. . . . . . . Supervalent Thought

The Predator and the Jokester

“Pop!” from jakelikesonions.com

Al Franken has said he’ll resign.  If so, he will be gone from the Senate not because he was a vicious predator but because there was a bad chemical reaction between his sexual immaturity, his just “having fun” with women’s bodies, and this moment of improvisatory boundary-drawing that likens the jokester to the predator. What’s going on?

Lots of people are worrying about this.  Some are using the language of the “witch hunt,” which is a term people use when they feel women coming after men as though the worst guy is the typical one. Some queers are reviving the language of the “moral panic,” in fear that this moment justifies and amplifies erotophobia, an already pervasive hatred of sex that ends up harming women, LGBTQ-identified people—anyone whose sexuality or body or appetites have been historically disparaged by the state, the hygienic bourgeoisie and the religious.

Everyone has appetites: yet many people think their own aversion to sex or ways of managing desire are evidence of moral virtue. Nowhere is this more evident than in how they process the casual pleasures.

Here’s the thing about the jokester and the predator. Power shows its ugliest tentacles most clearly in these figures, yet they seem at opposite extremes. Where the predator creates a situation they can exploit, it is often cushioned by a menacing sense that they control the interactive space and that they’re unavoidable. When a goof performs a joke, which is mostly spontaneous and casual, it is shaped by the play of surprise and hard to process in the moment. Time and fresh awkwardness provide the jokester’s cushion, however slight. In both cases the target suddenly feels baffled or overwhelmed.

It is hard for people to get their minds around this.  It can seem like a false equivalence between the predator and the jokester.  Like all analogies, it’s partial. But now it’s powerful to link them, because both are clearly protected by privilege: by control over time and space and the framing of consequences in domains of capital, labor, institutional belonging, and speech situations where the structurally vulnerable are forced to “choose their battles” or just act like a good sport.

It’s not just women who must feel compelled to take it and eat it: it’s anyone institutionally less powerful, including men when they are. Structural power is expressed in such incidents.  Incidents add up to environments, toxic atmospheres: often people lower in the pecking order find ways to live in them by imitating some habits of the powerful while honing varieties of defensive stealth like sarcasm, gossip, self-harm, or dissociating. Usually they keep quiet about the cost of staying in the game by appearing to be game. This is why keeping things “in scale” is not possible: many forces converge in the intimate encounter with structural power, and they’re often not fully equivalent at the level of event.

But if everyone is vulnerable to harassment and teasing, the world of humiliation and dings, sexualized, racialized, and lower-rank workers are way more vulnerable. It’s not unusual to undergo these encounters as a predictable kind of unwanted overcloseness, whether or not it’s darkly predatory, jokey, or both.  It’s often both.

So, the predator has control of situations; the jokester induces one on the spot. Even the professional comedian, whom you seek out in order to be both surprised and confirmed, is there to jolt you with a pleasure you didn’t specifically ask for.  No one asks to be the predator’s audience: that is why we call their acts violence. We often do enjoy the comedian’s: but there are conventions for what kinds of surprise we’re in for, warm conventions of the inside joke to which comedians usually submit themselves. Spontaneous jokesters, in contrast, make the scene happen just by playing around with you. It’s a different risk, offering different joys too.

I liked Al Franken: I thought he could take Trump in the general election. Both entertainers, they’d argue policy by way of showman putdowns and sarcastic arguments. But Franken got caught on camera treating women as toys, and lost the high ground that protected his self-pleasuring casual power from seeming insensitive or exploitative. Here is how I learned to notice this.


“He toyed with my body.”  This was said to me by someone who needed my help.  It was 1975, the year Against Our Will came out, when I was 18.[1] There was no “mandatory reporting” then, no public world for turning around the horrible privacy sexual violence pushes you into. People were mainly stuck living lonely with the consequences of other people’s predation at that time: as they largely still are.

I think of it often.  “He toyed with my body.”  I knew even then that “toy” was a complicated verb.  She meant, I wasn’t raped. She meant, I’m already bargaining and I might not be telling you the truth. She meant, I might have been raped. She meant, I might just be using the only verb I have to make the incident utterable. “He toyed with my body.” She meant, he just did enough to enjoy himself without breaking the law as he understood it. She meant, he didn’t know what he was doing either, because he was pretty young, though significantly older.  She meant, he had deniability. She meant, not much happened. “He toyed.” She meant, we were playing around and it got weird. What did he know and when did he know it?  It was clear that whatever he knew thwarted her confidence in whatever she knew.

