Borat, Sacha Baron Cohen, and the Seriousness of (Mock) Documentary

Cate Blouke. Comedy Studies. Volume 6, Issue 1. 2015.


In January of 2005, a television reporter from Kazakhstan traveled across the USA, from New York to California, on a mission to document American culture for Kazakh viewers. Borat Sagdiyev and his producer Azamat Bagatov filmed interviews with a wide array of people (from retailers to politicians), asking them about American customs, products, and beliefs. In his broken and heavily accented English, Borat asked gun salesmen, ‘What is the best gun to defend from a Jew?’ and promptly received a recommendation for either a 9 millimeter or a 45. He asked car salesmen to suggest vehicles that would ‘attract a woman with shave down below’ (according to Jim Sell, a GM Salesman, a Corvette would do the trick). He also introduced traditional Kazakh customs to some of his interviewees, such as sharing cheese with Bob Barr (former Georgia Congressman), which Borat explained to Barr (after the Congressman had tasted the cheese), ‘My wife, she make this cheese. She make it from milk from her teat.’ At the time of the filming, Borat’s interviewees were unaware that Borat was also (already, as well) British comedian and television star, Sacha Baron Cohen.

The film that subsequently emerged out of the interviews, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (hereafter BCL), was not (ever) released to an audience in Borat’s home country—as American participants had been led to believe it would be. The film also was not treated as a documentary in the traditional sense of the word. Instead, the film was touted as a comedy, and, after a limited release in the USA in November of 2006, it took off world-wide to great acclaim and commercial success—much to the dismay of those involved. With the backing of 20th Century Fox, the film became a media sensation, garnering an award nomination from the Golden Globes for Best Comedy, and named the Best Comedy Movie of 2006 by The Broadcast Film Critics Association. In addition, Cohen won a Golden Globe for Best Actor: Musical or Comedy that year, and received similar awards from numerous Film Critics’ Associations. Nevertheless, Cohen rarely stepped out of character in his public appearances—extending the ‘joke’ well beyond the bounds of the film. It was Borat who appeared in interviews with news agencies such as CNN and Fox News, who made an appearance on The Tonight Show with David Letterman, and it was Borat who was awarded GQ Magazine‘s Man of the Year Editor’s Special Award for 2006.

In spite of such acclaim, the film also garnered accusations of racism, misogyny, and sheer vulgarity. Described by many as anti-Semitic, homophobic, and chauvinist, Borat espouses ideas and elicits interview responses that are nothing if not inflammatory and controversial. Many participants in the film later sought legal recourse, claiming they had been lied to and that the producers were guilty of fraud. Many groups found the film offensive, and the Kazakhstan Government complained of gross misrepresentation. BCL was banned completely in every Arab country, save Lebanon, and it failed to achieve certification for distribution in Russia (the first film since the 1980s to elicit such restrictions) (Meyers 2006).

Granted widespread media coverage and eliciting candid responses from everyday people, Borat’s intrusion, of a ‘fictional’ character into the so-called ‘real world’, complicates any potential for dismissing Cohen’s performances as non-serious, un-real, or purely fictional. To write Borat or BCL off as not serious is to dismiss allegations of harm done and to stake a claim in superiority, in knowing better. Yet, how does one distinguish what is serious from that which is not? How do we know when someone is joking, when an utterance is (just) a joke? The answer certainly does not reside in language itself, so what is it that we read onto and around language that determines our response?

This article extends a conversation about humor and offence taken up by editors Sharon Lockyer and Michael Pickering in their collection Beyond a Joke. They contend, ‘If a comic assault on someone’s sense of themselves as individual subjects, or on the sense of social and cultural identity of a particular social group or category, proves to have seriously damaging results and repercussions, we should take this seriously’ (2005, 4). Cohen’s performances have certainly had far-reaching implications for Kazakh identity, though the seriousness of the impact remains in question. By and large, the western media endorses Cohen’s antics as harmlessly comic, even though, to a certain extent, Kazakhs and the people he interviews do take his behavior quite seriously. By reading BCL and Cohen’s performances across the works of J.L. Austin, John Searle, and the post-structuralist philosopher Jacques Derrida, this article will explore the concepts and implications of speech-act theory to address the problem of trying to draw clear distinctions between serious and non-serious uses of language and/or to hold them to different standards.

Borat and the Battle of Representation vs. Reality

Although the film was his most widespread media pageant, Borat first appeared on British television as part of Baron Cohen’s Da Ali G Show between 2000 and 2004, stirring controversy and legal battles well in advance BCL‘s filming and release. Borat’s invitation to host the 2005 MTV Europe Music Awards led to a denouncement by the Kazakh Government, claiming that Cohen’s representation of Kazakh culture was an ‘utterly unacceptable … concoction of bad taste and ill manners’ that was ‘designed to present Kazakhstan and its people in a derogatory way’ (Saunders 2007). The government of Kazakhstan threatened legal action if Cohen failed to cease his misrepresentations, and Borat subsequently replied to the Kazakh accusation via his ‘official’ website, condoning his government’s actions, claiming no affiliation ‘with Mr. Cohen and fully support[ing] [his] government’s decision to sue this Jew’ (Saunders 2007). The response resulted in the removal of Borat’s website from Kazakhstan’s servers, sparking accusations of government censorship and fueling the flames of controversy. For many, Cohen’s antics are serious business, not in the least just a joke.

