In tragedy, it is easy to distinguish the two forms of mediation or identification experienced by the spectator. On the one hand, as a rule we want the hero to fulfill his desires or in any case to remain alive; on the other, we accept the necessity of the “unhappy ending” dictated by the plot. We identify with the hero’s desires only because we are aware they cannot be fulfilled; it is the intention of the esthetic Subject, who is responsible before the society for which he creates, that presides over the universe of the play.

In comedy, however, things are less clear. The comic hero’s desires, which at first may have appeared unrealizable, are satisfied; his wishes and the Subject’s obligations to esthetic form are in harmony, albeit nearly always with a nuance of irony. The favor shown by the Subject of the work to the designs of his protagonist is a “miracle,” or in less exalted terms, a category error. Depending on the degree of irony that accompanies this gift, its accomplishment makes us, grosso modo, either laugh or smile. This distinction separates the two fundamental varieties of the comic: romantic comedy, focused on the couple who lives “happily ever after” (the more sociologically focused French version is “they lived happily and had many children“), and humorous comedy that makes us laugh. These varieties are not mutually exclusive; romantic comedies often contain moments of humor, sometimes at the expense of characters whose role is to parody the romance of the “serious” protagonists, as for example in the plays of Marivaux.

Yet laughter is a short-term, smiling a long-term phenomenon. One can sustain a romance for the standard cultural-ritual length of 60 minutes or more, but a joke can scarcely last more than a minute or two. Humorous sketches, plays, films, or novels include a series of separate laughs that build on or repeat each other.

On the one hand, we have the miraculous conjunction of the protagonist’s desires with the intention of the Subject as the voice of the community; on the other, a demonstration of the Subject’s ability to conclude a narrative on a level that transcends its imagined worldly correlate. What links the two is the sense of empowerment that the transcendent Subject transmits to the imaginary world it creates; the resentment generated by desire can be transcended either by an askesis through which the spectator’s emotional attachment to the characters is “sublimated” within the communal solidarity mediated by the narrative Subject, or by nothing more consequential than a linguistic short-circuit.

Le rire est le propre de l’homme

Laughter is a physiological phenomenon with its roots in ape behavior that can be provoked by non-verbal stimuli such as tickling or more simply, by the contagion of other laughter. In contrast, humor cannot exist without representation. Humor is an esthetic phenomenon that generates in its audience an oscillation between the humorous representation and (imagined) reality; we return to the representation to confirm or modify our imagination. This movement becomes humorous when we cannot construct an imaginary reality from the representation alone but only by taking into account the transcendent status of the Subject’s intention  with respect to the manifest content of the representation itself. The comic affords the most immediate example of what we might call the “Gödelian” nature of the esthetic sign, the transcendent status of its Subject’s intention with respect to any meaning determined through a formal (that is, feedbackless) analysis of its textual content.

The joke, the minimal expression of the comic, is also the minimal form of esthetic experience. It is curious that since Bergson’s Du rire and Freud’s Der Witz at the turn of the twentieth century, the comic has been virtually ignored by major thinkers and literary theoreticians. A partial explanation may be that the comic is subversive of both modernist esthetic elitism and the victimary political agenda that has dominated cultural reflection during the postmodern era.

Let us begin with a minimal joke, a “one-liner”:

Did you hear about the guy whose left side was cut off? He’s all right now.

This can only be a joke; if someone, even a fictional character, really had his “left side cut off,” it would surely be described in other terms. Like all jokes, this one can be divided into a setup and a punch line that disturbs the expected course of the discourse. Because this is a pun, often considered the least legitimate of jokes, the punch line turns on the alternate interpretation of a word or phrase; here, the meaning of the idiom “all right” conflicts with the literal and contextually relevant spatial reading of the words. The pain of having to rethink the pivotal locution is reflected in the familiar groan that greets puns, as opposed to jokes that spread their paradoxical effect over the entire narrative. For example:

A man goes to a psychiatrist. The doctor says, “You’re crazy.” The man says, “I want a second opinion!” “Okay, you’re ugly too!”

Here the play on “second opinion” isn’t a pun; it inserts the same referential expression in two different discursive (rather than merely lexicographic) series. The difference is apparent from the fact that the pun comes at the end of the preceding joke as the punch line, whereas here it’s not the term “second opinion” but the source and nature of the second opinion provided that are incongruous, demonstrating that the literal meaning of the term is not confined by the convention that would seem to restrict its reference to a second physician.

In either case, the course of the joke involves two narrative series, the anticipated straightforward continuation of the first part (which may not be apparent, but which we anticipate as best we can), and the one realized in the punch line. Humor foregrounds the oscillatory attention to representations and their imagined referents that is characteristic of the esthetic attitude. The punchline is both anticipated (we know there will be one) and surprising (we don’t anticipate this one); we quite literally expect the unexpected. The first part of the story, left to itself, would not justify our esthetic attention; it could only serve to communicate factual information. To stop the joke before the punchline is to leave the hearer unsatisfied, not merely because he has not heard a joke, but because he has heard nothing worth hearing. (To drag the narrative out into an elaborate tale with no justifying conclusion is a variety of joke in itself, the “shaggy dog” story.) The words that lead up to the punchline are, in Sartre’s crude yet useful distinction, transparent rather than opaque. We imagine that they will not force us to return to the text/speaker to grasp their meaning, as their abstract nature (“a man,” “the guy”) makes especially clear.

