Careers In Corporal & Psychic Waste Management By Tristan Sober-Blodgett

Careers In Corporal & Psychic Waste Management


Is It Still a Joke If It’s Not Funny?

A Conversation In My Studio

Interlocutor One: It reminds me of the Woody Allen movie Shadows and Fog, in that the entire film feels like a series of setups for disappointing jokes. In one scene a clown with the circus is looking for his “runaway” girlfriend. He sits down at a bar with a depressed young man and they begin to talk about women. The young man tells him about the woman he slept with earlier that night. Through the conversation he realizes the young man is talking about his girlfriend. The young man speculates about the woman’s inadequate lover, “probably some poor clown.” The joke just sits there. It’s a bad joke. No one knows what to do with it. At best you give it a nervous laugh.

Me: There is nothing funny about a dead shark.

Interlocutor One: (chuckles) Yeah, see, I don’t know why I laughed. I don’t know what you are talking about.

In a set of three prints, Self-titled Text (Suite 2) presents as a joke, not only for the familiar knock knock format, but also its logic. The progression of this ostensible joke is arrested when the question of “who’s there?” is answered with “it’s me.” The punch line has been deferred by a practical response, a firm declaration of presence. Yet, the text still fulfills two of the functions of a joke as described by Freud and elaborated by Paolo Virno. The first is equivocation, a fallacy based on language, and the second is a logical fallacy connected with the viewer’s assumption of what a sensible application of language would be in a given situation. That assumption is already shifted for what looks like a comical set up. Both functions come down to the statement “it’s me,” too specific for the joke, and still altogether not specific enough. This is the problem with personal pronouns. Operating under a misnomer of “personal,” the language does not properly belong to us. Personal pronouns have no loyalty, shifting between signifieds as called. The answer will be “it’s me” regardless of the speaker. One can take the place of another with no loss of integrity to the structure of the interaction. It is both a declaration of presence and a completely ambiguous statement.

Excerpt from:  A Conversation With My Sister Over Skype

Shaina: Because it’s in the format of a joke I’m waiting for a punch line, and I don’t think you will ever give one. And because of that format I only have one course of action, to ask a question that makes no sense.

Me: Sometimes the speech available to us makes no sense.

Shaina: Sometimes you make no sense.

Me: I know. I worry about that.

Shaina: I was kidding.

Me:  I know, but I still worry about being intelligible, recognizable.

Shaina: If I can’t recognize you, can’t understand you then that’s my loss. That’s my problem, not yours.   

Me: That’s a lovely sentiment, but it still leaves me on the other side of the door.

There is an issue of displacement at play in these prints and throughout my practice. Or, it might be seen as two types of displacement, different but related and even analogous. The first is the displacement that results when a material body and the subjectivity of that body are conflated, and ill fit each other. That is when the two function, as Judith Butler describes, as the improper application of a proper name, as catachresis, “an improper transfer of sense.” The second is a displacement of desire and psychic investment. The desire to be intelligible, sensible (capable of being perceived) even if not fully on our own terms, comes into conflict with another desire. That is the desire to ameliorate the banal violations that constitute subject formation; to take some measure of agency in one’s representation even if that at times is to retreat from conflicting interpolations, to retreat from the sensible.

My argument begins with the observation that language, (in a broad sense as any mode of representation, verbal or visual) does violence to material. There is always an entropic factor in the process of attaching language and logic to material bodies. Martha Rosler acutely notes this issue remarking of both text and image as “inadequate descriptive systems” in her documentation of the Bowery. Not only are both the photos and text insufficient individually, but two inadequate systems compounded do not make an adequate description. Both means of representation bear the same lack. To abstract a material body into a sign, to bring it into the symbolic order involves excising from that body a synecdoche. A part of that material body becomes a stand-in for the whole. It is reduced to a grammatical function in order to be intelligible.

