“It was only a joke!” is an interesting statement that, reducto ad absurdum, is essentially a claim to non-existence. To a school bully it rests upon the premise that his physical and emotional abuse of other children is an innate right and upon this solipsistic foundation, his attacks that are partaken in humour, as part of the status quo, cease to exist. They function not as punishment regarding the recipient but as an act designed to gain acceptance via his assertion of dominance. Similarly with the pilot that this week joked about blowing up an airport only to find himself dragged away by the government and no doubt tortured into a full confession of his lifetime membership to Al-Qaida. The targets of the joke (“bad weather” and the social hysteria that links planes with terrorism) are socially constructed forms and, as such, don’t exist empirically but only as a concept. The process is essentially the same in both cases; the difference lying in the bully’s personal attack transgressing the harm principle whilst the pilot’s attack on concepts is a matter of the freedom of speech.
The function of jokes is an interesting one. Freud pointed to their wish-fulfilling potential, Bakhtin saw them as a politically liberating act, and Voltaire commented on their power to reveal latent truths within society. Indeed, the form of a joke is that of chaos-to-order, a momentary flux swiftly resolved; in this way a joke fulfils a wish for order within the narrative of personal/political ideology and thus resulting in the revelation of (subjective) truth. Stewart Lee once said that farting was the ultimate comedic act. Following this formula (wish/ideology/truth undergoing chaos-to-order) it can be seen that the Pope farting is simply a condensed version of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream down into its principle function.
Much like farts, jokes also provide a release for pent-up frustrations. This may explain why self-satisfied bourgeoisie all love Micheal Macintyre whose comedy consists of walking around a middle-class household, pointing to things and saying “isn’t this funny?” In fact, all comedy nowadays is in the prose format, indicating an ideological conviction to realism and the status quo. The purer “joke” form seems to benefit totalitarian conditions; famously many jokes were told in Nazi concentration camps, behind the iron curtain, and in the 1950’s (when the existence of genitalia was explicitly denied). The joke form has a liberating function that momentarily frees one from ideologically-imposed constraints by conducting a post-modern, or Socratic, re-evaluation of a metanarrative via its own implications in the form of irony.
Jokes therefore take place on a separate level than standard language, existing in the self-referential, symbolic dreamscape. One can then make like the quasi-Berkelean Baudrillard and create an all-purpose formula for the defence of jokes within our increasingly censored society:
Jokes = signifiers within phantasy. Action and language in joke form are therefore a pure form of which meaning is only attached through social convention (ideology). Censorship can be exercised only upon the definable as an extension of the harm principle and as jokes function upon implications they therefore must be exempt.
The real problem of jokes lies in where the laughter is directed: laughter as a symbol of agreement with the kernel of truth expressed by the joke form, the foundation of “political correctness”. Where is the joke’s target situated? This joke for example (http://www.lamebook.com/the-fresh-prince-of-bash-air ) is not targeting violence against women as inherently funny, on the contrary, it relies upon the fact that it’s inherently wrong, the target being bad taste in-itself through the contrast of opposites. It’s the region of Frankie Boyle, Jimmy Carr and The Aristocrats. The opposite of the Bernard Manning type, or to a lesser extent the aggressively middle-class Armstrong and Millers, as they target class and race not as entities-in-themselves but instead draw attention to the symbols of class and race, thus playing the class/race game of the hegemonic majority. The line between the two is perhaps most aptly drawn by the “Sachsgate” jokes of Jonathan Ross and Russel Brand that had “bad taste in-itself” as their target, yet by including a real person they crossed the signifier-signified barrier and resulted in appearing like the solipsistic bully I began this rant with. Much like Borat, the humour then had the properties of the uncanny; the joke exists within the realm of form whilst the subject it attacks simultaneously occurs in reality.
Perhaps this is why Bruno put so many people off as well. Where Borat stood as a “devils-advocate” representing the consciously acted form of the joke that knows itself in a post-modern sense (an ironic signifier), Bruno fluctuated between this (the ‘illegal immigrant’s as furniture’ scene for example) and a shameless caricature of a gay stereotype. The comedy in Bruno thus steps back an extra level where Bruno’s character is not the agent-provocateur that we implicitly trust but a double-agent that, through his own grotesqueness, seems to end up attacking homosexuals himself without the justifying target of the societal Other to exempt him. The trick here then, the genius double-agent-reversal, relies upon Borat for its meaning. Baron-Cohen attacks racism in Borat by revealing the ridiculous inaccuracies of racist thought; the jokes attack the Other by pronouncing them wrong and rewards the viewer for laughing with correct intent. In Bruno, the narrative of Borat is closely mirrored, however, Bruno is not a homophobe but a homosexual so it would appear that we are to laugh at the homophobes that attack him. The problem lies in how often Bruno is seen to be in the wrong, so are we still to laugh at his attackers for being homophobic? No, the point is that being a homosexual does not make you Bruno and the target is not homophobia but the confusion of gay rights with a fear of criticising gay people (“political correctness gone mad” as idiots put it). The true point of gay rights is not that people like Bruno, it’s that people dislike Bruno, but for his superficial personality and not because of his sexuality. For this reason Bruno is a far more complex film than Borat and one that confronts the prejudices within real, intelligent and sympathetic people rather than the one-dimensional characters presented, albeit hilariously, in Borat.
