(No bliss) Can Occur in Mass Culture: On Roland Barthes and the (Dark) Schlemiel


Who doesn’t love mass culture today?  Millions of people watch Netflix, surf the internet, and occasion Facebook and Twitter to experience a daily dose of mass culture.   But not all artists agree. While an artist like Andy Warhol embraced mass culture and turned to pop art for meaning, many other artists felt that any turn to mass culture was a form of betrayal.   Recently, when I picked up Roland Barthes’ Pleasure of the Text, I found two aphorisms that speak to a unique relationship and experience he has with language, one that mass culture cannot experience.   In language, Barthes finds pleasure and bliss.   Would he distinguish, then, between a Charlie Chaplin and a Seth Rogen – between one schlemiel and another?  Aren’t they both products of mass culture or is Charlie Chaplin closer to language than Rogen?  After all, Barthes, Benjamin, and Arendt found something blissful and “new” in Chaplin.

I am intersted in language because it wounds and seduces me.  Can that be a class eroticism?  What class? The bourgeoisie?  The bourgeoisie has no relish for language, which it no longer regards even as a luxury, an element of the art of living (death of “great” literature), but merely as an instrument of decor (phraseology).  The People? Here all the magical or poetical activity disappears, the party’s over, no more games with words: an end to metaphors, reign of the stereotypes imposed by petit bourgeoisie culture.  (38).

But in the midst of all this, language remains: “An islet remains: the text.  Delights of caste…pleasure, perhaps; bliss, no”(38).   People’s pleasures, in other words, are based on fake things, on stereotypes, not literature.  The pleasure in literature, on the other hand, can produce bliss.

Barthes nails this distinction down by offering more negative words about mass culture:

No significance (no bliss) can occur, I am convinced, in mass culture (to be distinguished, like fire from water, from the culture of the masses), for the model of this culture is petit bourgeoise.  It is characteristic of our (historical) contradiction that significance (bliss) has taken refuge in an excessive alternative….in an utopian idea (the idea of future culture, resulting from a radical, unheard of, predictable revolution, abut which anyone writing today nows only one thing: that, like Moses, he will not cross over into it. (39)

The utopian idea has an apocalyptic – and not simply a utopian – ring to it.   Barthes explains that what makes bliss bliss is the radical disruption of the social:

The asocial character of bliss: it is the abrupt loss of sociality, and yet there follows no recurrence of the subject (subjectivity), the person, solitude: everything is lost, integrally. Extremity of the clandestine, darkness of the motion-picture theater.  (39)

In a Heideggarian sense, one experiences the “nihilation of the nothing.”  Literature used to unsettle people; it still can.  And if that happens the experience of bliss – which is really an experience of shock, for Barthes – is possible.  Bliss, he writes, may only come “with the absolutely new, for only the new disturbs (weakens) consciousness”(40).  The loss of one’s sense of self and the experience of solitude is the optimal state – for Barthes – of the writer/artist and the reader/viewer.

This suggests that all of the affect one experiences on Facebook and on “twitchy” media may be pleasurable but it is not bliss.  Barthes is more interested in an apocalyptic kind of rupture.  To be sure, as a reader and a writer, that is what he is looking for while we are looking for something else.   The higher pleasure, in his reading, is something we can’t understand unless we learn how to read.

In Mythologies, Barthes makes a mass cultural exception: Charlie Chaplin.  As I have noted elsewhere, what Barthes finds special about him is that – in a film like Modern Times – his character’s comical, radical alienation and blinds him and makes him an asocial character.  He is not a part of the machine.  The schlemiel’s life opens up the possibility of bliss for us, the viewers, because it can dislodge us from the social.   It can if and only if we know how to read, in the Barthesian sense.  Does the schlemiel-text -so to speak – wound and seduce me?  Does it leave me feeling torn from the social fabric, radically alone, as it were, in a dark movie theater (after the Chaplin flick has ended)?

Reading this, I wonder about what I wrote about recently: namely the twitter exchange between Seth Rogen and Nicki Minaj over a line she dropped – with Seth Rogen’s name (“Seth Ro”) – in a song.  What happened, as I noted, was to be found “between the emojis.”  It was – to be sure – an exchange of what Barthes would call stereotypes.  Yes, there is a “pleasure” in this, but it is not bliss. There is noting “new” in this exchange.  We can find the same things in TV and filmic depictions of the schlemiel as cuckhold.   Lil Dicky, to be sure, has made an industry of this with videos that have tens of millions of views.

