In the wake of rapid changes in technology, media, industry, communications, and transportation, many modernist thinkers and artists – from Freud to the Futurists – were obsessed with the meaning of shock. They were afraid of the consequences. What – they wondered – will be lost that needs to be saved?
This is still with us.
Reflection on shock lingers on in the thought of Susan Sontag – for instance – who argues (in her famous book on photography) that we are so numbed by shock that when real trauma and disaster befalls us, we lack the awareness to properly feel or respond to it. What is most interesting – today – is how artists (especially comedians) use shock to reach their audiences. But in doing so, what can we say about the meaning of shock in art and performance? What does (or can) shock do? What will it save?
In one of his essays on Charles Baudelaire, Walter Benjamin suggests that – in our time – we are shocked into forgetting who we are or what makes us human. Shock sets the wheels of forgetfulness in order – as Freud would say – because the psyche needs to protect itself from shock. This is done – according to Freud – so as to maintain homeostasis. What we have lost – in the process – or what has been destroyed is what Walter Benjamin calls “experience.” For Benjamin, experience has a lot to do with memory and self-consciousness. Benjamin – in one essay on Baudelair (“Motifs”) argues that the average human being in the modern era – because of the shocks of modernity – can no longer “form an image of himself.” If one can do that, however, it may only happen by chance. And that chance is – by and large for Benjamin – provided by way of art and the gift of reflection and experience it may or may not offer.
According to Proust, it is a matter of chance whether an individual forms an image of himself, whether he can take hold of his experience. It is by no means inevitable to be dependent on chance in this matter. Man’s inner concerns do not have their issueless private character by nature. They do so only when he is increasingly unable to assimilate the data of the world around him by way of experiences. Newspapers constitute one of the many evidences of such an inability. (158)
According to Benjamin, art, poetry, and literature (and reflection on it – via thought, criticism etc) attempts to redeem all those little shocks in such a way that one may regain the capacity to “take hold of experience.” Otherwise, the possibility of experience passes us by. Charles Baudelaire figures this in terms of a sword fighter (as the allegorical figure of the modern artist/hero) who, if he loses, will die. He can only live when, according to Benjamin, he or she recovers lost time and history for the sake of saving experience from shock:
Where there is experience in the strict sense of the word, certain contents of the individual past combine with material of the collective past. (159)
Certain “rituals” – argues Benjamin – trigger “recollection at certain times and remained handles of memory for a lifetime”(159). In today’s world, where we lack rituals while possessing an over-abundance of shock, one can have a “poetic experience” if and only if one “accepts shocks”:
The acceptance of shocks is facilitated by training in coping with stimuli and, if need be, dreams as well as recollection may be enlisted….that the shock is thus cushioned, parried by consciousness, would lend the incident that occasions it the character of having been lived in the strict sense. If it were incorporated directly into the registry of conscious memory it would sterilize this incident for poetic experience. (162)
It is very important to redeem these moments. By not doing so, Benjamin suggests that we become endless victims to shock who -as a result – have no capacity to have – at the very least – what he calls a “poetic experience” (or what Agamben calls the “experience of language”). Language or poetry – in other words – can give us some kind of transcendence and consciousness.
We have – already and to begin with – a vulnerability to shock. But it is only art that can make this vulnerability into an experience and give it a kind of margin against the power of shock. Art can – in waging this battle – make us tough and weak (at the same time).
As children, we have time to play. We are vulnerable to shock but remain exposed to and interested in the world. As adults, we numb ourselves to it. Proust suggests in Swann’s Way, that we need to redeem time through reflection if we are to be free or human (and to be human is, for Benjamin, to have the capability of possessing an experience). This presupposes the necessity of poetic reflection for agency and life. Without that, we are victims to modern technology and the shock it brings with every radical change in our daily retinue. Art could – if properly read or accepted – give us a transcendence over shock and endless victimization. It can give us back time. It can also redeem lost time. The irony is that by “accepting shock” – via poetic chance and reflection – we may be given the capacity to experience (once again, which was lost from youth).
