Laughter is a biological imperative, a complex cognitive and physiological response to the human condition that is as necessary for survival as water, air, and freedom.
-Ron Jenkins, Subversive Laughter: The Liberating Power of Comedy
When the going gets weird, the weird go pro.
Recently I wrote about the nature of our more and more regimented society and the expanding social media culture and how it can be liberating in the area of masculinity and femininity, given that “identity” is a complex, significantly artificial thing. The idea of shifting gender as a personal choice is not such a strange idea when you think of the effects i-phone culture and the internet have on human beings, especially the young who are born into a world of i-phone networks as if they were a part of nature. The reality is people can and do choose to be anonymous on social media. Many people regularly don’t use real names and totally control their identity. A telling example might be the 35-year-old cop playing a 14-year-old girl to entrap adult male pedophiles. In the cyber world, one can assume an amazing array of identities broadcasted (Tweeted at 5AM?) to a vast formation of possibly millions of anonymously connected human beings that one might look at metaphorically as a giant swarm of birds or a giant school of minnows subject to chaos theory. As we know, with a long history of disinformation, the Russians are particularly good at this kind of thing.
In this light, consider the latest subversive, post-Pussy Riot cultural phenomenon in Russia. An on-line video of air transport cadets dancing to the song “Satisfaction” went viral. It’s an all-male parody of a rock video by Benni Benassi called “Satisfaction” that featured half-naked, buxom and sweaty women brandishing masculine power tools to a dorky Euro-drone disco beat. The air transport cadets’ parody — kids wearing military-style hats and boots in their BVDs — is unabashedly homoerotic. The rightist, hypermasculine and homophobic gangster government in Russia was not happy. But once the state tried to crack down on the parody, solidarity videos from school dorms and other places broke out all over the internet like an aggressive rash. And they keep on coming. The state backed away. There’s a lot with males, one of guys in the snow, one of bare-chested young men in riding pants “horsing around” in a horse stable grooming the horses, etc, some feature girls, even one with two humping old babushkas in a spartan apartment kitchen. All to the same drone beat with the lyrics: “Push me. And then just touch me.”
The spreading solidarity shares something with the scene in Spartacus where everyone says, “I’m Spartacus! … No, I’m Spartacus!” when the Roman army is trying to identify the leader of the slave rebellion. It also reminds me of being a male teenager and “mooning”. When you think about it, that sort of thing probably was a bit “gay” in the sense Freud, Jung and the rest of them considered all humans to be bi-sexual somewhere on a continuum. As for mooning, there were different styles; for instance, when one pressed his ass-cheeks against the window in the backseat of a car during a drive-by mooning, it was known as a “pressed ham.” Nowadays, in our exceptional, late-capitalism culture, in some circles it’s great sport to moon passing AMTRAK trains.
Masha Gessen wrote about the “Satisfaction” phenomenon in a New Yorker article titled “How Russia’s Hilarious, Homoerotic ‘Satisfaction’ Became a Nationwide Meme of Solidarity”. The article has links to a number of the videos, which Gessen suggests one watch to get the full humor of the phenomenon. Gessen is an outspoken Russian lesbian and LGBT activist with children who is against marriage for everyone. She was dismissed as editor of the Russian popular-science magazine Vokrug Sveta when she refused to send a reporter to cover Putin hang-gliding with cranes. She is currently a staff writer for The New Yorker. Her recent book The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia won the 2017 National Book Award. She disdains both Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. Here’s how she described the “Satisfaction” phenomenon:
“Given Russia’s official and highly politicized homophobia, these parodies are pure protest, raunchy and playful. They demonstrate that Russians can still form horizontal connections, despite the state’s monopoly on the public sphere, and despite the threat of harsh penalties for protest in general and ‘propaganda of homosexuality’ in particular. Each clip is at once a show of solidarity with a group of young strangers and a show of ordinary people’s ability to organize and act together—an ability that the state would seem to have stamped out. Many of the videos involve a fair amount of staging, choreographing, and shared risk; most culminate with a scene in which a dozen or so young men dance together, whether in the laundry room of a student dormitory or underwater.
