The Humor of Surfaces

A few stray thoughts continuing off from the last post on roadside attractions and kitsch Americana as ‘vernacular surrealism’—

If America, with its complicated approach to the depths of history and focus on self-cultivation (in the face of ‘symbolic deficiency’) can be most immediately understood through the notion of the surface, then the relationship that this country has towards sense and nonsense is likewise one that becomes quickly scrambled. Indeed, there is something of an obscene alliance between the strange byways that characterize the American experience—the alien character of its landscape and iconography—and what is regarded as common sense (or the ‘pragmatic’ mindset).

As I wrote in the previous post, Deleuze’s Logic of Sensea work described by Fisher as “one of the strangest landmarks in Psychedelic Reason”uses the primacy of the surface to destabilize the orderly binarization that cleaves apart standard notions of sense and nonsense. “Nonsense and sense have done away with their relation of dynamic opposition in order to enter into the co-presence of a static genesis—as the nonsense of the surface and the sense that hovers above it. The tragic and the ironic gave way to a new value, that of humor”. “Humor is the art of surfaces and of the doubles”. “…humor is the co-extensiveness of sense with nonsense”.

For Deleuze, irony is always a matter of ascent: while it is a kind of proposition that forever masks its truest intentions, it is still a form of judgement in that it ranks things in accordance with a particular hierarchy. Its ultimately aim is to resolve elements into the One. Humor, on the other hand, poses a dialectical relationship of a very different sort (and here it has something of an uncanny resemblance to the Maoist dialectic, which gets an all too hasty dismissal at the start of A Thousand Plateaus): it holds the divergent series apart, in this case sense and nonsense, while at the same time keeping them in close proximity. Contrary to the ironic ascent, humor descends, but what it descends towards isn’t the abyss or the depths, but the surface itself.

Thinking America in conjunction with humor understood in this manner explains why Baudrillard is the best of among the post-’68 continentals at capturing the peculiar thisness of the country’s aleatory landscape (and I say this as someone very fond of Deleuze’s own mythic portrait of America, which nonetheless properly points to the importance of divergence). Critics of Baudrillard in his own time rightly pointed towards the sheer nonsense of what he was saying and writing, while his contemporary take-up by those of a more right-wing or post-right inclination tend to code him as a dour, even miserablist, critic of the hyperreal condition. Both of these approaches miss out on the humor that explodes through in each twist and turn of his work, the playful succession of ambivalences that he continually put in motion. He was a crank no doubt, but he also clearly understood himself in that role. So for every hard-hitting analysis, like the critique of Foucauldian ‘microphysics of desire’ as the very logic of capital’s control system and not its contrary, there are episodes like his performance in Vegas: hanging out in the pulsing heart of the simulacrum, Las Vegas, in a golden Elvis suit and reciting poetry.


Deleuze’s understanding of humor is that of a paradoxical formation, maybe even paradox in itself, and Baudrillard puts this on full display in America:

We [Europeans] live in negativity and contradiction; they [Americans] live in paradox (for a realized Utopia is a paradoxical idea). And the quality of the American way of life resides for many in that pragmatic, paradoxical humour of theirs, whilst ours is (was?) characterized by the subtlety of our critical wit. Many American intellectuals envy us this and would like to fashion a set of ideal values and a history for themselves, and relive the philosophical or Marxist delights of old Europe. Yet this runs against the grain of everything that makes up their original situation, since the charm and power of American (un)culture derive precisely from the sudden and unprecedented materialization of models.


The tragic holds an ambiguous place of its own in Deleuze’s work. On the one hand, the ‘true’ sense of the tragic is bound up in the overcoming of the negative and constitutes itself as a force of affirmation (and in this sense it is quite uninteresting), while on the other it is the “closed space” of phantastical representations that are reinforced by the social field. In the Logic of Sense, the myth of Oedipus is, as one would expect, held up as the tragic story par excellence. While Deleuze does not, at this stage, consider the implications of the temporal structure of the myth, it is exactly this structure that makes Oedipus so paradigmatic for understanding the dynamics of capitalist structuralization: the loops of time consecrate an ever-repeating, inescapable destiny.

By the time of Anti-Oedipus, time-scrambling does enter the picture as a way to explain the reproduction of the capitalist symbolic order:

Capitalism institutes or restores all sorts of residual and artificial, imaginary, or symbolic territories, thereby attempting, as best it can, to recode, to rechannel persons who have been defined in terms of abstract quantities. Everything returns or recurs: States, nations, families. That is what makes the ideology of capitalism “a motley painting of everything that has ever been believed”. The real is not impossible; it is simply more and more artificial.

The abstract quantities designates the synthetic body of the proletariat, a child of modernity as much as the machinery that capital continually develops; it’s important then that Marx wrote in The German Ideology that the rise of abstract labor—the production of wealth detached from any one individual—”is most pronounced in the United States, the most modern form of bourgeois society”. The compensatory dynamo, which dredges up a spectacular form of the past as the orientating guideposts for social order, is the conversion of this synthetic, mutable thing into a naturalized organicism.

This is also the same dynamic identified by Deleuze and Guattari as taking shape within American literature: the ‘break’ that seeks to overcome the “capitalist barrier”, which consistently fails to do so, and thus find itself trapped back in box of depth and ‘established'(artificial) identity (most commonly in the recoding with Europe).

Yesterday Kantbot unleashed a lengthy thread on the tl addressing the ‘instrumentralization’ of the unruly and transgressive (and mostly online) subcultures that blossomed in the in the years leading up the 2016 election of Donald Trump. His retrospection is quite fascinating, and conforms closely to this schema. He began by tracking out these network’s roots at the dawn of the new millennium:

No doubt the importance of atheism at this stage is a sign of troubles ahead: this dismal, positivistic kind of atheism was a sign of Last Man syndrome at its worst. In their fastidious commitment to challenging all that is ‘irrational’, they missed out the double-role that makes religion so important—1) the ritual, which as Pascal pointed out was necessary in establishing belief; and 2) that Christianity in particular itself posited the (continually restaged) formation of an anorganic community profoundly out of joint with its own time. Suspended between the two—belief and the formation of community—the ability to carry out the necessary task of bringing the negative against the full weight of the world is lost; the ‘nu atheist’ becomes just another figure in a series of passive critics of everything under the sun, committed to the persistence of the postmodern circling about on its worst side. Hence the schizophrenia: the pseudo-subversive atheism that Kbot alludes to, that attacked the unity of American empire and fundamentalist religion, but fervent atheists who took up the neocon call precisely because of its stated promise of modernizing the ‘non’-modern world.

Nu-atheism, at best, was an artificial negativity, and the recoding of some of its factions into the momentously traditional conservatism that became hegemonic in the post-2016 era was in hindsight a completely expected reversal.

Fast forward into the heat of 2015: proliferating online subcultures and memetic overload play right into a mounting hysteria about the ‘post-truth’ moment and the rise of populist ‘demagoguery’. The subversive edge can be felt here, in that for a single moment it seemed as if the mass media cartel and the script-writers for the reality studio were being undermined. Long ago, Vince Garton wrote a great blogpost probing the spectral outlines of a ‘digital subjectivity’ that could then be glimpsed on the horizon—an unintelligible mass that was perceived as the voiding-out of the rational, Kantian subject that liberal politics assumes (or at least claims to assume—Lippman-style public management is a whole other story).

Irony was treated as the defining motif of this moment—with irony being understood as a permanent distancing effect and a strategic ambivalence crafted in a willfully nihilistic mode. But maybe we should understand this irony in a double sense, with the aforementioned as the ironic foreground and irony in the Deleuzian sense—as an obscured form of judgment—as its deeper structure. What sort of judgment was this? An all too regular judgment, one psychically tethered to the re-establishment of ‘artificial, symbolic territories’ (MAGA, now fully unmasked as a codeword for the maintenance of the Eternal Now). Irony and tragedy here intermingle, and neither is overcome (which is never their full abolition; only their reconstitution in a re-new-ed form).

The humors of the surface, circling around the real Thing, deferred.

[For more on very online subcultures and the objects of their desire: Subcultural Blues]

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