The Anomaly Contains the Homily :: Placebo & Poiesis

In an essay called “Witches and Shamans,” Carlo Ginzburg recounts a story he heard in graduate school about two professors of grammar. The one was bearded and had a soft spot for irregularities, those legendary hapaxes: cases that only occur once in the extant record. The other was completely bald and a fastidious stickler for the rules. On encountering a grammatical irregularity, the first professor would stroke his beard and joyfully pronounce “c’est bizarre,” while the second would spend hours until he finally succeeded (by whatever means necessary) in reconciling the freak with the regular, upon which he would announce “C’est satisfaisant pour l’esprit.”

Ginzburg confesses his affinity for the first of these positions, preferring to place a premium on the anomaly over its analogical rectification:

[M]y impulse is to identify with the bearded philologist, the one who loved anomalies: this is due to a psychological inclination which, however, I would consider justifying even on rational terms. The violation of the norm contains even the norm itself, inasmuch as it is presupposed; the opposite is not true. Anyone who studies the functioning of a society beginning from the entirety of its norms, or from statistical fictions such as the average man or the average woman, inevitably remains on the surface of things. I think that the in-depth analysis of an anomalous case is much more fruitful, though the contemplation of an isolated oddity does not usually interest me.[1]

Here is where a tale of two professors becomes two tales of two professors. In his largely admiring review of Threads and Traces in the London Review, entitled “The Force of the Anomaly,” Perry Anderson rebukes Ginzburg on both logical and ontological grounds:

In historical research, [Ginzburg] has often contended, the anomaly tells us more than the rule, because it speaks also of the rule, whereas the rule speaks only of itself: the exception is thus always epistemologically richer than the norm. This, however, is not so. By definition, an anomaly is only such in terms of a rule, which ontologically commands it. If there is no rule, there can be no exception to it. But the converse does not hold. A rule does not depend for its existence on an exception.[2]

“The violation of the norm contains even the norm itself”: thus Ginzburg. But under Anderson’s jurisdiction, the rule “ontologically commands” the exception: “If there is no rule, there can be no exception to it.” The blunt confidence of Anderson’s rebuttal (“This, however, is not so”) — vexed as it may be by a genuine appreciation for Ginzburg’s gift — can be diagnosed as a specimen of the scholastic fallacy Pierre Bourdieu called epistemocentrism: Bourdieu’s fancytalk for that bananapeel you skateboard around on when you mistake the laws of logic for the order of things.[3] How do we determine the laws of logic in the first place? And how do we enforce them? Sometimes I think the singular of loss is law. More startling, perhaps, is the fact that Anderson’s counterargument to Ginzburg can be found verbatim in a book called Modern Thomistic Philosophy: An Explanation for Students (1934) by Richard Percival Phillips, a schoolboy’s guide to the Schoolmen: “If there is no rule there can be no exception: if there is nothing essential there can be nothing accidental or by chance.”[4] I can’t imagine Anderson had this exact argument in mind — this comes, after all, in a chapter called “The Demonstration of the Existence of God” — but it does allow us to hear a theological accent in his critique. Perhaps it is even a latent political theological accent.

I propose we take these different ways of framing the anomaly — these arguments on both sides of the case — as an opportunity to ponder the relation between “rules” and “exceptions,” between “norms” and “violations.” What is the substance of these distinctions and these relations? The best answer to the question as I see it can be established by deciding the following: are “rules” to be understood as metonyms or symptoms of a steady-state totalizing law of nature to which the analyst has privileged access — the domain of ontology or theology, as you wish, which in turn gives them a commanding or prescriptive force? Or might “rules” rather be considered human descriptions of states of affairs — which is to say, phenomenological (experienced) and pragmatic (actionable) accounts subject to adjustment when more information (feedback) comes in?

As sometime purveyor of an organ called A Fiery Flying Roule (however that noun may be pronounced), I confess I have a special interest in this topic…


Placebo makes nothing happen

Let’s consider the paradoxical phenomenon known as the “placebo effect” as a fruitful case in point for the ways in which it interrupts a widely subscribed schedule of cause and effect. From the perspective of normal science, a sugar pill has no intrinsic medicinal properties: it “makes nothing happen,” to use a famous phrase that we’ll return to. And yet, when prescribed under the right circumstances as medicine, the sugar pill notoriously not only makes something happen, but produces the desired result. The medical anthropologist Daniel Moerman has a nice way of illustrating how strange this is:

Consider a thought experiment: we fabricate some placebo socket wrenches. They look like socket wrenches, sound like them, feel like them. But we design them so that when you put the socket over the loose nut and tighten it, the nut will stay loose. We secretly place these wrenches in the toolboxes of a randomly selected set of mechanics at the car repair shop. Now if we discovered that the nuts these mechanics were working on really did tighten up, we would have good reason to be surprised. The only thing that can tighten up nuts is a (real) wrench.[5]

When the sugar pill relieves symptoms and cures disease, it confutes a dominant cosmology of cause and effect and achieves what normal science says it couldn’t: it performs the impossible. If we remember (a) that placebo is (according to some recent studies) more effective than the going “antidepressants” and (b) that 11 billion dollars per year are made in that pharmaceutical market, this anomalous blip turns out to be no small matter.

Nicholas Humphrey and John Skoyles have asked a useful question about “the placebo paradox” (as they call it):

When people recover from illness under the influence of fake treatments, they must of course in reality be healing themselves. But if and when people have the capacity to heal themselves by their own efforts, why do they not simply get on with it? Why ever should they wait for third-party permission — from the shaman or the sugar pill — to heal themselves? How strange that people should be condemned to remain dysfunctionally sick just because — as must still often happen — they have not received permission.[6]

If it’s the case that the doctor and the sugar “make nothing happen,” why don’t patients skip the appointment (and the bill it comes with), cut to the chase, and heal themselves by their own efforts? But the very grammar of the question misunderestimates (if I may use that presidential verb) the relational substance of the process at hand. The placebo’s power — its capacity, we might say, to anomalously conjure a return to health — is a distributed accomplishment, contingent on the circuits of trust at hand. It follows as a consequence of “a social fact,” as Durkheim would call it. The shaman heals you because you believe the shaman can heal you. It’s not a private property but a relationship that does the deed, and what the deed indicates is not a shortcoming in the patient’s way of knowing — their failure, as Wittgenstein might put it, to “follow the rules” (Philosophical Investigations §125) — but rather the limits of Western medicine’s empiricism and the cosmology of cause and effect it purports to command. The rule is not that Western medicine has a comprehensive conceptual and practical monopoly over the laws of health, but rather precisely the opposite. The distributed conjuration of health that we call the “placebo effect” is experienced as an exception only to the believer or devotee of the system that cannot explain its operation. The anomaly points to that larger scheme that eludes the grasp of what presumes to be a comprehensive system of explanation. In this sense, as Ginzburg suggests, the violation of the norm contains the norm, precisely to the extent that it reveals the limits of the norm’s application.

I think of the relation like this: the system of rules is a grid that makes legible the anomaly that in turn renders the grid obsolete once the anomaly is properly perceived for what it is. The anomaly, we might say, once it is understood, absorbs the grid it evades by making visible the grid’s provisional character while indicating a larger scheme in which the anomaly both makes sense and is quite simply indicative of the way things are.

