Fuck You, Thank You: Speaking of Buddy Hackett

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In one of his many phases, Walter Benjamin had a moment, near the end of his life, where he was into going through “the trash of history” so as to find things that had historical potentiality.  One could argue that Benjamin saw himself as commentator who, in commenting on trash, could bring it to life and make this or that piece of history into a quasi-kind of history – the kind that lives on in his commentary.  To be sure, Benjamin read Franz Kafka as a commentator.  In a letter to Gershom Scholem, written near the end of his life, Benjamin argues that although Kafka’s work was a comic failure he did, at the very least, succeed in being a commentator.  This idea, which I am addressing in my book on the schlemiel, struck a deep cord because, in a major sense, it relates to the trash of history.   To be sure, Kafka’s characters, as Benjamin describes them, seem to be the kinds of characters you would find in the dustbin of history: they are broken, ragged, and comical.   However, these characters are, if we take Benjamin seriously, the products of commentary.  In other words, Kafakesque comic figures, which seem to have emerged from the trash, are the products of commentary.

Given this logic, I would like to suggest something that may not seem so novel but, when thought through Benjamin’s reading of Kafka, is; namely, that stand-up comedy, especially when it is trashy, has the potential to offer the greatest commentary.  However, as Benjamin wondered with regard to Kafka, what is the text it is commenting on.  When it comes to many comedians, the answer is obvious: they are commenting on society or on our attitudes toward this or that social practice or belief.  But when it comes to some comedians, the answer isn’t so simple. In addition, the position or relation the commentator to the text or comedian commented brings on an added dimension to the reception of this commentary. One comedian I have in mind – whose relation to me is odd – is Buddy Hackett (whose real, more “Jewish” sounding name, was Leonard Hacker):

Why is my relation odd? First of all, I didn’t grow up with Buddy Hackett.  My parents did.  When I look at his comedy, I feel as if I am trying to understand their generation.  Yet, at the same time, I look at him as a Jewish stand-up comedian who is a part of a line of Borsht Belt comedians that stretches back to the mid-20th century.  Not only does Hackett speak a lot of trash, he is also a comedian who emerges out of the trash of Jewish American history.

How do I read him?  And what text is this trash of comic history commenting on?

First of all, I have my own visceral reactions to his face and his gestures.  They remind me of a New York that was, of my relatives and family members from Brooklyn (where he hails from).   There is a way of speaking that is distinctly that of New York Jews.

What I love most about it is his boldness.  He throws his body, his voice, and his vulgarity out toward the audience.  Yet he does so in an endearing way since his gestures and his body (his face, ears, eyes, etc) are child-like and animated.  His body is that of a schlemiel, a man-child.   It has an innocence that is juxtaposed to his saying or gesturing naughty things.  And this creates an odd, and exciting affect since it animates (or as Benjamin might say illuminates)…trash.  His words evince what Benjamin might call a profane illumination about ourselves and the American time and space we share with Buddy. This, it seems, is the social con-text that his comic commentary illuminates.

In his book The Last Laugh: The World of Stand Up Comics, Phil Berger suggests that we read Hackett in terms of his persona on and off stage.  There is a continuum of sorts that, if we look closely, can help us to see the comic’s life.   He looks, first, at his body and ironic demeanor and this hits at what I call the schlemiel juxtaposed to the bad-boy.

Buddy Hackett was a kind of Socrates – as we seen in The Symposium – he appears one way but is another.  He was a…

…man cold sober when up to no good.   He had the bullyboy’s ease, a distinction the very look of him argued against.  The bulbed nose, the crooked mouth, the chreub’s cheeks: it was the best of comic faces – and, it seemed, a masterpiece of illusion. (297)

Hackett was innocent but his name “provoked obscenity filled denunciations, many of which had “off-the-record” tagged to them the moment after they were uttered – and by comics who otherwise stood by their words”(297).

Because of this “history,” whenever people spoke to Hackett they were on their guard.  As Berger notes, by way of citing conversations he had with Hackett’s friends, Hackett was “unpredictable” in public.  He could “say fuck you as easily as he could say thank you.”  Berger recounts a story told to him by the “columnist Joe Delaney” about Hackett’s interchanging of the words “fuck you” and “thank you.”   According to Delaney, Hackett said fuck you in an endearing, unexpected way, and tells of a story of when a fan came up to Hackett for an autograph. When he heard this, he said:

“How would you like to perform a unilateral act?  She said, “I don’t know what you mean?” He said, “How about, go fuck yourself.  Is that clear enough?” She said, {huffily} “Well!” He said, “Then give me the piece of paper and I’ll sign.”

Although this scene is vulgar and rude, it is, nonetheless, read as endearing by Delaney:

I think that if he felt that that lady to whom he said, “Go perform a unilateral act,” was truly hurt, then he would try to make amends…you know what I am saying? I don’t think he’s a hurtful man….He really, he really is a very gentle sensitive man..”

Delaney goes on to recall how, when he read a Haiku poem to Hackett, Hackett broke down crying since the poem was alluding to sudden death.  Berger goes on this note to claim that Hackett played with poetry and was a poet of sorts; but this was conveyed by irony.  He would actually play at being a poet on stage but this was a “quasi-poetic fix to make middlebrow audiences there for laughs feel culture fucked in the bargain.”

In other words, Hackett did and did not have a poetic sensibility.  He was and was not vulnerable.  This ambiguity comes through when he trashes poetry or when he utters trash or vulgarity.  It makes for a schlemiel effect that empties out the trash, so to speak, and brings about a profane illumination of sorts.  But the trick is to get past the vulgarity to the schlemiel core in every joke.  And the irony of it all is that to do that one nearly needs to be ready for the unexpected vulgarity with the understanding that in saying “fuck you” he is really saying “thank you.”  And this juxtaposition is a kind of trashy-kind-of-commentary.

The question, however, is what was the textual basis for this trashy kind of commentary?   Is it the text of a historical relationship between Buddy and the Jewish-American world, a relationship that was, as it was happening, becoming the trash of history?  How was this failure, in Benjamin and Kafka’s sense, a positive commentary?

More later….

Harold Ramis: Comedy and Jewishness, American Style

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After I learned of Harold Ramis’s death, I spent some time on youtube going through clips of his work.   One of the most interesting things I stumbled upon was a talk he gave on Groundhog Day.   Ramis begins and ends his reflection on the film with a Jewish joke.

At the outset, he recalls a telephone call from one of the producers on the day of the film’s premier in California. He told Ramis that there are picketers at the film’s opening in Santa Monica.  In shock, Ramis asks what they are protesting and the producer tells him: “They aren’t protesting.  They are Hasidic Jews walking around with signs saying are you living the same day over and over again!”  While he cracks the joke, he has a big smirk on his face.

Following this, Ramis points out how a number of groups identified with the film: Buddhists, people in the Yoga community, Christians, and psychologists.   He notes that everyone obviously “projected” something on to the film.  However, he adds that “as a Jew, I kept thinking that people finding so much in this movie” and finding something new in it – every time – has much in common with the reading of the Torah:

The Torah is read every year, start at the same place, in the same day…every Jew reads the same form the same day, in the same cycle.  The Torah doesn’t change, but every year we read it we change.   And every time we read it we read something different.  So, the movie doesn’t change.

The punch line is that he denies the comparison after making it and then plays with it: “I’m not comparing Groundhog Day to the Torah; it’s more entertaining. And the Bible was not a good movie…John Huston’s movie.”  But the take away is that “there is something in it that can help people to reconsider where they are in life and to question their habitual behaviors.”

This analogy – and the joke that conveys it – is telling.  It suggests that Ramis sees the film and the Torah as something that can help us to recognize our mortality and prompt us to change who we are.  And we do this by way of reflecting on the story that we see which he suggests has a timeless element to it.  What lives on and changes – besides ourselves – is the interpretation of the story.  But the point is to make the interpretation.

