A Visit to the Clown Service

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In the Kachina religion practised by the Pueblo peoples indigenous to the southwestern United States, clowns play a sacred function. Amongst the Taos Pueblo in New Mexico, there is a day, once a year, where Koshare clowns, half-naked men in black-and-white makeup, descend upon the town and perform unpredictable acts of intimidation and violence: pushing fat men off the bridge, feeling up old women, throwing children in the river, that sort of thing. Part of what is so interesting about the Pueblo clowns is that, although most obviously experienced as a force of chaos, what they actually do is act as a force of law: both literally policing the community (only naughty children get thrown into the river, only tourists who act beligerent with them get pushed off the bridge), as well as demonstrating where the boundaries of the law are; the very fact that the clowns are the ones who are behaving like this, and this happens only on one day of the year, serves to demonstrate that this is not usually acceptable behaviour. Via negativo, then, a certain order is established.

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Meanwhile in London, there is a day once a year where professional circus clowns, affiliated with a group called Clowns International, descend upon the Holy Trinity Church in Dalston, and sit through a relatively solemn Anglican religious ceremony. Members of the general public can go along too – indeed it is mostly aimed at them, I think, with the clowns standing around and outside the church both before and after it entertaining a crowd primarily made up of young families (and not, e.g. Marxist academics, although I myself attended this year’s ceremony when it happened last Sunday) with little jokes and tricks – and as with almost everywhere else you go, the non-clowns easily outnumber the clowns, by at least three to one. But equally, the ceremony is a central part of the life of the clown community in London and in the UK. The church refers to itself as the ‘clown church’, and contains a small clown museum and a number of clown eggs: ostensibly a record of the make-up of all the different clowns down the ages, although it is hard to quite suppress the thought that clowns might also hatch from them. There is a stained-glass window in the church dedicated to ‘the father of British clowning’, Joseph Grimaldi, and a number of other icons and so forth dotted around concerning clowns in a Christian context. Meanwhile the ceremony itself features contributions (poems, tricks, Bible readings) from a number of clowns; is led by The Reverend Roly Bain, an ordained minister who is also a practising clown; and includes a number of musings on the role of comedy and foolishness in the Bible as well as in Christian history and practice more generally. At one point there is a saying of the ‘Clown’s Prayer’, before everyone stands observe the memory of all the clowns who have died over the past year.

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What is most interesting about all this for me is how, despite the fact that everyone involved with the ceremony is constantly concerned to assure you how legitimate a part of Christian faith ‘foolishness’ is, it always has to be the right sort of foolishness. You have to joke in such a way that it helps people see the love of the Lord, and never forget that laughter is given to us as a gift by this deity who is still understood to be, in an important sense, basically serious (if you laugh cruelly, he will punish you). The attitude of the ceremony was in a way that of the carnival: the world is turned upside-down, but only briefly, before order reasserts itself. Although even then (and I’m not some literary critic who is optimistic that ‘the carnival’ as such has radical potential), the world is hardly turned upside-down all that much, since the clowning present in the ceremony was (even without comparing it to what goes on amongst the Taos Pueblo), inoffensively polite in a way that only chortling CofE types can bring themselves to be. The whole thing is, in short, marked by a privileging of serious over non-serious speech. Humour is admitted into the Lord’s plan for the world – has its visa papers stamped, as it were – but only as an incidental part of a greater seriousness.

The privileging of serious over non-serious speech implies a prior segregation of sincerity from irony. This is a move that seems not to have been quite affected yet amongst the Pueblo, who not only view the day the clowns come to town as a religious event, but also often have clowns accompanying their more everyday religious practices. The correct relationship towards the divine, in the Pueblo culture, thus seems to be one which necessarily involves the comic. Comedy is thus not a merely incidental part of reality but precisely essential to it. All seriousness has to also involve some element of play.

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What then does it mean, the fact that our forces of carnival and ‘the comic’, irony – that is, the clowns – manifest themselves on a day where they have to politely sit through a religious ceremony (a ceremony which, indeed, they are incorporated into only epiphenomenally)? We might think that this is a product of the supremacy of the law in modernity, its all-powerful tendrils hooking even into the clowns. But perhaps what is going on is precisely the opposite. Of course, the law is a massive, all-powerful force, under present conditions. But for all that, it is not especially effective at keeping order. We can of course think of occasional-to-frequent splutterings of riot and revolution, but even in conditions of ‘normality’ we do not generally exist in such a way that we confidently know what to do in how to proceed in our social lives: the law exists above us but it does not exactly direct our behaviour, it is just there to punish us when we go noticeably wrong. Thus it is something all-powerful within a fractured society dominated by confusion and anomie.

The sort of tribal customs we can associate with cultures like the Pueblo, on the other hand, can be understood as those of a cohesive community, whose members know their place within it. But part of this would be because those members are, in their subjectivity, involved in the constitution of the community, through the admission into the fabric of reality of comedy and play, precisely things which involve us as taking a stance on reality for ourselves. These people (so the story goes) can know their place in the community, because whatever that ‘community’ is, it is not something based on a doctrine of laws which represents itself as alien, static, and unchanging, something we are ‘before’ (as in Kafka’s image) rather than within. Law, instead, exists immanently between them, as people who can think, laugh, joke.

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Whereas, the alien image of the law is precisely what it becomes for us if it is made wholly sincere, which is the same as it becoming entirely something not for us. Which makes sense, since, what does the law in modernity really do? The law is obscene. The law is controlled by the ravenous appetites of capital, bankers snorting mountains of cocaine off the chests of their robot brides, blowing up bridges, pissing on the artistic masterpieces they have just splurged millions on, flying drones into quivering hordes of Dickensian orphans, and so on and so forth. This state of affairs is able to come about precisely because when we look at the law we see something utterly beyond us. Neither do we dare to take a stance on it for ourselves, nor could the law even accommodate us if we wanted to. The Clown Service, in which the clowns of London effectively prostrate themselves before sincerity, is I think a symptom of this state of affairs. Or perhaps more than merely a symptom. Perhaps, indeed, it will turn out that the clowns are – and always have been – in league with our reptilian overlords of capital… after all, they both hatch from eggs.

Thanks to Sam Kriss (who also attended the clown service) for helping me come up with a lot of what is in this piece through discussion. Most of the material about the Pueblo clowns comes from an excellent Stewart Lee radio documentary that you can find here.

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