Category Archives: Comedy

“Trump’s Nuts Roasting on an Open Fire”

The other night two late-teen boys rang the doorbell. I looked through the peephole, “Fuck. Damnit.” I opened the door. They were dressed like elves: bells, green, red, pointed ears and shoes, the whole bit. One had a bucket of candy-canes, the other held a small jar with a few bills and some change.

As soon as they saw me they started singing “Jingle Bells” not entirely in harmony with one another. I stopped them before they could finish the first line, “Whoa, hold up there, kiddos. What’re ya sellin’?”

“Nothing, just singing for tips,” one said, the other extended a candy cane to me, which I waved off.

“Okay, wait right here,” I went and grabbed some change, about a dollar fifty. I returned, and dropped the change in the jar, “I’ll pay you to not sing, how about that?” They were a little shocked, clearly.

“Uh, okay,” one said as they walked off.

“Ugh” I said after I closed the door, “Christmas music.”

Now, if they had shown up dressed as Wookies I might have been more inclined to watch and listen. But, they didn’t, so, humbug!

I am, admittedly, a regular Scrooge, if you haven’t already condemned me as such by now. So, I guess my sentence is that I have to spread at least a modicum of holiday spirit. Here it is. Take it or leave it.

However, here is a far, far more suiting xmas carol compliments of my dream girl, Fiona, as she sings “Trumps Nuts Roasting on an Open Fire.”

She sang this at a the We Rock with Standing Rock concert that was a benefit to raise money for the people of the Standing Rock Sioux encampment in North Dakota.

One can only hope that there are enough of us that are thoughtfully enraged, mobilized, capable, active to resist the government. Until then, I’ll leave the optimism to the optimists, and joy to the joyful.

“Because it’s got electrolytes”

Yesterday morning I woke up, and, for the first time, I participated in the “Black Friday” race to the socioeconomic bottom. There could be no more reproduced image of your typical American capitalist denizen than that of a lower-middle class, minimum wage-earning white male handing over a credit card to a Target employee in his early twenties in order to purchase an iPad. As I walked out of the store I looked down at the box in my hand and thought, “Because it’s got electrolytes.”

Then, last night, I went to see the film Arrival for the second time. The first time I saw it I was alone in the theater, and even surprised the theater employee when I stood up to walk out. She almost dropped her broom when she realized I was there.

I mentioned the film to  a mentor of mine, Nancy Ward, curator of the Artistic License Fair. She had already seen it, she said “It was amazing– a poem.” I couldn’t agree more.

As I walked out of the film the first time I couldn’t help but wonder that, if the film had come out before the election, would it have had any effect on how people voted? At the moment, I can’t point to any evidence to support the notion that the broader American audience is capable of understanding a film like this. My “heart mom,” Lisa Marie Oxenham, said “We may have to accept that people aren’t ready for this kind of film.” However, there is a very striking line in the film. Louise, the protagonist of the film, says to her daughter, “You’re unstoppable.” The little girl, Hannah, responds, “I’m unstoppable.” Inevitability. The ineluctability of the girl’s presence, her significance, should be absolutely arresting to anyone whether or not they are “ready” for her. That is, everyone should recognize Hannah as an image of the inevitable change that our species and the planet will experience. Whether or not we survive that change is anyone’s guess at the moment.

Matt Taibbi wrote an editorial in Rolling Stone about the experience of the surprise Trump win of the presidency for journalists and others in the media. Of course, the film Idiocracy just celebrated it’s 10th anniversary and many have referred to the film this past year. Taibbi points to the film saying that it is “ostensibly a comedy but destined now to be remembered as a horror movie” (Taibbi, 38). He goes on to say that many reporters “found themselves thinking about this film when we [heard] voters saying they were literally incapable of understanding the words coming out of Hillary Clinton’s mouth. ‘When [Trump] talks, I actually understand what he’s saying,’ a young Pennsylvanian” told Taibbi, “‘But, like, when fricking Hillary Clinton talks, it just sounds like a bunch of bullshit.’”

This is, of course reminiscent of the scene in Idiocracy when Joe wakes up after 500 years of cryogenic sleep and is unable to communicate with people. He is “able to understand them. But when he spoke, he sounded pompous and faggy to them.”

It’s a humorous moment, for sure, but when we begin to recognize, further still, our current judicial system in the courtroom scene of Joe’s trial the humor turns to dread, especially considering Trump’s Supreme Court nominees are likely to be as technologically, sociologically, and scientifically illiterate as his executive cabinet is turning out to be.

I’m reminded, also, of something Jim Jefferies says when referencing the distinct repudiation of even the most basic form of critical thought on the part of Trump supporters.

