Month: January 2018

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Comedy and crossing borders: Eddie Izzard and standup’s post-Westphalian potential

Let’s start with the $5 word in the title of this post: “post-Westphalian.” Westphalian thinking refers to the notion that each nation-state has sovereignty over everything that happens within its borders. The term comes from the Peace of Westphalia, ending religious wars in Europe in the 17th century. It tends to show up with political scientists and philosophers, as well as people who work in immigration and citizenship questions. It also, apparently, shows up on awkward dates with Harvard mathematicians, but that’s a story for another time.

Eddie Izzard is an Emmy-award-winning British transgender comedian. They (I am selecting the gender-neutral pronoun they, as I don’t know how Izzard identifies) came into my world in the 1990s with Dressed to Kill and really impressed me with their incisive, irreverent, playful retelling of historical events, religious homilies, and current social norms that just don’t make sense. Silly characters and anthropomorphism abound, all seeming to spring directly out of Izzard’s nerdy, brilliant subconscious. One of my favorite bits is the infamous “Star Wars Canteen” routine (excerpted here), where Izzard plays the roles of Darth Vader and an employee on the Death Star:

IZZARD: There must have been a Death Star Canteen yeah? There must have been a cafeteria downstairs, in between battles, where Darth Vader could just chill and go down:

[Darth Vader] I will have the penne a la arrabiata.

[Cafeteria worker] You’ll need a tray.

[DV] Do you know who I am?

[CW] Do know who I am?

[DV] This is not a game of who the f**k are you. For I am Vader. Darth Vader. Lord Vader. I can kill you with a single thought.

[CW] Well, you’ll still need a tray.

[DV] No, I will not need a tray. I do not need a tray to kill you. I can kill you without a tray, with the power of the Force, which is strong within me. Even though I could kill you with a tray if I so wished. For I would hack at your neck with the thin bit until the blood flowed across the canteen floor––

[CW] No, the food is hot, you’ll need a tray to put the food on.

[DV] [pause] Oh, I see, the food is hot! I’m sorry, I did not realize. Ha, ha, ha. Oh, a tray for the–yes. I thought you were challenging me to a fight to the death.

[CW] A fight to the death? This is canteen, I work here…

And on it goes. Here’s the full clip.

Izzard recently appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and spoke about what comedy is in the 21st century. They and Colbert spoke about the powerful force of comedy to connect us to our humanity, to create good will and love among strangers and across borders. Izzard spoke of their touring and doing standup in four languages:

Comedy exists all around the world. Sense of humor is human, and not national. That’s the interesting thing. Because people say, “Ah, the French have this, and the Germans don’t have this,” it’s not true, it’s actually all around the world.

Izzard goes on to describe their choice of internationally meaningful topic – human sacrifice – and then continues on with the interview (here).

Am I suggesting that comedy can topple nation-states and erase the historically reinforced boundaries between them? No. I’m saying simply that the impulse to laugh is, like language, deeply human, even if we have different ways of experiencing it. It’s nice to find something that we all share as a species, in a time of division, especially between Us and Them, when Them often ends up being groups of immigrants, people of color, and trans and queer people. In painful, disorienting times, could this shared something be better than a few belly laughs about our own all-too-serious and often absurd reality?

New Year’s Resolution: Be human (+ an insomniac) first, then a PhD student

It’s been a month since I wrote, which is a much longer break than I’d anticipated. I’ve decided to write about something which is not terribly inspiring or creative, but rather which is real to me and has been for several months. I’ve been struggling with insomnia since early October, a piece of information which usually divides listeners into two camps: those who kindly sympathize, and those who have been there. Those in the latter camp tend to reflect, with a slow shake of the head and perhaps even a baggy-eyed “me, too,” compassion through their own membership in a group of people who are hidden among us.

We insomniacs – and to be clear, I’m a new member, at three months of difficulty staying asleep and counting – are a motley crew, and there seem to be many reasons why this plague of nocturnal glazed ceiling staring and doze-y thinking strikes and brings a new sufferer into the fold. Stress and anxiety seem to be major contributors to the onset and perpetuation of insomnia, as do major life changes. A simple key word search including “PhD” and “student” and “insomnia” will reveal page upon page of sites discussing how grad students flail around managing the cognitive output, pressure to perform, and anxiety about their future prospects all while trying to appear confident. I found, in a simple survey full of sampling bias (my participants were my acquaintances and friends), that many PhD students I know have struggled and continue to struggle with this issue.

A great irony of being an insomniac grad student, for whom anxiety is situationally likely and normalized as “just what we go through,” is that the insomnia effects its own cause. For PhD students, our ability to concentrate, to take in large blocks of knowledge and analyze and synthesize like little cognitive processing bots, is quite central to our success. So once the cycle of insomnia took hold, my ability to focus, let alone read and process this reading meaningfully, withered…and I got more anxious about my insomnia. Funny. Not so funny.

What’s even worse is that as a fledgling scholar, I found plenty of fuel to add to the fire of anxiety and stress in my already-sleepless brain. I tend to look up research to understand the phenomena I cannot explain. Within the first two weeks, I found connections between insomnia and all of the following: heart attack, shortened life span, bad skin, depression, and a whole host of other health problems.

By Mikael Häggström – All used images are in public domain., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6716058

Great. Not so great. What bothers me about the way this is talked about is that there are lots of people who have lived their whole lives with occasional, even self-inflicted bouts of insomnia. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg apparently has fought for equality between the sexes and many other progressive stances on U.S. legal decisions during periods of little sleep. I’m certainly not lionizing the notorious RBG, or anyone else – apparently, Thomas Edison, Isaac Newton, and Salvador Dali thought fighting sleep was beneficial – for doing this, but I like to think that not sleeping for a while is not the worst thing that could happen to me.


Isaac Newton. By William Blake – William Blake Archive, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=198284

Well, it’s 2018 and I am very much still figuring out the insomnia with the help of several professionals and nonprofessional supports. People love to give advice: drink tea, take baths, drink alcohol, try reading, try smoking a joint, listen to classical music, and on and on ad nauseum. But I can’t blame them. I’ve been drawing late at night, which has helped, or at least helped me to feel a little more human.

Smelly Girl has a lot to talk about late at night. Maybe I’ll start to listen and see if she can help me remember that this PhD thing is, at the end of the day, just one chapter of my story, and not the end of the world.