Sunday, July 07, 2024

Farce Before Tragedy: The Post-Satire Present


I used to listen to a film podcast, I forget the name of it, the worked on the premise that there were certain films, that should be outside of discussion, films so good and revered that it did not make sense to talk about them. They were put in a penalty box of sorts. I often thought the same thing about certain passages that appear again and again in theoretical and philosophical discussions of the present. A few that come to mind are Jameson's often cited remark about it being easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, Benjamin's "There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism," and Marx's first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. 

All of these seem to apply to our moment, a moment of ecological collapse with seemingly few alternatives to capitalism, of a civilization that shows itself to be more barbarism than anything else, and, with respect to the latter, it seems like we are living in farce of all of history's tragedies. For example of the latter, we are experience turn to fascism that is more concerned with the sexual politics of candy and the racial politics of superheroes. All of our Hitlers look more like lesser Napoleons. 

It is precisely because these phrases seem all too explanatory that they are suspect. They offer a theoretical phrase that describes the present so well that it does not bother to explain it.  I would say that is true about all of them the real question is why can't we imagine the end of capitalism, can we escape a history of civilization that is also barbarism, and a repetition of tragedy of farces. The ready to hand nature of the quote, its ability to sum up the moment, is also what makes it difficult to think about it. Especially as each of these quotes posits as an axiom what needs to be explained as a process. 

Lately I have also begun to think that maybe we are seeing a reversal of the relationship between tragedy and farce. I can think of two examples of this, the first is Bush's famous Mission Accomplished banner of May 2003. This was ridiculed at the time, but years later when Obama and then Biden removed troops from Iraq and Afghanistan their victories, although less symbolic seemed no less invented. It was unclear exactly what purpose these invasions had served, and there seemed to be little concern with the current state of the country after the invasion or what the invasion was supposed to do, just a declaration that it was over.  This declaration moved to the back page of the newspapers, and the lack of a spectacle made it all the more passable. A similar point can been seen with respect to COVID. In 2020 Trump announced that we would have less cases if we did not test as many people. This "know nothing" stance was mocked by many of his critics. However, when the government cut funding for testing and stopped sending out testing kits during the Biden administration the effect was almost the same. Less tests meant less positive cases. The absurd statement became normalized by not being stated at all. The farce became a tragedy. Or, more to the point, what seemed farcical when it was announced or staged as a big production, became a tragedy when it was allowed to go on quietly. 

All of which raises the question as to what to do with way in which reality exceeds its satire. As we come through another presidential election there are plenty of instances of Trump saying absurd and ridiculous things, about sharks, batteries, and as often the case, water saving toilets and showers. It is hard not to laugh at these things, but it seems to be that it would be wrong to mock them. For two reasons. First, and most obviously the entire Daily Show response to politics has been less than effective. All of those comedy routines that "destroyed" different political positions, not only left them entirely in place, but even fueled them. "They" are laughing at us is one of the things fueling contemporary right wing movements. Part of the appeal of Trump's rallies is that they allow his audience to laugh at those who they imagine to laugh at them. There is an entire strategy among the right which does something mockable, even cancellable, only to bask in the victim status it confers (even admitting to shooting a puppy, which actually did not work out). Being owned by the libs is a way of owning the libs, of showing how cruel and judgmental they are and how brave and authentic your are at the same time. As Machiavelli argues, a ruler must appear to be of the people, and there is no quicker way to do that these days than being mocked by what remains of a media elite. 

Second, since we are thinking, at least obliquely, about the imagination and its limits, these farces, these excesses, seem to have as their function a redrawing of what is thinkable, defining an excess to which all other options seem rational. One of the fallacies of "free speech absolutism" is that it considers every position to be worth debating, or even mocking. This overlooks the fact that civilization, if we wanted to use such a word, is in part defined by what it considers to be barbaric, by what it sees as not even worth debating or mocking because it is beneath it. Debating torture, even with all of the ticking time bomb scenarios, is actually a step back from considering it to be beyond the pale. In other words we are living in an age in what is considered reasonable, is all too often, a pale shadow of what is mocked as excessive. 

One last note about satire. I have been watching the fourth season of The Boys. Some have criticized this season for going too far in its satire. Much of this excess is nothing other than a representation of what has already taken place in our world. A conspiracy theorist labels all of her opponents as pedophiles, and someone shows up with a gun searching for the basement prison of children. These are both events that have actually happened. I am not sure if this is a solution to the problem of doing satire in the current moment, since they are just keeping up with reality. Of course the show revels in going too far with its other aspects, the gore, the sex, and so on. 

I do not really have a conclusion here, just the suggestion that we have gone beyond the relationship of tragedy to farce suggested by the Marx quote, just as we have gone beyond the relation of barbarism and civilization suggested by the Benjamin quote. To which I would add perhaps we can then move beyond what we can imagine in the future, imagining an end to capitalism and not just an end of the world, especially as the latter moves from the speculative imagination to the frightening present. 

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