From the Face-to-Face to the Interface: A Moment in Jean Baudrillard’s “America”

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In our socially networked world, we are over saturated with information and images. We are bombarded and, in the midst of this, we seem to cobble together something of our own virtual bubble with icon-slash-friends who we share images, information, and identifications on a daily basis.   But, before this all become normal; it was called hyperreal. To be sure, Jean Baudrillard is most well known for his notion of the “hyperreal” which was popularized by his book, Simulations. In that book, published in 1983, he writes:

Abstraction today is no longer that of a map, the double, the mirror or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of territory, a referential being or a substance. It is the generation of models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor survives it. Henceforth, it is the map that precedes the territory – PRECESSION OF SIMULCURA – it is the map that engenders the territory….The desert of the real itself. (2)

As a part of his explanation of what this means, in “reality,” Baudrillard describes Disneyland, the American hallmark, as the prime example of the hyperreal. It is an “infantilized” world:

Disneyland is a perfect model of all the entangled orders of simulation. To begin with it is a play of illusions and phantasms: Pirates, the Frontier, Future World, etc. This imaginary world is supposed to be what makes the operation successful. But what draws the crowds is undoubtedly much more the social microcosm, the miniaturized and religious reveling in real America, in its delights and drawbacks. (24)

Five years later, Baudrillard returns to his meditation on American as the center of the simulated world. He writes a book called America. In this book, Baudrillard goes deeper into the “desert of the real” than ever so as to provide his readers with a kind of journalistic account of his dissolution into a sea of relations. Everything, it seems, is caught up in virtual relations that are repeated in different series. Relations are altered and recycled.  Our lives are animated by them:

Sex, beach, and mountains. Sex and beach, beach and mountains. Mountains and sex. A few concepts. Sex and concepts. “Just a life.” Everything is destined to reappear as simulation. Landscapes as photography, women as the sexual scenario, thoughts as writing, terrorism as fashion and the media, events as television. Things seem to exist by virtue of this strange destiny.   You wonder whether the world itself isn’t just here to serve as advertising copy in some other world. (32)

Baudrillard dives into the experience of relation to argue that all relation, today, is nothing more than what he calls an “interface” or “interaction” which has “replaced face-to-face contact and action”:

This is a culture which sets up specialized institutes so that people’s bodies can come together and touch, and, at the same time, invents pans in which the water does not touch the bottom of the pan, which is made of a substance so homogenous, dry, and artificial that not a single drop sticks to it, just like those bodies intertwined in ‘feeling’ and therapeutic love, which do not touch – not even a moment. This is called interface or interaction. It has replaced face-to-face contact and action. (32)

Touching the other, in his view, is “interfacing with the other.” There is a kind of “communication” in which there isn’t any real “communication.” He calls this a “code of separation.” By way of this code, all everything has become information that “wormed its way into everything, like a phobic maniacal leitmotiv.”

One wonders how this anticipates facebook and twitter: mediums that “interface” different people who exchange information but never really touch.   And it does seem as if there is a code of separation which rules over all of our relations. Baudrillard laments this and mourns the death of the “face-to-face” contact and action.

The problem with this, of course, is that it suggests that all bodily relations are “interfaced.” This suggests that Levinas is wrong and that we cannot be “persecuted” or “traumatized” by the other. In this hyperreal world, we can interface with the other and keep our distance; we need not be obligated by them. The only thing that affects us is the information that passes through us and keeps us and all things separate.

The only reason we are concerned about our bodies is because “everyone is made to concentrate” on the body, “not as a source of pleasure,” but “as an object of frantic concern, in the obsessive fear of failure or substandard performance, a sing and an anticipation of death, that death which not one can any longer give a meaning, but which everyone knows has at all times to be prevented”(35).

Our main concern, therefore, is to preserve our bodies from death and to make them properly interface with other bodies. We are “into” things because we are a part of this or that circuit within which we function.   We are constantly maintaining a circuit. Do we fit in or are we “the odd one’s out?”

The comedy, it seems, for Baudrillard is not to be found save for the fact that we are caught up in too many surfaces and interfaces. We live for the ecstasy of the network. But we fear, too often, that we have missed our cue. As Paul Celan says in one poem, we are adrift in a sea of relations.   And these relations often blur into each other making our relations more confusing.

For Baudrillard this can only go in one direction: toward a kind of Apocolypse of all history and all meaning. This is the fatalist reading. And it all starts in Disneyland where we all become infantile and, for Baudrillard, where we lose all sense of an adulthood that once was. In his world, the Levinasian face-to-face is a thing of the past. In the hyperreal, we all become children who know only interfaces and not faces.

The Flash of Comic Illumination: Franz Rosenzweig, Martin Buber, and the Witz

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One of the most interesting confluences between German Romantic conceptions of humor and a certain thread of Jewish-German Philosophy is the obsession with time, immediacy, and illumination. The two seem like odd bedfellows since, after all, religion is a serious affair and humor, as a matter of course, is not.   The witz, like revelation, is a surprise. And, like a comedic audience, the religious community must be ready for the lightning delivery. Illumination is the punch line.

In an essay on the German Romantics obsession with the Witz (the joke), Jean-Luc Nancy points out, for them, the speed of the joke and its immediacy are central to its affect. According to Nancy, they shared this interest with Shakespeare:

Since Shakespeare’s famous “maxim” in Hamlet (constantly repeated by Freud), “brevity is the soul of wit,” the only “genre” or the only “form” always recognized as the property of Witz, as peculiar to all Witz, is succinctness, the swiftness of the utterance that carries the point.   The Romantics were to express it by means of the much reiterated German Witz: Witz ist ein Blitz; wit is a flash of lighting. Flash, lightning, explosion are the forms of the cogito’s double insofar as it is instantaneous. (263, The Birth of Presence)

Franz Rosenzweig, in The Star of Redemption, often talks about Revelation in terms of immediacy and suddenness. God’s command to Love Him is an act of urgency and immediacy and it gives birth to the soul. It is born out of its immediate response to its Creator which calls on man to respond to His call.

