A few days ago, a reporter with a news camera was roughed up by a cop operating as some sort of bodyguard for Herman Cain. He pushed her into Cain's campaign bus and then clotheslined her. The cop's commanding officer justified his vigorous oaf's assault as concern for the safety of Herman Cain; Lt. McHugh of the Coral Springs Police Department went on to add that "the officer, Sgt William Reid, suffered a hyper-extended elbow." Aha! The cop (whose name was not given in the news report until this point, when his suffering deserved a proper noun and a subjectivity) was the real victim here. His elbow was hyper-extended as he knocked the reporter off her feet. Can you imagine what sort of damage she did to the cartilage and ligaments in his elbow as she hurled herself into his arm?
And as we discussed the other day, the real public health problem is not the socioeconomic disparities that result in the death of, say, children; it's the scourge of protesters, who need to be removed for public health reasons, according to and under the orders of a man who has given his name to the John Hopkins School of Public Health.
It's philosophically tempting to argue that life is a joke. Our inherent human dignity, the innate dignity we are bestowed with by the Author of Life and the United Nations Charter on Human Rights, which begins with the squelching, pumping, grimacing, splurting act of fornication that allows a tiny tadpole to jam its protein-laden head into a moon-like ovum, an innate dignity that somehow survives the act of birth, another squelching, liquory, splashing, grimacing act of propulsion, is then, after all that, forever challenged by a lifetime of belching, farting, public and private embarrassment, and, for many of us, more or fewer grimacing propulsive acts committed alone or with another grimacing squelching person or, for some lucky few, roomfuls of grimacing squelching people. The difference between our own enduring and fundamental human dignity and the constant, bathetic, spontaneous, surprising, animal failures to sustain this dignity for more than a few seconds at a time is quite a joke. In fact, the comedy begins at the outset: it takes a tremendous amount of wit to look at humans and say, "Yes, this lot is fundamentally, innately dignified." Do you really think that aliens will land, observe us, and think, "These must have been made in God's image"?
The philosophical joke presumes that our dignity (or autonomy, or free will, or agency) is subverted by our indignities; it's humanistic because the comedy recovers from indignity a dignity of its own: the comic dignity of insight, of resilience in fallibility, where we laugh at the exposure of our own fall from grace and, in laughing, obtain for ourselves a new grace, imbued with wise benevolence, sympathy for our efforts in the charade, and even a sort of secular (though often deist) transcendence: we rise above ourselves at the moment when we fall.
At its core, though, there's an admirable ambiguity in this philosophical joke about human life: the resolution it presumes to offer is not perfect and is never complete: the conceit that dignity leads to indignity that leads to dignity is a wackily spinning whirlpool that can suck anything into its chaotically self-propagating swirl - whatever presumes to inhere in dignity, every striving of humanity, can get caught in the suction; it's a sucking funnel with no end in sight, but at least we can say that we have a whirlpool in the pond of human life, a black hole in our soul, and we can laugh about it.
What is more intriguing is the comedy that does not submit to comedy's promises of recovery and reunion in laughter, its promise that the coordination of "we laugh at ourselves" will put us into a stable, if ambiguous set of relationships with ourselves. This marginal comedy is far broader, its range much wider than the humanistic philosophy that would argue life is comic because life is a joke, but it's also harder to grasp in its diffusion and its problematics. It's the comedy that refuses to conform to the rules of comedy, whether it disposes with the nods and winks and silly voices that establish the comic voice or subverts the structural forms that clue us in to the comedic performance, where the parodic is not wholly distinct from the object of parody because, though it remains ridiculous, it nevertheless commits to whatever the object of parody is committed to (usually the parody is committed only to the object of parody) - recall, for example, your first encounter with, say, The Darkness, where you think you are witnessing a Spinal Tap-like parody of hair metal, and then how you experienced the unsettlingly delicious creeping realisation that, though in every respect parodic, The Darkness is more committed to hair metal than to any parody of hair metal.
