Wednesday, 30 May 2018

On Fun

Should what we researchers and artists in a university context do - research, art, artistic research, teaching and studying – be fun? Can it be fun? Should it be fun in the sense that one enjoys what one does, and does what one enjoys? And even more, can it be fun in the sense of being humorous and funny? When we want to be serious, professional and ambitious about what we do?

In his The Birth of Tragedy Friedrich Nietzsche claimed that the Greeks invented tragedy when they were young, strong and brave: “a pessimism of strength? An intellectual inclination for what in existence is hard, dreadful, evil, problematic, emerging from what is healthy, from overflowing well being, from living existence to the full?” (Nietzsche, 1886 foreword) And then moved over to comedy in their old age and weakness which makes Greek comedy to be about “(t)he instantaneous, the witty, the foolish, the capricious—these are its loftiest divinities … it is the serenity of the slave, who has no idea how to take responsibility for anything difficult, how to strive for anything great, how to value anything in the past or future higher than the present.” (Nietzsche, Chapter 11) In sum: tragedy is for the young and strong, the old and weak can only take fun. Tragedy is grand and noble, comedy is common and lazy. Serious and fun are in an inherent contradiction and will not mix.

Allow me to turn to a source seriously considering what it means to live with an inherent contradiction that by necessity is mixed in continuation. In reference to the Hogwarts School of Wizardry and Witchcraft and its institution of ‘sorting’ students into four famous Houses (Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff, Slytherin) according to fundamental characteristics of the students (see The Harry Potter Lexicon: Hogwarts Houses), Alanna Bennet wrote on those “complex” persons who will not easily fit into just one House in her article 17 Signs You're A True Ravenpuff listing things like:

“1. Your brain is always fighting between the earnest and the critical.
2. As a result, other people sometimes have a hard time telling when you're being earnest vs. when you're being sarcastic or wry.
6. Blending the highbrow with the lowbrow is your jam — it's just automatically what your brain does.
7. You're constantly torn between voicing your opinion and not stepping on anyone else's toes.
10.You can't help but jump in on debates.
11. It frustrates you when people aren't willing to debate pros and cons.
12. And when people aren't willing to traverse through the nuances of every situation.
13. But you have a hard time letting go of a debate until people understand.
15. You have a rock solid work ethic, but only for the things you're really passionate about. This can become a pain in the ass while in required classes.
16. Finding a career/path you're genuinely passionate about was of upmost importance to you because you knew how much energy one you weren't into would drain you.
17. You're constantly contradicting yourself, your opinions, and rethinking your place in the world.” (Bennet)

Now the last items might be seen to refer to weakness and laziness, being prepared to exert effort only on things one enjoys or choosing a career path that would not drain one’s energy. But I take this to be more if one could paraphrase Nietzsche, of a kind of “laziness of strength” – since the listed characteristics also imply a will to commit to and a passion for the kind of tasks one really cares for. A true Ravenpuff seems to be driven to do what they enjoy and enjoy what they do, but not to avoid effort or refuse being serious, to the contrary. Added qualities include being constantly strung between seriousness and irony; again not in order to avoid getting to the bottom of serious issues but precisely to consider the ins and outs of every issue to the point of driving everybody else to desperation.

Can something be a joke and serious? I’ll take up some space to insert a work/ presentation/ discussion of mine on “The Geometry of the Multitude”, which faithfully followed classic Euclidean format of how to prove a theorem = claim:

Clearly this is a joke – since “reductio ad absurdum” does not exactly function the way I’m using it. It is meant to prove a statement by showing that if it is not accepted this will lead to absurdity (or disprove a statement by showing it leads to absurdity). Absurdity, also, does not mean simply funny but having to accept simultaneously two facts that cancel each other. I’m using a serious format and serious terms but in a humorous way. Nevertheless, I’m quite serious about the statement I’m making: the paradigmatic space of multitude is a wormhole. The specifications for wormholes come from mathematical theories on wormholes, but my definition derives from social theory: “Instead of the dichotomy of the known place and unknown surrounding world, my argument is that the global postfordist society is characterized by wormholes, possibilities of jumping from one reality to another. It is made up of the space of unknown punctured by sudden familiar spaces, networks of interaction and action that are not constructed on geographical proximity.” (Rajanti, 79) Even more to the point with regard to ‘fun’, part of my definition implies that these wormholes will elude traditional empirical research methods. We cannot understand this new paradigmatic space by looking at the ‘end-products’: buildings and the spaces between them. The focus and thus the methods must follow those everyday practices that leave no visible traces yet form the reality, give voice to the silent and unexpressed. The research and the discourse must make way for people to change their mind-sets, not just add information or evidence. (Rajanti, 82 – 83) And, as Bennet’s 4. sign states: “You find yourself very attracted to fandom, where dedication and overthinking are both welcomed and encouraged. (Bennet)”

In fact, what’s in a joke? Let us turn to Paolo Virno’s short but poignant essay on Wit and Innovation. Where Freud seems to agree with the youthful Nietzsche that sense of humor is a sign of thrifty psychic economy (and possibly covering up for something that needs hiding), Virno, as the title suggests, connects wit to humankind’s ability to creativity and change. Virno does depart from a confessedly narrow definition of creativity: “the forms of verbal thought that allow for change in one's behaviour in an emergency situation”. This not to restrict creativity in the verbal sphere or arts, but to refrain from a tautological definition where creativity is a general human property that explains human nature.

For Virno wit is “the diagram of creative action”, meaning creative action in miniature form. Wit is tightly connected to “praxis in the public sphere”, to practical reason (fronesis) i.e. the virtue of action itself, not its end-product. The eminent function of wit is to “exhibit the transformability of all linguistic games”. Wit is first of all connected to the praxis of “how to apply a rule to a particular case”; and wit demonstrates that every application of a rule contains already its exception. Wit is the meticulous application of a rule ending in a paradox or absurdity.

Wit also consists of an argumentative fallacy – contained in the application of a rule. And in fact, wit makes visible the point where the fallacy ceases to be a fallacy, where it can no longer be considered a mere mistake, but where it reveals something that was not previously visible. “It follows that only under these circumstances and in these conditions the ‘fallacy’ becomes an indispensable source of innovation.” (Virno)

Can it be all fun? Can one only do what one enjoys and can everything be a joke? But of course not. Not because of necessary recourse to ethics of guilt and retribution, because of any fundamental need for the ennobling function of human suffering. Merely because if you never try to follow a rule and/or apply it, if you do not know a rule, you cannot run into its exception. You cannot be tickled by confronting one fact with another that does not fit unless you have an idea of those facts. You cannot make rules crumble by using them if they’re not part of your praxis.

Indeed, one might point out to youthful Nietzsche that age may not only bring weakness and sloth, but a reserve of rules and facts unavoidably clashing, that will strongly lean towards the witty. Nietzsche after all is his own contradiction in adjecto, his writings becoming all the more unrelentingly and brutally witty towards the end - and even if you insist Ecce Homo to be the product of a deranged mind (I don’t), nobody has ever claimed that for Zarathustra or The Will to Power. Thus the not lofty ending to this essay reads: even if we cannot only have fun, of course doing what we do must be fun, hopefully also to others than ourselves. If we don’t enjoy it and if we are not tickled by it, why the heck would anybody else be bothered about it? Remember, for Virno wit is inherently connected to praxis not in private but in public sphere.


Alanna Bennet: 17 Signs You're A True Ravenpuff

The Harry Potter Lexicon: Hogwarts Houses

Friedrich Nietzsche: The Birth of Tragedy, online source

Taina Rajanti: Wormholes as a new spatial paradigm: Social Production of Space in Postfordist Society and the Art of Studying it. Sociologisk Årbok 2008

Paolo Virno: Wit and Innovation.

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