In an essay entitled, “Renaissance of Jewish Learning and Living,” Rosenzweig relates this sense of immediacy to readiness and confidence vis-à-vis any possible religious experience. To be Jewish, according to Rozenzweig, is to be ready or, as he says, “confident”:

There is one recipe alone that can make a person Jewish and hence – because he is a Jew and destined to a Jewish life – a full human being: that recipe is to have no recipe…Our fathers had a beautiful word for it that says everything: confidence.

Confidence is the word for the state of readiness that does not ask for recipes, and does not mouth perpetually, “What shall I do then?” and “How can I do that?” Confidence is not afraid of the day after tomorrow. It lives in the present, it crosses recklessly the threshold leading from today to tomorrow. Confidence knows only that which is nearest and therefore it possesses the whole…Thus the Jewish individual needs nothing but readiness. Those who would help him can give him empty forms of preparedness, which he himself and only he may fill. (223)

Martin Buber, in several of his essays on the Torah, echoes this imperative to be ready. He calls it the “demand of the hour.” And one must be ready to hear it and respond to it. In an essay entitled “Prophesy, Apocalyptic, Historical Hour,” he writes:

What is possible in a certain hour and what is impossible cannot be adequately ascertained by any foreknowledge. It goes without saying that, in the one sphere as in the other, one must start at any given time from the nature of the situation insofar as it is recognizable. But one does not learn the measure and limit of what is attainable in a desired direction otherwise than through going in this direction. (186)

Buber adds that “room must be left for such surprises….planning as though they were impossible renders them impossible. One cannot strive for immediacy, but one can hold oneself free and open for it.”

In other words, a Jew must always be ready for surprises. One must be prepared.

In an essay entitled “The Man of Today and the Jewish Bible,” he delves deeply into the meaning of “the hour” with an audience that is not familiar with the relationship of Revelation, Creation, and Redemption to the Torah. To give them an idea, he takes them through a guided meditation of sorts:

The lived moment leads directly to the knowledge of revelation, and thinking about birth leads indirectly to the knowledge of creation. But in his personal life probably not one of us will taste the essence of redemption before his last hour. And yet here, too, there is an approach. It is dark and silent and cannot be indicated by any means, save by my asking you to recall your own dark and silent hours. I mean those hours in the lowest depths when our soul hovers over the frail trap door which, at the very next instant, may send us down into destruction, madness, and suicide at our own verdict. Indeed, we are astonished that it has not opened up until now. But suddenly we feel a touch as of a hand, to let us draw up out of the darkness. This is redemption.

Buber and Rosenzweig’s obsession with immediateness and being ready suggests that we be ready for a surprising Blitz-of-illumination. And in a sense the comedian, like a prophet of sorts, must also be ready to not just deliver a joke at lightening speed but for an explosion of humor. As Nancy suggests in his reading of the German Romantic concept of the Witz, there is a kind of immediacy that humor shares with mysticism. In the wake of reading Nancy, when I read these lines from Buber and Rosenzweig, I could not help but think that they want everyone to be ready for the Witz.

But there is a difference.

For them the Witz is a spiritual Blitz, not a secular one, as it is for the comedian. Perhaps comedy, for the German Romatnics, offered what Benjamin would call a profane illumination….in the Blitz of the Witz? To be sure, Benjamin, following Charles Baudeliare, would call that the “experience of shock.” Moreover, Benjamin, at the end of an essay on Surrealism spells out the relation of Revelation to time when he argues that experience today, if it is to be revolutionary, must be a like a clock whose alarm goes off every second.

The only problem with this, however, is that it leaves no time for the delivery of the joke. It may be fast but it takes time to reach the audience. Immediacy needs mediacy. The Blitz needs the Witz. And whether it’s the Jewish-German Philosophical approach to Revelation or the German Romantic approach to comedy it seems that both believe the audience needs to be ready for surprises. And, as Rosenzweig and Buber seem to have believed, that’s the crux of being Jewish.

The “Zero Point” of “Madness” and “Monstrosity” or The American Philosophical Ramblings from the 1990s – APR90s

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There’s nothing like a simple sentence and a simple message.

And then again, some people love to be obtuse. When we let them, some people just don’t know when to stop. People like to yap; especially academics.

Once in a while, I dare myself to open up a book from the 1990s by this or that thinker who wanted to write like Jacques Derrida. I knew a few of them. They wanted to write and speak like him but, since they were American, they wanted to be daring and mimic him with an American accent. What would sometimes happen, however, was a language that went on and on without style – in short, American Philosophical Ramblings from the 1990s – APR90s.

Don’t get me wrong. The content is interesting and worthy of discussion, but the rhetoric destroys it all. And, the blindness of the writer to the train-wreck makes it…comical

Here’s one. To protect the innocent, I won’t say who the professor was:

I am not happy that mythmaking serves the machinations of power and money; but I know that myths challenge each other for domination and that we suffer in the present not because we tell stories about the world but because one story – the story that says capitalism and the market are the answers to all problems that matter – has enervating our storymaking and mythmaking talents.   It has, in fact, done what all myths are designed but seldom do: Convince us that it is not an intellectual totem but a testament to the essential truth and reality of things, and that what opposes this reality and truth is always the work of spin doctors and Hollywood producers hired to make us believe in “make believe.”

