Ernst Bloch’s Musings on The Circus and Utopia – Take 1

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History is the subject of a structure whose site is not homogenous time, empty time, but filled with presence of the now (Jetztzeit).  Thus, to Robespierre ancient Rome was a past charged with the time of the now which he blasted out of the continuum of history.  The French Revolution viewed itself as Rome reincarnate….Fashion has a flaire for the topical, no matter where it stirs in the thickets of long ago; it’s a tiger’s leap into the past (Walter Benjamin, Thesis XIV of the “Theses on the Philosophy of History”)

Throughout the ages, many great artists, poets, and thinkers have shown great love for the circus.  They feel that there is something about the circus.  It can tell us about who we really are, what we believe in, or what we hope for.  Perhaps the circus, as Walter Benjamin might say about “the presence of the now” (Jetztzeit), is our common origin.  Perhaps the circus is the revolution.  Perhaps it is the place where, as Benjamin says of fashion, there is a “tigers leap into the past.”

The circus, like the revolution, is a space where comedy, surprise, and excitement are center stage.  It is a social, an aesthetic, and a political space.  On the one hand, the Roman satirist Juvenal used the words “Panem et Circenses” (Bread and Circuses) to criticize those in power noting that the circus distracted Rome’s political leaders from history.  And it was used as a tool for gaining power.  On the other hand, the circus has been envisioned as a space of inversion and resistance to the dominant culture.  In the circus political power appears as ridiculous: it’s the only place where you will find Nobility and Clergy dressed up as or riding pigs.  Mikhail Bakhtin was one of the first theorists to explore this aspect of the circus; and in his notion of the carnivalesque, cultural studies and postmodernism found a model that proved fruitful for at least a decade or two.   In Rome, the circus was dominated by power; but in the middleages it was not.  The circus belonged to the people.

Like Bakhtin, Ernst Bloch also found the carnival to be of great interest.  In an essay entitled “Better Castles in the Sky” (from the essay collection The Utopian Function of Art and Literature) Bloch makes a confession or admission to truth.  His admission reveals that his fascination with the circus is a fascination with what makes us utopian.  His admission discloses the circus in what I, following Bloch, would call an “anticipatory illumination.”  To be sure, I would say that the circus, for Bloch, is the ultimate anticipatory illumination of utopia: “the circus is the only honest, down-to-earth honest performance.  A wall cannot be built anywhere in front of spectators who sit in a circle and surround performers.  Nevertheless, there is an estrangement”(179).

By saying that the circus is the “only honest, down-to-earth honest performance,” Bloch is saying something quite radical.  This implies that all other artistic performances are not honest or down to earth.  It also implies that Bloch values honesty and being “down-to-earth” which are basic folk virtues. To be sure, the honesty marks a kind of innocence with what makes us utopian.  In fact, he repeats the word “honest” twice so as to underscore the importance of this fundamentally social and political virtue.  But more importantly, these values, for Bloch, find their only vehicle in the circus and in no other artistic space.  Their vehicle is comedy!

All other theatrical performances are mixed with ideology, power, and dishonesty; the circus is not.  It has the quality of honesty.  It is so honest that it is utopian.  Bloch suggests that utopian justice, in this sense, is all about a kind of honesty that can only be prefigured in the circus.

Why is this the case?  Why does the circus, for Bloch, basically articulate, unlike any other art, the utopian function?  How does it articulate the “anticipatory illumination” and what he would call “genuine heritage?”

Before Bloch makes his admissions of truth for the circus and its utopian function, he discusses the roots of the circus performance.   According to Bloch, “the sideshows at the fair” are uncanny and exciting because “they don’t originate here, nor does their magic, which is continually dusted off and revealed anew in the repeated performances of the sideshows”(178).  The magic we see at the circus “operates as if abnormal and foreign.  Yet, it is ordinary and full of swindles”(178).  To be sure, it is very canny.  It is plain, simple, and downright ordinary.  However, it is “still more substantial than the trouble that the philistine causes for the age-old joy of young and old people.”  In other words, the circus, for all its ordinariness, is more substantial than the law.

The circus is the spirit; the philistines – the ruling class – are the law.

Instead of pursuing this distinction further, Bloch takes a detour.  Bloch’s detour takes us into the life of the circus and the nature of its magic: in taking this detour, Bloch avoids talking about the origin of the circus.  All Bloch notes, before this point, is that they (those in the circus) “don’t originate here.”  Does this mean they originate elsewhere, in another world?  Where are the people of the circus from?

Bloch cuts in with quasi-historicism for an answer.  Bloch suggests, as if we know,  that a circus is a “boat like show”: “So these boat like shows set sail and are carried by the South Seas for the simple soul and the uncorrupted, complicated soul too.”  The circus, originally a boat show, is for the simpleton (the schlemiel) and the complicated soul (the skeptic).

Moreover, the ship visits all kinds of cities; the ships have no boundaries: “The tent-boats weigh anchor for a short time in the dusty cities. They are tattooed with pale green or bloodthirsty paintings in which votive pictures projecting rescue at sea disasters are mixed with those of the harem.”

At this point, Bloch slips into the mode of allegory and allusion to illustrate why the circus is the “only honest, down-to-earth honest performance.”

I’d like to closely follow his words so as to figure out what he is alluding to with a canny-slash-uncanny circus that originates on the sea but, in our day, finds itself on the ground.

Bloch creates a metonymy of sorts associating the “motor” of the boat with a sound that is “foreign, fatty, unhuman, breathless, sluggish”(178).  And from sound Bloch moves to the figure of a “dancing wax lady screwed down next to the entrance.  And she dances with sudden contortions, moves with twisted gestures of screwed down wax that turn into dance, and she throws her head back from time to time.”

The first thing that strikes me about this metonymy is that the figure moves and is nailed down; its dance embodies a dialectical tension and, for this reason, it appears comical.  It reminds me of a dancing Hula doll.

Bloch writes of this figure lovingly and situates it behind the barker of the circus, who brings her to a halt.   After noting this Bloch explains its “hidden meaning” by way of a juxtaposition of life and death:

Eventually she comes to a halt and trembles in this position right behind the barker, who fears nothing.  The type of world extolled here has the secrets of the bridal bed and also the miscarriage at one end and the secrets of the bier on the other end. (178)

This image is mythical.  Bloch passes from this image, however, to one that is full of particularities and seems to play with myth by way of plurality:

Strange human creatures and their art offer themselves to spectators in nothing but peepshows of abnormality. The sword swallower and fire eater, the man with the untearable tongue and iron skull, the snake charmer add the live aquarium.  Turks, pumpkin men, fat women, they are all there.

Once Bloch realizes he has gone way out in his description, he reels it in with some analysis, noting that “fairy tale realm reappears continually and also that of the horror story.”  This implies that the fair moves between innocence and horror.  He calls “the fair, a colorful, peasant fantasy.”  However, it is interrupted by the city (as well as by horror).

He notes the historical change from the country to the city in the movement of the fair from Europe to America:

In the large American cities it has become increasingly automated with loudspeakers and amusement centers.   However, the land of the wishes from the medieval South Seas, so to speak, has remained.  And it maintains itself out of the Middle ages, which go much further back, right to the fair of the higher order, in the kind of show of the Circenses without any curtain at all. (79)

What Bloch does over here is articulate what we saw in yesterday’s blog; namely, the “genuine heritage.”  To be sure, Bloch sees the fair as the heritage to which he, a circus lover and a lover of honesty, must turn.  His language, following upon his mention of a show of a “higher order,” a Circenses “without any curtain at all” verges on the religious and the revolutionary.

In Benjamin’s sense of the “tiger leap” backwards, Bloch sees a merging of all times in the ring of the circus.  In the “ring” of the circus the Medieval, the Roman, and the tradition of the circus on the sea come together:

For, as the miracles of the sidewshows are assembled together under one roof, in a ring, and as the managerie breaks out from here, the coliseum or the circus now originates from the South Seas. (79)

However, as with history, something is lost.  And what is it?  The hula doll I referenced above (the wax dancer):

Of course, the feature of the wax figure cabinet cannot be present here, that suspended animation, that mechanical organ, because everything in the circus is alive.  And, in contrast to the fair, which operates with concealment, with stage, showcase, and curtains, the circus is fully open.  The ring brings everything with it.

