Thursday, July 13, 2023

Jokes in the cold war


Since Kundera’s death was announced, I’ve been thinking about the eighties – his great decade in America – and about rereading The Joke, his four times translated first novel.

The idea of a joke that pursues the joker and ruins his life has a lot of attraction for me. I am fascinated by jokes. But I don’t hear many anymore.

When I was in my twenties, I often found myself in the midst of a joketelling orgy – that is, I found myself among joke tellers. I’d tell some jokes myself, but I did not have the rhythm of the great joke teller. I was equipped with one advantage, however: I was a great laugher. I could laugh until, literally, I ran out of breath. Not only that, but I laughed not only at the punch line – for the punch line, for the great joke teller, is only the final touch on the whole artistic edifice, the last gargoyle, so to speak, on the cathedral of shit – but I would laugh even more at the absurdities that the joke piled up, especially if it was an obscene joke.

Obscenity requires a concatenation of circumstances that remove us more and more from social reality, and each step is funnier. In a sense, I was a strange audience for a joker, who is used to the laugh coming last, and to an air of concentration among his listeners, who are like fans in the stands, waiting for a hit.  But the talented joker would realize that though my laughter was, in a sense, a territorial incursion on the story, he could use  the rhythm my laughter threatened to interrupt to make the joke even better, even more a jazz solo.

I was also among a literary set, and some of them – notably my friend Stefan – were very aware of the joke as an artform. Stefan was a very good joke teller, but he was not a great joke teller because he was too aware of the art. Sometimes, though, when he just let his natural flow take him there, he was a great one. Joke telling, back then, had a setting: it was in a bar, or a coffee shop. It was close to a college or university. At least, for the joketellers I knew. And this closeness made jokes something like an anti-classroom. In a classroom, you read, or you talked about texts - and were talked to about texts, and were generally educated in the complexities of reflection, the necessity of critique, and the never-ending task of imagining the good life arising out of the crimes of history. The joke climbed joyously back into the crimes of history and wallowed. In the great jokes – which were almost always dirty, misogynist, homophobic, racist, etc. – liberal society, indeed any social ideal, was turned upside down, its pockets were picked, and its underwear observed – and its underwear was always dirty.

Time, man. Clocks, calanders, insert here the leaves blowing away. I’ve been freelance now for twenty-five years, and I never find myself in joke telling orgies anymore. Is it that the age for them – my twenties and thirties – has passed? Or is the joke itself falling prey to its internet counterparts – the tweet, the Instagram caricature, etc.?

Was there a special joke in the Cold War era? Something like Delillo’s Lenny Bruce monologues in Underworld?

There’s an essay by Andrei Sinyavsky, the Soviet dissident, entitled The Joke in the Joke. It is a very good essay, one of the best on jokes. Written in the early eighties, it is also rather sexist. Conservatives often complain that the use of sexism and racism as interpretive categories distorts the past. This isn’t true - they help one see more of the past. Benjamin’s dictum that every monument of civilization is also a monument of barbarism finds its practical application here.

The core of the essay – which contains some silly and some truly disgusting jokes, and ends with a misogynistic rape joke – is that jokes are philologically important, and are the popular art form, just as folktales were in the past.

“In a closed society of the Soviet type, where the parameters of self-interested and complete existence are marked by all sorts of prohibitions (especially verbal ones), the joke is the only emotional outlet. More than that, it has actually developed into a model for living and serves the function of macrocosm inside the microcosm. As such, it becomes a kind of monad of the world order. The joke is in the air, but not in the form of dust. Like a spore, which contains everything that the soul needs in embryonic form, it is capable of reproducing the organism whole at the first opportune moment. Hence its readiness to provide universal formulas, explicating the epoch, history or the nation.”

Much emphasis is put, here, on the closed society of the Soviet type. But as all wee peas in the cogs of American capitalism can testify, the prohibitions here are cruelly marked out in dollars and sense, in time devoured, in exhaustions never to be redeemed; in cross-purposes between races, classes, and “discourses” that seem to have become zones of lies entirely. Here, the joke’s redemptive purpose, its “monad-hood”, seems lost to the onrush of ever more comic catastrophes. Of that which take your breath away, you physically cannot speak. And as I am removed, now, from the culture of oral jokes, I can’t really testify as to its health. But thrust into the pseudo-society of social networks, I can testify that everything begins to look, in a ghastly but undeniable way, like a joke. So much so that it has become a joke that one can’t joke, that irony needs an emoticon to explain itself.

There’s another wonderful bit in the Sinyavsky essay that is worth digging out. Here it is:

“If it weren’t for one more characteristic feature of the joke, perhaps the most important one, we could end our story here. I am referring to the joke’s philosophical relation to the world, to things, to the old and the new, when the new is a variation on the old but is nevertheless a new variant. We can imagine the joke in the form of an endless chain which connects just about all possible human situations. It can be likened to Mendeleev’s periodic table of elements, which has empty spaces for new valences as if for new jokes. The heading for this chart consisting of humorous parables would read something like “Human Existence” or “Human Reality”.