I put it forth that grammar forces us into a sensible form that is insufficient to hold our complex selves, because I want to see myself as a unique and irreplaceable subject. But, because grammar and form (in the Aristotelian tradition) appear coextensive, it might be the other way around; that I am simply doing a poor job of performing a grammatical subjectivity. It may be that a malfunction occurs in the performance of a cognitively accessible subjectivity, because my material self is given to multiple, at times conflicting interpolations.

For now at least, we can suspend the matter along with any judgment on the violence of language on material. Instead, I am more concerned with how the processes displace the subject.  Specifically, what is the relationship of the seemingly excess material body (that which belongs to too many conflicting categories, overflows the limits of its classification) to its representation, and that of desire and psychic energy? The way language is appended to material puts the body and its representation at stake. That which does not acquiesce to the sensible, to the cognitively accessible, through language, is left on the other side of the door. If descriptive systems themselves are inadequate then lets look at the procedures of the systems to recreate the conditions of representation’s lack.

It is important to remember that the coding of our bodies through language is compulsory. That coding is deployed in ways that materially affect us through operations such as gendering and racializing. As Susan Stryker notes, in My Words to Victor Frankenstein, material aspects of the body are seized upon, constructed as signs and read to enculturate that body. These signs determine one’s mode of being in the world through their relation to other signs, their place in the economy of the sensible.

One’s position in an economy of representation, of the sensible, as I understand Stryker, is determined at birth by a third party (the doctor), “through some culturally and historically specific mode of grasping physicality that transforms flesh into a useful artifact.”  This is not unlike Althusser’s claim that we are already constituted as subjects before we are born by virtue of “specific familial ideological configuration.”  Which is to say, our position is at least always relative to another party, one who sees us as the sensible synecdoche.    

A Simple Grammar Lesson

I love you. This sentence is used to diagram the structure of basic English grammar. Subject enacts a verb on the object. I make my self the subject by making you the object of my action. Because of the specific verb, I expect you to reciprocate. I desire you to make yourself a subject through the same action on me as object. So aggressive, so masochistic are our declarations of affection.


Of course, Althusser’s most well known theory of interpellation is the allegory of a social scene in which a subject is hailed by an authority, turns around, and in doing so accepts the terms by which he or she is hailed. As described, this process leaves no room for the subject to be critical of accepting the terms by which he or she is hailed. There is no space in this scenario for the subject to inquire about who is hailing, and under what terms, let alone should he or she accept. Butler considers this in The Psychic Life Of Power asking:

Under what conditions does the law monopolize the terms of existence in so thorough a way? […]Is there a possibility of being elsewhere or otherwise, without denying our complicity in the law […]? Such possibility would require a different kind of turn, one that, enabled by the law, turns away from the law, resisting its lure of identity, an agency that outruns and counters the conditions of its emergence. Such a turn demands a willingness not to be—a critical desubjectivation—in order to expose the law as less powerful than it seems.

As I am concerned with language, we may consider the grammatical rule as stand-in for law. The question becomes one of employing a grammatical structure outside of the rules of its practice, but also in reference to its rules. In other words, to find a state of exception where the action neither agrees with, nor contradicts the rule, “because between one and the other there are no points of contact, nor is there a common unit of measurement.”  Virno describes this as a lack of logical friction. It can be said then, innovative language acts create a frictionless, if liminal space. This is the space that the “me” of “it’s me” occupies on the other side of the door, where “me” is both wholly specific and vague, a suitable and impractical answer. To inhabit this space is to be elsewhere or otherwise.

Within my practice there is more than willingness, but a drive towards this space, a drive towards desubjectivation that runs aground of the drive to be sensible. This manifests in works like Ursa Minor, (fig. 1) a grouping of G-lamps in porcelain sockets suspended from the ceiling. Configured to make a three-dimensional model of the constellation commonly known as “The Little Dipper,” the arrangement of lights is only readable as the named constellation from a single vantage point. The lights both attract the gaze and are difficult to look at. The installation asks to be read, yet it withholds intelligibility by offering seemingly infinite vantage points.

