- Rhetoric, Humor, and the Public Sphere: From Socrates to Stephen Colbert by Elizabeth Benacka
Elizabeth Benacka's engaging book Rhetoric, Humor, and the Public Sphere: From Socrates to Stephen Colbert examines how a satirical character's performance in the public sphere shines a light on the nature of political performance. This book offers readers a compelling overview of rhetorical humor, American political satire, and the performances of Stephen Colbert and his eponymous character.
The first two chapters are less about Colbert and more about the nature and function of humor and satire within rhetoric. She identifies the major Greek and Roman sources that discuss humor and rhetoric, with a particular focus on the active role of the audience. Chapter 2 places Colbert in the lineage of American humor, in which wise fools reveal the incongruities between our ideals and our reality. In chapters 3–5, Benacka presents a robust analysis of Colbert's satire in various contexts, including his speech at the 2006 White House Correspondents' Dinner, his testimony before a congressional committee, and his creation of a Super PAC.
The linking of the humorous and the rhetorical is at the heart of Benacka's argument. She unpacks the ways in which humor functions in the public sphere, finding that it not only moves the emotions but also can serve educational and argumentative goals. Benacka effectively uses a breadth of rhetorical and critical theory to support her case, from Aristotle's enthymeme as a structure for understanding humor, to Kenneth Burke's comic frame, to Richard Rorty's analysis of irony. Through an analysis of this literature, she finds that what unites the concepts of irony, parody, and satire is that they all require active engagement by the audience in constructing meaning. She claims that "the discursive combination of information and entertainment imbues satire with the potential to encourage citizens' [End Page 153] participation to correct the fault put on display within this comedic genre" (99), thus making the leap from rhetorical participation in constructing meaning to active participation in the public sphere.
Benacka finds that Colbert provides a significant contribution with his practice of civic rhetorical education. She contends that Colbert's satire exposes the dysfunction of American politics. The broad subject of Colbert's humor, that American politics is failing, is hardly revelatory. The importance of satire is that the mix of rhetorical humor and politics in Colbert's performance educates and creates a civically engaged audience. The examples selected by Benacka demonstrate Colbert's skill at using his foolish character to educate his audience about issues such as the lives of migrant workers and the absurdity of campaign finance.
Colbert's humor captures the audience's attention to educate them about threats facing our civil order. Colbert targets not only governmental institutions but also the media. Benacka argues, "Colbert provided civic instruction on the proper role of the media through his demonstration of how to perform this job poorly, which served to ridicule those journalists who behaved similarly, thus helping to clarify the proper role of the media in a democratic society" (131). Benacka argues that much of the media tried to ignore his White House Correspondents' Dinner critique, but we still need to consider how their coverage of him evolved in the eight years between that performance and the end of The Colbert Report. Colbert's importance is amplified by the coverage of him in the media, which he criticizes for not focusing on our real problems, which creates tension.
Focusing on the intersection of satire and argument, Benacka claims that satire "is well suited to facilitate critical literacy training given its prerequisite that one must be able to place two opposing viewpoints side by side in order to determine what is worthy of ridicule in society" (120). Every culture finds different subjects to ridicule, and while this book does not offer a comprehensive account of satire during the years between Socrates and Colbert, it does make a strong argument about the role of the eiron...