Racists are Hilarious and Oceania Has Always Been At War With Eastasia
I finally know what George Orwell’s masterpiece Nineteen Eighty Four has to do with that voyeuristic orgyfest known as TV’s Big Brother. It’s not just the shared connection of watching people. A more significant tie has to do with laughter.
This past week, Aaryn got booted out of the house and the ratings for her eviction skyrocketed. America tuned in to see the typically poised young blond get reamed by an even more poised host, Julie Chen. In the early weeks of the game, Aaryn wickedly slurred her Asian, African American, and gay housemates. She openly imitated them using vulgar, stereotypical voices and made ribald jokes about them behind their backs. When I say “ribald” think barbaric biting-the-heads-off-chickens type crudity paired with unhealthy dashes of South Park.
With Aaryn in the hot seat inches away from her, Julie Chen ticked through some of the most condemnatory remarks with all the charm of Orwell’s O’Brien. Hearing the Asian host repeat Aaryn’s comment that Helen, an Asian houseguest, should just go away to make rice was especially difficult to watch. Aaryn responded with a nervous confidence that proved how little aware she was of America’s heated reaction to her display of hatred as humor, which has reportedly already lost her her job–unbeknownst to her.
So the stage is set. I was salivating to see this beautiful blond turd in heels get her comeuppance. But then something happened. The area the host occupies in the show space has a live audience in it. When Aaryn defended herself under Julie Chen’s triumphant interrogation, audience members began laughing loudly over her platitudes. I love Andy (the gay houseguest) she attempted to say, but loud smothering laughter covered it up like a towel on stretchmarks at the beach. Me and Candace (an African American houseguest) are actually long lost sisters she hoped to say, but the weather changes before she can get it all out. Here comes that thunderous laughter again.
It wasn’t coming from the whole audience, mind you. That would have been tolerable. It seemed to emanate from only a gaggle of loud laughers. And the result of their anxious guffaws cut me to the quick. Something in it reminded me of laughter I had encountered before. Back in 1984.
Writing hectically in his contraband diary, Winston Smith recounts the raucous hilarity of filmgoers under the tyranny of Big Brother:
Audience much amused by shots of a great huge fat man trying to swim away with a helicopter after him, first you saw him wallowing along in the water like a porpoise, then you saw him through the helicopters gunsights, then he was full of holes and the sea round him turned pink and he sank as suddenly as though the holes had let in the water, audience shouting with laughter when he sank.
The image is gorily terrifying on a number of levels. The laughter is demonic. It’s the kind you see in Hieronymus Bosch paintings. It takes pleasure in the demise of another and turns death into an amusing spectacle. More than the nature of the laughter, however, is the form it takes on the page. Winston’s reaction to it performs terror for readers in being so poorly written.
Remember, we would be reading this snippet of language breaking down, the grammar and spelling of it falling apart like a space capsule during heat re-entry, within a larger novel whose crisp, expert sentencing carries us reliably along throughout. Except here. Here, at this moment of intense conflict where Winston Smith does poorly what George Orwell does so well, our eyes fail us. Our reliance on the certitude of the words on the page cracks into so many italic shards, falling into the waters off of Cape Canaveral like ash.
The devilish laughter of the audience suddenly, uncannily turns towards us at such a moment. And this is how the laughter functions during racist Aaryn’s eviction, as a Petri dish of over-performed public outrage, revealing how America loves to personalize a historical and systemic problem and thereby remand it to private confessional booths.
In no way would I ever want this to suggest a defense for any of the hateful things Aaryn said. I only want to reflect briefly on the politics of the laughter that escorted her off the stage of her fifteen minutes of fame-turned-shame. That laughter became oddly solid for the occasion. It took on the shape of that old vaudeville device: the long-handled hook that snakes out from the wings to drag off failed performances, a rowdy gag, itself producing more ribald laughter. Wah, wah, wah wawawwawhhh. Badum dum.
The thing I realized in those awkward moments was that Big Brother normally has no laughtrack. Suddenly, for this live telecast, it did. It was not the usual type of laughtrack, although it did function in a manner typical to the device. As Jacob Smith reminds us in his book Vocal Tracks, the laugh track is “used to locate the isolated viewer in a constructed social context” (p.43). The thing is, the context that this laughter constructed made me suspicious of the real politics lying beneath the tense, reactive staccato of the laughter spilling from the live audience like a dropped jar of rotten tomatoes.
One thing is for sure. I was not feeling this way for the reasons Immanuel Kant used in his definition of laughter—as “an affection arising from a strained expectation being suddenly reduced to nothing.” My unease was not caused by the turnabout of an expectation but the opposite. It was as if the audience knew Aaryn would erupt with hackneyed excuses—dragging out the cosmically overworked token black friend whose endless charge is to exonerate any semblance of racism in the white person who plays the “black friend” race card the way Sisyphus rolls his stone.
Rather, this was the kind of demonic laughter that Hobbes theorized as “a sudden glory arising from some sudden conception of some eminence in ourselves by comparison with the inferiority of others, or with ourselves formerly.” It is laughter that glories in Aaryn being put on display instead of them, instead of us. It is she who must pay, not us. She must go off to the Hunger Game, winning Shirley Jackson’s lottery and be the spectacle of laughable death drowning in a pink pool of your own ignorance. Not me. It is a tense and vaguely tortured sort of laughter. The kind that acts as a place holder for something else.
Now I hear it whenever I watch the show, lurking there to pop the bubbly expectation for an unconstrained voyeurism. It rises up unauthorized, uncanned and uncanny.