“As the videos continue to replicate, they become, generally, less sexy and more funny. But in most cases the last scene is still pointedly homoerotic. This is remarkable in a country that’s not only deeply homophobic but has also been in the grip of an anti-gay campaign for some six years. Performing homoeroticism is, as it turns out, the real power tool when it comes to sticking it to the authorities.”
As Gessen points out, once you watch enough of the solidarity videos — all of it a spin-off from a soft-porn rock video — you realize these are ordinary Russian kids taunting or “mooning” the strong-man Russian state by mocking, and assuming, western cultural decadence. At that point, they become hilarious. Of course, in America this particular kind of subversive cultural satire could never work; in our culture, sex and especially violence are out in the open and, with marketing and movies, rubbed in our faces. It’s thus beyond parody. But then you realize, as I did the other night watching Bible conservative Vice President Mike Pence’s dull, stolid face as he delivered a speech to US troops at Bagram AFB in Afghanistan about the need to kill Muslims from ISIS, that his speech amounted to virtual satire. It was the same with Tina Fey who didn’t have to do anything but quote Sarah Palin to get laughs. Palin was satire just being herself in the public eye; Fey looked enough like Palin that all she had to do was play her straight. All it takes to make this so is an audience with a sense of offended decency and a resistant state of mind.
The fundamentalist Pence was informed by Christians in Egypt and Jordan that they didn’t want him to visit. In Israel, Arabs speaking against the US moving its embassy to Jerusalem were physically removed from the Knesset at the beginning of his speech. When Pence got to Afghanistan and told the young troops how much he regretted not having served in uniform himself, all I could think of was Jonathon Winters doing Colonel Robert Winglow. “All right, men, as you charge into battle, be confident, I’ll be a thousand yards behind you holding you in the long lenses.” In my subversive mind, the Pence speech became a Monty Python skit where the camera slowly turns and we see the troops gathered before him mooning the vice president en-mass.
For me, an absurd state of mind hovered in the air this past weekend in Philadelphia. Saturday, over 50,000 people showed up for the Women’s March lobbying for sane government on Benjamin Franklin Boulevard between City Hall and the “Rocky steps” of the Art Museum. Watching the local Action News later that Saturday, the first half of the show was devoted entirely to the football playoffs — scheduled for the next day! Action News did do a brief piece on the march; it felt like an obligatory afterthought. On Sunday, the Philadelphia Eagles brutalized the Minnesota Vikings 38 to 7. Afterwards, some 6,000 joyous and drunken fans took over Broad Street. As Philadelphia fans are notorious for, fans jeered and threw beer cans at the Vikings players as their bus passed by to their hotel. NFL games start with sexy flyovers by the Air Force Blue Angels and too often end with a drunken mob that has all the magnanimity and grace of National Guard members tuning up captured Iraqis at Abu Ghraib. It’s Trump America in miniature — the NFL as a classic fascist pincer: beer-guzzling mob thuggery at the fan level and plutocratic greed at the owner level. This is where NFL football loses me. As in the real militarism game, the word is Minnesota fans will be looking for revenge when Philadelphia fans get to the Super Bowl in Minneapolis. As for the post-game hooligans on Broad Street, the Philadelphia police did a fine job controlling the mayhem. One man was arrested for punching a police horse in the mouth.
