Elizabeth Bruenig has written an excellent piece in the Washington Post entitled “Why is millennial humor so weird?” While Bruenig is not the first person to diagnose the millennial condition through humor, her piece is the most clearheaded and insightful I’ve seen on the topic.
Bruenig focuses in particular on the aesthetics of absurdity in millennial cultural production, which, in contrast to absurdist aesthetics of the past, is not accented with outright pessimism:
Surrealism and its anarchic cousin dadaism are nothing new; neither is absurdism or weirdness in art. ‘The absurd,’ Albert Camus wrote in 1942, ‘is born of this confrontation between the human need [for happiness and reason] and the unreasonable silence of the world.’ Absurdity is the compulsion to go looking for meaning that simply isn’t there. Today’s surrealism draws aspects of all of these threads together with humor, creating an aesthetic world where (in common internet parlance) ‘lol, nothing matters,’ but things may turn out all right anyway.
I would add that millennial absurdism can further be defined against the cynicism and irony of postmodern cultural products (those belonging to baby boomers and gen x’ers). In postmodern culture, the central trope was self-referentiality–the practice of acknowledging production from within the production (think of the “S.O.B.s” episode of Arrested Development when the show found out it was going to be canceled). Here, we can go back to McLuhan’s distinction between hot and cold media. The postmodern aesthetic of self-referentiality was a bit like hot media in that its consumption was profoundly passive. It was so passive that its producers (writers, onscreen talent, etc.) positioned themselves as members of the audience, watching the production right along side us. In other words, even the producers removed themselves from the production. There was no need to go looking for meaning in context because, as the audience, we were the context. There was no meaning to be found outside of ourselves. Millennial absurdism by contrast takes the attitude that context is always yet to come; the audience must actively create the context by distorting the product.
Eamon de Valera
Modern Irish nationalism, which we might place in the time after Daniel O’Connell’s Catholic emancipation movement and before the establishment of the Free State in 1922, was a weaving together of three, sometimes conflicting ideological strands: socialist politics, Gaelic linguistic revival, and Catholic identity. These three strands were exemplified by the passions of three of the most important figures in modern Irish nationalism, each of whom had strong personal connections to nations beyond Ireland and who, therefore, helped to imagine an Irish nation (as was often the case among postcolonial nationalisms). There was James Connolly, a Scotsman by birth, who injected continental socialism into Irish nationalism; Patrick Pearse, both the son of an English father and an Irish language teacher who endeavored to take the Gaelic League (Conradh na Gaeilge) into the vanguard of militant, revolutionary politics; and Eamon de Valera–American born and of Spanish-Irish descent–who, as both Taoiseach and President of the Republic, ensured that Ireland’s political and educational infrastructure would be unwaveringly Catholic for generations to come. Both Connolly and Pearse were executed by the British after the 1916 Easter Uprising. De Valera was a dominant presence in Irish government until his death in 1975. The socialist strand was effectively crushed in the civil war between pro- and anti-treaty forces, though republican militants in the North would remain nominally faithful to it through the Troubles and the Good Friday Agreement era. And there are signs that the other two strands of nationalism in Ireland are weakening in contemporary Ireland. A 2016 census, for instance, showed that the numbers of people who identify as religious and who speak Irish and a daily basis have dropped since the 2006 census. An old fashioned nationalist might say that Ireland is once again becoming West Britain, and that most people in the Republic wouldn’t feel the difference if they were being governed from London instead of Dublin. And indeed, despite their Gaelic names, the two dominant political parties in the Republic–Fine Fail and (especially) Fine Gael–have melded into two species of Tory. It would, however, be more difficult to make that case since the Brexit vote, the election of Donald J. Trump, and the beginning of the end of the Anglo-American order. Despite what sometimes feels like the suffocating influence of British and American media culture, Ireland is clearly hitching its political wagon to Europe, which is what a figure such as Connolly would have envisioned all along (minus, of course, the neoliberal economic agenda of Fine Gael). So, assuming that we are not hurling rapidly into a post-nationalist era (and it sure doesn’t look that way at the moment), what will nationalism in Ireland look like in coming decades? What might that tell us about the future of other nationalisms in the wake of the Anglo-American order’s decline?
It’s the fourth month of my pseudo-retirement from scholarly pursuits. It’s been a sort of reverse-sabbatical, I suppose. Not that I’ve been idle. Besides the increasing demands of a job at an institution whose future is uncertain, I have been trying to make up in four months what students in Ireland have fourteen years to do. I doubt very seriously that I could pass the Certs at this point, but that’s a goal for the not-too-distant future.
