Perhaps The Philosophical Salon readers are familiar with Alenka Zupančič’s illustrative remarks about a key scene in Ernst Lubitsch’s classic film Ninotchka (1939). A man enters a cafe and requests a cup of coffee without cream. This apparently innocent request is met with the following response from the waiter: “I am sorry sir, but we only have milk. May I please bring you some coffee without milk instead?”[i] Immediately, the men in the cafe, including the one who told the joke, erupt into hysterical laughter. I believe that this provides us with an interesting new set of questions concerning the logic of ‘fraternal solidarity’ and the pseudo-Lacanian concept of ‘constitutive lack,’ which, in my view, is capable of lending ideological support for conservative group effects. For example: although the working-class men in the shop were united in their appreciation of the joke, there was one, the woman, who remained stubbornly unprovoked, unphased.
There is something deeply political about Freud’s well-known book Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious (1905).[ii] Put simply, a good joke offers us a mode of access—or, rather, a release valve from traditional superegoic constraints—into the Freudian unconscious. However, as Alenka Zupančič has correctly reminded us, repeating Freud, this is not true of all types of humor.[iii] For example, Jacques-Alain Miller, several decades ago, described a particularly ironic or sarcastic style of humor, demonstrating a different position in relation to the unconscious: “Irony […] says that the Other does not exist, that the social bond is fundamentally a swindle.”[iv] Miller’s call for an ‘ironic clinic,’ that is, a clinic of delirium, took its cue from our most recent discontents of civilization by beginning from the non-existence of the Other. This offers an interesting alternative to approaches that begin from the perspective that there is a “common relationship to language” since this could lead to what I would call an approach best characterized by the expression: ‘the joke’s on you!’ In such circumstances, it is possible to “make fun of the crazy person, this poor madman who is outside of common language.”[v] Miller continued: “those who make fun of the psychotic merely remain stuck within a construction of one’s own clinic, based upon already established discourses.”[vi]
Ultimately, what is at stake in this particular type of ‘political comedy?’ When the ‘joke is on you,’ politics becomes witnessed from a distance. Hence, jokes are not political simply because they provide us with fraternal support for common theoretical/language games, even if those games are leftist, Marxian, or even Lacanian. What makes a joke political is the fact that it opens one up to what Freud referred to as ‘another scene.’ Those who would close this scene, suturing it, have also effectively foreclosed revelations of the unconscious along with its novel conception of truth.[vii] I would even claim that this suturing of the Freudian field, this closing of the unconscious, constitutes, precisely, a ‘counter-politics.’ In such instances, our politics becomes witnessed from a distance, even when we imagine that it is somehow intimately bound up with political utterances of activities that are labeled ‘radical,’ ‘leftist,’ or even ‘revolutionary.’
This counter-political gesture resists its implication in the field within which it nonetheless is presumed to be engaged. Rather, it segregates itself from that field, perpetuating an endless deferral of political activity. It is in this sense that I am tempted to describe it as a politics of ‘interpassivity’ (a logic made popular by Robert Pfaller many years ago: “believing or enjoying through the Other”).[viii] When one claims that a joke is insulting or ‘tone-deaf,’ one is also, perhaps, though not always, demonstrating a disengagement from the ‘politics of the unconscious.’ There are formations of the unconscious, just as there are subjects of ideology, but we should be willing to raise a question concerning the one who witnesses the joke with ironic detachment, as if from a distance. Perhaps one remains indifferent to the joke (e.g., “it is not that the joke is problematic or offensive, but that it’s just not funny”) or one claims that it is simply insulting (e.g., “it was tone-deaf”). I have even noticed a new type of ‘canned laughter’ within Western universities: jokes that intimate a knowledge about that which we are all supposed to have already known. Once, at an academic conference, I heard somebody make the following claim: “there is simply no progress.” Another responded: “well, that’s not what Heraclitus would have said.” Immediately, the room filled with an embarrassing fake laugh track whose function was precisely to signal one’s inclusion among those ‘who already know.’