Crucially, the comedy we are discussing is the comedy that does not allow us to find a fingerhold in the seam that separates it from the earnest or the serious. It's the comedy that is not funny and is rarely pleasing (though The Darkness would qualify as pleasing); it's the comedy of a cop complaining about the injury sustained to his "hyper-flexed" elbow after clotheslining a reporter; it's the comedy of a man who has given his name to a prominent school of public health defending his interests in a scheme whose public health consequences are measured in childhood mortality and excess deaths, as he uses the rhetoric of public health with media-saturated metaphors of pollution and the metonymies of disease to dissent and difference to send in armed forces to remove people protesting that scheme.
All of which to say is that Die Antwoord have released the new single from their new album! An alert reader (an alert reader in general; there is no indication the person is an alert reader of this blog) sent me an e-mail last night to notify me of this:
Die Antwoord has explored many dimensions of hip hop and rap, from fluid flow and rave to beat box and bouncy (the latter a category that probably has a proper name, but I don't know it; I don't know if "fluid flow" is a real category either, but let's pretend it is); in Fok Julle Naaiers they go gangster, full throttle.
Theirs is the comedy of the margin - no, let me be more specific: theirs is the comedy of one point in the margin between the serious or earnest and the comic. The margin is a long one, and it includes off-duty cops with hyperextended elbows, Michael Bloomberg, Die Antwoord, Jody Hill, Lenny Bruce before he was "Lenny Bruce", the long thin mined stretch of tangled weeds and barbed wire where comedy is not fully distinguished from the serious.
In her wikipedia entry ("her" wikipedia entry? Does it belong to her? Did she author it?), Yolandi Visser is described as a rapper with Die Antwoord, an "experimental (and partly satirical) rap group"; whoever wrote "partly satirical" is onto something, but the question remains: how much is "partly", and which part? In another wikipedia entry, Die Antwoord is roped into a category called "post-irony" (as one example; BTW, the other example given, at least of the time of this writing, is Werner Herzog's Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans . . . hmm?): the temporal equivocation of "post" and the uncertainty of the relationship assumed between the "post-ironic" and the ironic, cast into a temporal term that in no way articulates the nature of the relationship, is another gesture towards the margin. The margin is geographical, a land divided but whose borders are contested: part serious, part satirical; it is temporal: coming after or beyond the ironic (which is presumed here to be a stable category with its own in relation to the serious: the ironic is the ostensibly serious that contains the comic disruption of what constitutes the "ostensibly" and the seriousness, a doubled capacity of unlimited disruptive potential - so what, precisely, comes after that?).
Why might we put Die Antwoord in the category of the comic at all? Well, Die Antwoord is an extension of their earlier character-driven Hip Hop and rap projects - Max Normal TV, the Constructus Corporation - which have clear signifiers of the comic: incongruities, ill-fitting clothes of the clown; Die Antwoord is another act of impersonation and mimicry, the Ninja another skit after Max Normal. Even in their masterpiece-to-date, Enter the Ninja, the Ninja intrudes with a goofy interlude and the lovely comic error of spouting erroneous bravado ("all over the interwebs"). The Keith Haring-like cartoons that decorate Die Antwoord backdrops and clothing feature the prominent phallus that links comedy from Trey Parker and Matt Stone back to its ancient origins on the stage.
In Fok Julle Naaiers, they bring their part satirical, post-ironic, comedy of the margin to the hard-core, full-throttle gangster track, which ends with a tremendous Kanyesian beat over which DJ Hi-tek tells us he's going to . . . well, you heard what he said.
Now, once again, I've got my hands lightly on your shoulders, I'm staring you in the eye, and I'm telling you: this is the gayest gangster rap track ever laid down.
It's not; but I'm not entirely joking.
Now, one might think the video is a touch, well, homophobic. Although Fok Julle Naaiers apparently means something along the lines of "screw y'all", I can't help but think it's a distant, contracted echo of "To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything Julie Newmar"; the aggression comes with the faint hint of drag. But then again, what are we to make of a video that has rampaging phalluses and all the magnetic attraction to the male body of a trembling closeted Republican delegate standing at the urinal next to Rick Perry; it's a video that could be posted under a new wikipedia entry for "Rough Trade", a video that Morrissey has no doubt watched over hundred times (with the sound on mute); where lithe masculine figures mouth the woman's, Yolanda Visser's, lines (did you spot that?) Straight sexuality is granted the atavistic metaphor of the disgust and beauty of insects, and bisected into the flapping, vaginal butterfly and the wiry pricks of scorpions and slimy coils of worms. We have an entire package of ambiguity in relationship to sensuality: desire and repulsion, come-ons and fuck-offs, menacing men mouthing the female chorus; and all this leads to a monstrous rampage of ass-rape-threat. I'm not going to say it's not homophobic. I'm not going to sit here and tell you that the line where DJ Hi-tek suggests that there's a romantic goal to his ass-rape-threat ("I'll fuck you 'til you love me, faggot") suggests that the endpoint of his courtship is a civil partnership.
