. . . . . . . Supervalent Thought


Dissolving into…

My friend Katie wrote me that she was struck by the relation of optimism to humor in this blog. After yesterday I’d say to the humors, as I was steamy, then, with optimism drain–blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm, acidic energy generated by my frustrated desire to have a whole thought amidst institutional avalanches of need, demand, passive aggression, aggression, and obligation. Some things just won’t just flake away through inattention.

But mainly, I was so bollixed up by all I wanted and failed to say in the last entry that I hadn’t even gotten to say what I’d been thinking about that very thing: that is, humor, laughter, the comic, and their relation to the psychoanalytic and political interests of this project’s aim to understand problems of detaching from normative, durable, reliable forms of life. Laughter is a form of dissolution that would seem to indicate an attachment to a situation that generates pleasure. But not always, maybe not even usually.

Here’s a start toward another research thread. Even a suggestion of the comic puts me in a good mood. Thanks, Katie! (Katie even thinks that maybe these should be called The Optimism Papers, although that wouldn’t predict, say, the chapter on torture. On the other hand, torturing is the state’s ridiculous optimism about controlling the real, isn’t it? And yet, there are questions of tone: the structure and affect of optimism aren’t identical, and being precise about those divergences matters.)

All throughout writing The Female Complaint comedy haunted me, comedy as a subordinated subculture’s or overwhelmed individual’s lubricant for being in the room with and figuring out how to survive what’s presently overwhelming about the real. But I could only talk about the comic as an intensity, an extremity on the other side of melodramatic heightening, as in the Dorothy Parker chapter: “Listen, I can’t even get my dog to stay down. Do I look to you like someone who could overthrow the government?” This couplet cracks me up. But even Parker claims that comedy isn’t a weapon, but a failing shield. It’s hard for me not to feel all mixed up around Parker’s humor, sensing the fear and defense that radiates in the atmosphere of her sharp observation. But sometimes comedy is just a cigar, or whatever: delight, unmixed relief to be stretching out without a sense of wearing out.

People dissolve into laughter and into tears, among other things, I’d been thinking: the dissolution of bodily composure was always part of this research (Losing It and Unraveling were other early handles for this project) . Last Thursday I realized that Detachment Theory had to start with thinking about laughing. Maybe that would be the chapter on Lamb’s She’s Come Undone and Ellman’s Doctors and Nurses. But there’s so much in the archive for this book that could be about comedies of dissolution that are not merely Rabelaisian inversion.

In the Affect Publics reading group this week we read Bergson’s Laughter and Baudelaire’s “The Essence of Laughter.” Neither of these attended enough to ambivalent laughter, because I’m most interested in the knot that undoes someone’s sense of formal control in an enduring way, not just as an involuntary pulse. But Bergson’s interest in adjustment as the scene or situation of laughter seems a perfect referent for that part of this project. He writes that inelasticity and inflexibility on display produce laughter, as the subject being laughed at can’t adjust to his situation: he talks about the comic spectacle of “something mechanical encrusted on the living.” Bergson’s sense that the comic is produced by inelasticity where we would expect or even need to see adaptation works well with John Limon‘s great prediction: “the appeal of comedy may be traced to its imposition of geometrical perfectionism on compounded liminality.” Limon ends up talking about queer precision.

As I was reading I kept thinking about dissolving into tears/laughter, where the bodily fact one always faces in laughter involves watching someone live through this, exerting control and letting go, tipping over and getting back up. When getting back up happens, I mean.

Dissolving can take on so many forms of bodily action: for example, bending over in laughter. I knew a woman once who was so stiff that her laughter looked like a threat to her bodily integrity: we were all actually scared when she laughed, we wanted it to go away, because we were afraid that in the aftermath she would just be broken, a stick dissolved into splinters.

She was a teacher of ours. Actually, now that I think about it, I’ve had two depressive teachers like this, whose laughter wasn’t a relief but a release of something the person really could not contain but could not survive the release of. The other one would shake side to side like a possessed metronome. Both were high composure, high WASP, very controlling women: one suicide, one now debilitated, mentally alive when she is, but not pedagogically, professionally, or personally too functional. She can laugh at ducks, and occasionally at talks.


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Wanting to stretch Bergson’s diagnosis of laughter out in time and toward other things, I was reading the relation of adjustment to laughter this way: because laughing is what people do when they are made witness to someone who has become rigidly glued to normativity and thereby unglued from what Bergson thinks of as a vital, “good” life (which requires being agile in the face of the temptation to get habitual), laughter becomes a seismograph for the tremors caused at the places, times, scenes in which people get immobile, stuck, encrusted, etc. That’s why when reading Bergson I kept hallucinating different period’s concepts for the encounter of normativity with something else: biopolitics, whatever being, potentiality, reification. As though laughter flashes up at the points where the dynamics those concepts name get active or activated, wherever in the symbolic register that occurs (day to day life, fictional accounts of said, news, “news,” etc.). Which maybe starts to account for why laughter is sometimes delightful and sometimes depresssing, because while maybe both life and the administration of life (or whatever) are both intelligible inside a laugh, it’s not clear what or who is winning.