If I may hazard a thesis: phenomena do not follow rules because rules are modelled after a transcendental truth (theological, ontological, or otherwise). Rather, phenomena follow rules because our descriptions and demonstrations and the actions and events they describe are in agreement. And perhaps we could also say that phenomena follow rules to the extent that we, the makers and exchangers of descriptions and demonstrations, agree that they do — because we are in the practice of saying, and agreeing with each other when we say, that phenomena follow the rules. This is not to say that phenomena don’t have tendencies and regularities that characterize and perhaps even define their behavior — “norms,” to use Ginzburg’s term — but only to insist that our experience of their unruliness is in direct proportion to the stories we tell about them. Clever as we are, I think we’ve yet to remember that this is the case, that we have the power to tell different stories if and as we need to — to perform actions and precipitate events that swerve against the grid of expectations, and which invite us to compose more deliberately new sets of habits of thinking and feeling, and of trying and doing.


Turn it upside down

The placebo effect’s improbable power inverts the action of the panopticon as Michel Foucault describes it. The “panopticon effect” (if I may call it that) depends on the fact that humans tend to behave as if we’re being watched by a guard if our cell is in view of the watchtower, which need not in fact be occupied for this effect to take hold. “A real subjection is borne mechanically from a fictitious relation,” Foucault writes.[7] With the placebo effect, by contrast, a real liberation is instantiated — a liberation from the symptoms of disease (from pain, for instance) — but the fictitious relation is interesting to specify. After all, the relation between the healer and healed is a real one; the “fiction” lies in the swapping of the sugar pill for the pharmaceutical. As Michael Taussig suggests, “patient and shaman conduct on behalf of society a joint interrogation of their ideological environment.”[8] It’s as if all the doors in the prison swung open suddenly not so much to the touch as to the very thought, revealing that they were never locked in the first place. What was Blake’s phrase? “Mind-forged manacles.” What were walls and barriers turn out to contain windows and doors. The enclosures turn out to be what Emily Abendroth calls “exclosures.”[9] Miranda observes a bird in the yard and says, “That one always lives outside.” Maybe we’re not as stuck as we think we are.

What other forms and structures might we imagine — whether actual architectures or social infrastructures — that could produce not the “real subjection” Foucault describes but rather a “real liberation” of the sort the placebo supplies, forms and structures whose design is aimed at producing not “the homogenous effects of power” (200) but rather a heterogeneous unleashing of potential?

What needs to be the case for things to be otherwise?

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The poem is that which does not fit the measure

Paul Celan in his notebooks defines the poem as “that which does not fit the measure.”[10] The poem in this sense is immune to regulation, an incommensurate anomaly that fails to comply with the going metric. Carl Schmitt, for his part, famously decreed: “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception.”[11] With Celan in hand we might rejoin: poets are — or could be — those who produce the exception by performing the other side of the normal form, metabolizing impossibility and thereby transforming conditions of possibility in the first place.[12] We might imagine here the potential of poetry as sovereignty’s solvent, as a tool for re-imagining our forms of belonging over and against Schmitt’s one-seater model. By failing to “fit the measure” or “follow the rules,” a poem can succeed in refuting what Anderson claims is an “ontological command,” and can contain, to use Ginzburg’s verb, the measure it exceeds. Like the power of the placebo, this potential is not a private property but a substance that transpires in relation, a common ground of language in action. The poem is at last between two (or more) people, as Frank O’Hara once decided, and not between two pages.[13]

Here’s an early modern description of poetry’s improbable action that aligns with Celan’s late modern definition:

[Poetry] commonly exceeds the measure of nature, joining at pleasure things which in nature would never have come together, and introducing things which in nature would never have come to pass; just as painting likewise does. This is the work of the imagination [which] at pleasure makes unlawful matches and divorces of things.

This is Francis Bacon’s fretful account of poetry’s extravagant and antinomian combinatorial power in the Advancement of Learning, as cited by Richard Halpern in The Poetics of Primitive Accumulation (Cornell 1991), 55. Halpern is describing the radical transformations that took place in the humanist classroom in the early sixteenth century, and is particularly interested in a primary contradiction that Erasmus (and others) articulated in the theory and practice of rhetoric. On the one hand, the study of rhetoric leads to a value-neutral power to persuade; thus Aristotle’s definition of rhetoric as “the faculty of observing in any case the available means of persuasion” (50). On the other hand, it is possible to “subordinate this persuasive force to socially orthodox purposes” (53). These imperatives operate at cross-purposes in persuasion’s favor: “the cultivation of the first [persuasion] has a tendency to impair the second [orthodoxy]” (53). And it is here that we catch sight of poetry’s power as power’s solvent, capable of promoting “the unlawful matches and divorces of things.” Here’s how Halpern describes the crux:

Poetry foregrounds the breach between these two instrumentalities [persuasion and orthodoxy] and also introduces a new breach, this time within the technical instrumentality that is persuasion. For rhetorical persuasion itself effects an (immanently unmotivated) unity of linguistic pleasure and discursive aim, thereby investing the pleasure with a certain direction. But as Longinus (for instance) insists, poetic sublimity carries the listener not to persuasion but to ecstasy and it thus detaches linguistic pleasure from even a discursive instrumentality. [ … ] Its specific gift is to reveal that the articulation of these discursive elements is immanently unmotivated and that they therefore have the potential, if not the tendency, to separate. Persuasion can free itself from “true” or dominant values, or it can devolve into linguistic pleasure without direction or purpose. (53)

“Joining at pleasure,” Bacon tells us, in excess of “the measure of nature”: that’s what poetry does. I like this, in spite of (and perhaps even because of) Bacon’s censorious intent.

Lauren Berlant has described the way in which “a situation […] that feels like a massively genre breaking one can become the kind of event whose enigmatic shape repels being governed by the foreclosure of what has happened before.” [14] Das Ungemäße is Celan’s original German noun, translated by Pierre Joris as “that which does not fit the measure”; the root term here, das Gemäß, is “that which corresponds,” “that which matches,” or “that which is in accordance or in compliance with” — that which is, we might say, in accordance with “what has happened before” (to use Berlant’s terms), or “the measure of nature” (to use Bacon’s). Celan’s radix, Mäß, was some kind of Swiss measure, I gather, which surely has traveled the same route as our word “mass,” from the Latin massa, “lump, bulk, parcel of land, dough.” I admit that I want “mass” to do too much work here, to have the standing of expectation on the one hand, and of something like gravity on the other, so that the poem can become a vehicle in which to achieve a kind of escape velocity — a means by which to exceed, evade, or transform the resistance of norms that have forgotten their origins in practice. How does the Law of Mass Action go again?

Let’s put poetry to the side for a moment and ask: Are there undecideable exceptions to the rule that says “sovereign is he who decides on the exception”? That is, are there exceptions that exceed the power of any one sovereign to “decide”? These questions concern jurisdiction, the area in which a law can be spoken — or better still: heard. The zone in which law is audible.

