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Uncloaking humour: ironic-parodic sexism and smart media.

I want to offer a perverse position or provocation on humour. In the critical literature, this might simply amount to taking humour seriously. Within this framework, I would envisage myself to be an absurd figure, a po-faced philosopher of jokes and I would either go with that and tell a few or persist in the laughably hopeless quest for scholarly transcendence. However, my problem does not lie with an apparent contradiction that for me is no contradiction at all. Jokes have always been philosophical even if philosophy has always been divided over the meaning of jokes. (1) My issue is more contingent and strategic. It has to do with using humour against humour now, in contexts where the joke isn't funny and humour is, as Laura Bates suggests, merely a cloak for sexism and misogyny. (2) Of course, as a deeply social phenomenon, humour has always had a conservative, even reactionary role. There is nothing new about jokes that are discriminatory, regulatory and judgmental. That is why I find it slightly amusing when Michael Billig judges judgementalism the norm or when Simon Critchley declares discrimination inappropriate, undesirable and seeks to make a moral distinction between humour that is good and that which is bad. My position is that we cannot make such a distinction, that humour works to conserve and, conversely change habits, attitudes and relations and that it is precisely the undecidability of humour with respect to politics--reactionary or rebellious--that affords it strategic, political value as an antagonist. I want to extract an antagonistic feminist political theory of humour from a moralistic, philosophical tradition.

First I should explain why I think this is necessary. If the concept of smart media is not itself an oxymoron--and actually it is more of a false claim, a legacy of the failure and resurrection of artificial intelligence in the form of a marketing strategy--then environments of smart media are, it seems to me, contemporary theatres of the absurd. (3) Presented in promotional videos by Corning, Microsoft or Google, such environments, both domestic and urban highlight the tragi-comic plight of people trapped in incomprehensible worlds, worlds that are at once hyper-sensory and senseless, irrational in their relentless pursuit of a rationale formed by the total, seamless fusion of corporate and computational values. The inhabitants of uninhabitable, inhospitable environments constituted by networked, distributed, ambient forms of intelligence embedded in mirrors, windows, walls and worktops are the emergent ideals of neoliberalism: transparent, efficient, managed, measurable and ultimately machinic. They embody what Bergson took to be laughable and what Beckett subjected to a mirthless, despairing laughter that was always reflexive, always bound to rebound on us, on the machines that are us; the laughers (1911; 1979). So here we are in our sanctioned, increasingly obligatory quest for self-knowledge through numbers--of farts:

One day I counted them. Three hundred and fifteen farts in nineteen hours, or an average of over sixteen farts an hour. After all it's not excessive. Four farts every fifteen minutes. It's nothing. Not even one fart every four minutes. It's unbelievable. Damn it, I hardly fart at all, I should hardly have mentioned it. Extraordinary how mathematics help you to know yourself.

(Beckett 1979, pp29-30)

I wouldn't want to call Beckett prescient, nor indeed Jacques Tati in his equally absurdist take on the futuristic homes (Mon Oncle, 1958) and cities (Play Time, 1967) of high modernism that are being redesigned and redesignated as smart. One of the features of absurdism, notable in the work of Beckett and Tati, is silence, a muteness derived from meaninglessness and communicative breakdown. Language becomes nonsensical and reason and argument dissolve into wordplay. As even the apologists for ambient intelligence and smart environments have been known to point out, nonsense and wordplay are among the more predictable outcomes of speech recognition technology that has yet to fulfil its promise--of being able to recognize speech. Writing, in fact, the first article in the first issue of the Journal of Ambient Intelligence and Smart Environments, Marc Bohlen tells the story of how he visited a prototype smart home equipped with speech recognition technology and a canny demonstrator who sought to ward off the potential for miscommunication by using a microphone headset (which would isolate his words from the babble of the audience) and addressing the house by name. (4) The attempt to get the house to pull its own curtains did not go well. Commands had to be repeated and the house reacted 'as if he were calling a disobedient dog.' Background interjections and audience participation only made the situation worse and 'the window shades opened and closed out of sync not unlike the gadgets in the Villa Arpel of Jacques Tati's Mon Oncle'. Like Molloy, Monsieur Hulot is not prescient of smart environments but a constitutive, if as yet largely

