Despite his reputation for telling jokes and the central role that humor plays in his philosophy, the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek does not have a theory of comedy. In his work, Žižek does not just tell jokes. He has also made brief interventions in the theory of comedy that include mostly applications of Hegel’s theory of objective humor or Alenka Zupančič’s Hegelian theory of comedy. At the outset of the “The Christian Hegelian Comedy,” he even suggests a triadic Hegelian structure for jokes that moves from inclusion into a series, to an exclusion from a series, and finally to “tautology as supreme contradiction.”1
His oeuvre still lacks, nevertheless, an extended discussion of the political value of objective humor, in particular, and comedy, in general, in his Hegelian-Lacanian philosophy; nor does he discuss the role of objective humor in his emancipatory communist project. The urgency of such a Žižekian theory of objective humor should not be viewed merely as Žižek’s response to his liberal and leftist critics, who dismiss his jokes and humor, including the “safe” ones, as purportedly reactionary and politically incorrect.2 Rather, since Žižek views dominant forms of contemporary laughter and comedy as constitutive of the ideological hegemony of the global capitalist system today, it becomes imperative to question, in Zupančič’s words, “whether promoting comedy is not part of the same process.”3 If laughter should still be reloaded, then a theory of liberating or inherently subversive jokes and of their role in the class struggle is in order.
Žižek’s jokes: The power of negativity
It is commonly believed that Žižek uses jokes in his work to illuminate obscure and abstract philosophical concepts. For some scholars, jokes and philosophy inhabit an overlapping metaphysical space in his work, which is thus made easier to understand. As Todd McGowan observes, we are “secretly philosophizing when we engage in comedy” and “we are also implicitly theorizing about comedy when we philosophize.”4
Humor, writes John Morreall, “often embodies the critical, imaginative attitude prized by philosophers.”5 Unsurprisingly, Morreall identifies eight similarities between the (radical) stand-up comic and the philosopher, some of which could apply to Žižek’s humor. For example, Morreall notes that both comedians and philosophers do not only engage in reflections and ask questions about everyday life experiences, but also propose alternative surprising perspectives. Moreover, (emancipatory) comedy and philosophy oppose “blind belief and unquestioning obedience” and question, or reject, authority and tradition.6
Nonetheless, Morreall believes comics and philosophers view issues “from a higher perspective than our normal one.”7 While Žižek’s dialectical materialist philosophy rejects the possibility of a philosophical or comedic metalanguage that Morreall claims is characteristic of philosophy and standup comedy, Morreall’s point might be partially true with regards to comic characters.
In Žižek’s Hegelian-Lacanian philosophy, metalanguage fails to account for the subject’s own position within reality—the subject remains the main gap and void that cannot be accounted for within reality. However, Žižek also maintains in a “properly Hegelian way,” that a comic character “always retains the ability to observe himself from outside, “making fun of himself.”8 Because of this intellectual overlap between comedy and philosophy, as Broderick Chow contends, Žižek “is rarely interested in whether or not anyone is laughing.”9 Ultimately, he claims, Žižek uses jokes in order to make a profound philosophical point (Chow thinks it has to do with the ontological incompleteness of reality), but the exact nature of this point is still open for debate.
Scholars have also explained the function of the comic mode in Žižek’s work in the context of twentieth century existentialist philosophies of finitude. For Thomas Brockelman, Žižek is ‘‘laughing at finitude’’ in Heidegger’s work, in a way that exposes the self-deception in Heidegger’s project and that repudiates the ‘tragic’ voice in existential treatments of finitude.”10 McGowan, in turn, makes a direct link between Žižek’s jokes and existentialist philosophies of finitude, reading his jokes as a direct response to these philosophies that prevailed in the last century. McGowan thus writes, “[Žižek] offers comic respite from the seriousness of the many philosophers of finitude who followed in Heidegger’s wake— Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Jean-Luc Nancy, Judith Butler, Gayatri Spivak, and so on.”11
Two main points can be made about the levity in Žižek’s work. First, his jokes about the absurdity of the human condition betray his pessimistic diagnoses of the coming apocalypse. The title of an article in The Guardian sums it up succinctly: “Slavoj Žižek’s Jokes Are No Laughing Matter.”12 Indeed, for him, the four horsemen of the apocalypse are at the door and disorder is not under heaven anymore, but more likely in heaven itself.13 In his post-Maoist analysis, Žižek insists that the fundamental antagonism is more clearly visible not between but “within each particular country.”14
Second, the power of comedy does not lie in its ability to mock human dignity or continuously laugh at the “ridiculous contingencies of our terrestrial existence.”15 Rather, comedy solemnizes the power of negativity itself that is embodied in concrete individuals as “the only true universality.” For Hegel, as Mark Roche notes, comedy is “immanent negation” and what it commonly negates is “the false elevation of subjectivity or particularity.”16
In comedy, as Hegel suggests, the limits of representation are overcome. Drawing on Zupančič’s Hegelian theory of comedy as the work of concrete universality, Žižek maintains that comedy constitutes “the full assertion of universality, the immediate coincidence of universality with the character’s/actor’s singularity.”17 The gap between the actor and his persona is “posited as inherent” to either term, in a way that allows a comic character not only to identify with himself, but also to “observe himself from outside.” At this moment, the universal is actualized and takes on concrete form. As McGowan explains in relation to Zupančič’s theory, this provokes laughter, because when the universal is concretized, the “distance that we imagine between the universal and the concrete” disappears.18
The Mode of Žižek’s Jokes: Hegelian or Kantian?
