Drifting in the Clouds: On the Schlemiel, Affect, and Pig Pen

When Hannah Arendt first discusses the schlemiel in her celebrated essay, “The Jew as Pariah,” she describes the schlemiel as the  “Lord of Dreams.” She takes her reading from Heinrich Heine’s poems which address the schlemiel. To be sure, Arendt argues that, for Heine, the schlemiel is the poet. He is the first in a line of Pariahs which stretches from Europe to American, from Heine to Chaplin. Whether the schlemiel is Heine’s figure for the poet or for all of Charlie Chaplin’s comic characters, they are both figures of freedom. From the perspective of society, which they both challenge, they have their heads in the clouds. Whether it is the parvenu of the 19th century or the Anglo-American, the schlemiel is not a part of the status quo. He is an artist and a comedian who stands aloof in the world of words and gestures.

Freud – drawing on this line of thought – likened the artist to a “day dreamer.” The artist, in other words, is a schlemiel. While this “lord of dreams” figure can be found in the work of many great Jewish American writers, like Saul BellowBernard Malamud, Stanley Elkin, and in contemporary writers like Gary Shteyngart, Sam Lipsyte, and Jonathan Safran Foer, it does always get translated into the realm of film. Woody Allen and Noah Baumbach, however, seem to have created an exception to this rule.  Seth Rogen and Ben Stiller don’t seem to fit the bill – unless you read the schlemiels in Adam Sandler’s Don’t Mess With the Zohan (2008) or in Apatow’s Knocked Up (2007) – to just two of countless examples – as a figure of the contemporary artist.

What might get missed in this kind of reading of the schlemiel is the fact that I have, like Arendt, limited the schlemiel figure to the cultural realms of literature and film. How – one must ask – does the schlemiel fare today, in the digital age? What kind of figure can it take on? If, as Walt Whitman suggests, everything is poetry and poet is the person who takes note and joyously catalogues all things, perhaps the lord of dreams, the poet – in this digital age – is something we have become. But this being is not the result of being an immigrant or a Jew, perhaps it is the result of being-immersed in social media? Perhaps we have – unbeknownst to ourselves- been (perhaps in a Heideggerian sense) thrown into the cloud, the digital cloud. And that would mean that we have become schlemiels who are endlessly distracted and drifting through digital clouds of affect and information. And perhaps the best figure for this is, as Kenneth Goldsmith suggests in Wasting Time on the Internet, Pig Pen.


The theoretical backdrop for Goldsmith’s use of Pig Pen as a figure is the notion of affect, which he explains in the following manner:

Affect is the powerful but often invisible emotional temperature in any given social situation, for instance, when you walk into a room that feels so tense you could “cut it with a knife,” although there are no visible signs of that tension. It’s similar to being afraid and noticing your palms are sweating, a palpable reaction that – with the exception of a handshake – is most invisible to others…..Affect is an inventory of shimmers, nuances, and states. Contagious, leaping from one body to another, affect infects those nearby with microemotions and microfeelings, pulsating extensions of our bodies’ nervous systems. Our online lives are saturated with affect, our sensations amplified and projected by the network.  Our Wi-Fi networks – carriers of affect – are invisible but ubiquitous, transmitting pulses and sensations through the air that have the potential to convert to emotions when displayed on our screens.   (38).

Affect – as it goes through the network (whether or Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc) – “works against narrative: it isn’t conclusive or curative; instead, its static, continual, hovering, and conditional”(40).  It’s like a digital cloud. To illustrate what this means, Goldsmith discusses what it’s like for him to run through the city while listening to Spotify, being mapped through google, receiving and sending messages, and recording ideas he has for a new book. He calls this “data storm” a cloud and argues that it is “similar to the Peanuts cartoon character Pig Pen, an embodiment of cloud based computing”(57).

Pig Pen – each moment he steps or shakes his head – “generates more visible dust”(57). Even if he showers, it remains. It follows him everywhere: “Regardless of the weather, his condition remains unaffected; even rainstorms can’t rinse him clean”(57). Pig-Pen, as Goldsmith describes him, sounds like an artist:

Wherever Pig Pen walks, he is met with repulsion. His critics – the entire cast of Peanuts – often accuse him of wallowing in his dirt, of taking hedonistic pleasure in his condition. They say he’s as self-absorbed and insensitive to others as to be a bastion of filth. But he sees it differently, claiming that he has affixed to him the “dust of countless ages.” Deftly assuaging his critics, he turns the tables on them, forcing them to see value where they saw none. (58)

Pig-Pen – an artistic digital-age schlemiel of sorts – is absorbed in the life of the internet:

As he moves through the world, he inscribes the contemporary into his cloud, adding the dirt of the day to his already thickly layered historical record….Like Homer, who transmitted his sagas orally, Pig Pen is the bearer of a certain historical record, told in his own specific cast. As an outcast, he assumes the role of the trickster, a figure who, defying normative community-based behavioral standards, is the keeper of a database of deep and secret knowledge. He is at once physical and ephemeral, omnipresent and local….His cloud is a haze, an ambience, a networked that can’t be defined by specific boundaries….a pulse, a stasis, a skein.  (59)

And when they shame him – like Singer’s Gimpel or Bellow’s Herzog – he smiles. After all, he’s the lord of (digital) dreams – and he knows it. Playing on Goldsmith, Pig-Pen knows he’s the digital-schlemiel-pariah and so do we.  Goldsmith suggests that the new type of artist – the new outcast or schlemiel-pariah (or as Arendt says of Chaplin, “the suspect”) – is adept at the web and is drifting through digital clouds that attend him wherever he goes.  The new figuration of the schlemiel – a living schlemiel, so to speak – is not only to be found drifting through the pages of the novel or through the images on Woody Allen or Charlie Chaplin on the movie screen. Perhaps the new “Lord of Dreams” is obsessed with digital affect and this drifting through the “clouds” – suggests Goldsmith – goes against the “normative community-based behavioral standards.”

Crossposted with Schlemiel Theory.

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