The Socialist Scholars Conference was a gathering of intellectuals, academics, community organisers, religious leaders and a who’s-who of grassroots and celebrity progressives. It happened to be taking place in New York and I was visiting nearby, so I was able to duck in to listen to a long weekend of speakers and panels. I made time on Monday to catch an early afternoon showing of Yvonne Rainer’s Privilege (1990) at Bleecker Street Cinema. A choreographer reinvented as a filmmaker, I have kept up with her work ever since taking her classes in grad school: Trio A taught to non-dancers, and a performance art class. Trio A (1978), her most famous piece, was based on simple movements that dance students could pick up quickly, but it took us non-dance klutzes the whole term to do it poorly. I was not at home in the performance class either. My final assignment was very contrived. It involved notation scrawled on a big paper pad. Instead of musical notation with the stems and circles of half notes, it was alphabetical, with the stem on the letter b of bathos sliding downward to spell pathos. The whole point was to ask what happens in the middle, with the non-letter of a potbellied I, in the descent from the ridiculous to the pathetic, much like this essay.
Privilege was toward the end of its run at Bleecker Street, so I wasn’t surprised to be the only person in the theatre. Twenty minutes in, however, my solitude ended when someone let rip an enormously loud fart. Words cannot do it justice. The baritone bray of a congested donkey? The soundtrack was no competition. The film eventually ended, the lights came up and there was a person I’d seen speaking at the conference, the philosopher Marshall Berman, as pun luck would have it, author of All That Is Solid Melts Into Air (1982), a celebrated study of modernism. In my world, where puns are more of an amateur sport, a naturally occurring one of this magnitude was a sign, Moses-burning-bush level. An inner voice was speaking loudly. I could not help but listen.
Berman was a brilliant theorist for whom Marx was an indispensable thinker. Not just any Marxist scholar, he wrote the introduction to the deluxe Penguin edition of The Communist Manifesto. Indeed, ‘all that is solid melts into air’ was a line Berman lifted from the Manifesto to serve as the title for his book on ‘the experience of modernity.’ I don’t remember him being a film critic, and there was nothing to complain about with Privilege, so his endnote must have referenced the main body of his expertise. Was he saying that history repeats itself first as tragedy then as farts? More likely, the decibels he cited were meant to echo the shocks of modernism. The sudden arrival of the automobile is a textbook example. What is indigestion if not internal combustion? What shocks more than a car backfiring? People still seek relief from gridlock by filling the air with indulcet honking.
Capitalism is intrinsically disruptive, shocking, exhausting and disgusting. Was his eruption historical disruption? We’re still dealing with the beast that Marx described in the Manifesto, the one responsible for the ‘clearing of whole continents for cultivation,’ the one consumed with being all consuming. Continents are the scale of the trough at which capitalism has always fed, shock the product of the speed of engorging. ‘Disruptors’ are not new. Start-ups are fart-ups. With ‘all that is solid melts into air,’ Marx was alluding to this frenzied, nihilist drive to unsettle in order to settle, to dig up and destroy rather than live with. Mammon is now set to auto- erotically self-asphyxiate, which would not be a problem if it were not also socialising its suicide.
Hold on. Why allow capitalist depravity full ownership of a perfectly good bodily function? We need to resist! Who was it who said: ‘When they go low, we fart in their face’? Besides, Berman’s vent event was, as a fart and a pun, doubly funny. If puns are the lowest form of humour, what are all those people doing snorting them out in Finnegans Wake (1939) like they were truffles? The lowest can be the highest art of all. Standing there in the theatre as the lights came up, just the two of us, I would have laughed out loud had I not been so much in awe. It was a moment of reverence, like the intense, stunned silence of a packed theatre right before everyone leaps into a raucous standing ovation. But I couldn’t clap, that would have been rude.
Why are farts funny? What is their ruse value? My theory is that toddlers often forget they were cranky in the wake of one, and in their feelings of relief build the audible foundations of their humour for years to come. The anecdotal evidence is overwhelming, even if the science is inexact. Getting a farting laughing toddler to hold still in an MRI scanner is not easy. Farts have been funny for centuries. Jonathan Swift found them useful when he wasn’t instructing poor people to eat their children; satire is hard to digest on purpose. They are funny because they share paralinguistic space with laughter, from little chortles to irrepressible guffaws, as they align with speech more generally. If I’m not mistaken, Shakespeare made the case in The Comedy of Aires that utterance is a butterance and vice versa, both being produced by exhalation. Broken wind gets bad-mouthed, but who’s to talk? Fart humour is good for the soul for a reason, as any etymologist will tell you: pneuma, Greek for the soul, is a blowing, a wind, blast; breeze; influence; breathed air, breath; odour, scent; spirit of a person; inspiration, a spirit. It says it all. It is exhaustive. Berman, a philosopher, would have known that.
