President Obama and Slavoj Zizek: The Kynical Comic versus the Simpleton

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Over the last few days, I’ve been thinking about trust, cynicism, and the schlemiel.

Does the schlemiel provide solace? Does the schlemiel restore trust?  There isn’t an easy answer to this question.  I started my thread of blog entries thinking about how President Obama, in his comic routine at the Correspondents’ Dinner, appealed to the self-deprecating simpleton.  He did this in order to end cynicism and gain trust.

The fact of the matter is that at least one variety of the schlemiel – the traditional, Eastern European one – works to endear the viewer, listener, or reader. The key ingredient to comically win over the audience is naivite.   The schlemiel may make mistakes and may try hard to win, but he often fails. 

The President played the schelemiel the other night. The President’s charm, at least in this routine, is to be found in his failure to make his dreams a reality.  And this is an appropriate topic for comedy given the President’s emphasis on hope and change.  The President, so to speak, is a dreamer.  He lives on dreams.  And perhaps many of us entrust him with power because we also like to dream (about a better future).  In effect, perhaps we identify with a schlemiel because we are schlemiels, too.  And this is the message: we can trust a naïve dreamer as only a dreamer can dispose of our cynicism. And The President seems to have been playing that comic role the other night.

But there is more on the table. The appeal of the schlemiel is not simply his or her inclination to dream big. To be sure. The dreamer who wants to make his or her dreams come true is socially awkward. As Adam Kotsko claims in his book entitled Awkwardness, many comedians play on the awkwardness of trying to succeed in a social situation.  We saw this throughout the President’s routine.  And to see this awkwardness in him is to see the everyman.  Perhaps the President’s awkwardness brings us relief; namely, to know that, like us, the President is also trying to be socially accepted and trusted while, at the same time, dreaming of making things better.

Whether or not the President’s routine ends your cynicism, however, is another question.  Perhaps we would all feel better if we believed that the President was a schlemiel like us.  But, as I pointed out yesterday with respect to Zizek, Karl (not Groucho) Marx believed that all ideology is naïve and that it has no idea that it is really doing anything wrong.  Ideology, for Marx, naively thinks it is right.  It can’t understand itself.  It can’t see itself.

In other words, Marx would read ideology as a fellow German of the 19th century would read the schlemiel. To be sure, the German reading of the schlemiel has a similar structure to Marx’s reading of ideology.  The German schlemiel is absent-minded and naïve; he has a blind spot and can’t see it.   We can.  As Sander Gilman points out in his reading of the German schlemiel in the 19th century, the point of the schlemiel in German theater was to show what NOT to be.  We can see what the schlemiel cannot.  And, as a result, we can reject the behaviors that the schlemiel naively repeats ad infinitum.  This is what Marx, analogously, thought with respect to ideology. His job, as a critic, is to “unmask” the naïve aspect of ideology and show what it is blind to; namely, the exploitation that private property and the class system is based on.   This “consciousness” could be used to correct the system and transfer all private property from the exploiters to the exploited.  In effect, consciousness is maturity and its first task is to negate naivite (which, analogously, would equate with the negation of the schlemiel).

Zizek doesn’t buy this.  He says that the notion that ideology is naive no longer holds. Today, Zizek argues ideology is not naïve.  It wears the mask of ideology while knowing full well that it is lying.  Zizek’s perspective, to be sure, is highly suspicious of anyone who purports to believe in this or that ideal.  To do so, especially with a smiling face, is tantamount to being a trick of the ruling power.  Zizek would say that anyone who upholds a principle or Enlightenment ideal is the real cynic as such a person does not truly believe in what he or she is saying but does so anyhow.

To think that the political is naïve, for Zizek, would be a mistake.  For Zizek, everyone acts “as if” they believe in this or that ideology when in fact they don’t.  One could also argue that the simpleton belongs to an ideology.  Using Zizek’s logic, one could say that acting as if one is a naïve simpleton is a ruse since no one can really be naïve today.  For him, this would be equivalent to nostalgia.