I don’t know what she meant.  Out of love and care and rapid-firing fear I didn’t ask. I said, “what should I do?”  She told me what she wanted me to do and I did it. Occasionally we talk about it, when she wants to. She doesn’t regret the way we handled it. By avoiding going public she got not to be defined by the toying, giving it a shot at being a thing that happened rather than THE thing that happened.[2]

The conversation completely changed me, shaping different events over time. “He toyed with my body.” As it happens, now I study comedy. I take seriously the relation between aggression and pleasure. I don’t think it only means aggression. But I pay a lot of attention. Not just to jokes, but to the innumerable double-takes that ordinary encounters generate when people are trying to stay in relation. It’s not just in gestures and moments that casual power wields its force. In Chicago at Christmas women come to the city wearing their perfume and mink coats. I ask myself, how much does your pleasure cost, and who pays for it? I think the same thing when I imagine who stayed poor so I could buy a can of cheap cooked beans. Our pleasures can be very expensive when they’re protected by wealth, law and norm; our pleasures can add up when they are casual, too.


The next time you hear your voice bleat, “It was just a joke,” ask yourself: who made you the boss of genre? And when something affronts you, slow things down: who made you the boss of genre? This should be a genuine question: not a rhetorical one. I don’t mean to diminish your visceral response, just to ask what else. Things happen after the trigger and its flood or the bargaining that makes someone laugh it off or plunder language for words like “toy.”

You can know something at high speeds; you can learn something at slow ones. The joke might be, as Ralph Ellison wrote, a yoke.[3] But there could also be a difference among a disturbance, a tweak, a good surprise, and a harm. Sometimes, like now, a whole set of various “we’s” are tired of being better in the situation than the person or community that fouls us is. Sometimes, like now, revenge is the only efficient justice people feel they have, after all the gossip and HR fails. But reflexive revenge will surely not solve the problem of scaling social jostling, casual play, violence, intimacy: or sex. It’s a time to organize social ways of derailing toxic environments, along with the thrilled aha, scorn and whatever else continues to see sex as a dirty appetite that other people have.

Good play involves trust, but how do you build it at the same time as you’re saying NO! to a world that coddles the toying bully and the aggro one?  Maybe trust’s not a high priority now. It’s a problem. I’m not kidding.


Thanks to Joshua Clover, Joe Fischel, Ian Horswill, Dana Luciano, Sianne Ngai and Tavia Nyong’o for helping me write to the tenth draft.  This will soon be appearing at The New Inquiry and Bullybloggers, maybe edited.

[1] Susan Brownmiller, Against our Will:  Men, Women, and Rape (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1975).

[2] I learned to notice this from Elspeth Probyn’s argument that the minimizing rescaling of assaultive events has been a powerful strategy in queer autobiography—and, clearly, not just queer. See Outside Belonging  (London: Routledge, 1996), 98.

[3] Ralph Ellison, “Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke,” in Shadow and Act (1958; New York: Random House, 1964): 45-59.

9 Comments so far
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Thanks for mapping some of these equivalences. I’m less angry at Al Franken for being a sexist jerk in the moment of the “joke” than I am for his blindness about his own institutional power, and the sense he seemed to have that he was one of the good guys, effortlessly.

Comment by sfrajett

Me too, the point is that he enjoyed casual power because he thought his good guy credentials separated him from the predators. But now, I hope, his error is becoming archaic, as toying becomes attended to as sometimes (and context is everything) a species of bullying. In a weird way pc is being reclaimed.

Comment by supervalentthought

Comedy and jokes have always interested me when it comes to personal and social change. Does someone or a group of people always need to be victimized for a joke to be made? Does the trickster hold up a mirror to society or do they show us a porthole to another possible world we don’t really see? Is the answer to a peaceful non-aggressive idealized world the loss of laughter even though we are taught that laughter is the best medicine?