Here’s another sample from another author. He writes on madness, not in a mad way, but in a note-taking kind of way. He write-jots. And, after a while, this rambles. (Don’t get me wrong though, I love madness just like anyone else, but what happens when madness is communicated by way of the write-jot?

The relation of madness to reason seems one of oppositions, at least in Descartes; against the plain truth of facts, “they” persist in their follow; madness against reason. We equate madness with unreason even as reason evinces its own madness. This madness, belonging to reason, seems worlds apart from madness “itself,” though Foucault speaks of such a madness, of a madness “before” reason’s regulation: “We must try to return, in history, to that zero point in the course of madness in which madness is an undifferentiated experience, a not yet divided experience of division itself”(Madness and Civilization, p. ix). How, Derrida asks, may we confront this “zero point” of madness, madness itself? How can we think this zero as a confrontation with madness, with its monstrosity, represent our greatest achievement, however, impossibly.

Do we, in reading this write-jot, experience the “zero-point” of “madness” and “monstrosity”?

I can’t read this without smirking. It’s as if he’s saying: this is madness, this is, monstrosity, it “represents our greatest achievement.” But, as he asks, how can we think of this as “our greatest achievement?” That’s the irony. It’s ridiculous to believe that this rambling, this monstrosity, which can’t, ultimately be named, but jot-sketched, is our “greatest achievement.”

And perhaps this is the “doubleness” that Paul deMan saw at the heart of irony: the “irony of ironies” which effaces intersubjectivity and subjectivity and leaves you with “nothing” and a “consciousness of madness.”

And, as deMan well-knew, this consiousness is the conscisousness of one’s blindness to what one says. But the true point of doubleness and the irony is to the following distinction: To say and not hear what one is saying is to be comical. But to know and hear that it is a meaningless rambling is….tragic. For deMan, it is “the consciousness of madness.” It is, literally, for him, the “zero point.”

I’m not so sure these APR90s knew this. But, I may be wrong. Maybe they knew that they were rambling off monstrosity which, of course, cannot be thought. But can it be said?

The only way to know is to ramble on, and as you ramble, who knows, maybe you can experience the “Zero point” of “madness” and “monstrocity.” Now: is that funny or what?

Nu…It’s Quiz Time! Which Yiddish Word Describes Your Personality? Schlemiel?

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When it comes to quizzes on facebook, I often pass them by. But I’ll have to admit that I came across a recent facebook quiz that drew my attention. While I’m not interested in what philosopher, artist, or actor I most resemble, I am interested in a kind of quiz that would let me know whether or not I’m a schlemiel. In fact, I’ve always been interested in whether I or any of my friends would be dubbed a schlemiel. I’m not alone, however, in my interest. To be sure, when I tell people that I write on the schlemiel, they often do three things: 1) they ask for a definition of the schlemiel; 2) they ask me if I’m a schlemiel; and then they ask me if 3) they are schlemiels.   In a sense, I am the one who is often asked to give a quiz on the schlemiel the minute I’m asked about what I do.

For this reason, I was happy to see this quiz which has the tagline: “Which Yiddish Word Describes Your Personality?” It’s not exactly a schlemiel quiz, but it prompted me to wonder whether or not the quiz would tell me that my Yiddish word is “schlemiel.”

When I took the quiz, I could see that there may be a pattern of answers that would lead it to dub a person a schlemiel. I saw questions that asked what kind of film I liked most, so I chose “Annie Hall.” When it gave me several options as to what Jewish comic character I identified most with (and most of the characters are from Seinfeld) I chose George, the prototypical schlemiel of the show. Moreover, I chose things that I thought a schlemiel would choose.

But in the end, to my chagrin, I learned that the word that best fit me was…mensch.

However, is it really so bad to be a mentsch? I wondered what I had done wrong, after all, I am a schlemiel theorist. What went wrong?

Before I could formulate an answer, one of my facebook friends wrote something that I found to be very insightful about me and my desire to be identified as a schlemiel:

“What kind of schlemiel wants to be a recognized as a schlemiel? A mentsch.”

The way I read this witty observation is that it says a lot for humility. In fact, that makes sense when we are talking about schlemiels in the Yiddish tradition. Most of them don’t think of themselves as schlemiels and many of them, because they are so sincere and caring, are like mentsches.

Daniel Boyarin, in his book Unheroic Conduct: The Invention of the Jewish Male, suggests that a mentsch is simply an effeminate male who cares for and often takes care of others before he or she takes care of him or herself. This sounds a lot like I.B. Singer’s proto-schlemiel, Gimpel. He trusts people and wants to help them. But he is betrayed. Perhaps the only difference between Boyarin’s ideal mentsch and Singer’s schlemiel is that Singer knew full well – in the wake of the Holocaust – that in a world filled with evil and deception, maybe the mentsch is the real schlemiel.   And the irony is that we need to change, not the schlemiel.

That said, this schlemiel-want-to-be-who-may-really-be-a-mentsch would love to find out if anyone who has read this post and taken this test has been dubbed a “schlemiel.” If so, let schlemiel theory know.

We’d like to find out, by way of trial and error, what magic combination of choices will yield a schlemiel. Please let me know! Have fun!

Here’s the link: http://www.playbuzz.com/benjaminbirely10/which-yiddish-word-describes-your-personality

The End of Adulthood or the Dawn of the American-Schlemiel? A.O. Scott’s Kvetch About America’s “Devolution”

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America is changing. We are or rather we have gradually become more and more fixated on the man-child or what in Yiddish is called the schlemiel. While academics have seen this coming, journalists and cultural critics are catching up.   In Eros and the Jews (1997), David Biale argued that Jewish-American comedians “neutralized” the negative connotations associated with the man-child slash effeminate male and, over time, it became identified with the American everyman. Most scholars agree that Woody Allen set this trend into the main stream with films like Annie Hall (1976). Sidrah Ezahi, in Booking Passage: Exile and Homecoming in the Jewish Imagination (2000), followed suit and argued that the schlemiel has become an “American icon.” Jon Stratton’s Coming Out Jewish (2000), drawing on Biale, makes a similar claim.   And Daniel Itzkovitz, in his 2006 essay “They Are All Jews,” argues that while Jewishness and assimilation are on the rise and Judaism is in the decline, American audiences have become “Jewish.” And by this he means that they have become enamored with the man-child or what he calls the “new schlemiel.”