If the installation of lights is to be made into a recognizable sign, it will be on the conditions set by the work. The surrogate celestial body only yields, allows the transfer of sense between it and the viewer when it has positioned the viewer’s body. There is a mutual negotiation for transfer of sense between the two bodies. The viewer, to apprehend the constellation, to make it the object in the subject object relationship, has to first be acted on, positioned by the installation. For this transaction to take place, where the viewer is temporarily made object, the celestial body must be in jeopardy of not being recognized by other bodies.

Once positioned in a particular relation to the lights, the observer must force his or her vision to flatten the view, disregarding the constellation’s dimensionality. This sculptural work can be viewed in many positions, but read in only one; making extraneous its dimensionality.  In order to be sensible, the full breadth of its material cannot be taken into account. But Ursa Minor never fully acquiesces. The viewer must actively hold it in intelligibility, lest they slip out of their negotiated relationship.  

The other possibility for this jeopardy is that despite whatever knowledge the viewer may come with (astronomic, art historic or otherwise) he or she never makes sense of the relationship of the material to the title. The celestial body is not recognized. The viewer is put in crisis of not being constituted as a viewer in relation to the work, because there is no transfer of sense; a mutual crisis occurs in failure of comprehension. Roland Barthes refers to the perpetual inability to understand, (this improper transfer of sense) as “exactly the ‘tragic’.”   

Self-titled text (& per se &) (fig 2) takes the viewer through another strange and laborious operation in an attempt to find a frictionless space. Embossed into the gallery wall, the physical marks literally meaning “and as itself and” create a homophone for the ampersand that signifies the “and.”  There is excessive signification to signal “and,” but not “and as itself,” which is the mark ampersand. The text appears as a tautology. Barthes writes of tautology in the last few pages of Mythologies, describing it as a double murder. “One kills rationality because it resists one; one kills language because it betrays one.” I would argue that with & per se & the first relationship is reversed. It resists rationality, because when rationality is applied language does not betray, but fails it; making it appear as too much or too little to be legible. Unlike other homophones which produce an excess in multiple meaning, & per se & does not. If a double entendre is a single signifier with two signified, than here it finds its chiral twin; multiple signifiers with a single signified. The ampersand is represented simultaneously once and thrice. Homophones, with their excess meaning are normally employed in jokes, but this one yields no excess meaning.    

A historical parallel may be found in Sol LeWitt’s Untitled (Red Square, White Letters) 1962 (fig. 3). Figure and ground are both described by six inscriptions that are the figure. Within two inscriptions there is a paradoxical inversion of figure and ground relationship. This creates a conflict in the viewer over the reliability of given information, because there is too much, and it is contradictory. Does one give primacy to the visual or the linguistic? Either procedure would require part of the contradictory information to be discarded like so much waste, in order to apply one or the other. Benjamin Buchloh proposes in reading Untitled (Red Square, White Letters) that “the permutational character of the work suggested that the viewer/reader systematically perform all the visual and textual options the painting's parameters allowed for.” That may mean simultaneously suspending and performing procedures for reading; such an operation would require a lack of logical friction. If the viewer/reader truncates the possible operations that the painting presents, then it falls back into conflict. Like “& per se &” the appearance of excess resulting in apparent tautology or discrepancy manifest from an attempt to find a proper application of a rule where none exists.            

Another strange relationship exists between rule and application in Self-Titled Text (Pillbox) (fig.4).  A list of objects and their relationships build a formula, until the list reaches an instance where the grammatical rule that has been successful thus far, fails. There is a pill in my pillbox. There is a knife in my knifeblock. There is a suit in my suitcase. There is a tooth in my toothpaste. There is a relief and a trauma in the familiar structure’s failure. Both, because the attachment of language and logic to the material not only violates (excising a part for the whole), but also enables the subjects to have a place in the economy of the sensible.

