Abluesurdity: The Ethics of Absurdity in the Aesthetics of Hip-Hop

Outro as Intro: The Ethical Response to Absurdity in “The Message”[1]

The absurd has a meaning for someone. Fate does not precede history; it follows it. Fate is the history of the historiographers, accounts of the survivors, who interpret, that is, utilize the works of the dead. The historical distance which makes this historiography, this violence, this subjection possible is proportionate to the time necessary for the will to lose its work completely. Historiography recounts the way the survivors appropriate the works of dead wills to themselves; it rests on the usurpation carried out by the conquerors, that is, by the survivors; it recounts enslavement, forgetting the life that struggles against slavery.
– Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity (1961)

The pressure to be broken by incredible odds, by the poverty, ignorance, violence, indifference, that is one’s day to day environment in the town (Newark, NJ) is immense. It’s like a grey haunting presence one feels pushing against the outside and inside at the same time. But even so, a few fortunate people like Woody Shaw who are not stronger or brighter than the struggling masses of the city, but simply more consistently focused in a direction that can provide a shield and exit from the ghetto horror, do manage to make it out. And many times the stories they carry, told through whatever medium or form, are staggering in their brutality and shattering in their beauty!
— Amiri Baraka, Liner notes to the album Woody III, Columbia Records (1979)

Nietzsche began writing by calling for the rebirth of tragedy from the spirit of music. But that had already happened, as drama lost the use of poetry and turned to music.
– Stanley Cavell, Disowning Knowledge In Six Plays of Shakespeare (1987)

 

Prologue

Even if we accept Shakespeare’s self-reflexive analogy that “all the world’s a stage,”[2] we still recognize that the props and sets and plots are not all the same. There are many stages and many theaters, and each one becomes a confining globe. The stage delineates the boundaries within which characters act and are acted upon. When characters confront these existential limits, they usually discover—or, at least, the audience apprehends—that their actions and words cannot change their circumstances. They are not real after all. They stand before us in the flesh and prove their insubstantiality, provoking an essential confrontation with absurdity, since the absurd is what turns reality into unreality, meaning into nonsense, belief into doubt, hope into despair.

“The Message” (1982), hip-hop’s first anthem, ushered in a political aspect to hip-hop that remains in the genre’s DNA. Responding to the political and social realities that eviscerated black and Latino communities in the Bronx during the 1970s, “The Message” is widely recognized for its searing poetic rendition of ghetto life. Yet, the song renders the ghetto in two distinct ways. The first part is a lyric, which displays a powerful poetic vision of the speaker’s experience “in the ghetto living second-rate”; the second part is the outro, a convention that has been used in many rap songs but rarely with such philosophical force. Dialectically opposed, the lyric presents the ghetto in a theater of sincerity; the outro re-presents it in the theater of the absurd. Taken together, this dialectical representation of the ghetto forges a trenchant ethical response to intractable social absurdities.

As Richard A. Cohen argues in his introduction to his translation of Emmanuel Levinas and Philippe Nemo in Ethics and Infinity, “Ethics occurs…across the hiatus of dialogue, not in the content of discourse, in the continuities or discontinuities of what is said, but in the demand for response” (12). If this is so, then the very mode of “The Message” as a message counters the oppressive yet unassailable forces educed by the song with an ethical call that demands a response. The lyric illustrates Cohen’s insistence that “Ethics is forceful not because it opposes power with more power…but rather because it opposes power with what appears to be weakness and vulnerability but is responsibility and sincerity” (13). The outro goes even further by representing individual lives who must confront an absurd situation and to whom we must respond directly. By creating conditions for us to respond, the outro rebuts the machinations of the absurd by restoring in us, the audience, the potential for meaning, the possibility of belief, and the capacity for hope.

For all of its sincerity, the lyric, nevertheless, conveys its message through modes of poetic form; the outro, on the other hand, exists outside a manufactured lyric space, outside the meanings that poetry imposes on poverty and powerlessness through the force of the imagination. Therefore, while both the lyric sincerity and the dramatic absurdity register as authentic renderings of the ghetto, the latter—the rendering of the ghetto absurd—remains more attuned to the real. Shifting from the poetic to the dramatic, where the anonymous speaker is replaced with a cast of characters who appear to be none other than the rappers responsible for the preceding rhymes, the outro comments on the song’s message from the outside, playing out the repressive dynamics of power that make up the conditions out of which the lyric is uttered. Stanley Cavell’s suggestive distinction about the nature of the dramatic as opposed to the nature of the poetic in Disowning Knowledge applies here: “It is different from the experience of comprehending meanings in a complex poem or the experience of finding the sense of a lyric. These are associated with a thrill of recognition, an access of intimacy; not [as it is in drama] with a particular sense of exposure” (85). The seductive poetics of the lyric offer access to the lived experience in the ghetto (especially for those outside of it) through the emotional and psychic states of the speaker as the verbal ingenuity and deft wordplay imaginatively transform these psychological pressures and existential perils into a potent artistic portrayal of ghetto life. In contrast, the outro’s dramatizations of the same existential contingencies unsettle and ultimately destabilize the lyric’s eloquent and potentially transformative rendering, lest we mistake Melle Mel’s eloquence for a kind of control or, worse, an aestheticization of poverty and struggle through the poetic word’s facile mastering of insufferable social conditions.

The song begins with a beat that is both funky[3] and austere, an ominously methodical bass and drum counterpoised with the subtle uplift of ethereal, even spacey[4] arpeggios, all shattered too soon by the sound of broken glass.[5] The crashing glass cues the lyric and Melle Mel launches into a highly sensory poetic flite about the abysmal conditions of the ghetto: “Broken glass everywhere / People pissing on the stairs, you know they just don’t care.” Sound becomes word. Beginning with “broken,” Mel collages together images of destitution with a series of rhymed lines. The images are sutured together with consonance and an explosive alliteration on the “p” that interrupts the rolling “r”s and “s”s. Like the exquisite, disjunctive glitter of broken glass, the sonic poetics evokes claustrophobic conditions—“Rats in the front room, roaches in the back.” The lyric is a contradiction in itself: like an urban American Rilke, Mel makes something beautiful at the edge of what is, truly, an abyss. The absurd hovers at the edges of his speech, and Melle Mel staves off its meaninglessness by the sheer force and flow of his rhymes.

