These days one cannot watch a comedian or see a comic show or film without coming across a punch line that doesn’t include an awkward reply or gesture. Many a comedian seems to be telling us that in most of our encounters there is an awkwardness that we find both endearing and terrifying. The fact that we slip up or that we are in the wrong situation – in which we are, suddenly, as it were, called on to speak – seems to endlessly slap us in the face. In this awkward moment, we become smaller. We withdraw into smallness.
For the longest time, I have been interested in the philosophical meaning of the awkward experience of smallness and why it is so compelling. I have turned to philosophers such as Walter Benjamin, Emmanuel Levinas, Theodor Adorno, and Hannah Arendt and writers such as Kafka and Robert Walser to understand the meaning of smallness. Jean-Luc Nancy’s work has also been a great draw for me because he oftentimes works on and elaborates many of Levinas’s points vis-à-vis the relationship to the other that touch upon a state of reduction. One point that interests me most is his reading of communication in terms of withdrawal, tragedy, and comedy. What he misses, however, is the fact that what he is describing is a kind of tragic-comical awkwardness. It goes hand-in-hand with smallness.
In a Jean Luc Nancy interview with Ann Smock, Smock, winking at Levinas, starts off the interview by arguing that when we face another person we are “under an obligation to respond to him, answering the demand, which his nearness is, that you should hear him – hear him and thus let him speak; make it so he can; let him come up close and be there, speaking”(310, The Birth of Presence). Smock focuses in on the fact that, in conversation, everything is surprising. The demand, so to speak, comes out of nowhere:
In this situation there is nothing to start from, nothing to base anything on. You have to answer to an utterance (an entreaty, a question, a command, who know?) that you have never heard and that you won’t have heard until you’ve answered. For if you have to answer (“Il faut parler”), it’s so that what, or rather whom, you are obliged to answer may be heard. (311)
The manner in which Smock describes this situation is troubling. One must, more or less, undergo and endure a shock if one is to let the other speak. Its not so simple. She suggests that, in this situation, when the other comes close to me and I feel the demand upon me, “the other withdraws.” He becomes a “friend” and is “way beyond you and way beyond anything or anyone you could ever be with.” But the other is not the only person to withdraw. I do too. And this leads to a kind of failure which can be read as either tragic or comic.
Smock provides an example of a meeting between the feminine and the (implied) male subject in terms of a kind of failure. The more he worries about what to say or do, the smaller and more confused the subject becomes. Its as if he’s not sure who is his friend when she approaches. He seems frightened:
She comes when and where it’s perfectly clear she’s not….How to receive her visit? How to acknowledge her? Who else would be so true as to say “I am not with you; I haven’t come?” It’s she! The she is once again and as she always was, undeniably herself. Yet this is to deny exactly what it is so like her to convey…and not to hear, or welcome her. (313)
Smock imagines her rejection: “How to recognize her voice when she says You do not hear me?”(313).
In response to this argument and scenario created by Smock, Nancy wittily suggests that Smock’s depiction of communication may be a joke. He cites the joke structure by citing Freud to explain:
This may look like a joke, indeed, like the famous Jewish joke reported by Freud: “Why do you tell me you are going to Cracow, to make me believe you are going to Warsaw?” I could say, “Why do you call me ‘you’, to make me believe that you know me, when you know neither me nor what ‘you’ mean?” (314)
But then Nancy shifts gears and admits that this is no joke: “Communication is always disappointing, because no subject of the utterance comes in touch with another subject. The is no subjectivity here; in this sense there is no self-recognizing of the utterance. It always speaks before it becomes self-present”(314). In other words, one will always trip over one’s words. One will always be embarrassed by them and be disappointed.
Building on this point and suggesting something more positive, Nancy argues that “speaking comes by surprise. Or by chance, as a chance”(315). In a “loose conversation” anything can happen; “nobody knows what he or she will say before he or she has said it”(315). But although there seems like a chance that one can “succeed” when he or she takes a chance in speaking, Nancy suggests, by way of Maurice Blanchot and Georges Bataille, that “communication take place as the communication of a disappointment, of a nonpossibility, of a withdrawal of communication itself”(315). This seems tragic. But Nancy argues that it is and is not:
On the one hand, this is tragedy. It is the tragedy of a world, a mankind, where there is no longer a substance, a subject giving the matter and the way of “communicating.” That is, giving the element, the body of a “communion.” Or at least, of real encounter, where there is a partaking of the same sense….This tragedy implies a comedy. Every attempt to communicate, to make present the link, the real linkage and exchange between two, is comedy: the words of lovers, but also “love making” itself, and philosophical dialectics, and religious sacrifice. (315)
Nancy’s take on the comic aspect of communication is fascinating because it suggests that the presentation of the exchange between people as an exchange (whether in philosophy, conversation, or even “religious sacrifice”) is comical and tragic. The relationship is there but nothing is being communicated. Disappointment at the failure of relation is tragic and comic. He calls this – ironically – communication: “Communication communicates this withdrawal – communicates it, and through it, and as it”(315).
Let’s put this together.
The demand to speak and the act of letting the other speak is a part of what Nancy calls communication and it necessarily leads to a tragic and comic situation in which one is surprised by the other and the words that pass or fail to pass between oneself and the other.
What is left out of the Nancy’s account is an exploration into the meaning of what he calls “communication.” To better understand the meaning of this withdrawal, we need to see it for what it is: an awkward comical encounter in which one party or the other feels awkward and small in this or that failure of communication. Nancy also fails to clearly point out what is at stake.
If, in most if not all of our conversations, we gauge the success or failure of a conversation based on whether we feel or see the other interested or happy, we need to ask ourselves what it would imply to think of every conversation as a kind of failure in which neither party truly communicates with the other?
Is it the case that, regardless of how the other responds, there will always be awkward moments in conversation? Perhaps what we need to do, building on Nancy, is to rethink the relationship of surprise, smallness, and awkwardness in relation to each and every conversation we have and what it implies that we can become small.
It may be the case that many of us laugh at awkwardness and smallness in this or that comedian because, as Thomas Hobbes or Henri Bergson might say, we are not the ones who are awkward or who have failed to get this or that cue: the comedian is and has failed, not us. Perhaps that is why they are laughable.
Perhaps this is the test: to realize that what makes these comic characters laughable is also what makes them endearing. Like us, they are always surprised by things that they didn’t expect in this or that conversation. Like us, they are awkward and become small and withdraw – regardless of how well guarded they appear to be. This is the comedy and tragedy of communication: withdrawal as (awkward) communication and smallness.