After recording, editing, and listening to our most recent episode, “Predators and Jokers,” the crew and I realized that the topic, material, and theme were quite ambitious for the form of a single podcast. We had initially planned to include this summary and review of Berlant’s essay for the purpose of guiding listeners through a difficult piece. I’ve decided to include a few more posts as a kind of “strategy guide” for the episode, to cover some of the things that deserve more attention.
You can find Berlant’s essay here.
Lauren Berlant’s short essay, “The Predator and the Jokester,” is slippery. Topics and ideas shift in and out of the frame within single sentences, sometimes as much several times a paragraph. The “typical” reader of pieces of this “genre” (a key subject of Berlant’s “investigations”) are used to language that enacts smooth baton passes between words and ideas, referents with a relative degree of stability, and a low barrier towards an intuitive grasp of a piece’s meaning. Berlant intentionally obscures both those expectations, as well as the language that would meet those expectations. In the second paragraph, Berlant uses the word “some” as a modifier. Typically, the first “some” would indicate a kind of qualification, almost as though it were the beginning of a “strawperson” argument (ex. Some people would argue that “so and so” is a good president. However….). Berlant instead follows one “some” with another, and the relation between the “somes” is left vague. Especially given that one “some” is concerned with protecting men from a feminist “witch hunt,” and the other “some” is concerned with an “erotophobic” aversion to queers that “ends up harming women, LGBTQ-identified people—anyone whose sexuality or body or appetites have been historically disparaged by the state, the hygienic bourgeoisie, and the religious” (Berlant). While it is certainly a relief to see that Berlant would spell out the stakes of erotophobia as such, the ambiguity of “somes” and the faint semblance of an equivocating baton pass between anti-queer moral panic and anti-men witch hunts is certainly disconcerting.
Prior to this moment in the second paragraph, Berlant closes the introductory paragraph with a moment of disparate slippage concerning the resignation of Al Franken:
…he will be gone from the Senate not because he was a vicious predator but because there was a bad chemical reaction between his sexual immaturity, his just “having fun” with women’s bodies, and this moment of improvisatory boundary-drawing that likens the jokester to the predator.
If nothing else, this second sentence of the piece trains us as readers: if we are going to follow Berlant, we will need to trace the various motions at play and attend to the ways in which several different conflict concepts might slip on to one another at a given time (this is perhaps the case for all of Berlant’s writing). A bad chemical reaction likens the jokester to the predator: this statement is certainly provocative in its assertion that somehow, what Al Franken did deserves its own category separate from the behavior of “predatory” sexual assault. Immaturity, just having fun with women’s bodies, and “improvisatory” (distinct from what some might call arbitrary) boundary-drawing; An inference (maybe implication) of this statement might suggest that each would have been tolerable in its own space, but come together to form a “bad chemical reaction.”
It’s important to remember that the “predator” and the “jokester” never receive clear and distinct classification within this piece. Both are likely what Berlant would describe as “genres” or “tropes.” Genre here is a thick descriptor, beyond the simple separations between prose and verse; novel, poetry, and drama; and other conventional literary distinctions. We might think of different modes or “forms” of masculinity through the lens of genre (for those of you following this to get a better sense of Scholars at Play episode concerning Persona V and #metoo, we might say that the main character—named by the player—and Ryuji are different “genres” of male adolescence). Genre thus reflects not only a mode of expression, but also a mode of comportment, a way of orienting oneself to space, the world, and others.
Berlant observes that the difference between the genres of Predator and Jokester is mainly one of control, circumstance, and “strategy” (perhaps “tactics” in the case of the Jokester). The Predator controls the interactive space, as Kamoshida does in Persona 5, where he controls a great deal of the school administration and many of the sports teams. The Predator’s absolute control, however, offers an affective affordance towards the potential victims (whom Berlant identifies as both the possible survivors of assault and harassment, but the various others who navigate the space, vulnerable to other techniques of coercion, bystanding male co-workers, for example.) She describes this affordance as a cushion, the sense that the Predator was unavoidable, that the control left the “victims” with little recourse or possible counter-strategy. The Trickster’s tactical advantage is surprise and spontaneity. In the example of a comedian, the timing of the use of a “rape joke” is always contingent on the rhythm of the act, and the flow of the other jokes within a routine; “Time and fresh awkwardness provide the jokester’s cushion, however slight,” Berlant observes. Personally, I feel as though the cushion exchanges places here: whereas the Predator’s cushion provides a sparse modicum of solace—releasing the survivor’s self-blame through acknowledging that the deck was both stacked and rigged—the Jokester’s cushion seems to be an airbag for their own reckless driving (“who knew that a rape joke that pointed to gender difference with respect to rape would still trigger survivors?” “how could Kanye have known that his actions at the VMAs or during a TMZ interview would be so hurtful?”). The slippage here is worth attending to.
