Thursday, May 26, 2011

Serious about Dylan

I know you’ve all been waiting to hear about the Bob Dylan conference in Bristol on May 24th. Your wait is over.

If you want the official report, you can read it over at The Guardian, which sent a journalist to report on the conference and to root out the youngest, hippest people there to provide comments. It turns out that the youngest, hippest people did not include me; I was probably captured in the soul-murdering phrase "middle-aged music fans in soft-soled shoes". The BBC presented a slide show of Dylan photographs under the caption "Academics celebrate Bob Dylan at Bristol University". In some circles, being called an academic is not meant to be flattering, but it's life-affirming and vaguely respectable compared "middle-aged music fans in soft-soled shoes".

Several things about the conference stood out. First, I thought I was going to have a good laugh at beer-bellied old guys with longish greying hair, wearing their favourite Dylan t-shirts printed with images from obscure performances or lesser albums, but those guys all looked really cool. In fact, they looked exciting and interesting compared to those of us who were "middle-aged music fans in soft-soled shoes", and they probably had a smirk at our expense. Second, I was expecting to enjoy despising the pedantic sods who, whenever there was time for questions, would take the microphone and drone on for twenty minutes espousing their own personal theory of what Dylan meant by "a Siamese Cat" in Like a Rolling Stone; instead, people were really gentle and thoughtful and asked good questions that invited the presenters to expand on what they had talked about. In some ways, then, it was all terribly disappointing.

But a couple issues did come up. First, it is fairly well established that Dylan's lyrics, for the most part, are just that: lyrics. Poetry put to music. Various traditional forms of poetry, still oral, but unaccompanied by lute or hammond organ, have an integrity and constraint that lyrics can and at times should lack; "I'm a poet/ And I know it / Hope I don't blow it" says the man himself in I Shall Be Free No. 10. Even a radical post-Warholian might accept that just because we can bring the critical techniques of high art forms to low art forms doesn't mean that there is no difference between high and low art forms; even a radical post-modernist (is there any other?) questioning the nature and historicity of the hierarchy in "high" and "low" art forms might accept that the popular and the populist can be qualitatively different from the elitist and exclusive. But these issues barely came up. People tended to focus on lyrics as word-poems that can be extricated from the songs. Fair enough. If it's true that Dylan is a bard and a minstrel, a poet who sings his songs from court to court, and is therefore operating in the same vein as Homer, then why should we not look at his lyrics without their songs? After all, nobody's refusing to read The Iliad because we don't know the tune. ("Yeah, I'll read the Odyssey when I know how it's supposed to go . . . And I'm not talking about the Zombies album"). Nevertheless, one of the most mindblowing moments in a conference that did less mindblowing than a little bit of gentle mindrubbing here and there was when one guy, talking about floods, played some way-old blues, in the middle of a couple of Dylan tracks. Now, I knew that Dylan, if you'll allow me this, re-thought folk singing, then rock vocals, then country singing, and possibly maybe gospel singing; but despite all the signs he set-up along the way, like playing blues music, I only thought that he was singing the way he sings now because he can't sing any other way. But when you put Dylan's singing now side-to-side with an old blues track, you see that he is reviving, changing, and re-thinking blues vocals.

Let me offer you a possible example to consider:

Check out this.

And then listen to this.

But one topic was strikingly absent, even as there were cursory discussions of Dylan's identity, cursory discussions of pity and cruelty, and less cursory analyses of his lyrics: that topic is Dylan the joker, Dylan the comedian, Dylan writing gags in his songs or spitting out venomous put-downs.

Why was this? Well, when people want to take somebody seriously, or be taken seriously themselves, they tend to avoid comedy. Girding the "serious" is a conviction about its formal stability and its endurance; comedy is whimsical, fleeting, and unstable. But more relevant to Dylan is this: when people want to take seriously somebody who is terrifyingly complicated, who demands to be taken with the utmost seriousness just when everyone thinks they're in on the joke, or dismisses as joking the most serious things he's done, trying to figure out what one can safely say is very hard. Dylan has defied his fans and his critics so many times that it is far safer to approach him with respect, which may be spurned from a distance, than with a keen eye for trying to get in on the joke, where dismissal is a personal affront. Or, to put it another way, deference may be humiliating, but it comes with its own meagre rewards and its own anaemic values; but few things are more personally and centrally humiliating than trying to share a joke and being told that not only do you not get it, but you're the butt of the joke. It would take a very brave man or woman to make a sustained argument about Dylan as a joker. Am I that brave man or woman? Time will tell. Meanwhile:

Monday, May 23, 2011

Thraft Undone

One of the most exciting developments over the past day, other than being part of a winning team at a Bristol film quiz, rampaging to victory across clammy, huddled groups of greasy-haired Tarantinians and old, bearded men who live and breath Hitchcock and who have seen every film ever, has been learning that the identity of Dr. Peter Thraft was revealed! It was in the papers on Friday. I missed it. Because I’m travelling. Hence I’m in Bristol going to film quizzes and preparing to attend a Bob Dylan conference tomorrow.

Close readers of this blog—well, I only have close readers, so all of you—will remember that Dr. Peter Thraft’s identity has come up before here and here. I suspected that the good Doctor was none other than Peter Serafinowicz, and I know I was not alone. However, it is quickly apparent that far more people thought Thraft was Steve Coogan. I will explain, in a post to follow, why I never thought it was Coogan. And in doing so, I will come back to the promise I made in an earlier post about Thraft to discuss “the real”.

But right now, while you’re waiting, I want to direct readers to the article in The Guardian where all is revealed. Go on, read the article. It's by Ben Dowell and Vicky Frost, whose names are only slightly more convincing that "Peter Thraft".

Are you done? No, seriously, did you go read it? Look, go read it, and then come back here.

Okay. Good. Did you see who is quoted there?

What the—? Who’s this “blogger” called “privatematters4publicthings”? Well, I can tell you it’s definitely somebody who evidently did not create a tag based on how it would look in print. I pity the poor sub who had to edit the piece: “Are you sure that’s the handle? What’s it mean? Is there really a number in it? Oh for fuck’s sake.” Sorry!

Anyway, stay tuned for my wrap-up on Thraft; it’ll be coming later in the week. Right now, as the film quiz victory fades into memory, I have to prepare for a whole day-long conference on Bob Dylan. I considered live-blogging, but then thought I could only push the "Z" button about four hundred times before I either got carpal-tunnel syndrome or really did fall asleep.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Panic in the Streets of London

I decided I had to blog as quickly as possible, because I wanted to make sure I got at least one more post in - I don't know if I'll make it through the night. I just came back from a private screening of Cruising, the 1980 William Friedkin film with Al Pacino and Paul Sorvino, which was frightening enough, but I'm staying in the heart of bustling Soho, so I've bolted my door, barricaded it with a chair, and am sorely regretting telling that guy in shades, a leather jacket, and peaked cap where I was staying. But he seemed so nice! Christ, walking down Old Compton Street, I felt like Dominique Strauss-Kahn entering Riker's Island.

Anyway, at some point, I must deal with the comedy in Cruising, because it's very, very interesting: the cops' non-jokes ("Cork-soaker?") in their squad car as they amuse themselves by insulting and assaulting the drag queens; Steve Burns' choice of the yellow bandana; the standard funny-entry gag when the beat cop meets the unamused, gruff captain, which is revisited at the end when the two of them share the gag again, but this time with mutual respect. All of these are very strange and powerful, if disorienting, moments in a weird, unsure film.

But right now, I want to move away from Gay Panic (and for all its flaws and ambiguities, Cruising scrupulously, if not always successfully, steers away from Gay Panic), and instead turn to something we should all be panicking about: the state of today's youth. Let's face it: today's youth are complete flops as humans. Yes, we know they're socially better than we are - they dance better, they dress better, they have cooler films and cooler music - but we also know we're intellectually and morally superior. Today's youth can't read anything that isn't an acronym, they think it's okay to shoot priests and nuns in video games without a wink of guilt. But science has now proven once and for all that they're also physically inferior! And I don't just mean compared to us. Almost all of my readership can beat 10-year olds at arm wrestling. No, compared to youth of yesteryear or, in this case, yesterdecade.

The Observer's front-page headline says it all: "Modern Life is Producing a 'Generation of Weaklings'". On their homepage, The Observer entices its readers with: "Computer games making people weak"; and the on-line article itself is titled, "Children growing weaker as computers replace outdoors games." According to Denis Campbell, a study in Acta Paediatrica has shown that children can do fewer sit-ups and are less able to hang from wall bars in a gym than children 10 years ago.

