U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Beautiful Soul of Steve Almond, or, Why The Baffler Will Never Be Funny

by James Livingston*
I  Indictment
I’ve seen a lot of Steve Almond online since The Baffler published his deconstruction of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.  This is where he solemnly explained why their comedy is “almost entirely therapeutic”—how it has abandoned the “radical virtues” that animated the comic impulse once upon a time, when Jonathan Swift and Mark Twain satirized bourgeois propriety in print, and then, much later, when Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, and Bill Hicks took the stage to attack the moral idiocies of their time, always speaking truth to power.
Almond means to wake you from your lazy consumer complacency by demonstrating that there is only guilt in the affordable pleasure of Stewart and Colbert.  The joke’s on you, see, because you just don’t understand that your laughter sustains the “corporate plantation” that is Comedy Central, which is also Viacom—you might as well be laughing at a minstrel show off Broadway in 1854, thus validating the racism that sustained slavery.  Then as now, you’re “an audience gone to lard morally,” a mental condition, if I read the metaphor right, that matches up with your physical tendency toward obesity.
Almond accuses Stewart, particularly, of diffusing citizen activism by making it “more fun to experience the [Iraq] war as a passive form of entertainment than as a source of moral distress.”  But he also takes Colbert to task for mockingrather than rebutting Bill O’Reilly, for poking fun at the powerful rather than confronting them—the exception to this rule, of course, being the night of the 2006 White House Correspondents Dinner, when Colbert was the featured speaker.  Except that he didn’t actually confront anybody on that occasion, either.  Oh well.  How can you care about the intricacies of metaphor when the death of “political humor” is upon us?