These are cheap thrills and they don’t leave us….solitary . The schlemiel can accomplish this – as Barthes himself notes by way of his reading of Charlie Chaplin – but, today, that schlemiel may only be found on the pages of novels by – for instance – Shalom Auslander or Jonathan Safran Foer.   However, of all the filmmakers out there, Noah Baumbach suggests a different, more dark version of the schlemiel.  Perhaps this is the only means to “bliss” today (via the schlemiel) because as Auslander and Foer know – one (dark) schlemiel must counter the other because the other one is too pleasurable and light.   As Barthes might say, something needs to happen if we are to pause in the empty theater.   Because the world we are in is inundated by schlemiels played by Seth Rogen, Amy Schumer, Adam Sandler, and Ben Stiller (who have created the schlemiel norm), perhaps it makes perfect sense as to why Baumbach – and filmmakers like the Coen brothers – have taken a liking to a darker shade of the schlemiel (one we don’t expect or even want to see).  See for instance how Baumbach casts Ben Stiller in films like Greenberg (2010) and While We’re Young (2015).  Perhaps we need something more than just Larry David’s attempt to curb our enthusiasm, that is, if Barthes is in fact correct.  It all depends on what you think of pleasure and mass cult.

Between the Emojis: Nicki Minaj’s Response to Seth Rogen


Within minutes of me  posting Seth Rogen’s response to discovering that he was in a Nicki Minaj song, she tweeted him back, “Seth You’re My Hero!!!”

The emojis around Minaj’s calling Rogen her hero tell an interesting story about her regard for Rogen.  They can – because he likes to efface the line between his life and his comic characters – be read in terms of an ambiguous relationship between the schlemiel and the beloved that we see (time and time again) in many a schlemiel routine.  The schlemiel – as many American versions of the character tell us – is either a cuckhold or a nice guy (but not a lover).  See, for instance, this video by Lil Dicky (someone who works in the same circles of Minaj), which shows this idea is alive in 2017.

Nicki’s tweet begins with an emoji that suggests that she is laughing so hard that she is crying.  And after she says “Seth, you’re my hero!!!” she punctures with one emoji that expresses utter sadness (that this is true) and an emoji with a wink.

In other words the message to Rogen’s “losing it” (as one zine says it) is mixed.  (His tweet – as a side note – had 200,000 more likes than Minaj’s.)

The mixed message is for the schlemiel the two expressions basically say,  “Your not my real Hero” but we are friends.  I’m not really dissing you but I am.  Its the charm of the schlemiel that makes him a friend…not a lover and not a hero.  His heroism is – as Ruth Wisse says at the outset of her book The Schlemiel as Modern Hero – ironic.     The irony is that he’s not a real man.  Not one that Minaj would call a hero.  But he’s a nice man, a funny guy, she can share a laugh with and have some fun.

Playing on the spoof interview show by Zack Galifiianakis, “Between the Ferns,” I’d say that the message to the schlemiel, from one of the most desired women in the world today, is between the emojis.


My interview with Kenneth Goldsmith for Berfrois


I recently published an interview I conducted with Kenneth Goldsmith – the poet laureate of the MOMA, former writer for the New Yorker, professor at UPENN, the author of many books (published in Verso, Harper Collins, etc) and the person behind the bastion of language poetry and avant garde poetics UBU Web – for Berfrois.  Here is the intro to the interview.  For the interview, click here.

Ever since I first read Leaves of Grass, I have been searching for a latter-day Walt Whitman. I loved the radical idea that, for Whitman, everything is poetry. One didn’t have to be poet to be poetic; one simply had to celebrate life in each of its details. Freedom meant embracing everything and everyone. But the idea that everything is poetry in the digital age, is, for some, disturbing. Many see the Internet as a dehumanizing and isolating medium. It turns Whitman’s “roughs” into zombies and turns his resounding “Yawp” into a tweet about your lunch. To the nay-sayers, Kenneth Goldsmith – in the most Whitmanesque and Joycean way – says Yes to social media. He asks us to read some of the greatest innovators in avant-garde art as prophets of the digital age. Goldsmith suggests that we are living in the greatest age because everything really has become poetic. Our machines are constantly reading and writing code. We are all part of this great poetic unfolding.

Goldsmith is prolific. He is the author and editor of over twenty books – such as Uncreative Writing: Managing Language in the Digital Age (Columbia University Press, 2011), Capital: New York, Capital of the Twentieth Century (Verso, 2015) and Seven American Deaths and Disasters (PowerHouse Books, 2013). He teaches writing at the University of Pennsylvania. In May 2011, he was invited to read at President Obama’s “A Celebration of American Poetry” at the White House, where he also held a poetry workshop with First Lady Michelle Obama. (In this video clip he reads from Whitman’s poem, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”.Goldsmith also runs UbuWeb. Founded in 1996, it is the largest site on the internet devoted to the free distribution of avant-garde materials. And, in 2013, he was named as the inaugural Poet Laureate of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

His most recent book is Wasting Time on the Internet (Harper Collins, 2016), a meditation on digital culture. Wasting Time and Uncreative Writing both stirred a lot of controversy. In his class at the University of Pennsylvania – entitled “Wasting Time on the Internet” – he suggested that students could earn credit for a course by simply “wasting time on the internet.” Instead of writing, they would use the media and repurpose it for the course

I recently met with Goldsmith in Manhattan at La Pecora Bianca on 26th St and Broadway. I wanted to dig deeper into the meaning of his latest book. Since we are both interested in the intersections of critical theory and philosophy with modern art and digital culture, I knew we would have plenty to discuss.

I Made a Movie Like Seth Ro: Seth Rogen Gets Mentioned by Nicki Minaj


Seth Rogen’s wildest dream has come true: he’s been mentioned in a song by Nicki Minaj.  Ecstatic and feeling vindicated as a human being, he tweeted about it this morning.

Minaj – in a new Fergie video that she is featured in – “drops” the words “I made a movie like Seth Ro” at 1:39.


Watching the video and thinking about what it means, I couldn’t help but think about how “going fast” is synonymous for them with power and elitism that “you” only wish you could have.  Its ironic because a schlemiel – in a traditional sense – is often powerless.  But Seth Rogen is anything but that.  He is branding himself and is reveling in the fact that he is mentioned in this video.   The fact of the matter is that Minaj makes him the standard bearer.  She makes a movie “like” him.  Apparently, he is the master of cinema today.   Despite the fact of how laughable that is, its interesting to see how the stars support themselves and maintain their elite circles via their media.

Rogen jackpoted on this circle in his film This is the End (2013).   Every endorsement or guest spot he gets or provides is more money in his bank.   He’s a wealthy schlemiel.  A lot like Larry David but less funny.   He can say – with the most affected hip dialect – “I’M FUCKING GOOD Y’ALL” because he has been lifted up into the heavens of Hollywood and pop culture while all of us just marvel at how….cool he is.  In the end, we are the real poor schmucks/schlemiels.  Who’s got the money and power through their cool?  Ask Seth, Fergie, and Nicki.

Gendered Luftmensch: Robert Walser’s Dream of Becoming Small


I am always on the look out for shrinking people and things.  Becoming small is a religious kind of theme.  It is also an obsession of secular writers (with a penchant for the mystical) like Franz Kafka and one of his favorite writers, Robert Walser.   Many of Kafka’s characters are like humans who have become smaller beings like mice and bugs.  His characters – like the Hunger Artist or the “man from the country” – shrink.   They become less recognizable as they age and change.  The man from the country – in his parable “Before the Law” – becomes hunched over at the end of the story and he can barely see.  He literally decays.  But smallness isn’t all about decay.  As Kafka’s Josephine, the mouse singer – in the story of the same name -shows us and as Robert Walser’s dreamer shows us how, when one becomes small, one can see far more than one can then if one were big.  One becomes light, like air and is able to touch things that can’t be seen or felt.

The term luftmensch – which has been used to describe the schlemiel – describes a person who lives on air (on dreams and schemes that never come to fruition).  The term luftmensch is ambiguous – in the most Derridian sense – it can mean something negative or positive.  For Walser, it has a positive meaning.   A human being becomes a luftmensch in the dream when s/he becomes small.  Walser, looking at a painting of his brother, Karl, describes the dream of smallness:

I dreamed I was a tiny, innocent, young boy, more delicate and young that a human being has ever been before, as one can be only in dark, deep, beautiful dreams. (15, Looking at Pictures)

When he shrinks, he loses his father and mother.  In his dream, he isn’t an orphan.  He doesn’t have either parents.  He is without hope or even happiness; He is a dream within a dream; a thought within a thought:

Neither father nor mother did I have, neither paternal home nor a fatherland, neither a right nor a happiness, neither an hope nor even an inkling of one.  I was like a dream within a dream, like one thought embedded within another.  (ibid)

He is sexless.  He has no yearning for the opposite sex.  He has no friends nor does he wish for one.   The dreamer realizes – in his smallness – that “all we have and possess is what we long for; all we are is what we’ve never been.”  He realizes that all we was was “less a phenomenon than a longing, only in my longing did I live, and all that I was was nothing more than longing.” Now he drifts because he is nothing and has nothing.  But this drifting is lovely because, as a small being, he finds a home to “dwell within the human breast.”

Since I cost nothing, I swam in pleasure, and since I was small, I could nicely find a place to dwell within the human breast.   It was enchanting the way I made myself at home in the soul that loved me.  And so I went along.  Was I walking, then? No, not walking.  I strolled in the empty air, requiring no ground to walk on; at most, I brushed the ground lightly with the tips of my feet, as if I were a talented dancer blessed by the gods with the gifts of the dancer’s art.  (54)

By way of a dunce cap, the narrator describes him/herself as fool but this fool is not an ordinary one; s/he is also a mystic floating through space:

On my head, I wore a dainty dunce’s cap.  My lips were red as roses, my hair a golden yellow that curled about my narrow temples in graceful ringlets. I had no body, or had one only barely.  (54)

“Innocence,” writes the narrator, who has become the dream subject, “gazes” from “my eyes.”   He cannot smile because “the smile was too delicate, so delicate I could not smile it, I could only think it, feel it.”   In other words, this smallness because so concentrated that he can only think or feel.  It can’t be expressed on his face.  His body, it seems, in drifting, has become frozen.

But, as Walser can see from the painting, the small being is not alone.  His hand has drifted into the hand of an “enormous woman”(54). She leads him “by the hand.”   His smallness allows him to enter her presence and grace:

So now, dear reader, I was so diminutive and small that I could comfortably slipped into the soft muff of my tall, dear sweet, woman.  The hand that held me as I floated.  (ibid)

In this moment of smallness, he becomes her child, her mouse, and then her husband:

Unspeakably tender, the woman gazed at me: now I was her child, now her little mouse, now her husband. And always I was everything to her.  She was the towering, powerful, large presence, and I the small one. (56)

The relationship of the small being to the large mother resonates though a Jewish American novel like Bruce Jay Friedman’s A Mother’s Kisses (a quintessential novel dedicated to the schlemiel character).    In that novel, the schlemiel is small in the presence of his larger than life mother.

The end of Walser’s story is a close reflection on how he gradually shrinks in her presence…and this shrinking – perhaps in a Heideggarian sense of the gift – gives him thought.  It gives him a question.  What is the power of woman that she can make me, a male, become so small, become a child. Is the source of that power in our dreams? In our mind? Or in, reality, in the “eyes of men”?

In this way, I was led even farther, even farther, a sort of dainty possession whose own does not hesitate to take it everywhere…All was soft and seemed lost.  Had the woman’s power shrunk me to a manikin?  The power of Woman: where, when, and how does it reign? In the eyes of men?  When we are dreaming? In thought? (56)

Smallness is the question not simply of the luftmensch.  It is the question of what guides humankind.  What power keeps it from drifting off?  Is the power of the feminine – the power to render man small – the source of Walser’s dreams, thoughts, and experiences of smallness?  Are they….ours?  And – because that is the case – will “we” always be schlemiels?

Playing on gender, I wonder, why, then, does Francis Ha (2012), a female schlemiel played by Gretta Gerwig, become small.?  What makes her shrink?  What is the source of her dreams and thoughts of smallness?  Is she a luftmensch too?  She has a dream, after all, about what she…wants in a relationship.   But her prince has not come.