Here’s a stark and simple-minded version of the kind of question I’m asking: can the sovereign “decide” on an exception to the law of gravity? Of course not. Humans don’t suddenly acquire the power of flight because some primate wearing a suit or a cape declares it so by the power of speech and the wave of a wand.[15]

And yet, as we know, human beings do indeed have the ability to fly. I just got from Bergen to Seattle, for instance, in less than 17 hours door to door. I like Richard Lewontin’s way of describing this exception:

social organization can actually negate individual limitations. I mean this negation in much more than the sense that ten people can lift a weight ten times as great as can one person. None of us can fly by flapping our arms. That is a biological limitation. Yet we do fly as a consequence of the social organization that has given rise to airplanes, airfields, pilots, controllers, fuel, metallurgy, hydrodynamic theory, and organized economic activity. It is not society that flies, however, but individuals. Thus, the constraints on individual human beings have been negated by social activity, and they have become new individual human beings with new properties and abilities.[16]

The airplane thus flies into view as an emblem of individual impotence transformed by means of something we might call collective expotence. A law of nature — the human animal cannot fly — is transformed by a law of culture — the collective power of the human animal to subsume the individual human’s inability to fly. (Surely I don’t need to add: the sovereign has had nothing to do with it.) This is not the same as the causal force of the placebo effect, exactly, but it is not unrelated, insofar as the human power of flight — which is to say, the power to produce and sustain the anomaly, to compose what at first blush looks impossible — is a distributed, not a private, property.


Poetry makes nothing happen

It didn’t come from nowhere. If it came from nowhere, if it came from nothing, it is basically trying to let you know that you need a new theory of nothing and a new theory of nowhere.

—Fred Moten[17]

Sometimes the impossible is the missing ingredient.

—Miranda Mellis[18]

Such anomalous collaborative accomplishments — the placebo effect, the human power of flight — allows W.H Auden’s famous definition of poetry to take on a new shape. “Poetry makes nothing happen”: this line from his 1939 elegy for William Butler Yeats could well be taken as a confession of impotence.[19] But it could also be taken as an affirmation of poetry’s potency, its dynamic capacity to actively make nothing happen. I have in mind here the fact that the root of the word “poem” reaches back to the Greek word poiein — “to make.” What could this mean, to make nothing happen? If we take “nothing” to mean that which is denied existence by a standard model or rulebook — that sugar pills can’t cure disease, that humans can’t fly (“This, however, is not so,” as Perry Anderson avers) — then the sentence would appear to describe a rare and forgotten kind of power: the power to perform what is said to be impossible.

What’s more, “make nothing happen” is a fantastic description of what a general strike could accomplish: an active negation of our status quo (and psychotic) schedule of production and consumption. The general strike in this sense constitutes a maximal instance of sabotage as defined by Elizabeth Gurley Flynn in the wake of the 1913 Paterson Silk Strike: “the conscious withdrawal of the worker’s efficiency.”[20] I am aided and abetted in my recycling of Auden’s line in this militant vicinity by a poem by Anna Louise Strong that prefaces a pamphlet describing the Seattle General Strike of 1919. ”They Can’t Understand” is its title, and its first two lines read as follows: “What scares them most is | that NOTHING HAPPENS.”[21] Workers encounter the possibility of their greatest power by removing their efficiency, indulging in a hyperbolic impotence that flips over into a demonstration of otherwise foreclosed forces that frighten the powers that presume themselves to be in command.[22]

Auden’s definition repurposed thus puts an earlier poet’s account of what the poet does and does not do into a new light: “Now for the Poet,” Sir Philip Sidney says, “he nothing affirmeth, and therefore never lyeth.” Not bad for a get-out-of-jail-free card against Plato’s indictment of poets for stimulating heresy and revolt among the masses by telling lies about the gods. We could, however, take Sidney’s claim that the poet affirms nothing as a description of a speech act in the concrete and practical sense of making something firm, endowing it with the force of substance. It helps here to remember that practicing Quakers who find themselves in a court of law to this day refuse to swear to tell the truth but rather affirm that they will. And surely Sidney invites us to do just that — to make the truth substantial — when he declares, at another moment in his brief on poetry’s behalf, that “it is not gnosis but praxis that must be the fruit” — not knowing but acting, not thinking but doing. This requires us to consider not only cognition but also action as the appropriate measure of a poem’s accomplishment — its capacity, we might say, to bear fruit, to reproduce itself in the form of seeds (data packets) coated in irresistible flesh, so attractive that you want to get as close to them as possible, to put them in your ear, your mouth, immediately… What figments become radical? Who put the root in fruit? At stake here, I think, is a relationship between negation, truth-telling, and desire. A desire to articulate felicity conditions for utterances that on the face of it make no sense but nevertheless manage against the odds to hit their mark. As Omar says to Brother Mouzone (in the prelude to their shootout deferred): “At this range? With this caliber? Even if I miss I can’t miss.”[23]


From “affirm[ing] nothing” to “affirming the consequent”

Thus far I have been talking about “poetry” in the abstract. Let’s see if we can affirm, or at least firm up, some of these claims in relation to an actual poem written by Robert Creeley as a birthday present for Stan Brakhage, a filmmaker who sought, and achieved, an outlaw undomesticated way of seeing in his films.

Two sentences from the beginning of Brakhage’s 1963 manifesto, Metaphors on Vision, can help us better understand Creeley’s poem by giving us a taste of his target audience’s wild-eyed utopian aesthetic program:

Imagine an eye unruled by man-made laws of perspective, an eye unprejudiced by compositional logic, an eye which does not respond to the name of everything but which must know each object encountered in life through an adventure of perception. […] Imagine a world before the “beginning was the word.”[24]

A world, in other words, before visual and verbal logics enclosed what can be perceived, before concepts dominated the objects of perception.

Many of Brakhage’s films are handpainted — produced, that is to say, by subtracting the camera, and applying pigment directly to the film strip, thus sabotaging or short-circuiting the normal form of the apparatus. One of his more extreme investigations of “unruled” images came in the early film Mothlight (1963), which he made by gluing and taping flowers, moth wings, seeds, dirt directly to blank leader, giving us not a picture or a story about such things but an accelerated projection of the things themselves. It’s one of the most beautiful films I’ve seen. It gives viewers the chance to recognize something we’ve never perceived before. Not at that speed. Not together. Not at that scale. Which is to say: Brakhage’s willful misuse of the apparatus reveals not only a potential the medium contains, but also a potential contained by his audience. The conscious withdrawal of efficiency reveals a hitherto foreclosed co-efficiency.

Creeley’s poem addresses this improbable success.


for Stan’s birthday

if we go back to where

we never were we’ll

be there. [REPEAT] But


How are we supposed to read these lines? It’s like a self-licking ice-cream cone spliced with the river Herakleitos says you can’t step in twice. The poem registers an objection to the prelapsarian logoklasm of Brakhage’s program, his desire to go back to before “in the beginning was the word.” But in so doing it inadvertently metamorphoses into an acknowledgement, even a celebration and performance of, the accomplishment it seeks to deny. Is it too obvious to note that the subject here is plural?

The poem’s logic articulates a Möbius Strip that flips back and forth between affirming nothing and actually doing it, between doubting and making nothing happen althesame. Crude paraphrase: if we do what can’t be done, then we’ve done it. We project possibility by projecting impossibility. I take this to be a successfully experimental poem in the primary sense that its effects can be repeated, just as the stage directions in square brackets command. We end where Creeley began, in the adversative: “But” — which the verse that is about to repeat has just converted into the affirmative. The beginning of this objection is also the title, which initiates the circuit that leads to the accomplishment that obviates the exception by making it the norm — a norm that may well await subsequent containment by the anomalies that emerge in its light.

