Not Getting the Joke 2: Getting the Joke

On the recent Big Brother controversy in Australia. See round-up at Larvatus Prodeo. I think Mel’s post is the most interesting so far. As she writes there is a:

divergence in the coverage of the Big Brother sex scandal: according to the broadsheets it’s an “alleged sexual assault” or a “sexual incident”; according to the denizens of bulletin boards and YouTube it’s a “turkey slap”. I’m not going to link to the video; you can google “big brother turkey slap” and you’ll find it easily enough.

[I have made a comment to Mel’s post, but I’ll write an extended version here.]

Mel touches on a very interesting point with regards to the attribution of ‘blame’.

The actions of these three people are being caught up in an external attribution of ‘blame’. The mainstream media, including the Crider, trod the line that it was an unacceptable incident of sexual assault. So did many bloggers. Blog comments and bulletin boards, however, brought out the really repugnant people. (Jess has the best round-up at Ausculture, which, combined with the shutdown of the official Big Brother forums, brought all the spastics to her site.) These comments suggested, in their semi-literate way, that the incident was a joke that had been blown out of proportion, and even that Camilla had solicited and enjoyed it because she is “that sort” of woman. On the flipside, there has been disappointment and shock because Ashley and John weren’t perceived as “that sort” of man.

The problem, which Mel’s isolates very well, is ‘blame’ or causality overcoded with a moralistic stance, because this situation contradicts any straightforward moral-causal reading of the situation for two reasons. Firstly, the causality is distributed across the participants in asymmetrical ways, and secondly it opens up the causal chains to includes ‘actors’ beyond the immediate situation. Instead of asking who caused what to happen, a more effective line of questioning would be asking what allowed such an event to precipitate, and how is this event understood from multiple perspectives (of those involved) rather than trying to come up with an overall understanding of what happened. This stretches the locus of causality beyond infantile accusatory judgements regarding the ‘boys’ or ‘girl’ and includes the situation in which they are placed (ie produced by the Big Brother production team, logic of the show, Australian viewing public, etc.) Dogpossum follows this logic in a comment over at LP:

The difficulty with being in the BB house, and being a woman, is that you must balance the strategies of invisibility-through-group-membership which many women (and men) adopt to avoid this sort of public maintenance of the pecking order – laughing along, not speaking up, agreeing, etc – with keeping a favourable profile in the eyes of the television audience. You don’t want to be evicted for being ‘boring’ when there’s a cash prize at stake. Or perhaps more importantly, a group to be ‘in’ with. The young and other self-doubting people are particularly vulnerable in this sort of situation.

The second very interesting thing, from my point of view, is the self-realisation by Camilla that she served as the necessary social infrastructure for a ‘becoming-together’ or shared sense of belonging. This becoming-together is of who gets the joke, which is primarily set up for the benefit of the ‘boys’, but can also include Camilla here if she objectifies herself. Camilla’s self-objectification is the real tragedy of the event and the cascading situation around it. In cultural terms it is the ‘joke’ of which Camilla is the butt, that she precisely does get. This fills me with a profound sense of sadness because she is obviously distraught about it, for she understands ‘the joke’ but at the same time doesn’t want to be the mere objectified infrastructure of homosocial relations. ‘Getting the joke’ does not mean that one condones it, it simply means that you are smart enough to follow the infantile logic of homosocial humour. The sense of belonging precipitated by ‘the joke’ brings into sharp relief the longing felt by a woman that appears to be incredible lonely in the house (her ‘personality’). The ‘boys’ (which includes all the wannabe prosti-teen paris hiltons) in the Australian public get the affects of ‘belonging’, but the ‘girls’ (which includes me here) get the ‘longing’.

I have written about this notion of the ‘joke’ on my blog when discussing a book on men’s magazines where some researchers ‘got the joke’ but didn’t seem to ‘get’ the getting of the joke, ie what ‘the joke’ does in terms of the dynamics of micro-socialities. The ‘joke’ effects an incorporeal transformation premised on masculine sensibilities of those who get it and those who don’t. In the case of Big Brother this micro-social dimension of the event is transmitted and differentially repeated through every broadcast and story about the state of affairs; transmission virtualises the event, and virtualisation is a valorisation. In terms of the magazine, I laid it out thus (and there would be a close situation happening now with the Big Brother ‘turkey slap’):

What is the ‘special interest’ of the [majoritarian] masculine consumer? To belong to certain event spaces in certain ways, at work, home, school, sport field/stand, pub, and so on. The materiality of identity has a gatekeeper function. You look like you belong. Money is a good signifier of belonging anywhere. The magazines select (literally, through advertising and advertainment features) commodified signifers of certain event spaces, organise these selections in the pages of the magazine, territorialise these organisations with the potentialities (for belonging) of ‘new man’ or ‘new lad’ affectivities through the affective content of the magazines’ affective discourse (or [discursive] tone), and then envelop these territories with an abstract machine of the universal category of ‘man’.