After BCL, Dharma Arthur, a television producer who gave Borat air time on a Jackson, Mississippi morning news segment, lost her job at the station and reported that the incident thrust her life into a downward spiral (Associated Press 2006). In addition, the Romanian villagers appearing in the film’s opening sequence (as citizens of Borat’s home town) were told that the film was to be a documentary of their hardship. Speaking little or no English, they had no idea that Borat was giving them titles such as the village ‘mechanic and abortionist’, or the ‘town rapist’. During the filming and production of BCL, the police were summoned 92 times (according to the film’s ‘trivia’ page on the Internet Movie Database), Borat nearly started a riot at a rodeo in Virginia, members of his crew spent the night in jail, and dozens of lawsuits were subsequently filed against Cohen and 20th Century Fox. Borat’s behaviors left people angry, hurt, and offended, even if for Cohen and much of the film’s audience, this was all just an elaborate joke.

While Cohen’s representation of a disaffected hip-hop youth in his Ali G character from the TV series sparked more harsh criticism, condemned by several critics as a form of postmodern minstrelsy, the objections to Borat and BCL often fail to evoke as much public and academic empathy or concern. Pauline Carpenter points out that the power dynamics between American media and Kazakhstan serve to undermine or diminish critiques of Cohen’s representations. She notes how ‘negative responses to Borat by Kazakhstan have been presented in the western media as defensive and unaware of the actual intention of the film’ (2007, 20). Carpenter argues that from the perspective of American and British commentators, ‘Kazakhstan was not in on the joke and therefore could be seen as backwards, irrationally offended and their problem was that they did not “get it”’ (20). Similarly, facing the power and financial backing of a major motion picture corporation, none of the individual litigants (the people interviewed for the film) succeeded in their suits.

Cohen’s various personas and his subversive approach to interviews illustrate how, although the boundaries between representation and reality, surface and substance, serious and non-serious have always been false binaries, the technologies now available are ushering in a heightened awareness of this instability. Cohen’s performances may convey some sense of ‘non-seriousness’ to the broader audience (of the show/movie) through the filmic medium, yet the people he interviews do seem to take him seriously—if, that is, we take ‘seriousness’ in this case as a display of earnestness or sincerity. Many of his interlocutors patiently and earnestly explain mundane and (seemingly) obvious aspects of daily life, such as how to use the toilet or that in America ‘a woman has the right to choose who she has sex with’. In addition, as noted above, the Kazakh Government also took Borat seriously—here in terms of injury done—condemning Borat’s behaviors and threatening legal retribution.

These bizarre interactions between Borat and the government of Kazakhstan generate a life for the character that exists beyond the confines of the film or television series. Just prior to the American release of BCL, Borat called an impromptu press conference outside the Kazakh Embassy in Washington DC. There, he made a statement responding to the Kazakh Government’s four-page advertisement placed in the New York Times and a meeting between Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev and President Bush (Snider 2006). Borat explained to several dozen reporters that:

[R]ecent advertisments on television and in media about my nation of Kazakhstan, saying that women are treated equally, and that all religions are tolerated—these are disgusting fabrications. […] part of a propoganda campaign against our country by evil nitwits Uzbekistan. […] I must further say on behalf of my government, that if Uzbekistan do not desist from funding these attacks, […] then we will be left with no alternative but to commence bombardment of their cities with our catapaults. (“Borat’s Statement” 2006)

Although devoid of any official authority to call a press conference, and although (at this point) widely acknowledged as a phony, Borat nevertheless acted in the name of ‘his’ country and perpetuated the ‘hoax’ in a ‘real-world’ setting. His performance achieved international dissemination of an absurd statement by way of several conventionally serious news outlets. Borat thus crosses the boundaries between representation and reality—behavior that warrants serious consideration in spite of its farcical cloak.