Creeley’s unusual poem performs “an abduction” in the special sense that Charles Sanders Peirce gives that term. In Peirce’s technical vocabulary, “abductive judgment” is a form of logical rapture that dissolves the presumed two-party rule of “induction” and “deduction.” Rather than moving from facts to theories (induction), or from theories to facts (deduction), abduction invites us to invent theories that can help us make sense of strange facts encountered. What swerves and falls allows what is given to leap out of a defaulted and foreclosed understanding. Abductive reasoning used right helps us make sense of such surprising information that cuts against the grain of our tacit expectations. As Peirce puts it:

The surprising fact, C, is observed;

But if A were true, C would be a matter of course,

Hence there is reason to suspect that A is true.[26]

Or to translate this logical operation into the letters of the alphabet and the format preferred by logicians:

1. If P, then Q.

2. Q.

3. Therefore, P.

When abduction occurs in scholarly disputation, it is often called out as a fallacy — the fallacy of “affirming the consequent,” to be precise. One person’s judgement is another’s error. If you’re wrong, I’m right. Creeley’s poem is my favorite instantiation of this problem, not least since it transposes the force of logic to the more slippery slopes of space and time on which Brakhage’s forceful example is projected and refracts verbally into unexpected potential.


Extraordinary investigations

[…] it is just by such difficulties as the one now in question — such roughnesses — such peculiarities — such protuberances above the plane of the ordinary — that Reason feels her way, if at all, in the search for the True.

Edgar Allan Poe, Eureka

I’ve been helped in my thinking about these things that do not fit the measure by Thomas Kuhn’s reckoning of the relationship between paradigms and anomalies in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago 1962), which I suspect has guided Carlo Ginzburg’s work as well. On Kuhn’s account, the paradigms of “normal science” generate “a strenuous and devoted attempt to force nature into the conceptual boxes supplied by professional education.” Such paradigms, moreover, supply the answers to all sorts of interesting questions:

What are the fundamental entities of which the universe is composed? How do these interact with each other and with the senses? What questions may be legitimately asked about such entities and what techniques employed in seeking solutions? (4-5)

Anomalies come into view when those “conceptual boxes” and “techniques” can no longer contain all the evidence encountered:

Sometimes a normal problem, one that ought to be solvable by known rules and procedures, resists the reiterated onslaught of the ablest members of the group within whose competence it falls. On other occasions a piece of equipment designed and constructed for the purpose of normal research fails to perform in the anticipated manner, revealing an anomaly that cannot, despite repeated effort, be aligned with professional expectation. In these and other ways besides, normal science repeatedly goes astray. And when it does […] then begin the extraordinary investigations. (4-6)

Those “extraordinary investigations,” properly conducted, generate new understandings of the way things are, a radical epistemological transformation with consequences that go all the way down. The logic of the successful new paradigm, in this sense, would at once contain and exceed the earlier paradigm’s ontological command, insofar as those “conceptual boxes” of “professional expectation” made the stimulating anomaly visible in the first place, which in turn renders those boxes obsolete, at least as truth containers (they could well be repurposed to other ends).

The anomaly etymologically is that which is uneven, irregular, or rough — quite literally “the unsame,” from the Greek an- “not” + homalos “even,” with homo “same” at the root. To out this in the syntax of Ginzburg’s topology (“The violation of the norm contains even the norm itself”) we could say that the unsame contains the same. Playing further with these radicals can allow us to capture a piece of the “collective expotence” I’ve tried to describe. The English word “homily” comes from the Greek homilia, the term translated in the New Testament as “sermon,” but which also means “discourse” or (better still) “conversation,”[27] and derives from homilos “an assembled crowd,” which of course shares the same root as anomaly: homo. The anomaly can thus be said to contain the homily in the sense that the conversation reveals the limit that the contagious irregularity shows us how to exceed. We’ll be there!


Earlier in this essay I noted an inadvertent congruency between Perry Anderson and Thomas Aquinas. And so in closing, for the sake of balance if nothing else, I’d like to invoke a more contemporary theologian. In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” written in April of 1963 (the same year Brakhage made Mothlight), Martin Luther King, Jr. employs an interesting analogy to distinguish the activist early Christian church from the more passive role the church played in his time:

In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society.

A thermostat is not just a dial on the wall, but a dial capable of setting the temperature — of exceeding the measure, as Celan might put it — as a consequence of its ability to record it accurately in the first place. Another way of putting it: where the thermometer pays attention, the thermostat makes a tension. Mind the verbs. It costs to do the one, while the other involves a making, a poiesis. I freely admit that the etymology is whimsical. But it’s also not far from the mark: a tendon is what we control our muscles with, a crucial component in our relation to power. When we pay attention, our cognition stretches out to the object of our interest. And perhaps we can say, using King’s modifier, that when we merely pay attention, our muscles are at the ready to do someone else’s bidding: that’s what we are paying for by being at another’s command. When we make a tension, on the other hand, we acquire for ourselves the privilege of setting the temperature and the tempo, composing the tempest, even (if I may activate the radix). No doubt that takes a lot of coordination: so many parts involved, ro(u)les to play, coupling an improvisatory understanding of the fleeting situations we find ourselves in with a metabolically competent infrastructure. Not just a sly dial on the wall, but a dial wired to furnace with a steady power source. There’s no joke about the stakes involved. When the set-up malfunctions, at best you’re in the cold; at worst your house or neighborhood burns down. But when your neighborhood is already burnt to the ground, or torched before it even got started, well then, you’re already embarked: the coin is in the air; all that remains is for you to decide. Which side are you on? Pay attention or make a tension. Stick with the environment as it is, repeating it blankly, or rise above or below it, collectively composing the poem Celan describes: the one that does not fit the measure. One nice thing about the choice is that there is no zero-sum here. Just as the anomaly includes the rule it breaks, a thermostat includes a thermometer — which is of course itself a useful device: something the proverbial frog in the pot is lacking.

“Orders are sometimes not obeyed,” Wittgenstein correctly observes. “But what would it be like if no orders were ever obeyed? The concept ‘order’ would have lost its purpose” (§ 345). Such a loss of telos, far from signaling the end of the world as we know it, would contain the limits we have the power to exceed. What has more power, anyway: a command or an invitation? “Abduction merely suggests that something may be,” Peirce writes. “Its only justification is that from its suggestion deduction can draw a prediction which can be tested by induction” (CP 5.171). What are we waiting for? Or if all this puts too optimistic a spin for you on the work to be done, then perhaps I should end instead by saying that maybe it’s time for us to conduct what Anne Boyer, following Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, has described as “a form of sabotage in which you follow the book of rules exactly.”


[1] Carlo Ginzburg, Threads and Traces: True False Fictive, tr. Anne C. Tedeschi and John C. Tedeschi (California 2012), 222.

[2] Perry Anderson, “The Force of the Anomaly,” LRB 34:8 (2012).

[3] Pierre Bourdieu, Pascalian Meditations, tr. Richard Nice (Polity 2000 [1997]), 50ff.

[4] Richard Percival Phillips, Modern Thomistic Philosophy: An Explanation for Students, Volume II: Metaphysics (The Newman Bookshop 1934).

[5] Daniel Moerman, Meaning, Medicine and the ‘Placebo Effect’ (Cambridge 2002), 137.

[6] Nicholas Humphrey and John Skoyles, “The evolutionary psychology of healing: a human success story,” Current Biology 22:17 (2012), R697.

