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(However, in order not to be passively seduced by the song of the Sirens, the active strategy, in this case, strangely consists in being helplessly tied to a mast. So there you are.) Ultimately, there seems to be a dilemma, an alternative: either you are a subject, actively shaping the world around you, interacting with it, or you give way to enjoyment, entrust yourself to (inter)passivity, let the things laugh and cry instead of you. Either the subject or the (passive, perverse) enjoyment.


Let me start with a brief prehistory of interpassivity. There is a short piece that can perhaps be seen as the birthplace of canned laughter and of the entire idea of interpassivity. It is a brief text called “La machine à gloire” (“The glory-producing machine”), written by the nineteenth-century author Villiers de l’Isle-Adam. He was of aristocratic origin, a fact which seems to have defined his basic stance and demeanor throughout his life and work. For the one thread that runs through virtually all his writing is a horror and rejection of bourgeois civilization (for him a contradiction in terms), its spurious values, its idea of progress, and its lack of spirit, character, or valor.

The piece on the glory machine tells us about a marvellous invention by Baron Bathybius Bottom, an English engineer (whose English name, apart from the obvious anal allusion, also recalls the immortal ass-headed Bottom of A Midsummer Night’s Dream). This new machine, which infallibly produced nothing less than glory, is an extension of a very old phenomenon, which I The Enjoying Machine suspect might be as old as the invention of theater itself, and which in French has an unmatchably economical and evocative name, la claque. It designates organized applause, the group of “hired hands” in the audience who applaud by prearrangement, most often for financial reward. The French word is so excellent that the English and the German had no choice but to borrow it.3 Quite appropriately, its primary meaning in French is “a smack, a slap in the face, a box on the ear,” and among its other meanings we also find “the brothel”—to say nothing of its vicinity to the cloaca (la cloaque).

The claque, to be sure, doesn’t involve just applause: it can cover a vast variety of reactions, both positive and negative. A well-organized claque can proffer, in Villiers’ picturesque terms, Cries of frightened ladies, muffled Sighs, telling True Tears, sudden Small Chuckles, immediately contained, of a spectator who is slow in getting the point (six pounds extra), Clicking of tobacco boxes, into whose generous depth the raptured man must take refuge, Clamour, Suffocations, Encores, On-calls, silent Tears, Threats, On-calls with Yelling, Signs of approbation, divulged Opinions, Crowns, Principles, Convictions, moral Tendencies, epileptic Attacks, Childbirths, Hissing, Suicides, the Crackle of discussion (Art for Art’s sake, the Form and the Idea), and so on.4 This hilarious inventory is immediately followed by a warning: “Let us stop here. The spectator might be led to imagine that he himself, unwittingly, is part of the claque (which is an absolute and incontestable truth); but it is better to leave some doubt in his mind about that” (100).

The claque presents a strange logical counterpart to the chorus of Greek tragedy, which served as one of the paramount instances of interpassivity.

The chorus is the spectator’s stand-in or representative on stage, relieving her of terror and pity, which it feels and expresses in her place. The claque is her representative in the audience taking care of her appropriate reactions off stage—clapping, booing, laughing and crying for her, taking the burden of feeling and enjoyment off her shoulders. The spectator can relax; the claque will attend to the rest. But then, can one ever draw the line between the claque and the audience? Does not the claque surreptitiously infiltrate the audience and its reactions, so that finally the two coincide? Is there an audience outside the claque? Villiers sees very well that the claque is not unrelated to the unconscious: the spectator is part of it without knowing it; he is bound against his will to this Other sitting next to him with which he shares the space and the time of the spectacle and from which he cannot simply disentangle himself. One could say that in the unconscious ça claque, perhaps even before ça parle, or that ça claque is the model and the epitome of ça parle. Can the spectator ever say, “Away with the claque! I want to rely on my own authentic reactions!”? But this turn has already been anticipated by the claque itself: “The latest stage of the Art is proffered when the claque itself cries out: ‘Away with the claque!’ and then pretends to have been itself 88 Penumbra moved (entraînée) and applauds at the end of the play, as if it were the real Audience and the roles reversed; it then restrains the overzealous exaltation and imposes restrictions” (100).

So the claque is intractable because its boundaries are constantly blurred and it cannot be assigned to a limited space. It can incorporate its own criticism and perhaps functions at its best when it shouts, “Away with the claque!,” taking on the battle-cry against itself. The claque is itself and also its own negation, and the self-negation makes it stronger and omnipresent.

The spectator can indeed relax, since even her feelings against the claque are taken care of by the claque. One may frown at Villiers’ inveterate contempt for the crowd and its inability to make up its own mind or form its own judgment, but the mechanism of the claque goes well beyond his bias. For the question is: how does one extricate the authentic from the contrived? Is there an unequivocal line? Hasn’t one always already been part of the claque? Has there ever been a theater without the claque, or indeed any form of art without some counterpart of it? Can one be rid of the claque?

One must extend the notion of the claque even to that which surrounds the performance—the publicity, the reviews, the criticism, the media coverage—and which has driven us to the theater in the first place. But its forms are far more insidious: there are people, forming strange groups of claqueurs over the centuries, who have seen the plays, read the books, admired the paintings, and listened to the music all before us, and who have produced an inaudible claque. They have seen it all, heard it all, and enjoyed it all before us. Would one ever set foot in a theater without the invisible claque spreading the rumor that this is what one should do? Isn’t the claque another name for tradition? Is there a culture without the claque? Are there any standards of authenticity that would not, at some point, have recourse to the claque? Can one ever form an authentic judgment independently without some support of the claque even when one imagines to oppose it? Opposition to it, as we have seen, has already been taken care of by the claque.