Now, in addition to being for all intents and purposes a lawyer and a philosopher, I'm also a scientist. I will assume that when the authors of this study, Sandercock et al., conducted the study, they controlled for such things as gender; and I'll assume their populations of Essex children are comparable in all potentially confounding ways across time; and I'll assume this population is an adequate reflection of this nation's and, indeed, this world's children: in other words, I'll assume there is an internal validity to the comparison and that the results are generalisable. I will also assume that in the reporting, we are being given the full facts, and that it wasn't found that, say, the children were equal in most tests of strength, and only different in these two. And I will assume the raw data is compelling, and that we're not only being given a few differences that are only "statistical differences" (I notice that Campbell doesn't include any statistics, much less any confidence intervals, whereby we might judge the strengths of the association over time). I suppose I could look this all up in Acta Paediatrica, but that would be working. This is blogging, not work.

Okay, I looked - I can't get in. It's protected. I'm not going to pay money to see the study; I'm just going to trust the reporting. We can safely say that it's proven that children today are weaklings. But we knew that.

There are a few little worrying things, though.

"This is probably due to changes in activity patterns among English 10-year-olds, such as taking part in fewer activities like rope-climbing in PE and tree-climbing for fun," Sandercock said. "Typically, these activities boosted children's strength, making them able to lift and hold their own bodyweight."

The fact that 10% could not do the wall bars test and another 10% refused to try was "really shocking", he added. "That probably shows that climbing and holding their own weight was something they hadn't done before."

Yes, it could mean that they had never done it before. It could also mean that they couldn't be fucked to do it either - in which case, today's youth may not be pussies, they may be little pricks. And I'm sure that's true too. But I have no doubt the authors of the study ascertained why the youth refused, and didn't just assume that it was because they were too weak to do it.

And I'm a little bit worried that there is absolutely no mention of how the authors of the study assessed such things as how much time the youth actually do spend on computers and in front of the television; that the authors based their conclusions on an assessment that looked at the children's lifestyles, their proximity to parks, who is working at home and for how long; and I'm sure they're also looking at how much money local schools are spending on physical education and sporting opportunities, what sort of access to sports and coaches and swimming pools these children have, whether children walk and bike to school or whether they are driven, and other aspects that might factually support what we all know to be true: that today's youth are wasting away like forgotten larvae in the ambient glow of a computer screen. As the headlines tell us, it's the fault of computers and modern life, so all that information must have been part of the study. They didn't need to include it in the reporting; that would have been overkill.

At least we definitely know one cause of their wasting-away:

"Climbing trees and ropes used to be standard practice for children, but school authorities and 'health and safety' have contrived to knock the sap out of our children," said Tam Fry of the Child Growth Foundation.

"Falling off a branch used to be a good lesson in picking yourself up and learning to climb better. Now fear of litigation stops the child climbing in the first place."

Yes, it's all that 'health and safety' rubbish. Bring back lead in the petrol, bring back the lash, put the sap back in the whippersnappers, and we'll soon have these children scampering up trees like sap-filled squirrels, instead of a nanny-state producing anaemic, blob-like amoeboids slowly leaking sap as they dissolve into the white light emanating from their computer screens. One thing is very clear: today's children are feeble not because we're not investing enough money and time and energy in childhood - it's because we're doing too much for them!

But I will say this, there is good news for us in the report: when these 10-year olds get a year or two older and try to mug us, we'll be able to kick their weak-armed little butts or, at the very least, we know what to do: run to the nearest tree and climb it. We'll be safe up there.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Pity the Fool

France is undoubtedly a great nation, although we all know it peaked as a place, as a concept, as une histoire almost two thousand years ago, when a small band of indomitable Gauls held off the Roman Empire. Since then, there have been highs (Diderot, Serge Gainsbourg, Zidane) and lows (Vichy France, the sacking of Africa, Henry); the recent arrest of Dominique Strauss-Kahn and the extension of his New York visit at Riker's Island is unlikely to be recorded as one of the high points in French history.

This blog is not devoted to z-list celebrities, much less to the Nixonian gnome, Ben Stein, but we did recently dwell upon the question of his comedy and sexism, Parte Une and Parte Deux; although I thought I firmly closed the door on him, he's slipped back into our consciousness by writing a wretched little piece for The American Spectator in which he rushes to defend the honour and reputation and presumed innocence of Dominique Strauss-Kahn by slandering hotel maids, crying class warfare while evoking the image of the guillotine, and saying that, Come on, a short fat guy can't sexually assault a woman.