[7] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, tr. Alan Sheridan (Vintage 1977), 202. Cf. the first chapter of Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain (Oxford 1985): “The Structure of Torture: The Conversion of Real Pain into the Fiction of Power.”

[8] Michael Taussig, Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man: A Study in Terror and Healing (Chicago 1987), 460. Taussig is discussing Claude Levi-Strauss’s description and analysis of New World shamanism.

[9] Emily Abendroth, ] Exclosures [ (Asahta 2014).

[10] Paul Celan, The Meridian: Final Version — Drafts — Materials, tr. Pierre Joris (Stanford 2011), 165.

[11] Carl Schmitt, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, tr. George Schwab (Chicago 1985), 5.

[12] “The other side of the normal form” is Niklas Luhmann’s definition of chance.

[13] I explore this hypothesis at greater length in an essay called “Making nothing happen: poetry and sabotage,” forthcoming in postmedieval (2015), 6:4, which (as the title suggest) also intersects with my recycling of Auden’s famous definition of poetry in what follows.

[14] Jordan Greenwald, “Affect in the End Times: A Conversation with Lauren Berlant,” Qui Parle 20:2 (2012), 72.

[15] We could think here on the parable of King Canute, who set his throne on the beach below the high tide line and commanded the sea to halt before it wetted his shoes, which in turn might put us in mind of Cuchullain’s fight with what Yeats nicely describes as “the invulnerable tide” — even as their exertions reflect quite different purposes.

[16] Richard Lewontin, Biological Determinism (Tanner Lectures 1982), 179; cf. his discussion in Biology as Ideology (Harper 1991), 121.

[17] Fred Moten, “The General Antagonism,” in Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, The Undercommons (Minor Compositions 2013), 129

[18] Miranda Mellis, The Spokes (Solid Objects 2012), 19.

[19] See, for instance, the discussion by Keston Sutherland and Joshua Clover in “Always totalize: poetry and revolution,” in Claudius App 5 (2013):

[20] Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Sabotage: The Conscious Withdrawal of the Workers’ Industrial Efficiency (I.W.W. Publications Bureau 1917).

[21] Anise (Anna Louise Strong), “They Can’t Understand,” in The Seattle General Strike (History Committee of the General Strike 1919; reprinted by The Shorey Book Store, 1971). More recently, Jasper Bernes has published a collection of poems called We Are Nothing And So Can You (Tenured Ninja 2012), whose title, among other things, negates the Occupy slogan (“We are the 99%”) to mash it up with Steven Colbert’s I am America and So Can You (2007). Juliana Spahr’s contribution to a portfolio of poems on “The Insurrectionary Turn” in The American Reader (November 2012) offers a more tentative affirmation of nothing: “I could tell you of the other things too. | A European influence. | A Middle Eastern influence.| A list of skirmishes. | A feeling of it being nothing. No wait, something. No see, nothing. Possibly something. No. | Nothing.” Bernes: Spahr:

[22] I explore Flynn’s strategically capacious definition of sabotage further in an essay called “The difference is spreading: sabotage & aesthetics ~1913,” forthcoming in the first volume of Black Box: A Record of the Catastrophe.

[23] David Simon, The Wire (2004), Season 3, Episode 11.

[24] Stan Brakhage, Metaphors on Vision [1963] in Brakhage Scrapbook: Collected Writings 1964-1980 (McPherson 1982).

[25] The Collected Poems of Robert Creeley: 1945-1975 (California 1982), 551. First published in Thirty Things (Black Sparrow 1974).

[26] Charles Sanders Peirce, Collected Papers: Volume 5 (Harvard 1935), 189.

[27] I myself prefer conversation, which is a “turning” | verse we do “together” | con, to sermon, which is too often something done to us.

Where is Our Absurd?

There is nothing but. Not this end the ocean of one’s pause. I’m out of the held begins, for must it could. For I may after that will. I need about what but the end that sound. Stick I need, felt be another to me. The old all alike there some. Not this I’m not. It can’t be it will it how will it. All the sorts and that’s but now. Our eyes only swing. Every but on word alone.

—Clark Coolidge, “Beckett,” A Book Beginning What and Ending Away

When Lyn and I thought of the organizing idea for the issue, absurdity in contemporary life, we were drawn to the idea in part because of our sense that absurdity hardly seems like some modernist pre-history to our present situation but rather an ever-encroaching, encompassing condition of our everyday engagements with a finite “reality,” whatever one takes reality to mean.

One apologizes for such flimsy rhetoric hedges—whatever we take reality to mean—but trying to assimilate “the absurd” provokes such equivocations, digressions, willful courting of the anomalous. Is the “absurd” an attitude or a condition, a way of life to be embraced or a historical impasse to be resisted? That contrived common sense of an Internet search suggests “the absurd” has come to mean anything silly, non-sensical, or ridiculous, that one thing that does not belong to the others. And there is delight in this. As the New Yorker says of Ron Padgett’s Collected Poems: “Padgett’s plainspoken, wry poems deliver their wisdom through a kind of connoisseurship of absurdity.” Everything is a cartoon of perfection!

Absurdity has a dimmer and more caustic history, too. The absurd was something of an obsession for European and Anglophone modernisms, particularly postwar drama, but the seeds of that obsession were planted much earlier in debates about how one persists in, and invents new forms of engagement with, realities that seem increasingly irrational, hostile, or pitched to a perpetual state of emergency. In thinking about how “absurdity” might have shifted between “then” and “now,” it also seems important to recognize that we are all limited by how or where we come to recognize what might be glibly generalized as an “absurdity of existence,” particularly when the uneven distribution of environmental and economic risks create new possibilities for solidarity but also make us more aware of our distances from each other.

Implicit in my formulation of the title—”Where is Our Absurd”—is the matter I want to pursue here, particularly the problem of registering both the contemporary character of absurdity—what it is—and how to place it—where it might be—and who belongs to its formulation—mine or yours or ours.


Dialectical Absurdity

Perhaps the most famous philosopher of “the absurd” working in the vein of 19th-century Western philosophy, Søren Kierkegaard, defined “absurdity” has been taken up as a willful impossibility of belief in the face of an intractable, and perhaps radically hostile, reality. Kierkegaard developed this notion of “absurdity” in his “dialectical lyric” titled Fear and Trembling (Copenhagen, 1843)—published under the pseudonym of Johannes de silencio—at a time when he felt that the systemic thought of German idealism and the spurious public of political consensus (see Kierkegaard’s The Present Age (1846)) had diminished the individual’s capacity to have a singular relation to one’s convictions. Kant’s categorical imperatives and Hegel’s Sittlichkeit (usually translated as “ethical life”) had overshadowed the local and irreducibly idiosyncratic problem of pursuing a purpose that no one else can recognize and thus suffering the consequences of deliberately acting in a vacuum of recognition or understanding.

The question of what absurdity might mean, then, was caught up with this broader question of how we differentiate between fanaticism and obstinate belief or individual imperatives and social responsibilities, precisely at times when we might doubt the legitimacy of a sovereign state or “public opinion.” For Kierkegaard, it was actually crucial to resist the force of consensus. In both Fear and Trembling and his later opus, Either/Or, a willful impossibility of belief doesn’t manifest through sublime catharsis but through diminished characters whose passionate “outpourings” are everywhere blunted or misconstrued by their interlocutors. And these outpourings can look like delusional prophecies, as when Abraham believes he has been commanded by god to kill the child him and his wife struggled so hard to conceive. He is committed to carrying out this purpose, his “calling,” without the language to communicate it, and therefore share it, with others.