Comment by kcohen

Hmmm, I think this is universalizing and moralizing Bergon’s claim too much, and maybe seeing power and resistance to it as more of a structure for the normative, forgetting about the part of normativity that solicits consent. The situation comedy produces people becoming unglued normatively *within* normativity. The screwball comedy produces *antics* within normativity that are laughable because they don’t matter at all. Early Hepburn, Judy Holliday, maybe Steve Carrell: they embody, when they do, the extreme nuttiness of people who vaguely follow the proper forms in ordinary life but in weird modes of address and tonality, and their not mattering produces delight. Things proceed! The rigidity of people in response to them also produces delight, but it’s a different delight, more critical. I think, therefore, that one can over-rigidify normativity, make it seem narrow, when really it can absorb a lot of craziness that is laughable because no one’s seriously threatened. But perhaps it’s just a small corner we’re painting in here.

Comment by supervalentthought

I’m reading Derrida’s ‘Specters of Marx’ at the moment. And I’m also thinking about laughter and absurdity. The absurd (if taken at face value) example of Derridean justice being both impossible and necessary. In Specters he talks about disadjustment as being a precondition for unjust, and proposes instead (I think) that disadjustment (dissolution, even) can be a condition for justice (pp.19-20). Is it a bit nutty of me to make this link? ;-)

Comment by ana-phylaxis

Fabulous. Wow. Let’s see how this would work. So in the Hamletmachine of *Spectres* disajustment means two things–the unfinished activity of injustice in light of a justice that has not delivered the reparative/retributive goods (in this model justice puts time back in joint) on the one hand, and on the other something along the lines of the logic of the supplement, disajustment pointing to the asymmetries in life that can only be seen in the shadow (or the aporetic donut) of a never fully fulfilled justice. So justice would be the final adjustment that never happens. But Hamlet is a tragedy and Derridean disadjustment is a mode of realism, a depressive position where being haunted by failed promise provides an opening.

How does this articulate with Bergsonian laughter? He says that laughter is always cold–a judgment against the maladroit who is out of joint with time/history. But he doesn’t say enough about the other kinds: the ambivalent (this is awful/this is right/this is so out of scale/this is what life is like) and the empathic (this person’s spectacular ridiculousness is funny in its unavoidable commonality). Maybe the latter is like the disajustment that approaches justice: the places where laughter marks species recognition.

Where does Derrida talk about comedy, the comic, laughter? It can’t be the same thing as *play* (a rhetorical method of forcing disadjustment).

Where would you have gone with this (assuming that you’re not in shock or allergic to brainstorming. Is your name apotropaic?)?

Comment by supervalentthought

I love brainstorming. But I am in shock. It is more psychosomatic than apotropaic, because I have to finish my dissertation soon, and I’d rather be thinking up ridiculous variations on the prefix ‘ana’ and contemplating ‘the aporetic donut’ as you wonderfully put it, in my own time!

From what I know, Derrida doesn’t talk about comedy or the comic, I don’t *think* he says anything about laughter either, though he makes a lot of gentle jokes (Simon Critchley’s ‘On Humour’ is perhaps a Derrida-influenced look at jokes?).

Where I would have taken this would be in thinking of approaching justice as both impossible and necessary in the Derridean sense, and for the absurdity of this then positioning the justice-seeker more in the order of dissolution (laughter, tears, prayer) than resolution. The laughter would probably be the ambivalent kind, and it could be an effect of Derridean thinking (rather than something he says anything about in his works).

Ambivalent, yes, but I don’t agree that Derrida’s is a depressive position – it doesn’t seem to me that the promises are failed, it is different to say that they can never be fully realised because of the singularity of each being, or context. This is a hopeful position (even optimistic!), because it means that things are ‘infinitely perfectible’.

I love brainstorming. But I am in shock. It is more psychosomatic than apotropaic, because I have to finish my dissertation soon, and I’d rather be thinking up ridiculous variations on the prefix ‘ana’ and contemplating ‘the aporetic donut’ as you wonderfully put it, in my own time!

From what I know, Derrida doesn’t talk about comedy or the comic, I don’t *think* he says anything about laughter either, though he makes a lot of gentle jokes (Simon Critchley’s ‘On Humour’ is perhaps a Derrida-influenced look at jokes?).

Where I would have taken this would be in thinking of approaching justice as both impossible and necessary in the Derridean sense, and for the absurdity of this then positioning the justice-seeker more in the order of dissolution (laughter, tears, prayer) than resolution. This is obviously more in keeping with the ambivalent form of laughter you mention as being missing from Bergson.