Perhaps as a result of the flagrantly vulgar (a three-minute long naked wrestling scene between Borat and Azamat) and the raucously offensive (Borat’s assertion to a group of feminists that women’s brains are ‘size of squirrel’) nature of BCL, however, popular journalists have been rampantly dismissive of complaints about the film, and few academics have analyzed the structural implications of Cohen’s works. Accused of ‘cater[ing] to the most prurient and sadistic elements of the human psyche’ (Saunders 2007), Cohen’s comedies have largely been discussed in terms of their content: issues surrounding attitudes of multiculturalism, otherness, anti-Americanism, national identity, the ethical considerations from a production standpoint, as well as assertions about the ‘true’ object of his satire. These accounts offer diverse readings of what it is that BCL does and who Cohen is or is not making fun of, yet they largely fail to consider his performances from a rhetorical perspective, thinking through the intriguing questions: how does he do it, why does it work, and what could it mean for our understanding of language and performance? The bizarre interaction between a ‘fictional character’ and a national government illustrates the crux of the Borat controversy—how Borat blurs the lines between many of the boundaries that both cannot and must be drawn in order for us to make sense of the world.

Although widely labeled a ‘mockumentary’ (a genre of film that scripts narratives and characters within the recognizable conventions of documentary film), Cohen’s film is neither purely fictional, nor entirely ‘real.’ In an adopted persona whom he names Borat, he interviews people who are ostensibly just being themselves. Borat is working from a loosely scripted position, whereas the people he interacts with are not, nor are they aware of the adopted nature of his persona. As a result, Borat’s conversations model the dilemma of linguistic interaction in general: (how) can we tell when someone is being serious?

To say ‘I was only joking’ is an act—of apology, of deferral, of excuse—evolving out of humor’s misfires. As Dennis Howitt and Kwame Owusu-Bempah argue, the ‘only joking’ excuse is a ‘rhetorical device’ often (and problematically) used to neutralize challenges to the underlying assumptions of racist jokes (2005, 48). Yet, the all-too-frequent necessity for us to qualify utterances as ‘just’ or ‘only’ jokes points not only toward the inherent volatility of humor but also to the fundamental nature of language itself: that mis-es (mistakes, misunderstandings, misinterpretations) are a structural possibility of language. Humor, or the so-called ‘non-serious’ use of language, shines a spotlight on this instability, and in making light of ‘serious’ subjects (be they people, objects, or concepts), humor has the potential to make people acutely uncomfortable. While we often turn to context and intention as the primary cues for reading an utterance as serious or not, speech act theory and post-structural approaches to language illustrate the problem of relying on these unstable markers.

Speech Acts and the Inefficacies of Context

In the 1950s, J.L. Austin noted something he felt was not terribly new, but had nevertheless been largely overlooked or, at least, not attended to, in academic and philosophical discourse. Namely, Austin interested himself in the ways in which words do things—rather than simply describe reality, words are active agents, effecting changes in the world around us. While this may seem rather obvious in the twenty-first century, and while Austin himself pointed out that this did not seem to be a huge revelation to anyone, the significant series of lectures collected in his volume How To Do Things With Words were the birthplace of much contemporary linguistic, philosophical, and theoretical discourse in the years to come. The notions Austin posits regarding the ways in which words are divided into ‘performative’ and ‘constative’ categories (and the way in which those categories ultimately cannot hold) have been the subject of conjecture, debate, and extrapolation, for decades.

While later writers (such as Jacques Derrida, Shoshana Felman, and Judith Butler) theorize the expansive implications of Austin’s notions of performativity, Austin’s lectures strive to tie the theory to concrete scenarios of ‘ordinary language use.’ Austin runs through a series of examples of ‘performative’ utterances—a name he selects to ‘indicate that the issuing of the utterance is the performing of an action—it is not normally thought of as just saying something’ (1962, 6-7). He draws on the examples of promising and the ‘I do’ spoken in a marriage ceremony as instances of spoken words performing an action. Walking through a detailed series of necessary conditions for what he dubs the ‘felicitous’ completion of these performative utterances, Austin explains, ‘it is always necessary that the circumstances in which the words are uttered should be in some way, or ways, appropriate’ (8). For example, in order for a marriage vow to take place, the affianced must not (in Christian tradition) be already married to another, and the person performing the ceremony must be endowed with the legal authority to do so.

Although Austin works through a number of ways in which performative utterances might ‘misfire’ or suffer ‘abuse’ through the violation of appropriate conditions, his investigation ‘exclud[es] from consideration’ utterances said by actors or poets (1962, 22). Austin labels these sorts of utterances as ‘parasitical’ to normal language use and thus sets them aside as special cases for which his theory does not apply. By Austin’s standards, Borat’s utterances might be considered hollow or void, almost entirely infelicitous, and therefore not successful in a straightforward reading of performative utterances. But those labels fail to account for the effects that Borat nevertheless achieves. His press conference in which he ‘denounces,’ or ‘condemns’ the public relations campaign (more examples of performative speech acts) both adheres to and violates Austin’s doctrine of felicitous speech acts in a number of ways.

