Friday, October 20, 2006

Borat, Transgressor of Boundaries

The anthropologist Grant McCracken has a fascinating post comparing Sacha Baron Cohen's Borat character and television's Mr. Monk as cultural symptons. Monk is obsessed with maintaining and preserving boundaries (especially, I would say, the boundary between himself and contamination of all sorts) while Borat raises the disturbing question of whether there are really any boundaries left. McCracken also tweaks those who praise Cohen for his "courage": I'll praise his courage, he says, when he makes fun of Western liberals like himself. Make fun of your own, and there is no place to hide! Make fun of The Other and there is generally no need to hide.

You can read his post here.

Here is a comment I just posted on McCracken's blog:


A very interesting post! I have two comments:

First, you may be right in saying that making fun of Kazakhstan is not an act of courage, but I think it does have some social and political 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, is 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?


Having said that, it occurs to me that McCracken makes one comment that I think is revealing about what sorts of "boundaries" he is talking about:

"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. ...)"

A sample left-wing boundary would be: "Thou shalt treat the ethnicities and national origins of others as if there were always deserving of admiration." A sample right-wing boundary: "Thou shalt treat every human fetus as if it had the same rights as an adult human being." These sorts of boundaries do not protect us from falling back into the Hobbesean jungle. Indeed, they may just be excuses for bossing other people around. They are the sorts of boundaries that John Stuart Mill was arguing against in On Liberty. If Borat is about demolishing boundaries like those, maybe he should be welcomed!

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