Being poor as I am, and most likely always shall be, I tend to keep up to date with things via familial cast-offs. Witness my great genius then, in buying my brother season 1 of The Venture Brothers on DVD for his birthday two years ago – I now have access to seasons 1, 2 and 3, with 4 on pre-order. Perhaps the finest cartoon of recent years and possibly the best written TV show of any genre, especially now that Lost has finally admitted to being one long MacGuffin.
What makes The Venture Brothers so important, in my opinion, is its uncomfortable positioning between parody and pastiche. The “self-conscious” or “realist” take on the superhero/boy adventurer genre refuses to rely solely upon its own fallacy for content. Shrek gains its laughs from placing a relatable character within a fairytale world, thus creating the bathos inherent to parody, whilst The Incredibles pulled the same manoeuvre only with the superhero characters being placed within a relatable world, suggesting the ‘knowingness’ of pastiche. Despite these both being reasonably decent films, The VentureBrothers (and the same goes for the brilliant The Watchmen) can only be seen to play to this self-conscious distancing within a self-contained diegetic world. It’s this consistency that lifts it above the kitchities of 1980s po-mo and into the realms of a true work of art.
It is this element of distinct “worlds” and their interaction that is so central to The Venture Brothers’ narrative. The public and the private spheres are intermingled effortlessly; from Brock Sampson, Hank’s bodyguard-cum-father figure, to Dr.Venture, the “super-scientist” who inherited the position from his father. The world of heroes and their “arches” is acted out like a job, a business commitment. At no point does this reduce the seriousness of the conflict (Brock’s violence as a “walking Swedish murder-machine” is undoubtedly the work of a sadist) yet the characters’ humanity is equally visible without at any point becoming mawkish. One couldn’t imagine the father in Johnny Quest complaining about the electric bill, for example.
The great hero of the show, for me, is somewhat ironically the central arch-nemesis, “The Monarch”. Emotionally dependent upon his “second-in-command” Dr.Girlfriend and neglectful of his Henchmen rather than tyrannical, he is nevertheless the character that most embodies the opted-into world of supervillainy. In Freud’s “Creative Writers and Daydreaming” he writes of the seriousness of children’s play and how writers continue this into their created worlds. In The Monarch we see how this attitude of “serious play” isn’t necessarily limited to fictional worlds but is equally applicable at any level of the “social game”. The Monarch acts out each of his attacks upon Dr.Venture with a hysterical fury channelled through melodramatic staged-ness. The very seriousness of his enthusiasm is what overcomes the fact that he is simply “a guy in a giant butterfly costume”. The Monarch’s commitment to his role is total, yet he himself is only a “supervillian” during the times that he is “arching”. His passion is in complicity with the social game and acts out its potentialities within that sphere, outside that he remains unquestionably human.
This perspective of a psychological “social game” is perhaps best highlighted by crossing the Parallax gap over into economy and referring to Marx’s commodity fetishism. The ultimate proponent of commodity fetishism within the context of arch-villainy is Sgt.Hatred, Dr.Venture’s one-time nemesis who offers “more bang for your arching buck”. Where The Monarch actively engages with the social game (investing huge amounts of energy into it, taking it as seriously as possible), Sgt. Hatred treats his complicity as an inevitability; “Hate to live, don’t live to hate” is his “almost sane” philosophy. This “professional” attitude to arching of course results in the banalities of bureaucracy as without the “passion” Sgt. Hatred is reduced to going through a questionnaire with Dr. Venture and asking him to “state from 1-to-10, how much terror you experience”.
In this way, The Venture Brothers almost allegorises the situation of the individual within capitalist society. As Sgt. Hatred engages himself only superficially he mistakes the surface machinery, the charts and graphs, of the system for its very being – commodity fetishism at its most fatalistic. However, as an active participant in a social game, The Monarch utilises the laws of the system to achieve his own ends (eg/ in his arching of Jonas Venture Jr. in order to manipulate a Guild-law permitting him to return to arching Dr “Rusty” Venture). The bottom-line of course being that both are two sides of the same coin and at no point in The Venture Brothers does anyone ever question why they dress in strange suits and kill each other for a living.
One of the best episodes, “Hate Floats”, demonstrates the effects of this social complicity by staging an invasion of its closed “world”. The world of superheroes and supervillains is organised within the “O.S.I” and the “Guild of Calamitous Intent”, respectively. Each action takes place within the remit of distinct “levels” ranging from Jonas Venture Jr.’s death rays to Sgt. Hatred’s “going full Nerf”, essentially stabilising the arching market. During this episode, however, 21 and 24 employ gangsters as last minute replacements for The Monarch’s crew of Henchmen. As agents outside regulated capital, black-marketeers, the lumpenproletariat, these gangsters immediately pull out their guns and flaunt all the guild regulations in taking Dr. Venture before staging a violent uprising within The Monarch’s cocoon itself. Any revolutionary potential within this action is negated by the gangsters’ individualist attitude, each claiming “I’m no.1”, “No, I’m no.1” respectively. Similarly, once both the OSI and the Guild recognise the situation as one disruptive of their monopoly, they have no problem in uniting in order to defeat the threat to their world. As usual, my lovely non-existent reader, I carry on a little too long. Not wishing to try your purely theoretical patience I can only stop here in order to highly recommend the show if you haven’t, and you won’t have, seen it. I could no doubt analyse it all day, and probably will do. But until next time – GO TEAM VENTURE!
I apologise for my rather lackadaisical attitude blogwise recently, my delicious imaginary reader, but I’ve been finishing off essays to a somewhat excessive extent. A collaboration between myself and the university in terms of work-to-deadline ratios has undoubtedly ended my career in academia – yet I have a summer left to write my thesis and continue with these increasingly odd blogs. So never fear, gorgeous, you will not lack the sustenance you have come to take from my pen – yet I may consider it a bi-weekly duty from now on…
Today I’m hoping to write of something that I have been obsessed with for a long time – the relationship between Bakhtin’s Carnivalesque and Freudian psychoanalysis. The two appear as opposites, but focus on much the same things. The distinction first occurred to me whilst reading one of a million awful, completely-missing-the-point, critiques of the writings of Burroughs. The intrepid Freudian set out to squeeze Burroughs into his Oedipusillanimous box (much like a small child trying to get the circle shapes through the circle holes – or simultaneously fucking and shitting as a “pure” Freudian would have it); the “crabs” and “centipedes” were obviously then his mother, the police and “authority figures” his father.
A fair enough presumption if it were to lead to a better conclusion, yet it didn’t, as it usually never does. I eventually drew the line when he began explaining Burroughs’ “anal fixation” through the famous “talking asshole sketch”; the story of a man who taught his asshole to talk, only for it to eventually gain individual consciousness and eventually takeover his body. Yes, this can obviously be read as a sort of fable about anal fixation and sexual desire, but to reduce it entirely to that is to oversimplify the situation incredibly. Firstly, Freud himself was not a “Freudian” with regards to seeing anal pleasure as a form of mental disorder – he in fact calls it “perfectly natural” in the Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. Similarly, the talking asshole sketch isn’t famous because it’s a fable, it’s famous because it’s funny. Anyone who has read Kathy Acker’s later works realises how humour is the driving force behind Burroughs’ works.
This is where Bakhtin comes in. In Rabelais and his World, Bakhtin establishes a pretty comprehensive set of theories that interrelate to form the “Carnivalesque”, as it’s now known. One of Carnival’s central themes is “turning the world on its head” (the common middle-ages image) being applied to the body; the “material bodily lower stratum” overtakes the body and dictates its every movement. The king of the carnival is thus the village idiot, the most academic scholar becomes the drunkest and most lecherous, the seriousness of ordered society becomes jocular violence, cruelty and blasphemy. In short, during the carnival it’s the asshole that does the talking.
So far, so contradictory. Yet the movement of the scatological out of popular, carnivalesque works during the Renaissance and out of sight completely in the Enlightenment could point out a link. The great scatological masters of the Eighteenth Century were the satirists. Satire is the quintessential Reading Event medium; each work is written in and for a context, its sense lying elsewhere than the body of the text. The Hogarth prints of peers shitting upon donkeys and immense telescopes used for administering enemas are pure Carnival images, utilised to lend violence and palpability to otherwise dry political and legislative matters. That these work within the moment, relying upon Events, demonstrates another element of Bakhtin’s Carnivalesque – the liminal qualities of the “Carnival Time”. The Carnival can only occur with the foreknowledge that once it ends a restored stability is guaranteed. It is a relinquishing of power to an external source.
