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 rapid- ly changing liberal society, with fluctuat- ing 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 1⁄2xed prin- ciple, 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 pol- itics has focused on similar construc- tions of racial identity through com- plex 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 ap- propriate response to the absurdities of American politics and history.2 Ac- cordingly, 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. © 2009 by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
In Ellison’s most important and best known work, Invisible Man (1952), the narrator does not learn how to joke un- til the end, when he 1⁄2nally 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 con1⁄2- dent 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 jok- ers 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 deiron- ize politics and identity for everyone else. Ellison poses that problem but doesn’t resolve it, issuing an insightful and still-relevant caution about the pol- itics 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 com- prehensively through the modern cal- culus of risk. ￼
￼Ellison’s master metaphor for Ameri- can liberal society in Invisible Man is the game. The Invisible Man equates expe- rience with a game dozens of times, and Bledsoe and Burnside “the vet” both urge him to play it better. Ellison stocks the novel with many different kinds of games, the most prominent of which is boxing, but he grounds his analysis
of joking speci1⁄2cally in the dynamics of gambling. When the Invisible Man even- tually wonders, “What if history was a gambler, instead of a force in a labora- tory experiment,” he begins to see the world as Ellison does, as a game ideally suited to jokers, rather than agents of brute force. The Invisible Man clearly has poker in mind because he goes on to wonder whether history has an “ace in the hole.”4 Poker, especially stud poker, surfaces regularly throughout the novel at a number of key moments. The seven letters the Invisible Man receives from Bledsoe seem to him like “a hand of high trump cards” in a game of seven card stud; Burnside advises him to “Play the game, but raise the ante.”5 And in an oblique but telling reference, a taxi driv- er archly pronounces the Invisible Man a “game stud.”6
That Ellison prefers the term “joker” over the traditional African American folk term “trickster” reveals much. Brer Rabbit and other tricksters defy and dis- rupt the plantation hierarchy from with- in, but that hierarchy is fundamentally unshakeable. Jokers, however, disrupt a different kind of hierarchy, the aris- tocracy of...
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