Comedy of Reading

Yes I said yes I will Yes. Molly Bloom, in her bedroom, going on for thirtysomething pages, disintegrating language, syntax, meaning, in one laughing orgasmic excess. In this last part of Joyce’s Ulysses, its protagonist disintegrates, and at the same time affirms the losing of herself—oui-rire, yes-laughter, as Derrida called it.1

In a time when the US president seems to put comedians out of business, since his whole performance would be a joke if it weren’t that serious, another kind of comedy may be needed. It’s not just about Trump being a buffoon with his ridiculous hair and his even more pathetic tweets, but rather about the political performance of his administration appearing as a kind of parody of US politics. At least since the neo-liberal agenda of the 1980s, politicians have worked in the service of corporate and special interests, while stylizing themselves as the voice of the ‘ordinary American.’ That Donald Trump and his Goldman Sachs and Exxon Mobil administration play the part of ‘fighting the elites’ in the name of ‘the people’ seems like an over-the-top and in-your-face kind of parody, some kind of cosmic joke. Political satire and professional comedies seem somehow beside the point.

Another type of comedy then. It may be in all kinds of unexpected places not labeling themselves as comedies that a different kind of comedy can be found, like the inside lining of a dress, that at some point or another inevitably shows, as Benjamin had it.2 Another kind of comedy that is not mastering what it ridicules but is rather disintegrating, and at the same time affirmative, in the very losing of the self. A comedy of reading perhaps. Oedipa Maas, protagonist of Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, is a housewife, which means, among other things, that she’s not a professional anything. Doing unpaid, invisible work, she now reads, herself invisible, the city (somewhat reminiscent of the street photography with which Vivian Maier has captured and deciphered the city as a nanny, playing with her own (in-)visibility in her self-portraits). Oedipa Maas’s activity appears as passive: she reads. Not just texts, but stamps and waste bins and signs in club toilets. The traditional place of the housewife sitting in an interieur with a book in her hand, is here replaced with her reading the collective interieur of the city. Oedipa Maas is running around in the outskirts of San Francisco and Los Angeles, interpreting and connecting possible signs of an undercover postal system, without ever proving or disproving its existence. She seeks out experts she is then opposed to in their professionalism. “For John Nefastis (to take one recent example) two kinds of entropy, thermodynamic and informational, happened, say by coincidence, to look alike, when you wrote them down as equations. Yet he had made his mere coincidence respectable, with the help of Maxwell’s Demon. Now here was Oedipa, faced with a metaphor of God knew how many parts; more than two, anyway. With coincidences blossoming these days wherever she looked, she had nothing but a sound, a word, Trystero, to hold them together.”3 Hers is a paranoid reading, which is an unprofessional kind of reading, which is the only kind of reading there is. But it is also the narcissistic kind. Everything is a sign. Or rather: everything could be a sign, and it could be a sign intentionally placed for me. Or I am crazy, seeing signs everywhere, directed at me, to replace the massive junk of meaningless stuff that has no relation to me whatsoever. Or, alternatively, everything is a sign, intentionally placed for me, to drive me crazy, wondering whether or not everything is a sign. It is never resolved. Instead of the grandiosity of primary narcissism, she loses herself in the excess of (paranoid) reading.

The thing with literature is, of course, that everything literally is a sign. This is the joke this book is playing on itself, and on us. We read literature under the assumption that nothing there is random, that every sign really has been placed, and that every bit of it actually is significant, even if it has the meaning of “that which has no meaning.” And every sign is possibly meaningful in more than one way, rhetorically, metaphorically, everything is “more than two, anyway,” as Oedipa had it. Which is where the excess of reading starts undermining the assurance of literature that everything is indeed a sign. Losing herself in reading, means that her reading is disintegrating (possibly asocial), while she is at the same time affirming, desiring, enjoying it.

