Monday, April 25, 2011

Reporting Live

There is in comedy a weird dynamic between the circumscribed and the dagger-like thrust into the centre. We joke about things: the joke encompasses something, encircles it, moves in an orbit around its topic like a sneaky satellite scanning information and shooting small, painful darts down towards the haplessly exposed surface below. Jokes are also about something because something is extracted, like a heart pulled out of a chest and held up for our cheers and roars, gripped now by the joke and not by its familiar contextual cavity.



(Of course, we joke with friends, we tell jokes to our bosses, and so forth, but in relationship to the subject of the joke, we joke about it).

One reason jokes are so disavowable is that this aboutness means we can always dispute what the joke is about. Is it a racist joke or about racism? However piercingly accurate or brilliantly observed a joke may be - especially when piercingly accurate or brilliantly observed - this aboutness is a distance and an estrangement, a ripping away. But, unlike a lonely satellite circling a stooge planet, and perhaps more like what we see in a celebratory heart-removing ceremony, the aboutness is not happening in a vacuum. There is a coordination of orbits, a ritualized and socialized communal engagement, a crowd of spectators at a hanging whose participation is not accidental curiosity but instrumental to the spectacle.

When something is generally spoken, there are claims of responsibility to the topic (contested, ambiguous ones, to be sure, when those claims are examined); when something is joked about, the claim is qualitatively different, as the circumscription, the encirclement is effected (in part) by the adoption of a voice that is not one's own, by quotation (we are repeating a joke, circulating something funny created somewhere else, we're sharing a perspective about something we don't entirely claim is our own), by impersonation. The various pathologies of comedy deviating from the norms of speech are not pathognomic, they are not so much exceptions as they are symptoms; or, to put it another way, and to quote Derrida, "Let's be serious."

At the same time, at the very same time, as comedy handles its topic from a reserve, a preserve of distance, its virtuosity is its complete grasping of the core of what it speaks about: the way an impersonation gets somebody just right, the way blondes are that stupid, the sensational evocation of the quoted.

I was somewhat grateful that an alert reader sent me a link to The Onion: "somewhat" because if I were to pay too much attention to The Onion, I would be forced to blog eight, nine, ten times a day. I haven't kept up with the newspaper; honestly, I became a little tired of some of the gags after about six years (Area woman can't find birth certificate, worried she's not a citizen; Boehner pronounces "penis" to rhyme with "tennis")

In previous posts, we discussed a joke about autism, or really, a joke about a boy.

There are a number of things I like about this video. The first is that I can't help but enjoy the character of the autistic news reporter and how excited he gets about trains; the second is that I can't help but be amused by the missed cues. In both cases, it would be untrue to say that these are not jokes "about" autism. But the joke is not only about autism; it's also a lovely parody of the news anchor as a provocateur, trying to rachet up the drama, and a Brookerian review of the format of the news report, skewed by the "autistic reporter" who "misses" the point: the news story is a conventional type of narrative, usually in the """tragic""" mode, with a shallow, but deeply expressed, sympathy for the victim of the "tragedy". In this case, the autistic reporter fails entirely to develop this emotional-dramatic narrative, and instead focuses on the train. As such, it's an act of resistance, and has its own piquant twist: there are other values. There is a perspective where a train is a thing of beauty and majesty and importance. Although the comedy essentially skewers this as a failure to recognise the import of a man's death, I can't help but admire this reporter, and the joke, as a small rebellion against the phony sentimentality of the news with its cheap paradigms of head-shaking sorrow and disgust, its assumptions about homogenous values, its glib normativity posing as objectivity and common sense. And the way in which all of these are tied into entertainment and commercialism.

So is this a sick joke "about" how people with autism lack a theory of mind that would allow them to see the death of someone else as something to mourn, about how people with autism fail to "empathise" with others, or is it about the news?


6 comments:

Björn said...

So is this a sick joke "about" how people with autism lack a theory of mind that would allow them to see the death of someone else as something to mourn, about how people with autism fail to "empathise" with others, or is it about the news?

Is that a trick question? Is it both or all three?

sw said...

Is that a trick question? That's granting me far too much credit. It's, I suppose, a rhetorical question? Maybe a bit of a strawman argument, begging somebody to take the position that the joke is only at the expense of people with autism?

Björn said...

So it is partially at the expense of people with autism?

sw said...

Surely.

Björn said...

Hmmm. What do we think about that?

sw said...

Are you asking whether it's okay? We'll come to that?