In these first lines, Mel conjures the absurdity of the situation, the almost unreal, nonsensical, hopelessness of it all. Things are worse than bad and there’s no escape. Just tracing the vehicular metaphors, we see Mel move quickly from the fact of having his car towed to the fantasy of hijacking a plane, moving from paralysis in the face of unalterable circumstances to an escapist fantasy that is only empowering in its absurdity; imagining himself as the agent rather than the recipient of terror, the desire to hijack a plane reverses the power dynamics inherent in his circumstances and amplifies them while the hyperbole shows the extremity of his desperation. In the course of this trajectory from reality to fantasy, Mel remains immobilized, “hanging out the window / Watching all the cars go by, roaring as the breezes blow.” In reality, Mel’s left to contemplate the deafening vicissitudes of the erratic winds, since he “can’t take the train to the job, there’s a strike at the station.” Before the paradox of underpaid workers preventing others from getting to their exploitative jobs can sink in, and before the oxymoron of an idled train can fully undercut an image that has remained a powerful symbol of mobility and social uplift at least since the Great Migration, these piling ironies collapse in on themselves and give way to another absurdity: “They pushed that girl in front of the train.” The train goes from a contradictory state of inertia to its incongruous function as a weapon. Meanwhile the speaker “can’t walk through the park… ‘cause they got me on the run”—another paradox that captures the paralysis as well as the inescapable terror resulting from his chaotic circumstances. The speaker must flee what he can’t escape, and in this we might also hear the spectral history of the slave narrative constructed out of similar contradictions: the need to find freedom even when, as Frederick Douglass pointedly put it, “We could see no spot, this side of the ocean, where we could be free” (123).

The four stanzas of episodic poetic narrative get resolved by a parable, a major tonal shift in the song marked by a rhetorical turn from ethos to logos, from a descriptive narrative to a philosophical moral and ostensible message. Through an intolerable prolepsis—where the speaker must imagine his son raped in prison as “a Maytag” before being found “hung dead in a cell”—the speaker warns his son against adopting any of the ghetto’s interchangeable, and ultimately subjugating, masculine identities:

all the number book-takers

Thugs, pimps, and pushers and the big money-makers

….

Smugglers, scramblers, burglars, gamblers

Pickpockets, peddlers, even panhandlers

The intense repetitions through alliteration, consonance, and assonance help reinforce the point that these identities are one and the same: they seem to guarantee power and respect on the street, but they are really nothing more than a death sentence. This inevitable outcome recalls the earlier scene of “hanging out the window” where, through a series of double-entendres, there is rapid regress from “standing” to “stooping” to “hanging.” The repeated images of hanging conjure a grim and longstanding legacy of lynching and the continuing cycle of vicious entrapments. However deeply painful to hear, the parable stands in ethical defiance of the destructive aspects of the ghetto. The parable rips a scrim of hope from a hopeless situation by revealing the speaker’s protective care for his son amidst ever constricting circumstances, chaotically hostile social forces, and an inventory of destructive identities that everywhere threaten to dehumanize. The insistence that nurture overwhelms nature—“A child is born with no state of mind / Blind to the ways of mankind”—becomes a defiant stand against the ghetto’s capacity to misshape and distort identities. Even as economic opportunities evaporate and possibilities for social uplift vanish, the speaker intimates that the moral force of his vision can change the situation, render something beautiful from the ugliness, and give his son a positive alternative to what’s out there.

The power of the lyric derives from its sincerity. This is the source of its realness, Mel’s empathic and authoritative witness of the stress and his moral insubordination to its rules. His sincerity is what also makes him vulnerable—“broke my last glass jaw”—to the dangers of the “jungle.” As powerful as it is, this penetrating, intimate act of bearing witness leads, as sincerity does, to reasoned argument. It is not an accident that the form of this lyric is more like a sermon or an essay than pop song, beginning with acute, experiential descriptions raised to the level of consciousness through a turn toward more abstract, philosophical conclusions. Following the long-standing dichotomy in African-American culture that the hip-hop scholar Imani Perry limns as “the division between the respectable and the funky stuff” or “the respectable and the rough” (4), the lyric of “The Message” represents, even with its grim images and mordant episodes, a “respectable” (because poeticized) ghetto; that is, it presents the speaker’s ennobling confrontation with denigrations of ghetto life. However noble, Reason is clearly no match against the Absurd.

But the song continues even after it ends, taking yet another unexpected turn, and, like a trickster, signifies on itself, flipping the genre from the poetic to the dramatic and shifting modes from a sincere rendering of absurdity to challenging the absurd on its own irrational grounds. The outro dramatizes the arrest of the group members in a random but all too common deus ex machina of a police raid on the corner. The raid rescinds any and all control over the crew’s autonomy to assemble, hang out, and make plans to go to a club in their pursuit of “the funky stuff.” The outro gives the lie to the promise that the celestial orders and beatific visions of art can overcome social chaos through the force of its vision. In this respect, Mel’s assured rhymes fail. They leave him exposed and vulnerable, while we are lead away from this theater of sincerity into a theater in the rough. Here in the outro, the reasons for the repressed rage (“Don’t push me, I’m close to the edge / I’m just trying not to lose my head) come to the fore, and the son’s protests against his dysfunctional, ill-serving school system, as well as his attraction to the litany of hard identities his father so adamantly warns him against, are cast in a starker light. By now we understand too well that the school is not a real option but a mere façade, a false exit to another dead end. We know, too, that the hard identities in the song are as destructive as they are seductive, not only because we’ve just heard the lyric but also because we listen retroactively. For better and worse, hip-hop has disseminated the thugs, pimps, and pushers through American popular culture for more than thirty years.

But this knowledge, this easy disapproval, can also make it more difficult to recognize the utility of these identities, the real if elusive option they offer a kid who knows that “to be a street sweeper” would be a better option than “a bum education.” At least then he’d have the satisfaction of cleaning up the broken glass and getting paid for it. The only other alternative—to “dance to the beat, shuffle my feet / Wear a shirt and tie and run with the creeps”—smacks of minstrelsy. In contrast to these limited alternatives, the hard identities draw on earlier prototypes designed to make intolerable oppression tolerable; like the traditional Stagolees and other Badmen, these identities mask the emotional, psychological, and physical vulnerability that come from incessant exposure to white supremacist systems. They are versions of a mask, as Paul Laurence Dunbar wrote, “that grins and lies”; they are an embodied means of protecting oneself from and even resisting denigrating policies enforced from the outside. As the son concludes, “You got to have a con in this land of milk and honey.” But built on “cons,” these hard identities usually default on their promise of power because they derive from, as the scholar Joshua Clover notes, “the tribulations of living in land where the property and power are always elsewhere” (39).

The parable forecloses hope with an ecce homo image of a boy who “lived so fast and died so young,” but this is only an imagined fate, and the prolepsis of the last line forestalls closure even as it anticipates this terrible end. [6] So while the parable resolves what has gone before, it also serves as a preamble. The speaker is not only prophet but also “chorus to this history”[7] that is about to play out as he sets the stage for the outro: “The places you play and where you stay / Looks like one big alleyway.” Like God “smiling” and “frowning,” fate still hangs in the balance, and the tonal pun in the parable is both a plea to and a sly giving up on God, as in the exasperated idiom, “God only knows.” The pun recalls both the African American spiritual “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen” and the cagily hidden blues within Bert Williams’s minstrel performances of “Nobody”:

When life seems full of clouds and rain

and I am filled with naught but pain,

who soothes my thumpin’ bumpin’ brain ?

