Entry 07: Is This Anything?

My resolve for this website project, at least at the outset, has been to post “something” once a day. But what counts as something? One of David Letterman’s fugitive routines suggests a standard for judgment: “Is it something, or is it nothing?” Not remembering the correct title for the routine, I searched the internet and came up with a number of philosophy sites that had used the line as a cue—but nothing like a record of Letterman’s usage.

The last post is an example. As the time frame for posting “something” on January 20 neared its end, due to the lateness of the hour and the difficulty of the day, I was starting to draw a blank. That in itself could be “something,” properly framed. I searched the internet for traces of “something” and, following the faintest of threads, came up with a 90-minute video I had not previously seen, a virtual screen test from the ontological bunker of aesthetic theory.

This was truly “something,” and suggested an idea for my next post: an account of David Letterman’s routine, were I able to substantiate it. Perhaps it was entirely ephemeral, made up—but the ghost of its effects in the larger culture remain. Chris Vitiello, on Facebook, posted a random entry that showed the way: “Who the **** is Jay Leno?” This may have been the origin of the routine, as I have never understood what Jay Leno is about, if anything.

I put the question: “Is this something, or is this nothing?” and was rewarded by Miriam Jones with a lead: a link to Wikipedia’s compilation of Letterman’s sketches, where I found:

Is This Anything?

In the increasingly rare segment, the stage curtain is raised to reveal an individual or team performing an unusual stunt, often accompanied by music from the CBS Orchestra. Flanking the performer, who varies, are two previous performers who became regulars for the segment:

  • The “Hula Hoop Girl” (Anna Jack), who spins numerous hula hoops around different parts of her body, and
  • The “Grinder Girl” (Kiva Kahl), who operates a hand-held grinder against metal parts of her costume, producing sparks.

After about thirty seconds the curtain is lowered and Letterman discusses with Shaffer whether the act was “something” or “nothing.” As the segment continued over the course of time, Letterman would increasingly express disinterest in the featured performer, opting instead to admire the Grinder Girl. Shaffer in turn would often admit to having been too distracted with his performance of the music. [. . .]

Given the proper title, another internet search yielded two YouTube clips, which are priceless:

This is New York Dada at a third remove: the Baroness and Duchamp combined. Letterman and Shaffer conjure up a “scene of judgment” that locates the aesthetic in its present, mediated state: the question of whether a given media image can be judged to have any affect: “Is this anything?” The audience, or aesthetic community, is channeled through the figures of Letterman and Shaffer to provide the criterion for judgment—if it is communicable.

It turns out the judgment itself, not the routine, is the gag. Thus, according to Letterman, the object of aesthetic judgment is inconsequential—it is either substantiated in the act of judgment, or disappears into digital trash. This result strikes me as profound. A reflexive moment has emerged in the nondescript cycles of media culture to become definitive of our relation to “anything”—a judgment located in the gap between routine and response.

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