Without a language for one’s convictions, one finds themselves both out of place and out of time. Borrowing from medieval romance, Kierkegaard defines the absurd artist of everyday life as a Don-Quixote-like figure, an anachronistic “knight of faith,” for whom the “deep sadness of existence” is provoked by a 19th-century reality uncannily like our own: the false public of mass media, the reduction of art to consumer taste and self-affirmation, the allure of total accessibility. But the “knight” remains part of this estranged order of “faith” not because it blesses him in his resignation, like Hegel’s “beautiful soul,” but because it can channels its “worldly sorrow and joy” into the absurd practice of locating “infinity” in the finite, secular, and pedestrian. And Kierkegaard delivers us this absurd character in a signature tone of reprobation and jealous appreciation:

[The knight of faith] lets things take their course with a freedom from care as if he were a reckless good-for-nothing and yet buys every moment he lives at the opportune time for the dearest price, for he does not do even the slightest thing except by virtue of the absurd. And yet, yet—yes, I could fly into a rage over it, if for no other reason than out of envy—yet this person has made and at every moment is making the movement of infinity. He empties the deep sadness of existence in infinite resignation, he knows the blessedness of infinity, he has felt the pain of renouncing everything, the dearest thing he has in the world, and yet the finite tastes every bit as good to him as to someone who never knew anything higher, for his remaining in finitude has no trace of a dispirited, anxious training, and yet he has this confidence to delight in it as if it were the most certain thing of all. And yet, yet the whole earthly figure he presents is a new creation by virtue of the absurd. (Fear and Trembling, 34)[1]

“The absurd” comes to mean not only the anachronistic and misplaced persistence of the knight’s “faith,” but also a rhetorical strategy, lets call it a situation, that presents a variety of passionate figures through the voices of partial and tendentious judges. Unlike a Socratic scene, there is no cool anchor of reason or confident posture of self-knowledge from which to reflect on these swings of pain, sadness, and passionate commitment. It matters too that the tendentious character of this “dialectical lyric” is ascribed to a writerly persona, Johannes de silentio, who declares himself, in third-person, to be a writer who “has not understood the System” and who “already has enough for his weak head in the thought of what huge heads everyone in our age must have since everyone has such huge thoughts” (5). A diminishment of mind is Silentio’s strength because it is enough for his thought, his rebuke to unwavering credulity in “the System.”

Anticipating the present precarity of creative economies, “Silentio” describes his relation to this overwhelming “System” as a “extra-skriver [free-lancer]” who writes because “for him it is a luxury that becomes all the more enjoyable and conspicuous the fewer who buy and read what he writes” (5). We may not trust his assessment of those “others” who read, just as we may not trust the way Abraham heard god’s command, but what I take Kierkegaard to be asking us, as readers, is how we recognize the singular persistence of belief in a climate of mutual resentment, hostility, and suspicion. Absurd belief, we might say, is a way of weathering a deeply polarized world (something that clearly resonates with the current landscape of political rhetoric in the United States).

In undermining the intellectual force of his persona, Kierkegaard is not only pulling our credulous legs—who should we believe?—but also staging a sly critique of those idealist philosophers and public officials who act as if their heads are big enough for a thought that contains “the world.” Conversely, the text never offers us the right response to Abraham’s sacrificial act but rather a partial judge of parabolic episodes we too must contend with. We are caught up within the textures of belief. Explaining away absurdity by naturalizing it to an intellectual or political system comes to seem like an evasion of what is most important of all: paying the “dearest price” of having a conviction.

For Kierkegaard, then, coming to know absurdity is not just about holding a belief, but paying a singular cost for holding on to it. Perversely, it is the cost of losing a son, a community, or a discernible place in the world, that gives one the idiosyncratic measure of what those things truly mean to you.


Theatre of the Absurd

It is this question of how we recognize both the persistence and costs of belief that I take to be most resonant with contemporary questions of how one makes absurdist art today or, for that matter, simply gets through the “pedestrian” absurdities of a day. In the spirit of historical fidelity, I want to take up this question now in relation to Martin Esslin’s The Theatre of the Absurd (1961), his now canonical take on the absurd tradition in theater during the postwar productions of Samuel Beckett, Eugène Ionesco, Jean Genet, Harold Pinter, among others.

What struck me in re-reading Esslin in preparation for organizing this issue of FLOOR was how far the literary and dramatic techniques of registering the absurdity of contemporary social and political life have shifted from Esslin’s prewar contexts and postwar examples until now. The purpose of Esslin’s text was not only to argue for a distinct generational “significance” of absurdity for dramatists but also to account for how their interpretation of “absurd” traditions of thought provoked distinct shapes of speech and gesture in response to the traumas of recent war, genocide, and ideological struggle.

Where Kierkegaard countered the exploitative character of systemic thinking through a series of passionate believers and voices, often producing rather florid or devotional prose, Esslin’s dramatists seem to take absurdity as a condition of expressive and epistemological privations. The language of their characters, Esslin argues, is resolutely “anti-literary” and “anti-logical,” so as to register a “radical devaluation of language” in all spheres of private and public life. And where romantics and modernists might have relied on the force of poetic images, there is a commitment in these “playwrights” (with “wright” linking the act of playmaking to a pre-history of physical artificers and journeyman) to the gestural concretions of the stage. As Esslin writes: “what happens on the stage transcends, and often contradicts, the words spoken by the characters” (Theatre of the Absurd, xxi.). Highly symbolic plays, like Eugène Ionesco’s “Rhinocéros” (1959), took their allegories literally, in the sense that the rhinoceroses rampaging the streets are both symptomatic expressions of mass delusion and real threats to individuals within an urban context.

Many critics have contested the coherence of Esslin’s postwar paradigm of the “absurd,” largely because it emphasizes negativity, death, and silence over other aspects of the plays, including their dark humor and sense of play.[2] Surely not every writer shared Esslin’s underlying conviction in a universal humanism or individual psychology beleaguered by mass movements and communication. But even if we read a play like End Game or The Chairs as farces without a metaphysical message, the question remains how we account for repeated, almost ritualistic turns towards questions of reverence and ritualistic devotion (picked up and expanded by Michael Bennett in Reassessing the Theater of the Absurd: Camus, Beckett, Ionesco, Genet and Pinter (New York: Palgrave, 2011)). The “absurd” need not be read as an exclusive category shared by each of its practitioners, but rather a set of formal and gestural responses—iterability, seriality, mnemonic failures, communication breakdowns, comedic transpositions—to measure the gap between one’s idiosyncratic belief and one’s social or historical knowledge. Errant absurdities parade in the grammar of absurdisms, or, as Clark Coolidge shows in his clustering of parts of speech in the shape of a grammatical expression: “I need about what but the end that sound.”