II  Authenticity
This is a hilarious case of mistaken identity, or would be if Almond weren’t so fucking earnest.  He wants comedians, stand-up and otherwise, to renounce their vocations and be politicians—actually, he wants them to be activists, preferably starving artists removed from any “profit source,” like those loveable guys at The Onion used to be, back in the good old days before their commercial success.  If comedians make a good living from their brand of humor, they can’t possibly be on the side of “some poor schnook who works the assembly line at a factory then goes home to mow his lawn” (so much for the once-heroic working class, now demoted to rural idiocy).  No, they’ve become media celebrities who can “score easy points by playing the humble populist.”  They’re as comfortable as O’Reilly down on Maggie’s Farm, which NewsCorp secretly leveraged decades ago.
So, either Almond doesn’t understand comedy or he doesn’t understand the world we inhabit, the world of our common experience—and by “we,” Steve, I mean the people who, by circumstance or choice, mean to change the world, not denounce it, escape it, or destroy it.  That would be most of us.
In the world most of us inhabit, for example, Bruce Springsteen is not a millionaire who sells out stadiums—he is that, to be sure—he’s the guy with that strong work ethic, that musical talent, and that acoustic genius.  Like Bob Dylan, another millionaire, he hears things the rest of us don’t, and he puts these things into songs that always acknowledge the atrocities and absurdities of everyday life, but he won’t let us abstain from living it.  That’s why we often admire him, sometimes adore him, and always sing along.  He represents working-class America not in spite but because of his commercial success as an artist.  He also represents something more, the kind of American Dream that used to go by the name of the Commonwealth, the place where we strive to be our brother’s keeper. 
Nobody except maybe Steve Almond would accuse Springsteen (or Dylan) of being a corporate shill whose music somehow “diffuses” citizen activism.  But notice what such an indictment would presuppose, and notice, too, how Almond’s complaint against Stewart and Colbert requires these same presuppositions.
First, because Springsteen has made a fortune portraying the lives, the hopes, the dreams, and the furies of subaltern existence, he can’t be an authentic purveyor of such existence.  He has long since left the sociological category of the working class, so he can’t depict its ideological condition with any sincerity or accuracy.  By this perversely reductionist logic of identity politics, yeah, that kind, Stephen Greenblatt can’t properly interpret Shakespeare’s characters except for Shylock, and Mark Naison can’t accurately depict Communist Party activists in the 1930s unless they’re white.
Second, the only artists—comedians, musicians, critics, whatever—who can authentically express the real grievances of those who endure a subaltern existence are those who live it involuntarily, or those who have chosen exemption from the demands of that existence by becoming outlaws, hipsters, or, more quaintly, bohemians.  Those who have earned (or lucked into) release from that exemption by becoming commercially successful are automatically disqualified.  So the only voices Almond will accredit are the ones the rest of us can’t hear on the radio.  In effect, he insists that you can’t speak truth to power if you’ve got any.
Thus authenticity, which either requires or simply is abstention from the world as it actually exists—a thoroughly reified or commodified place—becomes the only aesthetic criterion left standing in Almond’s political complaint against Stewart and Colbert.  The joke’s on him, then, because the authenticity he wants from both entertainers and their audiences is unaffordable.  It is literally priceless, and therefore unavailable.
III  Hegelian Interlude
Almond makes an exception to his rule of authenticity by praising the wildly successful South Park, of course, and I’ll soon ridicule him for that—I mean, c’mon, this shit is subversive, political, even funny?—but for the time being I have to say that he doesn’t understand comedy because his consciousness is so unhappy.
Hegel invented the category of the “unhappy consciousness” in trying to explain the passage beyond the integrated character of the ancient citizen, who was somehow at home in his world.  (For all their differences with Hegel, Marx, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche followed his lead, and so did Wahl, Kojeve, Lukacs, Horkheimer, and Adorno.)  Rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity served as both metaphors and historical instances of this passage—the secular chapters in the same story were Skepticism and Stoicism.  What they all shared, according to Hegel, was an inability, or rather an unwillingness, to read or inscribe their truths in the world as it existed. 
Release or abstention from the corruptions of this world was, then, the path to salvation or enlightenment, because the world had become the impediment to—never the condition of—truth as such.  So the unhappy consciousness typically produced a “beautiful soul,” the man who would be in but not of this world, the man who couldn’t recognize his own implication in its corruptions.
Comedy, defined either as the happy stupidity of humor—can you believe this shit?—or more broadly, as the narrative form that refuses to let things end at the stage of tragedy, is the place where we decide to get ugly and acknowledge that no one is exempt from the corruptions of this world: no more beautiful souls, comedians say, whether they’re writing plays and novels, or doing stand-up, or making fun of FOX News.  You can’t abstain from sin, evil, or power, they insist, so you might as well know that there’s no sanctuary.  Comedians always have to produceironic detachment from shitty circumstances because they begin there, in the world, in the same place the audience comes from. 
