Eminem (and Borat) as Socratic gadflys?

I was reading a recent Time article about Eminen’s new album at my parent’s house this past weekend when I came across this description of the cultural instigator:

But one development wreaked more havoc on Eminem’s hateability than all the rest: amazingly, someone coarsened the culture without him. As Borat, Sacha Baron Cohen advanced the art of provocation, broadening it from Eminem’s preferred taboos of sex and class to the mocking of all Americans (by a foreigner, no less) for being naive enough to believe their own mythology. Baron Cohen was darker, funnier and way more misanthropic than Eminem — which is how it goes with cultural instigators. They poke, we react; they poke again, we react a little less, until eventually someone with a sharper stick and a bushier mustache comes along. America’s Most Outrageous is just not a title you keep for long or get to hold twice.

Consider the various elements of a cultural instigator (as outlined by article author Josh Tyrangiel). People hate them and they demonstrate a hatred for people. They provoke by messing with cultural taboos. They mock and challenge treasured values through their cultivation and practice of the art of provocation. They are funny, but their humor is dark. They must constantly come up with newer and better and more shocking ways to antagonize and anger. They are outrageous but never for long. Some other instigator always comes along with a better (sharper, more pointed, more provocative) way to be outrageous and to capture the country’s (world’s?) ire.

According to Tyrangiel’s description, one implicit goal of a cultural instigator is to be the most outrageous. To be the center of attention. To have people talking about you. To have a certain buzz surrounding your name and your exploits. And, above all else, to sell the most products (whether they be cds, concert tickets, dvds, books, magazines). All of these goals are focused on the instigator and their role as entertainer/celebrity. But, is this the only (and even main) goal of the instigator? Are they really only interested in being hated and stirring up controversy to sell their products? Are there other ways to interpret what the cultural instigator is doing and why they might be doing it?

Can we read this image as something other than an a**hole delinquent trying to piss us off and take our money?


What if we thought about Eminem (and Borat and others like them who push our buttons and raise questions that get us talking about topics that we are usually too afraid to talk about or we assume to be beyond question) as Socratic gadflies? Is that too much of a stretch? How about this: what if we thought about cultural instigators as engaging in practices that are similar to the Socratic gadlfy? How would that enable us to think about those instigators and the creative and critical work that they do as something more than a clever (and mean-spirited) game that they play (and that is meant to play us)?

Consider Socrates’ defense at his trial. In a plea for his life, he attempts to make a case for his necessary and important role within the community by claiming the role of the gadfly:

I am the gadfly of the Athenian people, given to them by God, and they will never have another, if they kill me. For if you kill me you will not easily find a successor to me, who, if I may use such a ludicrous figure of speech, am a sort of gadfly, given to the state by God; and the state is a great and noble stead who is tardy in his motions owing to his very size, and requires to be stirred into life. I am that gadfly which God has attached to the state, and all day long and in all places am always fastening upon you, arousing and persuading and reproaching you. You will not easily find another like me, and therefore I would advise you to spare me.

Is this what Eminem or Borat are doing? Does Socrates live up to his own lofty goals? These questions should be addressed and the troublemaking-as-gadfly actions of these cultural instigators should be evaluated. Maybe I can take that up in another blog. Right now, I am interested in leaving the question open so as to think about cultural instigators as troublemakers in ways that are counter to the popular stereotypes of them as a**holes with sticks who poke us for profit and pleasure.

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