An Experiment: What Happens When you Substitute Humor for Poetry?

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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.

The Odd Couple: Kairos and Masochism

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Going through Roland Barthes lecture notes (for his lectures in Morocco in 1978), I came across an odd relationship, one I have never seen posited by any scholar; namely, the relationship between Kairos and Masochism.  Giving some thought to it this morning, it occurred to me that timing may in fact have something to do with masochism if, that is, one doesn’t try to master it.  On the other hand, I wondered what this has to do with the schlemiel or humor.  To be sure, Leopold Sacher Masoch, the father of masochism, did write a novel or two about Jews who he lived side by side with and who, some argue, taught him about the masochism.  Gilles Deleuze, in his book Masochism, posits a relationship between humor and masochism and contrasts it to the relationship of irony to mastery.  Although he discusses the relationship of masochism to contingency (something Barthes is interested in), he doesn’t discuss the relationship of masochism to time.

How does Barthes approach this topic?  And can we learn anything about the schlemiel’s relation to time by way of addressing it?

In a sub-section of his notes entitled “the Perishable,” Barthes notes that the “right moment” that informs his notion of Kairos is one that “passes” and that, in terms of the subject, it is a “perishable quality” of this passing moment is “accepted, wanted.”  But, says Barthes, desire is not an act of “resignation” – rather, it is an act of “consecration.”  But this consecration is not the creation of monument to one’s mourning of the passing moment.  It is, instead, an “acceptance” of the moment’s contingency, fragility, and perishability. And it exists, says Barthes, in the parenthesis.  In other words, it is not something that can be affirmed or denied; it is neutral.  But if this is the case, how do we understand what he means by desire or acceptance?  Isn’t that an affirmation or an act of the will?

Anticipating this question, Barthes looks to create a notion of acceptance that has nothing to do with the will.  And all of this, for Barthes, is a preface to his claim that masochism is related to Kairos.  To this end, Barthes evokes a non-western concept so as to challenge the western notion of the will which, as anyone who has studied 20th century philosophy knows, is a central concept that has met with much debate and discussion.

(To be sure, the assumption of the will is an ancient notion which finds its culmination in Nietzsches’s idea of the “will-to-power.”  The German philosopher Martin Heidegger argues that Nietzsches’ notion of the will-to-power marks the end – or the completion – of metaphysics.  Barthes, in the spirit of Heidegger, Jacques Derrida, and other Continental thinkers is also putting the notion of the will and its metaphysical foundations into question.)

The non-western concept that Barthes brings to the fore is “Wou-Wei” – a concept drawn from the Tao.  He contrasts it to the “will to live,” but says that it is “not the opposite”:

It’s not the will-to-die: it’s what baffles, dodges, disorients the will to life.  It’s therefore, structurally, a Neutral: what baffles the paradigm.

Continuing on this line of reasoning, Barthes says that “wou-wei” privileges the “spontaneous” to the “detriment of” the “voluntary.”  It is something that doesn’t come from us.  But it also involves “not-doing”:

Wou-wei: not to direct, not to aim one’s strength, to leave it marking time in place.  For example the Melting of Breath (lianqi) is superior to the Control of Breath (xingqui).

This also includes not using one’s strength, intelligence, wisdom, or knowledge or “to use it to the minimum, within the limits of a pure concern for protection, for prudence.”

In the face of Wou-wei, Barthes points out that the West is baffled since it is a “subversion of all our moral values, and notably of the “progressive” ones.”  The wise person, notes Barthes does not “strive” or struggle.”  Citing a Taoist, Barthes notes that the wise man has a “tranquility in disorder.”  This, of course, goes against what Barthes calls “the moral ideology of the will,” which he defines in terms of the will to “dominate, to live, to impose one’s truth.”

In terms of temporality and time, the will is in accord with the individual who looks to dominate and shape the moment.  In contrast, Barthes notes that Wou-wei is not a moment dictated by the individual “but according to what one says of him.”  Citing Freud’s work of Leonardo DiVinci, Barthes associates this with a “feminine sensibility” which did not “abstain from the world.”  DiVinici’s gesture is non-western – it is an illustration of Wou-wei – since he exposes himself to the sensory world and judgment.

And this is where Barthes brings in the relation of time/Kairos to masochism.

Citing a passage from Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Barthes points out a moment in the text where the main character is, so to speak, experiences his hopelessness.  This experience, because it is narrated and makes extensive reference to time, has a temporal quality.  In addition, it illustrate a state of non-action and non-striving of the will:

During his journey he, as it were, considered his life afresh and arrived at his old conclusion, restful in its hopelessness: that is was not for him to begin anything anew – – but that he must live out his life, content to do no harm, and not disturbing himself or desiring anything.

This “disenchantment,” says Barthes, has a “slightly masochistic tonality.”  I find this suggestion to be very telling as it implies that the Kairos, for Barthes, has a lot to do with acknowledging one’s hoplessness in relation to the other.  Unfortunately, Barthes spends more time thinking about the “surprise” of these moments and of accepting them and not enough time on the masochistic element.  Nonetheless, he does celebrate the fact that, in these states, one is “good for nothing.”