Should we begin with the assumption that one has disconnected from any ‘politics of the unconscious,’ an operation that some might refer to as either foreclosure or else ‘repression of repression’? If we laugh at a joke or engage, as I will momentarily, in any deep analysis of the joke’s structure, then do we not risk accusations that our field is deeply misogynist, or, more generally, that it doesn’t speak to those whose ironic relation to politics inclines them to tell us to simply: ‘shut up!’? We should be willing to ask ourselves an important question: are we disconnected from the stubborn woman just as much as the stubborn woman is disconnected from us? It is for this reason that I refer to a logic of ‘fraternal segregation,’ taking my cue from statements that Lacan made in the beginning of his late teaching. Marie-Helene Brousse put this logic very well: “the rise of brotherhood […]correlates with the fall of the Father and therefore of the Name. The brothers replace the father.”[ix]
An analysis, then, of the structure of the joke about coffee without cream: what is ‘not included’ in the coffee is nonetheless constitutive of the identity of that object that is included, namely, coffee. Slavoj Žižek explained: “it’s not the same, coffee without cream or coffee without milk [because] what you don’t get is part of the identity of what you do get.”[x] Hence, these two choices are structurally dissimilar, since the missing element, whether cream or milk, are each nonetheless constitutive of the object. As an anorexic, I understand this logic quite well: I very much enjoy that which I do not eat. When I go out for dinner with people and they ask me how I feel about the food that has been served, I will sometimes respond: ‘I enjoy not eating it!’ And, for me, there is some food which I enjoy not eating more than other foods which I do not eat. But what fascinates me is that ‘cream’ and ‘milk’ are nonetheless variations of (and indeed reducible to) the same ingredient: milk.
It is often overlooked that there is in fact an important similarity between cream and milk. These ingredients are only different from the perspective of the joke-teller, who is, of course, among the fraternity of men in the cafe. It is only from this vantage point that one can presume a missing element, one which functions according to a logic that Alenka Zupančič has aptly referred to as ‘the difference that makes a difference.’ This ‘difference that makes a difference’ refers to the ‘constitutive tension’ inherent to the object or identity, since, the difference between ‘cream’ and ‘milk’ really does make a difference. Yet, this phrase, ‘the difference that makes a difference,’ might be homologous to the logic that some Lacanians (although neither Alenka nor Slavoj) have referred to as ‘constitutive negativity’ or the theory of ‘constitutive lack.’ Zupančič once said: “this negativity or difference (the difference that makes a difference, so to say) is inscribed into positive entities.”[xi]
In other words, within the ‘positivity’ of an object’s identity, there is an inherent negativity which hollows it out and which is nonetheless an intimate part of that object. Perhaps milk is an exemplary psychoanalytic object because it represents this ‘positivity’ of the object. In other words, milk denotes something of the mother’s excessive desire, which, according to early Lacanian theory, constitutes not only something which erodes the object as such but also something which is left inside of that object.[xii] Why, therefore, in both scenarios, whether ‘coffee without cream’ or ‘coffee without milk,’ is there the supposition that the milk has been effaced?
This psychoanalytic point was made fairly early within Lacan’s essay “On a Question Preliminary to Any Possible Treatment of Psychosis” from his Ecrits. Lacan formalized an “Oedipal metaphor,” which inaugurated the subject, into the signifier, splitting that subject: the mother’s desire becomes effaced by the paternal signifier (e.g., coffee). It is only from the side of this splitting of the subject that one is capable of presuming any generalization of the theory of ‘constitutive negativity.’ Hence, in both instances in our cinematic example, what we are dealing with is an operation of a signifier which effaces the overbearing maternal desire, producing coffee without milk. This is why I claim that the joke perpetuates a false choice: either ‘not cream’ or ‘not milk,’ since, in both cases you are not having milk! And it is this false choice, or false negation, that constitutes the subject precisely as a false choice. The subject emerges as a consequence not of a ‘cut’ but rather of a ‘false cut,’ and, finally, a ‘false cut’ that constitutes the subject’s most primordial mode of belief.
The primordial choice, demonstrated through the film, is either milk or else coffee without milk (such that even coffee without milk is still coffee whose identity is secured by the milk that is refused). This, I believe, is the truly radical message in the joke told by members of the Slovenian School of Psychoanalysis (Slavoj Žižek and Alenka Zupančič). We should therefore imagine an alternative version of the classic scene from Ninotchka which would be set in some hip progressive (petit-bourgeois) commercial area of contemporary Los Angeles. I’ve been told that one can find in these districts popular shops known as “breast-milk cafes” where customers order ice-cream, coffee, or any other number of treats, made with breast-milk. In this case, one purchases the object because of what is included rather than what is missing from the identity of the object. Hence, the milk must be included, because, in principle, what is refused is not something internal to the identity of the object but rather ‘a separation from the very possibility of separating from the object.’