On a slightly different tangent I don’t agree that Derrida’s is a depressive position – it doesn’t seem to me that the promises are failed, it is different to say that they can never be fully realised because of the singularity of each being, or context. This is a hopeful position (even optimistic!), because it means that things are ‘infinitely perfectible’.

The ghost in the Hamletmachine could well be a friendly one that makes us laugh … as well as making us anxious ….?!

Comment by ana-phylaxis

Gosh I really must be anaphylactic! I think the second block starting at ‘I love brainstorming’ is the real comment ;-).

PS. What do you think of emoticons?

Comment by ana-phylaxis

In Limited Inc, Derrida talks about being in tears – and in tears of laughter – over the idea that Searle or any philosopher could be the true “heir” of Austin – and the same topos comes up again and again in Spectres – that is, what it means to inherit a thought, theme, idea or philosophy. From whom, and by what contract – is of course always the Derridean question. It is also a Hamlet question – while Hamlet is a tragedy, it, too, contains an inheritance that leads to the more and more frenzied jokes Hamlet makes as he plots his strategy, or rather, as his strategies keep getting away from him – for the man plots and plots, and yet his revenge turns out to be a sort of improvisation at the last moment. The joke’s on him.

And, at the moment of the writing of Specters of Marx, it appeared that the joke was on Marx – the specter lost, or realized that it was a specter from the very beginning.

Comment by roger

“But Hamlet is a tragedy and Derridean disadjustment is a mode of realism, a depressive position where being haunted by failed promise provides an opening.”

I don’t think of this as a problem. Does Bergsonian laughter depend on the generic opposition between comedy/tragedy? Plus, aren’t good jokes dependent “on a depressive position where being haunted by failed promise provides an opening”?

Finally, l, there’s something up with the formatting of the comment boxes. Past the margin of the typing box, I can’t see what I’m typing. It doesn’t realign as the cursor moves. So if I make any typos on the right alignment of this comment, would my l and my fellow readers please be forgiving? I think this can probably be fixed by tweaking the page template, but I’m not familiar with wordpress.

Comment by darknessatnoon

See! There’s a typo I couldn’t see. An extra “my” I knew it! I also should have capitalized the little “l” that I used to address you so that it didn’t look like I was talking to myself. “l” = Lauren.

Comment by darknessatnoon

I once saw someone not get hired for an academic job because her laugh was so, um, strange. It was in fact the strangest laugh I have ever heard. She was otherwise the perfect person for the job. But, at the dinner after her talk and interviews, someone said something funny, and she laughed: it was a very complex laugh, a lot like a birdsong. And I think the problem with the laugh, if it was a problem really, was: that it was so complex it seemed like a very engaged performance of a laugh.birdsong. It went up and down and involved lots of trills and etc, it had a progression and a climactic part and etc. I think the effect of the laugh was the weirdness of its spontaneity when it seemed like a very complex performance. But it just happened. No one could deal with this, and however it made everyone feel eventuated in her not being hired. I have remembered her laugh ever since (this was at least 10 years ago), and have always felt sad that her jot made her unhireable.

Comment by Mandor

I meant: her joy made her un-hireable. But I messed up “joy” here again twice before I spelled it right which tells you something about me. joy joy joy joy joy

Comment by Mandor

Wow. That’s seriously sad. But are you sure it was her joy that barred her or was it her eruptive style? Pity the bearer of a bodily unconscious. (We need a concept like that to counter the bodily ego!) The usual story isn’t about loss of control like that but a failure to make eye contact, to perform attachment. You wonder what the candidate tells herself about those interactions. Once someone very smart wasn’t hired in a department I know of because he spent the entire interview bending down to pull up his socks, over and over. We need to show that we can sublimate our nerves. If only we were as irritated by the performance of self-expanding elitist jerks! Joyously, LB

Comment by supervalentthought

It was her eruptive style, yes. But I felt like the weirdness for others was that her eruption was so formed, ie an eruption that was definitely out of a certain realm of (her) control, but that seemed so patterned and formed. That was disconcerting, to me too, as for everyone else. It just makes me think about that “skill”–faking it–most people have of asking themselves “well, what does a laugh in a professional scenario look like?” and then doing that. Which makes me more sad for me than her, ha!

Comment by Mandor

I don’t know, do you really think that people learn to laugh for the job market or the job? We all imitate each other’s modes of pleasure and intelligence (that’s not the profession, it’s a way of executing attachment) but there’s something off about attributing too much of that to consciousness and instrumentality. Do people cultivate their pleasure noises to get and keep jobs? On the other hand we know that people cultivate their orgasm noises (not enough! ha.) to get and keep lovers, so I don’t know why I’m protesting. But I think the forces of professionalizing discipline are more tacit, subtle, incoherent, and bound up both in fear *and* desire, than all that.

Comment by supervalentthought




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