Smart environments are environments of miscommunication oriented toward muteness. They are, primarily, gestural, haptic, intuitive, immediate and non-textual. The idea, as Gary Shteyngart recognizes in his satirical novel Super Sad True Love Story is that 'less words = more fun!!!'. (5) This witty, dystopian account of Indefinite Life Extension--or, 'effeminate life invention' to the ears of a not altogether benign otter avatar--set in a future US of heightened paranoia and plummeting financial authority, centres on the relationship between an apparently self-deprecating, middle-ageing male of the old-world (he still likes books) and a cold, money-oriented, too-young woman who thinks his books smell and who seems to embody the author's ideas of all that is wrong with the configuration of technology, control and consumerism (Super Sad, p7). As she, Eunice Park, emotionally and financially destroys the protagonist, Lenny Abramov, Shteyngart drives the plot through national and global apocalypse and personal and political tragedy that was always already all about 'him.' As the cultured, bookish, egotistically self-hating Lenny lives out his three-point plan to seduce Eunice using a Chekhov novella as his guide, the shallowness of Eunice's world--all social networking, personal rating, credit ranking and clothes buying--is laid bare, just as she is, first through her obsession with revealing underwear and then through the peeling away of her onionskin jeans with their 'rigid, empty skins' (Super Sad, p207). Eunice, and/as the world that Lenny actually hates, first mediates and then unmediates his world for him, rendering graphically clear and transparent--as if she and it were made of glass--a promise of openness and availability already foreclosed. He sees through Eunice as she shops:

Her face was steely, concentrated, the mouth slightly open. Here was the anxiety of choice, the pain of living without history, the pain of some higher need. I felt humbled by this world, awed by its religiosity, the attempt to extract meaning from an artefact that contained mostly thread. If only beauty could explain the world away. If only a nippleless bra could make it all work (Super Sad, p207).

Then, through the telling of his story--Lenny publishes his diaries and Eunice's text messages--he survives the apocalypse and prevails. I find it interesting that Shteyngart's character precludes the retelling of his story one in which Eunice's writing is seen by the critics as a 'welcome relief from Lenny's relentless navel-gazing' (Super Sad, p325)--by telling the actors in a possible video adaptation ('they had no idea who I was') that the central protagonists and short-term antagonists were dead: I
   I laid out a scenario for the final days of Lenny Abramov and
   Eunice Park more gruesome than any of the grisly infernos splashed
   on the walls of the nearby cathedral' (p329).

So much more promising than the civilized but judgmental tone of the novel as a whole, the violence of Lenny's last, incongruous words nevertheless augur a retelling of the tale, one that is more about her than him. After all, Eunice is not dead. She is living with someone she met at Goldsmiths. Moreover, she is, by critical consent, the better writer of the two. According to one review:
   She is not a born writer, as befits a generation reared on Images
   and Retail, but her writing is more interesting and more alive than
   anything else I have read from that illiterate period... (p325).

The past that is yet to come of that illiterate period is marked by other histories of misogyny and knowing, jokey and ironic sexism. They depict environments within which, as Angela McRobbie has argued, there is a new sexual contract for women: visibility at the expense of a voice. (6) In environments of ubiquitous technology, women have acquired a lustrous luminosity, captured, laid bare and subjected to scrutiny in and as shiny smart glass media that include augmented reality mirrors and kitchen worktops that offer advice about blouses and help with the baking. Alongside the traditional, desexualized sexism of caring, chores and consumption, of female protagonists who have endless to-do lists and professional profiles but who never actually get to work before they are, magically, as in a fairy tale, turned back into housewives and mothers, alongside this we have the wonders of wearable technologies--not nippleless bras but smart bras, to go with smart pants. (7) More absurd than measuring farts, these measure moods, emotions and desires and then respond accordingly, comically gyrating and vibrating, locking or flying open. It is as if we had never grown up, never grown out of the Carry On films and this brings me back to my point about the efficacy of parody and irony and what humour can do to counter sexism when it is also, at the same time, sexist.

While the definitions of parody and irony, as well as the differences between them continue to be debated, their efficacy as forms of critique or agents of change is contingent on conflict--their ability to generate a tension or antagonism that is not itself political but that generates a movement or opening towards the political. 8 For the political theorist Chantal Mouffe, conflict is, if not the opposite, then the constitutive outside of rational consensus. 9 Conflict is a dissensus derived from writerly modes of deconstruction that are, in turn, rooted in at least two underlying conditions of im/possibility: the im/possibility of escaping the dialectic (funny/unfunny for example) and the im/possibility of arriving at an alternative to the dialectic via provisional forms and concepts. As Derrida puts it: 'Be it opposition to the dialectic or war against the dialectic, it's a losing battle. What it really comes down to is thinking a dialecticity of dialectics that is itself fundamentally not dialectical'. (10) In other words we're stuck with funny is unfunny (and vice versa)--sort of. Ironic and parodic humour is undecidable. It is funny/unfunny, reactionary/ rebellious and conflictual/consenting. Like writing itself it works '(in) the in-between,' in the space of tension that can always collapse and fail, becoming its own opposition. (11) The trick is to think a dialecticity of humour that is itself fundamentally not dialectical.

