Saturday, February 11, 2023

the chuckle track and the obscure object of bourgeois desire


Adam doesn’t like the tv shows I watched when I was a kid, which are easy to find on the net. Especially the comedies. He can’t overlook or overhear the laugh track – an object that is also called a laughtrack and a laughtertrack. I’ve told him that some shows had live audiences – I have a dim memory that Norman Lear shows had live audiences – but Adam is a media wise child. He might be ten, but he’s a Parisian, no country bumpkin: “didn’t they put laugh and applause signs up for the audience”?

When I was Adam’s age, laughtracks were the rage. You couldn’t watch a comedy on network television without an accompanying laugh track. Watching them now, the laughtracks seem grotesque. They have aged badly. They make the exercise in nostalgia painful.

I’m not sure when the laugh tracks disappeared. After about 1980, I stopped watching network television. And even now, I watch network series, when I watch them, on Netflix. However, it would not surprise me if the laughtracks were junked around the time the Berlin wall fell, and throughout the world the old monopoly television companies were revamped, an event that had incalculable political consequences in so many places: Italy and the U.S., in particular.

The prehistory of orchestrated audience response reaches back to long before the Cold War – all the way back to the commencement of the entertainment industry in the 19th century. In 1820, in the full swing of the reaction in France, a company was founded in Paris with the title: L’Assurance des Succès dramatiques. This agency, run by a former wigmaker named Porchon and his partner, a M. Sauton, would hire people to make a play or an opera a success. These claqueurs, as they were called,  would be sure to applaud, laugh loudly at the jokes, cry copiously at the sad parts, and in other ways make sure that a playwright’s opening night went well. Porchon would even loan money out to the writer – Alexander Dumas was one of his grateful clients.

Orchestrating audience response, before, had been an idiosyncratic matter of rivalry between aristocrats and the theeater troupes they patronized. Here, however, was a taste of capitalism – putting audience response on an industrial basis, the same kind of logic Marx and Engels celebrated in the Communist Manifesto:

“We see then: the means of production and of exchange, on whose foundation the bourgeoisie built itself up, were generated in feudal society. At a certain stage in the development of these means of production and of exchange, the conditions under which feudal society produced and exchanged, the feudal organisation of agriculture and manufacturing industry, in one word, the feudal relations of property became no longer compatible with the already developed productive forces; they became so many fetters. They had to be burst asunder; they were burst asunder.”

And so it was with the entertainment industry.

We possess a ‘Memoir of a Claqueur” (1828) by one Louis Castel Robert. Robert’s story was of a reality that requires, for its full comprehension,  the intense cultivation of history – the history of France in the 1820s. Having inherited some money, and being of a tender, philosophical disposition, Robert, a young man in Paris, naturally pissed his funds away on drink, women, books and idleness. At the end of this process he confronted an unpleasantness that many of his type encountered, viz, debtors prison. In Sainte Pelagie, he had the good fortune to fall in with a man named Mouchival. Mouchival was a common looking fellow – yet Robert soon learned he was not so common after all. He was only in Sainte Pelagie due to a misunderstanding, practically - having co-signed on a loan for a friend – for Mouchival, like Porchon, was always a friend in deed – he found himself being charged with it. The man, however, was quite equal to the situation. As an entrepreneur in the claqueur field, he had simply written to a rich client who fancied himself a dramatist and expressed the need for some cash, for which he would, in the future, supply such services as may be required, yours truly. Thus, he was utterly confident of rescue. Rescue, in the form of francs, eventually did appear, but sent by an actress – through which he, in turn, rescued his promising young acquaintance, Robert. Which is how Robert found a place to fill in the world as a claqueur.

The claqueur was a character type in Paris, a figure out of Benjamin’s Arcades Project. The yellow gloves of the claqueur were particularly distinctive, and became a nickname for the claque crowd. – les gants jaunes. Robert writes that Mouchival gave him ‘elementary instructions in the science of cabales, and treated, as an experienced master, all the articles of the tactics proper to making plays succeed or fail.” Robert learned the “circumstances in which it was necessary to applaud or whistle, cry or laugh, be silent or scream, yawn or blow your nose.”

