Sunday, May 1, 2011

Foul is Fair

To see somebody writhing about in agony and to enjoy it, that is one of the heftiest cornerstones in the Escher-planned, Gaudi-designed, jerry-rigged, ghost-inhabited house of comedy. Many an observer of human nature, many a commentator on the spirit of man and woman and child, many a languid gossip about life, has crafted an aphorism about pleasures to be had in the suffering of others. Indeed, why not offer it up as a definition of the human? "To be human is to take pleasure in the suffering of another." Other animals may play in a mode of what looks like thrilling malevolence, as when a bristle-pawed cat flips and pats and tosses a mouse into the air before delivering the death blow, but is that thrilling malevolent play the same thing as taking pleasure in watching the suffering of another? Maybe? Well, regardless, I won't insist that this definition necessarily and wholly excludes the animal Other, anymore than I'll insist it's a proper definition of the human.

The cultures of morality and religion have never managed to denounce or tamp out the pleasure humans take in the suffering of others, and not infrequently appropriates this pleasure and this suffering, quite possibly because without pleasure in suffering, they would be redundant? But for now, the ways in which enjoyment of the suffering of others is specifically comic merits some thought. We could easily become perturbed by definitions and nuances and questions about where comedy's boundary is smudged. Victories, for example, are often accompanied by jubilant laughter. Is this laughter the same thing as laughter at comedy? Both involve a sense of superiority and emotional relief; the False Alarm theory of comedy, which we'll return to some other day, is a fairly weak one (though it is not typically portrayed as weak), but it postulates that laughter evolved as a sort of caveman hoot to indicate that - in the example always given - what they thought was a sabre-toothed tiger was actually just a play of shadows, or, in the example I give, what they thought was a sabre-toothed tiger was actually just Thog coming out of the underbrush, still wiping himself. The laughter of victory is a way indicating that the threat of the vanquished foes was a false alarm: they are now humiliated; they were, basically, just a false alarm. And then there is the laughter of joy, the laughter of delight and happiness in the world, which is also always somewhat comic, because joy and delight and happiness are necessarily incongruous with the miserable lot of life, and so to immerse oneself in them always involves some degree of forgetting the suffering of others. Is there something of a blindness towards the suffering of others intimated in every laugh, whether it is the insistent refusal to see the suffering of Others or a forgetting of that suffering?

As I write this, laughter is in the air.

Late last night at work in a secluded office, I opened up The Huffington Post, a site I generally loathe but nevertheless check, and saw a massive headline blaring in inch-high letters: "DEAD". Before I scrolled down to see the picture, I was shaken: "Oh no, it's finally happened! Morrissey's gone!"

But it turned out to be Osama Bin Laden! Dead!

Celebrating a death without mourning it is a strange pleasure, one I would not quickly disavow. As Mark Twain said, "I've never wished anyone dead, but I have read some obituaries with pleasure." Well, he's a better man than I. Having passed the site of the World Trade Center many times over the past decade, I can attest to the fact that the gaping, half-constructed sepulchre was also a constant reminder that the master-perpetrator of the act had eluded justice. That his body was treated "in accordance with Islamic practice and tradition" is all well and good, although I understand they were following the practice and tradition of one of the smaller Islamic sects by sodomising the corpse with a goat trained specifically for that purpose.

For some reason, I took a roll through the manure to see what Sarah Palin and the people/groups she is following on twitter were saying as the news started to come out. I only found two comments amusing, both by Ann Coulter - although Coulter's jibe about waiting for the death certificate was probably not, as I first took it to be, an amused reflection on the pedantry of the birthers and more likely was another conflation of Obama with the Other. The rest of the tweets, perhaps unsurprisingly, were marked by the stuttering sound of pellets of boilerplate patriotism being cranked out, and the sour-breathed cringes of twitter-asides, some of gratitude to GWB, but mostly snide ones about BO.

Killing Osama without, presumably, recording the attack on film, and then plopping his remains into the sea has two unfortunate consequences: one, doubting Thomases will find this highly suspicious and will give the manure-grubbers of the right something to feed upon; two, we didn't get to watch him suffer. If justice is a form of retribution, a carefully stage-managed return to the scene of the crime as a ritualised re-enactment, a response to a violence committed against society - and it is all of these things - then the most-televised mass murder of all time has been answered with what amounts to a private killing. But that is one of the points of justice; justice is also a rejection of blood lust, it is infiltrated with cautions, with checks against vitriolic savagery. Justice must not be guided by our own suffering, it must be blinded to the wild biases and cognitive shattering that comes from being attacked; it must temper our desire to turn our own suffering into a cataclysm of another's suffering. Somewhere, maybe in lots of places, Derrida talks of justice only as the justice-to-come. Justice always suffers its own imperfections, it is not blind, only blindfolded. But the comments about the treatment of Osama's body and the avoidance of hurting others (presumably people holing up in the compound with him?) in the attack, the use of the language of policing (putting Osama's body into "custody", a fascinating concept that insists upon the protection of that which has long been subject to desecration, usually by goats trained specifically for that purpose: the body of the enemy; it may also be a perverse echo of habeas corpus, and a de-souled, de-spiritualised, de-personalised view of the enemy that would make his corpse subject to martial law because his body with or without a living subjectivity is the same thing - although I will leave this line of reasoning to Agamben) is the language of justice. It will never be satisfying. The body is gone, Osama cannot suffer on earth anymore, or repay what he has done; there is no compensation; the execution of justice is its own acquiescence to crime.

Fortunately, comedy lacks the checks and restraints and proprieties of formal justice, allowing us to linger at a place this formal justice has insisted we now leave with its rigid sense of "closure". I look forward to the alternative obituary, the one written into jokes and cartoons, where a different form of blindness to suffering can be indulged, where justice is freed from everything that would protect us from the pleasures of another's suffering.

As Steve Martin tweeted: Slow News Day.


Steven said...


Jeff Strabone said...

'although I understand they were following the practice and tradition of one of the smaller Islamic sects by sodomising the corpse with a goat trained specifically for that purpose.'

I found this line hilarious. (I should say for the benefit of people who may happen on this remark in the future and wish to take it out of context that I deem the remark to have nothing to do with Islam. It is rather a joke that works by ending a sentence in an incongruous way, at the expense of Osama bin Laden.) (Analysing why things are funny is part of the purpose of this blog, right?)

sw said...

Thanks for the comments - yes, Steven, cf; much of what I write is a sort of shadow of, although crueler readers might say it is in the shadow of

And thank you Jeff, yes, that is the point! I actually really appreciate your comment, because I almost edited the line out, concerned that some might think it would strike an anti-Muslim note. I really don't think it has anything to do with Islam except in one broader sense: we are being told very earnestly that something is being done in the "Islamic" tradition, but there are of course many traditions, coupled with many cultures, and why shouldn't there be some weird subsect? The joke contrasts the po-faced earnestness of the religious claims about Osama's burial with its assumptions of a particular respect towards religion and the underlying potential wackiness of religions. And yes, it is very much intended to be at the expense of Osama bin Laden. The use of "goat" is probably more of a Pakistani/Afghan stereotype.