Berlant does take the time to qualify what otherwise appears to be distributed vulnerability: while the structures of control do force various “people lower in the pecking [to] order find ways to live in them by imitating some habits of the powerful while honing varieties of defensive stealth like sarcasm, gossip, self-harm, or dissociating”, “sexualized, racialized, and lower-rank workers are way more vulnerable.” Keeping things “in scale” is impossible, precisely Berlant suggests, chaos ensues at various levels. Whether it’s the unpredictable calculations of Jokester, or the various interactions between the different strategies and tactics of “genred bodies” navigating the controlled space of the predator, no set of standards or expectations will apply uniformly to any given encounter.
This sense of unpredictability, fragmentation, improvisation, and difference demonstrate a resonance between the Jokester and what some might call the aesthetics of postmodernism. Concepts of parody, self-referentiality, and the awareness of the arbitrariness of convention are parallels between the Jokester and postmodernism as genre. Berlant, however, adds a sobering perspective to considerations of both. Postmodernism is often accused of neglecting what some might call “the body,” and of losing the experiential weight of indeterminacy upon a marginalized body and the suffering of that body. Berlant foregrounds this gravity in her reflections on a survivor’s reflection: “He toyed with my body.” The impossibility of “reading qua interpretation” of this phrase, this event, doesn’t discount or shun the postmodern facets of the trickster: it simply keeps the body for whom such “play” is not “playful” in the frame. Just as the Predator’s control spreads beyond its initial context, the testimony of this survivor, the ambiguity of the experience, informs Berlant’s response, even her capacity to respond. The action vs reaction effect of the set of relations produces a “problem” for every node in the network.
A few lines in Berlant’s account of the survivor refers to the notion of “accidental rape”:
She meant, he just did enough to enjoy himself without breaking the law as he understood it. She meant, he didn’t know what he was doing either, because he was pretty young, though significantly older. She meant, he had deniability. She meant, not much happened. “He toyed.” She meant, we were playing around and it got weird. What did he know and when did he know it? It was clear that whatever he knew thwarted her confidence in whatever she knew.
Berlant’s account of such a phenomenon acknowledges that it might exist, that a perpetrator may be unaware of the consequences of his immediate actions. The concluding paragraphs (last three, perhaps) demonstrate a critique of such “not-knowing” and expands it to a more paradigmatic issue with conversations surrounding sexual assault writ large. “You can know something at high speeds; you can learn something at slow ones”: at the high speeds of both the Predator and Jokester, so much is known. High speed implies a momentum of desire and behavior; the reverse of the theory of relativity, these high speeds “overdetermine” the various contingencies of the scene in which they occur.
For Berlant, these scenes take place both in the field of control of the Predator, the improvisatory stage of the Jokester, but also the platform of protest. The Jokester and the Predator may have comparable effects upon the victims of their rhetoric and actions, and what Berlant calls “reflexive revenge” may be a necessary mode of “efficient justice…after all the gossip and HR fails.” Nonetheless, Berlant contends:
reflexive revenge will surely not solve the problem of scaling social jostling, casual play, violence, intimacy: or sex. It’s a time to organize social ways of derailing toxic environments, along with the thrilled aha, scorn, and whatever else continues to see sex as a dirty appetite that other people have.
Berlant’s conclusion gestures toward the necessity of “trust,” and the difficulty of maintaining trust while refusing “a world that coddles the toying bully and the aggro one.” Berlant’s argument of the imperative of trust is similar to What Ta-Nehisi Coates has described in a different context as “A Muscular Empathy”: a form of relational consideration that accounts for the demands of justice as well as the various forces and registers that would deny it. Just as the violence of both the Predator and the Jokester complicates the entire field of a social scene, trust and attention must attend to each specific node within a wide arrange of social networked-ness. This does not imply a leveling of responsibility or vulnerability concerning the issue of sexual assault, but attention to the contingent ways that each moment and space within contains its own particular desires, needs and wounds.