Nobody

There is solipsism here, a sense of abandonment as well as abdication, and a renunciation of the absolute and of absolution. As prologue, this no-body-ness is a kind of disappearance or erasure that anticipates what happens to the crew in the outro and that the Badmen and other antiheroes associated with hip-hop were conjured to overcome. There’s defiance as well as despair in the conclusive line, “And your eyes will sing a song of deep hate,” an insolence that weathers into a blues: “But now your eyes sing the sad, sad song.” Taken as prologue rather than the moral to the story, the parable pushes us to the edge of absurdity and, as in Shakespeare’s Henry V, the lyric speaker becomes the Chorus who gives us only a poetic rendition of real events.

Now enter the “ciphers to this great accompt.”

 

Epilogue

Fundamentally interrogative, the outro begins and ends with a question, cycling through who (“that sound like Cowboy, man”), where (“Hey, where’s Creole and Rahiem at, man?”), what (“What?”), when (“When this happen?”), and, finally, why (“Why he doing this?”). Throughout, the questions frame a discourse of relationship and power, setting the terms of inquiry that either serve to acknowledge or to preemptively interpret the interlocutor. The drama of the outro is also organized around a crisis, a key turning point that transforms the questions from one thing into another, flipping their function and causing the outro, which is already signifying on the lyric, to equally signify on itself: half way through the drama, an impromptu gathering sours into a situation of malevolent threat when a police officer enters the scene to repeat, redact, and reinterpret the meaning of what is said in order to enforce an external system of control.

The outro starts with Melle Mel and the rest of the crew gathering and greeting each other. Coming after the lyric concluding with the boy “hung dead in a cell,” this continuance revives hope and contains the lyric by making it feel a little less imminent, a little less inevitable. It makes the lyric into what we want to believe it to be: a parable, an allegory, a metaphor; in other words, “just a poem.” It is a lesson but not an event, artistic expression but not an actual incident. The song is grim, but now that we see the crew who raps it materialize on the corner, we have a verifiable afterlife to the lyric’s fatal conclusion. The outro presents young black men not just surviving in the ghetto but making their struggles into art. What’s more, their pseudonyms—Money, Cowboy, Cooly, Rahiem—personify some of the things that the song has been about, and offer masculine identities distinct from the pimp list tetanized in the parable. Although they inflect American masculine stereotypes, these are playful, generally positive, and individualized alternatives. [8]

The outro begins innocently enough with what sounds like Scorpio telling Mel to check out a girl. The comment clearly defines a masculine space and perspective. Although fairly innocuous in this context, it is worth noting that Scorpio’s “see that girl” has its darker counterpart within the lyric as the peepshow and the grim circumstances of the Zircon princess. The juxtaposition makes clear that, despite the masculine space, the song articulates the distortion of both male and female identities by the pressures of the ghetto. In any event, the question instigates an interrogative mode that will continue until the end. After Scorpio points out the girl, the focus immediately shifts to the crew and again we see a move from sight (“see that girl”) to sound (“that sounds like Cowboy, man”) which echoes the “see-saw” pattern in the lyric: from watching the cars to hearing them roar; from watching the creeps at the peep show to telling stories “to the girls back home”; from watching TV to hearing the phone ringing; all of these resolved in the synesthesic act of witness, “your eyes will sing.” A flurry of acknowledgements follows, all phrased as questions:

Yo, what’s up, Money?

Yo.

Hey, where’s Creole and Rahiem at man?

These greetings are familiar, a means of collective recognition and, in the ease of their salutations, a sense of acceptance of things as they are. As Cavell emphasizes, “The world is to be accepted; as the presentness of other minds is not to be known, but acknowledged” (95). What is at stake by the end of the outro is this very ability to acknowledge and accept; it is also what, in the end, might stave off the imposing absurdity of a solipsistic authoritarian system, where nothing makes sense nor can sense be made, where no one can acknowledge or be acknowledged, and where acceptance gets crushed under the boot of intolerance.

We find out that Creole and Rahiem are “upstairs cooling out” before Scorpio asks, “So, what’s up for tonight, y’all?” The thing to note here is the repetition of “up,” which is quickly followed by “down”: “Yo, we could go down to the Fever, man” (emphasis mine). These spacial idioms take on particular significance if we hear the resounding rhetorical reverberations from Curtis Mayfield’s “Move on Up”[9] to the theme song for the popular mid-seventies TV sitcom The Jeffersons[10], and all the way back to Frederick Douglass’s 1845 Narrative of the Life, “my tendency was upward” (122). Unlike these earlier evocations of upward mobility that resist a downward arc, “up” and “down” here are not opposites; they are aligned through the power of their idiomatic usage, so that “up” and “down” become two powerful ways of saying the same thing. “What’s up” and what’s “going down” are both positive. There’s mention of the “Fever,” a reference to the club Disco Fever, a club in the Bronx considered to be the mecca of early hip-hop; there’s the suggestion to “check out Junebug,” a famous local deejay.[11] If we think about lyrics like “Take the A Train” preceding “The Message” or Gang Starr’s “The Place Where We Dwell” coming afterward, we might also glimpse how “The Message” is part of a lyric continuum that denies reductive notions of ghetto life by making its assumed marginality into an artistic mecca, a central site for cultural pilgrimage.[12]

But almost predictably, it is at this ebullient moment where the drama takes its fatal turn and violence bullies in:

Hey, yo, you know that girl Betty?

Yeah, man

Her mom’s got robbed, man

What?

Not again!

She got hurt bad

When this happen? When this happen?

Like the Zircon Princess, we hear about another episode of violence toward a woman. The gossip redacts the Zircon Princess’s “stories to the girls back home.” Where the Zircon Princess tells stories to impress the friends she’s left behind with her glitzy albeit fake identity, the story here passes on vital information about what’s happening in the neighborhood. This gossip intends to elicit concern, compassion, and care. We’re reminded that despite the easygoing joy expressed among the crew, violence is a repeated occurrence and, in the quick move from “what” to “when,” it has happened again. The fact that this time the assault is on a girl’s mother only makes it worse. The occurrence not only a more menacing rendition of the earlier scene where the brother steals his mother’s TV, but it also trounces the sacred, inviolable place mothers have in the culture.