Reading Baudelaire, one would think that reflections on the dark, tragic, cynical and the shocking demonstrate what Benjamin means by the redemption of shock in terms of consciousness or poetic experience. But what many people miss with Baudelaire is that many of his works take an interest in comedy. Many of his prose and poetry pieces put forth a kind of dark comedy that sees laughter in terms of falleness. For Baudelaire, when we laugh, there is a moment of shock that he associates with the satanic because it robs one of childish naivite. This satanic kind of laughter – at seeing someone fall or lose innocence – for Baudelaire, seems to have a redemptive quality. But this suggests a disavowal of the past (of childhood naiveté), not its redemption. Baudelaire’s use of shock in his writing creates a dark poetic experience because it is associated with destruction and violence.
Baudelaire’s work presumes that only dark comedy can prompt us to reflect or think. Is that true?
Benjamin – as is evident in some of his notes and essays (including the Baudelaire essays) – was interested in redeeming what has been lost….or broken through not only the medium of poetic and literary reflection, but also light comedy (and not simply dark comedy). (As I have noted elsewhere, Benjamin had great interest in the meaning of comedy and its relationship to reflection.) Does comedy – in retrieving experience and, as Benjamin would say, “accepting shock” – reveal something universal or particular to this or that part of humanity? Since Benjamin sees the redemption of experience in terms of recovering life, does accepting shock, by way of comedy, situate experience as something powerful or (since it is acceptance of shock) something vulnerable? Both?
Watching a recent episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, these questions came to mind. His comedy – unlike Baudelaire’s – may be “dark” but not in the same way. It is dark and light. It is a different kind of parrying shock – somewhere between Chaplin and Baudelaire.
Let’s revise Benjamin and not call what is redeemed “poetic experience” so much as “comic experience” – it is the capacity to see oneself through comedy. For me, however, this capacity is particular to a specific kind of Jewishness that I know very well (since both of my parents and three generations of my family are New York Jews). While there is a general sense that art, literature, etc can redeem shock; comedy shows like Curb show us how particular that redemption from shock is. (I want to note that by the word redemption Benjamin implies a sense of memory and reflection.) “We” don’t – as Benjamin suggests – have the same self-image. America is a large country. Memory and experience differ from culture to culture or group to group. Larry David’s schlemiel – in particular – appeals to a sense of Jewish American experience and memory; it is both tough and weak (in a general sense) in its encounter with shock, which, as David shows us, is necessarily shocking.
Episode six of Curb Your Enthusiasm (Season 9) prompted this question when Susie Essman (playing Susie Greene) volleys with Larry about why she wants Jeff Garlin (Jeff Greene) to go with her to the the airport.
Does she want to take Jeff to airport because she – according to Larry David – wants to cause her husband pain? In response, Susie says that she is complex and that Larry is incapable of understanding her mind because it is complex. Larry – in other words- is misreading her motivations. To this Larry asks, “Who are you?” (and then laughs openly as if to say she is easy to read: she is a simple, single minded sadistic wife.
“You are a Jew from the Bronx” is a shocking revelation because Susie doesn’t want to be seen as single minded and sadistic. But she is, when it comes to Larry, however, not Jeff. She reminds us that Larry is a schlemiel – in the most negative sense. Larry can’t see when he is wrong, has said the wrong thing, or has done the right thing. He’s blind. As Walter Benjamin well-knew, shock induces a kind of blindness which is, at the same time, when read ironically or comically, a capacity to see oneself.
The schlemiel is always creating shocking revelations about not what we are but who we are.
The revelation is always social.
As always, Larry David acts as if he knows who he is, but he forgets what to do. There is a disconnect between him and the world. In this selfsame episode he doesn’t properly honor a military veteran. One might think that this blindness is an affront to the veteran. However, at the same time it elevates him because the schlemiel character takes the fall.
But there is a greater social lesson to learn.
Larry David’s schlemiel doesn’t know how to say thank anyone for service – whether this service comes from a waiter or a soldier. He doesn’t know how to thank the other. Is this – in contrast to a Jew from the Bronx – the way a Jew from Manhattan acts? In the context of these scenes, and because Larry is a Jew from New York, this particular question arises in this episode.
However, the greatest shock of all – according to this episode – is not simply the difference between a New York Jew and a gentile who serves in the American military – the intra-ethnic difference between him and Susie matters most because it creates a comic experience that evokes – in Benjamin’s sense – Jewish memory and history. The shock – between them – means something.