Much more interesting is the case made by Bernard-Henri Lévy, who, like me, is a philosopher, and, also like me, tends to go by his initials: BHL. In fact, BHL and I are like two peas in a pod, and might even be mistaken for twins were it not for his far better hair and his inimitable capacity to arch a single eyebrow.

Bernard-Henri Levy

In The Daily Beast, his piece is prefaced by a little blurb:

No one knows if the IMF director is guilty of sexual assault—and by dragging him through the mud, politicians and the press are committing gross acts of injustice, says French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy.

Yes, no one knows what really happened, except, of course, for the Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund and a widowed refugee mother. But other than them, nobody knows. I would encourage readers to find BHL's piece to dwell on his epistemological scrutiny of what it is we know. And do not know.

If readers do not wish to dwell, I will start the dwelling off for them.

BHL's piece begins with a fact, an irrefutable fact.

"Monday morning."

Yes. Monday morning. Not Tuesday, not Wednesday, definitely not Thursday. I laugh at the thought it might be Friday or Saturday, and cast a melancholic glance at those who think it might be Sunday. And nor is noon, much less afternoon; do not deceive yourselves: it is not evening or night. "Monday morning."

That established, he goes on: "I do not know--no one knows, because there have been no leaks regarding the declarations of the man in question--if Dominique Strauss-Kahn was guilty of the acts he is accused of committing there. . ." We have come to our first epistemological insight from the philosopher. In the world before, the world that precedes ours, in the past, we might have asked whether it is possible that the alleged perpetrator or the alleged victim knows, but this is the world of Julian Assange, and all we can know must come through leaks. A foolish reader of BHL, a real idiot, might say that the implication is that there is "no one" and there is Strauss-Kahn, there is the "no one" who knows, and there is Strauss-Kahn who knows, and that this formulation submerges the alleged victim into "no one." But such a statement would betray a real lack of philosophical insight.

Those who are not philosophers should stop reading now, because it's about to get complicated. Having established not only the epistemological limits of who can know, but also the rhetorical patter of the epistemological question itself, he goes on: "I do not know--but, on the other hand, it would be nice to know, and without delay--how a chambermaid could have walked in alone, contrary to the habitual practice of most of New York's grand hotels of sending a "cleaning brigade" of two people, in the room of one of the most closely watched figures on the planet." The opening of this sentence could have come straight out of Derrida: the sly introduction of "on the other hand" without presenting the first hand, the double-barrelling of the question with both epistemological and ontological urgency, all couched in a homely but spry spirit of inquiry from a position of ignorance. The next part of the sentence could also have come straight out of Derrida, or Foucault, or Deleuze and Guattari, or anybody else who has ever spent a night in a New York hotel, especially a grand one: it is simply a fact that chambermaids never walk alone into rooms. To doubt this is something that even Descartes would have considered outre. Chambermaids, like presence and absence or power and truth or being and time, are never without their double.

Having demonstrated that nobody can know what happened, except that nobody can explain the sheer impossibility of a single chambermaid entering a hotel room, we are invited to share what BHL does know: that dime-store psychology is not helpful, that "nothing in the world can justify a man being thrown thus to the dogs", that no suspicion should allow the entire world to revel in this man's disgrace, that no earthly law should allow another woman to be exposed to this slime. Passing through the unknowable into the known, BHL drives towards one truth that stands above all others, an insight that justifies the hyperbole, the aroused rhetoric, his impassioned and devastating study of the inflamed epistemologies of the contemporary soul: the New York tabloid press is a disgrace to the profession.

Oh he is so right! They so are.

BHL goes on to talk about other things he knows about the exploitation of this scandal and the politicking, with a sensuously righteous sneer at those who righteously sneer. What we see in Ben Stein's hack-handed attempt to weasel his way back into the limelight and BHL's priapic defence of his friend is the failure of boorish politics and quasi-philosophical musings to address the sheer nastiness of this situation, however close they stumble to real, fundamental problems about publicity, presumptions of guilt and innocence, to questions of class, race, friendship, politics, and legal process that affect how and what we know; why this nastiness is exploited and enjoyed is a question both men veer away from investigating and answering seriously.

This, on the other hand, begins to say some interesting things:

It's crude, perhaps Onion-quality? But it's infinitely more damning than either Stein's or BHL's analyses as a reflection of those real, fundamental problems about publicity, presumptions of guilt and innocence, those questions of class, race, friendship, politics, and legal process that affect how and what we know, and how nasty this publicity, these presumptions, and these questions are.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Waterboarding = Results!

I just thought I would link to this cartoon, by Gary McCoy:

It's clear, it's succinct, it makes a connection between the practice of torture and the very brief capture of bin Laden by way of flat surfaces and water. I'm not so interested here in rehearsing the lies that undermine the fallacious assertion in the side-panels; the factual inaccuracies erased by the concision of wit are numerous and well-documented.

The depiction of the torture is fairly interesting. There's some muscularity and some tension in the drawing - the victim's back is arching, he's straining against the faceless, moustachioed torturer - but not a lot; it doesn't make waterboarding look pleasant, but it doesn't make it look so terribly bad.

But what really interests me is the depiction of the torturers. One is gloved with a cropped but moustachioed face, the other very much has a face: in fact, his tongue has come out of his mouth as he concentrates on the task at hand. It's a lovely little detail. It suggests that this act is one of conscientious and even quiet, if mildly-strenuous, focus and not a slapped-together act of violence, gruesome and cruel and messy; and at the very same time, it's childish and homely, lending the torturer an almost touching innocence and familiarity. The fact that they're burly, fat white guys dressed in quasi-military colours suggests a certain comfort with the notion that they might be contractors, or it might be another homely touch: these are two guys who like barbecues and drink a few too many beers after work with their buds.

Once again, torture does its work. It invites us to presuppose the recognisable humanity of the torturer but not the faceless victim, to disavow its complete wretchedness and violence, to look at it as a mechanism for making people talk even when it prohibits talking (who can talk while being waterboarded?).

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Sunday Recommendations

Last week's Sunday Recommendations was devoted to . . . no, I'm not going back into it.

But there was another list of things I wanted to recommend, based on a film I saw, Source Code, which inspired last week's list but which I forgot to include. This list is: things I would have improved if I'd have been given a chance to work on them.

You know the feeling when you come out of a film that was so almost-good, but, I don't know, they slapped on a happy ending or had some Jar Jar Binks-like character that should have been written out in the second draft, and you think, "This would have been so much better if only I had been given a chance to direct/edit/write/star in that film [or edit/write that book, or edit/write/cameo in that television show]?"

There are a couple of problems here.

1) I have this thought very often, probably daily, and yet somehow, as I try to recall good examples, I can't come up with many.

2) I have a humbling awareness that if I were actually allowed into the creative process and put in the director's seat or given the screenwriter's usual spot in Starbucks, I would probably come to understand the decisions that were made, however bad they seemed when I was watching from a critical distance. That's actually a very generous and self-satisfied way of saying that I would botch it horribly if given the chance; people would have been yearning for the sophisticated comedy and social commentary of Jar Jar Binks if they saw what I had in store for The Phantom Menace.

The Phantom Menace is a bad example, though. I'm not really talking about things that are fundamentally, deeply, pervasively flawed. The Chicago Code, a few episodes of which I've recently seen (or had playing on some part of my computer while I surfed the web), was terribly weak, and I wasn't inspired to think "This show needs my help." Oddly, it received some very good notices, including this one in The Guardian, posted the day after it was cancelled in the US, although I agree with the majority of the commenters bothering to post a response: it was a really lousy show. No, I'm talking about things that were really good, except something, somewhere gets in the way.

Anyway, for right now, I can think of three examples of works that would have been better if I had been given a chance to work on them:

1) Source Code. I won't say what/where/when I'd like to intervene to make this film better because I really am recommending it; and don't read the linked-to Ebert review unless you want a full plot synopsis.

2) The works of Stephen Adly Guirgis prior to The Motherfucker with the Hat. I never came out of one of his earlier plays, almost all of which I've seen, without thinking that if I had been given an hour or two with Guirgis and the cast, I could have helped them craft something sharper and more defined. But! Remember point 2 above. Guirgis is a master of raw, undiluted, and very human excess; tightening his plays up into something pristine would probably be like cutting Samson's hair to make him look fashionable. One of several great things about his plays is that you're not watching some crafted by a committee; he doesn't need an apparatchik.

