"More than machinery, we need humanity."
The guileless word is folly. A smooth forehead
Suggests insensitivity. The man who laughs
Has simply not yet had
The terrible news.
– Brecht (“To Those Born Later”)
Sometimes one does not know whether to laugh, scream, or sob. I confess, I’ve been rather unsure as to which of those is most appropriate of late. All of which is to say, the present moment is in many respects a somewhat confusing one. At least insofar as there are no shortage of moments that may make a person withdraw slightly and wonder “wait, what just happened? Did that really happen? That couldn’t have just happened…oh, wait, it really did.”
What follows is a story of one such moment of confused consternation, the joke that was a result of that moment, and some reflections upon that attempt to find humor in that which is profoundly not funny. Yes, everything that follows falls neatly under the category of “overthinking” – but the curse (or the blessing) of reading too much is that it turns dwelling upon things into a sort of modus operandi. Or, to put it another way, when you study media and technology it’s hard not to analyze it when something strange befalls you online.
All that being said, at a moment where there is a galling lack of thought – perhaps, there is nothing wrong with overthinking things.
About a Joke
Here is a true story.
I spent much of the week leading up to the inauguration of the 45th President paying attention to the hearings for his would-be appointees. It was not my intention to be paying as much attention to it as I actually was, but it was hard to look away. Oh, there were many moments that were challenging to behold – and the little comfort that was to be had was found in the often shocked expressions worn by some of the individuals peppering the potential cabinet members with questions. But the hearing relevant to this story is that of Betsy DeVos, nominated to be the next Education Secretary. There were many high, or more accurately low, points in her testimony – but the one that I couldn’t stop thinking about after watching it, the one that made me revisit the transcript to make sure she had said what I thought she had said, was her point about bears.
Context matters. DeVos was responding to a question from Senator Chris Murphy about guns in schools, and she referred to a school district in Wyoming which had experienced issues with bears in its proximity. Thus, DeVos commented that she imagined that the school in Wyoming might have cause to keep a gun on site so as to fend off grizzlies. The moment was one of such beautiful absurdity as to make it a wonder that it had not been lifted from some old Mel Brooks routine. To take the case of a school in Wyoming with a slight bear issue and to try and derive from this some sort of broadly applicable principle was the mark of a person with no business being any school’s principal – not that this little exchange was the only galling moment of the testimony. It simply seemed to me that, in terms of the hearing, bears weren’t the thing that public schools needed to worry about. Clips from DeVos’s hearing bounced around online for the next several hours – and after watching the bear clip again I found myself more fully gripped by its utter strangeness.
And so – in the spirit of our bizarre age – I composed the following tweet:
One of these pictures is of a dramatic threat to public school students, the other is of a bear. pic.twitter.com/HRGg1h5Xw9
— LibrarianShipwreck (@libshipwreck) January 18, 2017
After which I concluded that I could not afford to keep procrastinating under the guise of “following the news,” and so I went offline to focus on other things.
Fast forward, several hours and a friend sent me the following text message:
So I pulled myself back online and saw that, yes, in fact the tweet was being circulated widely. I was a bit flummoxed, particularly as the number of “retweets” and “likes” continued to climb. But I didn’t think too much of it. Frankly, I didn’t think it was even a very good joke (it wasn’t a pun, after all). But over the rest of the evening my brow grew more and more furrowed as the tweet circulated more and more. When I went to sleep that night, I was confident that the tweet would have stopped spreading by the morning.
I was wrong. If anything the tweet was spreading faster and faster. And in the following hours, more than one of my friends texted me to tell me that they had seen the tweet popping up on Facebook. I found the whole thing to be distinctly odd.
Honestly, there isn’t much in the way of excitement to this story. The tweet kept spreading, but there was no dramatic turn of events. I imagine that some people with many, many followers must have retweeted it – but I don’t know who. Nothing really happened, except, that is, for the fact that my mentions came to be steadily flooded by people bashing public education, yelling at me for missing the context, and just generally demonstrating that they did not understand how jokes work. I suppose there could have been something significant in my mentions – but after blocking the umpteenth person ranting nonsensically at me I just stopped checking my mentions. It got a lot of retweets (and as of this writing is still getting them [for some reason]), my twitter account earned some new followers, and I found myself with something fresh to ponder. Namely…
On telling jokes in dark times
Confession: I think that Twitter is a joke.