But although the hula doll is gone, something new and revolutionary, something much more revolutionary than the fair or the sea circus has arrived.  For Bloch the circus is the most revolutionary because it is “fully open.”  It is, for this reason, the most utopian space.

To be sure, following this claim that the “circus is fully open. The ring brings everything with it,” Bloch makes his greatest claim: “The circus is the only honest, down-to-earth honest performance.”

This admission of truth is his way of taking the “tigers leap” into the past.

And as Friedrich Holderlin has said (and Martin Heidegger reminds us in his famous essay on the “The Origin of the Work of Art”): “that which dwells near the origin departs.”

Or as Bloch tells us, utopia starts and will always end in the circus.

 

Reflecting on Comedy: Miriam Katz’s Comic-Art Project (Take 2)

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Miriam Katz is an art curator who has taken on the task of bringing comedy into the serious and overly academic artworld.  On March 19th 2011, she was the curator of a “showcase of experimental comedy” at MOMA P.S. 1.  As Martha Schwender of the The Village Voice points out in an article entitled “Have you Heard the One About the Art Scene Embracing Comedians?” Katz included comic performers such as Jon Glaser, David Hill, Jenny Slate, Reggie Watts, Maeve Higgins, and Rory Scovel in her art show.

Echoing Miriam Katz, Martha Schwender demurs on what happens when “comedians are being presented as artists?”  Will there be a collision?

What I found interesting about her article’s presentation of Katz’s project was its insistence on the link between trauma, comedy, and thoughtful reflection.

Schwender, citing Katz, notes that “comedy is much less safe than art.”  Literally and figuratively.  Apparently, there are more starving comedians than starving artists. Art has become too smug with itself and now “comedy is a model for artists who feel art has become to academic or safe.”  The world of comedy is a dangerous space and those who live in it take more risks that are typical of those who dwell in the artworld.

But here is the problem.   Comedy is unreflective and forgetful.  Citing Katz, Schwender writes: “Laugher obliterates the memory of what took place, so people don’t sit down and write a response, aside from ‘Check it out, its so awesome!”

This, Katz argues, is problematic.  Comedians are “hungry for critical feedback.”

In other words, comedians want us to think about comedy and share our thoughts with them.

At the end of this piece, Schwender, echoing Katz, gives her own reflection on comedy.  She notes that when comedians do well on stage they say that they “kill.”  This, I would add, is similar to the Borscht Belt expression of ‘knocking them dead.”  Or “blowing them away.”

What do they mean by such language?  Does the comedian have a violent and antagonistic relationship with her audience?

Schwender doesn’t give a direct answer.  Instead, she demonstrates that comedy is not all lightness and fun; death and mortality are themes in contemporary comedy: “(Andy) Kaufman talked about faking his own death…Zadie Smith..uses her own hapless father as an example of comedy triumphing over mortality: Her father “missed his own death” because he died in mid-sentence, “joking with his nurse.”

But does comedy really triumph over reality?  Is comedy redemptive?  Schwender seems to suggest as much here.  It takes us through the darkness and leads us to light.

Schwender ends the piece with a suggestion of hope; namely, a new era of art.  What Dada was to WWII, Katz’s new efforts will be to our current post-traumatic situation: “Our own art-comedy moment feels rooted in a similarly apocalyptic soil: wars, natural disasters, and nasty elections.  Four years ago, skulls were the leitmotifs in art, clustered in paintings or crushed with diamonds.  Now, laughter is taking over.”

But what does this mean?  Is Miriam Katz awakening us to a messianic-kind of Dadaist comic-epoch which has found its birth in 2011, in Manhattan?   And how do we “reflect” on this post-traumatic comic moment?  Do we find redemption in it? Does comedy, dark comedy of the Andy Kaufmann variety, offer redemption or catharsis?