Language as a prosthetic (a system outside the body that enables the body as a subject) can be employed in practical ways here. One is situated to concede both desires, to operate outside of the grammatical constraints but enabled by them. It is a difficult task to continually suspend and perform a procedure, to remain in a frictionless space. In an act of sublimation one may laugh, not because a tooth in one’s toothpaste is funny, but because it is a strange byproduct of a turn away from the law. What is to be done with this odd waste? Let us return to Freud and Virno.

Virno writes of jokes as logico-linguistic diagrams that function as, “sign[s] that reproduce in miniature the structure and internal proportions of a certain phenomenon,” particularly “on the occasion of a historical or biographical crisis.”  As is seen in the aforementioned works, a function of my practice is the diagraming, at times reenacting a crisis of desire or trauma of representation/language through acts of language. Many of the works, like Virno’s jokes, operate as “rhetorical syllogism[s] that refutes the same endoxa (common belief) from which it got its start” (there is a tooth in my toothpaste). This endoxa corresponds to Freud’s concept of inhibitions that must be overcome to tell a joke. The logic of the joke comes from a deductive fallacy, such as “attributing to the grammatical subject all the properties pertaining to its predicate; interchanging the part for the whole.” Here we overlap again with the construction of the subject as an intelligible grammatical form.  Given that my practice of seeking innovative actions in language has so many parallels to the joke I find myself with a question: Why is my work not funny?

I never set out to be funny. It is a function of my interest in the subject that aspects of my practice align with the logic of the joke. And my practice is not funny. I know it is not funny, my sister has told me so. Like that outside party requisite in positioning us as subjects (whether making signs of and enculturating our bodies or hailing us) an outside party is needed to judge a joke. In Freud’s schema the first person, the joke teller must put forth a great deal of energy and psychic investment to overcome the inhibition of refuting endoxa, transgressing one logic for another. The second person is the target of the joke. The third is needed to judge the joke funny, to laugh and economize the energy of the first person’s psychic investment. If the third party does not, the investment sits as unclaimed, un-economized, psychic waste.

A Practical Example       

Me: Did you know that the primary difference between North American species of the genus corvus is the number of pinions on each wing. The crow has five and the raven has six. So the difference between the two is really a matter of a pinion.

Interlocutor A: I don’t get it.

Interlocutor C: It’s a play on words. A pinion is a type of wing feather and…

Interlocutor A: No, I get the pun. I don’t understand how it is supposed to be funny.

This waste must be economized somehow. It would be detrimental to put forth so much energy and not get any return, no pleasure in someone enjoying our effort.

We can find another example in the movie Annie Hall (1977) in which Woody Allen proliferates a bit of misinformation by making a simile. He states that relationships, like sharks must continually move forward to survive.  He tells Diane Keaton, “What we have here is a dead shark.” Again, we find a line that is set up like a joke. It falls into the category of “fallacies connected with accident. The mistake lies in attributing to the grammatical subject all that can be attributed to its accidental predicates.” Relationships must continually move forward to survive. Sharks must continually move forward to survive. This relationship has stopped moving forward. This relationship is a dead shark. The line is set up as a joke but lacks comedy. A lot of energy is expended to create psychic waste that no one can claim. I don’t wish to register an opinion on Allen’s assessment of relationships, but it is not true of sharks. Moreover as we see, there is nothing funny about a dead shark.

In the absence of third party approval the investment of energy fails to be economized, fails to be a joke. A different process must be undertaken to manage this psychic waste within the subject. An attempt to create a short circuit in the subject, an internal process plays out in the installation Aye Aye (fig. 5). Composed of marks carved into the wall and an accompanying Self-titled Text (no one will ever parody us better than we do ourselves), this work, as with previous works, deploys a number of shifter signs: “I,” “us,” “ourselves.” Here “I” doubles, creating a second self by which to judge its relative position. In doing so the figures literally bracket a self contained space. The marks equivocate figure and ground, outlining a new space on the architectural surfaces that orient our bodies. Like Ursa Minor the subtle cuts in the surface are capable of retreating from legibility, becoming more or less visible (able to be apprehended) as the viewer’s position changes. Insistently present in its size and doubling, as well as willing to withdraw, does the self-imitating “I” succeed in inhabiting a liminal frictionless place? Does it constitute an innovative action in parodying itself?