Although Žižek explicitly draws on Zupančič’s Hegelian theory of comedy and the interplay of the universal and particular at its core, critics have offered different explanations for the philosophical traditions that ground the structure of his jokes. While McGowan claims that all Žižek’s jokes “reside in the spirit of Hegel” (106), Chow contends that his jokes can be understood as both Hegelian-Lacanian at the ontological and metaphysical levels and implicitly Kantian at the political level.
For McGowan, the dialectic of the infinite and the finite in Hegel’s philosophy “functions as the hidden source for Žižek’s humor.”19 He thus shows that Žižek’s jokes are organic to his political philosophy and the impossibility of confining “ourselves to finitude no matter how diligently we try.” Perhaps because he finds Zupančič’s theory limited in its application, McGowan does not interrogate Žižek’s appropriation of Zupančič’s theory and the workings of concrete universality in his writing about Christianity. Instead, he analyzes the structure of a couple of Žižek’s jokes along the finite-infinite dialectic, by showing how the infinite intrudes “on the finite world in ways that subjects do not expect and that thus trip them up.” When the impossible happens and contradictory events occur, we laugh because the “infinite returns in our acts.”20
His analysis of these jokes demonstrates the egalitarian potential of Žižek’s jokes. As McGowan points out, egalitarian comedy reveals not only the fundamental antagonisms within the social order, but also the contradictions and internal divisors that characterize “both the source of the comedy and its.”21 In addition, egalitarian comedy must also consider its effects on the audience.
A good example of this is the representation of ethnic stereotype in Chappelle’s “Dixie sketches.” As James O’Rourke shows, these racist sketches offer complex rhetorical strategies that leave the audience “wondering whether they really should have laughed at Chappelle being called a “big-lipped bitch.”22 Although the audience unquestionably doubted the legitimacy of these racist jokes, the doubt was “easily reabsorbed into a circuit of exchange in which the freedom of spontaneous laughter becomes the dominant commodity that obliterates all other values.”23 This is what Chappelle came to painfully realize about the egalitarian potential of comedy.
Furthermore, Chow is generally in agreement with McGowan’s analysis of the Hegelian subtext of Žižek’s jokes, but he adds a Lacanian and a Kantian twist to explain the role jokes play in Žižek’s oeuvre. For Žižek, he claims, the incommensurable and illogical structure of the joke “points to the gaps in our own symbolic universe.”24 The joke in Žižek’s work can appear as a meaningless distraction, but this meaninglessness is exactly what exposes the truth of the Real as jokes force us to “look awry” at reality (232).
The fact that jokes can expose the void of the Real makes them a source of anxiety. Invoking Zupančič’s analysis of the interplay between pleasure and “existential anxiety,” Chow shows that “laughter makes the joke an acceptable aesthetic object (or practice) but lessens its possibilities for radical discomfort” (229). Laughter, that is, covers up the void in the Real that results from the shifts in the “signifying chain” that structure the joke.