Thinking a dialecticity of humour that is itself fundamentally not dialectical might involve attending to the way in which it moves between, or towards and away from poles. In this way--or by combining the temporal with the spatial aspects of in-betweenness--we are able to recognize that humour can be both sexist and antisexist (or that sexism and antisexism are constitutive outsides) and can avoid the strategy that Billig adopts by accentuating the negative rather than the positive or that Critchley adopts by reconstructing a hierarchical duality of humour and jokes, smiling and laughter. The great thing about laughter, as Critchley himself notes, is that it is a bodily release or expression of tension. Moreover, laughing at a joke 'suddenly and explosively lets us see the familiar defamiliarized, the ordinary made extra-ordinary and the real rendered surreal' (On Humour, p10). Critchley points to its critical function but for me, laughter is, more specifically, antagonism in action, a tension un-held, ex-pressed in the space-time of the laugh. Itself mute and wordless, laughter is a prelude to change or to the articulation of change through speech and writing. Because it is itself mute and wordless, laughter might be the best prelude to change in mute and wordless environments, in these specific contexts in which the parodies and ironies have, with one or two exceptions, yet to be written. (12) My claim may be context dependent and therefore highly contingent but my sense is that there is still much to be mimed from Helene Cixous' 'The Laugh of the Medusa' and from Donna Haraway's miming of 'The Laugh of the Medusa' in 'A Cyborg Manifesto'. (13) This would be a rebellious laugh in the face of ridicule, a theatrical absurding of the new theatres of the absurd. The laugh that I laugh about ludicrous lingerie (and then laughably seek to articulate) is neither good nor bad. It is not happy or sad, hopeful or despairing although it might be depressive in the Kleinian sense of no longer being split or paranoid, of being able (just) to hold together or rather, to un-hold together the tensions and contradictions that for Haraway give rise to irony as serious play. Like her, I regard ironic and parodic humour to be both a rhetorical strategy--to do with feminist writing and retold stories--and a political strategy predicated on antagonism. Like her, I would like to see this strategy 'more honoured within socialist-feminism' even, or especially in a context in which its adoption would seem to be perverse (Simians, p149). Perverseness is key to a laughter that is still of, and out of--beyond--the institutions and the law of phallologocentrism: 'they haven't changed a thing' (Laugh, p255). The laugh of the Medusa is nothing if not perverse.

DOI: 10.3898/NEWF.86.07.2015

(1.) See Michael Billig Laughter and Ridicule. Towards a Social Critique of Humour, Sage Publications, London 2005. Hereafter Laughter; Simon Critchley, On Humour, Routledge, London 2002. Hereafter On Humour.

(2.) Laura Bates, Everyday Sexism, Simon and Schuster, London 2014.

(3.) Martin Esslin, The Theatre of the Absurd, Garden City, Doubleday, New York 1961.

(4.) Marc Bohlen, 'Second Order Ambient Intelligence,' Journal of Ambient Intelligence and Smart Environments, 1 (2009), p1. unwritten, unfilmed part of them.

(5.) Gary Shteyngart Super Sad True Love Story, Granta, London 2001, p25. Hereafter Super Sad.

(6.) Angela McRobbie, The Aftermath of Feminism. Gender, Culture and Social Change, Sage, London 2009.

(7.) Sarah Kember, iMedia. The gendering of objects, environments and smart materials, Palgrave Macmillan, Hampshire 2015.

(8.) See Clare Colebrook, Irony, Routledge, London 2004; Simon Dentith, Parody, Routledge, London 2000.

(9.) Chantal Mouffe, Agonistics. Thinking the world politically, Verso, London 2013

(10.) Jacques Derrida, 'I have a Taste for the Secret,' in Jacques Derrida & Maurizio Ferrais A Taste for the Secret, Polity, Cambridge 2001, p33.

(11.) Helene Cixous, 'The Laugh of the Medusa,' trans. Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen, Signs, 1, 4 (1976), pp875-893. Hereafter Laugh. http://doi. org/btk5bf

(12.) Bohlen's story is a prelude to reform rather than change, but see, as one example, 'Media, Mars and Metamorphosis,' Culture Machine, Vol. 11, 2010. http://www. culturemachine. net/index.php/ cm/article/ viewArticle/383

(13.) Donna Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs and Women. The Reinvention of Nature, Free Association Books, London 1991. Hereafter Simians.

Sarah Kember is Professor of New Technologies of Communication at Goldsmiths, University of London.
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Author:Kember, Sarah
Publication:New Formations
Article Type:Essay
Date:Sep 22, 2015
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