Frankly, I think that the platform functions best as a means for telling jokes. This is not to say that I believe the platform has no other affordances, but I’m skeptical of the utopian way in which those affordances are often shaded. Sure, the platform can be an excellent way to disseminate articles, and through it I’ve been able to make some important connections with various colleagues. And I certainly recognize that the platform can be useful for activists – but speaking as an activist it is my experience that things getting lots of “favorites” and “retweets” does not necessarily translate to many people actually showing up to an action (or really being engaged with a movement in a meaningful way). There are few things that strike me as being less of a conversation than the constrained and warped exchanges that people have using the platform under discussion. Furthermore, the platform (like much of the social media realm) is largely a garbage dump in which xenophobia and misogyny breed under the approving gaze of the company itself – which, ultimately, only really cares about money.
At base, I think Twitter is a platform ideally suited for disseminating pictures of cats and telling jokes. Which is how I generally use the platform. Those with a passing familiarity with this site (or my Twitter feed, to be honest) know that I hold social media in quite low regard – I’m hardly subtle about that belief. And I don’t have much (if anything) in the way for patience for arguments about how social media platforms are bringing people together, empowering activists to change society, or making the world a better place. Sure, you can try to use Twitter to bring people together, or to empower activists (which does not necessarily mean activists you agree with), or to improve the world – but really, the platform is a joke. And it is at its best when used to tell jokes. One of the most important lessons to take away from the present political situation is that all of the utopian opining that has been mouthed about the Internet was really just a bright coat of paint over rotting power structures.
Of course, jokes can sometimes get at the deeper truth of things far better (and more nimbly) than lengthy exposition. And a good bit of satire can succeed by putting in biting terms a thought which people had shared but which they had been unsure as to how to express. There are a mountain of reasons to find Betsy DeVos disturbing (here are some of them) – but most of them really aren’t funny. Not funny at all. Which is why I found myself left with distinctly mixed feelings about having made a rapidly spreading joke about her. By making her comment about bears, DeVos provided a genuinely bizarre incident which could be used as an opportunity to skewer her views – but a silly comment about bears is actually one of the less objectionable things about DeVos.
All of which is to say: I sincerely hope that my joke brought a laugh to some people in need of a momentary chuckle – but I do not think on any level that my joke will keep DeVos from being appointed. Or, to put it slightly differently: I don’t consider my composing and tweeting that joke to have been “activism” (in any meaningful sense), and I don’t think that retweeting it constitutes much (if anything) in the way of resistance. But, repeatedly calling my elected officials, attending protests, organizing, and staying informed – those things might keep her from being confirmed.
This is not to suggest that humor is an ineffective tool against oppression. Works like The Great Dictator and Duck Soup were hated by the dictators who saw those films as mocking them. And by making clear his humorlessness and tissue-thin skin the 45th president is making a very clear argument that – as he cannot stand being mocked – that he should be constantly and roundly mocked. And yet, I still want to suggest that good jokes are not necessarily convincing arguments, and good jokes are not necessarily the same as good tactics. Samantha Bee, Trevor Noah, Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, [insert the name of your late night comedian of choice] – all offered some really hilarious pieces over the course of the election season. Yet, revealing that a certain prominent figure’s family name was once different – and odd sounding – isn’t much of a political critique. After all, you (the person reading this) might actually have a funny sounding family name if you go back far enough (I know that I do). And a humorous piece that suggests that the new president is illiterate doesn’t feel all that funny anymore when you’re mulling over the person who is set to be put in charge of the nation’s schools. I fear that too much of this humor ultimately revolves around people chuckling together over an inside joke, but that in the end the joke is on those laughing.
Or – in keeping with my standard technique of turning for guidance to dead pessimists – as Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer put it:
“There is laughter because there is nothing to laugh about. Laughter, whether reconciled or terrible, always accompanies the moment when fear is ended. It indicates a release, whether from physical danger or from the grip of logic. Reconciled laughter resounds with the echo of escape from power; wrong laughter copes with fear by defecting to the agencies which inspire it. It echoes the inescapability of power.” (Adorno and Horkheimer, 112)
What are we really laughing at? Why are we laughing? It does not seem to me that we are laughing because the “fear is ended” or because we have escaped from “danger.” And I worry that we (and I do include myself in that “we”) are seeking a false sense of comfort and solace in laughter. The occasional moments of mirth are important releases from a torrent of grimness – but they are not in and of themselves a way out. Telling jokes on social media is fun. I’m genuinely amused, on some level, that people enjoyed the joke I composed. But I highly doubt that I changed anyone’s mind.
And so, to conclude, here is another joke:
Q: What’s worse than finding a worm in your apple?
A: the mess we’re in.
Adorno, Theodor and Horkheimer, Max. Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002.
Brecht, Bertolt. Poems 1913-1956. London: Methuen, 1987.