Notes on Roee Rosen’s "The Law is Laughing," by Vyjayanthi Rao
Where does conflict come from? The answer to this question is becoming ever more elusive, even in cases where we appear to know the answers, the protagonists and the situations well enough. Roee Rosen’s text, “The Law is Laughing: Fragments Following the War in Gaza,” asks what role the law occupies in a protracted conflict. The question itself is structured around the over-determination of protagonism and on an understanding of conflict that revolves around a narcissistic and negative doubling of the protagonist. Rosen’s mode of interpretation is itself both comedic and comic, banking on the startle response of the reader, familiar with and worn-out by terms of the situation to which he refers.
In his essay “Laughter” (1900), Henri Bergson proposes, broadly, that a situation that is comic is structured around the coexistence of contradiction within a singular situation without one element of the combination ever overwhelming the other, except in a punctuated manner.1 These punctuations are revelatory moments that elicit release in the form of laughter. For Bergson, the reigning contradiction is a mechanistic arrangement that gives off the illusion of life. If the procedural matrix of the law is a form of such mechanistic arrangement, then we might read Rosen’s fragments as identifying those moments in which the law seems, perversely, to come to life as though through the periodic and repeated lifting of a veil.
The first instance of this unveiling is in the parsing of the names of various military operations whose cheerful meanings carefully and meaningfully veil the horror of the operations themselves. These names do not conceal any hoped-for outcomes, but in fact provide semiotic cover for enacting certain forms of destruction. The reading of those names through the veil of that semiotic cover is a process rich with revelation, especially insofar as it points to the contradiction between meaning and action, between nominal and verbal forms. As Bergson puts it, in comedy, one is faced with “manner seeking to outdo the matter, the letter aiming at ousting the spirit.”
The fragment itself bears testimony to the punctuated temporality of a protracted civil war that in turn bears the enormous weight of a fundamental contradiction, that between ethical and unethical forms of militancy. The law imagines itself to be on the side of sovereignty and professional soldering and against terror and un-civility, yet the lines between the ethical and unethical are continuously blurring within the spaces of conflict.
Each episode, each action, in this protracted conflict is marked by the law’s negation of itself, that is to say, its violation of norms upheld as sovereign, by sovereign authority.
This self-transgression that turns the lawgiver, the state, into a criminal, results in confounding the boundaries of sovereignty. When the state itself thus negates the concept of the law, what is happening may be read as a simultaneous and, of course, contradictory expansion and contraction of the scope of the law and sovereignty under the guise of a singular set of procedures. “An effect, which grows by arithmetical progression, so that the cause, insignificant at the outset, culminates by a necessary evolution in a result as important as it is unexpected.” (Bergson, 113) Rosen suggests that events progress in a punctuated fashion and their effects are ejected values. If the comedic effect lies in maintaining an illusion of life in relation to a mechanistic arrangement, then the zombie is the perfect choice of metaphor—neither fully living nor fully dead, the zombie periodically returns to haunt the scene of the crime, thus revealing the law’s transgressions.
Through each fragment, each punctuation, we can discern the increasing urgency of understanding the comedic structure of sovereign law, the chief protagonist in this protracted civil war. Rosen writes: “When the law is constituted on its own negation, its comic mode is not set against the law (as Deleuze understands humor and irony). This comic mode is not driven by a discontent with what is (for instance, as a defiance against wrongdoing or a reaction to fear or horror), but is rather prompted by a paradoxical attempt to stabilize and preserve the law in its condition of self-negation. (…) The comic resonance is thus the result of a condition by which the state itself negates the concept of the law.” This self-negation takes myriad forms: the benign and even cheerful naming of events; the multiplication of forms of illegality that might be legal and legalities that might in fact be illegal; the negation of the border and the disavowal of sovereignty as a means of maintaining an occupation; the consequent confusion of who belongs as a citizen; and, finally, the refusal even to simulate ideals of justice and good-will as required by the norms of nationalism.
How then does the law maintain itself as law? Rosen’s fragments suggest that the comedic mode is critical to sovereign self-maintenance. In this mode, life itself is negated while its illusion is maintained through the perpetuation of mechanistic arrangements. In this mode, the law imposes its sovereignty while provoking suspicion about its own seriousness. But its effects are realized primarily in its performative dimension. Linguistic anthropologists and poststructuralist critics suggest that performative acts are a special genre of speech or other behavior that are constitutive of meaning in and of themselves. While the law presupposes the citizenry as its interpretive community, its constant violations of its own normative limits open a space of uncertainty about this community. The law’s performative violations of its own limits speculatively seek out an alternative community, constituted by and therefore accepting of its violations. What is inherently comedic about this mode of operation is its episodic but profound engagement with normative limits, at once presupposing and constituting those limits. The law is not humorous but comedic, laughter is not just a release but constitutive of the citizen. The sovereign laughs at and laughs with the citizen thus negating the oppositional dimension of laughter instead, bringing to the fore its focus on contradiction, the mixing of mechanistic form with the episodic illusion of life.
The particular contradictions that are brought together in the operations of the law prompt reversals of commonsense understandings—as when the assertion of good citizenship becomes an act of mutiny against a law-negating state rather than an act of conformity. Each episode begins to be measured in terms of possible reversals. Rosen’s fragments might be read similarly, mimicking the sovereign’s comic mode, they work as critique precisely because their seriousness is articulated in a veiled language—not of death and destruction alone, but of how the illusion of life is ostensibly maintained.
1Bergson’s essay “Laughter” is reprinted in Comedy, edited by Wylie Sypher. Johns Hopkins Paperbacks (1956). The quotes in this commentary are drawn from this edition.Call & Response