This “opting out” of control is the heart of Bakhtin’s message. If the “world is turned on its head” then it still retains that head, even if the “world” is now momentarily directing the flow of being. The relinquished Time of the Carnival, like the chaotic rule of the “material bodily lower stratum”, is effectively a giant “Organ without a Body” (to return to Deleuze). Without immediately returning to psychoanalysis here via Lacan’s “Signification of the Phallus”, another great example of this function in action can be found in Burgess’ Enderby. The character of Enderby, aesthete recluse and poet, is constantly undermined by the disruptions of his dyspeptic digestive system. A scene in which he must make a speech upon collecting a poetry prize is interrupted by loud farting and belching that occurs beyond his control. The sublime is thwarted by the ridiculous, just like Bloom’s grubby sexualisation of Mother Ireland in Ulysses.
The escape of the body from the control of the mind, spirit, higher powers, etc, and its Carnivaleque revenge as “Organs without Bodies” is thus gathered in Bakhtin’s system under its own designated “Time”, its Event. This designation is what appears to me as the distinctive juncture at which the Freudian, or “pure” (as in rather naïve and overeager) Freudians, break away from appreciating the liberation of the Carnivalesque. As a system initially designed for the treatment of long-term patients, psychoanalysis utilises the momentary as self-evident of its own impact; to remember an occurrence in the therapy situation demonstrates its importance, albeit sometimes unconscious. Yet the everyday occurrence within the present, the primarily unconscious Becoming, is generally without this importance unless especially designated. Bakhtin then, is proposing the fractality of being based on a liminal, fluctual, multiplicitous notion of time as opposed to modernist Freud whose allegiances are to systemisation, and increasingly so into his later years.
The fractal then, the multiplicity of differences, is what is encountered within modern Carnivalesque works. Burroughs’ talking asshole is, if anything, the hero of the sketch that eventually gets its way over its “owner” that would try repress it for his own use and gain (such as taking it onto the stage). The endless pornographic scenes of Naked Lunch and The Wild Boys are similarly celebrations of this fractal sexuality in action. The libido may be channelled into the identifiable forms designated by the mind (straight/gay, single/married, and other distinctions of social being) yet, in essence, it remains a force drawn in largely inexplicable ways to distinct fragments. A shape, a movement, a word, each of these revolve as actors in the network of libido in the same way that power, style, gender do.
This essence of joissance, however, is dangerous at the same time as it is liberating. This is where the “pure” Freudians come from, I guess, in wanting to systematise and rationalise why the asshole is talking. The same occurs in Sade when his endless ménages begin to take on their own rules, their own forms, and their Will to disobedience forms a geometry and law of its own. Sade and Freud act upon the plain of stability; their systems are definite and eternal. Bakhtin recognises the importance of social structures in his Carnivalesque system and plays to them – just as Burroughs’ pornography does in its kaleidoscopic construction of the moment. In attempting to understand the workings of a moment we cannot lose its essence as a moment and its situation upon the Carnivalesque stage - just as it would be foolish to throw away the theoretical tools of psychoanalysis because its methodology has become outdated.
Perhaps the difference is somehow between the micro and the macro? Nevertheless, as I always think, the importance of a text impresses itself upon an individual almost inherently (if it is to be important to them), call it Sensation if you want. This Sensation is the important issue to follow, let the text lead, deal only in savours. Burroughs is funny, stop trying to analyse him! You bastards!
It strikes me that people don’t grasp post-modernism. The term itself is overly laden with values, much of which conflict and most, without sympathetic reception, appear superficial, pompous and banal. Yet at the core of the truthless meta there is a distinct set of quasi-truths that are central to the future of social understanding. I don’t necessarily argue for them, people have been doing that since the 70s and have gotten nowhere - I simply illustrate them, highlight, foreground, and unambiguously narrativise them.
Post-modernism is perhaps best summarised by its own hyperbolic suicide note, Fukuyama’s “End of History”. Once we realise that the process of compiling history is purely speculatory self-justification, then surely it must “end”? But no, I’d suggest that the more mature attitude would be one that continues regardless, a stiff-upper lipped historical detachment that is finally prepared to approach foreign narratives; be they class-based, geographical, genderly or any of a million others. The post-modern attitude is sceptical through its fragmentation (for every Reason there are a thousand more passing as Coincidence) and believability is reduced to an aesthetic quality.
To return to my favourite novelistic example, Earthly Powers, the process of 20th century history is monitored through a set of fictional characters. These characters remain reasonably marginal, leaving room for the introduction of real historical characters such as James Joyce, until the narrative reaches a point of relative contemporary nearness, lending a “modern” relatability, when a fictional character is then made Pope. In this capacity, the novel seems to span both the traditional historical novel and post-modern “historical metafiction” genres; characters fit seamlessly into the gaps of history before overwhelming that “objective” history with their personal narratives.