The dialogue also gives an edge to the outro’s opening remark, as we move from “see that girl” to “know that girl.” Coming in the wake of the crew’s greetings and setting up the relaying of violence, the verb “know” here marks a phenomenological shift from noticing to recognizing, a form of acknowledgment that implies responsibility. William Jelani Cobb’s exegisis on the idiomatic and philosophical use of “recognize” in hip-hop culture, a word that literally means “to re-know,” can help explain the significance of this shift from seeing to knowing:

Thus the fact that the word recognize—meaning to “identify as previously known, take notice of, acknowledge, especially with appreciation” according to the books—takes a whole ‘nother level of connotation within this culture. On this street, to be told to recognize is to be issued an injunction, given a warning, schooled to the fact that there are consequences and repercussions for whatever has been said, done, or forgotten. (109)

This idiomatic intensification of the word takes the conventional meaning of “recognize” as “to acknowledge” and raises the stakes by emphasizing that this acknowledgment is a form of intimate awareness of another that has indelible ethical consequences.

Cobb’s description of the word “recognize” puts Cavell’s observations about the reality of the theater in a starker light. Here, Cavell rejoins those who insist that characters in a play are “not persons” and, therefore, while they are seen, they cannot be acknowledged:

Am I to remember that I am not responsible for those people up there? Presumably this is not a way of saying that they are none of my business or that they have not been made real for me by their creator. But what else is it a way of saying? Am I to remember that I do not have to confront them, give them my warnings or advice or compassion? But I am confronting them (unless my head or heart is lowered, in fear or boredom) and I have this advice or warning or compassion or anxiety; if you haven’t, you don’t see what I see. But I cannot offer it to them or share it with them. That is true; they cannot hear my screams. But that is something else; that is something I do not have to remember, something I know as I know that I cannot chose the content of my dreams or suffer my daughter’s pain or alter my father’s childhood. (90)

Applying Cavell to the outro, we must not simply relate to the characters as we relate to ourselves (as we are encouraged to do in the lyric) but put ourselves in relation to them independent of ourselves. Although we cannot offer or share with them our compassion or anxiety, as Cavell says, there are still consequences for us and for them; as we are in their presence, we remain responsible for what happens, although we cannot change the outcome. In fact, our situation as an audience is hardly distinguishable from their own. They, too, feel “compassion or anxiety” for another’s pain, and in their recognition of what happened to Betty and Betty’s mom, they feel responsible for them, even though they “cannot offer it to them or share it.” It’s a paradox we might associate with the absurd. Simply put, when the violence turns on the crew, it is our turn to feel at once responsible and powerless.

Cobb calls this confusion between the factual and the representational, hip-hop’s “asphalt naturalism” (109). Hip-hop, and “The Message” in particular, are not the first to express a radical realism. Writers like Douglass, Dunbar, and Chesnutt, and later Wright and Baldwin, had already confounded the literal and the literary in similar ways; yet, this particular tradition of American realism comes to a poignant extreme in hip-hop’s idea of “keeping it real.” The sense of the real in “The Message” has something to tell us about Cavell’s distinction between acknowledgment and knowing. In “The Message,” we assume to know the lyric speaker better than the crew dramatized in the outro, even though we understand the crew to be an “actual” representation of the Furious Five and Mel’s speaker to be only a persona. Again, this confusion results from the shift from a lyric mode to a dramatic one. We have less access to characters in a drama; they seem more distant, separated from us by the theatrical space and the proverbial fourth wall. As noted earlier, they are not to be known but acknowledged. This is a supreme irony of literary modes of representation: the characters who are more real—who are in closer proximity to the factual—are recognized as such because they remain less knowable. The crew in the outro appears to us like those actual others whom we pass on the street. Cavell explains the paradox by suggesting that we experience drama “more directly, without interposed descriptions or explanations.” However, this does not make dramatized characters more present. Rather, the unmediated aspect of the drama leaves characters “free from the necessity to describe or explain,” so they are more “opaque” (105). We know them as we know others and not, as the illusion and power of the lyric offers, as we know ourselves.

We can’t really know them, and our inability to intervene in any way forces us to grapple with the limits of our ability to change situations. As Cavell argues, “They are in our presence. This means, again, not simply that we are seeing and hearing them, but that we are acknowledging them (or specifically failing to)” (103). For Cavell, “Tragedy shows that we are responsible for the death of others even when we have not murdered them, and even when we have not manslaughtered them innocently” (103). If it seems absurd to think that listening to a song dropped over thirty years ago somehow makes us responsible for what happens to the people in what is at most a dramatic recreation of real events, then you get the point. This sense of absurdity inherent to the experience of listening to this song is what threatens to erode our ethical resolve. Absurdity has a way of presenting us with this philosophical loophole that can reduce “The Message” to an artifact of entertainment. It tells us that the song is just a song, and it isn’t real, that the crew and the officers in the outro are just characters in a drama. It disorients us by shattering our moral compasses until we are addled enough to forget that the song is “The Message” and, as such, means by making us aware of what is happening. And to become aware of what is happening is to reject notions that the song is from “back in the day” and accept that what is happening is still happening. Whether we decide to act on this knowledge or to ignore it is another matter, but either way, there are consequences: “avoidance of the presence of others is not blindness or deafness to their claim upon us; it is as conclusive as acknowledgment that they are present as murdering them would be” (Cavell 103).

So what, then, might be the measure of our obligation? In his philosophical dialogue with Philippe Nemo, Emmanuel Levinas considers the human face, echoing Cavell’s sentiment and adding another valence to this distinction between the act of acknowledgment and that of knowledge:

The face is meaning all by itself. You are you. In this sense once can say that the face is not “seen.” It is what cannot become a content, which your thought would embrace; it is uncontainable, it leads you beyond. It is in this that the signification of the face makes it escape from being, as a correlate of knowing. Vision, to the contrary, is a search for adequation; it is what par excellence absorbs being. But the relation to the face is straightaway ethical. The face is what one cannot kill…. Murder, it is true, is a banal fact: one can kill the Other; the ethical exigency is not an ontological necessity. (86-87)

For Levinas, acknowledging is other than knowing. Knowing intercalates between self and other what one already believes to be true (the officer, we’ll soon see, does this). Acknowledging, on the other hand, destabilizes our sense of self (and thus what we know) by putting us in (an ethical) relation to others, which makes us responsible for what happens to others while simultaneously freeing them from our imposed idea of who or what they are. In recognizing another’s autonomy and capacity for self-determination, we claim the same for ourselves, which, again, means we become responsible for what we do and do not do.