Just yesterday, I was astonished to see two articles – one from The New Yorker and one from The New York Times – that focus in on the man-child as the norm. And both of them ask when this happened.  In response to The New Yorker article, which is entitled “The Awkward Age,” yesterday, I wrote a blog/essay.  And today I’d like to write on the New York Times article which is entitled “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture, which is written by the celebrated film critic A.O. Scott.

What both of these articles share is in interest in when things started to change.  They both ask: when did America start becoming “awkward” or “childlish”? The author of The New Yorker essay argues, against Adam Kotsko – who wrote an intelligent book called Awkwardness - that the beginning of the “age of awkwardness” was not the 60s –when traditional values were radically put into question – but after 9/11.   But, as I pointed out in my blog piece, the author of the essay needs to understand Kotsko’s philosophical and sociological approach to awkwardness before she can understand his periodization. Regardless, it’s interesting how, if we look at the dates of the above-mentioned scholarly works, the merger of the schlemiel with American culture are all dated before 9/11.

In his search for when things started changing in America, A.O. Scott, in his article “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture,” also goes back before 9/11 . Reflecting on Madmen, Breaking Bad and The Sopranos, Scott demurs that, with their deaths at the end of their respective shows, “Tony, Walter and Don are the last of the patriarchs.”

But their death, says Scott, is the result of a longer death that was going on since the 1960s: the “slow unwinding” of patriarchy:

In suggesting that patriarchy is dead, I am not claiming that sexism is finished, that men are obsolete or that the triumph of feminism is at hand. I may be a middle-aged white man, but I’m not an idiot. In the world of politics, work and family, misogyny is a stubborn fact of life. But in the universe of thoughts and words, there is more conviction and intelligence in the critique of male privilege than in its defense, which tends to be panicky and halfhearted when it is not obtuse and obnoxious. The supremacy of men can no longer be taken as a reflection of natural order or settled custom.

Even though the rise of feminism “has been understood as a narrative of progress,” Scott tells us that there “may be other less unequivocally happy consequences. It seems that, in doing away with patriarchal authority, we have also, perhaps unwittingly, killed off all the grownups.”

Scott’s thesis, to be sure, resonates much with what Adam Kotsko says in his book. Men no longer have the same “norms” to live up to and this is what creates what Kotsko calls “awkwardness” and what Scott calls the “end of adulthood.”  And it is not a mistake that all of the examples Kotsko brings for awkwardness are the same candidates Scott has in mind when he speaks of the “end of adulthood.”

However, Kotsko gives this “end” a different, more positive valence.

To point out what has happened as a result of the end of patriarchy and the end of adulthood, Scott notes that “nearly a third” of the books for “Young Adult readers” are read by men and women between the ages of 30 and 44.

And he’s not happy about this:

Full disclosure: The shoe fits. I will admit to feeling a twinge of disapproval when I see one of my peers clutching a volume of “Harry Potter” or “The Hunger Games.” I’m not necessarily proud of this reaction. As cultural critique, it belongs in the same category as the sneer I can’t quite suppress when I see guys my age (pushing 50) riding skateboards or wearing shorts and flip-flops, or the reflexive arching of my eyebrows when I notice that a woman at the office has plastic butterfly barrettes in her hair.

Scott doesn’t stop ranting. He goes on to call this “absurd” and “impotent.” And he takes Hollywood as the purveyor of this culture and his target:

God, listen to me! Or don’t. My point is not so much to defend such responses as to acknowledge how absurd, how impotent, how out of touch they will inevitably sound. In my main line of work as a film critic, I have watched over the past 15 years as the studios committed their vast financial and imaginative resources to the cultivation of franchises (some of them based on those same Y.A. novels) that advance an essentially juvenile vision of the world. Comic-book movies, family-friendly animated adventures, tales of adolescent heroism and comedies of arrested development do not only make up the commercial center of 21st-century Hollywood. They are its artistic heart.

The last gasps of manhood, according to Scott, can be seen in TV series like The Sopranos and Mad Men, which herald the “end of male authority.” And now “adulthood as we have known it has become conceptually untenable.” And this, for Scott, brings up the central question:

Should we mourn the departed or dance on its grave?

Before Scott answers the question, he points out how America was, historically, born out of a rebellion against authority: “From the start, American culture was notably resistant to the claims of paternal authority and the imperatives of adulthood.” To illustrate, he cites Leslie Fiedler who argues that “the great works of American fiction are notoriously home in the children’s section of the library.” Rip Van Winkle and Huckelberry Fin are our classics.   And as Fiedler argues, the heroes of many novels want to run away from civilization. They aren’t interested, primarily, in “marriage and responsibility.” They are “boyish.”

What sticks out most, according to Scott citing Fiedler, is the American fictional character’s “innocence and instinctual decency” which are “juxtaposed with the corruption and hypocrisy of the adult world.” And, here we should note, the schlemiel has much in common with these kinds of motifs. Like the American fictional character, Sholem Aleichem and Mendel Mocher Sforim’s characters also have an “innocence and instinctual decency” which is “juxtaposed with the corruption and hypocrisy of the world.” For this reason, when I.B. Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool” was translated by Saul Bellow and first published in The Partisan Review, in the early 1950s, was a hit. And Singer went on to be a celebrated Jewish-American writer and a Nobel Prize winner. The reason: Gimpel is nearly identical with the American fictional character, as described by Fiedler.