What happens is, he says really simple shit that means nothing, and then fuckin’ dummies…right? If you’ve ever said this sentence, ‘I like him because he’s a straight talker,’ you’re as dumb as shit. Just because someone says something simple that you understand, it doesn’t mean they’re a straight talker…he says ‘I’m gonna make America great again,’ and you’re like, ‘I got every word in that sentence!’

If posts on social media from my Trump-supporting friends are any indication of the sensibilities of the rest of the 42 million Americans that voted for him, then I, along with many others, I’m certain, are greatly concerned, not simply about the way his election has emboldened neofascist groups, or the racist and sexist rhetoric during his campaign speeches, but with the “wave of anti-intellectualism,” to borrow Bill Hicks’ phrase, that has defined the the cultural identity of this country. I will acknowledge that there is always some headline, “Americans are increasingly X,” “Y is on the rise in America,” and so on. Yet, when our federal government, ostensibly directed by an internet-troll, of all things, has vowed to remove itself from the Paris Accords much to the dismay of all of the other COP20 nations, when the Education Secretary does not have a degree in the field of education, etc., it is absolutely alarming when direct parallels can be drawn to the Executive Cabinet in Idiocracy.

Zizek argues that the mechanisms of manufacture of consent are broken, but I think it’s quite the contrary. Those lulling mechanisms– media, tech companies, prime time, advertising agencies, etc. –have done their job so well, that now Americans are statistically unable to distinguish an articulate career politician (for all her failings) from a developmentally stunted schoolyard bully who brags about sexual assault, and the same being true for down-ballot races across the states. Disney, HBO, Netflix, Call of Duty, and UFC have all done their part well to lull the electorate. To quote Zach De La Rocha, “They packed the 9, fired into prime time. The sleeping gas, every home was like Alcatraz…You’re brain dead, you got a fuckin’ bullet in your head.”

I’m conditionally inclined to agree with Taibbi when he and others suggest that identity politics have gotten in the way of a clearer vision of the true issues (climate change, nuclear proliferation, the global refugee crisis, healthcare, and so on), and that “America’s cultural elite [has] trained for so long to think in artificial distinctions like Republicans and Democrats instead of more-natural divisions, like haves and have-nots.” Go figure, Rollings Stone’s editorial board, in its endorsement of Hillary Clinton earlier in the campaign, outright dismissed Bernie Sanders by arguing that these issues were fringe, marginal, but now those very same issues seem a distant utopian future where national dialogues might include such elevated topics. However, I agree, also, that we must be careful not to level blame at those who have fought for civil rights and basic cultural and legal representation, for as Melissa Warnke writes in her LA Times editorial “progressivism isn’t a cause divorced from consequence.” Those representations are, predictably, likely to be met with social resistance from other ethnic and cultural groups, but they are still a noble and just cause.

I will likely come back to Arrival in a later post because there is much to be unpacked from the film. As I’ve told all of my friends, it combines three of my favorite elements in narrative: linguistics, aliens, and stunningly gorgeous redheads. Until then, if there’s one theme from the story that I think is worth articulating as clearly as possible, it’s this– we, as a species capable of drastic global consequence, absolutely must raise the level of literacy in all academic fields. We need to “Make America smart again,” said Neil deGrasse Tyson during a spot of the Late Show.

America, in particular, must rediscover the value of intellect rather than disregarding it as elitism or “liberal bias.” As Albert Einstein once warned even as far back as 1934 when addressing the Progressive Education Association, the stakes are too high. “Security of the United States, as for other countries,” he says, “lies only in a satisfactory solution of the world peace problem. Youth must not be allowed to believe that safety can be obtained through political isolation” (Einstein, 57-58). I would go a step further to argue that cultural and economic isolation are equally obstructive. “The spirit of international solidarity should also be strengthened,” Einstein continues, “and chauvinism should be combated as a hindrance to world peace. In schools, history should be used as a means of interpreting progress in civilization, and not for inculcating ideals of imperialistic power and military success.” Education should be valued by a society, it’s the greatest investment in it’s own future that society could ever make as a sort of insurance plan. Much like genes are passed down through biological generations, knowledge should be passed down through the generations to “interpret [the] progress” of society, and the education system is the conduit for that knowledge. Never again should our society tolerate the fact that its electorate was able to vote for a candidate who has promised to “bomb the shit out of” someone in another country without being able to so much as point out where that country is on a map.