The first criteria Austin offers for the performance of a successful or a ‘felicitous’ speech act is that ‘(A.1) There must exist an accepted conventional procedure having a certain conventional effect, that procedure to include the uttering of certain words by certain persons in certain circumstances’ (1962, 14). Press conferences are conventional procedures: a representative or individual reads a prepared statement, fields questions from the gathered members of the press, and the event then succeeds in eliciting publication and comment from the media. So far, so good—Borat’s press conference met the criteria sufficiently for the reporters to arrive and subsequently publish his statement. In this sense, the media (representatives of serious news outlets such as USA Today and the Daily Mail) take Borat seriously, publishing his statement just as they would publish that of an elected government official.

Austin’s second criteria for felicity is that ‘(A.2) the particular persons and circumstances in a given case must be appropriate for the particular procedure invoked’ (1962, 15). Here, Borat more clearly violates the criteria, as he was never granted official authority to speak for Kazakhstan, and was repeatedly rejected and condemned by the Kazakhstan Government. Yet, the media granted him audience and publication all the same. Austin explains that if, for some reason, the criteria of appropriate circumstance and position are not met, then ‘the act in question… is not successfully performed at all, does not come off, is not achieved’ (16). However, Cohen’s antics call attention to the loopholes in these criteria. Although, in theory, Borat has no official authority to hold a press conference or speak for Kazakhstan, the press tacitly validates his authority by both giving him audience and subsequently publishing his speech. The weight of the denouncement may be in question, and perhaps Uzbekistan saw no need to fortify their borders, but Borat’s press conference certainly took place and achieved the desired effect of garnering an audience. His threats may not have been taken seriously, and he may not have had any serious qualifications for making his assertions, but he was able to make them publicly and perpetuate the circulation of his version of Kazakh identity. Circumstances and conventions, it seems, are not as rigid as one might (like to) think, and a supposedly serious context is no guarantee against farce.

If one is to address the ways in which an utterance (performative or otherwise) can go wrong, Austin urges consideration of ‘the total situation in which the utterance is issued—the total speech-act’ (1962, 52). For Austin (and later for John Searle), speech acts occur within ‘total’ contexts, the meaning and effects of performative utterances are determined (and determinable) by the situations immediately surrounding them. This approach urges an understanding of language (and the world) in terms of stable contexts and fixed meanings. In contrast, Derrida and his readers look to the very structure of language to find a fundamental openness of context and proliferation of meaning. Although Derrida’s arguments remain a point of contention amongst Searle and his readers, especially, in ‘Signature, Event, Context’ (and then more expansively in Limited Inc.), Derrida systematically demonstrates the impossibilities of ever determining either total context or fully saturated intention. As these are precisely the least stable and most contested aspects of BCL and Cohen’s performances, reading the film across Derrida’s work illustrates the founding presuppositions of this article—that there is nothing inherent in language to distinguish between serious and non-serious usage, that contexts are never ‘total’ or closed, and that readings of intention are always inherently flawed at best.

Cohen’s Influence on ‘Kazakhstan’

Derrida’s linked concepts of citationality and iterability expose the problems of context and intention in both written and spoken language. Written texts depend on the repeatability of the sign. In terms of the production of meaning, a language is not a language, a code is not a code (cannot have a meaning), unless it is repeatable. For writing to operate, my words/marks/signs must nevertheless remain readable (repeatable) after the absolute disappearance of either myself or my intended readers. As Derrida explains, ‘To write is to produce a mark that will constitute a sort of machine which is productive in turn, and which my future disappearance will not, in principle, hinder its functioning, offering things and itself to be read and to be rewritten’ (1988, 8). Repeatability of this ‘machine’ allows for citationality—signs/marks may be moved from one context to another, although this assumes prior contexts that attach to the citation. Borat was able to elicit responses from participants based on their (often limited) awareness of his home country. While they may not have been very clear on the details, the sign ‘Kazakhstan’ in Borat’s use nevertheless retained some glimmer of this prior context and the stereotypes that his interlocutors associated with eastern European identity. As Lockyer and Pickering explain, ‘[s]tereotypes, whether in comic or other forms of discourse, do not simply derive their ideological currency from a contemporary context. They often trail a legacy of meanings and associations that extend a good way back into the past’ (2005, 8).

However, the repetition of signs (and stereotypes are a type of sign) always entails an alteration: the machine simultaneously produces new meanings because it reaches back to previous contexts, dragging those meanings along with it. Derrida explains this as the iterability of the sign: ‘Iteration… is at work, constantly altering, at once and without delay […] whatever it seems to reproduce’ (1988, 40). With each iteration of a sign, it both draws on previous contexts to retain meaning and creates new meaning based on the new context. In other words, ‘Iterability alters, contaminating parasitically what it identifies and enables to repeat “itself”’ (62).