Part of the joy of learning a new language is that you get an insight into a culture that would otherwise be unavailable to you. Saying that you get an insight into a culture by learning its language is, of course, as meaningless as it is true. But I would say that in the case of Irish, it is more meaningful than true. It must be said that here in the 21st century, Gaelic is much more a part of Ireland’s politics than its culture. I’m not sure I’d have any better handle on Irish customs and traditions if I spent a year there trí Ghaeilge (if such a thing were even possible) than I’d have through English. Even the weakest version of Sapir-Whorf won’t hold up in Ireland.
I’m finally going after my lifelong dream of learning Irish. I had several chances in the past to do this, but I always put it off. It might have been the “Never meet your heroes” principle. I’m very much in the honeymoon phase right now, so we’ll have to see in a few months how I feel. But for the moment, it’s like a warm, loving blanket, albeit with a lot of velar fricatives.
It’s true that languages have individual personalities. Some of those personality traits must be more or less common to all learners of a language, but most, I’m sure, depend upon the learner’s own encounter with the language. English and Romani are, at this point, water for fish. I feel different from one to the other, but I can’t easily see outside myself from within them (if that makes sense). Languages I’ve studied in a sustained way are French, Thai, and Russian, and my relationships with each of them couldn’t be more different.
It always seemed to me like French sits at the cool kids’ table. Being able to speak and read it opens up a lot of doors, but it’s hard to bootstrap your way into it. Unlike English, it reads a whole lot easier than it speaks. Or perhaps I should say that it’s a particularly difficult language to pick up if, like many learners, you associate individual words with textual units. The boundaries between spoken words are of course blurry in any language for the learner, but I’ve never been able to completely shake that problem in French. Plus, French is deeply idiomatic, which, again, is a problem for anyone trying to begin from the ground up. Mind you, all natural languages are idiomatic (every language is an eccentric poet), but, man, you really feel it in French. I’ve gotten better, then worse, then better, and then worse at it over the years. But from those few glimpses inside, I can say that it’s considerably warmer and more vulnerable than its cool, cerebral exterior would suggest.
It’s been reported that sales of George Orwell’s 1984 skyrocketed the day after Kellyanne Conway’s instantly infamous “alternative facts” blunder. So the cloud of lies, acrimony, ignorance, and intolerance that was this week may have a silver lining. I hope as many people get a chance to read Orwell’s masterpiece as possible.
But I fear that if they’re simply looking for allegory (in the mode of what I call correspondence similarity), they’ll be missing out on what makes the book a masterpiece in the first place. If you simply want some insight on the authoritarian mindset and the ease with which a populace can go from civil and critical to cruel and cretinous, I’d point you to Orwell’s essays and memoirs. And anyway, Trump is really more of a Berkshire boar (Napoleon, Animal Farm) than a Big Brother. 1984, I submit, is a novel about beauty.
I left off the last post asking what Badiou gets out of his reliance upon Zermelo-Fraenkel axiomatic transitivity, given its crippling exclusion of pathic interaction. His characterization of ontology in terms of the inconsistent multiplicity of ordinals is certainly capable of describing the possibility of existential novelty (or emergence), but performs poorly for novelty itself. For similar reasons, Levi Bryant claims that Badiou makes a category mistake by confusing essence with existence, Badiou’s set theoretical truths describing only the former. But, Bryant concedes, it is quite a powerful description of essence. Here I want to talk a bit about just why it is such a powerful description of essence.
Usually during winter break I try to get a scholarly project started. I tend to flounder until the last few days of the break, when the ideas seem miraculously to come together. Then the semester begins. Any project begun during break quickly dissipates, and if I’m lucky, I can pick up the pieces and turn it into something else a little later on. But during this break, I went in a slightly different direction. I simply spent much of my off time rereading Alain Badiou’s Number and Numbers.
I had read and cited Number and Numbers before, but always had the nagging sense that I had under-read it. The first time through, I read it as the 240 page book it appeared to be. This time, I read it as the 900 page tome it really is. Number and Numbers is one of Badiou’s least celebrated books, but it’s my favorite. It is to the Being and Event books what the Prolegomena is to Critique of Pure Reason. It’s a stripped down book of pure ideas without much meditation on their implications. But like the surreal numbers Badiou champions, it’s a dense, dense fabric. It’s the thought process of a genius on full display, but it also gives us a glimpse of Badiou the teacher. What he gives the reader is difficult, but he’s gentle and generous in the delivery. Credit here must also go to Robin Mackay for the beautiful translation.
I’m not often drawn to the Lacanian reading of things. There are a few reasons for this, none of which approach anything like a refutation of Lacan. I always feel that I’m not particularly interested at present, but that some day I will be. Anyway, for someone who does Lacan well, I’d refer you to Levi Bryant, who, in terms of raw IQ, is pretty much unrivaled in his field.