At the political level, moreover, Chow implicitly introduces a Kantian dimension to Žižek’s jokes. He contends that the function of the joke in the context of live stand-up performance, in particular, is not to “[in] produc[ing] a sensus communis but rather in inaugurating a deep, ontological dissensus, revealing the zero- level of politics itself.”25 As he explains:
. . . comedy in performance oscillates between the enjoyment of laughter and the possibility of discomfort, always approaching the edge of failure. Performance comedy is most politically significant (and exciting) when it positions the comic in a place where he risks symbolic death (a stand- up set that goes badly is called ‘dying’ in the comedian’s argot, at least in the UK). In the midst of the pleasurable sensus communis of laughing together is the possibility of dissensus; in this way, performance comedy demonstrates the precariousness of our identifications and our ways of being together. (231)
That said, Chow does not unpack the philosophical origins of his theory toolbox. In an article on Dave Chappelle’s controversial 2019 stand-up comedy special Sticks & Stones, however, Patrick Giamario demonstrates how laughter in Kant enacts dissensus, by disrupting and transforming sensus communis, or “the ways subjects see and hear the world in common that organize and structure a political community.”26
Disavowing Laughter: Laughing while Rejecting Laughter
Regardless of how and why Žižek uses laughter and humor and its philosophical sources, there is a central paradox in his approach to comedy. As Zupančič suggests, one cannot simply dismiss laughter because it is coopted under the global capitalist system today, while also engaging in the production of the same comic practices. It is not that you should not or cannot laugh anymore, but Žižek needs a theory to explain the principles, structures, and operation of such emancipatory laughter within the framework of his Hegelian-Lacanian philosophy and communist politics.
In his work, Žižek raises important questions about the value of comedy and laughter under late capitalism. In his critique of Umberto Eco’s popular novel, The Name of the Rose, Žižek argues that the most disturbing aspect of this text is its “underlying belief in the liberating, anti-totalitarian force of laughter, of ironic distance.”27 As such, the greatest form of totalitarianism today is not the lack of laughter, but, rather, the prevalence of cynicism, irony, and laughter.
Laughter, therefore, is internal to the cultural logic of late capitalism—it is a “part of the game.” That is, laughter cannot produce or deliver either emancipation or modes of resistance and transgression, if it ever did, since it is completely plugged into the structures of the global capitalist system itself and its economy of affect. 28 One can even make a direct link between Žižek’s pessimistic apocalypticism and his rejection of laughter. As Walter Benjamin writes, laughter expresses the magnitude of humanity’s self-alienation. For Benjamin, humanity’s “self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.”29
Žižek reiterates his main critique of laughter and comedy in his op-ed on Hegel and Trump’s objective humor for this publication. He notes the function of jokes in stabilizing totalitarian regimes, which presumably created a department to invent and disseminate anti-regime jokes.30 Moreover, he develops a Hegelian critique of subjective humor, which is “more actual than ever today,” especially in relation to liberal late-night talk shows. For Hegel, subjective humor marked art’s dissolution.31
Quoting Zupančič, Žižek implicitly invokes the supremacy theory of comedy in order to lambaste liberal and leftist late-night talk shows for arrogantly “scolding and insulting” the poor who “blindly” follow the populist elites. They keep forgetting that these people identify with Trump’s weaknesses, and the more they perceive him as a victim of liberal attacks, the more they identify with him. Parodying Trump, therefore, is useless. To paraphrase his point, the best jokes on Trump are nothing compared to “the joke that is Trump’s actual politics.” To this effect, Žižek cites Stephen Marche’s op-ed in the Los Angeles Times in which he critiques this persistent singular parody of Trump as a “distraction from his real politics” at best. At worst, he adds, this parody “converts the whole of politics into a gag.”
The problem with such parodies is that they try to parody “a man who is a conscious self-parody.” As Žižek correctly points out, any parody of this self-parody is self-defeating, because it will never open a gap between the actual person and his own self-representation as a comic heel, as Marche says using the pro-wrestling lingo to describe Trump, and pop cultural icon. In short, subjective humor is “utterly impotent.” Instead of posing a serious threat to the system, subjective humor’s “namby-pamby and sentimental” tendencies, to use Hegel’s words, just reinforce the ironic subject’s “illusion of inner freedom and superiority.”32
The question must be raised at this point as to whether laughter can still be reloaded and used in the service of class struggle. During the first two decades after the October Revolution, comics, artists, and theorists contended with this same problem and vigorously debated the aesthetics and social and role of humor, laughter, and satire in the fledgling Soviet Union. Many of them, as per Dmitrii Orlov, believed that “art and laughter are implements of battle.”33