Words and signs must be both repeatable and altered through repetition in order for meaning to occur. Without this possibility, ‘I’ could not refer to myself as the author of this article. The ‘I’ refers to Cate Blouke here, but it is neither the first nor the last time ‘I’ was used to refer to a person, myself or otherwise. The sign must be able to shift meaning in new contexts, adopting different referents as it is spoken or written by others and across time. To apply this concept to the case of BCL: while the sign, ‘Kazakhstan,’ may once have more cleanly referred to the ninth-largest country in the world, through iterability ‘Kazakhstan’ has been altered by Borat’s meanings, and the western world now recognizes Borat’s Kazakhstan as much as, if not more than, the national government’s Kazakhstan, or that of its people—a surprisingly serious consequence for the utterances of a ‘fictional’ character.

In the film, Borat acts as a representative of Kazakhstan, even if Borat’s Kazakhstan is not the ‘real’ Kazakhstan. As Dickie Wallace points out, by ‘grafting western stereotypes and formulas of eastern European and Balkan characteristics into a hybrid of absurd “realities.” [… Borat] is close enough that viewers [and participants] can comprehend him without having to bridge an overly wide cultural gap […] they find him familiarly exotic’ (2008, 35). People’s acceptance of Borat as a Kazakh creates a version of Kazakh identity that continues to exist (to be iterable, and to be cited) beyond the context of the film, as do the events and artifacts created by the production team to bolster the ‘reality’ of the charade. For example, the production company, Bagatov Films, founded solely in conjunction with the Borat character, nevertheless hosts a website explaining its affiliation with Borat Sagdiev, and even links to a petition to clear Azamat Bagatov (Borat’s producer who appears in the film) of accusations of ‘sex crime with horse’. Though the website has not been updated since 2006, as of March 2014, the petition’s most recent signature is dated a mere nine months prior. The living archive of the Internet allows the traces of Borat to persist years later.

As recently as January and February of 2014 (more than seven years after Borat’s retirement from public appearances), British news outlets London Evening Standard and The Times ran articles with headlines and content drawing on meanings attached to Borat’s Kazakhstan. The Standard‘s article ‘Cultural learnings for UK: Kazakhstan has more women MPs’ parodies the film’s title and draws on Borat’s version of a chauvinist Kazakhstan to critique contemporary gender disparities in Great Britain. The Times‘ article, ‘A plot even Borat couldn’t make up—leader plans to rename Kazakhstan’, invokes the character to make a joke of a ‘real’ political dissident.

These sorts of reiterations of Borat’s Kazakhstan illustrate the necessary slipperiness of language. Precisely because all signs must be iterable to be signs, Derrida points out that ‘every sign… can be cited; put between quotation marks; [and] in so doing it can break with every given context’ (1988, 12). He draws an explicit parallel between quotation and writing itself, neither of which can ever exist within a total, fixed context. He explains:

[A] written sign carries with it a force that breaks with its context, that is, with the collectivity of presences organizing the moment of its inscription. This breaking force is not an accidental predicate but the very structure of a written text. In the case of a so-called ‘real’ context, what I have just asserted is all too evident. This allegedly real context includes a certain ‘present’ of the inscription, the presence of the writer to what he has written, the entire environment and the horizon of his experience, and above all the intention, the wanting-to-say-what-he-means, which animates his inscription at a given moment. But the sign possesses the characteristic of being readable even if the moment of its production is irrevocably lost and even if I do not know what its alleged author-scriptor consciously intended to say at the moment he wrote it, i.e. abandoned it to its essential drift. (9)

If we take film as a form of writing (a means of recording meaning across an absence), Derrida’s arguments illuminate how and why Borat has the effects that he does. Borat presents himself as a legitimate Kazakh journalist to the people he interviews, and he does things in that context—asks inflammatory and provocative questions, insults people, claims to be practicing traditional Kazakh customs, and exploits social taboos. In viewing BCL after the fact, audiences are privy to the purported non-seriousness of Cohen’s performances—they read the inscriptions through the contextual lens of comedy or mockumentary. They laugh with Cohen at ‘the idiot who doesn’t know where Kazakhstan is’ (Stein 2006). Regarding the real people in the immediate, real context of filming, on the other hand, a generous reading assumes an earnest desire on their parts to be hospitable, to be sincere, to explain America to an outsider. For them, this was a documentary, a serious inquiry into American customs. Yet, that context is lost forever in the media hype and exposure of the ensuing years. Their responses are forever departing further and further from that context, as their inscriptions move from the present of the filming, to the cinematic screenings at film festivals, to the commercial theatrical release, to the DVD, to the global cultural climate of seven years later.

The System of Différance and the Institution of ‘Reality’

In so many instances of humor that generate offense, people strive to read a speaker/writer’s intention as the primary motivation for condemnation or exoneration. Michael Phillips explores this problem in his article ‘Racist Acts and Racist Humor’, highlighting the flaws in arguments that hinge on a particular intention on the part of the speaker for an act (or joke) to be considered racist. Although Phillips reaches similar conclusions via a process of logical reasoning rather than philosophy of language, I agree that ‘it is mistaken to focus on [a speaker’s] beliefs or feelings in our account of why [the speaker’s] act is wrong’ (1984, 78). Language itself undermines any possibility of relying on intention as a stable or determinable criteria.