As Mouchival soon teaches the young man he has inexplicably taken under his wing, the surface work of the claqueur is just one link in the chain of profit. A more noticeable link is in the work of selling tickets. A certain number of tickets are allotted, free, to the claqueur. He can sell the superfluity himself. But the claqueur is not the only one to scalp tickets. Indeed, a good part of the theater world, from the actor to the usher to the critic, supplements their income on such sales.

The ontogenesis of the media world is here: content is rarely the profit item. It is the advertising, the peripherals – from concert t-shirts to influencer endorsements – that keeps the wheels going.

Interestingly, in the seventies, there was a show where the laugh track became, for the writers and creators, a controversial issue: MASH. This was a comedy about the Korean War, with obvious reference to the late Southeast Asia war. The producer, Larry Gelbert, did not want a laugh track. The network did: “Gotta have a laugh track. Because they always had had laugh tracks. This was so people would distinguish it from a drama. That was what they kept saying.” Gene Reynolds, the producer I believe, folded, but put in “a very discrete laugh track.”

Alan Wagner, president of programming for CBS in those days, was a proponent of laugh tracks: “The laugh track is overused – and I’m guilty of that as much as anybody. I’ve overused it badly, with some pretty core pilots, trying to goose the audience’s response. And the guy who invented that machine, I don’t think he did a very good job. There are some pretty raucous sounds in there – its hard to make it subtle. Hard to get a chuckle track out of that.”

Among tv comedy insiders, according to Saul Austerlitz’s book on the sitcom, Seinfeld, a hit comedy of the 90s, was positively ancient in its format compared to the Larry Sanders show. The latter dispensed for the most part  with the laugh track. It was the future. Austerlitz singles out Friends as “the last of the hugely successful traditional sitcoms, laugh track and all”.  It is not that the laugh track totally disappeared in the era of the Global War on Terror, but it was broadcast to an audience that no longer recognized this mechanized form of claqueur.

Perhaps the post-laugh track era, like the post-truth, post-post, post-Twitter, post-Facebook, post-democracy, post-reactionary, post post post Roger era, is a symptom of something. But being no pundit, I can’t bullshit a generalization here. Although I do know that exploiting the exploiters, the revolutionary takeover of the orchestration of audience response, is not on the table. Capitalism will find a way.


Wednesday, February 08, 2023

Blues for the "we"


I’m a great believer in the impersonal “one”, and the editorial “we”. What the linguists call an agent defocuser. However, as an editor of academic papers, I have found that neither “one” nor the editorial “we” is in favour at the moment. It is the age of “I” or the passive verb. The former I often find intrusive, and the latter cowardly.

However, you can’t be American and to the manner born without knowing, in your bones, that “one” is a hopelessly upper class agent defocuser. To say: One doesn’t do such things, is to mark oneself as the type of person who either goes to the Yale Club or wants to go to the Yale Club.

I wonder why this class aura hangs around the “one”? And why it has so little oral usage – in the oral, one becomes, oh so fatally, you. In Benjamin’s essay, the Storyteller, the oral nature of the story, as opposed to the novel, has to do with the space of its performance. The storyteller in the village is face to face with the audience, within touching distance. And that touching distance shines out in the American “you”. There are novels written in the “you” form, and they seem somehow to be wearing the wrong clothes – for the “you” is a barroom bark, and perhaps should be paired with the “one” as bluecollar to blue blood. Myself, I like to think of myself as a blue collar upstart, an imposter of sorts, and perhaps this is the reason I am so fond of “one”. But I am also fond of “we” as an editorial gesture. But there is “we” and there is “we”.  The “we” that makes me cringe doesn’t reference the text that both writer and supposed reader are inhabiting, but a social space. In that bastard form of prose, the newspaper column, the we bleeds all over the place. The we goes to fancy restaurants, worries about sending the kids to prep school, and observes the other – which might even have its own “we”! – as going to diners, beating the kids, and voting for Trump.

