Bring the Noise

In which I’ll argue, amongst other things, that comedy is a simulacrum of ritual murder.

In Greek myth Aphrodite was born when her father, the Titan Cronos, chopped off his father Uranus’s cock and balls with a scythe and lobbed them into the sea. From the resulting foam Aphrodite emerged, fully formed, as depicted here in Botticelli’s famous Birth of Venus, standing bold in a scallop shell.

birth-of-venus-botticelli

The goddess of love, desire and beauty born of a cocktail of patricidal castration and the resulting foam and chaos of the ocean. The ancient poet Hesiod, when describing Aphrodite used a number of epithets to do so – ‘golden’, ‘quick-glancing’, ‘foam-born’ and ‘smile-loving’.

Our modern minds have a way of finding the same truths as the ancients in a much more complicated way. In the 20th Century the information theorists, Claude Shannon and Norbert Wiener concluded, mathematically, that the information and insight in a message was connected to how much disorder, noise and chaos was within it. The more unpredictable the more information. They did this by taking the second law of thermodynamics and applying it to information transmission and retrieval. The second law of thermodynamics says that in an isolated system the measure of its disorder – its entropy – would increase. Entropy is what gives us the sense of time passing and prevents the reversal of natural processes. Shannon and Wiener had differing approaches to the theory. Shannon saw the information content as being directly connected to the entropy of the message. The more chaos – the more noise – the more information. Wiener, playing Apollo to Shannon’s Dionysus, saw communication as negatively entropic. It is highly ordered, but the more unexpected the message is the more enlightening it can be. As he put it ‘cliches are less illuminating than great poems‘. Which goes some way to explaining why you learn absolutely nothing from most political discourse.

Negative entropy, or negentropy, incidentally, is when, in apparent contradiction to the second law of thermodynamics there is a move toward greater structure and order. Erwin Schrodinger, of cat fame, posited that life was negatively entropic. This is possible because, within the system as a whole, life increases disorder. All of this is only possible because we have on Earth a source of free energy from the Sun. The increase in disorder is inexorable however and one theory regarding the end of the universe has it that, eventually, the universe will reach maximum entropy. There will be no form at all and never even the possibility of it – the heat death of the universe. Which is a bit of a glum thought but it’s a long way off so don’t worry about it. You’ll reach maximum entropy long before the universe does.

Interestingly, when researching whether there might be life on Mars, James Lovelock suggested that a means of identifying life there would be to ‘look for entropy reduction. Since this must be a general characteristic of life‘. James Lovelock invented Gaia Theory and Gaia was Aphrodite’s Grandma. So it goes.

Jacques Attalli, in his ‘Noise: a political economy of music’ describes noise as an essential component of life, ”nothing essential happens in the absence of noise’, so he said.

Jacques-Attali-L-uberisation-est-une-anecdote-dans-la-robotisation
Jacques Attali – not making much noise

But noise is not a benign, innately pleasant thing. It is associated with destruction “the weapon, blasphemy and the plague”. Music he argued was a means of channeling the destructive qualities of noise and, in this sense, was a simulacrum of ritual sacrifice. The latter being a social channeling of explosive, violent impulses. Attali called music “the organisation of controlled panic”

Music is pre-linguistic and so untainted by the prejudices of language, culture and attempted representation. It is closer to the essence of things and many have considered it the purest art form for that reason. But, as art forms go, poetry is deeply connected to music and, via that route, so is comedy. Aside from the fact that many comedians produce actual comedy songs, the nature of it is very similar in a number of ways. Both music and comedy are heavily reliant on performance, whether a song or joke is good is dependent almost entirely on how it’s presented. Take, for example, the song Smells Like Teen Spirit. An anthemic scream of adolescent angst that itself speaks of meaninglessness and is heavy in noise and virtual incomprehensibility.

Then take Take That’s performance of it.

As a comedic example the 2005 film ‘The Aristocrats’ focuses on one dirty joke. Numerous comedians talk about why it’s a funny joke and perform their own renditions of it. Personally I don’t think the joke is all that funny but some of the interpretations of it in the film still make me laugh.

Related to the performance, comedy and music are reliant on audience responsiveness. They both rely on rhythm and timing, they’re intuitive, depend, at least in their creation, on improvisation and rely on techniques like repetition and the ‘call back’ to create their effects. There’s also a long line of self destructive comedians just as there are musicians – from Lenny Bruce and Tony Hancock, to Richard Pryor and Robin Williams. So, it’s not such a stretch to suggest that comedy serves a similar purpose to music. To organise controlled panic. To act as a simulacrum of ritual murder. But with laughs.

It’s also worth noting that a joke almost always works because it twists the expectation of a phrase or a scene or an image and reveals something unexpected. Something unpredictable. And so according to Shannon and Weaver’s formula they can also be highly illuminating.

From one point of view some sacrificial rites actually seem quite funny. The Aztecs would conduct their wars in part to acquire prisoners of war for slaves and for sacrifice. One of the prisoners, usually the most beautiful, would be selected to play the role of a king or God for a year. He’d be treat like royalty, be given all the luxury the society had to offer – food, comfort, drink, sex. Then they’d take him to the top of a massive pyramid and cut his heart out as an offering to that seemingly eternal giver of free energy, the Sun. They weren’t to know about the distant heat death of the universe were they?

The priests would then cut the skin off this pretend god and wear it. Y’know, for kicks.

tumblr_kye556qszh1qzexpio1_r1_500
For shits and giggles

Now from our perspective that’s quite dark, I’ll admit, but it does contain two common components of comedy in its mimicry and its shock value. The priests may have even been playing it for laughs, prancing about their temple in their skin suit going, ‘Oooh, look at me, I’m the great God Tecuciztecatl!‘  (If they could pronounce it). No doubt accompanied by some frenzied Meso-American marimba. I mean, none of us were there so you never know.

Regardless of whether they were being funny or not there must have been a social function in sacrifice, given that most cultures had and have some form of it. A channeling of chaotic, destructive social impulses into a highly organised ritual that portends or gives birth to art and beauty seems as good an explanation as any to me.

9d87331eb52027234569fd3868ce1d4f.jpg

In Greek legend the Iliad has the Trojan War start because of a social sleight. All the Gods were invited to a wedding. All except Eris, Goddess of discord and chaos. Understandably pissed off she got her own back by leaving a golden apple at the wedding table inscribed with the words,’for the fairest’. This kicked off the proverbial punch up, principally between three goddesses, Athena, Hera and Aphrodite. To settle the argument it was decided that Paris, a Trojan prince, would decide which was the fairest of them all. To sway his decision each of the goddesses offered a bribe. Hera offered political power over vast regions of the world, Athena offered strength and invincibility in battle and Aphrodite offered the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen.

800px-Paul_Cézanne_216
Cezanne’s ‘The Judgement of Paris’

Paris opted for Aphrodite and beautiful Helen, who just happened to already be married to Menelaos of Sparta, who was none too happy when Paris fucked off with his wife to Troy. It started a decade long war you may have heard of. In retrospect it might have been better if they’d just invited Eris along to the party after all, though we did get a nice story out of it. Either way, I like to think that at least smile-loving Aphrodite would have seen the funny side.