3) Morrissey's lyrics over the past decade. My intervention: simply change any first person references to second person references in the titles and make corresponding grammatical and contextual changes in the body of the lyrics, except in cases where both "You" and "I" (or "Me") are in the title.

For example, from You Are The Quarry, songs would become You Have Forgiven Jesus or You're Not Sorry, but You Know I Couldn't Last would remain the same; from Ringleader of the Tormentors, songs would become At Last You Are Born, You Just Want To See The Boy Happy, On the Streets You Ran, You'll Never Be Anybody's Hero Now, but I Will See You in Far-Off Places and To Me You Are a Work of Art would be remain the same.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Whither Dr Peter Thraft

As you will have noticed, my post on Dr Peter Thraft was taken down and for several days my site has not been accessible for comments (I myself have been unable to access it at all; it's like being locked out of your apartment at three in the morning, and you're sure you can hear romantic groans coming from inside, but no matter how hard you knock, no matter how many times you check your pockets for the keys, you can't get back in). This was not, apparently, a Thraftian hack, but rather the host of this blog, Blogger, shut down the entire service and removed all posts written after a certain time on Wednesday. I have been intensely paranoid that Dr Peter Thraft, though a neophyte on "twotter", was actually a brilliant computer hacker and had found my blog, broken into it, stolen my post, and virtually pissed in my blog before making his escape; but it sounds like he is innocent of this, at least. My best guess is that Blogger, who runs these blogs, is used by Al Qaeda, and the CIA swooped in to take charge for a few days, sorting through reams of blogs about comedy, dog hair, whut-i-did-last-night, contemporary politics, and nineteenth-century battleship design in order to discover bin Laden's location. UPDATE: Apparently bin Laden was found? When? How didn't I hear about that? Now I get all those cartoons I posted about a few days ago.

Anyway, back to Dr Peter Thraft. My post is not yet back up; it may never go back up. That depends on Blogger. But having spent more time on Thraft's twotter account, I'm now beginning to think only in Thraftisms. I'm sure my significant other will be delighted to learn of this.

Look your partner in the eye and whisper sweet nothings before going to work.

Men, remember, the withdrawal method only works if you withdraw b4 ejaculation.

Orgies can be beautiful, but only when everybody sticks to agreed-upon boundaries.

Elizabethans called it the little death, the French Le Petit Mort. Kill your partner tonight.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The good Dr Peter Thraft

An alert reader emerged from the white-capped rapids of twitter, thrusting a hand out of the roiling flood of tweets to attract my attention to this twitter account, before being hauled back under and carried away, quite possibly to a pool of ecstatic aphorisms, although that might be more hopeful than realistic: I caught sight of his face and he had # for eyes.

In any case, I hope you go to that account, wherein Dr Peter Thraft, a relationship expert and sex therapist, offers invaluable advice about sex and relationships for men and women in the sensitive but clinically-unembarrassed manner befitting a true professional. I would highly recommend that you spend some time at the site. You can work your way forwards or backwards through time, because it's not the narrative that counts as much as the truths dispensed by the good doctor.

File:Mature flower diagram.svg

Now, of course, the question has been raised: is Dr Peter Thraft real? Is Dr Peter Thraft for real? Is it, as the alert reader suspects, the great Peter Serafinowicz? The tone would be just right for Serafinowicz, exquisitely attuned to just the right whiffs of innocence, ingratiation, and indignation while revelling in the corporeal and indulgent.

But what if, what if Dr Peter Thraft is real? The tweets are funny because Dr Peter Thraft is so fully alive and so realistic he almost could be real, and yet if he were real, he would only become funny, if at all, in very different way? (And if it were discovered that he is real, then much of the amusement one derives from those people getting rebuffed and blocked by the kind, offended doctor for tweettacking (tweet-attacking?) his misogyny and his advice would double-back: instead of being the gulls, they would be the ones who were perceptive; instead of being rigid moralists who can't get a joke, they'd have been true to a moral universe we thought we inhabited.)

More later, I hope, on the question of reality in comedy. But in the meantime, spend some time with Dr Peter Thraft and you might pick up a tip or two.

That Sexist Joke, Again

Okay, whilst appreciate the respectful, possibly awed silence that accompanies the end of most of my posts, I am sorry that nobody saw fit to answer the question at the end of my post about whether the cartoon was vile homophobia or a surprising stand in support of gay and lesbian rights?