That Oedipa Maas is a housewife sets her apart from the professional readers of signs of the crime genre that come with a professional distance. Detective Dupin is the master reader in Poe’s Purloined Letter, showing how the minister D—who thinks he’s so much smarter than the queen and the police since he has purloined the queen’s letter right in front of her—is actually in the very position of the queen himself. The master reader of the master reader, Jacques Lacan, then shows how the detective Dupin ultimately finds himself in that same position, becoming the outplayed queen. And Derrida then goes on to show for his part how Lacan, in his reading, does the exact same thing he accuses Dupin of. Barbara Johnson, finally, exposes the comedy of a superior reading in which all these master readers expose their predecessors while inadvertently stepping into their position.4 This is the joke Poe’s story seems to be playing on his readers. And how could we be certain not to fall into the same trap while laughing at all these professional ostriches being sure that no one can see them while having their feathers picked out of their asses?

The dilettante reader housewife Oedipa, on the other hand, is always involved. And she can never be sure. No closure, no assurance, no redemption. And yet she keeps on reading.

Daniel Paul Schreber seems to be the other side of Oedipa Maas’ paranoia, or rather: he seems to inhabit both sides at once. As the respected judge and president of the court, Schreber writes an enormous account of himself, in which the grandiosity of his paranoid narcissism is set off by his sense of being turned into a woman, a change he apparently regards as undermining his established position. In Schreber’s report, becoming woman is always linked with the sexual desire (Wollust) of being taken by a man (and, ultimately, by god). Inside the endured violence Schreber is witnessing as a victim, there is an element of comedy in his writing, the inside lining of Judge Schreber’s tedious rationalizing accounting, that cannot fail to show. “I became without doubt aware that the Order of the World imperiously demanded my unmanning, whether I personally liked it or not, and that because of this, for reasons of rationality, I couldn’t help but reconcile myself with the thought of a transformation into a woman. As further consequence of the unmanning, of course only a fertilization by divine rays could be considered, for the purpose of the creation of new human beings.”5 Schreber’s account of his craziness is an attempt to control it, but the professional style of his official writing with footnotes and diagrams at times turns comic, by the excess, the sexuality, the phantasmatic and paranoid loss of any professional distance that makes the stern tone of his report appear as not the Other but rather an exquisite part of his craziness.

Schreber himself claims to be his own master reader and his own judge in this trial in which he plays all the parts. His master reader Freud, and like Freud’s master reader Lacan, attempts to re-integrate Schreber into their respective master systems. While Freud claims paranoia as a disease of disintegration, this claim is his integrative attempt to fit Schreber into the oedipal structure of his psychoanalysis.6 The tension inside Schreber’s Weltordnung, between the tendencies of sexual desire and those tendencies mocking such desire in order to reinstate the offended order7—this tension is doubled in the writing of his account as an attempt to control his own excessive craziness and reinstate order; and doubled again in Freud’s reading of his reading (and Lacan’s in his…). And yet all these attempts of controlling and reintegrating are set off and permanently undermined by the comedy of excess8, of becoming woman and losing oneself into god’s sexual desire and one’s own sexual desire (which are undistinguishable), in a comedy of paranoid and unprofessional reading, and in a laughter that is not the laughter of knowing better and thereby re-establishing one’s position, but rather of affirming the losing of the self. Oui-rire, yes-laughter.


Jacques Derrida, “Ulysses Gramophone: Hearsay Yes in Joyce,” in: Acts of Literature, ed. D. Attridge, Abingdon: Routledge 1992, p. 291 ff.

“Comedy—or more precisely: the pure joke—is the essential inner side of mourning which from time to time, like the lining of a dress at the hem or lapel, makes its presence felt.” In the original: “Komik – richtiger: der reine Spaß – ist die obligate Innenseite der Trauer, die ab und zu wie das Futter eines Kleides im Saum oder Revers zur Geltung kommt.” (Walter Benjamin, Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp 1963, p. 118)

Thomas Pynchon, The Crying Of Lot 49, London: Vintage 2000, p. 75.

Barbara Johnson, “The Frame of Reference: Poe, Lacan, Derrida,” in: Yale French Studies, No. 55 / 56, Literature and Psychoanalysis. The Question of Reading: Otherwise, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press 1977, pp. 457–505.