I am going to lose the fight for the editorial “we”, a less snobby and more inclusive doll. One knows this. But one tries, nonetheless.

Tuesday, February 07, 2023

Roots of the paranoid republic


When Kurt Lewin came to America in 1929, he was already a famous figure in Berlin. Lewin had started out in social philosophy, the kind of thing practiced and theorized by Georg Simmel, but he had taken a turn into social psychology, and held a chair in Gestalt psychology at the Berlin university in the twenties. Having been trained in philosophy, he was fascinated by the underlying theory of the psychological experiment, criticizing the idea that the application of statistics and modelling the psychology laboratory on physics or the natural sciences was the best route for social psychology’s object: the mechanisms of human interaction.

These are the dry vocational aspects of Lewin’s life in 1929. However, you can’t explain Lewin’s influence simply by referring to his papers. Rather, there was something about the man himself, apparently. This is the story told in James Korn’s history of the use of deceit in social psychological experiments:

“A German-Jewish immigrant … radically changed the direction of American social psychology. Kurt Lewin already had a following in the United States as a result of an article

published by J. E Brown (1929) and an invited lecture at Yale University in 1929. The Yale lecture foreshadowed the nature of his impact because, although most of the audience could not understand what he said (he lectured in German), his obvious enthusiasm held the attention of his listeners.”


In my experience, Yale lectures are usually not to write home about: they are often detail distressed – too much or too little – and the speaker makes no attempt to put life into what he or she is saying. A professor at Yale told me a long, amusing anecdote about Lacan’s lecture there – which, much to the surprise of his hosts, was not only incomprehensible – it was Lacan, after all, and used the model of elephant sexuality to explain something – but was also in French. In the professor’s recounting, he had to restrain a colleague who was threatening to go on stage and clock Lacan in mid metaphor.


Perhaps Yale talks bring out the bizarre. In Lewin’s talk, he demonstrated his theories by showing a short film he made of his wife’s eighteen month old niece attempting to sit on a rock. The film was an expose of the way even an infant sequences a task without having a specific experience to guide her.


To give an entire talk, in 1929, in German was, let us say, a bold move: that it added to Lewin’s glamor rather than diminished it is pretty impressive.


Korn’s book is about the rise and relative fall of using deception – often employing confederates, as in a con game – to create a social psychology experiment; Korn claims that the origins of this kind of thing, or at least the impulse that led to experiments that are known to all, such as the Milgrim experiment, came originally from Lewin’s work and influence on his students – students who also included businessmen. In fact, Lewin was fascinated with organization, including business organizations, and it is no weirdness that his American biographer, Alfred J. Marrow, was an industrialist.


Lewin’s film clip – and his early advocacy of filming subjects – is not only about his underlying theory of what social psychology should be doing – discovering sequences, not behavioural pairs on the Pavlovian – Behaviouralist model – but also about his subjectivity as a product of the Weimar era. Marrow’s biography doesn’t mention it, but it is not hard to imagine that Lewin was a fan of Fritz Lang’s films. In particular M., the film of Lang and his scriptwriting wife, Thea von Harbou, that is in many ways exactly like a social psychology experiment, with secret observers, such as fake blind beggars, watching the streets for the child murderer and marking him so that others could find him. It is odd to think of how Lewin transposed the modernity of Weimar Berlin to mid America – exactly mid, as he spent his best years in America in Iowa, at the University of Iowa’s Child Welfare center.


However, his deception experiments were not played on children – but on the usual prey, college students. At Harvard he conducted an experiment on the “fear response” in groups that was a model of the deception experiment – it was structured around a supposed experiment that was really a lure for the real experiment. For instance, students or other volunteers would be told they have to solve problems. Then the psychology student would say that they had completed the experiment, and would they please stay in the room and write down their analysis of their experience. He would walk out the door and lock it. Then smoke would be directed through a grill in the door, and people in the ceiling above the room would watch to see how the group was affected by finding smoke, that is, evidence of fire, and a locked door.