Among the many philosophers he names, Cavell does not mention Levinas, but there remains a strong correlation between Levinasian ethics and what Cavell calls the “tragedy in a theater and tragedy in actuality”:

In both, people in pain are in our presence. But in actuality acknowledgment is incomplete; in actuality there is no acknowledgment, unless we put ourselves in their presence, reveal ourselves to them. We may find that the point of tragedy in a theater is exactly relief from this necessity, a respite within which to prepare for this necessity, to clean out the pity and terror which stand in the way of acknowledgment outside. (104)

It is not the characters, then, that we must respond to. We do not have to decide how real or unreal they are. Rather, our paralysis in their presence rehearses and challenges our response to the real events represented in other more “real” theaters, such as the media. Listen to “The Message” and then ask, “How should I respond to the news of young black men killed by police over the last year: Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, John Crawford, Michael Brown, Ezell Ford, Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice, Tony Robinson, Eric Harris, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray?” Cavell acknowledges that art “can be motivated by a thirst for social change. But in an age in which the organs of news, in the very totality and talent of their coverage, becomes distractions from what is happening, presenting everything happening as overwhelmingly present, like events in old theater” (118). Cavell might conclude that if we do not “reveal ourselves” but rather “keep ourselves in the dark”—and I take Cavell to mean this both figuratively and literally—then “the consequence is that we convert the other into a character and make the world a stage for him” (104). Because, as Levinas concedes, “the ethical exigency is not an ontological necessity,” we are not required to act, although there are ramifications either way. In an age mediated by such a deluge of news, our ethical failure can seem almost inevitable. Absurdity has become our demiurge.

If, as Cavell seems to insist, “the intention to serious art can itself become a political act… because it is the intention to make an object which bears one’s conviction and which might bring another to himself” (118), then the lyric displays one individual’s courageous response to absurdity. Might we be more like him? Cavell’s observations again apply:

But we had hardly expected, what now is apparently coming to be the case, that the ordinary citizen’s ordinary faithfulness to his children may become a radical political act…. (118)

The speaker of the lyric presents us with a virtuous response to oppressive circumstances, emboldening us, and, perhaps, even giving us faith. But obviously our voyeuristic experience of the speaker’s struggle is not enough. We must go further, because it is when the lyric gets rescinded and replaced with the outro that the song makes demands on us in a way a lyric alone cannot. In the outro, it is us as well as the crew who are arrested when with “screeching tires—Police enter scene.” The first thing the officer says, a typical cop-show trope, resonates painfully with where we’ve been: “Freeze / Don’t nobody move nothing.” This is exactly the problem. It is exactly what the speaker has been fighting from the beginning and now what we, too, are recognizing as our own struggle. Paralysis. Immobility.

The officer continues: “y’all know what this is!” Out of context, this almost sounds like the MC’s first salvo to get the party started. It would, in fact, mean this if it were said in the first half of the outro by one of the crew. One of the crew immediately responds, “What?” The response answers a question with a question. It echoes the officer’s injunction in an attempt to keep open the interpretation of “what this is.” But we know as well as they that the scene has already been scripted. The officer assumes. He assumes that they’ve all been through this before. The scene has been rehearsed although it hasn’t yet happened. They know how to perform their roles as he does his, and the crew’s attempts to flip the script, to engage the officer, and to say “what this [actually] is” won’t change the narrative.

As suggested before, this is in part a problem of knowledge. The officer already knows “what this is” and his knowledge prevents him from seeing the crew for who they are as they are (“You are you”). The officer is not present to the crew and uses his preconceptions as a replacement for both recognition and acknowledgment.[13] He commands, “Get’em up.” When the officer says this, it is the first step toward arresting the crew; ironically, though, the phrase is exactly what the song has been attempting to do the whole time. To get up. To get over. The speaker of the lyric wants to get out from under the “neon King Kong” and no longer “stoop” and to “keep from going under.” The officer’s use, though, is in line with being “sent up for a eight-year bid.” This is the kind of reverse signifying that re-transfigures an apotheosis back into base matter. From Douglass’s insistence “My tendency was upward” (122) to Mayfield’s and Brown’s inspiring “move on up” and to “get on up” a hundred-and-twenty years later, the officer stops this progress dead in its tracks with his orders and screeching tires. Suddenly, the desire to hijack a plane—to take hostages rather than be the hostage, to get up, up, and away—doesn’t seem so extreme.

The harmony between opposites no longer holds: Get’em up…Get’em up!—We’re down with Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five—…Look, shut up!” The signifying “down,” what was just a moment ago aligned with “what’s up,” is back to expressing an opposition; yet, it is a verbal defense insufficient to overturn the official command. In fact, it enforces it. The reason for making the crew shut their mouths and put up their hands is to bring them down, literally and figuratively. It is both arrest and erasure. What could be worse than telling poets not to speak? When they identify themselves as Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, an opportunity briefly opens for the officer to acknowledge them; instead, in a self-justifying interpretation, the officer superimposes what he already knows them to be: “What is that, a gang?” It is not a question. The officer imposes one discourse on another in order to decipher (as well as de-cipher) the responses of the crew. In doing so, the officer maintains a brutalizing system of control.

Robin D.G. Kelley gives an explicit account of the interpretive consequences of such imposed perspectives, even when well intentioned:

[T]he culture concept employed by social scientists has severely impoverished contemporary debates over the plight of urban African Americans and contributed to the construction of the ghetto as a reservoir of pathologies and bad cultural values…. When social scientists explore ‘expressive’ cultural forms or what has been called ‘popular culture’ (such as language, music, and style), most reduce it to expressions of pathology, compensatory behavior, or creative ‘coping mechanisms’ to deal with racism and poverty…. Few scholars acknowledge that what might also be at stake here are aesthetics, style, and pleasure…. By conceiving black urban culture in the singular, interpreters unwittingly reduce their subjects to cardboard typologies who fit neatly into their own definition of the “underclass” and render invisible a wide array of complex cultural forms and practices. (120)

The officer’s reduction of the crew to “cardboard typologies” is exactly what the outro of “The Message” exposes and contests, as the ebullient “Yeah, man” now becomes “Naw, man!” In the beginning, questions served as a call and response; now, the questions are rhetorical, and, like the train, they have gone from modes of conveyance to a strange kind of weapon: “Look, shut up! I don’t want to hear your mouth.” The pattern of watching followed by speaking or hearing threading through the song gets repeated—“Look…shut up”—and then negated.

As reciprocity gets undermined, the members of the crew are made to disappear even before they are taken away in the police car. Their retorts to the officer’s assumptions, their attempts to define themselves, their effort to get the officer to recognize, all fall on deaf ears. “What’s the problem?” slips from a question of social decay and political neglect to a question of identity. We can imagine that fixed list of thugs, pimps, and pushers the lyric speaker so desperately wants his son to avoid replaying in the officer’s head as he stutters, “Ain’t no—You the problem.” Antithetical to the Levinasian notion of “You are you,” the officer’s statement objectifies and reduces the crew “to cardboard typologies who fit neatly into [the officer’s] own definition” (Kelley 120). The officer starts to say that there is no problem, but stops short. It is too evident that there is a problem; yet, to articulate the problem the way the lyric does would obligate the officer to question his role in a system of surveillance and control, and this would, in turn, require him to take personal responsibility for the members of the crew standing before him. In his inability to articulate what the problem actually is, he projects the problem onto them. The victimized become scapegoats for the more complex systemic injustices that get obscured, ignored, and even reified by the officer’s insistence on playing out a set script. “You know what this is,” because not to know would thrust the officer into the same ethical quandary in which we find ourselves.

Instead of entering into a personal relation with the crew, the officer quashes any ethical obligation with physical force. By arresting the crew, the officer enacts the very thing the song is meant to stave off: “You ain’t got to push me, man.” This precariously loaded statement gets quickly punctuated with a starkly ironic command: “Get in the car.” An unraveling and then a reversal. A ride out of the ghetto finally appears at the moment we are all pushed over the edge. But it is a ride in the back of a cop car to the very place where the lyric ends. A cell. Whatever innocence and revived hope the outro offered at the beginning is entirely snuffed out. Going down to the Fever is now a trip down to the station. Theme and variation get reduced to violent repetition. And yet. The outro doesn’t end there. In his increasing agitation, the officer again interrupts himself in an attempt to maintain his composure, even as he shoves the crew into the car. The officer stutters, “Get in the god—I said get in the car!”[14] Where before the officer’s “self-restraint” allows him to substitute the crew in place of the circumstances, now, the officer’s attempt to keep his cool emphasizes how emotionally charged this scene has become. The officer’s authoritative rhetoric cannot conceal his personal investment in the role he plays.

But if justice is to prevail, this can’t be. As Levinas emphasizes, “Justice, exercised through institutions, which are inevitable, must always be held in check by the initial interpersonal relation” (90). Especially at the point of arrest, the officer must maintain a compassionate disinterest that suspends any personal investment he might have in the situation: “[J]ustice only has meaning if it retains the spirit of dis-interestedness which animates the idea of responsibility for the other man” (99). He must respond to the situation as it is and not just play a predetermined role. The officer’s apparent moment of verbal restraint reverberates back through the song, from the religious allusion in the reference to All My Children, to the Old Testament reference in needing “a con this land of milk and honey,” to the address to God “smiling” and “frowning” in the parable. However accidental, the officer forges an apt link between “God” and the cop car. All authority remains outside, uninvested, and amoral. “God” is simply another name for the use of force.

It is a fatal irony that the outro can only achieve the lyric’s expressed desire for escape by ending up at the same place where the son is left “hung dead in a cell. ” The two ghettos have merged. In fact, they were always one and the same, even if at times the two ghettos, to borrow again from Cavell, “do not occupy the same space”:

There is no distance between [them], as there is none between me and a figure in my dream, and none, or no one, between me and my image in a mirror…. [They] occupy the same time. And the time is always now; time is measured solely by what is now happening to them, for what they are doing now is all that is happening. The time is of course not necessarily the present…. But the time presented, whether the present or the past, is this moment, at which an arrival is awaited, in which a decision is made or left unmade, at which the past erupts into the present in which reason or emotion fail…. (105)

By coming together, the song’s two ghettos emblematize the way the space of the song and the space we occupy as listeners is one and the same as well. The lyric and the outro are existentially as well as aesthetically interdependent, but they implicate us in “The Message” even as reason fails to explain what happens. It fails because the outro, unlike the parable, which can explain the causes and the effects, cannot take account of what occurs. No matter how staged, the arrest just seems random. We’re left asking, “Why he doing this?”

This lingering question makes it crucial to hear that the song does not end when the drama resolves. The song continues, and in this case, the looping cyclical beats that have become essential to the aesthetics of hip-hop, have existential as well as a temporal effect. Although Bradley and Du Bois end their transcription of the lyric with the officer’s command to “get in the car,” the officer does not, in fact, have the last word. In an urgent plea that gets swallowed by the noisy mayhem during the arrest, a member of the crew—Scorpio?—speaks up: “Why he doing this?” This reopens the song to the ethical question that the officer himself could not ask but that we must hear while the crew gets carted away and the dopplering sirens fade out. We watch the officer act, and we are left asking, “Why?” Do we absolve ourselves from responsibility because we are more like the officer than we might want to admit? Or does absurdity triumph by virtue of the fact that we cannot make sense of what happened and, therefore, are made to feel helpless? How do we account for the fact that the officer acts and we do not, especially when Cavell argues that the point of tragedy is “to make us practical, capable of acting” (118). Is it enough to say we not actors; we’re just the audience?

The absurdity played out in the song would seem to abjure any ethical action and foster a free-for-all, which could only manifest as either social chaos or riotous rebellion. The ethical imperative Levinas lays out, though, means to endure circumstances that remain unstable, unpredictable, and even irrational. When pushed over the edge of reason, ethical action becomes the only viable response to the absurd, the only response that is humanizing, self-sustaining, enduring. In his study of the absurd in literature, Neil Cornwell asks “If the world, or indeed the universe, is an absurdity, why should its existentialist or absurdist proponents trouble themselves to offer coherent artistic or philosophical accounts of this phenomenon (although some at least, it may be claimed, at times do not)?” (np). One reason would be to counterpoise absurdity with an artistic order that contains it, even if the artistic expression is premised on and presents us with an absurd reality. “The Message” as a song exemplifies such an ordering of the intolerable: the song is a constrained channeling of energies and emotions that, if not transmuted into art, would make us all go insane.

In the “Translator’s Introduction” to Ethics and Infinity, Richard A. Cohen says, “Ethical priority, according to Levinas, occurs as the moral height of the other person over being, essence, identity, manifestation, principles, in brief, over me” (10). Consider the myriad, mutually destructive masculine identities proffered by the song along with the officer’s failure to acknowledge the individuals he is about to arrest. In light of a Levinasian ethics, these identities, both the thugs and the officers, are mirror images of one another and want to wrest power for themselves alone. They even create each other and, mutually reinforcing, perpetuate another vicious cycle. The tolerant response of the crew to the officer, while it falls short of changing the outcome of the drama, does present an ethical position bulwarked against the encroachments of the licentious self-legitimization of power. They vociferously protest but keep their cool. They attempt to explain and, in doing so, try to put themselves in relation to the officer. The contrast between them and the officer is revealing. As Levinas insists,

It is extremely important to know if society in the current sense of the term is the result of a limitation of the principle that men are predators of one another, or if to the contrary it results from the limitation of the principle that men are for one another. Does the social, with its institutions, universal forms and laws, result from limiting the consequences of the war between men, or from limiting the infinity which opens in the ethical relationship of man to man?” (80).