And yet, our government attacks, and defunds it’s own education system for the specific purpose of lowering educational standards and privatizing and monetizing schools. To yet again quote Chomsky, at some length because, I think, he brilliantly summarizes the value of public education:

We see it in the attack on public schools. Public schools are based on the principle of solidarity. I no longer have children in school, they’re grown up. But, the principle of solidarity says that I happily pay taxes so that the kid across the street can go to school. That’s normal human emotion. They have to drive that out of people’s heads, ‘I don’t have kids in school, why should I pay taxes. Privatize it,’ and so on. The public education system, all the way from kindergarten to higher education is under severe attack. I mean, that’s one of the jewels of American society. You go back to the ‘golden age’ again, the great growth period in the 50s and 60s. A lot of that is based on free public education…The US is way at the lead of developing extensive public mass education at every level…Now in half the states, most of the funding for public colleges comes from tuition, not from the state. That’s a radical change… In the 1950s, there was a much poorer society than there is today. It could never the less handle, essentially free, mass higher education. Today a much richer society claims it doesn’t have the resources for it. That’s just what’s going on right before our eyes. That’s the general attack on principles that, I mean, not only are they humane, they’re the basis of the prosperity and health of this society.

Again, more on Arrival soon. Until then, as President Not Sure says, “I don’t know, read a book or something.” Just don’t do it in a waffle house.

*Update 12/4/16*

Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! interviewed three women who are directly involved in the fight to protect American public education– former Assistant Secretary of Education, Diane Ravitch, Center for Media and Democracy Executive Director, Lisa Graves, and member of the Detroit Board of Education, Tawanna Simpson. Ravitch brings up an important point, that education voucher systems break “the long history of a separation of church and state because most of the vouchers that are used in the states that now have vouchers are for religious schools. And most of them are not going to — it’s not enough money to go to an elite school or to the best school, it’s usually very, like in the South, it’s backward fundamentalist church schools that have uncertified staff.” Watch the whole interview here:

___________________________________________________________________________

Works cited:

Einstein, Albert. Ideas and Opinions. Ed. Cal Seelig. NY: Three River Press, 1982. Print.

Taibbi, Matt. “Trump’s Payback: Journalists and politicians blew off the warning signs of a Trump presidency– now, we must all pay the price.” Rolling Stone. Issue 1275, 1 Decmber 2016. Print.

 

“How did our politics get so poisonous?”: Colbert, Chomsky, and Hicks

On November 8th, Colbert’s live show aired after most of the results of the electoral votes had been released. He starts off by saying, “I don’t think I could sit down right now.” At that point the popular vote was still being tallied, but the electoral votes were already confirmed as far as most of the country was concerned. Of course, as we now know, the popular vote has shown far in favor of opposition. Nonetheless, something in Colbert’s response should raise alarm, especially considering how subtle, and seemingly well intentioned it is.
He says, “I think we can agree that this has been an exhausting, bruising election for everyone.” It goes without saying, exhaustion is always part of the process, as maybe it should be. Perhaps the fatigue of the campaign trail, having to constantly address constituent concerns, and having to endlessly defend one’s position is systematic method to expose a candidate’s policies and moral character. That same exhaustion is also detrimentally weaponized against the true interests of the populous. Elections are now, clearly, wars of attrition, for the question is always how long will it take for the public to buy in to the narrative they’re sold, and, as it turns out, not long at all– only about a year in this case. By the time the people are handed a ballot, they are bruised beyond self-recognition, and seek a quick end to the atrocious perversions of their government.

Colbert goes on to quote a Washington Post article highlighting a PEW statistic which indicates four in ten voters think “the other party’s policies are so misguided that they pose a threat to the nation,” and later “More than half of democrats (55%) say the Republican Party makes them ‘afraid,’ while 49% of Republicans say the same about the Democratic Party.”
“But you know what?” Colbert responds, “Everybody feels that way.” The key word, here, is “everybody.” That is, it’s a catchy phrase, invokes a sense of healing, sympathy and empathy, starts us down the path to reconciliation, the aim being, most importantly, unity.
I’ll admit, when I first watched the segment, my bitterness was hard to quell, yet “everybody feels that way” stood out to me for every bit of the healing that I, and millions of Americans sought. However, as Colbert continues, my skepticism grows, I return to his notion of unity, and realize that “everybody” is not, indeed, the case. “Four in ten voters” is clearly not “everybody.”
Since that night, and over this past week, the zeitgeist of bitterness has been unbound, “Not my President” demonstrations have been held in major cities, including here in Santa Ana. The protests have been denigrated, condemned all over social media as “stupid,” the protesters themselves being dismissed as “whinny.” Even high school students who’ve staged walk-outs are savagely attacked for their protests even though it is they who stand to lose the most, and whose futures have been condemned by the election of a climate-change denying plutocrat.
“They designed an election that was meant to confuse us,” Colbert argues. The confusion has led to all kinds of internal conflict among the public. “Get over it,” is the general sentiment from those on the right and the centrists, those who have no sympathy for what is clearly the mourning process happening on a national scale. I even saw one particularly thoughtless meme that read, “Wanting Trump to fail is like wanting the pilot to crash the plane that we are ALL on.” However, after eighteen months of a campaign that flagrantly established its platform of division through the demonization of minority groups, it’s abundantly clear that the burden of proof lies with the right and the centrists, not the protestors. What “unity” is the Trump administration asking for? What does “coming together” look like when the rhetoric which has defined the campaign is filled with phrases like “they’re rapists,” “crooked Hilary,” “crazy Bernie,” “grab her by the pussy,” “this is a nasty, nasty woman,” “I’d like to punch him in the face,” “young and beautiful piece of ass,” and so on.