For puritans, farts are not funny. Cleanliness is next to Godliness, they say, only because their God was, tragically, born without a sphincter. Everything thus appears clean on the outside but the interior is backed up and bilious. It makes them cranky and hard to be around. Uptight church authorities emulate the divine by trapping their own sins under long robes, but if nuns could fart in pantsuits and organists rudely punctuate sermons with sound effects, then churches would be a happier place. Congregations would balloon.
The profane should be allowed to circulate freely among sacred cycles, for herein resides the cosmic oneness that true believers seek. Humans breathe out the carbon dioxide that plants need to survive, and plants lovingly return the favour by releasing oxygen that humans need to survive, their flowers gifting us perfumes in a grand symphony of cooperation of life on Earth. This is why breath and spirit are linked in so many of the world’s great religions, and why people fart in church. Like prayer, farts silently test faith, as God did with Job, and ethically unite the congregation in tolerance for others, whoever did it. Acts of God they are, yea for kindness must swell in the ranks, among the pews. The congregation learns to breathe as a form of meditation, ever so slowly lifting their pressed palms to cup the nose and mouth, grasping for prayer.
Songs too arise from the Holy. Saint Augustine in The City of God described those special few who could ‘produce at will such musical sounds from their behind (without any stink) that they seem to be singing from the region.’ The French entertainer Le Pétomane was born with the rare gift for swallowing air, cutting the delay posed by digestion and indigestion to break out into song. The great fartiste pulled out all the stops at the Moulin Rouge, at his height even outselling Sarah Bernhardt at the box office. Fans far and wide flocked to hear the nature of music made from wind, the Aholeian strains melodiously filling the theatre. Berman may have been sidelining.
At the conference, Berman spoke during ‘The Politics of Postmodernism’ session. Being a student of modernism at the time, I was interested in Berman’s views, especially since much postmodern discourse seemed to me misguided, intellectuals staring up into fancy lobbies of new hotels they couldn’t afford to stay in, reading ironies like they were entrails. I did enjoy the postmodern classic White Noise (1985), Don DeLillo’s novel, with its deeply funny delectation of existential boding. Many pages are devoted to the episode of the Airborne Toxic Event: a train car tips over, its chemical contents spill out and billow into a huge cloud, and the protagonist’s town is threatened. So many pages that it bloats the middle of the book until the whole area is evacuated. He is briefly exposed and therefore can only imagine how the clock might now tick differently to his death. A finely honed sarcasm tempers the angst by seeing the Airborne Toxic Event as no accident but rather a compacted form of an increasing ambience of risk.
DeLillo’s boding eclipsed an earlier version of existential dread — Jean-Paul Sartre is a fartre, the graffiti reads. Existenchialism was passé gassé, but postmodernism too began to time out just as the book was published. Peak pomo approached as people noticed that local toxic spills had moved into the chemical content of all clouds, all that was carbon was melting into greenhouse gasses. Accompanying risks and responses were not lost on other sessions at the conference: ‘Roundtable on Ecology, Economy, Equality’; ‘Towards a Black, Red and Green Perspective’; ‘The Politics of Labour and Ecology’; ‘Eco-Feminism’; ‘Ecology, Debt Crisis and Global Green Politics’; ‘The Politics of Socialist Ecology’; ‘Ecological Economics’; ‘Ecology in Europe East and West and Future of the Left’.
That was over thirty years ago, and capitalist depravity has only snowballed since. Snowball is the wrong word given spiking temperatures. Capitalism is in overdrive, its fossil-fuelled genocidal and ecocidal momentum has both feet planted on the omnicidal accelerator. Where continents were once cleared using settlers, armies and clerics, capital now employs the climate. The corporate train that barrels down the tracks now belches into a pyro-cumulus cloud. Once fancied as natural, damaging events like fires, floods, droughts and hurricanes have been wilfully manufactured at a global industrial scale. These are not accidents but fully owned enterprises.
