Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious

July 29, 2011 § 3 Comments

When I first started writing about trolls, a professor of mine directed me –of all cockamamie places– towards Freud. Get it because COCKS. I really wish I had one you guys! At the time I had no idea what shape my project would or should or could take, and anyway was fresh off the PhD-acceptance boat and/so was quite naive in terms of theoretical vetting. Consequently I said yes! Sure! Freud, what could possibly go wrong. As it turns out, pretty much everything; it took me all of two paragraphs to realize that Freud simply wasn’t the man for the job. Largely because his schema is excessively general and, simultaneously/paradoxically way too specific. As some guy said in this book one time, “Any model that claims universality will either be tautological or absurd,” and in this case I’d say he’s guilty of both. And yet here I am, 34 years later, not sure whether to laugh or cry at his inclusion on my Symbolic Power list. Oh well, quisiera presentarle a “Freud.”

First, and perhaps most importantly, jokes serve a critical social function. By releasing all our repressed (and apparently perfectly distributed) pent-up libidinal energy, jokes momentarily lift the restrictions that society (whatever that means) has imposed (101-102). Not only is this release inherently pleasurable, it helps maintain cultural order. Because in the end, we’re all just savages. And by “we” I mean men (and by “men” I mean “white”), though I suppose this is also true for those half-human half-devil menstruation goblins with the tragically inside-outed penises occasionally referred to in the literature as “we men.” As I was saying — without jokes, society would fall victim to its own repression and would subsequently disintegrate. Therefore it would be helpful to think of the joke, and the impulse to laugh at jokes, as a kind of cultural release valve. One that taps into what I call a “social unconscious,” that is, the stuff me and my psychoanalyst friends think about and which we subsequently universalize because why wouldn’t we, it’s what we experience and we’re all pretty cool guys!

Verily there are two basic categories of jokes; “innocent” and “tendentious.” Innocent jokes are ends in themselves, bringing pleasure to all who are lucky enough to experience my such delightful displays of wit and linguistic dexterity! Here, let me run through 40 pages of puns I find amusing. The second category is the tendentious joke, which harnesses the pleasure of transgression and can be divided into three further subgroups, namely smut, hostile jokes and cynical jokes. In the case of smut, it’s basically always about rape! Men are, after all, men! Every last one of them! All the same! So, when a man tells a smutty joke, what he’s really doing is transferring his sexual rape-energy to some female, either present or implied! It’s unclear how this isn’t completely gay, seeing as such jokes often occur in groups of three or more persons, most of whom are men! But I’m Freud, and I say the linguistic gang-bang is heterosexual! It’s also about the symbolic exposure of latent genitals. Which also isn’t gay, even though jokes consequently allow –if not actively encourage!– groups of men to engage in figurative “sword fights,” if you will! (99-102; connect to Sedgwick)! Hostile jokes, on the other hand, are not explicitly about penises. I mean they’re about penises, because ultimately what isn’t about penises, but it’s less in terms of sexual assault as it is socially-sanctioned expressions of frustration. In short, hostile jokes are a way to minimize that which threatens to consume us. They allow one to release the kraken –as well as recruit sympathizers– without actually having to murder one’s enemies, which is most convenient (102-110)! Likewise, cynical jokes allow one, lol jk you know I mean white men, to mock institutions (including, if not especially, those institutions of which we find ourselves a part) with relative impunity. Without such an outlet, we’d probably shoot up every high school within 300 miles! Because we really are just monsters (110-116).

Actually on second thought, all but basic jests are non-tendentious; the vast majority of jokes, even ostensibly “innocent” jokes, seek to accomplish a separate aim, namely recruitment of some form (132-134) and/or to lift a particular prohibition or inhibition. Furthermore the setup is always a triad, consisting of a joke-teller, an audience, and a butt (143; 155). Jokes are always about violence and/or victimization, as the tendentious joke unites joke-teller and joke-hearer against the butt. Oh and jokes are a lot like dreams, what with their tendency to represent, condense and displace actual experience (164). Also a joke is not the same as the comic. One is made and the other is found, who cares, something about mimetics (181). And humor is something else entirely! Did I mention I’m Freud, and can throw in whatever coke-fueled tangent I feel like, just cuz?

And, scene. I simply cannot tell you how much I dislike Freud. And yet I’m not even that interested in fighting with the guy, which along with “I don’t like you as a person” is one of the most cutting things anyone could ever say. It goes without saying that his work is grossly outdated and deeply offensive to women. But it’s also offensive to men, positing one universally acceptable mode of being for everyone. And let’s not forget, this is a guy who manages to pathologize heterosexuality while maintaining steadfast homophobia. You can only lose, which is boring. In terms of the joke work, my reaction is really just … meh. I mean yeah yeah, tendentiousness. Obviously there’s some of that. But his approach doesn’t allow for any movement, any play, any context other than the one which inheres within his particular worldview. In the end, then, and to return to my quotable quote at the beginning of this entry, it’s not that I think Freud is wrong as much as I don’t think he’s particularly interesting. Because even if you do accept his schema, the resulting analysis is reduced to the simple fact that jokes can be aggressive. Which is sort of like — well no shit, making it more a weak assumption than useful conclusion.

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