“How did our politics get so poisonous?” Colbert asks.

Quite some time ago Chomsky answered this question. He has long argued that the “masters of mankind,” to quote Adam Smith, do not want solidarity among the population. There are entire facets of industry and policy that ensure the population dedicates it’s resources– intellectual, financial, psychological, social resources–to fighting among itself, ensuring the disenfranchisement of whole swaths of the people, that they act against their own interests, and vote against solidarity. Thus we have the joke–

A banker, factory worker, and a beggar are seated at a table, two cookies in front of each of them. The banker takes his own two, both of the factory worker’s, and one of the beggar’s cookies, then says to the factory worker, “You had better stop the beggar, he just took your cookie.”

One can only imagine the horror of the beggar. The concerns of the beggar, of course, are no concern of the other two. Yet, as Chomsky suggests, we all play the part of the beggar, and we are all made the punchline. The point is, that basic empathy for the fellow man has to be ideologically “beaten out of people.” In this case ideology is put in the form of capital (the commodified cookies). The interests of both the worker and the beggar are immediately perverted and marginalized.

Over the years Chomsky has directly addressed the notion of marginalization of the population. Speaking sarcastically, as though from the point of view of the “masters of mankind,” and during a lecture at MIT in 1999, he said,

so we want to get rid of government interference in the economy, like public schools which have all sorts of bad features, like they cultivate a sense of solidarity, or of care for other people. If there’s a public school system that’s an expression of the fact that you care whether the kid down the street gets an education, and that’s a very bad thing because, you know, you get this message from infancy on through the television set and everything else that the only value of a human life is to maximize what the advertising industry calls ‘invented wants.’ So they’re supposed to invent wants for you, and you’re supposed to maximize them, and that’s the only thing you’re supposed to care about, and not care about anybody else, you know, not care about control of your life and work, that’s out of the door, but maximize you’re own fabricated wants.

More recently he summarized this notion in an interview for the film Requiem for the American Dream:

One of the leading political scientists, Mark Gilins, came out with a study of the relation between public attitudes and public policy. What he shows is that about 70% of the public population has no way of influencing policy. They might as well be in some other country. And the population knows it…What it’s led to is a population that’s angry, frustrated, hates institutions, it’s not acting constructively to try to respond to this. There is popular mobilization and activism, but in very self-destructive directions. It’s taking the form of unfocused anger, attacks on one another, and on vulnerable targets. That’s what happens in cases like this. It is corrosive of social relations, but that’s the point. The point is to make people hate, and fear each other, and look out only for themselves, and don’t do anything for anyone else.

Of course, as the streaming videos have begun to show up on social media of protests in the streets, followed by lengthy indignant comment threads, I wonder if there could be any more poignant image of the “unfocused anger,” the “corrosive” element that Chomsky mentions which has disintegrated a true understanding of solidarity. I can’t help but wonder still, what is the substance of this corrosion? What does it look like now? Where maybe ten years ago it seemed to take on the facade of morality, the morality that the right claimed to assume and the left easily dismantled as hypocrisy, it is not so clear any longer, but it is certainly visible. That is, we stare at it every day, are isolated by it, even from people we are sitting right next to, this thing meant to bring us together.
This brings me to the point in Colbert’s speech from election night that I think is quite alarming.

“So, whether your side won or lost, we don’t have to do this shit for a while,” he continues, “You can put away your ‘I voted’ stickers, and you can get back to your life.” And already, whatever “unity” I might have entertained starts to feel uneasy. “I’d like to try to end this election season by voting unanimously on a few things that all bring us together.” He continues with a list of things that all Americans supposedly agree upon. “No matter where you stand on Hillary’s private server, everyone agrees work emails sucks.” The studio audience shouts out, “Yes!” “Also, no matter what your age, race, or political party, every American can agree that Kit-Kats should be eaten in segments not bitten into like a normal candy bar, you animal!” The audience cheers. “And every red-blooded American knows that if you’re ordering a bunch of pizzas there’s no reason to get a veggie one, no one’s gonna eat it, for christ sake, plain cheese is veggie…and if you make a living pranking people on YouTube, all Americans ask that you walk slowly into the ocean then put that on Snapchat…Deep down, Americans know that Alex Trebek will never die and if he does it will not count because it was not in the form of a question…we stand united in the knowledge that the biggest selling point of CoolWhip isn’t the taste but the fact that it’s free Tupperware…I don’t care, the election is over, you survived…”
To be fair, Colbert acknowledges that some of the points on his list are “silly,” and I think he is unquestionably sincere. However, I’m also quite certain that the marketing staffs of Kit-Kat, Dominos, Youtube, Snapchat, CBS, CoolWhip, Tupperware, and their parent companies were all mightily satisfied by this list. Here’s your sense of unity, America, brought to you by Kraft, Hersheys, Viacom, Facebook, and Google. I mean, this is the sort of thing that is lifted directly from a Bill Hicks routine, “Go back to bed, America…here, here’s American Gladiators. Watch this. Shut up. Go back to bed, America…Here is American Gladiators. Here’s fifty six channels of it. Watch these pituitary retards bang their fucking skulls together and congratulate you on living in the land of freedom. Here you go America. You are free to do as we tell you! You are free to do as we tell you!”

Hicks was a fan of Chomsky as well, and once said of him, “He’ll squeegee your third eye for you.” I feel as though someone, in their indignation, has poured salt into my own third eye. Whether or not I could’ve ever seen clearly anyway is anyone’s guess. I do know that we are a nation of the blind leading the blind, marred in our struggle to keep up with technology, obstructed by archaic notions of platonic morality, bogged down in and ever misunderstanding of the very language we use to define ourselves. And so, we have a demagogue that will soon take lead of the country and has the full support of a government now completely in the hands of a conservative party that “has become the most dangerous organization in world history.”

To the right, beware, as Nick Hanauer warns, the pitchforks are coming. To the centrists, I quote Zinn, “you cannot stay neutral on a moving train.”

“Poor Stevie”: The Element of the Grotesque and Identity in Conrad’s The Secret Agent

Stevie’s death in Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent is undoubtedly one of the most baffling and violent moments in literature. It is certainly a tragic incident in the novel, but when pursuing a more clear definition of its distinct grotesque quality we begin to uncover a multifaceted correlation between each character and their sense of identity. With particular focus on Chief Inspector Heat, we can see that in exposing each successive layer of this correlation morality and social aesthetic become increasingly arbitrary. Thus, it is the element of the grotesque which destabilizes any sense of a singular, unified identity.

It seems the human psyche, no matter how morally resolute, will always be guilty of a voyeuristic infatuation with destruction. This is entirely natural. Take for example a moment from another of Conrad’s works, Under Western Eyes, when the “excited crowd” assembles “round the sledge” of the Minister-President after the first bomb explodes (Under Western Eyes 59). The crowd immediately gathers and it is only after witnessing the awe of destruction that they offer aid to the coachmen and the Minister-President. It’s as if the sight of destruction demands an audience. For what is destruction if not gazed upon and contemplated? To Chief Inspector Heat in The Secret Agent, the fleshy scraps collected from the site of the bombing that are displayed upon the hospital table are just such a sight to be witnessed, investigated, and marveled at. He stoops “guardedly over the table” of the indistinguishable remains (The Secret Agent 70), but what is to be “guarded”? Simply being near the remains, he feels he is in the presence of a “shattering violence of destruction” which threatens to turn he too into “a heap of nameless fragments” with “ruthless cruelty.” He is deeply mortified at the thought of experiencing the violence of having his own body shredded by a fiery bomb blast; it is ironic then that his name is “Heat.” This is a moment for him to ponder his own death, face its inevitability, and he realizes it is consistent with and inextricable from one of the most basic definitions of the human condition– pain. His “calm face” conceals his inner consternation as he peers at the table like a shopper “bending over what may be called the by-products of a butcher’s shop with a view to an inexpensive Sunday dinner” (70). The image of the butcher shop uses the allegory of the meat packing industry to affirm the sentiment of the moment: an insignificant animal is raised for the sole purpose of slaughter and will inevitably face the cold, apathetic forces of commerce in the form of its complete dismemberment. We get the sense that the manner of Stevie’s death is also inevitable and equally dispassionate for he is subject to the forces of ideological, political, and socioeconomic maneuvering.

This dismemberment greatly affects Inspector Heat because of his instinct to empathize, or his attempt to imagine himself in Stevie’s position. He imagines himself being destroyed by the blast of a bomb:

It seemed impossible to believe that a human body could have reached that state of disintegration without passing through the pangs of inconceivable agony. No physiologist, and still less of a metaphysician, Chief Inspector Heat rose by the force of sympathy, which is a form of fear, above the vulgar conception of time. 

Sympathy as a “form of fear” is key to understanding the grotesqueness of the image. The human body itself is arguably the most grotesque object to us for many reasons. There is a primordial aspect about our concept of all objects foreign to our bodies, such as rocks, chemicals, and especially things that are biological like predators or even fungi. This primordial aspect– fear. That is, we assess a foreign object as something to be frightened of according to the level of physical harm it may effect upon our fragile bodies. Rocks are solid and rigid in contrast to our soft flesh, chemicals are associated with burns, predators maul and devour, and fungi decompose, reminding us that the antithesis of life is not death, but the absence of a body’s homeostasis. The body is the only tool we have, or the only frame of reference by which we relate and quantify consequences caused by objective forces to our self-awareness– our identity. In other words, we identify ourselves as living, breathing, thinking, feeling, and this sense of identity depends upon our body’s homeostasis, or its amalgamated and sustained health. Grotesque occurs when the body is pressed beyond its physical limits. We might press those limits via a delusion that the body is infinite in its faculties, but in doing so, we discover that the body is, in fact, flawed and imperfect. This thought of imperfection, or the failure of homeostasis, induces a fear that is “at once underlined and contained by the defamiliarizing of the human” (Phillips 44). In other words, if the physical human body is deconstructed there is no unified identity and there remains instead only unrelated parts which no longer signify a whole. For example, the ball joint of the femur does not make sense without the socket of the hipbone. Much the same, a clump of flesh does not independently signify the whole of Stevie’s body.

This defamiliarizing is consistent with Conrad’s “discomfort with reducing a group of individuals as a ‘public’” because this “results, in [his] imagination, not in a unified, unbroken body but a mass of mismatched undifferentiated features” (Oliver 210). The word “grotesque” is itself “a storage-space for the outcasts of language, entities for which there is no appropriate noun” (Harpham xxi). This is where a “sense of formal disorder” arises in things we perceive to be grotesque and where “ontological, generic or logical categories are illegitimately jumbled together.” As an “outcast of language,” the word grotesque is linked to anarchy in that they both defy definition. Things that are grotesque are thus made up of indescribable parts. For example, while being essentially made up of countless drops of water, a puddle still has a form and is situated in one local, but the rain which formed that puddle is chaotic and difficult to quantify. Originating from visual art, the grotesque is then primarily concerned “with the beholder and the beholder’s attempt to define and categorize” every aspect of human life  according to social norms or moral statutes “to which the grotesque may be regarded as resistant, hence the predominantly negative view of it held during the eighteenth century” (Phillips 42-43). Because Conrad was determined to expand the reader’s experience of his work, this may be why the grotesque is so evident in the novel.

In The Secret Agent, these “mismatched” and “undifferentiated features” become the visceral, unforgettable image of Stevie’s remains. Conrad might have used the element of the grotesque, in this case, as a “strategy for fragmenting rather than unifying his reading public” who, as suggested by the singular word “public,” are otherwise considered to share universally the same experience of reading his novel (Oliver 210). Instead, fragmentation, or the grotesque image of the remains of Stevie’s body, “favors multiplicity and uncertainty” (211). Thus, the definition of identity expands beyond the physical boundaries of the body and begins to test the limits of the psyche. Upon witnessing Stevie’s remains, Inspector Heat first empathizes with Stevie’s pain, then enters the foyer of the existential question– the meaning of life. In that instant of grotesque destruction, where lies the “inexplicable mysteries of conscious existence,” Heat sees a vast expanse of time and human experience (The Secret Agent 70). He sees “long and terrifying dreams” and an “atrocious pain and mental torture” that is “contained between two successive winks of an eye”. He comes to understand that the single most significant element that distinguishes humans from the rest of the animal kingdom is the knowledge of mortality. To ponder one’s own finitude of his or her lifetime in relation to the infinitude of time and space is quite possibly the only acceptable meaning of life, albeit horrific. What’s more, the conclusions drawn from this internal struggle yield no further insight into the nature of identity. Inspector Heat can not even identify the bomber which means that his empathy for the deceased is displaced, and therefore in his attempt to identify with the deceased by imagining himself in the latter’s place he too becomes “mismatched,” formless, indistinguishable, and without identity.

Through his investigation of the bombing, Inspector Heat thus comes to discover that its grotesque aspect signifies a violence almost infinitely deep because it exposes and threatens to destabilize the core of human identity. He is ultimately able to cope with the grim sight of Stevie’s remains because shortly thereafter he discover’s the only psychological weapon to counteract the grotesque. This weapon is not the body– which is fragile and finite –but comedy, or humor. After being awestruck by the remains in the hospital he says “grimly” to the constable on duty, “‘The coroner’s jury will have a treat’,” the irony being that there is so little of the body for the coroner to examine much less make a report on which would add anything not already apparent in the case (79). While comedy may be equally hazardous as the grotesque, it is a great equalizer that renders the profound and the horrific as arbitrary, for “hazard has such accuracies” (208).

 

Works Cited

Danow, David K.. The Spirit of Carnival: Magical Realism and the Grotesque. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 1995. Print.

Conrad, Joseph. The Secret Agent. NY: Penguin Classics, 2007. Print.

––– Under Wester Eyes. NY: Penguin Group, 1989. Print.

Harpham, Geoffrey. On the Grotesque. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1982. Print.

Meindl, Dieter. American Fiction and the Metaphysics of the Grotesque. Coumbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1996. Print.

Oliver, Matthew. “Conrad’s Grotesque Public: Pornography and the Politics of Reading in The Secret Agent.” Twentieth-Century Literature 55.2 (2009): 209-231. Print.

Owens, Margaret E.. Stages of Dismemberment: The Fragmented Body in Late Medieval and Early Modern Drama. Cranbury, NJ: Rosement Publishing & Printing Corp., 2005. Print.

Phillips, Terry. “A Study in Grotesques: Transformations of the Human in the Writing of Liam O’Flaherty.” Gothic Studies 7.1 (2005): 41-52. Print.

Subtlety of Humor in War Letters

I did another topic modeling sample on my own data from the war letters from Lt. Cpl. Daryl Eigen which I had transcribed. Here is the list of topics that came up:

 

List of Topics

1. wrong area marine work company gun base tomorrow leaches killing

2. write corps early mar meters hit walked liberty today times

3. vc things daryl back div rations months made part wounded

4. days pretty man letter day setting radio rounds number field

5. night lbs ill ambush riding south shore leave send bullets

 

What I find interesting is that Daryl’s humor doesn’t come out in the topics. It’s interesting that my understanding of Daryl’s time in Vietnam is that of general humility, humility in the face of great danger and the horrors of war, humility which is maintained through lighthearted humor. Maybe there is a kind of subtlety about humor that escapes the rigidity of databasing, classification, modeling, all of the basic functions of historical archiving and research. It takes subjective inquiry to really get a sense of what’s going on in these letters. Although, I should say, too, it’s likely that Eigen was withholding his true sentiments about what he was experiencing in order to prevent his family from worrying too much. If this is the case, it’s also possible that the topic modeling sees through the veil of humor and picks up on the more realistic aspects of what was happening. However, topic 3, “days pretty man letter day setting radio rounds number field,” does seem to suggest the poetic beauty that Eigen saw in the region.

Google’s Ngram Search

I recently used Google’s Ngram Viewer to do a quick search of comic ideas in history.

Ngram Search: Laughter, Comedy, Henri Bergson, Francis Hutcheson

Ngram works by searching for instances of words or phrases in all of the books that Google has been digitizing over the past few years. I searched two terms and two comic theorists: laughter, comedy, Henri Bergson, and Francis Hutcheson. I was surprised to discover that “comedy” and “laughter” spike in usage around the tail end of the enlightenment (late 18th century). Although, I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised. It makes sense that comic spirit and laughter would begin to captivate theorists around this time because of the massive shifts in the geopolitical structure during the time as well as a rethinking of the religious influences on politics and economy.

The terms are most often dramas, such as Woman is a Riddle: A Comedy (1729) By Christropher Bullock and critical essays such as “Reflections Upon Laughter, and Remarks Upon the Fable of the Bees” (1750) by Francis Hutcheson. Bergson then later references Hutcheson in his writing at the turn of the 20th century. I’m familiar with Bergson, of course, but my initial Ngram search actually led me to Hutcheson, whom, as it turns out, did as much for comic theory early on as Bergson did with his writings. 

Another interest of mine, moral epistemology, which is very closely related to comic theory, takes up much of the interest of theorists late in the 20th century. For example, “Motivation and the Moral Sense in Francis Hutcheson’s Ethical Theory” is the title of an article by Henning Jensen in 1971, which looks very interesting. I think, if I had the time, I would definitely focus my research more on moral epistemology in regards to comic theory. (Lol, yeah, right! Like I have time for that these days. HA!)

Mikhail, it’s your dead uncle Dave.

Bill Cosby’s On Prejudice 1971

The Notion

There are a series of quotes that have been knocking about my head for quite a while now. They have a way of resonating at every frequency, becoming relevant to every situation. These phrases–comments, insights, concerns, indignant rantings–congeal and become the stuff of subjectivity, the skeletal framework which experience molds onto. Yet, according to the duality that is inherent to them, they are plastic, pluralistic. They adopt entirely different meanings with each new dialect that speaks them, and each newly discovered meaning is equally substantial as the previous. They conjure moments like little Stevie’s death in Secret Agent and have us rolling on the ground, clutching our sides in abject pain because we are laughing uncontrollably. They make both the Pope and Adrienne Rich blush.

The Thesis

My simple thesis: in comedy there is only truth. There is no capital “T” here, no grand narrative, no arbiter, no design or creator, no head of state, no house of worship which to gather in on the weekends to sit, kneel, stand, sing, kneel again, stand some more, and compare clothes…none of it. There is simply the collective of words, signifiers which no longer have any pretense of any signified, and thus the Saussurean linguistic cycle is at its most fragile but dialogue at its most vibrant. Bakhtin might chuckle when his predecessor and teacher says, “Jumbo shrimp…? Well, which is it?!” The voice is inextricable from the quote:

  1. George Carlin
  2. Doug Stanhope
  3. Whoopi Goldberg
  4. Jim Jefferies
  5. Richard Pryor
  6. Bill Hicks
  7. Victor Borge
  8. Amy Schumer

They are voices that are strong and loud. These troubadours, players, jesters, clowns, harlequins, willing sophists hold a mirror to moralists (and by extension, ethicists) and there expose a sterile King Midas who is unaware of his curse. What do they say?

  • “I always hope that, no matter how small the original problem is, it’s going to grow into bigger and bigger proportions and get completely out of control, and I’ll give you a concrete example: Let’s say a water main breaks in downtown Los Angeles and it floods an electrical substation, knocking out all the traffic lights, tying up the entire city and emergency vehicles can’t get through. And at the same time, one of those month-long global warming heat waves comes along, but there’s no air conditioning, no water for sanitation, so cholera, small pox, and dysentery, and thousands of people start dying in the streets, but before they die parasites eat their brains, and they go completely fucking crazy, and they storm the hospitals, but the hospital can’t handle all the causalities, so these people start to rape all the nurses and set the hospital on fire, and the flames drive them even crazier so they start stabbing social workers and garbage men, and a big wind comes along and the entire city goes up in flames, and the people who are still healthy, they get mad at the sick people, and they start crucifying them to crosses, trying on their underwear, shit like that, then everybody smokes crack and PCP and they start to march on city hall where they burn the mayor at the steak, strangle his wife, and take turns sodomizing the statue of Larry Flynt, and at this point it looks like pretty soon things are going to start to get out of control…” (Bret A Warshawsky. “George Carlin- Life Is Worth Losing- Show Ending Piece.” Online video clip. Youtube. Youtube, 10 May 2011. Web. 1 Sep 2013.)
  •  “Now, you may think you’re a good brother, good sister, good mother, good daughter, whatever the fuck you think you are in this world, but you’re nothing until you’ve washed your disabled brother’s cock to take him to a prostitute.” (Saku E. “Jim Jefferies brothel story.” Online video clip. Youtube. Youtube 24 May 2013. Web. 1 Sep. 2013.)
  • “Now, I don’t wanna do these people no harm, I wouldn’t do them no harm. But I know one thing, when I see them, I spit, and give a good spit, too. Because ain’t none of them worth nothing, not one single one. And that’s why I’m proud to be what I am. I’m what? I’m a bigot. And there ain’t but two of us left, and I don’t care for him.” (Mike Stratton. “Bill Cosby on prejudice (1971).” Online video clip. Youtube. Youtube 17 Nov. 2012. Web. 1 Sep. 2013.)
  • “…terrorists are coming to blow up your Ford Focus in particular. That’s far more palatable for people to buy than to accept the reality, which is that, probably, at statistical high Vegas odds probability, is that nothing of any significance will ever happen to you in your entire, boring life.” (Stanhopetv. “Doug Stanhope: Voice of America – FEAR IN THE U.S. NEWS MEDIA.” Online video clip. Youtube. Youtube 20 Jan. 2010. Web. 1 Sep 2013.)
  • “The world is like a ride at an amusement park. And when you choose to go on it you think it’s real because that’s how powerful our minds are. The ride goes up and down, round and around, it has thrills and chills, it’s very brightly colored, and it’s very loud. And it’s fun, for a while. Some people have been on a ride for a long time. They begin to question, ‘Is this real, or is this just a ride?’ Other people have remembered. They come back to us and they say, ‘Hey, don’t worry, don’t be afraid, ever, because this is just a ride.’ And we kill those people.” (Ifctomo123. “Bill Hicks – It’s Just a Ride.” Online video clip. Youtube. Youtube 28 Feb. 2010. Web. 1 Sep 2013.)

I look forward to exploring this thesis with greater detail in further blog posts.