Comment by jack plaid

Not always! Not all humor punches down! Not all humor is transgressive or anti-normative. All we can say about jokesters for sure is that they shake up situations—with many possible effects, I’d think. Anyway I don’t think there’s a world to come without aggression because that would be a world without actions toward desire or interest. There’s pernicious aggression related to controlling a situation but then there are all the encounters where a mix of known and inexplicit drives shape relations…

Comment by supervalentthought

Tell me a joke where no one takes a hit including the joke teller or that doesn’t point out the absurdity of language or the society we live in while remaining power neutral.

Comment by jack plaid

Thanks for this blog post. It got me thinking (as a poet) about language, play, and jokes which I think are important to poetry, sometimes central. I guess what I may take issue with is the idea that the figure of a jokester is necessarily one of privilege as there is a long line in the poetic tradition where the jokester or fool is someone who can shed light on the ills of society, so that figure stands much the opposite of what you describe. In any case, glad to have found this blog.

Cheers and Happy New Year,


Comment by sandrasimonds

I didn’t say, though, necessarily one of privilege: I agree with you that joking from below or outside is one of the weapons of the weak, the contested, the guardians of the otherwise (which is why there’s so much reactionary comedy). But the joke and joking performs a disturbance in a world and so thwarts, even for a flash, the interlocutor’s control. Privilege and control are different. Privilege is a location, not the definition, of power. (I make lots of jokes in my work, to create double-takes and slower interest in what’s going on.) This essay is about the problem of casual power (privilege) and not a rejection of the comedic! Here’s an interview that might spell it out. https://thepointmag.com/2017/politics/pleasure-won-conversation-lauren-berlant

Comment by supervalentthought

Good evening, Dr. Berlant:

I’d just like to say, thank you for this post.

After reading it, tonight, and as w was getting ready, it compelled me to think about my own tendency to joke & tease with my lover, and my loved-ones.

I guess, in some ways, the joke was on me, because my brakes were pumped, and I had to critically reflect on the ways in which my joking/teasing potentially positions me — at the occurrence of those spatio-temporal ruptures — in relationship to (casual) power in ways that do create opportunities of re-colonizing the conditions of communication, at least in those moments.

This is to say, in those moments, a critical disarmament occurs, where the very conditions of equitable communication is subverted, maybe even perverted, that causes positions of equity to be effaced by re-positionings of (casual) power. Which troubled me, about my tendency, given how you dealt with the violence of all of this — and I’m understanding, through Luhmann, that power is effectively organized by “temporalizing violence.” I do not want to do that kind of harm to my loved ones by doing something that makes me comfortable–consequently costing them.

I was also really affected by how you called attention to — the way in which I understood this, specifically to myself and the ways in which I have taken for granted — the dimensions of trust. Trust, it seems, must exist between all participants in communicative situations where terrains of intimacy bears witness to all kinds of discursive travelers, so to speak.

To this, being aware of Freud’s discussion of jokes as a from of aggression, also made me rethink much of HOW I joke around.

Being a member of a community where comedy, joking (signifying), and teasing does (and can do) some of the work of easing the hurt of trying to exist humanely in an antiblack capitalist sociohistorical reality, also, then, calls attention to the matter of not causing hurt while addressing hurt-. The idea of trust, which I do think is a priority, implies a complex (if not altogether a problematic) relationship with time. Not to trust, in my professional experience, causes paralyzing fear and chaos, to some extent. Still, trust implies a problematic relationship with time, in that, trust seems to be about constancy — that which carries on, regardless of how time is referentialized. So, in thinking about how you ended your post, I am wondering the extent to which constancy — a process of temporalization — is often mistaken as trust, rather than as a condition of trust.

I’ve said waaay more than I’d intended to say. in 2014, I defended my dissertation, its primary impetus being something Paul Mooney said during his 1992 live performance, “Race,” recorded in San Francisco. It may be more accurate to say that what he said took me on a journey and search to understand why what Mooney said resonated with me as a VERY serious, VERY possible truth. It concerned ownership and loss.

“Comedy has issues,” no doubt; but, comedy can be rigorously theoretical, too, which is why it may have to have issues, I guess.

Take care and good night, Dr. Berlant.

Comment by daFunkDealer

Thank you for writing. I have learned much from Paul Mooney too.

Comment by supervalentthought

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