It was absurd that 50,000 people assembling to lobby the government wasn’t news, but an upcoming football game and its aftermath was promoted everywhere. News as cheerleader with pom-poms. In a damning essay in The Baffler titled “Downward Spiral: A Fan’s Notes on the Decline of the NFL”, David J. Roth shows how the NFL — which he calls “the biggest, richest and most luridly batshit sports league the world has ever seen” — operates totally in the owners’ interests for profits that aren’t affected much by winning or losing. Apparently, it’s the emotional agitprop element of hypermasculine head-bashing and strutting around that keep fans bonded to their team. Owners, then, feel free to blackball talented players like Colin Kaepernick for political expression. Since the NFL is such a powerful mirror of militarized America, there’s great potential for satire and subversive laughter in the quote Roth cites from Dallas Cowboys President Tex Schramm to NFL Players Association head Gene Upshaw: “You guys are cattle, and we’re the ranchers.” Hand this idea over to a satirist like the Italian Nobel-winning street theater artist Dario Fo (he died last year) and one could have rollicking good fun mounting mini-plays in the parking lot as the fans arrived. Imagine plutocrat ranchers herding their cattle among the tailgate parties. Of course, one would have to deal with the horse-punching thuggery of NFL fans. But in the unfolding Trump America, that may become the price of self-expression. A deft protest artist like Fo would figure out how to incorporate the thuggery into the real-time theater.
The Gessen story on Russian protest tomfoolery made me wonder what sort of cultural imagery, narrative or theatrical phenomenon could outrage and offend our gated billionaire class and the devotees of the runaway National Security State — as at the same time it helped coalesce a truly diverse resistance? Of course, this is hardly new and has been going on for decades among very creative and subversive elements. In this weird and troubled moment in history, though, what sort of culturally subversive production might go viral and work to unite in solidarity the vast and diverse swarms and schools that make up “working families” in America? What gets through to them? What moves them? What makes them want to cooperate and join a movement? How to focus on what working families need, versus their fears and shortcomings — ie. bigotry? What we have now is bread & circus manifested through i-phone networks — on phones made by Apple, the company that just sold its soul to China for billions of dollars. Meanwhile, our version of Nero fiddles with an i-phone while eating burgers in his White House bedroom.
If you don’t see life in a declining America as absurd, you’re not paying attention; or you haven’t read enough Kafka, Heller or Vonnegut. For cultural subversion to go viral in any culture — it was the case with the air cadet video — it has to be spontaneous and audacious. Just do it, rather than planning it. Pussy Riot and the dry-humping air cadets got under the Russian government’s skin; in the air cadet’s case, a viral solidarity movement arose to protect them. Roth tells us that Dario Fo “scrambles the relationships among history, religion, and everyday experience so that the truths to be learned from them can be set free from the preconceptions in which they have been enshrined. … He unleashes a spirit of carnival revolt that encourages audiences to stand up for themselves.” Fo put it this way: “The public is my co-conspirator.”
NFL players facing traumatic brain injury as cattle and rich team owners as ranchers? It’s right out of Blazing Saddles. A President controlled by a right-wing general and a right-wingnut nobody named Steve Miller stirs up his know-nothing political base by inducing confusion and chaos using Twitter? Alec Baldwin has mastered that dangerous doofus. The possibilities for subversive humor are rich. Righteous outrage emphasizing the right’s hateful politics and excess won’t break this logjam. This preposterous President is often caricatured as a monstrous, whining infant, which no doubt has been done by puppeteers somewhere as a huge paper-mache diaper baby with orange hair and an i-phone. It’s sad to think that a reality-TV-star-as-president is what our exceptionalist culture deserves, an end-of-the-line reality show with the subtext that things could get even worse. Maybe, in this sense, Donald Trump is what we need. Maybe he’s a walking, talking, tweeting subversive reality-satire manifested in front of us every night on TV, where we learn what he said today that contradicts what he said the day before and what he’ll say to contradict that tomorrow. There’s a good reason Alec Baldwin is so much fun to watch: The guy is having so much fun subverting with laughter — helping to solidify a resistance as he does it.
As they say, you can’t make this stuff up. Well, we don’t have to. The inspiration for a nation’s creativity is right there in front of us.
“Push me. And then just touch me.”