Changes within a text are accounted for as transformations in the synchronic system, and this meant a tendency to fail to deal with time and social changes, which concerned many of the method's critics from the beginning.
Ferdinand de Saussure offers an explication of the linguistic approach and the meaning of language and contributed to the development of structuralism. He sees the nature of communication as deriving from ongoing processes and also considers the relationship between the human being and language as a social relationship. He offers an analysis of the different planes on which language operates and so points to areas for study and comprehension to be applied to literary criticism as to language studies in general. In emphasizing process, he also emphasizes structure, for he denies that we can begin with units -- with words, say, or phonemes -- and instead sees language as deriving meaning and value from the interplay of elements, from the process of language itself. It is possible in Saussure to see the development of the idea of examining the work as a whole, as a unit unto itself, as a complete entity rather than a collection of smaller parts. Just as Saussure examines a sentence or a paragraph in terms of a process, so the literary critic examines the given work in terms of the process of meaning that is involved in the collection and interplay of its elements (Saussure 160-167). Chandler writes,
Contemporary semioticians study signs not in isolation but as part of semiotic 'sign systems' (such as a medium or genre). They study how meanings are made: as such, being concerned not only with communication but also with the construction and maintenance of reality. (Chandler 4)
Colbert constructs his own reality and uses a number of semiotic signs to achieve it. Many are signs used to signal patriotism, including a number of American flags and a suspiciously vulture-like American eagle that flies right into the camera with its beak wide open, as if devouring the audience. Colbert himself haws the demeanor of a stern schoolmaster much of the time, lecturing his audience in a way that brooks no argument, though he also does so in a way that shows no real malice and that often winks at his own attitude. Jon Stewart on the Daily Show acts as an anchor, imitating the network news to a degree, though he is more folksy and also more varied in his approach than a network anchor would be. The semiotics of the set mirrors that of the network news, however, with a table at which the anchor sits, with rear projections of news footage, and with other correspondents to talk to on the monitor. Stewart creates the aura of a network broadcast precisely to say again and again that this is not a network broadcast at all. He is also often self-reflexive, stating openly that this is fake news and making fun of the correspondents for their feigned seriousness.
Colbert is really imitating a different sort of news show, the ideological talk show format used by real right-wingers like Bill O'Reilly on the Fox Network. His attitude is very much like that of O'Reilly, except that O'Reilly has no trace of self-criticism and no aura of winking at his audience. He is instead deadly serious, and his anger toward guests is used as a club to keep them silent, often to the point of turning off their microphones while he continues his criticism of them. Colbert feigns the same belligerent attitude, but he always knows when to draw back and when to let the audience know that he is not fully serious at all.
He carries his super-patriot act so far that it is clearly over the top, aggrandizing George Bush in a way that his audience clearly does not agree with, and dong so in a way that tells his audience neither does he. He will belligerently ask his guests, "George Bush, a great president or the greatest president," as if that were a sensible and widely different choice. The O'Reilly-like act is recognized as such by his audience and even by O'Reilly, who was a guest on the show last year and thus showed one of the few signs that he also had a sense of humor.
The Colbert act can be appreciated without direct reference to O'Reilly, however, for there are any number of over-the-top right-0wing hosts on radio and television today. Colbert's act works especially well by toying with the signs and symbols of the current Republican administration and doing so for a clearly liberal audience. If the next president is a Democrat, it will be interested to see how his act works in that political environment. Even if that occurs, though, his act remains a strong satire of the right-wing media and of the media in general, a media obsessed with talking heads taking extreme positions and throwing more heat than light. Colbert plays his part each night by celebrating whatever Bush does and by criticizing whatever the Democratic Congress does. His persona is recognized and understood by his audience, but it is not clear that the ironies involved are as evident to politicians, many of whom have been guests on the show and have often regretted it because they become enmeshed in the false cutes Colbert sends out and let themselves be manipulated into making damaging statements. When dealing with politicians, Colbert is really bi=partisan in his satire, for hje can lead both Republicans and Democrats to make themselves appear foolish. One Republican who wanted to extol the virtues of the Ten Commandments, for instance, was given the simple request to name the Ten Commandments, and he could not do it. A Democrat from California, on the other hand, willingly repeated certain phrases that made it appear he celebrated the pornography produced in his district. The nature of the trap was clear enough to the head of the Democratic National Committee to that he warned lawmakers about going on the show at all. Colbert plays the part of the newsman who wants nothing more than to humiliate those in power, and he is so good at it that he manages to do just that.
Colbert also creates his own semiotics in certain repeated actions that mark his show and identify his style for his admirers. When he crosses the stage to sit with a guest, he always does so as if he were a champion waving to the fans after a race, and while the attitude might be seen as echoing the way other interviewers regard themselves, no one else really does that sort of move at all. Colbert brings up the word of the day and speaks at length about the meaning he ascribes to it while someone off-camera puts up sarcastic answers to Colbert to one side of the frame, another way that Colbert plays both sides at once, offering a right-wing vision of the world in his speech while the off-camera entity takes a sarcastic view of Colbert's view. The audience immediately recognizes that the two sides of the screen are at war on one level but are creating a more meaningful dialogue on another level, one that both expresses the patriotic fervor of the Colbert persona while also expressing the view more likely held by the real Colbert. The text of the show thus manages the difficult task of balancing two opposites in a way that the audience recognizes even as each member of the audience participates by his or her act of recognition. The sign is taken in two ways, and that is precisely what is intended by Colbert and his writers.
Agar, Michael. Language Shock. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1994.
Chandler, David. Semiotics for Beginners. 2005. August 1, 2007. http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/S4B/semiotic.html.
The Colbert Report." Imponderables (2005).
August 1, 2007. http://www.imponderables.com/archives/000321.php.