Parody is an intertextual process, dependent on the relationship of one text to another, one author/subject to another. In parodying our selves we find again the question we set aside earlier. Is the grammatical subject insufficient or is the embodiment imitating poorly? Unlike the “I” of Robert Morris’s I-Box, (fig. 6) (unequivocally and tautologically the artist) the new ground created here is not inhabited. The “I” is unclear whose “I” it is. The viewer’s body can inhabit that space or from a distance the viewer’s eye can bracket another between the columns. The authorial “I” of the artist is displaced by the viewer/reader. Like the statement “it’s me” the “I”s are both a firm and ambiguous declaration. In a strange Cartesian manner the “I” constitutes itself, subjugates itself and (at least in the case of the author) de-subjugates itself.

When brought back into the linguistic, read aloud the two figures become a homophone. Here the material excess of the double “I” becomes an excess of meaning: “I I,” “aye aye.” The application of reason to the self-contained space turns it into an affirmative response, but one reserved for an authority.  It becomes a submission, “I will do what you have asked,” but one in which it is difficult to know who is submitting to whom. The double meaning of this homophone also lacks levity, fails to be a joke.

In his essay on humor Freud lays out the process for managing psychic waste within the subject. It begins with a narcissistic refusal by the ego to be compelled to suffer. “It insists it cannot be affected by traumas of the external world,” – trauma such as that visited on the subject in language’s enabling violation. “In fact such traumas are no more than occasions for it to gain pleasure.”  

The short circuit that economizes psychic waste without third person approval is achieved through an act of subjective shuffling. In explaining the humorous process or humorous attitude as defense against trauma, Freud returns to the structure of the joke to illustrate the difference. In the joke, the teller adopts a superior attitude to the object, like that of an adult to a child. The teller cannot enjoy the joke for the effort of overcoming the inhibition, endoxa. The second party, the object does not enjoy the joke for being the target. The third party is left to economize the energy of the teller through laughter.  But in the humorous process there is no need for other parties. The subject assumes both the role of superior adult and child by, “displacing a large amount of cathexis [emotional investment]”–from the ego to the super-ego. The ego withdraws, is deflated transferring psychical investment to the super-ego, which uncharacteristically condescends to the ego, enabling it to obtain a small yield of pleasure by making the trauma the target, diminishing it to “nothing but a game for children–just worth making a jest about.”  This pleasure according to Freud never reaches the intensity of the joke, “never finds vent in hardy laughter.” Unlike the joke enjoyed by a listener who expends no effort, a great deal of energy is spent shifting and displacing the ego for its protection. Not much is left to vent in hardy laughter.   

My work is not funny for although it shares the logic and innovative action of the joke, it is engaged in an arduous negotiation of subject object position with the viewer. At times retreating or equivocating positions the work leaves little respite for the passive viewer. If the work is to yield pleasure or even sense, the viewer must take part in this mutual arbitration, suspension and reciprocal displacement.

The works require the viewer to conceptually navigate them using language as a prosthesis through its analogous functions to the subject. Through these operations that share structure with the joke, we find ourselves in a liminal but frictionless elsewhere. We are situated, if only temporarily, in a state of exception where trauma is diminished. Being both within and outside of the sensible, all possible applications of the rule are suspended and enforce. It is only when we slip out of that space (to find a proper application of the rule where there is none) that part of its structure seems superfluous or in conflict and thus given to sublimation.   

A final note about humor; like the visual arts, it too has a rule of three that guides composition. The first instance of a gag, a line or action acts as a set up, an introduction to an incomplete whole. The second instance contextualizes or acts as explanation. The third is then extraneous as everyone is now in on the gag. It acts as the punch line. I am not sure if I believe this formula, but one thing I am sure of, is there is nothing funny about a dead shark.

Tristan Sober-Blodgett