It’s this sort of complex meta-humour that is probably why so many people nowadays seem to lack a sense of humour. A sense of humour is a willingness to hear other opinions and then reassess your own. The best jokes, like farts, cut through the dogmatic ideologies of intelligence with undeniable physicality. Think of the renaissance, when the likes of Rabelais and Cervantes laughed their way out of centuries of religion oppression. Problem is though; one must be willing to have things questioned, and let’s face it, not many of us do. We tend to find ourselves attacking the comedians themselves. Which is probably why very few people will recognise this jazz-comedy sketch at the end of this episode of Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle as perhaps one of the funniest comedy sketches of all time - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DDwQ66XBrH8&feature=related
Anyway, enough of this. The entire thing’s been written in a state of intense flu-delirium so I apologise if it rambles or makes very little sense. These blogs are nothing but reducto ad absurdum nonsense anyway I’m sure it’s no big loss. Next week: Was Jesus a commie? I’ll be answering ‘yes’ in the hope of shocking some Americans from the 1960s! What a rebel I am…
In writing my experimental novella Slumber I developed a technique I called ‘modal writing’ that was essentially half way between automatic writing and free association, or maybe just a variation upon them. Unlike both of these methods, however, ‘modal writing’ involved constant revision and editing around themes or central ideas that operated like the ‘modes’ of modal jazz. The content of these ‘modes’ would have no equivalent in notation though, being closer to feelings or processes. Needless to say, the results were both incredibly interesting and the sort of thing that would guarantee I would never be taken on by any book publisher ever. The underlying philosophy of this unsaleable writing was catchily referred to (by me) as Voidism.
Linguistically this literary outlook stems from two important literary distinctions. The first being Chomsky’s demonstration of how grammar can function as syntax distinct from its semantic meaning, the second being the Saussurean separation of the signifier from the signified. The semantic essence of Slumber thus takes place in the void between signifier and signified. Signifiers don’t mean what they signify. This mental process is visible through metaphor, eg/ “love is like a butterfly”. “Love” and “butterfly”, signifying distinct, incomparable ideas, collide within an empty void creating echoes of meaning. A ‘modal’ rendering of the metaphor could equally be “butterfly love shimmers mountainously”.
Behind this lies the old dualism of “passion” and “reason”. The metaphors do not function on the rational level, they are not direct comparisons, they rely on emotive resonances (echoes in the void) to convey meaning. Reading of metaphor is part of a larger synaesthetic experience dealing with the “flavours” of words. Much like the process described in Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, the signifiers are smuggling meaning beneath their surface unrelated to their initial significations; dreams being “wordless” spaces after all.
By breaking from a language model based on associationism (we do not understand the word “chair” by sitting on it), the comprehension of metaphors as a universal faculty, albeit subjective in content, implies a form of acausal relation. The void is thus redolent of a Jungian collective unconscious; metaphors synchonistically holding shared meanings between minds suggesting the existence of innate cognitive relation. Here we are returning to last week’s blog on Spinoza-esque quantum theory. Emotive meaning conjured from the void between signifiers exists on a foundation beyond associationism in the chaotic primal realm of the quantum of mind. The meaning of the whole thing is essentially “We’re here because we’re here because we’re here because we’re here…”
The psychoanalytical epistemology of Voidism is therefore taking place on the level of Lacan vs Hume. Hume’s reading of passion and reason coined an agnosticism in which the “self” ceases to exist, leaving Lacan open to describe the self, or “subject”, as existing in the form of this non-existence: as a Void. The collision of words in modal writing is thus occurring within the void of the self where echoes of meaning operate as emotional static charges. Slumber wasn’t written for a reader, it was written for yourself.
Hrm, after all this I really ought to edit a chapter and put it in the short stories section… I’ll put it on the to-do list.
I find myself reading some very odd things on occasion. I’m afraid this week’s blog is a bit late as I was finalising a proposal for PhD funding; here’s hoping that one day these odd things I read will lead to some form of monetary reward. Nevertheless, it’s in the spirit of oddity that I endeavour to write this week on a favourite of mine, Spinoza, and how he suddenly makes a lot more sense thanks to quantum physics.
There’s a great saying (I forget now who I steal it from) that “it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a scientist to walk through a door”. The idea behind it being that, on a quantum level, all existence is in such a state of flux that it simply cannot be understood in the way that we understand the world around us. An example that always baffled me in A Brief History of Time was a shape that needed to rotate 720 degrees to appear the shape as before it was rotated; at 360 degrees it only have rotated half way around. The fact that up to 90% of the universe is unaccounted for is not really surprising considering how matter seemingly becomes non-existent at quantum level.
Now, Spinoza believed that God was in fact the essence, or ‘substance’, of everything in existence and thus everyone is a part of an infinite God. It’s an interesting theory, and one without which we wouldn’t have had Descartes’ cogito ergo sum. In fact, I’d say that this theory is at the heart of the majority of the ‘spiritual’ beliefs existing amongst the post-Christian, quasi-Buddhist vegetarian types in their ill-defined deism. Yet, rather than concentrate as most Spinozans do on this emotive-intuitive spiritualism that smells to me of the Lacanian symptom, I believe the rationalist method of Spinoza should be read more along this same quantum level.
Leibniz’s Monadology comes close to Spinoza, essentially positing atom-like quantum essences, or ‘monads’, as pieces of God acting within a “pre-established harmony” in perfect “parallelism” controlled by God. Although Leibniz takes this into epistemology, the theory is useful for Spinoza as it can be read as a demonstration of how ‘God’ is, in essence, the laws of science. Science being an empirical system explaining existence, it accounts for the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of the universe, but never the ‘why’. But if nature’s being, constituted in scientific laws, was the essence of God then the continuation of nature’s being would be explained, if only by it being God’s whim (if whims may be attributed to the entire universe).
That Spinoza saw this premise as sound foundation for his Ethics goes to show the link between such an ontology and theology. If God is nature then the ‘best’ life would be Plato’s eudemonia (good life) that would leave truth and beauty as “all you need to know”; dismissing any suggestions of external ‘moral systems’, ‘higher causes’ and the elusive dreams of utopia. Indeed, if we take string theory seriously and life is nothing but a series of vibrations constituting an abomination in the eyes of eternity then this train of thought leads right up to philosophers like Deleuze. Being as a Virtual state from which the Actuality of reality is derived, the present existing only as a past within the future, identity as an ongoing “becoming” never to become: all equally good reasons for a Platonic/Renaissance-style concept of self-creating.
Or is it? Well, not really if you consider Plato’s Republic. I’d rather not live in a world of women-farms, thankyou very much. Nevertheless, I feel like this sort of quantum-physics-meets-substancism approach is an interesting way of viewing the universe. How ontology effects epistemology I’ll hopefully be able to write about next week.
Water constitutes the dullest of drinks, the least saleable of commodities and the most disappointing of weather. Why then, is it so laden with mystery and meaning? Great poetry is always commended for its “fluidity”, and the sea has captured mankind’s imagination since time immemorial. Whilst maintaining a lighthouse, one must take a break every half hour to prevent falling into the sea, dragged in by subconscious attraction. Yes, water, the sea, all fascinating.
An obvious attraction of the sea is its immense depth and vastness. A man can physically drown in a puddle but it has none of the imaginative power conjured in the slow, inevitable descent into crushing darkness evoked by the sea. Small wonder that the ancients offered wine to Neptune in order to placate the sea’s turbulent wrath then. This seemingly self-explanatory worship ritual, however, holds deeper resonance than a simple transaction of wine for good luck, however. The great “deep” of the ocean was where the Chinese sent their “offerings to the underworld” during rituals of mourning. Similarly, Atlantis was believed to have collapsed into the sea, taking with it its supreme knowledge.
The physicality of disappearing into the darkness of the deep clearly brooks the question, “What’s down there?” only to know that the answer is literally “unfathomable”. The great sea voyage, as an epic form, is thus a quest for meaning where the boat of the self floats atop endless unknowables yet searches on regardless. Jung’s “nekyia”, or “night sea voyage”, takes this symbol and applies it to the unconscious. But is the sea the unconscious?
During the middle ages the mad were places upon a “ship of fools” to sail between towns in the hope of a cure. The symbolism may differ but the message is the same; if you wish to find truth you must go by water. B.S. Johnson clearly took this message on board when he wrote Trawl, a novel in which life aboard a trawler becomes a search for meaning. The vastness of the sea is clearly well suited to the contemplation of big questions.
But what about smaller bodies of water? The river Ganges, that’s holy. Rivers in general have a distinct attraction as any landscape painter will tell you, and without them life on land would “dry up”. “The land is of the rivers as the clouds are of the sky”… sure I’ve said that somewhere…
Now we’ve gone from the ocean to the rivers, what about a jug of water, could that be meaningful? Jesus famously turned water into wine, and wine is drank during mass as Christ’s blood. Fish are similarly a symbol of Christianity; the Bible being filled with metaphors playing off the fish and water themes. If we take Spinoza’s theory that we are all bodies submerged upon separate levels of being within one substance (God) then the fish’s ascension from the depths of the ocean is much like the ascension of Christ to heaven; moving up the “great chain of being” into the unknowable.
In fact, if I were to try and explain Spinoza’s theory in depth it would be useful to use water as a metaphor for substance. We are, after all, largely made of water and so are all living things. I haven’t really thought it out fully yet, but there is undoubtedly something fundamental within water. Be it some form of philosophical or aesthetic meaning or simply chemical, its damn interesting either way.
To conclude, here’s a paraphrase of one of William S. Burroughs’ wilder theories; to be truly able to explore space, we must evolve out of the atmosphere the way we evolved out of the sea all those millions of years ago.