Where can I find a man who has forgotten words so that I can have a word with him?
– (c.360 BC – c. 275 BC)
When I finished reading Adrian Johnston’s formidable rendition of Slavoj Žižek’s philosophy in his Žižek’s Ontology A transcendental Materialism Theory of Subjectivity I kept thinking to myself: What is missing here? What is it that Johnston has left out? It seemed that something was missing in his elaboration of Žižek’s philosophical approach. What?
Humor. The performativity in Žižek’s humorous asides, drifts into the hyper-kinetic antics of our postmodern cultural world, of taking philosophy down from its heights in abstract academia and putting it to work in the streets where actual people live and work. Yet, Johnston is not unaware of this facet of his work, in fact the point for him is not to discount it or pretend it isn’t there but rather to realize that the only sort of “militant fidelity to Žižek involves the infidelity of apparent betrayal: ignoring the appetizing, titillating tidbits of his smorgasbord of examples and refusing to be seduced by the razzle-dazzle of his cultural exposes – sticking instead to the single-minded pursuit of the philosophical trajectory that runs like a continuous, bisecting diagonal line through the entire span of his writings.” (preface: xix)
Yet, isn’t it the humor, the laughter, the performing self within the very texture of his work and speeches that brings with it a form and vehicle of the truth that could not be stipulated in any other way? Johnston even quotes Žižek when he states: “I am convinced of my proper grasp of some Lacanian concept only when I can translate it successfully into the inherent imbecility of popular culture.” (ibid. xviii) Isn’t it the very humorous imbecility of Žižek’s method and approach that is lacking in Johnston? Isn’t this why we perceive his work as so serious and gloomy, full of sadness and melancholy rather than full of life and cheerfulness?
Does philosophy need to be serious and systematic to understood? Johnston seems to think so. Is he right? Or is Žižek’s very inability to produce such a systematic serious philosophy himself the very thing missing in Johnston’s portrayal of his work? Take Žižek himself and his use of humor to explain a difficult Hegelian concept:
THE LOGIC OF THE HEGELIAN TRIAD can be perfectly rendered by the three versions of the relationship between sex and migraines. We begin with the classic scene: a man wants sex with his wife, and she replies: “Sorry, darling, I have a terrible migraine, I can’t do it now!” This starting position is then negated/ inverted with the rise of feminist liberation— it is the wife who now demands sex and the poor tired man who replies: “Sorry, darling, I have a terrible migraine …” In the concluding moment of the negation of negation that again inverts the entire logic, this time making the argument against into an argument for, the wife claims: “Darling, I have a terrible migraine, so let’s have some sex to refresh me!” And one can even imagine a rather depressive moment of radical negativity between the second and the third versions: the husband and the wife both have migraines and agree to just have a quiet cup of tea.1
In the above one sees the concept not in its abstract density and aloofness, disconnected from the actual workings of the world, but quite the contrary it enacts the concept in an earthy and fleshly way, a humorous bodily way that awakens in us the inner truth of the concept rather than its cold dark measure. Momus will tells us that “Žižek seems to have a brain very much suited to the recognition of particular situational shapes. Thinking about something in the real world, he suddenly recognizes that it has the same basic structure as an absurd situation in a joke he’s heard…” (ibid. p. 141)
This technique gives us a refreshing sense of what we might call “the lightness of profundity.” We see the charming playfulness of the great masters of philosophy, and perhaps begin to recognize philosophy itself, at its highest, lightest level, as something akin to laughter and joking; “the smile of the gods.” Certain scenarios in the real world can be as absurd as jokes, self-evidently laughable, no matter how tragic they are. (idib. 141-142)
When Chuang Tzu tells us “The true man breathes with his heels.” Is this not one of those absurd statements that make us smile, but then think through the implications of just what he’s saying? A joke creates an inconsistency and the audience automatically try to understand what the inconsistency means; if they are successful in solving this ‘cognitive riddle’ and they realize that the surprise was not dangerous, they laugh with relief. Otherwise, if the inconsistency is not resolved, there is no laugh, as Mack Sennett pointed out: “when the audience is confused, it doesn’t laugh.” This is one of the basic laws of a comedian, referred to “exactness”.
Writing on Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, Zizek notes that “what is really disturbing” is the “underlying belief in the liberating, anti-totalitarian force of laughter, of ironic distance.” In other words, the emancipatory aspect of sarcasm, for Zizek, is disturbing because “in contemporary societies, democratic or totalitarian, that cynical distance, laughter, irony, are, so to speak, part of the game. The ruling ideology is not to be taken seriously or literally”(The Sublime Object of Ideology, 28). On the other hand, taking ideology literally, and not laughing, is “tragic.” In this scenario, Zizek seems to be in a double bind as laughter and sarcasm are too ideological for him. Yet, on the other hand, he prefers laughter to taking ideology seriously. (see Zizek’s Comic Dilemma: Kynicism or Cynicism?)
As one commentator suggests “Žižek puts his two masters, Lacan and Hegel, to work on modern society: he is supremely gifted at showing how the internal contradictions of late capitalism make themselves ludicrously obvious – and funny…” (see Slavoj Žižek’s jokes are no laughing matter)
It’s this sense of humor and ludicrous obviousness that is missing in Johnston’s portrayal of Žižek. The stand-up comic Johnathan Winters once told an interviewer:
I’ve always believed this: You gotta take more chances. You gotta be a gambler in your material. You’re gonna get your hands spanked every now and then, but you’re also gonna get some, “Hey, I loved what the guy said. I wonder if he said that off the top of his head.”2
Isn’t this the effect one gets in listening or watching Žižek. Isn’t he a philosophical gambler whose humor breaks us out of our usual zombie like complacency and makes us wonder, and laugh, then think?
Alenka Zupancic in her work on Comedy, The Odd One In: On Comedy, will tell us this:
We are often told that comedy is possible only when the things we see on the stage do not truly concern us, and that the condition of comedy is our indifference and uninvolvement. As a conclusion to these reflections on repetition, I would suggest a different perspective: things that really concern us, things that concern the very kernel of our being, can be watched and performed formed only as comedy, as an impersonal play with the object. The impersonal in comedy is the subject itself. And the indifference is not the pathos-driven distancing at the very point when we are most affected/hurt, but is, rather, akin to that unaffectedness which is at stake in primary repression, insofar as primary repression is not the subject’s repression, but coincides with and determines the constitution of the subject. In other words, if the dead serious can be approached only in comedy, this is not because any other approach proach would be too terrifying and would crush us completely, destroy us, but because it would miss the crucial point. For what is at stake-that is to say, what this repetition repeats-is not a reduction duction of ourselves (and of all that we are) to a nonbeing, not the destruction of our being, but its emergence-its emergence outside meaning, yet inextricably from it. (KL 2025-2032)
Isn’t it this sense of the non-sense, the absurd seriousness of the truth situated outside meaning that in the gaps and cracks, the fissures and irruptions from nowhere reveal the truth? The face of humor is the repetition of the truth by way of farce and laughter. The smile at the foot of the ladder.
1. Žižek, Slavoj; Mortensen, Audun; Momus (2014-02-21). iek’s Jokes: (Did you hear the one about Hegel and negation?) (p. 19). The MIT Press. Kindle Edition.
2. Ajaye, Franklyn (2001-09-01). Comic Insights: The Art of Stand-Up Comedy (p. 248). Silman-James Press. Kindle Edition.