Frag-ments: A lobster talking on the phone, smoking a cigarette, wearing a surgical mask

By Andy Pragacz

Absurdity is a political tool. Recently, I was flipping through the pages of a Salvador Dali table book when I came across his “Lobster on a Telephone.” The title describes the display well: it is a red plastic lobster stuck to the top of a rotary phone. Looking at the picture I learned something about myself, my politics and Frag-ments: it is all absurd and wants to be that way. The political value of absurdity lies in its ability to force a conversation, to make people have an opinion or at least voice one. Dali’s construction, for example, is so ostentatious that you have to say something about it. Even if you conclude it’s a piece of postmodern bullshit, you still remember it, it lingers in your mind. “What does it mean?” reason demands. “Am I missing something?” Yes, you are. That’s the point.

Writing about H1N1 I was expressing an absurdity: the discourse about H1N1 is a biopolitical device to control and regulate our interactions with the world, thus controlling us. It seemed very conspiratorial and ridiculous. My intention, however, was not to get anyone to agree with me, but to force a conversation about it. The discourse at the time centered on how best to stave off the effects of H1N1. Should we wear masks? Shake hands? Eat healthier? I thought something was missing from the whole discussion, namely how H1N1 impacts ours lives in intrusive ways, and the validity of H1N1 as a threat to begin with. So I wrote some articles about it, ones that I knew stayed true to academic theory but seemed insignificant (why do I am people not to protect themselves against a possible health risk?). It was, however, patently absurd as many have pointed out to me. But people did talk about it, a class even read it! I had attacked the validity of health experts and they felt the need to respond. In responding, however, they allowed the discussion to continue and gave me (undeserved) credibility.

Therein lines the value of absurdity: it moves the way people talk about things or at least creates another discussion about the same topic. Going back to Dali, his work makes us think: What the hell? One possible answer to this question is to think about why it is absurd in the first place. Why is this display a little threatening and uncomfortable? Freud would have said that it produces unpleasure which lingers longer in the mind, because it is foreign or incomprehensible (it is novel to our mind). Trying to make it comprehensible, however, we realize its only absurd because our perspective on the world is limited and was not well equipped to explain a lobster on a telephone. But why shouldn’t it? And that is the real question.

Absurdity opens up possibility in the situation. Attempts to make the absurd unabsurd force us to adopt (or can) a new perspective on the parameters of possible experience. It makes us think and change and that’s life. You can take an absurdity in two ways: to simply say its absurd and try to leave it at that or you can engage the thing. By engaging it, you have already ‘lost’ your former self. You can no longer go around with the same way of viewing the world. Taking the former strategy you might forever be infected with a slight anxiety: what does it mean? Why can’t I figure it out? If I can’t figure that out, what does that mean? I vote to engage it and to engage everything as potentially absurd. What’s really absurd is the fact that absurdities exist and that more things do not seem absurd.

Andy Pragacz ’10 can be reached at [email protected]