Although there is a history of this in American culture, Scott, like Fiedler, considers it “sophomoric.”

Fiedler saw American literature as sophomoric. He lamented the absence of books that tackled marriage and courtship — for him the great grown-up themes of the novel in its mature, canonical form. Instead, notwithstanding a few outliers like Henry James and Edith Wharton, we have a literature of boys’ adventures and female sentimentality. Or, to put it another way, all American fiction is young-adult fiction

Scott argues that this American fictional figure is translated into novels in the 60s and 70s about “wild, uncivilized boys” who rebel against authority and express “youthful rebellion.” Scott takes this thread and argues that it is but a “quick ride” to Hollywood which, eventually, ends up in Apatow’s films that celebrate perpetual adolescence.

However, at this point, Scott makes an interesting move and argues that with Apatow’s films and actors -who play man-children like Adam Sandler – we have a “devolution.”

We devolve from Lenny Bruce to Adam Sandler, from “Catch-22” to “The Hangover,” from “Goodbye, Columbus” to “The Forty-Year-Old Virgin.”

At this point, Scott finally lays down his cards are suggests a choice between good rebellion or giving up on rebellion. Lenny Bruce, for him, is a rebel, an anti-Hero, while Sandler is a caricature and Apatow’s characters…don’t rebel; they just hang out:

But the antics of the comic man-boys were not merely repetitive; in their couch-bound humor we can detect the glimmers of something new, something that helped speed adulthood to its terminal crisis. Unlike the antiheroes of eras past, whose rebellion still accepted the fact of adulthood as its premise, the man-boys simply refused to grow up, and did so proudly. Their importation of adolescent and preadolescent attitudes into the fields of adult endeavor (see “Billy Madison,” “Knocked Up,” “Step Brothers,” “Dodgeball”) delivered a bracing jolt of subversion, at least on first viewing. Why should they listen to uptight bosses, stuck-up rich guys and other readily available symbols of settled male authority?

Scott, understandably, can’t stand the “bro comedy” that we find in Apatow’s films, most of which cast Seth Rogen as the ultimate bro:

The bro comedy has been, at its worst, a cesspool of nervous homophobia and lazy racial stereotyping. Its postures of revolt tend to exemplify the reactionary habit of pretending that those with the most social power are really beleaguered and oppressed. But their refusal of maturity also invites some critical reflection about just what adulthood is supposed to mean. In the old, classic comedies of the studio era — the screwbally roller coasters of marriage and remarriage, with their dizzying verbiage and sly innuendo — adulthood was a fact. It was inconvertible and burdensome but also full of opportunity. You could drink, smoke, flirt and spend money. The trick was to balance the fulfillment of your wants with the carrying out of your duties.

Scott, it seems, is fed up with these “coming of age” stories that fall flat. He wants men who are counter-cultural rebels (like Lenny Bruce) and a new approach to adulthood. And, at the end of the article, he’s not sure what to say. It rings of cynicism. It seems it may be too late; we, Americans, may be stuck in perpetual childhood:

I do feel the loss of something here, but bemoaning the general immaturity of contemporary culture would be as obtuse as declaring it the coolest thing ever. A crisis of authority is not for the faint of heart. It can be scary and weird and ambiguous. But it can be a lot of fun, too. The best and most authentic cultural products of our time manage to be all of those things. They imagine a world where no one is in charge and no one necessarily knows what’s going on, where identities are in perpetual flux. Mothers and fathers act like teenagers; little children are wise beyond their years. Girls light out for the territory and boys cloister themselves in secret gardens. We have more stories, pictures and arguments than we know what to do with, and each one of them presses on our attention with a claim of uniqueness, a demand to be recognized as special. The world is our playground, without a dad or a mom in sight.

I’m all for it. Now get off my lawn.

By ending on this note, we can see that Scott is not happy with what Itzkovitz would call the “new schelmiel.” And while he understands that the “boyish” man-child is a central American literary tradition, he doesn’t know what to do with this history. His appeals to Lenny Bruce echo the reading of Lenny Bruce made by David Biale in his book Eros and the Jews.   But, as Biale notes, these two figures – the schlemiel and the rebel – are what we are left with. Nearly 20 years after Biale notes this, it seems that Scott sees the battle as over. After all, as Scott says, “Adulthood is dead” and now “the world is our playground.” His last notes are comic, but bittersweet.  And they give us the answer to the question he posed above: he is going to mourn the death of adulthood while we, it seems, will dance on the grave.

But as I look to show, in my forthcoming posts on Adam Kotsko’s Awkwardness and my reflections on the schlemiel, one can read this turn to perpetual adolescence in a different manner.

On Awkwardness – Part I

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Last year I read Adam Kotsko’s Awkwardness: An Essay.   I put it on the backburner as something I would write about in the near future because, quite frankly, Schlemiel Theory has been busy with several different philosophers, books, and comedians over the last year. That said, when a friend of mine tagged me in a post on facebook today – about an article written in The New Yorker entitled “The Awkward Age” – I felt I had to, at the very least, read the article and comment on Adam Kotsko’s book, which is referred to in the beginning of the article. While the article is not that interesting, Kotsko’s philosophical, sociological, and historical approach to the phenomena of awkwardness is. His “essay” suggests a few possibilities for schlemiel theory that may or may not be of interest because they tap into philosophical and historical approaches to one of the most notable features of comedy today: awkwardness.