In the end, as it is with Baudelaire’s modern artist – it is a question of who wins. Who is tougher? Who is more shocking? I would argue that Larry is the winner and the loser of this comical battle of toughness. Is this – to return to the original insight, above – a reflection (as Benjamin said via Proust, a “self image”) of Jewish American-ness in 2018?
Peter Breines in his book, Tough Jews: Political Fantasies and the Moral Dilemma of American Jewry argues that there have two predominant myths or stereotypes or – alternatively – self-images that have been at the core of Jewish American life: gentleness and toughness. Breins asks several important questions. When American Jews look at themselves, do they see themselves as really tough or really weak? Weren’t Jews always victims and averse to warfare and toughness? And wasn’t this meekness and pacifism what made Jews – post-exile – Jewish? This final question is shared by Breines and Daniel Boyarin (in his work Unheroic Conduct and on his essays on Diaspora).
While we find the gentle schlemiel in America in the post-WWII era with I.B. Singer, etc. Breines claims that his presence radically changed in 1967 when Israel beat back the attack of several Arab nations. At this point, he argues, the tough Jew – as the self-image of American Jewry – displaced the self-image of the schlemiel. It was the beginning – as he says – of the “post-schlemiel era.” There was – as Benjamin might say – a forgetfulness of the past and, without that, there can be no recovery of “experience.”
But to say that the displacement was total – as Breins does – is incorrect. What we find in this Curb episode – in 2018, over fifty years after 1967 – is an American Jewish comic reflection that blends both the tough and the gentle Jew self-image. The schlemiel, the schlimazel, and the nudnik (always seen together in Jewish American comedy) come together in these spats between Larry David and Sussie Essman. They produce a memory – in Proust’s sense – of who we were and who we are (a double image, playing on Benjamin). The capacity of Jewish experience – so to speak – can emerge out of comedy in terms of this memory – evoked here, in the present, in this shocking comedy routine.
The real irony of this mixed self-image is that Jews from the Bronx – like Susie – are known to be “tough” while Manhattan Jews – as Woody Allen was want to show – are more “gentle” and self-deprectating. Larry David fuses them all together in these scenes where toughness meets gentleness.
The spat between them, while shocking, is, to be sure, charming.
Moreover, as Richard Lewis illustrates in the end of first scene above, their spats are particular to Jews. They illustrate this family quarrel as the self-image of American Jewry. And they illustrate it though an endless series of shocks that are – so to speak – accepted by each comedian and by us (the viewers) who may or may not see ourselves in terms of this conflict. (As Benjamin notes with Proust, reflection or artistic evocation of memory is not indefinite; it is a matter of chance not necessity.)
In contrast to Benjamin’s reflections on art as redemptive of shock, we can say – as Benjamin says of Charlie Chaplin’s gestures, in his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” – that comical gestures (seen via Chaplin’s movements on film) are redemptive. They redeem not only memory and history but the body and a modality that is gentle while – at the same time – being tough.
When we laugh at these scenes in Larry David, the laughter suggests the possibility that American Jews can redeem gentleness, strangely enough, through a comedy that is tough and endlessly shocking. Given the history that Breins suggests in his book Tough Jews, redeemed time would be the redeemed time of the “post-schlemiel era” that, according to him, has been sublated into the “tough Jew era.” Perhaps Larry David is redeeming – in these moments – the post-schlemiel era for American Jews. If the greatest shock, for Benjamin (and even Breins), is the loss of this time, this would make perfect sense.
Does Curb reclaim Jewish American experience for us in a time when experience – as a result of assimilation – seems to have been destroyed or displaced by (tough) American experience? Only by distinguishing the Jew in the Bronx (a woman) from a Jew from Manhattan, can we see that both – today – are really part of one Jewish self-image or experience that is both gentle and tough, male and female, complex and really simple, Jewish and American. This is another way of saying that what may first seem shocking – in comedy – is actually redemptive. In comedy, the viewer can see him or herself and in this episode, in particular, Jewish American’s can see themselves and regain the capacity to experience Jewishness which, in the day to day world, may be lost.