Still, I can’t help but think there’s something Lacanny about the current national debate around facts, which, after the Comet Ping Pong shooting and the CIA’s findings about Russian mischief, appears poised to upend the sustaining illusion of our nationhood. What follows is not a Lacanian reading, but Lacanny conjecture.
It begins, perhaps, with the argument over climate change. That was the first major clash between basic science and politics. Religion and science had of course clashed before that, and those clashes inevitably spilled over onto politics; but if there is religious opposition to the science of climate change, it is because the politics of climate change denial has spill out onto religion, not the other way around. In any case, climate change denial is not an article of faith for most sects.
Te tu kamlan o film Thinner, apa, kam volis o programmo Shut Eye. Kako shon kam avel nevo programmo pe Hulu kaj bushol Shut Eye pa duzhmane Rromende kaj traijen sar i Mafia. Chaches, si o bersh 2017. Offensivno? Oh yeah. Numa nashti ma jertisarav le bilasho skrimos. Mustaj man te phenav: o skrimos si o chacho dosh.
Chaches, me dikhlem o Jeffery Donovan ando programmo Burn Notice taj me kamlem leste. O dondalo actor butivar ankerel versogodi mishto kering leski butchi, numa chi dashtisailo te azhutil kakalo khulalo programmo. Maj ekh data, o skrimos strashno lo. O Leslie Bohem (ironic nav) ramosardyas o Shut Eye, taj fal ma ke wov kerdjas lesko “research” katar e lila King of the Gypsies aj Hastened to the Grave finke sa Rromane swata te e Rroma den vorbi si “buzho,” “amraja,” “love,” aj “gazhe.” Chi ashunlem nikon kaj phenel kukole swata “buzho” vor “amraja.” Numa butivar dikhodol kukole swata ande kadale lila. Vi kanagodi won phenen “gazhe,” won phenen “gazhe” vash jekh mush taj vi but zhene. Sode pharo te pokinel ekh chacho Rrom kaj del duma Rromanes te sikjavel lenge? Naj Hulu dosta love?
I familia po programmo bushol o Marks. Maj ekh data, o Bohem ljas lesko “research” katar Hastened to the Grave. Obviously. Po jekh episode, i puridej (Isabella Rosellini) shindyas ekh “M” la fatsa ekh raklyatar. Kon kerel kodja? Nadiv ma ke i chachi familia Marks keren lawsuit protiv le Hulu. Si chachimos ke won dashtin te keren kodja finke naj Rroma zor taj naj Rroma glaso taj naj Rroma love. Marks, arakhes Marx.
So maj bilasho kodo: Nikon mashkar la media (Dikh) prindjarel ke kodo programmo akushine chache zhene. Sostar ashunas “Naj bisteran” kana si antisemitism, numa kana si antitziganism, won prosto bisteren? Numa sar shaj seres ekh zhene kaj bichacho?
English readers: Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like a translation of my review.
Toledo has seen better times. But it does have an art museum left over from its glory days that can go toe-to-toe with just about any museum in the country. Seriously. Come and see it if you can.
I was there yesterday with my department to look at the new Shakespeare exhibit and, as a side trip, to show off some of the Etruscan and early Roman work we had been discussing in my lecture on the history of the alphabet.
But there was a wonderful surprise waiting for us. A new installation from Gabriel Dawe called Plexus no. 35.
The work is doubly exposed because there’s no behind to it and because it’s just bundles of thread attached from floor to ceiling by little, open hooks. Destroying the whole thing would be the work of a moment. There were two museum attendants at all times to make sure no one–child and adult alike–gave in the the temptation to run their hands along the threads. For my own sake, I’m glad they were there.
Plexus no. 35 is a pretty thing. And I suppose when we come across a pretty thing, the other organs get jealous of our eyes. It’s natural to want to touch, if not taste and smell it. I put a lot of things into my mouth as a child.
But standing in front of Dawe’s work was extra frustrating. It isn’t a light show or a new media work in any sense we’re use to. But it’s clear that light is the object. The light isn’t affecting the thing; the thread matter is there to affect the light. So that even if you did give into the burning temptation to run your hands along the thread, it wouldn’t satisfy. Perhaps the museum attendants weren’t there to keep us from destroying the work, but to save us from the disappointment. You can’t touch something that creates its own spatial frame.
The point of Harmanian object withdrawal is that there is always something in reserve which reason and sense cannot touch. But standing in front of a Dawe installation, repressing the toddler’s urge to touch it or to put it in your mouth is about as close as you can get to seeing what withdrawal looks like.