Reflecting on this, I thought about how, in many ways, Ramis’s films were, for me, like the Torah.  I used to watch them over and over again.  I was especially fascinated with the juxtaposition of Bill Murray (John) to Harold Ramis (Russell Zisky) in Stripes.

Zisky plays the humble and intelligent American Jew while John plays the ironic and bold American rebel.  Zisky and John are both schlemiels.  And this is brought to bear on us by way of the fact that they come from a different America than the soldiers they join.  They are urban and intellectual; they are ironic and this gives them a vantage point.  However, as the film goes on they learn to overcome whatever distance separated them from the others in the platoon.  But this distance, though seemingly large, isn’t big.

The first scene of the film shows us this fact. Zisky is an educated man who is teaching “Basic English” to Immigrants.  We can see that the job is meaningful to him, but it is not allowing him to tap into his full potential.

John is also stumped.  Both of them are friends who want, as the Jewish-American writer Bernard Malamud put it, a “new life.”  To be sure, Malamud joined Sholem Aleichem, Mendel Mocher Sforim, and other Yiddish writers whose schlemiels all yearned for a “new life.”  The question, in all of their novels and stories, was whether such a life was possible or what that new life meant.   Moreover, would any of these schlemiels change, fundamentally? Or would they remain schlemiels, still, after the transformation?

When Zisky introduces himself to the platoon in Stripes, he comes across as a pacifist and his words fall flat.  None of the other Americans in the room, even John Candy in front of him, can understand or identify with what he is saying or his pledge that he will put himself on the line when they are in danger.

In contrast to Zisky, the American-Jew, is John.  His talk is that of a ironic, self-important-cool-populist.  The majority of the platoon laughs and smiles when he talks.  Everyone can identify with him.  He ends with an homage to the leader of the platoon.  But the leader sees this all as a lot of talk and, as the film goes out to show, he does all he can do to break John down and make him into a soldier rather than a populist comedian.

As the opening clip shows, the American-Jew and the cool, ironic American are completely different.  They are regarded differently by the platoon.  That changes over time.  But the initial moment gave me a lot to reflect on as a Jew growing up in small town America.  My father and mother were both natives of New York City.  They were oddballs in my small town.  My parents had more in common with Zisky than I did.

For this reason, looking back I can understand why I liked this film so much.  I tried to be more like John than Zisky.  But in the end, I saw that Zisky was also accepted.  But to be accepted, he had to prove that he could put himself on the line for other people in the platoon.  And John also had to change.  But that change was something that came from the leader of the platoon.  The basis for this had to do with making John more humble and respectful.

As a recent Village Voice article points out, this feat of making the American more humble was not realized in films like stripes, however.  It was realized in Groundhog Day.    According to the author of the article, Ramis established himself by making Slob vs. Snob comedies.  While the theme had its power and reflected life in the 80s, it still gave the “white American” slob too much power.  The author suggests that this is displaced in Groundhog Day because Bill Murray plays a character who is radically different from characters like John in Stripes.  Ramis and Murray, according to the author, figured out that Murray – of Stripes and Ghostbusters – is the “asshole of the age”:

At some point, Ramis and Murray and whoever else seem to have figured out that the Bill Murray of Stripes and Ghostbusters (both co-written by and co-starring Ramis) is the asshole of his age, a self-entitled boomer horndog interested in no perspective other than his own, engaged with no aspect of culture he hasn’t decided he already favors.

For this reason, they created a new Murray character in Stripes who, the author points out, now plays a “snob” rather than a “slob.”  The effect of this transformation, is that “he is rightly seen as a privileged dickhead instead of some hypocrisy-exposing hero of the people.”  The new lesson, he claims, is that Murray learns that there is more to the world than himself; the world is something you share with others.

I found this article to be interesting since it reads Groundhog Day, as Ramis suggests, by way of a different time.   It points out that the film has not changed, but we have.  Nonetheless, I wonder how Ramis rather than Murray fits into this reading.  Did his character change?  And what does this all have to do with Jewishness?  And, in all of this, what happened to the schlemiel?

The other day, I blogged on Ramis and pointed out how, in Knocked Up, he played the Jewish father to Seth Rogen.   As I noted, the scene I refer to is the scene of tradition and the idea that the son and father encounter is very Jewish.  The father is happy to have grandchildren.  He is happy to see the future embodied in a grandson.  The encounter, so to speak, shows us Zisky years later.  Unlike Bill Murray, he hasn’t gone through a fundamental transformation.  Ramis, in doing this, shows us that though the Jew may age, his or her humility and priorities remain the same.  Zisky isn’t the “asshole of the age.”  He just wants to help.

I’d like to end this blog post with a clip from the film Walk Hard where Ramis plays a Hasidic Rabbi who, in this scene, visits, Dewey, the main character, in prison.  Dewey is a parody of the American rock star who rises to fame, but ends up in hard times.  In an ironic twist, he speaks to him in Yiddish and Dewey replies in kind.

Here’s the rough translation:

Rabbi: Lean closer, I want to talk to you in mother tongue for the guards should not understand what I’m saying.

Dewey: You must be able to do something. I am not yet 21 years old. My whole life is waiting for me.

Rabbi: I think we need to do a retreat.

Dewey: How can we do that?

Rabbi:  You must go to a rehab

I recently noted that Woody Allen, in Take the Money and Run, briefly plays a Hasidic Rabbi. But that scene emerges out of a joke: it is a “side effect” of a drug he is asked to take in prison.  Here, however, we find something different.  This Rabbi is a wise man who looks to help Dewey to live “a new life” the kind of life that he can live if he goes through rehab, that is, a transformation.

The twist, I think, is that the Rabbi initiates the change; he helps Dewey to change his old habits.  He helps him to look at himself differently and gives him hope.  For me, this is the keynote that Ramis hit at in his talk on Groundhog Day.  It articulates what he thinks of the Torah and what he thought of his greatest film.  The idea is not simply (or only) that the white American guy realizes that he is an asshole and he can share the world with others, as the author of the Village Voice article suggests; it’s also that the this realization or rather transformative thought is scripted by a Jewish filmmaker and screenwriter named Harold Ramis.  He brought his Jewish wisdom to his films and, hopefully, this blog post steps in the direction of better understanding how this was so.  To be sure, Ramis’s own words – which I brought out above – suggest that we do so.

After all, the movie may not change, but we do. But the other side of this is that the movie, if read closely, can also prompt us to see who we are and to change our lives.  Herein lies the wisdom of a good script and a close reading, something Jews have, for centuries, been familiar.  What Ramis has done is to make this structure popular; he has created an offshoot of Jewishness.  And he has done it in an American style.

Walter Benjamin, Leon Shestov, and Heinrich Heine’s Senses of Humor

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Walter Benjamin paid very close attention to the work and life of Leon Shestov.  Shestov was a Russian émigré to Paris whose critical writings on literature and Judaism Benjamin had great respect for.  In one of his saddest (and last) letters to Gershom Scholem, written in 1939, Benjamin writes about Kafka’s legacy to his readers by focusing on Leon Shestov’s.  To be sure, Benjamin believed Shestov’s lifetime work, Athens and Jerusalem was a masterpiece.  (He often mentions this to Scholem in his letters.)  However, he didn’t know how it would fare in the future.  In his reflection on its legacy, following Shestov’s death, Benjamin notes how Shestov’s wife, deep in mourning, cannot deal with the question of what to do with his legacy.  Benjamin tells us that she lives in an apartment full of Shestov’s work (his manuscripts and unpublished essays).  He muses about how one day a housekeeper will likely see that Shestov’s widow has neglected her surroundings and, while cleaning up, will throw away all of Shestov’s writings.  To her, they are only pieces of paper.

Benjamin likens this to the fate of Kafka’s work and adds, in addition to this, that Max Brod (the keeper of this legacy) made Kafka into a fool.  To be sure, this suggests that Brod and the widow show the futility of passing tradition on.  But there is more.  What is passed on, by way of Benjamin, is a ruined yet comic kind of tradition.  These ruined traditions (of Kafka and Shestov), fails to get properly transmitted, and their fate is comical (in a bittersweet way).  In all of this, the failure of tradition is – in a way- redeemed through a comical reflection.