Derrida argues that as a byproduct of the very structure by which language operates, there is inevitably and inherently a gap between intention and receipt. Our words, all of them—written or spoken—depend upon a system that functions only via these gaps, via the space between. Derrida calls this the system of différance, that in every element of both speech and writing, what is present is the absence of all other elements. His playful terminology (a combination of deferral and difference) encapsulates the play of differences, the spacing between sensible terms (that is not itself sensible). We understand written or spoken signs by the spaces between, because they are not that. House is house because it is not cat; tree is not shrub; Borat is not Cohen (or is he?).

In ‘Signature Event Context’ (hereafter SEC), Derrida explores the function of writing as a means of communication and highlights its inherent risks, building to the conclusion that speech depends on, and exists as a result of, the exact same risks. In so doing, Derrida reverses the traditional metaphysics of presence—the presumption that thought and consciousness come first and language is secondary by-product created in order to convey meaning. In other words, he reverses the notion that absence is the withdrawal of a presence that preceded it—the idea that language refers to a once present thing that is now absent. That approach to language assumes an unmediated presence of meaning to which language refers back, an approach that Derrida rejects. By that train of thought, ‘Kazakhstan’ would be the name generated to refer back to a country that existed prior to its naming. From a Derridian perspective, however, the act of naming ‘Kazakhstan,’ rather than referring back to an entity that previously existed, performatively institutes the country’s presence.

In the traditional model of semiotics, as put forth by Ferdinand de Saussure, the sign consists of a signifier (a word or mark) and a signified (the idea or image conjured up by the mark) that can stand in for a referent that exists independently in the world, though signs do not require a physical referent. Yet, in the traditional metaphysics of presence, the external referent is first; we presume to know a reality that we then want to name, a process of signification that results in the formation of a sign. Saussure recognizes, however, that there is no natural link between the signifier and signified, that this connection is arbitrary—and he points to various languages to illustrate this: dog, chien, perro, etc. There is no intrinsic reason for the connection between either signifier and signified, or between sign and referent, beyond common understanding. This means that there is no universal set of pre-existing signifieds or referents. As such, signs are purely relational, or differential. They order and produce the world into concepts and categories. The referent is not autonomous, but instead obtains its meaning from a system of signs.

Saussure points out that this system is a system of differences without positive terms: we recognize things as different by what they are not. Kazakhstan is not Uzbekistan, is not Kyrgestan. However, signifiers point only to other signifiers (we read a dictionary to find the meaning of words); full presence never arrives; the circle does not close. In order to explain what or where Kazakhstan is, I must use other signifiers: it is the world’s largest landlocked nation, located to the north of Uzbekistan and bordering part of the Caspian Sea.

However, for Derrida, the sign is the condition of possibility that enables presence. As he explains, ‘The sign comes into being at the same time as imagination and memory, the moment it is necessitated by the absence of the object from the present field of perception’ (1988, 6). Here, language does not refer back to or represent something else; rather, language institutes the presence of the referent by providing it with a signifier. Regardless of what might physically exist out in the world, Kazakhstan is a signifier that produces a mental image (a signified) that may or may not intersect with that physicality. In years prior, roughly the same territory has also been the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic (part of the no longer extant USSR—a sign that nevertheless retains meaning), and the nineteenth Century Russian Empire. Borat is able to do what he does and to institute the ‘reality’ of his Kazakhstan because of the nature of the sign, because there need not be a physical referent somewhere in the world.

Again, both signs themselves and the empirical act of writing presuppose an absence. In writing, the system presupposes the absence of the recipient (but also sender). Writing is a system of marks that subsist, that do not exhaust themselves in the moment of inscription, that must be repeatable, citable, iterable to have meaning. And Derrida takes great pains to illustrate how writing and speaking operate as part of the same system and are prey to the exact same risks. As a result, whether written or spoken, signs can be (and are) torn from their initial moments of inscription, leaving an inevitable gap between the intention of the sender and the receipt of her message. No matter how serious a person might intend to be, nothing in language can guarantee with absolute certainty either her seriousness or her intent.

Serious Intentions

Nevertheless, with a wide array of offended audiences, we find a disparate collection of attempts to explain, argue about, or condemn what exactly Borat is doing—and most of these arguments hinge on assumptions about Cohen’s intentions and the ‘real’ target of the joke. Writing for the Journal of Mass Media Ethics, Mark Cenite addresses the ethical and legal concerns raised by the film crew’s purported misrepresentation of intentions to the people they interviewed. He argues that in journalism or documentary filming, ‘including footage obtained without fully informed consent can be justified in two cases: if the depiction is harmless or if public interest—such as addressing an important social issue—outweighs potential harm to participants’ (2009, 23). Ultimately, by weighing the harm caused to the film’s participants against issues of ‘public interest’, Cenite deems the ‘deception’ used to obtain footage in portions of the film ethical because the film ‘targeted xenophobia, provincial attitudes, prejudices, and naiveté of ordinary people about “foreigners.” Simply put, participants who treat a character like Borat as real demonstrate their lack of worldliness’ (39). He likens BCL to a case of undercover reporting, ‘although the subjects of undercover reporting do not know they are being targeted at all, whereas Borat’s participants do not know the circumstances’ (28). As long as the film is intended to highlight social ills and therefore serve the greater good, Cenite finds the means of obtaining footage ethical.