Or as Korn puts it: “In this study we see many of the deceptive elements that would be repeated later in social psychological research: a bogus task, misinformation from the experimenter, and hidden observers.”


It interests me that the controversy about these small scale deceptions has been about the ethical problem of how they might harm the participants, but not about the larger problem of infecting the public discourse with the scientific practice of deception, and the power-relationships this entails. What does this do to the “scientist”? What does it do to the larger public that becomes aware of it? How does this ease with deceptive elements work when they are annexed, say, by national intelligence agencies?  Although most of the controversy about the ”post-truth” era is an invitation to fake deepthink, there was, during the Cold War years and up until now, a comfort with deception on the part of the intelligentsia and the powerful that fundamentally undermined the trust needed to maintain a democracy. And I think these routinized deceits have never been given the historical prominence or consideration they deserve. The construction and use of  paranoid machinery is one of the discoveries of the twentieth century that is having a massive effect on the twenty-first century.


The citizen-paranoid seeks a society-paranoid – which is the very image of authoritarianism.


Yet, this picture of Lewin is not complete. He was, in truth, a New Dealer liberal, an advocate for less authoritarian ways of teaching – in a series of famous experiments, his group at Iowa showed how more democratic classrooms were actually less liable to arguments, tantrums and bickering. The authoritarian method of the Lewin liberal is interwoven with the liberal goal of a society of tolerance. We toil in this net.   

Sunday, February 05, 2023

Looking back at the midlife crisis



In the middle of my life – a point that I crossed while sitting in a messy studio  apartment in Austin – I looked around, and then at the mirror – where else? – and thought about the pattern of failure in my life. Of course, this was that old thing,  the cardboard middlelife crisis and all that, but out of the stereotypes in which we are locked we sometimes achieve spiritual insight. We sometimes find a key, unlock  the stereotype, and step out.  

My answer, my key, to this failure I felt was: that I just could not take boredom. Boredom stuck in my craw.

Or perhaps I should say my inability to endure boredom for the sake of making money. In this, I am spiritually one with the street people, the addicts, the semi-professional criminals – with all of those who never quite grew up, whose immaturity is caught in their throat. The difference is that, among the decayed Peter Pan gang, there is – as you will find out very quickly if you talk to them - an astonishing nostalgia for the larva days – high school pranks, days of honey in the suburban hive. I hate that shit, which bored me at the time, and bores me in memory still.

Which made  me want to start over again and ask whether my failure, here, is not so much that I fly from boredom, as that I am bored at the wrong time and by the wrong things. Add to this another confusion: although sometimes I will say, like anybody else, that such and such a thing is boring – and mean, like anybody else, that it is contemptible, that I would like to step on it, shit on it, spit on it, expel it – at other times I despise this kind of language. Boredom, I think – at these other times – is a kind of test, an exercise. It has a necessity, especially in relation to the ecstatic, the sublime, the interesting. To fly boredom in these cases is to fly the depths. To be unable to be bored is to be unable to be. All of which ties me into knots.

If there is midlife crisis, there is literature. There is, for instance, Kierkegaard. A man to turn to when one is locked in a stereotype.

Our man, in the Concept of Dread (or Anguish), has a lot to say about boredom. In the fourth chapter, Kierkegaard asks what happened to the demons. Why do Christians no longer talk about the demons in 19th century Europe? Are they ashamed?

This is the starting point for Kierkegaard’s discussion of the demonic. He makes a two-fold approach to the demonic. One approach is to see it in terms of communication. Communication, for Kierkegaard, is ultimately about revelation, and revelation is ultimately about the divine. Every act of true revelation is divine. And revelation is at the heart of communication. Thus, every act of non-revelation is on the side of the devil, the ‘spirit of negation’. The demon is, ultimately, non-communicative – on the ethical level. He is closed, locked. The demon is the antithesis of the key – all the keys the demon holds out are skeleton keys, keys to nothing and everything.