At the outset, the article from The New Yorker cites and makes the following comments on Kotsko’s book:

As the Eskimos were said to have seven words for snow, today’s Americans have a near-infinite vocabulary for gradations of awkwardness—there are some six hundred entries in Urban Dictionary. We have Awktoberfest (awkwardness that seems to last a whole month), Awk and Pshaw (a reference to “shock and awe”), and, perhaps inevitably, Awkschwitz (awkwardness worthy of comparison to the Holocaust). We have a hand signal for awkwardness, and we frame many thoughts and observations with “that awkward moment when…” When did awkwardness become so important to us? And why?

In “Awkwardness: An Essay” (2010), the critic Adam Kotsko dates our age of awkwardness—embodied by “the apparently ontological awkwardness of George W. Bush” and manifested in television shows like “The Office,” “Arrested Development,” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm”—to the early aughts, with a postwar prehistory. (In short, Kotsko writes, the fifties purveyed capitalism into an ideology of “traditional Christian values”; in the sixties, these values were destabilized by the counterculture movement; the ideological vacuum of the seventies led to the paranoia and nihilism, reflected in the metaphysical being of Woody Allen; in the eighties, pure capitalism became its own value system, sustained by opposition to the Soviet Union; and in the nineties nihilism returned, minus the Cold War paranoia, inaugurating the age of irony.

What caused the shift from irony to awkwardness? Interestingly, Kotsko refuses to blame September 11th, connecting the end of irony less with “a culture-wide turn towards earnestness and patriotism” than with irony having “simply exhausted itself.” My feeling, however, is that we can peg the end of irony to September 11th precisely because of the failure of “earnestness and patriotism” that Kotsko describes. We finally had an “evil opponent” again. Terrorists, like Communists, hated “our way of life.” If we neglected our Christmas shopping, Bush said, the terrorists would win. But, this time, the rhetoric didn’t stick. The U.S.S.R. had been a nuclear superpower, with geopolitical aims comparable, if opposed, to those of the U.S. Al Qaeda was nationless, nihilistic, and armed with box cutters. You couldn’t lump it together with North Korea and call it the Axis of Evil—that didn’t make sense.

The problem with this hasty overview and application of his book is that it doesn’t explain the basis of Kotsko’s reading of awkwardness vis-à-vis philosophy and suggests that Kotsko’s book simply historicizes awkwardness. This is incorrect and misleading.

Yes, the “age” we are living in may be awkward, as the author suggests, but she doesn’t understand why and neither does the reader.   To understand how he historicizes awkwardness, we need to first understand the philosophical basis for his project.

Kotsko turns to Martin Heidegger and then Jean-Luc Nancy to explain the philosophical basis of awkwardness.   Regarding Heidegger, Kotsko notes how the “most fundamental mood” that Heidegger “examines in the context of Being and Time is anxiety”(12).   Through this mood, Dasein (being-there, man) has a “special window onto a question that he pairs with that of the meaning of being: namely, the questions of time”(12). When a person “dwells” in a “mood of anxiety” he or she experiences “time” as an “existential urgency”(12).

Besides being interested in anxiety and its relation to time, Kotsko is also interested in Heidegger’s treatment of another mood; namely “boredom”: “Whereas anxiety provides special insight into the question of time, boredom bears specifically on the question of how humanity is related to animal life”(12).   Drawing on Heidegger, Kotsko notes how boredom – like anxiety – brings out what is “truly distinctive about humanity” since it enables us to be “detached” from “an amazing array of stimuli” (or what Heidegger would call the world). This detachment is what Heidegger would call transcendence.

From here, he notes how, for Heidegger sees anxiety as a more “fundamental mood” than boredom because the mood of boredom is still too connected to the world.   While boredom is a “breakdown in our normal relationship to the world…anxiety points toward the ultimate breakdown of death”(14).

Although Kotsko finds the moods of anxiety and boredom to be interesting in terms of understanding our relationship to time and the world (as well as its breakdown), what he wants to find, most of all, is a mood that will tap into what interests Jean-Luc Nancy most: the meaning of relationship as such.   To this end, he asks the question: what mood can this be. And his answer is awkwardness:

Awkwardness clearly fits the general patter of insight through breakdown, but unlike anxiety or boredom, it doesn’t isolate the person who feels awkward – as I have already discusses, it does just the opposite: it spreads. (15)

In other words, Kotsko is interested in how awkwardness is a contagious kind of mood. Other people, in relation, can catch it (as it “spreads”) can become awkward.

Kotsko adds that “awkwardness is a breakdown in our normal experience of social interaction while itself remaining irreducibly social”(15). By doing this, he opens the door to a sociological and historical reading of awkwardness which is really about being unable to act “properly” in an (ab)normal situation that one is caught in. He brings in the sociological register of “norms” to explain:

Awkwardness shows us that humans are fundamentally social, but that they have no built-in norms: the norms that we develop help us to “get by,” with some proving more helpful than others. We might say, then, that awkwardness prompts us to set up social norms in the first place – and what prompts us to transform them. (16)

With a definition like this, how can one say that our post 9/11 age is the most awkward one of all as the writer from The New Yorker suggests? With this philosophical and sociological kind of basis, one can argue that any age that is transitional will be awkward.

However, Kotsko is responsible for the title and theme of The New Yorker article’s periodizing since he focuses on the present and the origins of our awkward time. In fact, he entitles the section, immediately after his philosophical grounding “The origins of our awkward age.”