For Esslin, it is no coincidence that “absurdity” seemed to consolidate into a dramatic style or aesthetic condition around the same time that writers were facing a world that had been violently reorganized by the atrocities of the Holocaust, fire bombing and nuclear decimation in the Pacific “theater,” the carving up of the Middle East by European powers, and beginnings of struggles towards the decolonization of Africa. Being “anti-literary,” then, didn’t mean eschewing language for gesture entirely, but that speaking (and responding to speech) had to make incomprehension palpable, often by way of serial repetition and nonsensical transitions that mimicked breakdowns in discursive formations. There was hope in absurdity, too, in that one could make a speech out of a “human condition” (Esslin’s takes existentialism and absurdity to be motivated by a version of humanism) that seemed punishingly irrational and dissociated from both the practical realities of living. By way of idiosyncracies—”idiosyncratic” being perhaps the adjective, along with “sparse,” most often associated with the postwar eras of Anglophone and Francophone absurd theater—one could hear and feel the disjuncts between an individual life and a history of cruelties it may or may not be complicit with. Esslin cites as a processor to the “Theatre of the Absurd” the work of Antonin Artaud (in Theatre de la Cruaute (1935)), who used ritualistic chanting and repetitive gestures to push dramatic action into a more impersonal or transpersonal terrain.

Esslin gives as his opening example a performance of Waiting for Godot in 1957 by the San Francisco Actors’ Workshop at the San Quentin maximum-security prison. What is striking, Esslin notes, is the difference between how the convicts and critics responded. A reviewer for the prison paper noted: “[Godot] was an expression, symbolic in order to avoid all personal error, by an author who expected each member of his audience to draw his own conclusions, make his own errors. It asked nothing in point, it forced no dramatized moral on the viewer, it held out no specific hope… When the scenery gets too drab and the action too slow, we’ll call each other names and swear to part forever—but then, there’s no place to go!” (Esslin, xvi).

The lack of psychological interiority, plot, and character development as well as the mechanical quality of gestures bemoaned by contemporary theater critics was for this prisoner (and others) a kind of realism, albeit of inhuman subjects. That prisoners might be the ideal audience for Beckett’s “anti-literary” style was reflective of the kind of “absurd” position they literally occupied: placed “outside” of social life yet still treated, by way of the rhetoric of rehabilitation, as a potential member of a “human” community. We can see this also in the work of Jean Genet and Harold Pinter, where the overtness of violence paralleled by a slow deadening of the senses extended the poles of captivity to every intimate encounter and walk of life. For example, interior domestic spaces, as in Pinter’s “Birthday Party” (1957), became porous sites in which characters are exposed to intrusion, surveillance, or physical threat but also reflect a more personal struggle to claim or remember the most basic facts of their lives and surroundings. The grounds for resisting these conditions becomes more and more ambiguous as bodies, spaces, and histories unsettle each other. In Beckett’s Godot, there is also the striking moment when Lucky is commanded to “think” by his master (and former slave), Pozzo, mixing rhetorical gestures, academic jargon, and non-sensical grunts into a cascade of language that captures the deeply physical sense of a person struggling to communicate through verbal and mental remnants:

The “devaluation and disintegration” of language, to use Esslin’s terms, reflect a failure to perceive the outlines of this totalizing violence and the agents who perpetuate it. But it also reflects the fact that property or individual right offer no practical reserve from these intrusions (Esslin, 296). The line between being free and being captive, being safe and being violated, are continually overturned.


We Are Proud to Present…

When thinking about examples of where, or what, absurdity might be now, and who might be invested in its relevance, absurdity seems less and less to do with a deliberate impoverishment of language (to match the impoverishment of the world). And it almost goes without saying, in the world of extensive social mediation, that public opinion and mass belief constantly produce dangerous forms of immediacy and consensus. Regardless of whether we periodize our present situation as an ongoing modernism or post-postmodernism, cultural production has and will continue to shift in the face of an economy driven by big data, global supply chains, debt service, risk management, and financialization. One is probably more likely to hear the word “precarity” than “absurdity” in contemporary art and criticism.

For these reasons, the commitments of Kierkegaard and these absurd dramatists might seem rather anachronistic. Few bemoan the loss of a sense of the “infinite” or the “absolute,” precisely because these are the kinds of scales that these socio-economic processes aspire to (yet, as the physical limits of micro-trading evidences, can never wholly approximate). Yet, if there is a value to thinking of or practicing “absurdity” now, it would lie in the possible connections between absurd belief and the ways in which these structural realities mediate and migrate through our seemingly private languages. “Absurdity” might help us talk about the nature and costs of belief in the face of the militarization of police, ongoing wars against amorphous targets, climate change, austerity economics, and enduring physical and psychological traumas that demand new ways of speaking and practicing culture.

The closing question we might ask, then, is how the character of impossible belief has changed? And what ways have the usages of language and gesture in “absurd” drama, if we can call it that, shifted to meet the “absurd” character of early 21st century life?

The example I have in mind is a fairly meta-critical play by Jackie Sibblies Drury first staged in New York at the Soho Rep in 2012 with the absurdly long title of “ We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915.” In fact, the play is billed simply as “We are Proud to Present…,” with the ellipse doing both the work of conversational or industry shorthand and notation of historical aporia. Drury notes as much in interviews about the coincidental origins of the play, which she developed as a side project to address a gap in her own knowledge of the events after a Google search for “Black people in Germany” while writing another play.

The play is ostensibly about a genocide undertaken by colonial Germans, in collaboration with another tribe, Nama, of the Herero people in Namibia during the years mentioned—1884–1915. Historically, it offers an African pre-history to World War I in Europe, the conflict ostensibly ending in the same year that W. E. B. Dubois would publish his “African Roots of War” in the Atlantic Monthly (see: Most of the Herero were killed and the remaining members of the tribe were forced into unpaid labor. But as Charles Isherwood pointed out in his review of the Soho Rep show ( in November 2012, the action of the play is not the “presentation” itself but rehearsals for the presentation. These “live” rehearsals are framed by a narrator/director armed with clunky note cards and a Powerpoint slideshow, and undertaken by actors with generic titles: “white man,” “another white man,” “black man,” “another black man,” etc. The irony is, of course, that racialization often functions on this level of abstraction, even if those abstractions operate largely unconsciously.

The stage direction, too, feels like a practical joke about the experience of learning “history” in an elementary school classroom, itself a campy departure from the austere stage conditions we might expect from, say, a Beckett or Pinter play. The “script” for their individual improvisations is somewhere between researched content—the white actors, playing “German soldiers” read from letters home, just as the black actors portray historical aspects of the two tribes—and historically exacerbated stereotypes—every actor, regardless of their personal attitude towards the genocide, slips in and out of hetero-normative, national, and racial ideologies to fill in the general absence of historical documents. Their interpretive and dramatic solutions become increasingly “absurd,” in that they become increasingly divorced from the historical reality they set out to “present.”

I take the core intelligence of the play to be in its insistence to keep with these aporias, adding on multiple levels of mediation, prejudice, and obstruction without settling off into a formuliac postmodern comedy about the endless instability of texts and production of meta-languages. The fact that the play sticks with the conceit—a “blueprint” for a play that never comes but is, at the same time, already happening—foregrounds the struggles these actors have in deciding between how they feel about genocide, colonialism, its racial afterlives and how their characters might best respond, either in fidelity to a largely non-existent historical record or the expectations of dramatic realism. Not surprisingly, the actors’ own sense of their racial position effect the way they approach dramatic techniques, making visible a range of blackness and whiteness caught somewhere between “real life” and “in character.” But there is also a professionalism that borders on liberalism, in that every actor/character, despite their disparate motivations, wants to see the play performed and consistently subordinates their frustrations to the abstract authority of “the director” and “the play.”

