Writing on poetry in his book Writing Degree Zero, Roland Barthes makes the argument that “interrupted flow of the new poetic language initiates a discontinuous Nature, which is only revealed piecemeal.” It does this by “withdrawing” the natural functions of language. When this “withdrawal” happens, “the relations existing in the world” are obscured. And what happens is that now, in poetry, one is faced with the “object” or rather relations: in “it (the new poetry) nature becomes a fragmented space, made of objects solitary and terrible, because the links between them are only potential.”
Reading this, I wondered what would happen if, for “new poetic language,” I were to substitute the word “humor.” I thought this would be an interesting experiment so as to test Roland Barthes claims. After all, humor also plays on relations between things and it “withdraws” the natural function of language by surprising us with unexpected combinations of word, gesture, and physical presence.
But, for Barthes, poetic language is surprising in a terrifying way. As we saw above, nature, by way of new poetry, becomes full of “solitary and terrible” objects because their relations are “only potential.” For Barthes, nature becomes unhinged by way of the “new poetry” and nothing is projected on to these “potential” links/relations:
Nobody chooses for them a privileged meaning, or a particular use, or some service; nobody imposes a hierarchy on them, nobody reduces them to the manifestation of a mental behaviour, or of an intention, of some evidence of tenderness.
The poetic word leaves one, so to speak, speechless and powerless. It assaults one with a world of “verticalities, of objects, suddenly standing erect, and filled with all their possibilities: one of these can be only a landmark in an unfulfilled, and thereby, terrible world.” Moreover, “these poetic words” or rather objects “exclude men.” They relate man “not to other men, but to the most inhuman images of Nature: heaven, hell, holiness, childhood, madness, pure matter, etc.” And it destroys “any ethical scope.”
Can we, in all seriousness, replace what Barthes is saying about poetry with humor? Can we say that humor “excludes” men and relates man to “hell, holiness, childhood, madness, etc”? What does humor relate us to? Other people? Things human or inhuman?
What I would like to do is think relationality in terms of the comic. Barthes, like the German philospher Martin Heidegger (in essays like “What is Metaphysics,” “Letter on Humanism,” and the “Origin of the Work of Art”) , wants to give poetry the role of making things strange and inhuman. But why, one should ask, is comedy and laughter excluded from that space? Are they too human and familiar? Is comedy or laughter “too social” or “too ethical”? After all, Henri Bergson thought its primary activity was social. Comedy excludes that which gets in the way of natural, creative evolution: élan vital. We laugh at that which is “mechanical” and not natural – at that which doesn’t change and become, that which repeats itself needlessly.
Charles Baudelaire had a radically different reading of humor. In fact, for him, humor changes our relation to ourselves and others. It estranges us. And his primary example actually involves revisiting childhood – a broken one – by way of the writer ETA Hoffman, who writes of how a little girl becomes the object of laughter by way of her losing her relations to the world. He also cites mimes as altering these relations.
But mime is not poetry and neither is ETA Hoffman’s work; nonetheless, Baudelaire found the work mimes and Hoffman did to be invaluable to himself (a poet). Nonetheless, the serious approach to poetics, as the basis of some kind of post-humanism, by way of Heidegger, Barthes, and even Maurice Blanchot, cannot entertain the possibility that humor can make things strange.
What’s interesting with humor is the fact that the shock that may or may not be invoked by this or that joke reverberates with both anxiety and with a sense of discovery. Moreover, the best comedians disclose a potentiality to us that plays with things we take as “natural” and it does so in a way that is not completely alienating.
I find this fact fascinating since, in a way, it is a utopian kind of language since it appeals to the people and doesn’t simply look to alienate them. To be sure, comedy’s power is in its ability to challenge nature and accepted relations while, at the same time, evoking something different and surprising. Barthes himself evokes a utopian language at the end of Writing Degree Zero that relates the new poetry to the Revolutionary and a “new power.” But, for him (as for Sartre) literature or poetry must lead the way; not comedy. For both of them, there is nothing funny about revolution or utopia. Strangely enough, this seriousness and this piety to language and thought are more aligned with mystics than with comics.
And perhaps that’s the rub. The comical approach to challenging our relations to all kinds of things – such as cell phones, parenting, race, politics, etc etc – are at play in comedy. And the potential of comedy is, in so many ways, more powerful than that of straight up “new poetry” (which, don’t get me wrong, I really love). Nonetheless, I find it fascinating that someone like Barthes wouldn’t even entertain this. And I think this has a lot to do with the trends that were going on in his time.
I am very influenced by his work and the work of Continental thinkers. However, what I realize is that the best test for their work, as far as schlemiel-in-theory goes, is comedy. In this case, substituting comedy for poetry – for purely experimental reasons – can change the way we look at Barthes profound approach to language. It can also offer us another way to think the comical – minus all that poetic seriousness. And we can ask, for better or for worse, what the “potential” of comedy is, how it renders us powerless, and how it puts forth the potential for a new distribution of power. Perhaps we can say, playing on Barthes (and even Blanchot) that comedy has the power of powerlessness behind it. But, as I noted before, comedy is all in the timing. And this power of powerlessness must, so to speak, stand the test of time.