Representing “the social, with its institutions, universal forms and laws,” the officer exposes the limit of ethical action by intruding on and curtailing the corner assembly where “the infinity which opens in the ethical relationship of man to man.”

This is what makes “The Message” tragic in Cavell’s sense: “Tragedy was the price of justice, in a disordered world. In a world without the hope of justice, no price is right” (114). In the song, we must bear the fact that the deft ethical eloquence of the lyric is coopted by forces that want to make its sincere regard into theater. Our temporary relief at the beginning of the outro that the lyric is just a poem makes us complicit in this conservative blowback because in this response we deny the reality of what is being said: “Tragedy has moved into the world, and with it the world becomes theatrical” (115 We set ourselves up to mistake the individuals apprehended on the street for characters in a drama who fulfill their subjugated roles as statistics for a police blotter. The world becomes real not despite but because it is the absurd. So what hope do we have? Cavell gives us Kierkegarrd and Kant:

In the realm of the spirit, Kierkegarrd says, there is absolute justice. Fortunately, because if all we had to go on were the way the world goes, we would lose the concept of justice altogether; and then human life would become unbearable…. What is necessary is [the soul’s] own coherence, its ability to judge a world in which evil is successful and the good are doomed; and in particular its knowledge that while injustice may flourish, it cannot rest content. (81)

This uneasy conclusion sounds very much like a testament of faith if not a giving up on the world as presented to us in the here and now. But then returning to “The Message,” it is hard to refute Cavell’s observations. Is it any accident that the only thing on the move, that can move and “cannot rest content,” is the cop car?

And yet, even accepting Cavell’s de-moralizing conclusion, we still might find hope. In referring us to the resources offered by African American culture that can help us “figure out how to live under duress with a sense of possibility that does not deny the suffering of the present,” the scholar Tricia Rose asks, “How could you possibility have a hopeful disposition in the face of [a horrible] reality?” Rose answers:

Well, that’s the only kind of hope African Americans have had a long time cultivating…. The embrace of a kind of tragic/comic sensibility. The ability to see in tragedy, in suffering, in negative conditions a kind of critical, sarcastic, satirical comic response to it… [and to]…recognize the tragedy of it but not be consumed by it.

Is it possible to see “The Message” as operating in such a comic mode, a comedy masked as tragedy, a potent reversal of the mask Dunbar described in “We Wear the Mask” almost a hundred and twenty years ago?” The question returns us to the music. We can hear how “The Message” as a rap song, as a music played in the club or at a party, its ebullient and affecting beats buoying up a penetrating message, is its fiercest form of protest. This creative energy is an enduring form of hope in the face of terror. We feel it when the crew greets each other, an infectious joy emerging from relationships based on mutual respect and care. As suggested before, the question for us is whether to use this moment as a means to turn tragedy into theater (i.e. as proof that things really aren’t that bad), or to recognize in these interactions an alternative way of being in the world, despite a social reality based on the consequences of limiting, if not predatory, institutional forms and laws.

The agitated cop car does indeed drive off with the crew inside; however, here, as with the proleptic conclusion in the lyric, the end is forestalled. We anticipate what will happen to them, but it has yet to occur. It may seem inevitable, but, as Levinas reminds us, it is not: “What goes on to happen is not inevitable; but anything that goes on to happen inevitably bears marks of what has gone before” (113). History repeats. It is the function of art to make it repeat with a difference. Listen again to the chorus:

It’s like a jungle sometimes it makes me wonder

How I keep from going under repetitions

In the Bradley and DuBois transcription, there’s a comma after “jungle” which I’ve left out because the grammar enforces one reading of these lines, and we need to hear the if we are to glean what hope there is in the hook. With the comma, the chorus says that the ghetto is like a jungle. This condition makes the speaker wonder sometimes and wonder in particular how he keeps from going under. This reading begs the question, “Why only sometimes?” Sometimes it makes him wonder. And at other times is he too overwhelmed by the struggle to even think, let alone wonder? Are there times when he, like the Zircon Princess, loses his senses? Perhaps there are times that even he, a poet, can no longer think to feel.

The other reading would put a semi-colon after “sometimes.” In this reading, which is also substantiated by the way Mel delivers the line, the simile of the jungle becomes provisional while the speaker’s wondering remains constant. The ghetto is like a jungle sometimes. And other times? Having used Cavell thus far as a means to examine “The Message,” the parallels between the song and Lear naturally spring to mind. When Lear dies heartbroken, Kent wonders: “The wonder is, he hath endured so long.” This is the same tragic wonder we hear in the chorus of “The Message.” Albany’s response attempts to sum up the horror of what’s occurred:

The weight of this sad time we must obey;
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most: we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.

Despite the anachronism, it shouldn’t be hard to see how these lines have an analogue in hip-hop, a genre that arises in response to a extreme social crisis and continues to speak what it feels and not what it ought to say. But in either context, whether Lear or “The Message,” is it that easy to “speak what we feel”? Even when we can find the words, do we always know what that is, especially when “it’s like a jungle sometimes”? If the phrase heard without the comma suggests that the wondering reaches for what else “the jungle” could be, what other simile might allow the speaker to (re)imagine his situation so as not to succumb to the absurdity of it all? The song answers by leaving a fissure of space, a temporal delay, even at the very end, for us to try and imagine an alternative before turning fate’s wheel. Although there are many others, this may be the ultimate message of “The Message.” Even at this final moment of the outro when everything seems said and done, we are left with the incitement that we can still intervene if we can only figure out how. As Cavell might insist, the capability of acting begins with acknowledgment, making others real to us, and not giving in to the debilitating self-justifying conditions of absurdity. We remain responsible for what happens: “Fate does not precede history; it follows it.”

 

WORKS CITED

Baraka, Amiri (LeRoi Jones). Blues People: Negro Music in White America New York: Harper, 1963. Print.

Baraka, Amiri. Transbluesency. New York: Marsilio, 1995. Print.

Baraka, Amiri. Liner notes. Woody III. Columbia Records, 1979. CD.

Cavell, Stanley. Disowning Knowledge In Six Plays of Shakespeare. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987. Print.

Clover, Joshua. 1989: Bob Dylan Didn’t Have This to Sing About. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009. Print.

Cobb, William Jelani. To the Break of Dawn: A Freestyle on the Hip Hop Aesthetic. New York: New York University Press, 2007. Print.

Cornwell, Neil. The Absurd in Literature. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2006, Kindle edition 2013.

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Ed. Houston A. Baker, Jr. New York: Penguin, 1982. Print.

Dubois, Ja’net and Jeff Barry. “Movin’ on Up: The Jeffersons’s Theme Song.” CBS, 1975. Television.