Now Hegel knew that a strictly tragic sense of life could issue from this disturbing idea that “the world is ruled by the Devil,” as Martin Luther, his chosen antecedent, explained the situation.  After all, once you acknowledge the universal reification and corruption of your time, intellectual resignation from it, and thus practical acquiescence to it, become perfectly rational: skepticism, stoicism, even cynicism and nihilism, then become the obvious retort to what we call faith, hope, or optimism.  In this sense, the “beautiful soul” isn’t a merely romantic conceit—every generation or so, it becomes a left-wing political imperative.  Ask Kalle Lasn and Chris Hedges over at Adbusters.  Ask Steve Almond over at The Baffler.
But in Hegelian perspective, comedy contains tragedy, and by doing so it gives us good reasons to have faith in each other and hope for our futures.  As Hayden White puts it in Metahistory: “Comedy is the form which reflection takes after it has assimilated the truths of Tragedy to itself.”  Hegel himself was more circumspect in The Phenomenology, and, I would suggest, more devious. 
The “unhappy consciousness”—skepticism, stoicism, early Christianity, etc.—was the form of self-certainty that could appear, in history and in philosophy, when the slave understood that the master was a dimension of his own personality rather than an external figure with absolute power over him, and, accordingly, when the master understood that he had already bought the slave’s knowledge of the world.  At that historical and philosophical moment, however, each was able to realize only an “inner freedom,” an emptysubjectivity that lacked material validation: “Self-consciousness which reaches its fulfillment in the figure of unhappy consciousness is only the torment of the spirit struggling to rise again to an objective state but failing to reach it.”  Or again: “It lives in dread of staining the radiance of its inner being by action and existence.”  As both Jean Wahl and Jacques Lacan suggested, this moment marks the birth of metaphysics.
But comedy as a narrative form works exactly this way, by taking the outward oppositions of tragedy—over here the hero (good), over there the villain (bad), these shall meet ere long and die appropriate deaths, probably at each other’s hands—and making them inward, by making them discordant dimensions of every character in sight.  Where once we witnessed master and slave, we now experience and recognize ourselves.  No more beautiful souls, because no one can rise above or stand apart from the administered inferno that is “the modern time” (Hegel from The Philosophy of History).  Everyone is always already beyond good and evil, because everyone just isgood and evil.
Hegel explained in the Aestheticsthat, like History itself, all dramatic action expresses the “one-sided aspect” of each character, actor, people or nation: “And this is so whether as in tragedy, they are opposed to such in hostility, or, as in comedy, they are displayed within these characters themselves, without further mediation, as a condition of resolution” (my italics).  Because the comprehension of the totality is unavailable to any character—and this is especially true of the great tragic heroes—passion, error, irony, and conflict are the regulative principles of both dramatic action and History itself.  But comedy gets beyond tragedy by treating these as matters of folly, evidence of our common experience, rather than evidence of concerted evil imposed on us from elsewhere by Fate, by the Gods, or by the corporate powers that be.
Toward the end of The Phenomenology, the Bildungsromanof self-consciousness, Hegel got pretty excited about the prospects of his comedic rendition of the human condition, even unto “the modern time,” which he dated from the 18th century.  Hereafter, he thought, we didn’t have to be the disport of the Gods, the willing victims of Fate, the mute objects of History made by great men.  The “comic spectacle” on offer here was “the return of everything universal into certainty of self,” he announced, “a certainty which, in consequence, is [the] complete loss of fear of everything strange and alien, and [the] complete loss of substantial reality on the part of what is alien and external.”  He concluded:  “Such certainty is a state of spiritual good health and of self-abandonment thereto, on the part of consciousness, in a way that, outside this kind of comedy, is not to be found elsewhere.”
IV  Fair and Balanced Bathroom Humor
Steve Almond wouldn’t understand a word of the previous nine paragraphs, and not because Hegel is either difficult or irrelevant to the content of comedy.  No, Steve wouldn’t understand because the radiance of his inner being will never be stained by the corruptions of worldly success, nor, I hope, by the indignities of work on any corporate plantation.  He is a beautiful soul.   
But Almond does love South Park, a show whose audience on the Viacom-owned Comedy Central is demographically more lucrative than either The Daily Show or The Colbert Report.  That makes it a better “profit source” than what Stewart and Colbert have created.  So why does it get praise rather than derision from our beautiful soul? 
Because it confronts you, the moral lard in the audience—not, mind you, the powers that be—and because, like certain cable news networks, it’s fair and balanced in allocating blame to both Left and Right.  In other words, Almond praises South Park for performing in cartoons precisely what he excoriates Stewart and Colbert for speaking in person—granting legitimacy to every side of the political debate by debunking all sides, thus creating the aura of journalistic objectivity.  How can that be?  Read on.