Since Benjamin spoke so highly of Shestov and wrote of him in a tragic-comical manner, I wondered if and how Shestov would regard the comic modality.  To this end, I decided to read through his collection of his literary essays entitled Chekhov and Other Essays (these articles were published while he was alive and were translated into English in 1916 – for a London press – and republished in 1966 by the University of Michigan Press).

Many of these literary essays are very serious – they address the work of Dostoevsky, Chekhov, and Tolstoy, but they also address different philosophers.  In these essays, Shestov reserves the comical to this or that anecdote.  (His reflections, here, seem to have more of an existential tone – one that Sartre and others took to.)  However, one essay in particular caught my eye as it addressed the comical.  This essay was entitled “Penultimate Words.”   Within this essay, the section on Heinrich Heine addresses humor.

Shestov notes, right off the bat, that the German’s misunderstood Heine’s sense of humor:

I think that if the Germans were mistaken and misunderstood Heine, hypertrophied self-love and the power of prejudice is the cause. (119)

With this in view, Shestov explains the meaning of Heine’s humor.  He notes how it moves from seriousness to sarcasm:

Heine’s usual method is to begin to speak with perfect seriousness, and to end with biting raillery. Critics and readers, who generally do not guess at the outset what awaits them in the event, have taken the unexpected laughter to their own account, and have become deeply offended.  Wounded self-love never forgives; and the Germans could  not forgive Heine for his jests. (119)

Shestov tells us that the twist is that Heine’s humor was directed at himself; it was self-deprecating.  He wasn’t looking to “attack others”:

And yet Heine but rarely attacked others: most of his mockery is directed against himself. (119)

Drawing on this observation, Shestov says that same thing happened with Gogol.  Like Heine, Gogol “confessed that he was describing himself” and was not mocking the Russian people in his fiction.  According to Shestov, Gogol wasn’t certain of himself and, for this reason, it was simply not possible for him to contrast himself – as better off – to his fellow-Russians.

On this note, he points out that Heine also had an “inconstancy of opinions”: “He changed his tastes and attachments, and did not always know for certain what he preferred at the moment”(119).   He could have “pretended to be consequent and consistent,” but he didn’t.

Rather, he played the fool and said too much:

Heine’s sincerity was really of a different order.  He told everything, or nearly everything, of himself.  And this was thought so shocking that the sworn custodians of convention and good morals considered themselves wounded in their best and loftiest feelings.  It seemed to them that it would be disastrous if Heine were to succeed in acquiring a great literary influence, and in getting a hold upon the minds of his contemporaries. (121)

Shestov points out the hypocrisy that goes with the will-to-preserve culture.  The anger of the Germans at Heine’s honesty, humor, and self-deprication was a case in point.  In talking too much, he failed publically.  But that failure was – more or less – turned into a killing of sorts.  Heine was, as the French artist and playwright Antonin Artaud might say, a man “suicided by society.”

Heine’s humor, Shestov tells us, discloses a man who is “divided.”  His words are a “mockery of himself.”  Out of some of his comic poems and writings, we can hear “Heine’s misplaced laughter”(123).  This laughter is “indecent and quite uselessly disconcerting.”  Shestov puts Heine’s “sincerity” in quotation marks because Heine was laughing and at the same time embracing the possibility of sincerity.

In addition, Heine laughs “at morality, at philosophy, and at existing religions”(126).  In a fascinating turn, Shestov says this may have to do with Heine being a modern Jew who was out-of-place (the odd one out).  To be sure, Heine was the popularizer of the schlemiel in Germany.  He saw the poet as a schlemiel.  Hannah Arendt points this out in her essay “The Jew as Pariah.”  And she situates Heine as the first schlemiel in a tradition of schlemiels.   (A tradition I am writing about in my book on the schlemiel.)

Reading Shestov and knowing that Benjamin read him lovingly, I wonder if Benjamin came across this gloss on Heinrich Heine and the comic.  It would make perfect sense since Benjamin, in one of his last letters to Gershom Scholem, wonders about the “comic aspects of Jewish theology.” There is something very Jewish and very modern in Heine’s failure.  It is the same failure that Benjamin comically apprehends in Kafka and Shestov.

And it is the failure of the schlemiel which provides the greatest insights for them as they all realized the degree to which they themselves had failed.  And, if anything, the sad laughter Benjamin had when reflecting on Shestov and Kafka was his own.  It, strangely enough, gave him hope.

Jerry Lewis’s Animistic Comedy

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Many a schlemiel-comedian has made his or her livelihood by way of this or that physical gesture (or series of gestures).  Oftentimes, these gestures are animations of this or that physical feature.  One need only think of the assemblage (to use a word made popular by the philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guittari) of Groucho Marx which included raised painted eyebrows, mustache, a cigar, his odd frames, and his “Jewish” nose.  By simply raising his fake eyebrows, widening his eyes, or twitching his cigar, Marx had a punch line.

To be sure, this assemblage has been fetishized and marketed.  The animating gesture, so to speak, is missing.

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In some cases, this assemblage has become a sign of comedy.  Here, in fact, is a book cover by MIT press. The book – The Odd One In – by Alenka Zupancic (the Slovenian philosopher Slajov Zizek’s teacher) espouses a philosophy of comedy.

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The cover and the title make an allusion to the Groucho Marx joke about him not wanting to belong to a club that would have him as a member.  This classical schlemiel joke is also told by Woody Allen.  He, so to speak, also animates it at the beginning of his film Annie Hall (1976) by retelling it – albeit with his own physical mannerisms and gestures that play more on the charming “sexual schlemiel” stereotype.

Although we are clearly aware of how each of these comedians is comically animating their features by way of this or that gesture, what we might miss is the fact that they may also – at times – animating the spaces they are in and even time.  One comedian who animates not just himself but also the space and time he occupies is Jerry Lewis.

I was fortunate enough to have recently come across this brilliant insight into Lewis’s character when Steven Shaviro (whose work on film theory, literary criticism, social networking, and philosophy is exceptional – to say the least) apprised me of two recent essays he had written on Jerry Lewis.  The second of these two essays addresses Lewis’s relationship to space and time by way of a reading which takes the comedic theory of the Nobel Prize winning late 19th and early 20th century philosopher, Henri Bergson as a counterpoint.

I deeply appreciate Shaviro’s insights since I have also taken Bergson’s Essay on Laughter and his notion of “creative evolution” as a counterpoint to my reading of the schlemiel.  What I point out in my work is how, for Bergson (as for many members of the German-Jewish Enlightenment), comedy is purgatory.  The act of laughter is based on the act of targeting this or that comic behavior which is “mechanical.”  Laughter is a way of saying that such mechanical action must be excluded (purged) from a society which is based on “élan vital” and on a vitalism based on becoming and change.  Mechanical repetition evinces the opposite and that’s why, according to Bergson, we laugh at it.  We want to become; we don’t want to mechanically repeat.

But in my reading the schlemiel is not to be seen as a character whose behaviors must be excluded; rather, they should be emulated in the sense that they challenge society to change; not the other way around.  This is what we see in much Eastern European literature.  The “lord of dreams” that Hannah Arendt sees as an obstacle to normality is, in Eastern Europe, closer to truth that those who laugh at him.  Her repetitions, therefore, put us into question and this fundamentally challenges Bergson’s reading.

Shaviro’s reading of Jerry Lewis – by way of Henri Bergson – offers another challenge to Bergson while, at the same, opening up a new way of approaching comedy by way of paying more attention to the way a comedian’s gestures affect and animate the space and time around them.

Shaviro takes Jerry Lewis’s film The Patsy (1964) as his starting point.  He focuses mainly on the music lesson given to Jerry Lewis by Hans Conreid, the “stuffy, Germanic music teacher.”

In this clip, Lewis appeals to physical gesture by “contorting his body into various grotesque postures.”  But, more importantly for Shaviro’s thesis, his gestures affect the space around him since he “ends up either..wrecking the furniture” by touching it or “by sliding down off it and onto the floor.”  These caricatures go on and on and end up affecting time and space.

Regarding Bergson, Shaviro points out that Lewis’s gestures are “inelastic” to “an alarming degree.” Lewis is “open to any and every suggestion that reaches him.”  His body is like an “electronic transformer” which “amplifies gestures and expressions instead of electric currents.”  But, in contrast to Bergson, Shaviro says that these gestures enliven things around the comic and that instead of being outside of a life process – as Bergson suggests comic gestures are – they generate a process. This generation is “visible” and spatial.

Moreover, instead of separating objects in space, Lewis’s gestures of “reciprocal interference” bind things in the room together into a network of oscillating relations. This works, also in terms of time, since instead of crashing objects immediately, Lewis postpones the crash by holding this or that object up before it falls. This creates a “temporal delay” and an excoriating long wait for this or that explosion or crash.

The key, as Shaviro argues, has to do with reading Lewis in terms of “animism” as opposed to the “vitalism” that Bergson thinks about.  This animism gives life to dead objects by way of what Shaviro calls “contagion.”  But this kind of animism differs from that spoken of by Joseph Campbell and others since it does not “possess” the animator and efface his or her identity.  Rather, this animism works like an electric current.  And, even the delay of this energy is a part of it’s relay.  In fact, the delay of the crash in the above-mentioned scene, according to Shaviro, is an extraction from the horror genre since it works by animating dead bodies; here, objects in the room.

This kind of animation is connected to “cartooning and cinematic animation” which Lewis learned (“inherited”) from the animator Frank Tashlin.  As Shaviro notes:

Cartoon animation gives exaggerated life to imaginary and initially inanimate figures; Tashlin and Lewis apply such exaggeration to living bodies themselves, creating an “unnatural” more-than-liveness.

Here is one of Tashlin’s animations from the 1940s.  As you can see, inanimate objects like a cage and signs are given life by way of exaggeration.  And this, as Shaviro argues, brings together a kind of animism that is opposed to a Bergsonian vitalism (élan vital).

Shaviro ends his essay on Lewis by suggesting that we also look at Karl Marx’s descripion of  a table which illustrates “commodity fetishism.”  In the example brought by Marx, the product – here a table – comes to life.  Marx finds this illustration of the “magical character of commodities” to be grotesque.  Playing on Bergson and Marx’s readings, Shaviro makes up a word to illustrate the ideas he is working with; namely a “Marxist-Bergsonian” phenomena which involves the animation of dead objects in space and time by way of comedy.

This thesis is fascinating and it makes the claim that the animism we see in Lewis’s comedy articulates a historical-economic backdrop for his comic-animism.  This theory puts an interesting spin on the comedy of Groucho Marx as well since the fetishized glasses, nose, and mustache that are a sign of comedy and of being the “odd one out” have the most power not when they are on this or that person’s face but when they appear in Marx’s films.

Here, for instance, is a great scene that demonstrates how he animates time and space.

I’ll end with a clip from Woody Allen’s Zelig (1983) since it illustrates how Zelig – the human animation – changes vis-à-vis whatever space he is in.  And these changes give vitality to everyone around him and create an electric circuit of sorts (much like the spinning of a record).  Perhaps this is a product of capitalism, but, as Irving Howe argues (in this very film), it can also be read as a product of assimilation. Regardless, Shaviro’s suggestion about Lewis could also be applied to Allen.   Ultimately, these animated comic gestures would be nothing without animation but, as a part of the package, Jewish identity is (as Jacques Derrida would say vis-à-vis the text and deconstruction) supplemented by animation:

 

A Note on Sarah Silverman’s Jewishness

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Sander Gilman’s book, The Jew’s Body, points out how, since Jews became modern, they were often identified with negative stereotypes based on different body parts such as the nose, the ears, lips, and even the feet.  Jews were also identified with negative psychological traits.  What interests me most about Gilman’s work is not how non-Jews looked at Jews in these ways so much as how Jews have looked at themselves by way of these bodily and psychological stereotypes.   The discomfort some Jews have had with others Jews has to do with the fact that, for them, these Jews would look or act “too Jewish.”  When it is extreme and expresses itself as a form of repulsion, it may be called Jewish Self-Hatred.

Over the last two decades there has been a move by some “New Jew” comedians, artists, and writers to play around with the fine line between humor and “Jewish Self-Hatred.”

An interesting case for seeing how this works itself out today can be found in the comedy of Sarah Silverman.  Oftentimes, she plays on the discomfort she feels about her own Jewishness and the Jewishness of others.

What does Jewishness mean to Sarah Silverman?  There are many different places where Silverman puts her Jewishness at the forefront of her routines.  And if anyone wants to get a sense of this he or she should look at each of these routines and ask a number of important questions.  I can’t touch on all of them in one blog entry, nor do I want to, but I’d like to take a look at least two instances.  And, in future blog entries I will return to this topic and look into more. These reflections are preliminary at best.

Let’s start with Silverman’s cover for Heeb Magazine in which she appears naked beneath a sheet with a hole in it.  The image blandishes an insider joke which involves the urban myth that some Hasidim have sex with their wives through a hole in a sheet.

Playing on this urban myth, and making herself the pornographic target of the Hasid, Silverman is shown naked behind a white sheet with a deviant “bad girl” look on her face.  This suggests much for those who like Louis CK, think of Hasidim, comically, in terms of sexual transgression.  The point of these jokes or images is obviously to go against the grain of what one would think a religious person would do.  Silverman, like Louis CK, is playing up this stereotype for comic affect. This type of image puts Silverman in an adversarial-comic-relation to the Hasidic other and gives us some sense of her Jewishness (which is “modern,” which can poke fun at a “pre-modern” Jewishness).  But, to be sure, the adversarial aspect of this image is effaced by her charm and innocence.   And that’s the trick. The clash between rudeness and innocence is what gives her comedy its “New Jew edginess.”

But it would be amiss to leave out the fact that, historically, Jews in Germany of the 19th and 20th century (before the Holocaust) found Ostjuden (Eastern European Jews) of the Hasidic variety to be repulsive, dirty, and smelly.  Gilman and others have written extensively on this topic and one wonders how this historical relation between modern German-Jews and their neighbors in Eastern Europe passes on to American Jews.  Silverman, obviously, doesn’t go as far as they did; but she does find an otherness in them that she, like Woody Allen and others, plays on.  Nonetheless, she does so for a reason: she plays on the otherness of their practice to demarcate a boundary between her Jewishness and sexuality and theirs.

Silverman also tests her “edge” on Jewish Bubbies (grandfather (in Yiddish)  = Zadie; grandmother – Bubbie ) in Florida – as she did in her viral video which promoted President Obama: “The Great Schlep.”

She begins the video by saying, in a way that plays on anti-Semitism, that (at :35) “if Barack Obama doesn’t get elected President, I’m going to blame the Jews.”  After saying this, we se see an image of a Jewish nose in the right corner of the screen.  The nose is the punch line.

But to make her reading acceptable, she notes the Jewish grandmothers have a lot in common with African-Americans.  Silverman sits between the two on a couch (a very “homely” gesture of American everydayness) and makes the comparisons.  Each of them plays on stereotypes to get a comic affect: some comparisons are harmless; others are not.  They both wear track suits, like Cadillacs, etc.  But, after saying that both the African-American gentleman and the Jewish Bubbie have many friends who are dead, the African-American gentleman leaves the couch.   This joke, she realizes, was shameful.  And this is the point: at one and the same time, the joke-comparison brings up a social-racial issue and then admits to a feeling of guilt.  It’s as if Silverman is defining her Jewishness not just in terms of her being kind-yet-rude but also in terms of her being ashamed and being a supporter of Barack Obama.