Ellington, Duke. “Transbluency.” The Complete RCA-Victor Mid-Forties Recordings (1944-1946). RCA, 2000. CD.

Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five. “The Message.” The Anthology of Rap. Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois, Eds. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010. 73-77. Print.

Kelley, Robin D.G. “Looking for the ‘Real’ Nigga: Social Scientists Construct the Ghetto.” That’s the Joint!: The Hip-Hop Studies Reader. Eds. Murray Forman & Mark Anthony Neal. New York: Routledge, 2004. 119-136. Print.

Levinas, Emmanuel. Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Philippe Nemo. Trans. Richard A. Cohen. Pittsburgh: Duquesne UP, 1985. Print.

Levinas, Emmanuel. Totality and Infinity. Trans. Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne UP, 1961. Print.

Mayfield, Curtis. “Move on Up.” Superfly. Curtom, 1972. LP.

Orejuela, Fernando. Rap and Hip Hop Culutre. New York: Oxford UP, 2015. Print.

Perry, Imani. Prophets of the Hood: Politics and Poetics in Hip Hop. Durham: Duke UP, 2004. Print.

Pound, Ezra. The Cantos of Ezra Pound. New York: New Directions, 1996. Print.

Rose, Tricia. American Studies Day: What’s Up America? Eberhard Karls University. Tübingen, Germany. 5 July 2014. Keynote Address. Web.

Shakespeare, William. As You Like It. Eds. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. New York: Washington Square Press, 1997. Print.

Shakespeare, William. Henry V. Eds. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. New York: Washington Square Press, 1995. Print.

Senger, Travis Gutierrez, dir. White Lines and the Fever: The Death of DJ Junebug. Lincoln Leapord Films, 2010. Film.

Whitman, Walt. Song of Myself. New York: Penguin, 1995. Print.

Young, Kevin. The Grey Album. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2012. Print.

 

NOTES

[1] This is a riff off the title of Amiri Baraka’s collected poems, Transbluesency (1995), which is a play off Duke Ellington’s tune “Transblucency” (1946).

[2] As You Like It, 2.7

[3] LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), Blues People: Negro Music in White America (New York: Harper, 1963). In his discussion of hard bop, Baraka argues, “the adjective funky, which once meant to many Negroes merely a stink (usually associated with sex), was used to qualify the music as meaningful…. The social implication, then, was that even the old stereotype of a distinctive Negro smell that white America subscribed to could be turned against white America. For this smell now, real or not, was made a valuable characteristic of “Negro-ness.” And “Negro-ness,” by the fifties, for many Negroes (and whites) was the only strength left to American culture” (219-220); Kevin Young, The Grey Album (Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2012). Young updates Baraka’s sense of the word by citing Susan Willis: “‘Funk’ is really nothing more than the intrusion of the past into the present. It is most oppositional when it juxtaposes a not-so-distant social mode to those evolved under bourgeois society” (291). Young then brings us back to Jones by adding his own gloss: “Funk goes even further, a fourth world and term that plays with both respectability and being outré, if only by reveling in the body and black being…. [F]unk, named for the ‘stank’ of dance and sex and work, emphasizes the moment’s journey beyond even the body, a physicality that mirrors spiritual motion….. Recall too that a funk is another, Africanized word for the mood we call having the blues” (292).

[4] Kevin Young, The Grey Album (Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2012). In its associations with the transcendent, Young, at least, sees outer space as an extension of funk: “But we also may see in funk a broader notion of space—what critic Fredric Jameson views as one of the postmodern era’s dominant features. Just as Jameson sees space as taking over from a previous paradigm of time, let’s stick with space here too—but we need not see it as simply a negative aspect of late capitalism…. [S]pace in all senses not so much as negative as negative capability—a new resource to be played with. Such play is freeing, fun, funky…” (294-295).

[5] The broken glass is the intrusion of the literal and, as the sampling of an actual sound rather than a musical phrase insists, the introduction of “the real.” Kevin Young again explains: “The sound of smoking and hits from the bong in Snoop and Biggie, not to mention the sounds of oral sex or other fluids, were ways of hardcore rap’s further declaring its verisimilitude – often literally pissing on its territory. This is real, the songs insisted, and realness was, just like the broken glass in ‘The Message’ everywhere.” (ibid. 368)

 

[6] The last line of the parable, and the lyric, ends on the word “so”—“Of how you lived so fast and died so young, so”—and there is no period. The line is an enjambment that flows fluidly back into the chorus (i.e. “so / Don’t push me ‘cause / I’m close to the edge”). But thinking about other significant open-ended poetic endings, like the absence of the period in Walt Whitman’s 1855 version of “Song of Myself” or the last line of Ezra Pound’s first “Canto,” which ends with “So that:.” This “so” signals a powerful continuance in its own right, a refusal of closure, and an insistence on our response (So…?).

[7] Henry V, 1.Prolgue.32

[8] Rahiem might seem like the outlier here, a name rather than a type like Cowboy or Money or Creole; yet, it is the exception that makes the rule. Given the content of the song, Rahiem, meaning “merciful or compassionate,” may be most significant and most allegorical name of all.

[9] “Move on up, and keep on wishing / Remember your dream is your only scheme / So keep on pushing”

[10] Well we’re movin’ on up, /To the east side / To a deluxe apartment in the sky.”

[11] A painful instance of life imitating art that can remind us how the line between the representational and the real is hard to draw. DJ Junebug is slain the year after the release of the “The Message.” For more information on DJ Junebug: http://www.junebugfever.com/cast.html

[12] For example, as Fernando Orejuela writes in Rap and Hip Hop Culutre (New York: Oxford UP, 2015): “New Wave pop-crossover sensation Blondie recorded ‘Rapture’ in 1980 and introduced the hip hop scene to a new set of consumers. The tune was the only ‘rap song’ to reach number one on the Billboard chart during the 1980s…. The song lyrics celebrate two icons most notably, Fab Five Freddie and Grandmaster Flash, and the video includes Fab Five Freddie and Lee Quinones writing graffiti, as well as a young Jean-Michel Basquiat as a DJ” (77).

[13] As Cavell puts it: “For its characters, having for whatever reason to forgo presentness to their worlds, extend that disruption in their knowing of it” (95).

[14] Bradley and DuBois transcribe it as “Get in the godda—”; but I hear it as only “god” and, as I argue, this hearing is far more resonant with the way the song signifies on itself and extends its meaning to the larger systems of belief imposed on the crew.

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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a-zhUBPDitk.

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: http://www.webdubois.org/dbAfricanRWar.html). 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 (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/17/theater/reviews/we-are-proud-to-present-a-presentation-at-soho-rep.html?_r=0) 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” (https://www.mturk.com/mturk/welcome), 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…”

 

NOTES

[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