 However, granting this two-sidedness, the communication that doesn’t communicate,  what is the positive content of revelation, or communication? What is affirmed? The affirmed is, ultimately, the continuous. Continuity itself. The devil’s share, then, is the sudden – the German term seems to me to contain the forked tail more audibly.  Plotzlich, that which puts itself in opposition to the continuous.

Here we have to engage in some dialectical shenanigans, because if the divinely continuous is really to be continuous, it must contain the sudden. The demon with the false key must be in the house, y’all.  Revelation, after all, has its own suddenness. This gets us to boredom. Boredom is, Kierkegaard maintains, incommunicable – it expresses nothing. This is because its content is the content-less. The content of boredom is no content.

This polarity between the sudden and the continuous explains the boring core of entertainment as we have come to know it. Boredom lifts, briefly, at the end of the horror movie or thriller, and it is in that lift that we retrospectively justify our scares and the fine ethical line we cross by watching, without any kind of mourning or sympathy, numerous killings. Or I should say, not only at the end, but the way in which the entertainment lays itself out as a series of ends. In the classic archetype of the horror movie, the monster always comes back after it has been, supposedly, killed. This is a way of playing with the end as a viewpoint from which to look at any cultural product. This is where killing takes our secular knowledge – death is really an end – and makes it ambiguous.

Myself, at the time of my midlife crisis, was  possessed by the l’wa of boredom, longed for a continuum of suddenness – for the ultimate miracle, for nothing to become something all of the time. Never want to work/always want to play.

Play, as opposed to playfulness, was just what is lacking in Kierkegaard – what pulls him to the right.  Still, what a writer to have at hand for us residents in a lost modernity, for which we have only the most comic of names!

Here’s a bit from K.

“Thus the demonic always is, and thus unfreedom becomes anxious, and thus its anxiety moves. Hence, the tendency of the demonic toward mime, not in the sense of the beautiful but in the sense of the sudden, the abrupt, which life itself often gives opportunity to observe.

The demonic is the contentless, the boring.

In the case of the sudden, I have called attention to the esthetic problem of how the demonic may be represented. To elucidate what already has been said, I shall again raise the same question. As soon as one wants to have a demoniac speak and to have him represented, the artist who is to solve this problem must be clear about the categories. He knows that the demonic is essentially mimical; the sudden, however, he cannot achieve, because it interferes with his lines. He will not cheat, as if he were able to bring about the true effect by blurting out the words etc. Therefore, he correctly chooses the very opposite, namely, the boring. The continuity that corresponds to the sudden is what might be called extinction. Boredom, extinction, is precisely a continuity in nothingness. Now the number in the legend can be understood somewhat differently [The legend here is one about the devil meditating for 3,000 years about how to destroy humanity] . The 3,000 years are not accentuated to emphasize the sudden; instead, the prodigious span of time evokes the notion of the dreadful emptiness and contentlessness of evil. Freedom is tranquil in continuity. Its opposite is the sudden, but also the quietness that comes to mind when one sees a man who looks as if he were long since dead and buried. An artist who understands this will see that in discovering how the demonic can be represented he has also found an expression for the comic. The comic effect can be produced in exactly the same way. When all ethical determinants of evil [IV 400] are excluded, and only metaphysical determinants of emptiness are used, the result is the trivial, which can easily have a comic aspect.”

Ah that dead and  buried person! This was my image of the quiet desperation that consists in  selling his or her boredom for money. And using that money to buy plenty of nothing – suddenness in all its multiple forms and varieties.

The me who dreamed in this way, years ago, is measurably different from the me with a certain ease, an achieved peace with the culture of the bored. Kierkegaard was a bachelor, and it shows, it shows. Or at least, this is how I register the change in myself.

Elia meets Karl Marx at the South Sea House

    When Charles Lamb, a scholarship boy at Christ’s Hospital, was fifteen, one of his patrons, Thomas Coventry, had a discussion with a...