As we have seen, however, the Kazakh government finds Borat deeply insulting, regardless of Cohen’s intentions. Time columnist Joel Stein dismissively argues that the film is not mocking Kazakhstan, but rather the American ‘idiot who believes so much in cultural relativism that [he’ll] nod politely when a guy tells [him] that in his country they keep developmentally disabled people in cages’ (2006). Comparative literature scholar Alexei Lalo would seemingly agree. Lalo is equally dismissive of allegations that the joke is on Kazakhstan, claiming that the film ‘is really much more offensive to the United States itself’ and that ‘U.S. movie-goers missed the thrust of this film… [since] it is largely US-American civilization that is the true object of the joke’ (2009; emphasis added). Both of these authors dismiss Kazakhstan’s claims to offense because the ‘true object of the joke’ is American hegemony and prejudice, or, less kindly, idiocy. Their arguments hinge on the sense that Cohen’s behaviors are ‘only a joke’, and one directed at America rather than Kazakhstan. Certainly, that is what Cohen asserts his intentions were. In an interview shortly after the film’s release, the comedian claimed to be ‘surprised’ by Kazakhstan’s reaction since, as he sees it, ‘the joke is not on Kazakhstan… the joke is on people who can believe that the Kazakhstan that I describe can exist—who believe that there’s a country where homosexuals wear blue hats and the women live in cages and they drink fermented horse urine and the age of consent has been raised to nine years old’ (Akbar 2006).

Ludicrous as Borat’s Kazakhstan may sound in this academic (and implicitly more serious?) context, the fact remains that many people believed him, and Borat’s utterances did things in spite of Cohen’s intentions or the supposed seriousness of the context in which they were uttered. The Kazakh Government sees Borat as degrading their ethnic identity, and as Dickie Wallace points out, ‘Borat’s representation of Kazakhstan has replaced the real Kazakhstan… creat[ing] the only Kazakhstan, the completely bogus hyperreal Kazakhstan that exists in the American imagination’ (2008, 38-39). Though it shares a name with the real Kazakhstan, Borat’s act of naming and describing his Kazakhstan instituted a new reality mapped onto the imaginations of viewers world-wide, a ‘reality’ which persists in media representations of Kazakhstan even eight years after the film’s release.

Our knowledge of Borat’s intentions derived from the film itself (that he is learning about America for the ‘benefit’ of Kazakhstan) both must be and cannot be separated from our knowledge (or lack thereof) of Cohen’s intentions in making the film, for they are both the same person and distinct identities. As Derrida says, ‘A parasite is neither the same as nor different from that which it parasites’ (1988, 96). Through his interactions with real people who accept his identity as foreigner, Borat, in a certain sense, exists in ‘real’ life.

Viewing the film in hindsight, detached from the context of its filming, it may be easy for Joel Stein to find it ‘hard to believe’ that people could be ‘unaware they’re being fooled,’ and he derisively condemns them for their misunderstanding. However, the participants’ credulity illustrates that, as Derrida argues, ‘a mis- in general (“mistake,” “misunderstanding,” “misinterpretation,” “misstatement”…)’ is a structural possibility of language and a by-product of iterability (1988, 37). Derrida points out that ‘no criterion… inherent in the manifest utterance is capable of distinguishing an utterance when it is serious from the same utterance when it is not’ (68). Only intention can determine this, and, though intentions are never absent from a speech act, iterability entails that ‘no intention can ever be fully conscious or actually present to itself’ (Derrida 1988, 73). Iterability negates the possibility of stable, fixed meanings in language. Instead, we are faced with linguistic and societal conventions which are relatively stable but which, as Borat demonstrates, can and should be questioned. That the people in the film mis-read Borat as a sincere or ‘real’ foreigner shows us that there is nothing inherent in human speech or behavior that distinguishes the real from the representation. The film demonstrates that the iterability of both language and behavior ‘renders possible both the “normal” rule or convention and its transgression, transformation, simulation, or imitation’ (Derrida 1988, 98). Whether he is ‘serious’ or ‘unserious’, sincere or insincere, Borat blurs the boundaries between the two.