But, the issue here is confusion: the relationships are not structured so that the presumed heterosexuality of the participants makes them unwitting subjects to the gay (Morrissey's) gaze, or that the object of derision is not the overdetermined sexuality of Yolandi Visser with her butterflies and Ninja with his scorpions and worms; this is a completely messed up video (note that the lyrics are messed up also along racial lines: "All hail the great white ninja" becomes "Is it real? No it's just a big black joke").
Die Antwoord have a strange relationship with the extravagance of comedy; they pare down what might be exploited, even as they burst the confines with preposterous, exuberant excess: their aesthetic is like a portrait where the eyes and nose are caricatured while the mouth and chin and forehead are sketched in with a few life-like lines. Are they comic or not, which part is satirical and which is not, when do they move through time to evolve from the ironic to the post-ironic? Fok Julle Naaiers is roiling with sexual confusion, sexual masquerade, strutting performance, which does not coalesce into a single bubble that can then burst into a flamboyant punchline where desire suddenly becomes a real possibility (this is the familiar and pleasant narrative of tension and release in comedy, as when the sexual tension of flirtation - shivering with delighted but awkward uncertainty and thrust into the open only with the ambiguity of entendre - becomes a kiss, an embrace, a submission to certainty, the real possibility par excellence); no, Fok Julle Naaiers does not coalesce its queer and straight suds into a giant rainbow-hued bubble, popping orgasmically; it is interrupted, and then suddenly pared down into a massive back beat and a grotesque DJ making horrible, repetitive sexual threats. (It is as if the possibilities of rough polymorphous perversity end with a monstrous queer rape-sodomite, but note, as if; it remains confused, and refuses resolution).
Confusion is not the same thing as ambiguity: ambiguity can be crystal clear. Comedy frequently brings a tremendous amount of clarity to ambiguity (David Chappelle's genius in this regard is apparent here; google "racial draft" if the link doesn't work) But this is because the ambiguity is founded in comic order; when the foundation is itself confused, when something is born from within the margin between the comedic and the serious, confusion permeates the life generated, and what is produced is not a marriage of consummation and delight where the proud lovers can finally become united; what is born and bred is an unpleasant hybrid, or, as we see throughout the Die Antwoord oeuvre, a monster. (And that is the course charted by Fok Julle Naaiers: as that which comes from the flinty foreign margin of the comic and the serious, it is destined to the monstrosity of DJ Hi-tek).
Monstrosity reigns: the monstrous femininity of Yolanda Visser, monsters and masks; the thing that shouldn't be, desirable and terrifying, the weird comedy of horror that fundamentally repudiates what it beholds as impossible even as it threatens to take your life; a premise of gangster rap - the narrative in the lyrics is a response to a humiliation, a "look at me" reversal of fortune, the fantasy of power - is distilled into a monstrous imagery of sexual taunting.
There is a strange coda. Ninja has posted a video in which he responds to potential accusations of homophobia in the track. It would seem to be a sort of repudiation, or even, as an extraneous correction, a sort of apology that refuses to apologise.
Understand this: this is not strictly a repudiation at all; it is a supplementation and an extension to Fok Julle Naaiers, and it is as profoundly confused as Fok Julle Naaiers. Ninja gives reasons for why one should not be offended. If I may paraphrase Ninja:
1) The word "faggot" is used by DJ Hi-Tek and . . . he's gay.
2) This is South African culture and we need to understand Foc Julle Naaiers in that context.
3) Ninja loves DJ Hi-Tek more than anybody in the world.
Let's be clear: these are very bad reasons for why we should not be concerned, and though the character of Ninja does not know it, he tells us precisely why we should be concerned.
1 and 3) My best friend is gay! And he uses the word faggot!