The conflict between the presentation of history and meta-history can be seen in comparing a couple of war films; a genre almost a priori bullshit laden. Saving Private Ryan, aiming at realism, will stand for history – Inglorious Basterds, patchwork pastiche, will stand for meta-history. In Saving Private Ryan, the rest of the Allies are famously ignored in favour of a “heroic” storyline. The heroes follow a singular line of identity-thought that posits the Self as Good, the Other as Bad, Nation as Self, Foreign as Other. Compare this to the identity relations of Inglorious Basterds: the Americans are Jewish, they play the role of the Indian (traditional enemy of Aryan American Cowboys), and fundamentally, their narratives rely upon those of Others within the film’s progression. The ending of both films is the death of Hitler – but only Tarantino’s meta-history is free to make this visible. Perhaps the key to understanding post-modernism then, lies in a mix of irony and obviousness. An awareness of narrative-as-narrative does not undermine its content - in the right hands it can even improve it. The last South Park episodes, 200, and more obviously 201, operate only on the meta-level. When Buddha is told to “stop doing coke in front of kids”, the joke exists only in the context; no Buddhist would complain of this joke, nor would any of the million other real people that South Park has offended during its time on air, yet the imaginary threat of Muslim “fundamentalism” is enough to get the show banned.
The conclusion of episode 201 is intentionally edited out. The traditionalist mode of exposition that South Park does so well with its “today I learned a valuable lesson…” speeches are reduced to their announcement, the rest removed under the guise of “censorship”. The incomplete content remains a completed narrative; the joke being its very incompleteness. It’s in this capacity that post-modernism completes itself. The other underlying joke of the episode being that South Park had already shown Mohammed in an earlier episode shows how societal reception is as essential as content. The artwork exists only in the process of its reading, or watching, as an Art Event. Our Aion-Chronos constant present is the variable scope of the post-modern; post-modernism is its utilisation in the fullest sense through Events that function, rather than simply happen. Event-functions expand beyond their borders and reterritorialise other narratives, something traditional forms can only express within their own happenings whilst remaining fixed, territorialised themselves.
In the spirit of the disconnected ramble that was the previous rant, I write now on a certain synchronicity of mind. An acausal connectivity principle that flirts with Hume’s associationism before swiftly dropping back into the philosophical equivalent of Bosch’s hell. Yes, thought is an odd thing that one rarely contemplates in a spirit of problem solving, more likely our pronouncements on thought are closer to platitudes than real beliefs. Without doing a Woody Allen and “looking inside the soul of the guy sat next to me”, I can only base my thoughts on contemplation in personal experience, or more rightly experiences; my personal idea associations bearing no resemblance to linearity in either their content, my consciousness of them, or the time of their occurrence.
Contemplation itself can hardly be called a singular event – cut to a cartoon image of chin-rubbing, brow-furrowing, straining to turn on a floating lightbulb. No, much of our thought is unconscious; this is why it’s best to take breaks during periods of complex mental work. The action of “sleeping on it” is often when the great connection is made and the bridge into comprehension and understanding is quickly burned behind you, making you feel as if the problem was simple all along.
In laying our solutions over problems, in the manner of early Deleuze, we constitute the problems themselves via their solutions. Causality is projected backwards and “thought patterns” are formed. An expert on trees wouldn’t have become an expert on roots and then worked his way up to leaves. As more knowledge is added, it lays itself over previous knowledge, obscuring our memory of the chance accumulations that are inherent in learning and replacing them with a causal, linear narrative.
Yet these “patterns”, as selections made through judgements of meaning-value, must surely occur throughout all thought then, not simply education? In Vonnegut’s masterpiece Slaughterhouse 5, a scene in which three Germans stare, slack-jawed, out across the annihilated city of Dresden gives Billy Pilgrim, the main character, the uncanny sensation of there being something missing. Many years later, on the day of his marriage, he hears a trio of barbershop singers whose song is retroactively placed in the mouths of the three Germans, completing the image. The acausal connectivity of thought is here traced via meaning-value again, yet arbitrarily, between decades. The fragments of the past that unite with the future are the essence of these patterns (be they conscious or not), and their meaning-value is embedded in the sensation of recurrence.
Marcus Aurelius describes the existence of all times in one moment, Nietzsche the finite universe that must “eternally return” in its vastness, Deleuze’s “Aion” places all pasts and futures in the present – all these theorists effectively do the same thing; posit meaning as the circular time of recurrence. I suffer from a similar mental tick, although rather than philosophise, I tend to distrust it. You see, when I remember past events, regardless of their importance or when they occurred, I keep experiencing the sense of having done them before I did them. Something I experienced for the first time (something I could never have previously experienced before) is remembered as being a repetition. The feeling is that of déjà vu – except it isn’t so at the time, only afterwards in memory.