More important, however, is the subtext: namely, that Jewish grandmothers and grandfathers in Florida don’t get along with African-Americans and need to be convinced if they are to vote for Barack Obama.   But, as the video ends, it is the grand-children who must convince their bubbies in Florida.  And they must, ultimately, do so by way of threats, not reasoning.  (And this implies that the Jewish grandparents are likely to be very stubborn and settled in their ways.)  The threat: If the grandparents don’t vote, they will not be visited this year.

The joke is on them, really.  Silverman’s video is not about the bubbies so much as about the grandchildren who are watching the video; it is their Jewishness, a comic-edgy Jewishness, that she wishes to cultivate and turn toward a political end. But this Jewishness is based on cultivating an awareness of traits and in fostering an attitude which is progressive and political.

I’d like to end this blog-post with a brief reflection on the chapter entitled “Jew” in Silverman’s quasi-autobiography, The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption, and Pee.  It brings Silverman’s acute awareness of Jewish traits and her own Jewishness to the forefront.

In a chapter entitled “Jew,” Silverman addresses her Jewishness in her characteristic charming-yet-rude quasi-naïve style.  To begin with, her chapter title takes on the negative practice of calling someone a “Jew.”  The one word, with its anti-Semitic history, tells all.   But she plays on this edge by saying she doesn’t know what it means to be Jewish:

I don’t remember if I mentioned this to you before, but I am Jewish.  If my publisher had a sense of decency, they would have printed that disclaimer prominently on the book cover.  Otherwise, how would you necessarily know?  I mean I can’t think of anything about me that really says “Jew!!” (217)

After noting this, she goes immediately to her physical traits and notes that she doesn’t even “look” Jewish.  She points out how, in a visit to Iceland, she “blended in with the Gentile population seamlessly.”  And then, in an allusion to anti-Semitism, she writes “although there was an incident…”   But, as we learn, the incident had nothing to do with her being a Jew so much as her black hair which an “intoxicated Icelandic shepherd mistook” for a scouring pad.

To be sure, Silverman says it flatly (and, of course, ironically): she doesn’t like to be faced with her Jewishness and worries that it will bother the reader:

It’s just not fun to be reading and thoroughly enjoying a book and then you get close to the end and discover that the thing was written by a member of an ethnicity that disgusts you.  I write this chapter somewhat begrudgingly. (217)

But, in the end, she does write and admits not so much to her mission so much as to a Jewish trait she can’t stand:

To be honest, I would like to go about my life exploiting the subject of Jewishness for comedy, and not be saddled with the responsibility to actually represent, defend, or advance the cause of the Jewish people.  Nevertheless, my Jew editor convinced me to write a chapter on Jewishness by using one of our culture’s greatest tools of persuasion: relentless nagging. (218)

Although this is obviously a joke, one cannot walk away from it without asking why it works.  It works because Silverman is banking much of her Jewish comedy on identifying this or that physical trait or habit with Jewishness and mocking it.  Silverman’s discomfort with her own Jewishness makes it “edgy.”  But it also breaches questions as to what Jewishness is. Do we share the same understandings of Jewishness with Silverman and is that why some of us may find her Jewish dis-comfort laughable?  Or do some of us, when reading this, sigh?   Is she making fun of people who feel uncomfortable when Jews talk about Jewishness, is she laughing at herself, or is she half-serious?  Most importantly, why does Jewishness have to reside in this or that Jewish “trait”?  Is Jewish comedy attached to the trait whether it wants to be or not?

Why Have I Been Blogging on Agamben or How Can the “Decisive Historical Gesture” be Comic?

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As anyone who has been following my blog will notice, I have been blogging a lot on Giorgio Agamben’s “Notes on Gesture” and his “Fable and History: Considerations of the Nativity Crib.”  The reason I have been pursuing these readings is because I am very interested in thinking through the meaning of comic gesture.  Agamben, following Walter Benjamin (and Aby Warburg – another Jewish-German thinker-slash-art-historian who I will address in the near future), has taken to the task of addressing the gesture-as-such.  What I want to remind everyone is that what spurred my search for the meaning of gesture was (and is) Walter Benjamin’s treatment of gesture in his essay on Franz Kafka.

To be sure, Benjamin scrutinized the gestures of Kafka’s characters and argued that by paying close attention to them we could learn something of great – even messianic – urgency.   Benjamin reads these gestures as “pre-historic,” and this is what Agamben latches onto; however, what Agamben misses is the fact that Benjamin also saw them as comical.  As I have noted elsewhere, the keynote of Benjamin’s essay on Kafka can be found in its final gestures, which belong to Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.

Like Sancho Panza, we watch the comic gesturing of Don Quixote.  But we are not alone.  Benjamin’s most favored Kafka aphorism was the aphorism on Don Quixote.  It teaches us about a comic tradition that is passed on.  And, this, for Walter Benjamin, is relayed to us through a close attention to comic gesture.    Benjamin knew, as well, that the messianic had to be thought through a close attention to this comic gesture.

We see this in his essay on Kafka and in some of his last letters to his friend and confidant Gershom Scholem.  Benjamin was after the comic aspects of Jewish theology.  And this is a point that Giorgio Agamben misses since he uses Benjamin’s work within a different context, one which, as I have argued, is much more solemn and Christian then Benjamin’s.

The point of my blog entries on Agamben is to show how Agamben is and is not on the right track.  Following Benjamin, he is right to think about the relationship of gesture to secularization, history, infancy, and the messianic; however, Agamben’s way of thinking of gesture misses something comical that both Benjamin and Kafka were following through.

I’d suggest that “infancy” and the “decisive historical gesture” that Agamben speaks of need not be isolated to the “nativity scene.”  For Agamben, the most profound movement which should be of concern to us, today, is the movement from silence to speech.  To be sure, as I pointed out in the last blog entry, Walter Benjamin addressed this in terms of the movement from tragedy to comedy.  Indeed, for Benjamin, comedy speaks from out of infancy.  And I would suggest that it constantly returns to it; hence, the preponderance of men-children and schlemiels in Jewish comedy.   I’d like to look more into this gesture of return and departure from infancy since, as far as I can see, Benjamin initiated this thread without following it through.  I would like to suggest that this gesture, and not the gesture of the crib, is “the decisive historical gesture” which brings man out of tragic silence.

To think infancy in a “serious” manner, as thinkers such Giorgio Agamben, Maurice Blanchot, and even Jean-Francois Lyotard have done, may miss the point that Benjamin was sketching out in his early work.   As these thinkers all knew (and know), their work could be aided by the Jewish tradition. But the tradition that they often turn to does not include any reflection on the comic gesture.

I would like to suggest that there is another Jewish tradition that they missed; namely, what Hannah Arendt called (in her “Jew as Pariah” essay) the “hidden tradition.” Arendt tells us that at the beginning of this tradition is the schlemiel.  Although Arendt is right in calling this a “hidden tradition,” I think her reading of it is problematic.  I will discuss this in future blog-entries (and it will appear as a fundamental point in my book).

For now I just want to suggest that, for Jews, the “decisive historical gesture” is not to be found in the “nativity crib.” For a people who was “pre-historical” for centuries, the comic gesture played a key role in linking Jews to history.  And it is the comic gesture which, for many Jews, has had messianic, historical, and secular resonance.

So, in closing, I just want to point out that my attention to Agamben’s work on gesture, infancy, and the messianic was based on laying out the question of gesture.  I may not agree with his reading of it, but, at the very least, I tip my hat to him for making it an issue and thinking through its relations.  This is a discourse which, I believe, can be fruitful for schlemiel-in-theory.  After all, comedy is not simply about ideas as about gestures.  And these gestures are, as I will argue, deeply historical.  As all comedians know, it’s “all in the timing.”

Agamben on The Historical as Opposed to the Magical Redemption of Man, Animal, and Nature

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What is redemption?  And how would redemption, as understood by Giorgio Agamben, differ from the redemption we hear of in the Torah, the New Testament, or the Koran?  These are big questions that I don’t think can be addressed in one blog entry.  Nonetheless, they should be of great concern for anyone who reads Agamben’s revision of the Messianic which he, oftentimes, uses scripture to articulate.

