Omniloquence

Global Conversations Beyond Discipline

On the Satirical Appropriation of Discourse

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Credit: Victor Hertz

Power is everywhere, and it manifests itself in many different ways.1 One such way is as imbedded in discursive practices, by means of which it creates discourses of truth. In other words, by validating certain discursive practises it establishes the form and regulations in which truths may be uttered. This does not make the resulting truths transcendental – or necessarily ‘bad’, but the ways in which power is infused in the process necessarily entails relationships of domination and discrimination.

So how do we avoid this possible discrimination? One might argue that the mere fact that one is able to identify this power entails a possibility for resistance, but how might we proceed when attempting it? Perhaps one can locate ‘freedom’ from specific manifestations of power within the possibility of thinking the unthinkable? Well, how do we think the unthinkable then? How do we enact a break from the discursive regimes within which we form our understanding of the world? And how do we locate a power-neutral space from which we can do this?

I’m not saying I have the answer but, as friends of mine on social media may have noticed, I have recently developed an appreciation for appropriation of discourse. I propose that appropriation of discourse by disempowered groups serve as an avenue to open up a space of freedom from specific power structures for the individual(s) engaged in the appropriation. This appropriation often takes the shape of satire – a satire that is informed by meticulous understanding of the discursive regimes that perpetuate the power structures. Please see these three examples which not only show structural inequalities perpetuated within certain discursive regimes, but also showcase ways in which one might resist them and experience momentary spaces of freedom from particular power relations.

Thug Notes

The show examines classical works of literature, but the presenter, Sparky Sweets – an African American in character as a ‘thug’, does so from what is conventionally understood as an anti-intellectual tradition: that of the ‘street thug’. See for yourself. But how does Sparky Sweets appropriate discourse? He is not arriving at different interpretations of the works than what is conventionally accepted.

Well, he is not attempting to reinterpret. The thing he questions is the frame within which the discourse reigns. The analysis of classical literature is located squarely within the domain of academia. Yet, historically, academia is an institution for the privileged. It not only costs a lot of money but, very generally speaking, honours a tradition rooted in Eurocentric enlightenment thought: the stratification of labour and the resulting privileged position of the academic institution in ‘unveiling’ knowledge. In essence, this has meant that knowledge has belonged to rich white people, and, consequently, the domain of the analysis of classics is imbued with power relations.

So when Sparky Sweets appropriates this discourse on behalf of ‘the thug’, he may not be changing the interpretations of the works in question, but he breaks with the power relations embedded in the discursive practise. He exposes and nullifies them, not by invoking other discursive regimes, but by satirically appropriating those discourses tasked with maintaining those relations. By engaging in satirical appropriation, he challenges the structural discrimination against African Americans; he challenges the perceptions of the origins of knowledge; he resists; he finds an avenue for momentary freedom.

Postmodern Jukebox

This ensemble of musicians plays popular music – that which you hear again and again on your generic radio station – using, mostly, alternative styles of music. In this video they collaborate with Puddle’s Pity Party, but they really do a lot of different stuff. Yet, how is that resisting power? How are they appropriating discourse? They are still singing the same lyrics. They still utter the same superficial nonsense as Pitbull and Miley Cyrus.

Well, again, the frame is the issue: the frame and the power relations embedded in its employment. While ‘alternative styles of music’ certainly have audiences, the songs they appropriate are distinct to the mainstream, pop genre. Accordingly, when Postmodern Jukebox plays popular music in alternative styles, they might not reinterpret the music itself, but they highlight the power relations that determine the validity of discourse: the discourse that equates the techniques of popular music with techniques ‘proper’ to music writ large. They highlight the discrimination inherent to the power relation.

Yet, one might argue that the songs of Postmodern Jukebox offer an even more general critique of society. If one believes alternative music to, inherent to its definition, be nonconformist and anti-consumerist, does the appropriation of the discourse of popular music then not equate popular music with a culture of consumption – capitalism – and the standardisation of normality? Postmodern Jukebox, like Thug Notes, resists the power relations embedded within discursive regimes by satirically appropriating the frame. In doing so, the power structures become apparent and an avenue for momentary freedom arises.

8-Bit Philosophy

8-Bit Philosophy communicates the philosophy of famous philosophers in the format of 8-bit video games. As you probably get the picture by now, I will keep this brief. What might be attributed to these guys is similar to that of Sparky Sweets (same creators, actually) as they bring into question the same regulative discursive practises that determine what legitimate discourse is. They also do not reinterpret but appropriate. However, rather than contrasting with ‘thug’ culture, highlighting the inequalities present in its relationship with academia, it approaches it from the ‘lazy gamer’ culture – another perceived culture of anti-intellectualism. Yet, again, one can peel back another layer:

When 8-Bit Philosophy appropriates the discourse of the original espousers of knowledge, they also contrast their teachings: the promulgation of bourgeois morality – work ethic, coupled with the disdain for the jobless, with the perceived attributes of the lazy gamer: the jobless, the ‘unproductive’. In doing so, 8-Bit Philosophy challenges not only the authority of academia to legitimate discourse, but also the discursive regimes that continue to inform normality – discursive regimes that emanate from academia. So, 8-Bit Philosophy also resists. It satirically appropriates discursive regimes, sheds light on discriminatory practises inherent to the regime, and finds spaces of momentary freedom.

Conclusion

These examples can be seen as other than mere popularisers of philosophy to gamers, literature to thugs and alternative music to beliebers. They can also be seen as subversions of power. Yet, they avoid the problem of the impossibility of neutral criticism by utilising mimicry instead of interpretation. They make no novel interpretations, rather their artistry serve as a mirror, in which the reflection is hauntingly only-almost faithful. It is in this non-space of the absurd reflection, I propose, that the freedom of the subject, of the reflection, in the mirror is experienced.

Ultimately, though, there are many things still to consider, most notably, a reflection on the media in which these artists deliver their work: what role does YouTube play in this appropriation of discourse – if any, and how does it affect it? This is a question for another time but one worth considering, I think.


  1. “The birth of the reader must be at the expense of the death of the author” – no reference 




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