In those days, as Anne Gérin points out, poking fun at a high-ranking officials was acceptable, if not encouraged, and the “people who understood and loved Soviet power could make jokes, and no one would be offended by them.”34 However, some theorists like Nicolai Krynetskii, questioned the utility of satire in the post-revolutionary era. Rhetorically asking whether Soviet artists should engage in satire, Krynetskii wrote: “The pre-revolutionary press had no choice but to do this . . . . Angry laughter was its only weapon. The laughter of the liberal pre-revolutionary press was a measurement of its helplessness against absolutist tsarism.”35
The legacy of one of those theorists, Anatoly Lunacharskii, People’s Commissar for the Enlightenment from 1917 to 1929, reflects the challenges of using laughter and satire as an emancipatory tool. Gérin shows how Lunacharskii not only “appreciated and loved laughter”; he also firmly believed that “the role of laughter is as important as ever in our struggle, the last struggle for the emancipation of human beings.”36 In fact, he started working on a book manuscript tentatively titled “Laughter as a Weapon in Class Struggle,” but never had a chance to complete it.37
While he explicitly rejected propagandistic art, Lunacharskii subscribed to the superiority theory of comedy and believed in using laughter, satire and humor to announce the “thunder of the upcoming battle” and mock, humiliate and defeat “enemies of the regime.”38 Lunacharskii also believed that laughter and satire were instrumental in “opening up a space to imagine and enact the new” and for creating the “distance necessary for autocriticism.”39
Dobrenko and Jonsson-Skradol make clear that Luncharskii rejected mere laughter and its premise of superiority in favor of satire and reflexivity, self-criticism and division. As the years passed, they write, Lunacharskii abandoned his “egalitarian utopia of popular laughter,” which he described as a “sanitary worker,” a disinfectant “that drives away all this vermin,” and substituted it for satire.40 In his article “On Satire” (1930), therefore, he advocated mastery over “the freedom of true self-criticism.”41
It is not clear whether underlying this shift in Lunacharskii’s work is a Hegelian belief in the power of objective humor. As Moland states, Hegel introduced the idea of objective humor later (1828) in his lectures on aesthetics, offering a mode by which comics could express their subjectivity through the object.42 Objective humorists recognize the antagonisms that rend reality apart, including the subject and the object of comedy. To use Roche’s modified translation of the passage that Žižek quotes, “The comic is to show a person or a thing as it dissolves itself internally in its very gloating. If the thing is not itself its contradiction, the comic element is superficial and groundless.”43
Rather than directly subverting their objects, comics “vivify and expand the smallest details” about the way the object presents itself, “taking it more seriously than it takes itself, and in this way allows it to destroy itself.” This also means, as Moland notes, that they also invest these objects “with more subjectivity,” bring the subjective and the objective together, privilege everyday experiences, and acknowledge the role of humans in the “mutual shaping of reality.”44
When I started working on this article, my original plan was to explore the way comedy and philosophy intersected in Žižek’s and Dave Chappelle’s recent controversial positions on various political and social issues. After reflecting on their positions and how they overlap and diverge within the conventions and structures of stand-up comedy and philosophical interventions, I struggled with the problem of the absence of a theory of comedy and laughter in Žižek’s work. Chow’s article reminded me that I was not the first to pose this question to Žižek: in a lecture at the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities in London, he was asked what immanent role jokes played in his theory. However, Žižek did not volunteer an answer to this question back then. Hopefully, we can get an answer this time around.
- Slavoj Žižek, “The Christian Hegelian Comedy,” Cabinet Magazine, Laughter: Special Issue, Spring 2005, https://www.cabinetmagazine.org/issues/17/zizek.php
- Needless to mention, Žižek’s critics have called him any number of pejorative terms that reduce him to jocularity and foolishness, but these critiques boil down to ad hominem attacks that either simply misunderstand his work in general or fail to explore the role that humor plays in his philosophy and politics more seriously. For a quick overview of some of these attacks, see Broderick Chow, “The Tickling Object: Žižek and Comedy,” Žižek and Performance, edited by Broderick Chow and Alex Mangold, Palgrave MacMillan, 2014, pp. 224-25.
- Alenka Zupančič, The Odd One In: On Comedy, MIT Press, 2008, p.7
- Todd Mcgowan, Only a Joke can Save Us: A Theory of Comedy, Northwestern UP, 2017, p. 108.
- John Morreall, Comic relief: A Comprehensive theory of humor, Wiley-Blackwell, 2009, p. 129.
- Op. Cit. p. 129.
- Op. Cit. p. 127.
- Slavoj Žižek and and Boris Gunjević, God in Pain: Inversion of the Apocalypse, Seven Stories Press, 2012, p. 179. Žižek’s claim here underpins his argument for reloading racist jokes in non-racist, obscene jokes about oneself. Instead of the PC prohibition against racist jokes, he suggests in a Big Think youtube video titled, “Slavoj Žižek on Political Correctness: Why ‘Tolerance’ Is Patronizing,” that these little obscenities can create a space for respect for and shared solidarity with others in a true egalitarian atmosphere.
- Chow, ibid., p. 232.
- Thomas Brockelman, “Laughing at Finitude: Slavoj Žižek Reads Being and Time” Continental Philosophy Review, vol. 41, no. 4, Dec. 2008, pp. 481–99, https://doi.org/10.1007/s11007-008-9094-5.