I find it fascinating that Barthes can see a link between Kairos and masochism.  But that the link to the other is displaced by the reflection of the self’s relation to the event while Deleuze thinks about masochism in terms of this relation but without thinking the relation to time (save for the claim that masochism exposes one to the contingency of terms and relations).

What I would like to suggest is that we address the temporality of the schlemiel in terms of a masochism that is temporal and relational.  However, as Ruth Wisse suggests at the outset of her book The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, in the midst of this gesture there is a reversal victimization and, as I would argue, masochism.   I would like to look more into the presence of masochism in the comic but I want to juxtapose it to the irony we also see. Deleuze insists that we separate irony from humor, but as I would like to show in future entries, how they often work together in schlemiel comedy. And, more importantly, this is not simply a matter of relation; it is a matter of timing.

The schlemiel is and is not a masochistic figure and the communication of that paradox is all in the timing.  Kairos and masochism are an odd couple…like Felix and Oscar….

Perhaps that is what makes schlemiel comedy so (un)timely.

Exposure, Failure, and Rhythm: Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes

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Roland Barthes, the famous French thinker and essayist, is best known for S/Z, Mythologies, A Lover’s Discourse, Camera Lucida, Writing Degree Zero, Empire of Signs, and The Pleasure of the Text.  For many years, these books have had a great impact on critical theory, philosophy, comparative literature, anthropology, sociology, and even the academic studies of photography and cinema.  Although I enjoy these books and have learned a lot from them, my two favorite texts of his are his lecture notes for a course he gave in Morocco in 1978 (entitled The Neutral) and his autobiography Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes.

What interests me most about these two books are his reflections on weariness, the neutral, failure, rhythm, gesture, and himself.  Taken together, they disclose something that I also find in Walter Benjamin: an awareness of failure juxtaposed with an aesthetic sensibility that craves intoxication.  As in my readings of Benjamin, I have been reading Barthes with a desire to find his weak point; namely, his sense of vulnerability, innocence, and shame.  I have found this sensibility in a few of Barthes’ passages.  And it is in these passages where Barthes becomes small, humble, and most revealing.

In this blog entry, I will not be focusing on the lecture course; rather, I want to look at a few of Barthes autobiographical reflections which disclose exposure, failure, and a desire for protection, distraction, and aesthetic relief.  Like any good writer with a taste for the esoteric, Barthes leaves it to the reader to connect the dots, so to speak, between one reflection and another.  I would suggest that Barthes wants us to pay close attention to the rhythmic alteration between one reflection and another.  It is in the lacunae between one reflection and another that we can interpret and glean some type of wisdom.

The reflection entitled “Le retentissement – Repercussion” caught my eye.  In this passage, Barthes (who calls himself “him” rather than “I” so as to denote otherness and the fact that he sees his autobiography, as his epigram states, in terms of being a novel of sorts: “It must all be considered as if spoken by a character in a novel”) fears the “repercussion” his words and the words of others about him or his words will or may have:

Every word which concerns him echoes within him to an extreme degree, and it is this repercussion which he dreads, to the pint of timidly avoiding any discourse that might be offered about him.   The language of others, complimentary or not, is tainted at its source by the repercussion it might have…The link to the world is thus always conquered starting from a  certain fear (156).

Barthes’ fear of repercussion is a fear of exposure.  He knows that his words expose him to possible ridicule and rejection.  His words, in the mouths of others, have repercussions -meaning that they are sounded again but by another and in a way that is other.  Needless to say, the re-percussion (in the sense of a sounding or beating-again) makes him fearful and timid.  Such a confession implies that he, a well-known and highly respected writer in Europe, is exposed and vulnerable.  He is not self-possessed.  Apparently, nothing can secure him from this fear since he has no control over the repercussions of his words.  He has no control over how they will echo back to him.  Barthes language implies that, most likely, the recounting of his words will have negative repercussions – that is, they will expose him to possible damage.  He feels that the repercussions of his words will make him vulnerable and powerless.

Immediately following this reflection is yet another which deals with fear and vulnerability.  It is entitled Reussi/rate – Success/failure.  Barthes, here, reflects on Barthes “re-reading” himself. The effect of this re-reading is, yet again, a kind of exposure. This time it is an exposure to failure:

Rereading himself, he discerns in the very texture of each piece of writing a singular cleavage: that of success/failure: in gusts, felicities of expression, good patches, then bad ones, swamps and deserts which he has even begun to inventory.  Then no book is successful throughout? – Perhaps the book on Japan.

In the midst of his reflection on failure, he turns to success as a balm. And what he finds is a discourse that does not doubt itself and does not fear that its words fall flat. Rather, he finds “the continuous, effusive, jubilant happiness of the writing: in what he writes, each protects his own sexuality.”  But, given what he has just written, we have reason to be suspicious of these lines.  They are literally a distraction. The italics don’t change a thing. To be sure, his “sexuality” cannot be protected by his “continuous, effusive, jubilant” happiness of writing.  After all, didn’t Barthes say that he fears the repercussions of his words? And when he reads himself, he sees discontinuity and failure?  Is Barthes saying that writing, in differentiation to reading, is absent minded?  Is he suggesting that writing is distracted while reading is not?