As genres, the documentary and the mockumentary are set up as opposing terms, one ‘true’ while the other is a ‘fiction’, but both are generally used as tools for critique. The documentary film often works to highlight or uncover social ills and bring them to public attention. The mockumentary, on the other hand, picks a target and unabashedly holds it up for ridicule, and, as Leshu Torchin argues, the genre often critiques ‘the limits of human empathy and imagination’ (2008, 54). Cohen claims to have targeted American ignorance and xenophobia (and only incidentally mocked Kazakhstan). The 1984 cult classic This is Spinal Tap ostensibly mocks the audacious behaviors of popular musicians. The British and then American television shows of The Office adopt the documentary style to satirize the tedium of working an unfulfilling office job. And though he claimed to be making a documentary and interviewed people as himself, Bill Maher’s Religulous targeted an array of organized religions and incited accusations of deception in obtaining interviews, not unlike those leveled at Cohen.

BCL and Religulous illustrate the problem people face when they feel their words have been taken ‘out of context’ and thus call attention to the instability of context itself. In both films, participants believed they were participating in a documentary, that they were going to be taken seriously, not offered up as objects of ridicule. Again, that Cohen and Maher were able to shape ‘serious’ responses into material for feature film comedies is a consequence of iterability: context cannot fully enclose an utterance or mark, and intention may not travel with it. As I have demonstrated in this article, the act inevitably exceeds its intentions, and the target is never cleanly struck. To write BCL off as just a joke is to claim access to some sort of superior knowledge—that confronted with this persona we could or would have known better.

By the time the film was released, people had ample extra-textual clues for a non-documentary reading of the film: the trailer includes a short clip of the 20th Century Fox logo, and the posters include Baron Cohen’s name in large letters across the top, accompanied by the usual film credits in small print around the sides. Audiences, then, were privy to contextual signs that served to re-shape the film as fiction. Yet, Borat’s interviewees were not: rather, they were given official legal release forms, presented with a news contact person, asked to give straightforward interviews. It was only when confronted with a caricature of Slavic identity face-to-face that the people in the film had any opportunity to suspect otherwise. And it is important to note that we bear witness to only 84 minutes of nearly 400 hours of footage—a carefully constructed vision of the ‘reality’ of these interviews.

Borat’s ambiguity, his devilish doing of things with words, illustrates precisely the kind of scandalous joking Shoshana Felman discusses in The Scandal of the Speaking Body. Felman takes up Austin’s speech act theory and applies it to Moliere’s Don Juan in order to deconstruct the metaphysical dichotomy of mind and body. Felman argues that any act is that of a speaking body: language is the vehicle by which the body knows itself, and without body, there is no language. Felman explores the implications of this in terms of the performative act of promising, explaining that, ‘every promise is above all the promise of consciousness, insofar as it postulates a noninterruption, continuity between intention and act’ (1980, 34). However, Felman demonstrates the potential for failure inherent in promising results from the body’s instability, its role as unconscious. She asserts that the scandal consists in the fact that the act (of a speaking body) cannot know what it is doing. It always does more than it means and means more than it does. Problems arise in the Don Juan play (and with uncanny similarity, in the Borat scandal) from opposing views of language—for the ‘antagonists and victims, language is an instrument for transmitting truth, that is, an instrument of knowledge, a means of knowing reality’ (13).

Although the mockumentary may seem more straightforward in its agenda, the scandal of documentary films is that they promise a degree of objectivity that they cannot deliver. Documentaries claim a constative function, to present a picture of ‘the truth’, to elide the impossible division of reality and representation inherent in the medium. Yet, film is just another layer of language, and it cannot be divided from the fallible body that speaks it—the body that intervenes both behind the camera and in the editing room. And if every utterance is an act, so too is every picture. The attempt to distinguish between constative pictures (documentary films and photojournalism) and performative pictures (blockbuster films, artistic photography, and mockumentaries) is confounded by the intrusion of one upon the other. Borat scandalized people because they felt tricked, manipulated, lied to. They were invited to participate in a documentary made by a Kazakh journalist for Kazakh audiences. They did not imagine their performances would be shown to fellow Americans or treated as comedy. And yet, this is the risk inherent in every utterance, and every piece of writing—the necessary possibility that despite our best efforts to control them, our words can be torn from both our intentions and our contexts.

While it is undeniably important to take things seriously, Borat reminds us that seriousness cannot be assured. That perhaps the best offense is a good defense: rather than taking things so very seriously, we might rather choose to celebrate the inherent playfulness and performativity of language. To take pleasure in Borat and BCL is to revel in his playing with language and ‘reality’, to laugh at the absurd impossibility of the serious. The mockumentary genre and Borat’s mock documentary also reminds us to take our documentaries with a grain of salt, as it were, since documentary films are just as heir to the pratfalls of language—created by fallible bodies whose intentions we can never know for certain. To try and bracket a text or an event or an utterance off as entirely serious (or even as entirely non-serious) is to take a step toward closure and finitude, away from openness and possibility.