South Parkindulges in a good deal of bathroom [sic] humor—perhaps inevitably, given that its protagonists are ten-year-olds.  But the show is far more radical than its polished stablemates [Stewart and Colbert] for the simple reason that it is willing to confront its viewers.  Parker and Stone savage both the defensive bigotry of conservatives and the self-righteous entitlement of the left.  They accomplish this not by riffing on the corruption of our media and political cultures, but by creating original dramas that expose the lazy assumptions and shallow gratifications of the viewing audience.

So the Left and the Right do deserve equal measures of doubt and of debunking, just like Stewart said in that interview with Rachel Maddow, from which Almond distilled the morally decrepit credo of The Daily Show (“civility at any cost, even in the face of moral atrocity”).  Notice how this sudden reallocation of culpability makes you, the audience, the problem.  When reference to the “corporate plantation” explains nothing, because Parker and Stone as well as Stewart and Colbert work on the same farm, the moral myopia of the viewing audience must fill the explanatory gap.  Get it?  Your lazy assumptions and shallow gratifications are the proximate cause of the death of political humor.
What could be more reassuring?  It’s all about you.  Nothing is true, nothing is real, no matter who said it or created it, so you must doubt and debunk everything, every minute, no exceptions allowed.  That way, any promise or commitment is contingent on what happens next.  That way, you don’t get fooled by belief in anything.  The urge to objectivity—the desperate need to rise above these sordid times—creates a skepticism so radical that it becomes satire, and (surprise!) undermines itself.  The unhappy consciousness sounds almost funny because he bares his beautiful soul.
V  Almost Funny
Like I said, almost funny, as in the sentimentalities attending patriotic ceremonies, where universal agreement rather than universal discord is presupposed.  As I have written elsewhere, the conscious abstention from the new possibilities of visual representation in comics and film animation makes South Park a kind of radio show, almost all sound—every character is a little round cutout distinguishable mainly by voice.  It’s a television show for the blind.
But there’s something happening here that is worth remarking, and its name is shit.  This show is the most amazing study in anality since Jonathan Swift, or maybe Martin Luther, and it marks a moment in what we have come to know as globalization.  The world elsewhere intrudes on this benighted suburb as anal probes from outer space and as Father Christmas from the sewer (“Mr. Hankey”), the piece of shit that heals ethnic and ideological divisions with large doses of excrement.  Santa and Satan become interchangeable parts.
We could of course sanitize these large scatological investments by calling them “bathroom humor,” as Steve Almond does, or dismiss them as functions of the backward, frat-boy humor of the creators—we could say that the indefatigable anality of South Parkhas nothing to do with contemporary culture.  But that’s an evasion of what makes the show almost funny. 
Why does shit always represent the comedic principle of reconciliation and universality in South Park, for both the audience and the creators, if not for beautiful souls like Steve Almond?  What if Parker and Stone are onto something?  What if you, the audience, gets the running joke?
In the 16th century, Luther explained that “money is the word of the Devil”—this Evil One was the modern Protestant version of the ancient and medieval Trickster, and he ruled the world—so that bondage to the new world of capitalism meant surrender to the Demonic.  The Devil and commodity fetishism always go together, as Norman O. Brown an Michael T. Taussig have more recently explained.  Like Luther, they have also explained that since money was more or less excrement—in dreams and in archaic cultures, money always appears as some kind of shit—this surrender to the Demonic was a way of dredging human beings in their own feces.  If the world is ruled by the Devil, everyone is at least unclean.
The unconscious Protestantism of South Park reanimates this recognition and acceptance of the demonic forces of globalized capitalism.  We’re all awash in our feces, it tells us—suburban Americans are no less subject to the financial forces driving globalization than Chinese or Mexican peasants—and in this sense the cartoon series is a primitive, ant-realist rendition of Karen Finley’s equally excremental vision of a world turned inside out.
But if everything has a price, no matter where you are on earth, then everything has turned to shit.  No brand of authenticity is any longer available.  The question South Park makes us ask, is, so what, or, now what?  The answer Parker and Stone have so far offered goes like this.  Darkness falls on our brightly painted suburbs—the excremental Other invades, “the blues moved in our town,” as The Sopranos’ theme song puts it—but we’re going to laugh about it anyway, because faith in the future of the American Dream isn’t any more rational than belief in the Devil.  This tragedy may well look like comedy before we’re through: keep watching.
South Parkcontains an unhappy consciousness, then, but it excludes beautiful souls.  The laughter it allows is the nervous kind you stifle at funerals, weddings, and in confrontations with people you can despise or dismiss.  It’s almost funny.  Steve Almond thinks it’s important old-school political humor because the people it lets him despise or dismiss are you, the viewing audience.
*James Livingston, Professor of History at Rutgers University, is a frequent guest blogger here.  He blogs at Politics and Letters

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Very valuable meditation, as always. I enjoyed this visit back to some of the themes of The World Turned Inside Out.