Anyway, a week or so ago, I discussed the dismissal of Ben Stein from a corporate speaking gig on account of accusations of sexist material. In the comments, Daniel F suggests that one of the jokes is worth considering:

But the one about what it really means to be made to feel like a woman (ie to be treated like a serf) is capable of a feminist reading, is it not? Particularly if the gratuitous detail about the woman removing her clothes is left out, as he says it was.

I avoided discussing the joke in any detail, feigning distraction, but the joke really does hover around an issue that comes up all the time. Is a joke sexist, racist, homophobic, etc. or is it aboutsexism, racism, homophobia, etc.?

The joke being discussed has multiple variants; here's one (I have chosen to transcribe it in full without intruding with sic):

A plane is about to crash, a female passenger gets up and shouts out 'If i'm going to die, I want to die feeling like a woman' with that she rips of all her clothes and shouts 'Is there a someone on this plane who is man enough to make me feel like a woman?' A young man stands up and takes off his shirt revealing a well toned torso, he throws the shirt at the woman and say's 'Here iron this'
Here's how the joke was explained to us in the article about Stein:

Another [putatively offensive joke] involved a female airline passenger who, realizing the flight is about to crash, takes off her clothes and asks if there is a man aboard who will “make me feel like a woman,” according to Villarreal’s e-mail, which was also sent to Bloomberg News. A cowboy in a hat removes his shirt, hands it to the woman, tells her to iron it and fetch him a beer.

Now, is this a sexist joke or a joke about sexism?

The joke has a woman abruptly facing her mortality and deciding that in her last few minutes, she wants her (sexual) needs (as a woman) met; the joke is that her (sexual) needs are interpreted differently by a man, who flips what she needs as a woman into what she needs to do as a woman. Female sexual autonomy is met with a demand for female submission to a male's needs, a demand given the somewhat surprising twist that the male is not insisting upon sexual subordination but social subordination. It's a double negation of her sexuality: her desire is thwarted, and is implicitly so undesirable itself that a (sexual) male would rather have her perform some other menial task than do anything that might satisfy her desire.

The butt of a joke, the fool, is usually in some way exposed. A vanity, a prejudice, a pretension is shown to be hollow and the butt tumbles into the void. In a comment to a previous post, Jeff Strabone suggests that emotional demonstrability may be connected to being the object of a joke: uncontained emotions, a failure to control one's mood, excessive and histrionic gestures make for ripe targets because they are already exposures. A man who keeps his cards close to his chest, like Barack Obama or most of the Magnificent Seven, is harder to mock.

There are two exposures in the woman-on-an-airplane joke: the exposure of a woman's sexual desire, and of a man's misogynistic view of where a woman belongs. Because there are two exposures, it would be at least possible to parlay either character into the fool.

In the version Stein says he did not tell, the woman strips, thus physically accentuating her exposure, making her demands more outrageous and also more intrusive, racheting up the extent to which it is "in your face". Bergson, in Le Rire, made the point better than anybody else that much laughter derives from identifying and humiliating or "correcting" somebody for deviating from the norm, such as when they express too much emotion (however much that may be) or, more often, when they fail to demonstrate the flexibility needed by living in society. When the woman strips, she goes even further in taking her sexual desire "out of the norm" and we are pretty much forced to accept that she is the one who is being laughed at. The man, faced with an extraordinary, mad display of unbridled carnality, brings her back down to earth. Right before the airplane meets the same fate.

Of course, even with the stripping, it would be possible to argue that depending upon how the exposures are weighted in the telling, the man could be the butt, the fool - this is what Stein claims. But with the joke's rhythm, the sharp punchline voiced by the man, and its general implications, the burden of butthood is usually on the woman. Still, Stein might not be wrong: it is entirely conceivable that the joke could be told in such a way that the man is a fool. Faced with what could be a wildly satisfying last few minutes of sexual ecstasy before death, he instead turns his bullying misogyny into useless demands.

Daniel suggested that it was open to a feminist reading about what it is to be made to feel like a woman. Yes. It is hard to imagine a truly "feminist" performance of this joke without some very careful tweaking. But then, even in the brief examples we've been given, we see that the joke is open to tweaking: in one version, the man matches her act of stripping by taking off his own shirt, and we're told that he has "well defined torso", as a prelude to the insulting punchline; in Stein's, the man is cowboy who does not see her strip (Stein says he left that out), but nevertheless takes off his own shirt, and adds a beer to his demands. Why should there not be similar details that re-orient the joke so that the underlying implications of serfdom and subjugation really turn back to make the men who hold these views into the butts?