“Nunmehr aber wurde mir unzweifelhaft bewußt, daß die Weltordnung die Entmannung, mochte sie mir persönlich zusagen oder nicht, gebieterisch verlange und daß mir daher aus Vernunftgründen gar nichts Anderes übrig bleibe, als mich mit dem Gedanken der Verwandlung in ein Weib zu befreunden. Als weitere Folge der Entmannung konnte natürlich nur eine Befruchtung durch göttliche Strahlen zum Zwecke der Erschaffung neuer Menschen in Betracht kommen.” (Daniel Paul Schreber, Denkwürdigkeiten eines Nervenkranken, Berlin: Edition Holzinger 2013, p. 144, emphasis in the original).

See Deleuze and Guattari on Schreber and Freud: Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Minneapolis: University Of Minnesota Press 1983.

“What kind of Appeals Court President would let himself get f…d?”; in the German original: “Das will ein Senatspräsident gewesen sein der sich f… läßt?” (Schreber, Denkwürdigkeiten eines Nervenkranken, p. 145).

Cf. Alenka Zupancˇicˇ, “The Odd One” in: On Comedy, Cambridge: Short Circuits 2008, p. 49.

Starship 16: Cover Klara Liden
  1. Cover print Klara Liden
  2. Editorial 16 Starship, Henrik Olesen, Nikola Dietrich, Martin Ebner, Gerry Bibby, Ariane Müller
  3. In this issue Starship
  4. Interview with Leo Bersani, Berkeley, Oct. 1995 Katja Diefenbach, Leo Bersani
  5. Untitled (Flat finish) Michael Krebber
  6. Man sagte mir, dass das Leben schmerzhaft sei ... Cornelia Herfurtner, David Iselin-Ricketts, John Allan MacLean
  7. Karl Holmqvist Starship 16 Karl Holmqvist
  8. Auf der Flucht vor der neuen Dringlichkeit Hans-Christian Dany
  9. Nilpferdkönig Tenzing Barshee
  10. Animal Farm Karl Holmqvist
  11. I started this column a million times Eric D. Clark
  12. Score for Possible Performance (Alonesome and Twosome for Two or Four Players) Michèle Graf, Selina Grüter
  13. Those ornamentals and these accidentals never they will meet Francesca Drechsler
  14. Access cont'd John Beeson
  15. Cut you down to size Robert Meijer
  16. Things Mercedes Bunz
  17. Die Welt geht unter Amelie von Wulffen
  18. Way Beyond The Pale— (An) Itinerant(’s) Meanderings Scott Cameron Weaver
  19. Mongiardino Christopher Müller
  20. Why the military should be the first client of art Robert McKenzie, Peter Fend
  21. Giraffe Birth Leidy Churchman
  22. Photos: Heinz Peter Knes – Words: Sokol Ferizi Heinz Peter Knes, Sokol Ferizi
  23. Nach dem Referendum / Over Time Pt. 2 Florian Zeyfang
  24. La femme nouvelle Nadira Husain
  25. Being invisible is the new cool? Stephanie Fezer, Vera Tollmann
  26. Octavia E. Butler Octavia E. Butler
  27. A.E.R.I.P. Mark von Schlegell
  28. BOandI Monika Kalinauskaitė
  29. Bonnie Camplin Bonnie Camplin
  30. No Gerry Bibby
  31. U.I. Matthew Billings
  32. G. Luke Williams, Natasha Soobramanien
  33. Refound Poetry Evelyn Taocheng Wang
  34. Ein Auswandererroman Ariane Müller
  35. Comedy of Reading Katrin Trüstedt
  36. Mr. Palomar's Vacation Jakob Kolding, Søren Andreasen
  37. The Scrapbooks of Teruo Nishiyama Jay Chung, Q Takeki Maeda
  38. Reality Workshop David Bussel
  39. Queer Crit Potluck Kaucyila Brooke, Louis Coy, Boz David, Jennifer Green, Blake Jacobsen, Tyler Lumm, Giselle Morgan, Ace Shi, Vickie Aravindhan, AJ Strout, Josh Winklholfer
  40. – Xorri, didn’t get the memo # Hey Majorca! Julian Göthe
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