Box 2

What Could the Comedy of Things Be?

George E. Marcus and Nicolas Langlitz

NL: We have all been brought to this lovely beach hotel in Tisvilde, Denmark, to flesh out a phrase that Morten Pedersen and Morten Axel Nielsen have given us, the comedy of things. They want us to explore and fill it through different modes of small group collaboration and performance. It is not so clear what stakes anyone has in the topic itself. It seems a congenial one for the many invitees sharing an interest in anthropological discussions of ontology.GM: It is worth making a stab at addressing the topic though since we were each asked to write short essays on what the comedy of things could be. Following Hayden White’s review of classic tropes of narrative emplotment in history, comedy deals with the relations, situations, and predicaments generated by unintended consequences. Unlike romance, tragedy, or satire, it is interested in the dynamics of order. This makes comedy disappointingly seem like the functionalism we know: an affirmation of the status quo. But it is not produced to reveal or express the laws of order.

NL: I was also thinking about Hayden White’s Metahistory. I read it a long time ago and only have the dimmest of memories, but one thing that I took from it is that any series of historical events can be told in different manners: as tragedy, romance, satire, or as comedy. I’ve recently started to study the controversy around chimpanzee culture and followed a group of cultural primatologists to the rainforest in Central and West Africa. It’s quite depressing: with the human population growing and growing, the apes will rather sooner than later be driven to extinction. On the short run their survival is affected by political decision- making, but if you think about the next century it basically seems to be a natural historical process. I’m longing for some comic relief in this comédie humaine – or really comédie simiesque – but it seems almost impossible not to tell the story in determinist and tragic terms.

GM: David Fischli and Peter Weiss’ performance Der Lauf der Dinge [The Way Things Go] seems to express a determinist philosophy that is not tragic. It’s actually quite funny to see how this long chain of objects set each other in motion – in the most unlikely ways: water is spilled from a bucket, which ignites a chemical, which sets a fire ablaze, which makes a tea kettle boil, which shoots a knife into a balloon, and so on, and so on. The world in amusing destructive progression toward – what? There is comedic potential in the violence of it. The order of things being endlessly destroyed to sustain a potentially endless chain of being. With Fischli and Weiss there are two human male jokers behind this, evoking for me the greatest portrayal of The Joker… Heath Ledger’s in the Batman movie The Dark Knight – the most excessive performance of a comedian of things in the 21st century.

NL: The humor of Der Lauf der Dinge reminded me of Voltaire’s Candide, which ridicules determinism and Leibniz’s idea that we’re living in the best of all possible worlds. One horrible event leads to another and so it goes on and on, from the Lisbon earthquake to people being burned at the stake, freed in the last minute only to murder someone and subsequently be enslaved, you name it. And every once in awhile the greatest metaphysician of his time, Dr. Pangloss, shows up to assure the reader that “all is necessary for the best end.” After all, had Columbus not caught syphilis on the West Indies we should have neither chocolate nor cochineal. In both cultural and evolutionary anthropology, this worldview corresponds to the logic of functionalism that you have addressed earlier. Each social institution has evolved to fulfill our human needs (Latour’s ethnography of the making of law is a good contemporary example of this anti- critical stance). Each behavior must be perfectly adapted to its environment because it was shaped by the all-powerful hand of natural selection. Stephen Jay Gould criticized this adaptationist program in evolutionary anthropology as the “Panglossian Paradigm.”

GM: Yes, but Candide is rather a satire than a comedy. Comedy is not about an expression of the laws of order or about functionalism. It is about order and unexpected or unintended relations. There are several alternative ways to find, locate, and then represent the world in fieldwork. I would say that comedy has been the favorite mode of ethnographic narrative emplotment in an anthropology which locates itself in history, the present, and the global. It is an interesting question how the comedic can still somehow serve an anthropology that is less interested now in narrative, or its modes of emplotment. An anthropology that is less interested in linking to history or the present and the near future as crisis. This question seems particularly pertinent to this workshop where so many participants have been associated with that so-called ontological turn.

NL: In my reading, one way of dividing the recent anthropological literature on ontology would be to distinguish between authors who pit different ontological perspectives against each other while being agnostic about the metaphysical makeup of the world and those who advocate an ontology of their own. The latter have also been promoting an ethnographic interest in things. I wonder how that relates to comedy?

GM: Comedy aims at demonstrating connections where these are not obvious to those present. Things can do this, though under human design, as in a Rube Goldberg sequence. But they or other than human life forms can increasingly appear to create consequences for life generally. Though always unintended?

NL: Yes, things can thwart human intentions and that can be comical. Jokes often call into question the border between being a person and being a thing. Just think of how many jokes refer to our bodily nature. Wasn’t it the anthropologist Alan Dundes who argued that we Germans are obsessed with farting and shitting in our jokes? In my fieldwork with Swiss psychopharmacologists I realized that whenever they talked about themselves as their brains – as “neurochemicals selves,” as Nikolas Rose put it – they were actually joking. One person in the lab had just fallen in love and would come in every morning giving reports on his oxytocin levels. As he was breaking up with the new girlfriend all that talk very quickly came to an end and he reverted to good old psychobabble. Assigning agency to things such as brain chemicals rather than oneself as a person tended to be humorous because people presented themselves self-ironically in ways that are not very flattering. There should be deeper, more romantic reasons for being in love with someone than oxytocin levels. That’s also a comedy of things of sorts. It provides a sense of comic relief.

GM: Laughter signifies relief and connection with an integrated world. The comedy of things is a mode for humans to focus on such developments which they do not understand or have limited means to do so. It is equally therapeutic in that it favors redemptive or restorative outcomes. But comedy does not require laughter. Formally, the comedic is indifferent normatively among things, persons, and other forms of life. Actually, it creates strategies to viscerally overcome this indifference. Remember Jesper Jargil’s documentary De udstillede [The Exhibited] on Lars von Trier’s 1996 theater production Psychomobile 1: The World Clock, which the organizers gave us to watch before coming to this workshop. It’s a good example because the actors’ actions were determined by the behavior of ants thousands of miles away in the New Mexican desert. It evokes the value of uncertain reception and incites fear of exposure, humiliation, and the capacity to be violent and tolerate cruelties.

NL: As a label for this workshop, The Comedy of Things also reflects an experimental form of collaborative engagement. We received a deliberately enigmatic invitation, which did not specify what this workshop would be about – just the promise that it would violate academic expectations. Three days before coming here we were sent these boxes with the DVDs to watch, a clock with a countdown running, and a voice recorder with instructions that still kept both the purpose and the process of the enterprise a secret. When we arrived new instructions were given, but we continued to act in a rather opaque space. It’s reminiscent of Lars von Trier’s approach in that theater production: instead of giving the actors a script, they were only provided with a general description of their characters and the actual plot was made up as they went along. But whatever the intentions of the individual actors or even the whole group might have been, they were constantly derailed by the movements of those ants that were recorded in a faraway desert and communicated to Copenhagen. The ants serve as a proxy of divine will – but the will of a deus absconditus, a God whose intentions are hidden from us humans and who has the power to violate any natural and social order. One day he decides to take away your child and leaves it up to you to reconcile your loss with the belief that we are living in the best of all possible worlds. I guess that’s what Darwin didn’t want to put up with anymore after his beloved daughter had died of an infection. It’s a form of capricious determinism. In a way that’s what the participants of this workshop have been subjected to as well. Instead of being pious we should start making jokes about the workshop like my psychopharmacologist friends are joking about their brains.

GM: If the goal of this process was the production of anthropological knowledge, The Comedy of Things was not especially intellectually robust. Clever yes, but it is not a machine of innovation to build new thinking or concept work. It shapes forms and has effects. One still has to figure things out… or not. To those who take themselves seriously as knowledge producers, the apparent frivolity of the comedic is threatening or troubling. It need not make a point or argument; if it asserts big ideas they are usually bloated, sloganish, not fresh. Relations have been saved, integrative forms redeemed. This understanding of comedy creates the conditions for extending thought to unusual objects, partners, and connections. The return to order is guaranteed. Otherwise you have entered another tropological and affective zone. The more interesting, but perhaps frightening response, is the joker, the violent and endless destroyer of worlds… to some limit. Comedy also encompasses this alternative vision. Give me violent pushing of extremes to the edges of integrative possibility, any day, over the alternative of civility. Here I am talking about imaginative emplotments of narrative.

NL: That takes us back to Hayden White for whom the comedic structure of historical storytelling moves from peace to conflict and back to peace. The goal of such comedic history is reconciliation.

GM: And it still limits comedy to human agency, human question-asking, and observation. Perhaps the notion of comedy of things exceeds this presumption. I would like to be convinced and have my imagination stirred by other understandings of things and their states in relation to the human.

NL: For me, the most provocative aspect of the ontological turn has been a renewal of interest in material cultures and the effects things have on human lives. Large parts of this workshop have been dedicated to the objects we were all asked to bring, one from our primary field site and one from what we take to be our primary place of origin. With the help of two installation artists and a curator, the working groups assembled museum exhibits from these things. You and me have felt that we had little to contribute to this process and that is how we ended up having this conversation instead. So we look at the products of this labor from the outside, a little like the visitors of the envisaged The Comedy of Things exhibition will, should it come about. From what I have seen so far, it strikes me as funny that there are so many people here associated with the ontology debate and nevertheless little effort has been made to give these things a chance to exercise their own agency. By contrast to the objects in Der Lauf der Dinge, for example, they have mostly been used in a representational fashion, eliciting anecdotes from the field or as projection surfaces for myths. But the things aren’t doing anything, really.

GM: The things are acting as media of collaboration – the pleasures of making something together, having new insights through collective representations and mutual warmth in each other as anthropologists (shades of Elementary Forms of Religious Life). Fine. The most satisfying collaborative self-consciously creative work is like this at its best moments. Yet, for any of this to be productively meaningful, it has to have reception, a life in dialogue with others, a public, an audience. This is planned indeed, by the alibi of websites and the usual suspects of museums. We’ll see, I guess. But for the here and now, we need those sorts of others to be involved in the making, or to have been present. Otherwise, what remains is friendship and the fellowship of anthropos. Good enough. But as in the annual Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert or in the climax of Wicker Man, it should all end in the cleansing of fire!