Tuesday, June 7, 2011


In last week's New Yorker, there was an article about Silvio Berlusconi, which has all the qualities of journalistic sex tourism without any of the guilt: it's deliciously voyeuristic and titillating, but the target is a rich vulgar world leader. Similar issues were covered by Zizek in his LRB piece two years ago. How does the buffoon, the clown rise to power? Zizek did not cite Foucault, although Foucault addresses this passingly, as you well know, in his Lectures at the Collรจge de France, 1974-1975: Abnormal. Playing the clown is not merely a populist tactic to appeal to the man-on-the-street and a refutation of a presumed hierarchy; it is a disabling power play.

Few people have mastered this role as well as Berlusconi, who has bulldozed his way to the top with (please stop reading this if you live in a country with strict libel laws) all sorts of flagrant, rambunctious, phallic spectacles of greed and criminality in the tradition of some of Rome's greatest, and worst, rulers, a vivacious spectacle that governs in part through the suppressive effects of the vivacious spectacle itself. (Those of you living in countries with strict libel laws can start reading again.) In the New Yorker article, we get one of Berlusconi's rambunctious, phallic jokes:
Berlusconi has been far from contrite. A week before the opening of the Rubygate trial [on charges of prostitution with a minor and abuse of power], he travelled to Lampedusa, a tiny island off the coast of Sicily where tens of thousands of North African refugees have come ashore in the past few months. He told the crowd assembled there, “Did you hear the latest poll? They asked women between twenty and thirty years old if they want to make love to Berlusconi. Thirty-three per cent said yes! Sixty-seven per cent said ‘Again?’”
The poll must have taken place in Italy, because if it had been anywhere else Berlusconi would have been competing with my friends, who have the 20-30 female demographic in the rest of Europe and North America well covered.

Now, on the one hand, this joke is pure bravado: he's laying claim to the accusation of philandering hurled against him; he's mastering the charge, owning it, toying with it and playing with it. It is, in the parlance of the 1990s, appropriation. In effect, he's saying that he is being accused of a moral crime, and by insisting that he is guilty as charged, he's refusing to see the crime as a crime at all. The joke functions by creating a certain expectation and then shattering it not just with its opposite but with a wry allusion to the opposite: if 33% say "yes", we'd expect a typical poll to go on to report that some higher percentage say "no" and some smaller percentage have "no opinion"; instead we get the wonderfully ambivalent "again?"

"Again?" is a lovely little concession to ambiguity, and gives the joke some of its aesthetic impact: "again?" could be perkily expectant but it could also be wearily resigned. Berlusconi repudiates any concern for the charge of philandering and promiscuity, he embodies machismo in a country where, according to the New Yorker, 95% of men have never operated a washing machine (the other 5% are porn stars who play washing machine repairmen); but he allows a tone of ambiguity to appear in the majority female voice with "Again?" I'm definitely not arguing that this makes the joke a feminist one. But I'm going to come back to this.

So, also within the joke, is a lovely attack on the media-political apparatus working against him: the irrelevance of polls on topics like this and the failure of his opponents to realise how much women actually love him (for surely the expected implication of such a poll would be that, first of all, the poll question is of some importance, and, second, that it would uncover resentment). Put another way: the joke trivialises polls not by caricaturing them but by basing the joke on what could be a very real poll, demonstrating how risible they are; taken a step further, the irrelevance of polls and the typically banal divisions they uncover are saved by Berlusconi, whose vivacious populism can surmount the chattering, chittering pseudointellectualism of the politcal-media classes. (And this is not in any way contradictory because Berlusconi is also the leader of the political-media class; the clown and the buffoon can play both roles, as we saw so clearly in the figure of George W. Bush who converted blue blood into soda pop).

And, on the other hand, we can see the joke do some really dirty work. Vonnegut talks about how jokes relieve you from the burden of thinking: the punchline comes in and rescues you. You might hesitate over the precision of Berlusconi's demographic in the joke, "Women aged 20-30", which excludes those on the cusp of adulthood and certainly excludes minors, even though the whole scandal revolves around whether Berlusconi has been so carefully selective on the age of his paramours; you might wonder whether "make love" is implying the most romantic, generous, and emotional encounter (indeed, he re-moralises the debate on his own terms: he's not rutting or fucking, he's not exploiting, he's making love). And, of course, he does not release ambiguity in "Again?", he captures it, trades in it, makes it subservient to his masculinity; the possibly resistant female voice he pretends to echo, the intimation of ambiguity in the ersatz poll, is rendered grotesque, in just the same way that Berlusconi does not empower women but makes them grotesque even when they are given power.

Remembering Foucault:
Political power, at least, in some societies, and anyway in our society, can give itself, and has actually given itself, the possibility of conveying its effects and, even more, of finding their source, in a place that is manifestly, explicitly, and readily discredited as odious, despicable, or ridiculous. [snippety-snip] The grotesque is one of the essential processes of arbitrary sovereignity. But you know also that the grotesque is a process inherent to assiduous bureaucracy. [snippety-snip: Foucault mentions Balzac, Dostoevsky, Courteline and Kafka] And what I say about the Roman Empire, what I say about modern bureaucracy, could also be said about many other mechanical forms of power, such as Nazism or Fascism. The grotesque character of someone like Mussolini was absolutely inherent to the mechanism of power. Power provided itself with an image in which power derived from someone who was theatrically got up and depicted as a clown and buffooon.
This is not, Foucault says, a ritualistic process of "limiting its effects and of magically dethroning the person" in power, as if it is a democratising of power, humbling it in the figure of the goofball to whom the man-on-the-street can relate.
Rather, it seems to me to be a way of giving a striking form of expression to the unavoidability, the inevitability of power, which can function in its full rigour and at the extreme point of its rationality even when in the hands of someone who is effectively discredited.
The notion that comedy is fundamentally heroic, on the side of the oppressed against the oppressor, is sentimental and dangerous.

No comments: