I believe I’ve mentioned Stella in this space before. It was an unconventional Comedy Central sitcom that ran for one season. It’s currently available for Watch Instantly on Netflix, so if you’ve got access, I highly recommend you watch it ASAP. Anyway, I’ve been reading the new Zizek book (very excellent, imo) and something in it struck me wrt Stella. Zizek quotes Marx, who writes (in part):
Impersonal reason having outside of itself neither ground upon which to stand, nor object with which it can be composed, finds itself forced to make a somersault in posing, opposing, and composing itself - position, opposition, composition[…] Instead of the ordinary individual, with his ordinary manner of speaking and thinking, we have nothing but this ordinary manner pure and simple, minus the individual.
If you’ve seen Stella, this is relatively easy to unpack. Stella traffics in human tropes. It takes conventional situations and then rehearses the most cliched, expected possibilities of those situations. Only it does so without any fidelity to internal consistency, to logic, or to pathos. All that is left are these tropes, strung together. The show’s premise is deeply cynical; there are no human interactions outside these mundane tropes. Zizek points out that Marx takes the unexpected route. You would expect him to write, “Instead of the ordinary individual, with his ordinary manner of speaking and thinking, we have the extraordinary individual,” but really he drops the individual entirely and what we’re left with is simply the manner.
My idle speculation, but it seems like after you’ve analyzed enough tropes, what remains are the ways that the tropes can be analyzed. This thing plus this thing equals this thing. I presume that this is Marx stepping back from Hegel - you don’t want to exhaust the ways of being until they are all you are left with. You want the human to reemerge.
There’s a [brilliant] scene in Stella where the three protagonists are taking turns speaking:
Michael Ian Black: America is the greatest country in the world. Think of all the great things that have come from America…
Michael Showalter: Rugby.
David Wain: Chicken tikka masala.
Michael Ian Black: Chinese people.
Michael Showalter: ASS!
David Wain: [in a British accent] Harry Potter.
Michael Ian Black: Rubber balls and liquor.
Michael Showalter: Then I say something.
The other jokes all follow a similar formula (something that obviously didn’t come from America) done in different ways. Rugby obviously doesn’t come from America, but there isn’t an intrinsic reason why it couldn’t have. Chicken tikka masala ups the ante slightly, it sounds foreign, and is semiotically divorced from America. Chinese people exhausts this line of humor - they’re obviously not from America, they are from China. The next three lines dwell in the completely surreal, (tho the Harry Potter line is respinning the first trope — now not even David Wain’s accent comes from America), but the final line is the demonstrative one. Michael Showalter says, “Then I say something,” dismantling the the trope entirely. What made it funny wasn’t the content, but the cadence and the rhythm — the grouping of lines to become progressively more bizarre. Once totally dismantled, all that is left is the acknowledgement that comedy often involves talking and language. All that remains is the manner, not the person.
At Psychology Today, Christopher Ryan writes:
It’s amazing to see how eagerly the mainstream media trumpets any and all research findings that lend the slightest support to the narrative in which human warfare is an integral, ancient part of our primate past. From a psychological perspective, it’s tempting to conclude that the media frenzy that predictably breaks out every time scientists report evidence of chimpanzee warfare is due to an unconscious desire to deflect shame felt over human warfare. “It’s not our fault,” the thinking seems to go, “It’s human nature. Look at chimps! They’re our closest primate cousins!”
That’s a really bizarre argument, though. Of course it’s human nature to go to war. The proof is that humans are always going to war! It may somehow be possible that we can overcome our natural urge to go to war, but that won’t indicate that it’s somehow not human nature. And we certainly don’t need to look to the animal kingdom for validation (tho looking there will provide tons of validation among all sorts of species, some closely related to us and some not). We can just look at human history and notice all the different cultures and communities and civilizations that participated in warfare. Aka: Almost all of them.
The larger problem is associating what is naturally human with what is ethically correct. They are two separate things, and those things that are ethically correct shouldn’t be informed by those things that are naturally human. If we found evidence that a species close to us eat their young, we wouldn’t start arguing that it’s okay to eat our children. The larger problem is this romanticized view of nature as the proper way of things occurring, as though we cannot improve on what we are naturally given to do. Arguably the fundamental argument of religion is that we can improve on our natural impulses. Whether this is through the acceptance of Jesus and transcendence over Original Sin in Christianity, or the Circumcisions of Judaism and Islam that take something we are naturally born with and, acc, to those religions, improve it.
For those who aren’t religious, believing it’s natural for humans to go to war still doesn’t justify it. It just gives us an insight into how we might manipulate human impulses. If we can understand why humans naturally want to go to war, maybe we can find ways of expressing those urges without the actual war (Like if we’re Kantians, or simply social engineers who realize that it’s better to work with human nature to achieve results than against it).
What’s really bizarre though is that Ryan claims that this media frenzy is actually the expression of an unconscious desire. Which is to say, he’s essentially arguing that it’s natural for humans to want to justify going to war, but it’s not natural to actually go to war. Once you’ve admitted one, tho, doesn’t the next follow naturally? Why would humans require an advanced mechanism to (ritualistically) explain the naturalness of going to war if going to war wasn’t actually natural? How could the permissive mechanism possibly arise independent of the thing it is permitting?
(He may be right about something else: We may be wrong to look for examples of other species going to war when many do not go to war. There’s a sort of intellectual dishonesty to find an animal group and use them as justification for our own behavior. If someone wants to justify human behavior they should just use humans.)