Out of Place: On the Schlemiel and Paul Celan’s Poem: WHERE I Forgot Myself in You


I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that the schlemiel character is usually located on the edge of the world.  Her place is something people overlook.   S/he stands at the limit.  Whether it is Mendel Mocher Sforim’s Sendrl, Sholem Aleichem’s Motl or Menachem Mendel, I.B. Singer’s Gimpel, Saul Bellow’s Moses Herzog, Shalom Auslander’s Kugel, the schlemiel’s location is always a part of his or her character.   This character is often on the run or found in a place that he or she doesn’t recognize.   For instance, in Bruce Jay Friedman’s A Mother’s Kisses, the main character goes to places – such as a summer camp or a college – that he doesn’t understand of fit into.  His attempt to adapt to these spaces is comical on some levels, tragic on others.   The same goes for Freidman’s character, Stern or Auslander’s Kugel.  Both move from the city to the country.    What is significant about these moves is that they are the condition for the possibility of schlemiel comedy.  They seem not only to be off in terms of their timing or delivery, but also in terms of their spatial location.    Displacement for the schlemiel may happen in space, but it is ultimately brought across in relation to the other.

I recently came across a Paul Celan poem that made me pause and think more deeply about this issue.  The poem is called “WHERE (WO ICH) I forgot myself in you.”  It is found in one of his last books of poetry, LIGHTDURESS (LICHTZWANG):

WHERE I forgot myself in you,

you became thought.


Something rushes through us both:

the first of the

world’s last



the hide


my storm-riddled




come not



The only capitalized word in this poem is WHERE.  The place facilitates the memory of forgetfulness.   The schlemiel – to be sure – is a character who often trusts the other and experience so much that s/he too forgets him/herself in the other.   Celan gives us a deeper reflection on this forgetfulness and suggest that “you” (the other”) become “thought” in this moment and in this place.  The beginning of thought, in other words, is in that place….WHERE I forgot myself in you.   Thought – as Celan suggests –  is not connected to this or that Platonic form or a priori – it is connected to forgetting oneself in the other – in the place where she is.    In this forgetfulness, the other becomes thought – meaning that (as in much schlemiel comedy) there is a split between the other in reality and the other in thought.   One is blinded – so to speak – by the thought of the other.  And this thought happens in a place – WHERE one forgets oneself

The question now is if the “I” of the poem is also “thought.”  After all, they are both in the same place: where I forget myself…in you.  The description – in the next stanza – suggests that the “I” is still able to describe what is happening (even if the “I” has forgotten himself in you).   The I may be able to – so to speak – save the day by bringing you back (here) through a tender (poetic) observation:

Something rushes through us both:

the first of the

world’s last


The final flight of the world (“the first of the/ world’s last/ wings”), apparently, has gone through me and you.  We are an open space for the passing of the worlds flight.  This is a profound and touching thought.  But will it work?

The next stanza suggests that the voice of the poem – in a schlemiel-like fashion – cannot speak once the world has passed through them or that…these words have failed.  He doesn’t know what to say to you.  And this results in the failure of “you coming to you.”

the hide


my storm-riddled




come not



What I am suggesting is that there is a wish – perhaps even a mystical one – that may be buried in every schlemiel which this poem touches on in a very deep manner.  The wish is to be WHERE one has forgotten oneself in the other and to recover the other.  But the schlemiel realizes that – as we see in many a Woody Allen movie or Bruce Jay Freidman novel that takes the schlemiel as their focus – although an experience (of the flight of the world) may be shared or described in a touching manner, it may be too late to speak and reach the other.  There is a tragic-comic missed opportunity.   The thought and the person don’t coincide in the place….WHERE I forgot myself in you.

Love isn’t consummated.

The place is marked.

And so is the memory.

It makes me think of the end of Annie Hall (1976) where the places are remembered but the words never spoken.   In the end of Allen’s film, you come not to you.  Here (as Celan might say).  Only the memory of place – and the flight of the world on its “last wings” – remains.   The schlemiel – in other words – leaves us out of place but only after having led us through space.

The schlemiel has a hard time fitting into space and that also means relationships – whether it is a new home, a shared home, or a possible home, the schlemiel can’t seem to say the right thing – as Celan suggests – or, better, the right thing at the right time in the right place.  S/he is a belated wanderer in an awkward space.  But – let us not be mistaken – s/he is always looking for you (whether that you is an intimate other or God).   S/he wants you to come to you – not as thought (alone) or as a recovered memory, but as a presence.      Here.  (Only here can “you come into you.”)  The schlemiel is on the edge of the world, or barely in it.  But s/he remembers where s/he forgot him/herself…in you.  S/he remembers when you became thought.  And because of that s/he didn’t know what to say to you because…you were no longer there.  The schlemiel’s thought sometimes doesn’t match reality and the schlemiel has lost you; just like Alvy Singer looses Annie.