The tragic/comic spectator’s identification with the desires of the protagonist is subordinated to his submission to the intention of the Subject that will/will not allow for their realization. These categories are prima facie psychological; they presuppose identification with not one but two fellow humans–the character and the storyteller–in whose place we can imagine ourselves. In the joke, the psychological conflict is concentrated in a single moment, perhaps a single word; the narrative contrasts the “character’s” worldly perspective with its intentional transcendence by the narrator (who does not usually, but certainly may, identify with this or another diegetic personage), a transcendence that we know is coming, but not how.

No reader of Freud’s Der Witz will fail to note the presence of an aggressive element in both examples above: the first man is cut in half and the second is doubly insulted. Discussion of Freud’s theory of the comic must be left for another time, but  this element of violence, most obviously in tragedy but in fact in all cultural works, finds its source in the sparagmos that awaits the central figure in the originary event.

The first joke describes the “miracle” of someone who loses half his body and yet remains “all right.” We are reminded of the myth recounted by Girard (after Raymond Firth) in which the god is driven to the edge of a cliff, but instead of falling to his death, flies away. In the joke, instead of a supernatural power, the victim relies on the doubling of the logical consequence of the amputation (“all right”=without a left) by a common idiom (“all right”=in good health) that plausibly follows an announcement of illness or injury. The effectiveness of the joke is enhanced by the fact that “right” meaning healthy is not a mere homonym but is close to the original meaning of which the spatial “right” is a derivative; the right side is morally “right” in contrast with the left or “sinister” side. By sacrificing his left side as he could not in the real world, the protagonist has rid himself of everything sinister and can be declared “all right”; the act of aggression that chops off half his body has no fatal consequences. It is this verbal annulment that permits the violence to happen, just as in works of popular culture, violence is justified as retribution for the evil deeds of the “villain.”

The obvious reading recounts the miraculous recovery; the context-faithful literal pun implies the lesser miracle that one can survive after losing half one’s anatomy. On the one hand, there is narrative, temporal closure; on the other, a logical closure evacuates this closure, as we see from the final “now”: whereas in the first case, convalescence would take some time, in the second, “now” is merely the present that immediately follows the past action.

Having heard the joke, we understand the point as the forced rereading of “all right.” We accept this as the intention of the Subject, putting an end to our sympathy for the “victim,” just as we must abandon our hopes for Oedipus or Hamlet in adhering to the author-Subject’s intention. The joke foregrounds the return of the audience to the sign because we cannot follow the story to its conclusion in our imagination as we would a typical narrative, where we experience the constraint of the Subject more subtly through the direction it gives to the constantly accumulating narration, with our imagined fulfillments as tangents to the curve of the storyline rather than, as here, as annulled by the story’s sudden passage to another plane.

I went to a bookstore and asked the saleswoman where the Self Help section was; she said if she told me it would defeat the purpose.

Here the joke turns not on any ambiguity in the words themselves but in the scope of the expression “Self Help.” The narrator wants to find a book that will help him to “help himself” improve his life. Being able to find a given section in a bookstore would not normally come under the scope of this improvement, but the saleswoman, rather than providing the expected information about the store, decides to initiate self-help then and there.

There is a way of reading this narrative as a parable rather than a joke; make the saleswoman into a Zen master and Self Help into self-mastery and we have a ready-made koan. In order to take it as a joke, the lost opportunity to get to the Self Help section for the purpose of helping oneself must be considered, independently of any pedagogical effect, as a simple pragmatic paradox. If our hero needs a book to help himself, then he may also need to be guided to the place where he can purchase one. The saleswoman’s answer, in the guise of not “defeating the purpose,” in fact does so, foregrounding the tension between the Subject’s story and the normal anticipation of closure from the first part of the narrative; the punchline expression makes explicit the otherwise unclear paradox implicit in the woman’s intention. Once more the protagonist suffers. At the conclusion of the narrative, not only has he failed, but the saleswoman’s reasoning implies that success is impossible; were anyone to point him to the Self Help section, the purpose of his quest would be defeated in advance.

Whereas the Subject’s own words provided the paradox in the case of the man who lost his left side, here the protagonist’s tormentor is a character in the story who stands in a position of mastery. In either case, the story begins with an unambiguous depiction of an imaginary human reality in which we can identify, and identify with, the interests of the protagonist, and ends with the demonstration that the narrative cannot be counted on to realize or even address this goal, since the mastery of the Subject operates on the transcendent plane of representation rather than within imaginary reality. I think this is what Lacan is trying to tell us in his distinction between the “imaginary” and the “symbolic.”


To analyze a joke as an impersonal text is to miss the interpersonal relation that is at the heart of the comic effect as well as all other varieties of the esthetic. If we would understand humanity’s craving for art, from the one-liner and the whistled tune to the Ring of the Niebelungs and A la recherche du temps perdu, it is the security of an imaginary world wholly dominated by a single intentional Subject.

There is nothing in a joke of the jouissance the “text” is purported to provoke in the reader who is at the same time its re-creator. We need not deny the possibility of such pleasures to affirm the universality of the relation between the esthetic Subject and its audience on which they depend. The lie of anarchism is that it is our primary, “natural” state, when the very etymology of the word demonstrates the contrary. The most obvious thing jokes teach us is that the position of the cultural spectator–one that most of us assume on a daily basis–is one of acceptance of mastery.

But this acceptance is not a permanent abandonment of transcendence. Whether or not we engage in artistic creation on a professional level, we all take our turn in the Subject’s position. That we enjoy laughing does not require that we renounce making others laugh.