In the essay I have been focusing on in the last few blog entries, Agamben has, as I have pointed out already, claimed that the “nativity crib” is the “decisive…historical gesture.”  For Agamben, the crib takes us out of the fable and enchantment.  It is a gesture of secularization. But, as I pointed out in the last entry, Agamben also regards it as messianic.  The question I posed was whether Kafka and Benjamin will be at that redemption.  Perhaps they are the sleepers in the nativity scene since they are caught up in the pre-historic rather than the historic (redemption).  Even thought Agamben doesn’t mention Benjamin in the key moment when he talks about the pre-historic it is clear that he is making reference to Benjamin’s essay on Kafka.  Regarding this essay, Benjamin told both Theodor Adorno and Gershom Scholem that he wanted to retain the tension between the mystical and the political (he likened this tension to the tension of a bow).  However, as he admitted to them, he had failed to maintain it.  In his own view, he had slipped into the mystical and missed the political aspect of Kafka’s work.  Agamben would read this as an admission that Benjamin had got caught up in Kafka’s pre-historical world.

Hence, Agamben’s reading looks to go where Benjamin failed to go in his Kafka essay: toward the historical.  This has its problems as it suggests that Jews like Kafka and Benjamin couldn’t make it into history.  Scholars like Irving Howe, Hannah Arendt, Yosef Yerushalmi, and Emmanuel Levinas (amongst many others) note the different relationship Jews have to time (albeit it in different ways: negative and positive).   But Agamben’s reading, drawing on Christianity, suggests that those who are stuck in the pre-historic are stuck in the world of myth, fable, and magic.  As I noted, however, this is far from the truth.  Jews have been involved in secularization for a while.  And Agamben, at the very least, notes this elsewhere (for instance, in the first chapter of his book Nudities he notes that prophesy, when it ended, was supplemented by interpretation).  But in this essay we find something else.

The problem has to do with his reading of the historical as it pertains to the Messianic.

Agamben, at the end of his essay, notes that the secularizing, historical gesture is with the Church and with Italian Renaissance artists.  They bring us toward as secular, historical messianism in which man, plant, and animal are redeemed (or so it seems).

After naming several Italian artists (who took their cue from the “nativity crib,” Agamben

notes that “the magical link between figures has been completely resolved in a historical link. Each fiture in the crib is certainly whole in itself, not united with others by any plastic or spatial tie simply set momentarily beside them” (144).  In other words, what they did is more than a matter of a secular aesthetic gesture.  In fact, its messianic:

All the figures, without exception, are welded into a single structure by the invisible adhesive of participation in the messianic event of redemption. (145)

Their “unity” is not just (!) Messianic says Agamben, is “historical.”  In other words, there is nothing magical about this messianic.  It is fully secular and historical.  He therefore uses the terms historical and messianic together so as to efface any belief that the messianic will be miraculous.  Strangely enough, however, he doesn’t state this explicitly.  And this makes his gesture esoteric not exoteric.

Taking a messianic tone on at the end of his essay, Agamben notes how all distinctions between secular and profane will be “bridged” in “history.”  History, however, is not, says Agamben, to be equated with “progress.”  This is an odd gesture, given that Agamben, throughout the essay, uses the structure of progress, evolution, and supercession to explain the crib.

All he adds, on this “historical” note, is that everything, all the “minutiae of history,” will be “immediately and historically complete.”   Here, he draws on Walter Benjamin but without mentioning him even once.  But the truth of the matter is that Benjamin’s words need much explaining.  To accept them as self-evident would be uncritical.  Nonetheless, Agamben acts as if they are.  In addition to this, the notion of immediate redemption (a notion discussed in the Midrash and Kabbalah – k’heref ayin – redemption in the ‘blink of an eye”) is a thoroughly miraculous and mystical notion.  But Agamben writes of it as if it is secular and historical.  How exactly would that be the case?

He doesn’t tell us, but we should, somehow, accept that it is.

With this in mind, how do we read Agamben’s final moments in his essay which deal with a thoroughly ambiguous and telling aesthetic figure.  Agamben writes of “the work of the anonymous survivors” of “Spaccanapoli.”   This work makes an

Infinite discrepancy between the figuring of man – whose lineaments are as if blurred in a dream, whose gestures are torpid and imprecise – and the delirious, loving impulse that shapes displays of tomatoes, auberigines, cabbages, pumpkins, carrots, mullet, crayfish….on the market stalls among baskets, scales..(146)

Here, once again, we have a secular gathering of things in the market.  Are these “things” which include (but pale, man) on the brink of messianic, historical redemption?

To this, Agamben notes something that seems to go against everything he has said before.  He ponders the possibility that this may be the “sign that nature is once more about to enter the fairy tale, that once more it asks history for speech.”  This would suggest that the messianic moment may be calling for the messianic and the miraculous.  In the midst of this moment, says Agamben, man will be “bewitched by a history which, for him, again assumes the dark outline of destiny.”  Perhaps man will, once again, enter the fable and be “struck dumb by a spell.”

After noting this, Agamben casts his own spell by saying his own secular messianic phrase:

Until one night, in the shadow-light where a new crib will light up the figures and colors unknown, nature will once again be immured in its silent language, the fable will awaken in history, and man will emerge, with his lips unsealed, from mystery to speech (146).

What I find most interesting about this gesture is the fact that, though it builds on what Benjamin says about myth, silence, and speech in his work (especially Benjamin’s Origin of German Tragic DramaUrsprung des deutschen Trauerspiel) it goes unmentioned.  More interesting is the fact that, for Benjamin, the movement from tragic, mystical silence to speech was first evinced by comedy (namely in the figure of Socrates and his irony).  Nonetheless, I find nothing comic about this movement to speech.  For Agamben, this moment is historical and serious and, because it lacks this comic element, it seems as if it is also a magical gesturing of sorts (but of the rhetorical variety).

Although Agamben opens up many doors for thinking the secular, historical aspect of the Messianic, sometimes his work , as in this essay, focuses too much on figures (such as the crib and “speech”) that have nothing ironic whatsoever about them.  Redemption is a serious affair, but is it possible to conceive it comically?  This, I would submit, is something Benjamin did consider (in his letters to the Kabblah scholar and is friend Gershom Scholem and in his work on Kafka), but it is not something Agamben would consider.

The comic may be a gesture of secularization for him, but it’s not the key.  The fruits, vegetables, market wares, and man await a serious form of historical redemption and a “new crib” for its new infancy.  But wouldn’t that imply that man doesn’t simply speak but that he is a man-child?  And isn’t that comic? Or is that too offensive for anyone who seriously ponders the new “nativity crib” to come?  Man is, after all, a creature.  Agamben knows that very well.  But is man a comic creature or a historical creature?  Both?

And what figure best approximates this?  A nativity crib to come or something other?  As a Jew who loves the schlemiel and sees it as a messianic figure of sorts, how can I accept this “nativity crib to come?”    Can the “decisive..historical gesture” be comic?

A Note on Reggie Watts @ TED Talks

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Reggie Watts shows us how right Marshall McLuhan was when he said that the “medium is the message.”  But with Reggie I would revise McLuhan to say that the “medium is the message(s).” Or, alternatively, we can also say that Reggie Watts is the message. He’s a signal of sorts, sometimes its coded and mystical; sometimes it’s cultural; but the signal we get, regardless of what he does, is always comic, rhythmic, and musical.

What makes Watts so fascinating, however, is that, like a radio switching from channel to channel (to use an “old school” metaphor) or a person scanning through their texts or facebook feeds, Watts moves from language to language and medium to medium.  Yet he gives us enough time to check out each medium or language before he moves on to the next.  But what makes his routine comic is not just found in how he works with each medium or voice, but also in how he moves from voice to voice with such rapidity and skill.

Reggie’s comic greatness is also written into his body and history.  He is a hybridic character with an unkempt retro-afro.  His mother is French and his father is American.  And since his father was in the military, he moved from place to place before he ended up in Great Falls, Montana.

