So that’s why I’m interested in comedy. I’m also interested in thinking about politics as comedic, by which I don’t mean delightful or funny in the easy Schadenfreude sense. I’m interested in the comedic dictum, which is that disturbance doesn’t kill you, it forces you to live on. The thing about trauma, as I always say to my [Literature of] Trauma students, is that it doesn’t kill you and you have to live with it. And that’s the thing about comedy, too. The comedy is that you get up again after you fall off the cliff, and have to keep moving. You have to live with the brokenness, and you have to live with surprise, and you have to live with contingency. And you have to live with the pleasure of not knowing, if you can bear it. But how you have to live with it is another story.
Comedy is a lot about the question of whether you can bear it, in a way that tragedy isn’t. Because in tragedy the world can’t bear you.
BM: Right, in tragedy you die.
LB: Exactly, there’s that. America tries to be a comedic force, in the sense that it tries to organize a kind of optimism about living politically. About a greatness, about a transcendence, about the practical or concrete utopia. About the history of the nation form as a space of justice.
And saturating the space of justice is so important in America’s modernity that it’s like a failed pun or something: it doesn’t work. I always have had respect for people’s desire for there to be a form that will solve the problem of living. America is one of those forms—the nation is one of those forms. And form can’t solve the problem of living. The constant disappointment at that fact is a lot like the constant repetition in a comic sequence of a slapstick event. Except the violence of the disappointment is not funny! And it has really bad, painful effects on people’s lives.
BM: You’ve been writing a lot about humor lately, including a piece in a recent issue of Critical Inquiry on humorlessness. Why is humorlessness important to your thinking about comedy?
LB: Whenever I tell someone I’m writing a book on humorlessness, they always laugh. Because humorlessness is so unbearable. I think that’s interesting! A liberal model of humor and humorlessness would suggest that you should always try to cure humorlessness with humor, because humor is what keeps things warm between people and it makes it possible to move together in the social. But of course, our political commitments are also humorless. They’re the things that we would like to be intractable about.
One of the ways that I define humorlessness is as the sudden withdrawal of a cushion in a social relation, the sudden experience of the intractable where you thought things were tractable. I don’t think of it as a moral thing. I think we’re all humorless, and we’ve made friends with our humorlessness in certain places. So when making charges of humorlessness, what people think they’re saying is, “I have humor, I’m flexible, I could change. But you, on the other hand, are immovable.” But in fact we’re all unmovable in places, and a lot of politics is a negotiation of different forms of immobility and commitment.
This is why there’s a lot of humor in anti-politically correct discourse. The PC debates have been incredibly interesting since PC was invented as a way of self-policing—PC was an aspiration when we first started using it as a phrase! Because you were trying to unlearn your default sensorium of misogyny and racism and xenophobia and class privilege. Being PC was a reminder that your visceral responses were not justice. Of course, all of us are trained as modern subjects to think our visceral responses are justice. But they’re not.
It mattered to me that Al Franken, when he was on Air America Radio before he was a senator, used to always call Rush Limbaugh “the comedian Rush Limbaugh.” I learned a lot from listening to that and thinking about that. Because what he meant was that Rush Limbaugh has a comedian’s commitment to the joke—if he says something outrageous, he’s going to follow it through to its logical end, even if the logical end is completely untethered from the real. Because affectively, it demonstrates something for him, whereas referentially, it has no traction. And I think the alt right is all about that. It’s all about affective truth that has a distorted tethering to how people live.
I can give you an anecdote that ties this up somewhat: about six months before the election I started having panic attacks from political triggers. It’s not usual for me, and I didn’t really know why. But after some reflection one day, I realized it was because I knew that whoever won, the atmosphere of the Trump campaign had let out of the bag an amplifying pleasure in white supremacy and American exceptionalism and misogyny and xenophobia that, no matter who won, was not going to get stuffed back in.
We are now in, on one hand, an unchanged world—because white supremacy’s not new, and structural violence is not new, none of that is new just because Trump got elected—but the pleasure in it is intensified. They took enormous pleasure. Pleasure won this election, you know. Pleasure and violence are all bound up in each other for this election.
BM: How have you been talking about the election with your students?
LB: This quarter in my undergrad gender and sexual theories class I tried an experiment. We had a unit on citizenship, three weeks of reading about citizenship and sexuality and gender, and then their midterm project was based on citizenship.
And I said to the class, for how many of you is citizenship an active topic of thought? One person. And I thought that was incredibly interesting, because I’ve been working on citizenship since I started doing my graduate work, but I myself had been dialing back from it and thinking more about social membership and belonging and all these more diffuse bindings. And then many different social and political crises since 2008—from the economic crisis to Twitter citizenship that enabled the Black Lives Matter movement and other organized refusals to allow the ordinary destruction of life to just be the thing you knew as realism—started to make citizenship an active category for me again.
BM: How had you first approached that concept of citizenship?
LB: It was partly that I was eleven in 1968, and a precocious—wild—eleven. So I went to anti-war rallies, and my political consciousness came up during a period of radical experimentality about what it was possible to do as a member of a social world, politically. And so I went to a commune when I was fifteen, I went to rallies, I hated Nixon appropriately, and I had socialist proletarian grandparents on one side of the family.
I understood that there were alternative ways of living. And they were, in a material sense, alternative—it wasn’t like someone had a theory about alternativity. It was that people had lived alternatively, and that people were living alternatively. And so it became really important to me to ask the question of what I would now call normativity, but I didn’t have that language at the time.
Then, in the Seventies, the British feminists were all socialist feminists. I went to England when I was a junior in college at Oberlin—you just paid your regular tuition, which I barely paid any of since I was really poor and on my own. They gave me $45 a week and paid my tuition and I got to go to England and take courses. I took these night classes with secretaries, and radical socialist feminists were teaching them at the University of London. And my eyes were completely opened to the collaboration of nationalism and capitalism, and to imperialism, which I had known as a state of exception for the Vietnam War, and later realized to be not exceptional at all.
I got to graduate school and I started reading a lot of historical novels and Marxism. The rise of the historical novel and the rise of Marxism were at very similar time periods, but also Marxist literary criticism was very involved in thinking about the historical novel as a way of understanding the subjective history of class, capitalism and the nation. And there’s the sexuality component, which is that any time you read any criticism of a historical novel it would say, “And then there was this stupid love plot.” So I was curious: Why did there need to be sexuality in the historical novel? And so I started thinking a lot about the mediation of politics through the body, and that’s how I became me.
BM: A couple years ago I was in the Theories of Gender and Sexuality class that you co-taught with [sociologist] Kristen Schilt. One of my favorite sessions was when we discussed the video of Obama announcing that his presidential library was going to be on the South Side of Chicago—the things it was saying about the family and patriotism and hard work, and race without ever directly talking about race. Have you done any similar exercises with video from the recent campaigns?
LB: I had a lot of debates with colleagues around this. Because it was election season, I felt it was important not to be taking political positions in the classroom about voting. Because the minute the teacher expresses a view, people feel that any time they have a view they have to be measuring it against your view. I want people to be able to think about something—I want them to be able to walk around it, you know.
So last year, when I taught affect theory, we looked at political commercials. We looked at the Bernie Sanders “America” commercial in relation to the Obama “Yes We Can” ad. First of all, the students hadn’t come to political consciousness during the first Obama election so they hadn’t seen the “Yes We Can” ad, which surprised me because I’m an idiot.