Frustrated with this thought, Barthes turns to a third option, but even this option cannot lift him from being shamed and exposed.  And he, ironically, notes this:

A third category is possible: neither success nor failure: disgrace: marked, branded with the imaginary.

To be sure, his disgrace, his exposure to failure, is “branded” by the “imaginary.”  In other words, writing does not simply distract him from shame, it marks his shame, brands it.  This implies that the imaginary, that is, writing, is not a balm.  Rather, his personal disgrace is in a violent relationship with writing; it is as if writing, which is still a distraction from exposure, has forced itself upon his disgrace.

Writing tries to brand or mark shame. And this suggests ownership.  But can one’s exposure to failure ever escape writing and the distraction it offers?  Given what we have been saying about Benjamin and his interest in distraction, this is a legitimate question to ask.

Interestingly enough, the two reflections that follow are superficial and imaginary. They displace the negative affect of these two reflections by way of distraction.  The first reflection is entitled “Du choix d’un vetement – Choosing Clothes” and the second reflection is entitled “Le rhythme – Rhythm.”  Both of these reflections are, so to speak, escape routes.

In “Choosing Clothes,” Barthes likens the books one chooses to the clothes one wears.  He reads this in terms of “preparing himself to sustain…the discourse of truth starting from an economy which is that of his own body.”  In other words, these books clothe the body and protect it from negative repercussions that will inevitable ensue in “the discourse of truth.”

The reflection entitled “Rhythm” turns to another way of relating to exposure.  Barthes notes that he (that is Barthes) “always put his faith in that Greek rhythm, the succession of Ascesis and Festivity.”   In his 1978 lecture, Barthes also relates Ascesis to the “succession of paroxystic and opposite states: many collective celebrations, but between each of these festivals a period of retention, abstention, sobriety”(84).  In other words, there is a “rhythm” between one extreme state and the other in the “succession of Ascesis and Festivity.”  He contrasts this rhythm to the “banal rhythm of modernity” which alternates between work and leisure.  This rhythm is different.  Barthes refers to a “Slavic or Balkan” custom in which one “shuts oneself up for three days of festivity.”  He then suggests that one go back and forth between this kind of festivity and sobriety.   Or, I would suggest, a rhythm between exposure (reading) and distraction (writing).

The rhythm he speaks of is built into his text.  The reflection that follows this one, in fact, is all about exposure.  It is entitled “Que ca se sache – Let that be known.”  In this reflection, Barthes admits that “every utterance of a writer (even the fiercest, the wildest) includes a secret operator, an unexpressed word, something like the silent morpheme of a category as primitive as negation or interrogation, whose meaning is: “And let that be known!

In other words, Barthes realizes that in everything he writes, even with words written with great conviction (words that are fierce and wild), there is a snag.  There is something that will expose one to judgment.  By noting this, Barthes is, in effect, arguing that no matter how wild or angry he is – no matter how courageous, powerful, or self-possessed he may sound on paper– there will be something in his words – something undetected – that will render him powerless.

But does powerlessness have the upper hand in these reflections?

From what we have seen, Barthes insistence on rhythm and on protection suggests that powerlessness is, at times, sovereign.  In other words, at times one is made to be a fool.  At moments when one feels at the top of ones game, there will always be repercussions.  But, and this is Barthes point, one must know that one is always exposed to failure, judgment, and repercussions, while, at the same time, operating according to a rhythm.  Barthes suggests that style, writing, and sexuality are attempts to pull away from shame and exposure.  They distract us. However, as we saw above, imagination brands shame.  In other words, writing looks to mark exposure with its power.  But, the fact of the matter is that even though shame is marked by the imagination, shame remains.  Nonetheless, it is branded and, so to speak, re-markable.

And this is where the art meets ethics.  The exposure one has to failure, the timidity that comes with writing to others and re-reading oneself, is ethical, but this exposure is always branded by the imagination which looks to protect the body and vulnerability from too much exposure.    Or as Barthes suggests, the terror of reading oneself is tempered by the distraction of writing oneself.

What I find so interesting about Barthes’ suggestions is that they speak directly to the schlemiel and the reader of the American schlemiel.  Even though Barthes often fails to be comical (since he’s much too serious about himself), he does provide a structure which is best exemplified in the comedy of the American Schlemiel.

An American schlemiel, like Phillip Roth’s Portnoy or Larry David, is humiliated and exposed in what they say and in what they do.  But because their words are couched in the imagination, witty gesture, and style, they are innocent and, to some extent, are protected from extreme damage.  But, in the end, these schlemiels are still exposed. They are the subject of ridicule.  Their victories are, by all means, temporary.   As Barthes might say, the American Schlemiel is caught up in a rhythm of distraction and exposure.

To be sure, we love this rhythm; otherwise, we wouldn’t watch Woody Allen’s films, Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, or Andy Kaufmann’s embarrassing comic routines (to take only three examples). These shows invite us to witness how shame, in rhythmic variation, is “branded” by the imagination.   It shows us how distraction and exposure alternate.

Here’s Andy Kaufmann with a few rhythms of his own: