Three Bad Jokes: On Subjectivity, Satire and the Subject — Nobu Massiah

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Bad Joke #1: Hannibal Buress, 2014. [mimicking Bill Cosby] ‘I don’t curse on stage!’… Okay, but you’re a rapist. [1]

“Jokes never seem to have an author… are never originally ‘told’, always ‘heard’.” [2] Of course Buress’s joke is the gross exception of Zizek’s claim here. His is a joke that will continually be referenced but not without explicit connection to its author and its unintended dramatic aftereffect. Yet the likelihood that it will be ‘heard’, whether (re)told or replayed, is undoubtedly low. Which leaves the question, was there anything in the specific telling of the joke that we can say precipitated its viral impact, or is this just an exemplary case of the revolutionary potential of the internet? Nothing in the positive features of the joke would lead us to believe so. It appears as a lark, a well-tossed pebble which hits a dam precisely in the spot where a massive hidden crack had been forming for decades. Nevertheless, the joke’s specular imprint, the obscure causality which can only make sense with the benefit of hindsight, does point towards a true insight — namely that society often appears as its own tool of repression.

After the joke went viral, the drive to characterize the outpouring of sexual assault victims as a categorically feminist movement was obviously compulsory. And yet, therefore, it could not avoid the reductive dichotomy between women overcoming tyranny and the second wave versus third wave fight over the proprieties of sexual expression. In the weeks and months following, the critical discourse became dominated with distinguishing between victimization and victimhood. Crucially lost in the militant feminist fray (a militancy necessitated by embittered patriarchal suppression) was the word vulnerability, an instrumental term, which would later be coopted by those advocating on behalf of men’s rights. Paradoxically, it is society’s very enthusiasm to reclaim its sexual assault survivors that mars its opportunity to eschew the crippling divisiveness embedded at the problem’s root.

What is the self-undermining societal process at work in Buress’s joke? Obvious as it may seem, it is the cynical nature of the joke’s conceit. Buress blasts Bill Cosby for his rape allegations as a comeback for putting on airs. That is to say, it is the deeply American regard for unpretentiousness and not any general odium towards rape that fells Cosby. One can very well imagine that for years Cosby’s malignant predation was overlooked because no one dared take the moral high ground over a middle class icon. At the level of analytical philosophy, Buress’ joke drives a wedge between past-Bill Cosby, the hallowed subject of our adoration, and present-Bill Cosby, the alienated subjectivity of a surly, vain sermonizer. And what is the name of this wedge but society itself: the field of antagonisms (i.e. political partisanship, personal rights vs collective rights, self autonomy vs moral law, etc.) — between the subject and subjectivity.

Bad Joke #2: Joan Rivers, 2014. [transcribed from a street interview] reporter: When do you think the United States will see the first gay president?
Joan Rivers: Well we already have it with Obama, so let’s just calm down. You know Michelle is a tranny.
reporter: I’m sorry, she’s a what?
Joan Rivers: A transgender. We all know it. [3]

This joke recalls the worst of the obscene blue humor Rivers would no doubt have drawn from during her early days on the Borscht Belt circuit. Much like the line from ignominious “party record” comedian Belle Barth, “Anybody know what the darkest thing in the world is? A Mau Mau’s mumu,” the pith of the joke relies on virulent derogation. [4] As a joke, it’s bad — it’s crude and mean. But as satire, it’s great — genius even. To make the distinction, with jokes it is the revelatory effect that the punchline has on the logic of the set-up that distinguishes the good from the bad. Whereas, the difference between good and bad in satire is abided in the lie the satire must contain. Bad satire needs to lie that it is what it isn’t. Take, for instance, Alec Baldwin’s indulgent Trump impression. It lies by its claim that by ridiculing Trump’s unsuitability and moral degradation it is critical of this President’s specific transgressions and not just the general corruption and debasement within politics. Good satire, on the other hand, needs to lie that it isn’t what it is. Even though Tina Fey’s impression of Sarah Palin was something more poignant, primary and engaging, it needed the lie that it wasn’t anything more than a caricature of the vice presidential candidate in order to sustain its subversive effect.

So what does Ms. Rivers’ joke satirize then? Hers is a satire of a critique of political correctness. While proponents of anti-PC are right to argue that efforts to euphemize language only really serve in repressing, not solving, big societal issues, what they cannot account for, and what this joke makes clear, is that there are horrifying repressions which only cohere in direct contrast to the most devious and cunning usages of vulgarity. To get the gist, imagine a Christopher Guest-style mockumentary about a conspiracy theorist who fails to garner a following until one day he realizes that if he just pretends it’s all an act people will actually find him entertaining. But then ironically, due to his widespread comedic success, many of his fans spontaneously start believing in the validity of his theories. To bring this back to what it satirizes, is not the truth about the popularity of Alex Jones that, beyond his core base, a much wider group of skeptical potential believers seek him out because of his entertainment value? In this way, Joan Rivers’ joke offers us a glimpse of the inherent ‘surplus enjoyment’ of repression itself (or fetishistic disavowal in Freudian parlance), which of course it needs to lie that it isn’t a glimpse of.

This lie at the heart of a good satire is a lie in the guise of truth, but it also is the truth. For instance, The Daily Show, at its peak, became America’s primary source for political news and interviews, and did so by disarming itself with its comedic facade. It’s important to establish though that when satire doesn’t succeed it isn’t as if the lie and the truth simply switch places. There are many examples, but suffice it to take the most recent mercifully terminated late night news-comedy, The Opposition with Jordan Klepper, as the counter example. It wasn’t as if that show ended up as a true comedy which lied about being political news (even if it might have claimed as much in promotion). It ended up that it was a news-content centered comedy show that needed to lie that it was like The Daily Show. When satire fails so does its opportunity at real truth, and all that remains is the sum of its constitutive parts which are unable to mitigate the apposite antagonisms. Crucially, this logic of a failed satire lines up perfectly with the logic of subjectivity (i.e. the presence of self). The key difference is that instead of it being a lie in relation to constitutive elements, subjectivity is (the loss of) an ideal in relation to its contingent factors. There is no positive form (i.e. good satirical form) which redoubles and overcomes itself since subjectivity is the origin of positivity as such. So if in that case, subjectivity is a bad satire, what does that make the subject… a bad joke?

Bad Joke #3: Hannah Gadsby, 2018. I do think I have to quit comedy though. Seriously — it’s probably not the forum to make such an announcement is it — in the middle of a comedy show. [5]

This announcement comes only about a quarter of the way into an hour-long comedy special by Hannah Gadsby which debuted on Netflix in June. It’s missing the point to call this a joke because watching how she delivers the line it’s obvious she isn’t joking. As she goes on to talk about a number of important issues about which she feels very strongly, it’s clear that the point is to not be funny when everyone would expect she would be obliged to be. Despite this fact, Gadsby manages to inject unexpected, electrifying moments of humor throughout the show. Against the disavowed ideal of being a comedian, the audience is able to connect to her on a more direct level. Thus, she allows herself to be funny in a bold way precisely because she isn’t being funny anymore.

This anti-tautology (“s/he is because s/he isn’t”) is how subjectivity can be marked. When, by chance, without expecting it, I catch my reflection in a mirror, I experience the strange phenomenon of recognizing myself. Far from giving me some objective distance, instead I get an intense feeling of self-consciousness. Stripped of the abstract ideal against which I usually match myself (which focuses my attention onto minor details like my hair or clothes), I suddenly am confronted by a piercing, disjointed gaze which I then re-identify with. Which is to say, I am (more self-consciously) myself because I’m not (the myself I see in the mirror).

In a homologous way, the push by some in the (usually highly educated) progressive Spanish speaking community for everyone to adopt the gender neutral term Latinx is, in essence, an idealization of the gendered version of the term it is meant to replace. The revelation that the majority of Spanish speakers in North and South America do not identify as Latina/o but rather prefer the label of their country of origin has led to a counter progressivist pushback, which correctly deems the terminology surrounding ‘being Latin’ as an imposed identity. [6] So paradoxically, by taking into account their subjectivity, the working class majority become more fully incorporated into the (imaginary-idealized) Latin American community only insomuch as they are acknowledged as not identifying with it.

The thing to realize is that although effectively the Ideal is a lie, in that it is unachievable, by striving for it and necessarily failing, the space is opened up for a proper synthesis to come about. Subjectivity is only a particularized (in the atomic sense) representation of the various antagonisms at odds all around us. What makes Gadsby’s performance so memorable is the fact she doesn’t wait until the very end to “drop the mic” and quit comedy. She does it almost at the very beginning and then has to earn every moment afterwards. If subjectivity is the thinking/being, the subject is the actor/acted upon. Hannah Gadsby provides an example of the ultimate subject — the one who acts as though the ideal is achievable (while knowing full well that it isn’t), and then when it necessarily fails, persists nevertheless.

Nobu Massiah is a graduate of the Maurice Kanbar School for Film and Television at NYU with a BA in Film and Television.

Notes:

1. Buress, H. (2014), https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x3dhqhk

2. Zizek, S., Less Than Nothing, page 76

3. Rivers, J. (2014), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UBeVJ9TFofM

4. Barth, B. (1963), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n0J9CkbqprY

5. Gadsby, H. Nanette, (2018), Netflix

6. de Leon, C. (2018, Nov. 21), Another Hot Take on the Term ‘Latinx’, https://www.nytimes.com/

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