But no one ever gets the atrocity right. And rarely one has the same atrocity in mind as one’s fellow players. Watching “We are Proud to Present…” performed at the Shotgun Theater in Berkeley, CA in March 2015, it not only felt like an exercise in absurdity, but a reminder that “absurdity” was not only a diverse fact of productions attempting to represent the problem of historical violence but a resolutely non-generalizable phenomenon. Unlike some postwar absurdists like Ionesco, Genet, or Pinter, there is no background of universal human dignity or hope that this “Presentation” about genocide will produce a special language or psychology from which to address, in this case, the historical oblivion to colonial violence. Neither will it address head on the commensurate inability to imagine a more ethical present or future. Drury consistently plays with the notion of a historical impasse—how we incorporate the internal and external effects of racism and settler colonialism—precisely because these effects seem so unstable in time and space. This instability is heightened by the fact that these actors are being asked to not just reproduce racial examples (German soldiers, tribal warriors, “Africans”) but to use their personal sense of contemporary racial violence to interpret these types. And despite the insistence on typology, there is a persistent emphasis on how the difficulty of mediating between these roles manifests as a physical struggle, as the performers who always seem on the verge of collapse.

Perhaps the hardest note to swallow in Drury’s version if absurd theater, if we want to continue calling it that, is that the absorptive actions of the stage cannot produce some collective change or catharsis. Rather, the play seems more of an interlocutor in an ongoing problem than an expositor of some violent past. Similarly, the absurd conceits of the performance are not about putting aside racial stereotypes but about going inside of them, pursuing their attendant components of sentimental romance, caricature, even slapstick comedy. To call the play absurd, then, is not to say that it repeats the postwar fascination with gestural force, serial repetition, and discontinuous speech but rather experiments with how speaking and acting involve a deep complicity with history. We are endlessly citing crimes we can neither name or remember. But the play also shares a concern with postwar absurdists about how and why one can still believe in the efficacy of speech and actions, particularly in conditions where expression seems increasingly difficult, problematic, maybe even impossible.


Society of the Absurd

What hides under the spectacular oppositions is a unity of misery. Behind the masks of total choice, different forms of the same alienation confront each other, all of them built on real contradictions which are repressed.

—Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle #63

It was the absurdity of belief that offered, paradoxically, a consistently skeptical attitude toward static notions of public opinion or individual right, what Debord would bemoan later as “spectacular” society, precisely because these coherent illusions had nothing to do with the peculiar way that each person was called to action, survived captivity, or maintained even the clunky semblance of mobility. When Esslin wrote “Theater of the Absurd,” he framed the absurdist mode as not just a revolution in

dramatic communication but also a response, however negative and obscure, to the failures of social imagination. In ways that anticipated the present situation of heightened social mediation and economic precarity, Esslin remarked that absurdist authors turned against not only the commodification of mass communication but also the “growing specialization of life” that isolated members of a society to their own “specialized jargon” (Esslin, 299). It doesn’t take too much of a leap of faith to extend this problem to our present situation where such euphemisms as “the sharing economy” or Amazon’s cynical riff on dehumanizing labor, “Amazon’s Mechanical Turk” (, take the notion of a “specialized” labor and industrial jargon to perverse ends. One can’t make this stuff up. On Amazon’s website, Individual tasks are described as “Human Intelligence Tasks (HITs)” performed by “an on-demand, scalable work force.”

One of the most enduring “virtues of the absurd” is that it served as an internal check on the ability to take “the social” or “the individual” or even “the human” for granted. And precisely because it eschews these assumed unities, absurdity demands radical and constant particularization. Both the social whole and the lives that made it up were presented as a series of opposing parts and abandoned possibilities, as if one leg was working against the other. One thinks of the tortured gait of Beckett’s Watt as an expression of just how hard it is to move when no relation is known or assumed between past and future, a thing and its shadow, one direction over another:

Watt’s way of advancing due east, for example, was to turn his bust as far as possible towards the north and at the same time to fling out his right leg as far as possible towards the south, and then to turn his bust as far as possible towards the south and at the same time to fling out his leg as far as possible towards the north, and then again to turn his bust as far as possible towards the north and to flight out his right leg as far as possible towards the south, and then again to turn his bust as far as possible towards the south and to fling out his left leg as far as possible towards the north, and so on, over and over again, many many times, until he reached his destination, and could sit down. (Watt, 23)[3]

What Watt shows us is still a life, but a life lived through an unknown series of parts. Even in this intricate state of exhaustion, one goes on thinking and speaking anyways, with the hope that we will get something right by being or acting wrong, as in Beckett’s Molloy:

All I know is what the words know, and the dead things, and that makes a handsome little sum, with a beginning, a middle and an end as in the well-built phrase and the long sonata of the dead. And truly it little matters what I say, this or that or any other thing. Saying is inventing. Wrong, very rightly wrong. You invent nothing, you think you are inventing, you think you are escaping, and all you do is stammer out your lesson, the remnants of a pensum one day got by hear and long forgotten, life without tears, as it is wept. To hell with it anyway. (Molloy, 27)

Always under intense self-revision, Molloy sets as his aim of his actions neither invention nor escape. From the standpoint of a radically dissociated personality, one body appears like a series of parts arrayed upon a continuum that is at turns impossibly rich or vast and utterly devoid of purpose or content. Like many of Beckett’s nomadic protagonists, Molloy seems homeless in both a practical and spiritual sense, moving from one abuse to another, and yet he can’t shake the feeling that he is at home wherever his dilapidated bicycle carries him: “But Preferred to abide by my simple feeling and its voice that said, Molloy, your region is vast, you have never left it and you never shall.” (Molloy, 60). The feeling of belief persists, it places and traces him, even while he seems to lose every external guarantee that he is moving in a definite direction, that he is real, and that he is a part of some meaningful shift in history.

When compelled to describe the ludicrous, ridiculous, or nonsensical state of affairs as “absurd,” we might think too of how absurdity has and continues to be mobilized not just to make a comedy of our confusion but to show the personal and social costs of inhabiting a violent order of things—and still keeping some semblance of belief. Acting absurdly is not an evasion, a giving in to a state of resignation, as Kierkegaard reminds us, but a conscious decision to dissemble and reassemble the very tissue of social life. Like Coolidge’s long poem on Beckett, one seeks something like a “word” to stand on by taking apart the very structures in which speech happens, showing how something as simple as pointing toward a thing in the world can involve a tremendous series of contortions: “There is nothing but…”



[1] Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, eds. C. Stephen Evans and Sylvia Walsh, trans. Sylvia Walsh (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006). For his take on the instrumentalization of ideas of “the public” for political interests, see The Present Age, trans. Alexander Dru (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1962). Perhaps his best example of his dialogic style by way of a series of textual personas, is: Either/Or, ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987).

[2] Albert Bermel, for example, published an article about humor in Ionesco in 1975 called, “Ionesco: Anything But Absurd,” Twentieth Century Literature Vol. 21, No. 4 (Dec., 1975), pp. 411-420.

[3] Samuel Beckett, Watt (New York: Grove Press, 2009) and Three Novels: Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnameable (New York: Grove Press, 2009). The English edition of Watt was published in 1953 and the English edition of Molloy was published in 1955