We laugh, so we don't cry. And then we discover that we laugh cause we can't cry. And then we cry with laughter.

Monday, July 10, 2023

the hammers have boxes


“And Jesus said unto him, Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head.”


 While the division of labor increases the productive power of labor, and the wealth and refinement of society, it leads to the impoverishment of the laborer until he sinks to the level of the machine. While labor incites the accumulation of capitals and thus the increasing well being of society, it makes the laborer ever more dependent on the capitalist, thrusts him into a greater competition, drives him into a rush of overproduction, from which follows an equivalent slump.” - Marx


Kolakowski has correctly written that Marx, unlike the socialists of the 40s, had a firmer grasp of the fact that capitalism was rooted in de-humanization. His economic analysis does not marginalize this insight, but builds upon it – which is why Marx never puts the market at the center of economic analysis, even as he is able to represent the reasons that mainstream economists do so.


In the Economic-Philosophical manuscripts, the figure for that de-humanization is the machine.


Not, I notice, an animal. Traditionally, the poor were compared to animals.  In a wonderful series of essays by Sergio della Bernardina, an ethnographer of hunting, he found that the animal is not considered a machine by the hunter. In fact, the animal – the deer, the bear, the fox – is considered a-like being. For the person,  outside of philosophy, is a matter of degrees and situations, and not an absolute. Which means that how personhood intervenes in social practice can’t necessarily be predicted from our definition of personhood – in the cases Bernardina examines, the tormenting of a bear or a bull before it is killed does not happen because its tormenters lack a sense of the animals personhood, but precisely because they want to provoke aggression on the part of the animal to which they can respond, shifting the blame for the animal’s death to the animal itself as a person responsible for lashing out, for acting badly.

In the Christian tradition, it is only recently that environmental historians have pursued the thesis that Christianity, by entrusting nature to man, devalued the environment. I am skeptical. Christianity, in the broad ancient tradition, certainly did not ascribe property to animals. They owned nothing. Yet they did have holes and nests. They had families. Christian iconography is actually replete with peaceful animals, with the redeemed sheep, with the dove, etc.


The animal might not have a property relationship with the world – they could be hunted, they could be sacrificed, they could be eaten – but they were, of course, God’s creation.


Not the machine. The machine not only has not property claim on the world – it has no home. It has no family. The son of man would not say, the chariots have sheds, the hammers have a box – although he’d know it, being a carpenters son. In the double logic of the dissolution of the human limit, when Descartes and the early modern natural philosophers compare the animal to the machine – and man, too – they both advance a new claim about the human relationship to the world (dissolving any limit to its use) while advancing a new and unrecognizable form of human – the man machine, the Other – as the human subject.

The poverty of the worker, who sinks to the state of a machine, is the flip side of the glory of the proletariat, the Other who is the subject of universal history. What does the poverty consist in? Marx sees it, of course, in terms of wealth – but also refinement – the “Verfeinerung der Gesellschaft.” I would call this poverty an imprisonment in routines. It is hard to resist jumping ahead to Freudian terms, having to do with obsessive behavior and neurosis, which, after all, is the mechanical coming to the surface – the arm or leg that doesn’t work, that has returned to dead matter.

It is easy to forget that the Descartes or Le Mettrie’s machine was an automaton, an entertainment. Court societies love F/X, whether it is Versailles, Hollywood or D.C. – but in real material terms, the automata did nothing more than demonstrate the uses of a winding mechanism. What Marx is talking about is not that kind of machine.

As Wolfgang Schivelbusch nicely puts it at the beginning of The Railway Journey, the Europe of the eighteenth century, which was still the Europe of wood and woods, of energy supplied by streams and forests, was losing its woods. He quotes Sombart – and I am going to give some elbow room here to exaggeration and the blind eye turned to the forests in America. Still, wood was becoming more expensive, and in this way an opportunity opens up for other means of energy and structure – notably, coal and iron. To which one must add that water, too, but in a new form – as steam – is part of the complex. In one of the historical ironies that the economic historian scrupulously skirts, even the Corn laws, decried for two centuries, actually contributed to the industrial revolution, for, by raising the price of grain and thus of keeping horses, they “helped replace horsepower by mechanical power in much the same way shortage of wood in 18th century Europe had accelerated the development of coal production.”

So, the older elements of life – that obsession of the romantics in perhaps the last final bloom of eotechnical Europe – were being reconfigured before Marx’s eyes. When Marx was expelled from Paris in 1845, he took the messagerie – the stagecoach – to the Belgian border. In 1848, when he was kicked out of Belgium, he took the train back to Paris.

We could measure those three years biographically – or geologically, as human technological needs produced wealth and a planetary alteration in the cosmic order we are beginning to feel.

Southern California Death Trip

    “He was kind but he changed and I killed him,” reads the caption of the photo of a woman in an old tabloid. She was headed to ...