day 16: black swans and other surprises

I’ve been wondering recently about what exactly makes a joke.

There are a few theories out there; I particularly like the simplicity of Logan Murray‘s theory that it is just a thought, and then an afterthought which takes the initial thought in an unexpected direction.

But I’d prefer an even more simple definition: that a joke is simply some kind of satisfying surprise. I can’t think of a single thing I’ve ever laughed at that didn’t contain an element of surprise; and it can’t be an unsatisfactory surprise, like getting hit round the head, because that would probably be unfunny. Unless, of course, there was some satisfactory element to it – like if it happened to someone who deserved it…

But in addition to jokes and unsatisfying surprises, there is another category of surprise – what Nassim Taleb calls ‘Black Swans’. These are things which are not merely surprising, but which we had considered – by overestimating our own certainties and by underestimating the randomness of chance – to be highly improbable. At least, that is, until they actually happen, forcing small revolutions in how we interpret our experience.

I saw three Black Swans yesterday.

The first was in the Scottish National Gallery, where I went to meet my mum before she caught her train to Iona. It was my response to a pastel drawing, little more than a sketch, called something like ‘Portrait of a Young Woman’, by the 16th Century artist Federico Barocci. I just couldn’t believe it was so beautiful; I stared at it for a while, just admiring the colouring of the skin, as close to tears of aesthetic joy as I have ever been in an art gallery. I like art, but I’d always thought it pretty much impossible for me to respond to a pastel sketch quite like that.

The second Black Swan I saw was a phenomenally good play by a student drama society. Bizarrely, the play was called ‘Black Swans’, and though I don’t think it was a reference to Taleb’s book, it was the title that got me thinking about them.

Anyway, it was the middle play of a triple-bill by Goldsmiths University Drama Society, and it was a free festival show. I’d been flyered in the morning by a girl with a big black triangle on her forehead.

Hm, I had thought. This could easily be terrible.

But it wasn’t. It was outstanding. It was set in a post-collapsed-state dystopia – bad anarchy, basically – and was an exploration of what would happen to two groups of people: one group, a family, always sat at a table centre stage, unable leave their hiding place, who just wanted safety and always spoke in lost, broken voices; the other group – the ‘Black Swans’ – all around the stage, was a collective of politician and serial killer types, the kind who want to dominate and hurt others.

As the focus shifted between the two groups, it became increasingly clear that the only way either for the family to be safe or for the Black Swans to increase their power was to return to a state-type system.

Like I say, I don’t know how closely it related to Nassim Taleb’s idea of Black Swans, but as a demonstration of Hobbesian hopeless nastiness it was incredible. I hadn’t thought it possible that a free show by a student drama society could almost persuade a anarcho-utopian like me to be grateful for statist authoritarians. I had to remind myself several times that the anarchy presented in the play was clearly the result of a revolutionary collapse of the state, rather than the kind of gradual and cautious dismantling of authority (in which, for example, state education and the NHS would probably be the last things to go) that might actually work.

Then, amazingly, the cast and director of the play turned up later at the newsroom (just as we finished our evening show) to see their friend perform in The News At Ten-ish. It was very nice to meet them, especially having been raving to Loz about their play all evening…

(I should also add, as a follow-up to yesterday’s blog, that the audience for the News At Ten-ish seemed to really enjoy the show and that perhaps what I wrote was unfair. Or perhaps it was a fluke and the format is still problematic).

The third Black Swan? I had a really fun night in the Library Bar.

Who could have predicted that?

CTD: Audience – full; Performance – good (7/10)

SSS: Audience – full; Performance – I’d have been happy with this at the start of the run, but I skipped and rushed stuff and it wasn’t up to the last few nights. After doing 7s and 8s out of 10, this felt poor (6/10)

Other stuff: unpredictable

Overall: WIN

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