But, as I said above, the naïve schlemiel has a different meaning for Americans than it does (or rather, did) for Germans.  To be sure, the self-deprecating naïve schlemiel has more in common with the Eastern European, Yiddish schlemiel than it does with the German one.  In truth, Eastern European Jews (both secular Yiddishists and Hasidim) were charmed by the simpleton.  The foolish innocence of this character is something that they held onto.  It was the last bit of goodness in a world that, for them, was very bleak, dishonest, and violent.  In contrast to their German-Jewish brethren, they were not interested in exposing this naivite in the name of this or that consciousness.

Zizek’s dropping of the naïve in the name of the cynical and the kynical works in two ways.  On the one hand, it casts suspicion on any ideology that purports naivite; on the other hand, it leaves the possibility of goodness behind.

Zizek’s affirmation of kynicism, which he draws from Peter Sloterdijk, has nothing innocent or naïve about it.  In fact, the whole point of kynicism is, as he says, to mock and destroy the cynic who, for Zizek, dishonestly affirms freedom, truth, justice, etc.  As opposed to Marx, Zizek doesn’t believe that consciousness is the answer.  And the kynic doesn’t look to posit an argument.  Rather, the kynic is more interested in the power of mockery to displace those in power.  He could care less about the ideas that are affirmed by neo-liberals.  And this includes the appeal to innocence and simplicity.  For Zizek, these ways of being should not be corrected so much as left behind.

Here’s the question: if you get rid of the naïve, if you disregard Obama’s entire comic routine which makes endless appeals to simpllicity, do you also dispense with trust?

Reading Zizek, I’d have to say that the answer is yes.  Zizek is not interested in that which, for The Enlightenment, forms the basis of society.  To be sure, the notion that trust is the bond of society –as the basis of the social contract – is not simply an Enlightenment ideal.  As David Novak argues in The Jewish Social Contract, the social contract itself, and the trust it embodies, is based on something prior “historically” and “ontologically” to the social contract; namely, the covenant.  The trust in God to, so to speak, do his side of the bargain, is the basis for believing in the promises of any leader or government.

But you dont have to be a philosopher or a poltical scientist to know that if cynicism reigns, this trust and society itself will go down the tubes.  In the Torah, the prophet of all prophets, the law giver, is Moses.  One of his most salient character traits, which he no doubt won the people over with was his humility.

But there is more to the story.  Moses’s humility is inseparable from his faith.  Moses is humble because he knows that, no matter how hard he tries, it’s not all in his hands. He’s not sure if he will succeed. At the very least, he trusts that he is doing the right thing. And this faith, this belief, to be sure, is naïve.  It makes Moses, at times, socially awkward.  (To be sure, there are many occasions when, in speaking to the Jewish people, he feels very awkward and worries to no end.)  A rationalist like Karl Marx would see this belief as naïve since man, not God, is the master of the world.  Man, not God, can create and preserve justice by simply getting rid of such naivite and becoming mature and self-conscious. Putting trust in God or a covenant would, for Marx, be naive. Zizek, on the other hand,  would see this belief in a naïve leader and even the presentation of oneself as a naïve leader to be cynical.  Indeed, he would see this as a form of deliberate self-deception.

Humility and naivite, in other words, are, in Zizek’s view, impossible.  No one, today, can believe that the President is really humble or naïve.  Acting “as if” one is naïve, for Zizek, is an act that is used to legitimate a ruling ideology.

Strangely enough, the mockery of the self-effacing, self-deprecating, and naïve comic character, otherwise known as the schlemiel, would be a kynical answer to cynicism.  In other words, for Zizek, one kind of humor – the one that ridicules – is better than the other (which preserves trust, humility, and goodness).

So, the choice is yours.   Do you want the kynical comic or the naïve schlemiel? Which of the two would be better for society?  Has this question, as Zizek purports, already been decided?  Have we grown up and realized that preserving the naïve is really an act of cynicism or have we, on the contrary, decided to affirm the schlemiel because, without it, hope and trust will never be on the table? Or is this question, quite simply, ridiculous? Does it really matter to us if the President’s comic routine, in which he plays a simpleton, has an element of truth and does, in fact, foster trust while effacing cynicism? If it does, then we will have to admit that the relationship of aesthetics to politics matters to us and deserves greater attention.

(Spoiler Alert: In the next blog, we will look into another type of American schlemiel – the cynical yet naïve kind.)

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