It should be clear by this point that I believe that we are currently in a state of cultural awkwardness. Contemporary mainstream middle-class social norms are not remotely up to the task of minimizing awkwardness, but at the same time, there seems to be no real possibility of developing a positive alternative….There are many possible reasons that such a condition could have arisen in the first decade of the 21st century….but…I believe we must look to the social upheavals of the 1960s. (17)

What follows is a sociological exercise. Since the 1960s challenged, traditional values the norms changed and America had a hard time adjusting. He discusses changes in terms of civil rights, sexuality, experimentation, and nihilism. Woody Allen, according to Kotsko, emerged as “one of the pioneers of awkwardness” in the 1970s because of this radical social upheaval.   And even though things changed in the 1980s because of the Regan Era (which looked to reestablish tradition and norms and “overcome awkwardness”) the 90s, which marks a fall back into instability, gives us Seinfeld.

But, argues Kotsko, “none of the main characters actually sit and stew in their awkwardness, and I’d propose that that’s because they are all essentially sociopaths. They cause awkwardness in others but don’t truly feel it themselves, because they lack any real investment in the social order – instead they merely attempt to manipulate it”(23).

The only exception to the Seinfeld rule is the schlemiel, George: “His sheer patheticness and vulnerability, his lack of the steady income and social status of Jane or Elaine or the strange self-assurance of Kramer, keep him from being completely detached”(23). In other words, he is awkward because he is not successful in a context where others are.

Kotsko argues that the “seeds of awkwardness” are planted here. And that it is after 9/11 that the we become an “age of awkwardness.”   In this age, Curb Your Enthusiasm and films by Judd Apatow illustrate how awkward we have become.   There are two ways, according to Kotsko, that we can approach awkwardness. Either it is “individuals” who create awkwardness, as we see in the US version of The Office (25) or it is a social order as we see in Apatow’s films. He finds the second position to be of greater interest to his project:

If the social order itself seems to be producing awkwardness, let people indulge in awkwardness on purpose as a way of letting off steam. This strategy is on full display in several Judd Apatow films: if men are afraid to leave behind the awkward state of overgrown adolescence and get married, then build in a space for them to indulge in their awkwardly adolescent pleasures. (26)

Besides “letting off steam” and remaining awkward, Kotsko sees awkwardness as a strategy to challenge the status quo, on the one hand, or as an opportunity to relate to each other in a way that is not based on any norm whatsoever:

When we resist awkwardness, the social order looks good. When we resist social order, awkwardness looks good. But on those rare occasions when we figure out a way to stop resisting the social order and yet also stop resisting awkwardness and just go with it, something genuinely new and unexpected may happen: we might be able to simply enjoy one another without mediation of any expectations or demands. (26)

Kotsko calls this “the promise of awkwardness”(26) and argues that “for all its admitted perils and difficulties, awkwardness does contain a seed of hope”(26). To be sure, Kotsko, who does much work in Continental Philosophy, is familiar with Karl Marx, Ernst Bloch, and Walter Benjamin who all discuss hope and its relation to opposing the status quo. He is no doubt drawing on this trend by claiming that the mood of awkwardness is a “seed of hope” and a “promise.”   It is not merely a term to describe the “age” we are it – as the writer from The New Yorker suggests.

Kotsko spells it out at the end of his first chapter: “More than describing a cultural trend, then, my goal here is ultimately to point toward what we’re all already hoping for”(28). What Kotsko means by this is that the mood of awkwardness – suggested by Apatow films and…in general – is a messianic or utopian kind of mood that anticipates living in a world where “we might be able to simply enjoy one another without mediation of any expectations or demands”(26).

Does Big Bang Theory also project this hope? Is Seth Rogen a messianic figure? If we are to live perpetually in a kind of childhood state, as Apatow’s films suggest, we will be in a perpetual state of awkwardness. And this anticipates, for Kotsko, a messianic state of not living up to an ideal and being an adult.

The suggestions that Kotsko makes about our age have to do with the collapse of norms that we can maintain by not wanting to return to tradition or anything normative. It’s better to just figure out our-relation-to-each-other as we go along. I find this proposal to be very interesting because it suggests something we see with the schlemiel who is often portrayed as an innocent, naïve, and awkward character. In fact, all of the characters that Kotsko looks at could be called schlemiels.

…to be continued….

The Tale of Two Sandlers: The Jewish-American Schlemiel and Adam Sandler

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Adam Sandler’s brand of comedy has always been of interest to me. And since today is Adam Sandler’s birthday, I was thinking about what to write about Sandler. To be sure, Schlemiel Theory has no blogs on Sandler save for a blog that discusses Don’t Mess With the Zohan (2008) within the context of the schlemiel and his/her adverse relationship with war.   In this blog I want to briefly take note of two ways that scholars have addressed Sandler. On the one hand, Daniel Itzkovitz addresses Sandler in terms of the schlemiel character and its relation to American culture; and on the other hand, Lawrence Epstein reads Sandler in terms of a new generation of post-assimilation Jews who are dealing with their Jewishness in nuanced ways that previous generations could not. Both scholars provide us with interesting insights about Sandler. But the key to understanding their differing readings depends on how you understand the meaning of (and relationship of) Jewishness in (or to) America.   Reading one against the other, we see two competing readings of Jewishness.   And we see…the Tale of Two Sandlers.

Daniel Itzkovitz brings up Daniel Sandler in his essay “They are All Jews.” In his essay, Itzkovitz queries into what has happened to Jewishness in America after films like Independence Day. Even though “Jewishness” seems to be coming more and more to the forefront in this (and other films) he wonders whether this “Jewishness” has more to do with Hollywood and less with reality (since, after all, there is a worry that, with intermarriage and assimilation, less of this new generation is interested in Jewishness and his continuation).