As I said, I refuse to be Woody Allen, so here I will intrepidly utilise my subjective mental obscurities to suggest to you, my lovely invisible reader, that the sensation of recurrence is the Deleuzean double present (Aion-Chronos), hotwired by chance. Our thought becomes like our face when we see it from an odd angle in a photograph; the mirror-face that we carry as the image of ourselves is presented from a new angle, a photo-face that occurs simultaneously with the mirror-face without changing or destroying it, despite its difference (its difference being that it is exactly the same). The seamless process of problem-solution “patterns” is confused, split and doubled, revealing products of the mind’s fractal workings in a self-contained recurrence. Recurrence is not repetition, but a meaning-connection/selection essentially acausal.
This is the reason that thought, in itself, doesn’t make “thinkers”. “e=mc2” could have been daydreamed by a shoeshine boy in 1840s London, “to be or not to be” may be a throwaway comment made in 700 years time when all fiction has been long eradicated, none of it matters. Thought itself doesn’t matter, neither its content nor its action; it only functions as true meaning on a cultural level, on a level of fame, hegemony, threats and bargaining. In such a way does Bernard K. Smith (“that’s Smith with an “I”) lament his greatest ideas being stolen, taken into the past and made by others, in the excellent youtube series/channel Church of Blow.
Continuation, then, is more of a habit in life; a tendency rather than its true being. The narratives that we construct, verifiable or not, are only what I previously described as islands of “Laputan meaning” for the reason that such is the way the human mind works. Synchronicity of mind, its endless collisions of thought, this is the nature of possible worlds now that Godfrey has popped his clogs
Perhaps it would be fitting to end with a note on the Lamed Wufniks. These are the 36 great individuals whose influence on the human race is paramount at this time. They tend to have little power, they never know of each other, and we will never hear of them, not until the far future, if ever at all. In all likelihood, they don’t know that they are one themselves. I doubt that I’m one of them, but perhaps you are, my beautiful imaginary follower? If so, could you put in a good word for me to the future? Much obliged.
South Park is quickly becoming the finest satirical show on TV today. The latest episode “The Tale of Scrotie McBoogerBalls” (available here - http://www.allsp.com/) sets up a typical reader-response to “transgression” perfectly. For a person whose favourite book is Naked Lunch, who is also hoping to write a PhD on transgressive experimentalism, I should probably hate it, but I don’t. I guess my “not taking seriousness seriously” demeanour is to thank. There’re plenty of angry academics out there, labelling themselves as anarchists and sporting obligatory tattoos, which would have dismissed the humour as “too simplistic” like the panel of judges in the episode.
I guess the point isn’t necessarily even about “transgression”, or any particular novelistic content, but the act of reading itself. The arbitrary delegation of ‘high’ and ‘low’ art assures that the novel is highly regarded even in its most pulp, blockbuster-ish state; Dan Brown shares the esteemed title of “novelist” with the likes of James Joyce. Similarly, the expenditure of time and effort necessary in reading a novel means that the vast majority of people will only read very occasionally and, in doing so, will then actively will themselves to enjoy the process regardless of its actual content. It’s a lot like spending hundreds of pounds on a computer game console and all the latest games; implicit value judgements are already influencing the virtual experience prior to its actual beginning.
One of my current projects is on this very relationship between the text and the reader. Academics like to pretend that everyone gives the same level of critical reception to the text as them, despite the fact that they are paid to read in a certain way. Yet even the most critical, detached, Barthes-esque Reader cannot ever achieve the perfect reading, the One Great Vision that a work is supposed to bestow. Each reading is separate and distinct, even this sentence will be completely different when you go back and read over it again. Such is the inherent quality of language and the narratives that contain it. This blog has a definite start and end, as does this paragraph, regardless of sentence structures, and all these things place readings within an endlessly-becoming world experience. It’s no wonder then that one critic reads The Tale of Scrotie McBoogerBalls as pro-choice whilst another sees it as anti-abortion (this is me refusing to recognise the fascist term “pro-life” by the way) when both actualised the signifier “Vadgefrogs” in completely separate ways. The Void behind the language takes on the characteristics of the projected Self in innumerable different ways. When one character asks another, “Which book were you reading?” they make an important recognition, for although the same “book” may be read by two people, no two “texts” are the same, and neither are two “readings”. A “book” may contain words but the “text” is in the constantly re-actualising experience of the narrative, story or meaning (the Textual Event of the linguistic State of Affairs). The “text” can therefore only become accessible through the process of reading (the mulitiplicituous becoming of the Reading Event) of which any single present-present moment can never be replicated. Each time you read “Vadgefrogs” you embark upon an entirely new, completely unique (different) Reading Event, each one re-actualising the Textual Event in its constant becoming. I think it’s for this reason that so many people enjoy the Textual Event of Tristram Shandy or Ulysses only once they no longer undertake its Reading Events, believing themselves to have “finished” the book.
I hesitate for a moment here as I realise I may somehow be plagiarising myself in advance, so I’ll just go on to quickly re-mention the Self that I brought up earlier. It occurs to me that the constant acts of projection involved in everyday life, if psychoanalytical terms are to be used epistemologically, would result in a reasonably solipsistic, at least Berklean, model of being. To talk of a self as an Ego/Superego/Id becomes confused in Lacan with the self as a Self/Other of Phantasy/Real(erased); a confusion that, taken ad absurdum in this model would equate the universe to two sides of a cartoon head. We experience our Self and then simultaneously the anti-Self we throw onto our Other. In doing so, our Others must live as equally varied and fulfilling lives as our Selves. The “pro-choice/pro-life” argument in South Park is then a dualistic reading experience ripped from the multiplicitous Void of the “Vadgefrogs”. In the words of the brilliant song at the end of the 100th South Park episode, “Let the flag for hypocrisy fly high overhead”, glorious doublethink reigns supreme.
Although the problem isn’t so much doublethink as overthink. Whilst no two readings can be identical, their content being experienced via the entirely subjective Self/Other, the concept formation still takes place from the same roots of multiplicity, the same book, the same language. The consciousness of Other as Self isn’t the liberating force, it is the counter-actualisation of Self-transcendence that opens the mind to actual others. The impossibility of the One Great Reading is a liberating engine of anti-totalitarianism, and without it there would be no need of fiction in the first place.
“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…
Whenever I get annoyed by how ignorant people are of things, (how no-one on X-Factor can ever actually sing, for example) I find it helps to think of Bishop George Berkeley, founder of the Immaterialist school of British Empiricism. If you get annoyed by people having a false belief in the talents of a quasi-celebrity then imagine how annoying it must be if everyone went around believing in “matter” when you knew it was pure common sense that it didn’t exist!
For those who aren’t so dull as to have read Berkeley, he basically takes Locke’s idea that nothing can be known except via the senses and then adds the “therefore nothing exists except sense perceptions” that we all know and love. Although commonly dismissed, it’s hard to get through his Three Dialogues without seeing the logic of it, even if you don’t end up believing in it. He puts it so rationally that you end up thinking that you’re the mad one for believing in a bizarre thing called “matter” in the first place.
Of course, the effects of this sort of navel-gazing wear off pretty sharpish as you go about your day as normal regardless of whether matter exists or not. The impressive thing about Berkeley is that for him it didn’t, he just kept on disbelieving. Getting out of his idea of a bed in the morning and eating his idea breakfast, pausing to read about ideas of news in the idea of the newspaper and groaning over the newspaper’s constant references to “matter” the way I do whenever the tabloids mention “immigrants” or “terrorists”.
That’s why I like Berkeley, and his Three Dialogues in particular. He’s the original observational comic; he observes daily life, stripping away all pretence and showing us how it is… and how it is, is immaterial. Hylas, the straight man of the routine, sets up Philonous for punchline after punchline, resolution after resolution. Like all great comics, Berkeley laughs us into a re-evaluation of our beliefs. He’s an Eighteenth Century Bill Hicks.
Yet Berkeley, for all his zany immaterialism, is merely echoing a form that’s as old as philosophy itself – The Socratic Dialogue. Plato was a comic, Confucius was a comic, even Jesus has touches of Andy Kaufman setting up Judas and Peter like he did (maybe).
I guess what I’m getting at is that great art, and great philosophy, is always funny. The pursuit of knowledge is simply an attempt to work out the universe’s punchline. That’s why I like Bishop Berkeley. I can imagine him sat around grumbling like he’s in a Jack Dee sitcom, the only one finding him funny being the viewers at home (which according to the Three Dialogues would in fact be God), his only solace being the comic misunderstandings of the rest of the world with their ridiculous “matter”.