The French philosopher Michel Serres describes this intentionality. He sees pollution not as a by-product but as integral to the same conquering drive for ownership that has always driven the bourgeoisie. Possessed by possession, why waste waste? It functions as means within capitalist appropriation and accumulation by removing the possibility of ownership by others. ‘Whoever spits in the soup keeps it,’ as Serres says in Malfeasance: Appropriation Through Pollution? (2011). Pollution as a means of claiming territory is excremental and scalar. ‘Ego, ego so farts the motor bike of the adolescent, obedient rebel since he slavishly imitates those who own his space and time, the television, advertising, and radio. His farts come out of what is appropriately called an exhaust pipe.’
You will know mid-level managers who have traded in their souls and scooters for the deep throaty sound of a Porsche as they move up in the world, feeding off the work of others. Heading to the top floor, they don’t spit in the soup as much as fart in the elevator. The poet Michael McClure saw skyscrapers as cinders. They are not signs of wealth but the remains of spasmodic growth powered by a planet on fire, a dead stand of trees stripped of vegetation, glowing from the inside at night. The boardroom view has been obscured of late by smoke drifting in from the continents they have set ablaze. Trees, species, homes, habitats, memories melt into air, choking the people below as they dare to breathe.
The original title of Malfeasance is Le Mal Propre: Polluer pour s’approprier? The French language barely parts its lips without productively punning. As the translator explains: ‘Professor Serres plays on the various meanings of the French propre, which means both clean and one’s own, or characteristic of. The French title is itself a pun on several levels: mal is evil, combined with propre it thus signifies clean evil, but malpropre in one word also means dishonest, sleazy, despicable.’ Translation and etymology are sites of buried puns, sarcophagi, literally, sarkos-phagein, flesh-eaters that metabolise language. Similar meanings group in English. What are the properties of property? What is appropriate in appropriation? Is stealing lands inappropriate? How about expropriating labour and life as one’s own and not owning up? How to wash one’s hands? What is the etiquette of evil?
In theatre, a prop is the property of the company, an object used in the stage craft of a performance. One of Le Pétomane’s props was a candle with a flame he could snuff out at a couple of paces. A lesser talent would turn this into a blowtorch, for example the Prime Minister of Australia, Scott Morrison. His prop of choice was a lump of coal from the Engadine mine. This was thought to be improper: ‘The general attitude from the Chair has been that visual props are tolerated but not encouraged,’ as stated in Chapter 14: Control and Conduct of Debate of the House of Representatives Practice, 5th Edition. There is no Coalition without coal, so they are okay with foul play, with incendiary speech filling the House. You could tell by his smirk he thought he was doing a funny. A gag that keeps on gagging. Only in ecstatic paralinguistic moments in church will he raise his hand to let the congregation know he did it.
Performers have different styles. John Howard’s scrunch-brow delivery was read as earnestness, when in fact he was always just working on a pocket, those chubby, consternating eyebrows flexing like abdominal muscles to guide the plaintive, pinching release of each word. Exploration precedes every emission if you have a third eye anus. The public relations man opts instead for the smirk. In the anatomy of a smirk in power, a grin spins with a grimace in a dual movement, attempting to hold things back while sneaking one out the side. It is a terse vent through pursed lips, a purse filled with coins and lumps of coal. In his hands the word smirk itself sounds like a fast one, so too rort, a common chortle-like butterance heard among his Coalition colics trying to hide a steady diet of pork. Who can parse their infatuence with flatulence?
In the butterfly effect, flapping is the source of a tornado on the other side of the world. Do butterflies fart? The fast ones do. One flap of the lips opens a coalmine in Queensland which opens category six hurricanes to cascade in the Caribbean. All that is tundra melts into methane. His speech, Mr Speaker, is the most polluting of greenhouse gasses. As bad luck would have it, the pandemic masked his bushfires so he searched for his soul, fidgeted and feigned concern, and then let a big policy rip: a gas-led recovery. He is back, happy, marking off new territories to frack like a feral cat, releasing gas with his mouth as he shouts further fire in a crowded theatre. Throw another koala on the barbie, mates, it’s a special occasion. His policy needed a new prop to go with his lump of coal. You can see it etched on the faces of the frontbenchers, stiff grinning, holding their breath. They back him. Smirk. Did someone just gaslight?