In this film, the main character Jeff Goldblum (who plays David Levinson, a “computer geek”) teams up with Will Smith (who plays Captain Steve Hiller, a “Black fighter pilot”) to save America and the world from an alien invasion. As a part of this teaming up, there is a “conversion of the Jewish nerd into a manly hero”(233). This “conversion” works to remake the Jew “into an unironically hypermasculine and stunningly generic ethnic: my big-fat-Jewish-savior, whose ultimate job is simultaneously to stand in as a universal representative of an unthreatening and vacuous difference, and to do so in part by converting everyone else to the newly watered down Jewishness”(234). In other words, Itzkovitz suggests that this film has the Jews stand in for a kind of bland new sense of difference in America. We are all Jews now, meaning all of our differences are non-threatening. The stand in for this is a Jew that goes from being a nerd-schlemiel to a “an unironic hypermasculine..ethnic”(234).   Itzkovits calls this “Hollywood’s ‘new male Jew’ and this is marked as a “world converting cinematic pinnacle”(235). In these moments, the minorities come together to save America and the world and, as Itzkovitz claims, to convert ethnic difference to something vacuous and unthreatening.

In contrast to this we have the “new schlemiel films” that cast actors like Ben Stiller, Jason Biggs, and….Adam Sandler. Given the new film paradigm with Independence Day, Itzkovitz wonders about these new schlemiel films. Now we have two “prominent categories” of Jewish men in America: “either as vaguely eccentric standard bearers for ethnic tolerance in a new multicultural America…or as vaguely eccentric embodiments of the middle class everyman. As the latter group makes clear, if the “neurotic nebbish” is really “out,” someone forgot to tell Hollywood”(241).   Biggs, Stiller, and Sandler, are “neurotic nebbish” schlemiels, the “unwholesome trinity of antiheroes whose in whose humiliations we find supreme pleasure”(241).   They“challenge us to rethink the manly triumph celebrated by Goldblum’s character”(241).  

Writing on Sandler, Itzkovitz notes how in films like The Waterboy (1998), Punch Drunk Love (2002), and Anger Management (2003) he “plays nice guys prone to humiliation by tougher men and women but who ultimately triumph”(242). And in other films like Eight Crazy Nights (2002) and First Dates (2004) “the manhood of his Peter Pan-ish characters is called into question by their inability to grow up”(242).

What Itzkovitz finds most interesting about Sandler (Stiller and Biggs’) “nebbishe outpouring” is that the Jewishness of these “new Hollywood Jews” reveals more about the “instability of postmodern culture than about Jews”(243). In other words, there is nothing really Jewish being disclosed about these films so much as the fact that “as much as American Jews are becoming mainstream, American audiences are “becoming Jewish”(243). They are becoming “instable.” And Jewishness is, as David Biale and Jon Stratton argue, becoming identified with being American. It is being naturalized. In this sense, Sandler really doesn’t tell us much about Jewish identity save for the fact that he, like other Hollywood Jews who play schlemiels, has “generalized” it and shown us more about American culture than about Jewishness.

What Itzkovitz would rather see, in other words, is a Jewishness that tells us more about being Jewish and not about America. But we don’t find this coming out of Hollywood.

Lawrence Epstein, in his book The Haunted Smile, sees Sandler in a different light.

He argues that Sandler has “found a crucial spot in the comedy of his generation”(250). His films are “about the anxiety of growing up, about the need to reconcile with the family, and about taking responsibility”(250). Instead of seeing this as speaking solely to a general American audience, Epstein takes note that “part of Sandler’s comedy comes from his Jewish heritage. The emphasis on family and family reconciliation so prominent in Sandler’s films is embedded in Jewish life”(250).   He goes on to note that Sandler is “famously proud of being Jewish” and “draws on those traditions” so that other Jews of his generation and Americans of his generation “needed”(250).   In other words, Epstein argues that Sandler’s comedy draws on Jewishness and speaks to Jews of his generation and it speaks to Americans. It is literally Jewish-American comedy.

But there is more to the story.

Epstein argues that Sandler shows us that “part of his movement toward maturity” includes a “willingness to embrace an identity that transcends his individual self” – that is, Jewish identity. Epstein’s proof of Sandler’s willingness is the fact that he sung the “Hannukah Song” on Saturday Night Live which became an “ethnic anthem.”

He is openly a Jew and “like his generation, doesn’t have to or want to hide being Jewish or feel any shame either. And in this sense there is a great irony.” The irony is that in previous generations Jews would do their utmost not to appear “too Jewish” in public (even though, Epstein agues, Jewishness was “enveloped and penetrated them”). Through Sandler, argues Epstein, we can see how Jewish values can “influence other parts of….identity and vice versa”(252).   Epstein sees Sandler as “balancing” Jewishness with being an American.   “The future of American and Jewish comedians will in part be determined by how they finally balance their American and Jewish identities”(252).

In contrast to Itzkovitz, Epstein’s Sandler is not simply a stand in for American identity he is a symbol of the future task of Jews to balance Jewishness.   His Jewishness, in this or that film, is a part of a larger spectrum.   Itzkovitz sees his Jewishness in a different light. And although Itzkovitz doesn’t discuss the “Hannukah Song,” one can assume that this is a part of the multicultural project that neutralizes ethnic difference. The Jewishness that interests Itzkovitz is more ambivalent and, as I said, most likely won’t be found in Hollywood.

I’d like to end with a clip of Don’t Mess With the Zohan. It shows us a more recent Sandler who is still looking to balance out Jewish identity. But in this film, unlike his other films, he is more explicitly Jewish than ever. And in the film the nebbishe American schlemiel and the hypermasculine Israeli merge to create an odd character who is struggling with his identity. His move to America is prompted by his more effeminate need to leave war behind and cut hair. This film leaves us with many questions about what has become of Jewishness in Hollywood and the meaning of ethnic difference. It also shows us how Sandler is “balancing” his Jewish identity – between America and Israel.   Perhaps this film is also a Tale of Two Sandlers….