I would even claim that today’s version of Ninotchka would show us a man entering a cafe to request his so-cherished ‘coffee without cream’ only to realize that he had just inadvertently insulted the shopkeeper who says: “sir, we only serve breastmilk here, please leave our shop immediately!” Next, the man would offer his deepest and most sincere apologies and solidarity only to join the cafe across the street. He steps inside to order ‘coffee without cream,’ only to receive his ‘coffee without milk,’ and then proceeds to complain to others about those crazy baristas across the street. In a final scene: he notices a woman sitting beside him and proceeds to tell her the following joke: “a man enters a cafe and orders coffee without cream …”
The presumption of ‘constitutive tension’ is at times likely to solicit feelings of either indifference or insult. In turn, it might promote a segregative group effect: on the one side, there are those who prefer their ‘milk without coffee’ and, on the other side, there are those who prefer ‘coffee without cream.’ It means that today’s marketplace is not characterized essentially by objects deprived of their malignant substances, as in ‘alcohol without alcohol’ or ‘chocolate laxatives.’[xiii] Žižek eventually updated this characterization to account for the following mutation: “virtual reality generalizes this procedure: reality becomes deprived of its own substance.”[xiv] Again, what we witness today concerns the deprivation of the very space within which any malignant property, any constitutive lack, might have been introduced. There is even a popular Lacanian expression for this operation: “lack itself is lacking,” which means that the very space of ‘constitutive lack’ has gone missing, indicating, I think, a generalization of the operation of ‘foreclosure’ or ‘repression of repression itself.’[xv]
This logic should not be so unimaginable for us: some shopkeepers in America have attempted to instigate their fraternal freedoms by removing customers based upon their political or career positions (e.g., “no republicans allowed” or “police officers are not permitted”), etc.[xvi] For me, it is reminiscent of a logic I remember to be popular among young heterosexual boys in the early 1980s: they built clubhouses or tree-forts and placed the following signs on the front door, “no girls allowed.” Except that there is a crucial difference: it is the woman who does not exist that has been effaced. We should ask ourselves why it is that this period, which seems to promote a multiplicity of identities and orientations, seems to nonetheless obscure this feminine position even and especially in their very attempt to reveal it. Hence, the problem is that this new moment of the so-called ‘feminization of politics’ also obscures the subjectivity of femininity by rendering it consistent with the fraternal group.
We must therefore go much further. We need to recognize an estrangement that occurs between and not merely within social groups. To demonstrate this point, I have opted for the Lacanian concept of ‘segregation’ since it highlights the displacement of constitutive tension into a distributive tension. It is according to this logic that I’ve reinterpreted Alenka Zupančič interesting claim about the ‘plus’ in LGBTQIA+ as ‘a difference that makes a difference’: it is rather a ‘separation that does not make a separation’ from the fraternal enjoyment to those external to the group.[xvii]
I would like to thank Mark Gerard Murphy for editorial assistance and comments on this paper. This essay is dedicated to my friend, Slavouy Zizek.
[i] According to my memory of the joke.
[ii] Sigmund Freud. (1905)  Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious (Joyce Crick, Trans.). Penguin Classics.
[iii] Alenka Zupančič has produced a wonderful distinction that separates properly political comedy, which shifts perspectives, from ‘false comedy,’ which remains deeply conservative. See Natalija Bonic. (2012) “False Comedy is Conservative,” Berfrois. As Retrieved on September 3rd, 2022 from <https://www.berfrois.com/2012/12/false-comedy-is-conservative/>
[iv] As quoted in Alasdair Duncan’s great piece “Post-Ironic Homour.” See Alasdair Duncan. (2018) “Post-Ironic Humour,” The Lacanian Reviews Online. As Retrieved on September 3rd, 2022 from <https://www.thelacanianreviews.com/post-ironic-humour/>
[v] Jacques-Alain Miller. (n.d.) “The Ironic Clinic,” The Symptom. Vol. 2., No. 11. As Retrieved on September 3rd, 2022 from <https://www.lacan.com/contributionf.htm>.
[vii] As in the truth which lies to itself.
[viii] Slavoj Žižek. (1997) The Plague of Fantasies. London, Verso: p. 113.
[ix] Marie-Helene Brousse. (2021) “WOKE, or Racism in the Time of the Many Without the One,” The Lacanian Reviews Online. As Retrieved on September 3rd, 2022 from <https://www.thelacanianreviews.com/woke-or-racism-in-the-time-of-the-many-without-the-one-part-1/>
[x] Slavoj Zizek. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2006/dec/30/comment.media
[xi] Emphasis is mine. https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/sex-without-identity-feminist-politics-sexual-difference/
[xii] Işık Barış Fidaner has made a similar point and has brought it to my attention after writing this article. Personal correspondence.
[xiii] Slavoj Zizek. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2006/dec/30/comment.media
[xv] I first heard this latter expression ‘repression of repression’ from Slavouj and Alenka at a conference that occurred a few weeks ago.
[xvi] See for example: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/dec/06/san-francisco-restaurant-police-denied-service
[xvii] See my presentation at the “We Should Be Willing to Go to the End” conference with Slavouj Zizek, here: https://youtu.be/w6NOaczpLbA?t=2152