The closest I can come to a "feminist" reading of the joke along these lines is by way of the "anti-feminist feminists", the Right Wing women who denounce contemporary and post-World War II feminism but admit they have received some advantages from different conceptions of a woman's role, and who claim the suffragettes as their own. If you were a fan of Phyllis Schlafly and adamantly opposed to the feminist movement, you might think that gender roles are not cultural and historical epiphenomena. You might cite a Time poll that "a majority of both men and women still think it is best for children to have a father working and a mother at home" (although you won't use in your citation the full sentence, which begins, "Especially in the absence of social supports, flexible work arrangements and affordable child care, it's hardly surprising that a majority . . ."). You might think that family structures long etched into the granite of our history with established roles and hierarchies are not only cogent but superior to structures based on negotiation, written into the beach of any given relationship with a stubbly twig. You might read Quentin Crisp, and see diamond forming in the kohl:

About eighteen months after we moved to High Wycombe, the dreary ritual of our lives was interrupted by my mother going away for a few days. What caused this to happen, I can't remember. Perhaps she left in self-defence. This was a very rare occurrence as neither my father nor I could boil a kettle unless conditions were favourable. This was further evidence of the rigid sexual structure of the world at this time. Men fetched coal from cellars and hammered nails; women boiled kettles. You knew where you were even though you hated it.

In which case, if you believe all these things, you might tell the same woman-in-a-crashing-plane joke. And you might do it by casting the woman as a pleasure-seeking, hedonistic, shameless feminist (although you could also tone that down); as an anti-feminist feminist, you could tell the joke to gently tease your menfolk, suggesting that their belief that women are only good for one thing (servitude) misses the point, and aren't men/cowboys silly that way?

In other words, it could be a Bergsonian joke about men who fall outside the "norm" because of rigidly held beliefs: the proper cowboy, when he sees a woman stripping and demanding sex on a crashing airplane, would think adaptively to himself, "This woman on a falling plane needs her boat rocked, and since I'm no pilot, I'd better captain her vessel into the wild waters of orgasm." The foolish cowboy would be unable to alter his rigidly-held world-view and so would insist on seeing the woman as a servant, rather than as a sex-object.

This particular joke has no single form, written or unwritten. It is told and it is performed. While it is possible that a great many jokes cannot be seen as anything but racist/sexist/homophobic or otherwise prejudiced (anti-feminist, anti-Christian, what have you), so too most jokes can be bent and twisted by how they are told, the way they are performed and where they fall within a performance, all of which is not unaffected by who is telling the joke, who is performing it, where the performance is taking place, and who the audience is. In a previous post, the discussion was about the role of details in helping us understand what a joke is about. But, once again, we are faced with the problems of ambiguity, and how comedy is an effective spy in anyone's house.

But I don't want to end here with a shrug to ambiguity. Sure, the joke could open itself up to a feminist reading, or an anti-feminist but still putatively, tenuously pro-woman reading. However, the ambiguity is not simply uncertainty, or the possibility of multiple readings. The ambiguity feeds more than subsequent disavowal of misogynistic intent. One problem with arguing on behalf of a feminist reading of the joke is that the joke derives pleasure from the very possibility of a feminist reading: the narrative of one woman's liberation begins sympathetically, but she is put back in her place; similarly, the ambiguity of the joke (that it might be a joke about men, too) is a disavowal of how much pleasure the joke derives from sneering at the feminists who might be lured into the joke by a sympathetic, liberated woman. Does that make sense? The very fact that it is about a woman's serfdom and so would engage with feminist rhetoric makes its sneaky laughter that much more pleasurable to the anti-feminists. Its ambiguity is not just social cover or, taking a somewhat-Freudian view, a way of making frank hostility more palatable through the mechanisms of comedy and the potential disavowal of frank hostility through ambiguity; the ambiguity gives it a secretive frisson whereby we know what it's saying about women, even though we claim it's about the way women are treated. In that way, the very fact that the joke is "capable of a feminist reading" makes the joke so funny to those who despise feminist readings.