In a way, Reggie seems to be linking these places, identities, and bodies.  He is seeking for a child-like relationship between them, one that plays at maturity.  In his work, I find an interesting take on what I looked at in yesterday’s blog entry; namely, what Gombrowicz calls “difficult childhood.”  Gombrowicz points out how a good artist will necessarily exhaust maturity and will be thrown into a “difficult childhood” while, at the same time, being, a grown person.  But while Gombrowicz returns to childhood in order to ruin his “Polish Childhood,” Watts returns in order to play on it.

In this clip from TED Talks, Watts inhabits a “difficult childhood” but in a way that seems to be lacking the anxious edge of Gombrowicz’s “difficult childhood.”  Watts does this by way of switching languages, melodies, and rhythms.  The affect of this is to play on the “seriousness” of TED talks.  Yet, at the same time, while playing on it, it does seem as if he is “serious.”  This is what we get from the audience.  They don’t laugh at him when he gets serious.  But at a certain point they do.  Like Andy Kaufman (Watts received the “Andy Kaufman Award” in 2006), he is able to hold the audience in an ambiguous space between laughter and seriousness.

Watts’s form of comedy is working on many levels and, as I mentioned above, he moves between one mode and another in a comic manner so as to create an unusual relatonship that we would never have surmised.  But, in the midst of all this, there is a mark of humility, charm, and absent-mindedness that makes one think of the schlemiel.   But he is not a traditional schlemiel; he is a schlemiel for a new age, an age that has been raised on the internet, hip-hop, and youtube.   But he is not for everyone.  His appeal is to a more narrow audience which appreciates all of this and, at the same time, likes to think deeply about the “meaning of it all.”

Reggie Watts is a comical mystic of the information age.

I would like to return to Watts’ work in future entries.  He is one of the most interesting and innovative comedians out there and watching him is not only entertaining but meaningful and thought provoking.  Playing on McLuhan, I’d say Watts is the message(s).

Comic Exposure to Targeting: A Levinasian Reading of Andy Kaufman and Phillip Roth’s Portnoy (Part II)

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The reflection on and implementation of comic targeting has a long history which stretches back to the origins of Greek philosophy.   The reflection on the target is of utmost importance for thinkers who wish to establish this or that kind of hierarchy or agonistics between appearance and reality, the mind and the body, being and becoming, and other topics germane to Western philosophy.

For Socrates, the role of irony was to create a sense that things are not always as they seem: he looked to separate appearance from reality, being from becoming, and truth from untruth in his ironies.  We see a good example of this in the Symposium where Alicabades, fully intoxicated, bursts into the Symposium and accuses Socrates of being a seducer.  In his drunkenness, Alciabades publicly accuses Socrates of lying about his quest for truth.  For Alciabades, Socrates acted ‘as if’ he thought physical was inferior to the love of wisdom.  It was a front that he used to seduce young men.  The irony is that Socrates “seems” to be into the former and is seducing young boys, but in actuality he is brining them closer to the truth.  His irony is that of a philosophical trickster. In the end, Alciabades claims that Socrates wears that mask of Silenius, the cohort of Dionysus.  He seems to be a seducer but, ultimately, he’s not.  He is committed to truth and being. And the target of his ironies is always what seems to be true: becoming.

In his book On Masochism, Gilles Deleuze argues that Socrates destroys this or that target in the name of this or that principle.  Irony has a philosophical use: it makes one distinguish and judge the difference between appearance and reality.  In contrast to irony, Deleuze, citing Sacher Masoch’s Venus in Furs, posits humor; for Deleuze humor doesn’t aim at destroying a target and establishing a principle so much as elaborating what he calls a contract which reduces absolutes to finite terms and relations.   In Delueze’s model, there isn’t a hierarchy so much as a lateral tension between beings which is not ironic so much as humorous.

In The Poetics (5:14) and The Rhetoric, Aristotle saw humor as introducing the “incongruous.”  The joke surprises the listener by offering something he or she did not expect in this or that series.  This laughter or surprise is another way of saying that what is laughed at is not beautiful or harmonious.  Humor is a distortion of proper mimesis and is, for this reason, a target.  Aristotle notes this in the poetics, Chapter 4:

Comedy, as I said, a mimesis of people worse than are found in the world – ‘worse’ in the particular sense of ‘uglier’, as the ridiculous is a species of ugliness; for what we find funny is a blunder that does no serious damage or an ugliness that does not imply pain, the funny face, for instance, being one that is ugly and distorted…

For Thomas Hobbes, the author of the classic on political philosophy, Leviathan, humor was wedded to power.  As Sander Gilman points out in an essay on post-Holocaust humor, for Hobbes humor was either aimed at people who had less or more than oneself.  And when one laughs, Hobbes tells us that one feels “superiority” and “sudden glory.”  It is this feeling that one strives for as it makes one feel “as if” one is a god and beyond it all.  One sees the other stumble and laughs by virtue of their not falling.  This feeling cannot be attained without the destruction or decline of this or that target.  One, so to speak, becomes free from the target once one wounds it.    Hobbes states it plainly in his opus, Leviathan:

Men experience the passion of a sudden glory by some sudden act of their own, that pleaseth them; or by apprehension of some deformed thing in another, by comparison whereof they suddenly applaud themselves (33)

For Immanuel Kant, comedy is also surprising.  And like Aristotle, he thinks it has a critical function. But for Kant laughter also has an ameliorative function.   Its target, like that of Aristotle, is that which causes tension and perplexity.

Simon Critchley, in his book, On Humor, notes that in Kant’s Critique of Judgment, Kant sees humor as offering “comic relief” to this or that tension.  Here’s Kant’s joke which, as Critchley notes, has racist overtones:

An Englishman at an Indian’s table in Surat saw a bottle of ale being opened, and all the beer, turned to froth, rushed out. The Indian, by repeated exclamations, showed his great amazement. – Well, what’s so amazing in that? asked the Englishman. – Oh, but I’m not amazed at its coming out, replied the Indian, but how you managed to get it all in. – This makes us laugh, and it gives us a hearty pleasure. This is not because, say, we think we are smarter than this ignorant man, nor are we laughing at anything else here that it is our liking and that we noticed through our understanding. It is rather that we had a tense expectation that suddenly vanished…

In this joke, the comic relief corresponds not simply to the structural tension presented by the joke but ethnic relations and tensions.   Regardless, what we find is that perplexity is the target and it is perplexity which creates the tension.  The surprise (that is the punch line) here is much like the surprise discussed by Hobbes: it grants one a sense of superiority which, ultimately, is based on realizing that what we thought was perplexing or worthy of serious concern really isn’t.

Comic relief happens when the target is eliminated; strangely enough, this happens when one learns that the target (the perplexity) is not a target (or perplexing).   It only “appeared” to be so.  Comedy, like perplexity, may make one fell uneasy, but in the end it is supplanted by knowledge.  To be sure, this process of experiencing wonder/perplexity (and unease) and the displacement of it is rooted in Aristotle’s approach to wonder and philosophy in The Metaphysics.   Indeed, Aristotle saw happiness in terms of relieving the tension one feels in the face of wonder (that is, not knowing).  In the wake of perplexity, knowledge is relief; just as in the joke, as Kant understands it, the knowledge that the perplexity was a ruse also grants relief.

One can be assured, that there is no tension.  It was just a joke. And in learning this, one feels superior rather than subordinate to this or that perplexity.

Even for the Romantics, comedy has a target. Irony looks to play with and destroy things.  It is violent.  Wit is, as Novalis says, a Menstruum Universale,  a chemical substance.  It targets thinks and breaks them down.  And what we laugh at, like children, is the fragmentary remains (or the process of this breakdown).  Wit demonstrates one’s ability to break things down and, in the process, one elevates oneself (one’s tactical, practical sensibility) over these things.  Instead of the reign of reason, as with Kant, we have the reign of play and tact.  Regardless, there is a kind of superiority – either of play, humanism, or reason – at work which is based on overcoming this or that target.