So, the main problem with this pair of excuses is that DJ Hi-Tek does not exist. There is no DJ Hi-Tek (the alert reader who sent me the link suggested this as well). DJ Hi-Tek is a character, a mask, a rotating cast of characters; in Enter the Ninja, when the members of Die Antwoord are announced, it is Leon Botha who appears as DJ Hi-Tek.
But this is actually quite a funny. Ninja says to us with a straight face (and I paraphrase): "Saying 'faggot' can't be anti-gay because the invented character who uses the word is gay." That's quite funny. And then Ninja says (again I paraphrase): "I can't be anti-gay because my very best friend in the world, DJ Hi-Tek, is gay and I love him more than anybody", except DJ Hi-Tek does not properly exist (even in the world of Die Antwoord); so Ninja is effectively saying, "I can't be anti-gay, because my imaginary best friend is gay."
If that isn't potent enough, let's just make sure we understand the ramifications of this: every time somebody denies bigotry on account of a "best friend's" identity, we need to insert "imaginary" in front of "best friend". Bigots may protest and say, "no, look, he's not imaginary, I'm having drinks with him at the club tonight, come and see for yourself", at which point you explain: your bigotry makes real friendship impossible; whatever you think characterises your friendship is imaginary. My friend, there is no friend.
2) You gotta put it into a cultural context.
What makes Ninja's line of reasoning so unstable here is that he is first of all engaged in a vehemently, proudly global cross-cultural project (that is, hip hop and rap) with origins in Nigeria and Harlem, or in Havana and in Chicago, a project whose imagery can draw upon Kung Fu movies and Bruce Lee as easily as from ghettos in Detroit; the flux is apparent in Fok Julle Naaiers when Ninja rhymes "Zef" with "Hef". The "Ninja", who wears an American flag in the video, who is putting a Zef spin on a very American-multicultural record, says (again, I paraphrase) "you can't interpret what is being said as if we're speaking any sort of common language; it's local." What makes this particularly funny is that somebody who has ingested, metabolised, and now enacts a role, a persona (i.e., not Ninja, but Ninja who sounds like he's watched much too much MTV Cribs) is ignorant of precisely the types of influences that he suggests Americans are ignorant of when he smirks that they could "learn something" from "the dark depths of Africa": Die Antwoord, through Ninja's testimonial, is performing a phenomenal charade that shows how "cultural" arguments whitewash ethics and obligations.
The icing on the cake (and here, again, Die Antwoord tips its hand that it is engaging in comedy) is the "my nigga" spiel, as if Ninja has no idea that this has been a phenomenon (and a problem) in the United States for some decades now, as if he thinks that this is a specifically local, South African vernacular.
As Ninja shows us, culture as an excuse is no excuse. Cosmopolitanism is an ethics, not a freedom from ethics.
The non-apologia is a comic performance, a charade so committed you can't tell where the characterisation begins and ends, and it's very serious: the line about Die Antwoord not being homophobic is, I think, uninflected with the comic subversions elsewhere in his monologue. But the highlight is the massive-dicked pod dolls, silly and droll, provocative and, for once, quite pleasing.
Comedic order is a negotiation of ambiguity (say, dignity and indignity), but its practice is disavowal (in the bottomless funnel, where it forsakes responsibility, as when - but not only when - it produces the incomplete closure of "dignity leads to indignity that leads to dignity"); at the margins, there is no recourse to disavowal ("is Die Antwoord homophobic?" is not the same question as "is Brüno homophobic?") because it trespasses on the serious, which is only serious because it is an avowal; and the negotiation is not of ambiguity, but within ambiguity. Out of this, we can extract something: my friend, there is no friend; cosmopolitanism is not a freedom from ethics, but ethics; and, crucially in Die Antwoord, that the ridiculous is monstrous because it is the spawn of the serious and the comedic. Life is not so much a joke in the humanistic, philosophical sense, as it is in the Die Antwoordian sense, a preposterous but defiantly human monstrosity; Die Antwoord is unpleasant, it does not sustain itself as funny, but it is comedy.*
*I could go on, but someone has entered the room, placed two gentle hands on my shoulders, is staring me in the eye, and, with licorice-scented breath is saying, "Don't. They're not going to get this far anyway. The joke's on you."