposes should be entertaining. But Cohen is basically all about entertainment. What he does is make people look stupid for other people to laugh at with extreme derision. The approach is not unlike that of Jersey Shore and My Sweet Sixteen, video train wrecks whose purpose is to make their audiences feel superior to the people on the shows. Satire, with its ancient office of encouraging good behavior by ridiculing bad, thus becomes sheer snark.
And here the system opens out to a much larger system in America today, one in which all codes of civility (and "civility," remember, is rooted in the Latin "civitas": a society of shared citizenry) are falling before the imperatives of the profit motive. Snark sells: it's no accident that Who Is America? is a comedy series on Showtime. In such a system politics is repackaged as entertainment, and derision takes the place of anything like an authentic debate. And that just may well be the answer to the question of "Who Is America?" these days.