In search of an answer, I went to hear from Katz herself.  I found an interview with Katz in BOMBLOG.  The interview took place recently and focuses on her new podcast project.  Since her exhibition, Katz created a website with monthly podcasts of comedians reflecting on their work: http://www.breakdownshow.com/about/

The website is called Breakdowns.  The name is apropos as it hints at an emotional breakdown and a reflective breakdown of the (comic) breakdown.  But, and here is the question, is reflection on comedic-slash-traumatic comedy redemptive?  Must all comedy, worth anything, be thought of in this way?

In her interview with Sam Korman in BOMBLOG, we get a better picture of her understanding of the relationship of comedy-slash-trauma and reflection.

http://bombsite.com/issues/1000/articles/7063

Blogging on February 15th, Korman leads the way to the question of comedy and redemption when he associates Katz’s art project (and his own interview) with going into the depths of darkness by way of the comedian but, in the end, finding “our way back…redeemed.”  He suggests that his interview and her comic-art project are a mythic type of journey into and out of darkness.

When first asked why “comedy is so important,” Katz gives an answer that speaks to trauma and reflection.  She notes that comedy gives people relief, is critical and fun, and allows for “difficult truths to emerge.”

Her challenge to the artworld is to be critical “in a joyous way” instead of being too serious and academic.  And comedy makes this joyous type of criticism possible (which sounds much like what Friedrich Nietzsche called “Gay Science”).

But, toward the middle and end of the interview, Katz shifts and gives us a picture of comedy that is not redemptive.  First of all, she notes the position of the comedian to the audience is not a mutual catharsis.   Rather, “structurally we (the audience) are arbitrary.  The comic just wants the sounds coming from our bodies.”  All she wants is the audience to have a “bit more agency or influence.”  The little freedom she wants for “us” inheres in our “critical” response to comedy.  The act itself, however, harbors no agency.  Its just bodies responding in space to humor.

Korman is not satisfied with this kind of answer, so, later in the interview, he tries to bring in another philosophical angle.   He demurs that when one laughs at oneself, one becomes a listener.  This relation would be redemptive.

In response, Katz notes that this would be equivalent to standing outside of oneself and looking at oneself from a birds-eye-view: “That’s so weird and cool: making yourself laugh.  It forces you to ask, who’s that?”

For Katz, this seems to be a moment of ambivalence and self-alienation; not a moment of self-recognition.  It is traumatic.

What’s of more interest to her, it seems, is the relationship between the audience and the comedian: not what it means, but what happens.

(As Walter Benjamin once wrote in his Kafka essay, “attention is the silent prayer of the soul.”  This attention, I would add, is to what happens-as-it-happens.)

Katz ends the interview with a paradoxical reflection.  When you laugh there is relief (and I would add that this is cathartic and redemptive); however, she contradicts this when she says: “there’s also no escape.  It forces you to admit things about your limitations and about what you really want.”

The fact that we cannot “escape” ourselves and that we are forced to admit things about ourselves and our desires is a shameful moment.  On the contrary, there is no relief.

Comedy, in other words, forces us to be uncomfortable.  It exposes us to our mortality and our desires (whether frustrated, failed, sick, or what have you).

But this isn’t the comedy we see on The Daily Show, Jimmy Fallon, David Letterman, or Saturday Night Live; no, it’s the disturbing kind of comedy we find in comedians like Andy Kaufmann and Lenny Bruce.  The comedy she is talking about is the variety that makes us chuckle while feeling uneasy in our skins.

And this is what we see in this Andy Kaufmann video, which I posted in yesterday’s blog:

Bringing a critical understanding of comedy can help us to understand what comedy does to us, but it can’t redeem us.  Nonetheless, it can spur us to act.  The schlemiel faces us, in a Levinasian sense (which I mentioned in the previous blog entry) with the “demand of the hour.”  Our choice to act, to decide, follows in the wake of our comic exposure to ourselves, the other, and to the hour (our situation).

This, I would argue, is the agency that Miriam Katz is trying to find for her comic audience.  Our freedom follows the comic breakdown.

Freedom and critical reflection are in the wake of the schlemiel’s oblique prophesy.