As I have pointed out in various blog entries, Kierkegaard saw irony as a challenge to the world and all our mental machinations. Irony can make one into a god of sorts.  As Kierkegaard points out in his book Either/Or, humor seems to come out of nowhere to rescue one from despair.  In a section of the book entitled “Rotations,” Kierkegaard sees humor in relation to what he calls rotation.  In the aesthetic (as opposed to the religious or the ethical) one moves from one thing to another – from melancholy to comedy. Although humor “saves,” it does so by taking the world as its target.  It rotates from being brought down by the world to lifting oneself above it, like a god.  But, ultimately, Kierkegaard sees humor as subservient to faith.  Irony divests oneself of the mind, world, etc.  But it is fear and trembling which, for him, supercedes humor.  Regardless, the theme is, still, about targeting and elevation.

Like Kierkegaard, Henri Bergson, in his “Essay on Laughter,” also has a distinct target.  He argues that laughter takes the mechanical gesture as its target.  For Bergson, it targets the mechanical because laughter is connected to becoming, change, and life – to what he calls élan vital – while the mechanical is connected to stasis.  Laughter is a part of what he calls “creative evolution.”  To illustrate this, Bergson talks about different toys that children find funny: like the Jack-in-the-Box, a toy that mechanically repeats the same “surprising” mechanical gesture.  The same goes for mimes or clowns who repetitively repeat this or that action.  We laugh at it because we want to identify with and yet exclude this behavior from society as society. For Bergson, humor is based on “creative evolution” and becoming not repetition.     We laugh because we want to grow and that requires that we target that which keeps us from being free and becoming.

The surprise we feel is, for Bergson, connected to the fact that what we see is repetitive.  It is ultimately transcended by the desire for change which is surprised by that which can change but does not.  It finds these things that repeat over and over again surprising as they go against becoming which Bergson finds germane to humanity.  Here, the surprise is not wonder so much as an articulation of the superiority of élan vital which cannot tolerate the mechanical, which is below life.

In the next blog entry I will discuss Paul deMan’s targeting as the culmination of all of these targeting theories and, from there, I will relate this to Emmanuel Levinas, Phillip Roth, and Andy Kaufman who either extend or challenge this reflection on targeting.  The point of all this reflection on targeting is to show how deeply entrenched this tradition is and to think about whether or not Levinas, Roth, and Kaufman present an alternate route.

On Louis CK’s ‘Hasidic Cum Tissues’ Routine

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A facebook friend recently cued me in to a website that collected things Louis CK has said about Jews.   Included in the archived videos are a few clips: a clip where Louis CK plays on many different dialects and how speech indicates different kinds of sick lifestyles (the Jewish dialect amongst them), a video on rape where he goes so far as to say, in an aside, that Jews should be raped and follows “did I say that?”; it also includes a clip on Jewish girls (which was removed from Youtube), the “Goodbye Jews” clip that I discussed in the last blog entry on Louis CK, and a clip entitled “Hasidic Cum Tissues” (which was also removed from Youtube).

Regarding this clip, the webpage cites Louis CK as saying:

And the weird detail she told me is that [the Hasidic clients of the dominatrix] always had to take their sperm home with them in a tissue, because that was in their religion that they couldn’t leave their bodily fluids behind. So somehow God’s watching a dominatrix shit in your mouth, and he’s like “Well as long as you take your cum home, it’s fine.” 

I was really curious about this video clip as its title and the claim were so bizarre.  I wanted to hear it and take note not just of this but of other parts of the clip that would show me Louis CK’s ways of relating to Jewish things.   (Moreover, I am familiar with Jewish customs (minhagim) and laws (halacha) and I had never heard of such a thing as “cum tissues” let alone heard of Hasidim who needed to make sure all semen was put in tissues.)

From the Louis CK page, we learn that the clip was removed by Youtube.  Nonetheless, I wondered if it may have been renamed.  It was.  And it was simply filed under the Opie and Anthony Show.   As their Wiki page points out, Opie (Greg “Opie” Hughes) and Anthony (Cumia) had a show since 1995 and that went on to 2002.  They had a hiatus and went onto XM Satellite Radio in 2006.  The show, over the years, has been host to many comedians including Louis CK.  The energy in and around the show is anxious and highly charged – much like The Howard Stern Show.  The language is heavy and very vulgar. And like Stern, they often disregard political correctness and speak what is on their minds.  And sometimes that can get very risky.

This clip in particular is very vulgar and you may not want to hear or see my reading of it as the clip that I address portrays some Hasidic Jews in a very negative even anti-Semitic fashion.  I found many details that were not mentioned by the person who runs the website or anyone on the web for that matter.  I have noted them below. Read and listen at your own risk.

In this clip – show #19 -they had Louis CK as a guest.  29:27 in Louis CK begins telling a joke about a Dominatrix, Hasidim, and “cum tissues.”  His friend’s wife was a Dominatrix and she had Hasidim as clients.

After much banter about this Dominatrix and his friend, he returns (at 31:17) to the joke and brings in the Hasidim and the tissues.  He describes the relationship of the Hasidim to the Dominatrix and points out that they were rude to her before the transaction.  In an attempt to explain why they are rude, Louis CK  notes than anybody “outside” their community is deemed “an outsider.”  Furthermore,  “that’s the way the culture is….its a closed society…I’m trying to be nice about it…Fucking Jews!”(Nervous laughter.)

After saying this, Opie and Anthony come to the rescue and say that while he is right about the Hasidim being a closed society, it woukd be wrong to say that all Hasidim are the same.  Yet, they say Hasidim are “mysterious.”  Louis CK then comes in and talks about some “good” Hasidim he has met at B & H Photo in Manhattan.  He imitates one of the Hasidim who works behind the counter and notes that some can be rude, there, while others “can be nice.”

Returning to the story, and bringing to bear on us how Louis CK and the Dominatrix share a negative attitude towards “them,” he notes that “these Jews were rude to her….Going to the dominatrix to have their dicks whipped is not in the Talmud.”

Louis CK points out, without wincing, that “when she was beating them, she said they were the only clients she ever hit with spite.” Finding her spite (and her beating of the Hasidim) to be justifiable, he notes that the Hasidim had “crossed the line.”  In other words, they deserved a cruel beating.

After justifying her cruel (as opposed to “kind,” normal) whipping, Louis CK notes that she said that she “used to crucify them….and inside, when she was hitting them, she thought ‘You Fucking Jew!’”

“And then the weird detail she told me came when she told me that they had to put their sperm in a tissue…they had to take their sperm home with them.”  CK, an anthropologist from Mars, explains that they cannot leave any fluids lying around.  He goes on to state what he says as Jewish blindness and hypocrisy: “somehow, God’s watching a dominatrix shit in your mouth…and everything will be alright if you take your cum home.”  Following Louis CK’s  judgment, they all jokingly play out the reasons why God would want them to do this.  And Louis CK finishes the foray by saying that all be well if the Hasid can put the “cum tissue in the cigar box under his wife’s shawl.”

Opie then gets going and talks about how he heard of a “tranny” who would make the Hasidim shower because they smelled so bad.  All of the anti-Semitic stuff starts coming here and then a phone-call comes in that is directed at these Hasidim.

The caller who is apparently a cop confirms this claim. And even calls them “filthy, filthy animals.”  Then he says not all of them “…a couple of them.”

What is so disturbing about all of this is not simply the negative anti-Semitic descriptions, but the fact that the topic is simply passed by.  After the cop hangs up, they simply talk about other things.

They feel no need to reflect on what they said about the “dirty Hasidim.”  There is no need to reflect on how odd it is that Louis CK thought of their cruel (as opposed to kind) “beating” as justified.  Here we need to ask ourselves if Louis CK (and the whole crew) went too far.

And although they are laughing, are we?  What would it mean if we were to laugh along with all of them about those “dirty Jews?”  Is this routine about “Hasidic Cum Tissues” funny or just disturbing?