The Rhetorical Function of Comedy in Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11

By Fleischmann, Aloys | Mosaic (Winnipeg), December 2007 | Go to article overview

The Rhetorical Function of Comedy in Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11


Fleischmann, Aloys, Mosaic (Winnipeg)


This essay integrates models of genre and rhetorical analysis, psychoanalysis, and sociological trauma theory. It argues that the impact of the cultural trauma of 9/11 is deployed by Moore to destabilize state-sponsored avenues of that trauma's own propagation, and that the comic form is a crucial mode in this destabilization.

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In contemporary societies, democratic or totalitarian, that cynical
distance, laughter, irony, are, so to speak, part of the game. The
ruling ideology is not meant to be taken seriously or literally.
--Slavoj Zizek, The Sublime Object of Ideology

What is the rhetorical function of the comedy in Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11? How does it persuade or motivate an audience to political action? Why would Moore choose to include comedy in a movie whose two central themes are, first, a government that has come to power through unscrupulous (or, as Moore depicts, downright illegal) means, and second, the wholesale murder of approximately three thousand people, leading in turn to thousands more deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq? The fact that this film was (and currently is) the highest-grossing non-concert documentary of all time, and further, that it was taken seriously as a factor in the 2004 presidential elections, suggests that Moore is anything but a naive filmmaker. Still, an argument could be made that Moore lacks the vision to break with the satirical format that, with the success of Roger & Me, launched him into the highest echelons of popular documentary film-making. A satirical mode that works well for highlighting the anti-labour excesses of corporate America becomes risky, to say the least, when transposed onto more visceral concerns, such as the high school massacre that serves as the organizing principle of Bowling for Columbine. In pushing the envelope even further with Fahrenheit 9/11, Moore magnifies the danger of alienating his viewing audience en masse; terrible as the Columbine massacre was, there are no events in recent American history that are as grave in symbolic terms as the destruction of the World Trade Center, "a moment of rupture, a 'break-in' through the protective shield of postwar American national identity" (Waisbord 205), a human-engineered disaster underscored by an immense and traumatic loss of civilian life. It would seem that, in such circumstances, the risks greatly outweigh the benefits of Moore's particular approach.

On top of this, one might ask if it is possible that comedy can clear a site for political action at all. Slavoj Zizek has labelled the world we live in as "postideological." According to Zizek, "if our concept of ideology remains the classic one in which the illusion is located in knowledge, then today's society must appear postideological: the prevailing ideology is that of cynicism; people no longer believe in ideological truth; they do not take ideological propositions seriously" (Sublime 33). In our contemporary milieu, one where ideological discourse is taken at face value as being false and manipulative, what good is an exposure of the corrupt, scheming underside of power? Does rendering the state as absurd and its ideology as bankrupt empower the people? Can satirical unmasking motivate action, or does political laughter serve, like any other form of cynicism, to release rather than galvanize?

Media analysts often comment on the growing popularity of comedy news programs, the flagship of which is Jon Stewart's The Daily Show, and one can hardly miss the fact that many of the prominent, even dominant, anti-Republican voices in the American media today are comedians. This naturally raises the question of what role comedy might play in the body politic, specifically with regard to that ever-elusive arch concept, resistance. Amongst Moore's more positive critical adjudicators, there is a general consensus that his varied comedic antics are designed primarily to relieve the boredom that a dry, statistical representation of politics might engender--humour provides much of the entertainment value that holds an "everyman/woman" audience's attention. …

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