So there is an organized applause that has been going on for centuries and there is no easy way of discerning its bias and partiality. What would we be without that bias? Can there be an enjoyment of art without some backdrop of the claque enjoying it for us? Without being entraîné? The point is not that there are no intrinsic values, but rather that the very notion of intrinsic values has to rely, at some point, on the claque. One has to suppose that the claque knows. And if one replaces a certain value, induced by the claque, by another supposedly more genuine one, it is perhaps the case of substituting one claque for another. The claque is “supposed to know,” but it is also in its nature to contradict itself.

Only a small step separates this from interpassivity: why bother going to the theater at all, since the claque, past and present, has been and is enjoying it in our place? Perhaps the only authentic stance would be to stay at The Enjoying Machine home, relying on the claque to attend to the troublesome business of culture instead of us, delegating our enjoyment to it, while we can relax at home and do—what? Watch the sitcoms with canned laughter? Is there an enjoyment outside the claque?

This doesn’t apply solely to art and culture. The claque produces glory in all its forms: “Every glory has its claque, that is, its shadow, its part of artifice, of mechanism and of nothingness” (97). So any glory is constantly and inextricably accompanied by its claquing shadow, the applauding double, which might have become invisible and inaudible as the background noise of history despite the fact that it has been long since forgotten who hired it, and for what reward. Or rather perhaps it has never been properly hired at all: perhaps it has itself been always already entraînée; it was always just following the claque whose origin escapes us. Instead of asking the paranoid question, “Who hired the claque?,” one should rather ask, “How does the claque function so well without being hired?” This is the part of glory that dooms its valor to contrivance, fabrication and deceit, its shining to darkness, its being to nothingness, while at the same time securing its success and survival. The claque is glory’s part of spanking, of the brothel, and of the cloaca. Culture, tradition, and history all seem to be permeated with the claque. La claque—what a formidable name for the big Other!

Returning to Villiers’ text, the ingenious Baron Bottom had the brilliant idea to turn the claque into a machine—something that it had always already been anyway: “In fact, the claque is a machine made of humanity, and hence perfectible” (97). The imperfect human machine can be perfected, its contingencies eliminated, and its human material replaced by the accuracy and predictability of a mechanical device. The machine could be incorporated into the theater hall itself, into its very architecture: phonographs would be placed into the orifices of statues and decorations, and at the appropriate moment they would emit “the wow-wows, the Cries, the ‘Out with the cabal!,’ the Laughter, the Sighs, the Encores, the Discussions, the Principles, the Clicking of tobacco boxes, and so on, all the sounds of the audience, but perfected” (102, italics added). The machine could be further perfected by the emission of gases, dispersing in turn tear gas and laughing gas as the occasion demanded; by the attachment of wooden hands to every seat; by the installation of devices that throw flowers and laurels on the stage, and so on. All this would be operated from a sophisticated control room placed in the prompter’s pit, which would thus turn into a veritable “cock-pit.” There can be no doubt that once any play had entered this tremendous machine, it would be condemned to success; there could be no accidents. All resistance would be in vain.

On top of that, an extension of Bottom’s machine could also take care of theater criticism. The recycled clichés and commonplaces could be mechanically assembled, with the appropriate names being inserted in the blank 90 Penumbra spaces, and the ensuing results would by far surpass all modest human endeavours. Criticism has always been part of the claque anyway; it is just as mechanical in nature. The spirit is a machine, and the claque can be seen as another instance of Pascal’s advice: first the machine, and the spirit will follow.

It is no coincidence that Bottom has been named after Shakespeare’s Bottom, the weaver. Like the new Bottom, the old one was also a mastermind of theatrical trickery. But there is a crucial difference: the old Bottom believed in theater’s intrinsic magic and its sway over the audience, which turned him into a Brechtian avant la lettre. He wanted to disenchant the audience: “This is only a play, these are not real swords and lions.”5 He believed, with infinite credulity, in the infinite credulity of the audience. For him the theater was too convincing in itself to need a claque, so the duty of the actors was quite the opposite: to fend off too much enthusiasm, to break down the illusion.

Whereas the new Bottom, knowing very well that all magic is contrived, has the opposite concern: how to arouse the audience and make it believe. His tricks are no less crude and obvious than the old Bottom’s, but one cannot but be taken in. The audience, under a spell like the fairy Queen Titania, has no choice but to fall head over heels in love with the ass’s head.

So the enigma of glory has found its final resting place with our bottomless Bottom: “This Sphinx has found its Oedipus” (107).


Several problems arise from Villiers’ text. First of all, are we dealing with a genuine case of interpassivity? There is a fine line between true interpassivity and what one finds in the case of the claque, though the question is whether the demarcation line can be maintained all the way through. It can be approached through Villiers’ crucial term entraîner—to induce, to impose, to provoke, or to prompt. The point of the machine, for him, is to induce in the audience the reactions first emitted by the claque (whether in its human or mechanical shape). The claque has to contaminate the spectator with laughter, tears, and opinions, which first arise in their artificial forms pretending to be “the real things.” The claque applauds in order to make me applaud; it laughs to make me laugh. The spectator’s “authentic” feelings are provoked by artifice, so that she herself is no longer able to tell the difference. The point of interpassivity, however, is slightly different from that of this apparatus: in interpassivity, the devices, whether human or mechanical, take upon themselves the reactions instead of us; they feel for us, so that we are freed from the burden of enjoyment, or rather, so that we can indulge in the bizarre enjoyment of delegating enjoyment to the (human or mechanical) other. Canned laughter doesn’t make us laugh; rather it prevents us from laughing. Villiers stops short at this twist.

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