    As with that work’s treatment of the excremental, however, I would have liked to have seen also an engagement with the Rabelaisian and Grobian traditions of early modernity: the excremental as a return not just of a repressed, but of a never-transcended prebourgeois relation to the body. Also would be interested in your thoughts on that other great source of modern philosophical musing on comedy: Bergson. It seems that Bergson’s understanding of comedy–as revelation of the absurdity of the mechanical, regulated body–would be a good counterpoint to Hegel.

    Haven’t read Almond on Stewart/Colbert carefully, but it definitely seems that the proper frame for thinking about their brand of parody is that of Kenneth Burke (perhaps tempered with Jonathan Lear). There are things we are closed to–specifically, new things– when we are too confident in the authority of our snarky, smirking homunculi.

    As historians, what interests me is the relative absence of attention in these discussions to questions conjuncture. South Park was a fascinating intervention in rejigging the grotesque for the late Clinton years. The Daily Show started out as a smarmy, Air America-oid show that somehow morphed into a similarly pertinent experiment in the grotesque during Bush’s first term. Like Chaplin’s tramp, or Happy Days in its shark-jumping days, however, comic novelties tend to outstay their welcomes. The passage from urgent to redundant (or even reactionary) is something about which we might talk more.

  2. About Bergson: his understanding of the humorous has always struck me as cruel, and surprisingly so. Laughter corrects the misstep, it is, in the end, a source of social discipline. Perhaps I’ve misunderstood him, but I don’t think so.

    Even if I have, my question about contemporary comedy, and political comedy, would be just around this question of cruelty. It seems to me entirely acceptable these days to put the protagonist in cruel situations (Seinfeld and after). But the enemy, the object of political comedy…this has always got to be tempered with a little compassion, a little condescension, some way of admitting that they’re still human. Has this always been the case? My sense would be not. In which case…that’s interesting.

    I *want* to ask James Livingston for a thumbs up or down, without equivocation, on the funniness of South Park. But I won’t.

  3. I should defer to the better-informed, but my sense of Bergson is that, like most modern reflections on comedy, his writing can cut both ways: comedy as disciplinary and/or as radical rupture. Relatedly, Badiou, in The Century, proposes that collective “laughing at” is a particularly 20th-century practice (pointing to the motif of the humiliated clown earning the scornful laughter of an entire community in film). Anca Parvalescu is my favorite recent source on the politics of laughter. She’s also very good on Bergson.

  4. To the contrary, I think it is “laughing with” that is a modern (i.e., since the 18th century) phenomenon:

    The distinction between laughing at and laughing with is a universally recognized one in our culture…This distinction, however, is an entirely modern one; prior to the eighteenth century, no such understanding of laughter was possible. All laughter at the behavior of persons was conceived of as distancing the laugher from his object of amusement, or made possible by a previously existing distance….[The] narrowing of the distance between object and subject — a narrowing that began with Ben Jonson — resulted in a recognition of self in the other, and consequently a new notion of laughing “with” rather than “at”.
    –Daniel Wickberg, The Senses of Humor: Self and Laughter in Modern America (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1998), 34.

    In chapter 2 of Senses of Humor, Wickberg goes into much greater detail on humor and the sympathetic imagination (see, e.g., pp. 64-68).

    The fact that someone could assert that “laughing at” is new suggests just how culturally pervasive the sympathetic imagination is.

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