- McGowan, ibid. p. 108.
- Lindesay Irvine, “Slavoj Žižek’s Jokes Are No Laughing Matter,” The Guardian, 6 Jan. 2012, www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2012/jan/06/slavoj-zizek-jokes.
- Slavoj Žižek, Disorder in Heaven, Or Books, 2021, p.1.
- Op. Cit. p. 2.
- Žižek, God in Pain, p. 180.
- Mark W. Roche, “Hegel’s theory of comedy in the context of Hegelian and modern reflections on comedy,” Revue internationale de philosophie, vol. 221, no. 3, 2002, pp. 415.
- Žižek, God in Pain, p. 180.
- McGowan, ibid. p. 61.
- McGowan, ibid. p. 107. McGowan also acknowledges the role that Žižek’s “particular personality” plays in making comedy “a major part of [his]theoretical program” (McGowan 12). One can also point to the influence of the tradition of obscene Balkan humor that makes comedy central to his work. In a short youtube video titled, “Where is Balkan,” from Hermann Vaske’s film, Balkan Spirit (2012), Žižek explains that obscene Balkan humor functioned as “a survival strategy” during the desperate times that people in the region had to go through.
- McGowan, ibid. p. 108.
- Op. Cit. p. 164.
- James O’Rourke, “The guilty pleasures of bigotry: ethnic stereotypes in Trevor Nunn’s Merchant of Venice and Dave Chappelle’s pixie sketches,” Shakespeare, vol. 12, no. 3, 2016, pp. 288.
- Op. Cit. p. 292.
- Chow, ibid. p. 229.
- Op. Cit. p. 227.
- Patrick Giamario, “Laughter as dissensus: Kant and the limits of normative theorizing around laughter,” Contemporary Political Theory, vol. 20, no. 4, 2020, pp. 797.
- Slavoj Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology, Verso, 1989, p. 28.
- Tyson Edward Lewis, “Paulo Freire’s Last Laugh: Rethinking critical pedagogy’s funny bone through Jacques Rancièr,” Educational Philosophy and Theory, vol. 42, no. 5-6, 2010, pp. 637.
- Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Penguin Books, 2008.
- Slavoj Žižek, “Hegel on Trump’s Objective Humor,” The Philosophical Salon, 15 Jan, 2018, https://thephilosophicalsalon.com/hegel-on-donal-trumps-objective-humor/
- Lydia Moland, Hegel’s Aesthetics: The art of idealism. Oxford UP, 2019, p. 139.
- Žižek, “Hegel on Trump’s Objective Humor.”
- Annie Gérin, Devastation and Laughter: Satire, Power, and Culture in the Early Soviet State (1920s-1930s), University of Toronto Press, 2018, p.3. Marcus Pound notes the political utility of Zupančič’s theory of comedy for Žižek’s radical politics, because she foregrounds the “subversive edge” of jokes. Although Pound analyzes Zupančič’s and Žižek’s “postmodern comic theory” as examples of the “so called Slovene-Lacan School,” his discussion focuses, for obvious reasons, exclusively on the former. Ironically, he still insists on referring to Žižek’s theory of comedy, even though he notes that he has taken up her work “entirely appreciatively—. . . as his own.” See Marcus Pound, “Comic Subjectivity: Žižek and Zupančič’s Spiritual Work of Art,” International Journal of Žižek Studies, vol. 4, no. 4, p. 5.
- Op. Cit. p. 35.
- Evgeny Dobrenko and Natalia Jonsson-Skradol, State Laughter: Stalinism, Populism, and the Origins of Soviet Culture, Oxford University Press, 2022, p.48.
- Gérin, ibid., p. 34.
- Op. Cit. p. 14.
- Op. Cit. p. 34.
- Op. Cit. p. 140, p. 192.
- Dobrenko and Jonsson-Skradol, ibid. p. 45.
- Only a few years after the October Revolution, nevertheless, the power of laughter and satire was harnessed to the service of the Soviet state. For example, Gérin shows that the comedic community in Moscow worked in cahoots with the regime, and Dobrenko and Jonsson-Skradol argue that laughter became instrumental in the survival of the Soviet bureaucratic regime. They show that satire and popular humor became fundamental tools in interpellating citizens to state ideology and legitimizing Stalinist culture. In the era of Stalinist heroic narratives, “ “victorious laughter” was mobilized “against all the ‘remnants of the past’ that were swarming around the stage of the great heroic drama being acted out in the Soviet state” (44).
- Moland, ibid. p. 139.
- Roche, ibid. p. 415.
- Moland, ibid. pp. 140-144.