When Ralph Ellison said that “the joke [is] at the center of the American identity,” he also meant that the joker is at the center of American life. In a rapidly changing liberal society, with fluctuating standards and values, the joker is an “American virtuoso of identity who thrives on chaos and swift change.”1 For the joker, identity is not a fixed principle, established once and for all, but a fluid masquerade, an ironic display of masks and styles, gestures and titles, which accrue around a space that comes to be known as the “self.”
A great deal of work on identity politics has focused on similar constructions of racial identity through complex cultural appropriations linked to masking, minstrelsy, and passing. But Ellison is more optimistic about these dynamics: he sees the absurd mix of styles that emerges from what he calls “pluralistic turbulence” as the only appropriate response to the absurdities of American politics and history.2 Accordingly, anyone who assumes too serious a relationship with his own identity–anyone who refuses to play the joker–will likely be duped by more powerful jokers still.
In Ellison’s most important and best-known work, Invisible Man (1952), the narrator does not learn how to joke until the end, when he finally concludes, “[I]t was better to live out one’s own absurdity than to die for that of others.”3 Even then, however, the Invisible Man hardly proves a comfortable and confident joker. He retracts a joke he plays on a drunken woman attempting to seduce him, and he abandons the joke he plays on the Brotherhood almost as soon as he undertakes it. Ellison endorses joking as a survival strategy in liberal societies, but he also worries about the power jokers could acquire, and the violence they might do with it. If the joke really is at the center of American identity, Invisible Man raises the possibility that those in power might claim joking as their own prerogative, and systematically deironize politics and identity for everyone else. Ellison poses that problem but doesn’t resolve it, issuing an insightful and still-relevant caution about the politics of mid-century liberalism. Liberal society might facilitate joking through its own chaotic turbulence, Ellison hopes, but it also might inhibit joking, if it merely simulates that turbulence by structuring daily life ever more comprehensively through the modern calculus of risk.
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- 1Ralph Ellison, The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison, ed. John F. Callahan (New York: Modern Library, 2003), 108, 110. All references to Ellison’s Collected Essays refer to one of two essays: “Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke,” originally published in Partisan Review in 1958, and “The Little Man at Chehaw Station,” originally published in The American Scholar in 1977–1978.
- 2Ibid., 504.
- 3Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (New York: Vintage, 1952), 559.