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Louis C.K., the comic who in November admitted to having masturbated in front of female colleagues, tested out new material recently at the Comedy Cellar.

Thoughtfully written. Asks questions that need answering.

By Amanda Hess

He’s baaa-aaack. Louis C.K., the comic who in November admitted to having masturbated in front of female colleagues, climbed back onstage and tested out new material at the Comedy Cellar on Sunday night. “Comeback” is not the right word for what is being floated here. A comeback implies a hero’s journey — an adventure, a transformation, a triumphant return. This feels more like a malignancy. We try to cut men like him out of public life, but nine months later, we get a call with the bad news.

The spotlight Louis C.K. stepped back into must have felt dim enough. He took the stage for 15 minutes in front of 115 people or so. But fame — or infamy — can’t be contained by space and time. The audience for an intimate set is now the world. What he says to the crowd he says to all of us. If we don’t like a television show, we can change the channel, but we can’t turn off our awareness of a media figure, not anymore. The thundering echo chamber built by mass and social media ensures that we’ll be conscious of his every move.

When Louis C.K. performed that set, he slithered back into our minds. He strode into the sightline of his fellow comedians, of the women who have been harassed and belittled and silenced at work, and of all the other people who were just going about their days and minding their own business. He plopped himself right down in the middle of the public consciousness and shared his thoughts about, reportedly, parades. He became a thing we had to deal with.

[Comedy clubs are ready for Louis C.K., but is everyone else?]

The burden, of course, weighs heaviest on the women he targeted in the first place. Whenever a harasser resurfaces, his victims’ names are publicly reattached to him, the things he did reanimated and trotted back out. These women are bombarded with demands and threats and inquiries like, Hello, I am a producer from “X Morning Show,” can you please follow me back so that I can formally request that you get into a black car and put on a coral lipstick and tell the cameras about the worst thing that ever happened to you? Does a 7 a.m. call time work?

So what do we do with the men who have scurried out of the limelight since the Harvey Weinstein story broke last fall and the floodgates opened? Anyone who publicly expresses discomfort with Louis C.K.’s reappearance has inevitably been pressured to resolve the entire extrajudicial framework of wrongs in 2018: If he can’t tell jokes at the Comedy Cellar, where can he? Should he just never appear in public again? Stop working? Live under a bridge? Die?

Anyone willing to seriously grapple with these questions should send an invoice to the culture. It’s exhausting to even think about how much effort we will expend puzzling over these glamorous celebrity spokesmen of the offender class. After all, we are only really capable of banishing them to one place, which is a very nice home where they can live out the rest of their days eating their money.

Still, the question is a little bit interesting. These men represent a facet of abuse that we haven’t figured out how to address. It’s not just that these men abused people, or that they abused their power. When a celebrity offends, it affects more than just his direct targets. The act expands and refracts across the culture. All of the energy the public has invested in this person — the time we spent taking his art seriously, laughing at his jokes, growing close to his persona, processing our lives through his stories — curdles into the grotesque realization of our unwitting complicity in his abuse. What do we do with that?

The potential remedies floated by some feminist commentators in recent days are telling. If Louis C.K. is looking for redemption he should go tell his jokes at a “nursing home or a hospital or a homeless shelter.” Or he should give up and apply for a job at the Gap. Banning bad men from creative fields and offloading them on retail workers and the elderly hardly seems like the best way to prevent future harm. There are many shades of power still available to these men and as many methods for them to abuse it. What these provocations do suggest is that we are grasping for a punishment that seeks to mend a more psychic, public wound — a type of harm we are still processing ourselves.

We are, it’s often noted, living in an economy of attention. We assign value to things by allotting our hours and minutes: the videos we watch, the people we notice, the tabs we open and the ones we close. The idea, suggested by some this week, that Louis C.K. has “served his time” is very funny, because of course he hasn’t experienced what that usually means, which is going to prison. But it’s just a little apt, too. When our greatest commodity is attention, one way to conceive of societal payment is for an abuser to simply refrain from calling attention to himself; to give us the time to not think of him at all.