I recently found myself at an academic conference that featured a presentation by graduate students on “combating racism with humor.” We were made to watch a video clip of a theater piece they had performed in connection with an anti-racism event. The skit depicted corporate executives planning an ad campaign associating the efficacy of soap products with their power to make people of color white. I found myself pitying the students. They had obviously overestimated their ability to change the world. But they were also, it seemed to me, tragically unaware of what humor is. They were mistaking it for a tool to be deployed in the pursuit of real-world ends: closing the gap between the powerful and the powerless, ensuring payback time for the fat cats, sticking it to the man.
It is hard to blame them. They were under the grip of a widespread illusion, expressed by Garry Trudeau along with countless others after the murder of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists in 2015, that humor only achieves its highest purpose when it “punches up”—that is, when it involves the powerless kicking back against the powerful. But to insist that a joke is not funny because it punches down is a category mistake. It is to deploy standards of justice where justice is not at issue. We see an analogous mistake when philistines judge that, say, a crucifix photographed in a jar of urine is, to the extent that it is offensive, not art. “That’s not funny” is the comedic equivalent of “that’s not art”—both are statements that can be made only by people who don’t understand the thing they are talking about.
I am entering the silverback stage of life, and at this point it is surely a variety of punching down—or, as we used to say, it is undignified—to berate graduate students. It is getting to be time for me to cede my place to them, I know, and to acknowledge that other meaning of “humor,” according to which young people’s internal passages are coursing with fluids, while the old, as Robert Burton said in The Anatomy of Melancholy, are quite dry. We have different humoral constitutions than the young, and so it is fitting that we should also have a different sense of humor. I happen to be dessicating moreover in a critical moment of history that has compelled me to rethink everything I long took for granted about humor: what it is, what it is for and whom it should target.
If the human lifespan were two hundred years or so I might eventually get around to writing my Critique of Gelastic Judgment. This would be conceived as a necessary supplement to Immanuel Kant’s 1790 Critique of Judgment. That work, as we have it, is divided into the “Critique of Aesthetic Judgment,” which tells us what is happening when we deem things of either art or nature to be “beautiful,” even though we must admit we cannot objectively ground such assertions, and the “Critique of Teleological Judgment,” which explains what is going on when we judge nature to be governed by ends that we can never discover by empirical science. In the first part’s long and exquisite treatment of the problems of aesthetics, Kant acknowledges in passing that alongside our aesthetic experience of the beautiful and the sublime, there is also an experience—not exactly aesthetic but not totally unrelated either—of the funny. This is what my own critique would seek to understand. It would be written in a haughty and supercilious tone, and it would never be made clear whether or not the entire work were itself a big joke, or whether I meant what I said.
The gelastic—and here I am borrowing a term from Mary Beard (the Greek word gelôs means “laughter”)—is plainly something like the aesthetic, while not simply being assimilable to it. Aesthetic experience elevates our minds beyond our own limited lives: perceiving a beautiful object seems to remove us from the confines of our bodies and give us a brief taste of freedom. The gelastic moves us in precisely the other direction. Kant identifies the formal structure of a joke as “the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing.” A disappointment, in other words. High hopes dashed. Rather than being elevated beyond our bodies, we are thrust right back into them. For the “nothing” that Kant invokes may be identified without too much stretching as the very body we need to host us if we are to continue to exist—and the body that will sooner or later give out on us, come uncoiled, after which no more joking around will be possible.
I am not being idiosyncratic in interpreting “nothing” in this way. The anthropologist Mary Douglas understands humor as, at bottom, the eruption of the body into social contexts where the sustaining pretense is that we are not our bodies. Mutatis mutandis, this is also Freud’s account of sexual innuendos and slips: we’re supposed to be talking about something high-minded and lofty, but there we go again, mentioning dicks. Whoops. Embarrassing for us, but delightful for others—or at least for those whose reputations do not depend on ours.
But why would others delight in our embarrassment? Here we come to another prominent theory of humor, associated with Thomas Hobbes: the superiority theory, which tells us that humor is essentially cruel, to the extent that it always involves delight in the suffering of others. This is really only a corollary of the account of humor as the obtrusion of the body into social contexts where it is meant to be screened out. For what is it to be cruel but to force another back into their body, either by beating and torturing them to the point where their high-mindedness becomes humanly impossible to maintain, or by insulting and degrading them until they react angrily or dejectedly, as bodily beings with passions pressing upon them? The cruelty need not be directed at a particular person, nor need it be revealed in the explicit content of the joke. But one way or another, jokes (excluding perhaps harmless puns) almost always remind us that life essentially involves failure, disappointment and pain—and, in turn, that this fact may be a source of delight. Thus from the fourth-century joke book that has been passed down to us as the Philogelos, or Laughter-Lover:
Barber: How would you like your hair cut?
Customer: In silence!
Or from the vast American archive of Polish jokes:
Q: What does a Polish man give his newlywed that is long and hard?
A: His last name.
Or from the Soviet repertoire of jokes featuring Rabinovich, the cranky old Jew of Odessa:
Soviet census-taker: Does Rabinovich live here?
Rabinovich: I dunno. You call this living?
None of these is overtly cruel. No one is violent, and no one is injured. But they all bespeak disappointment: the barber getting no respect for his artistry; the woman disappointed by the mundane reality of marriage; Rabinovich disappointed by a life that is pretty much the same as death. This equivalence comes up as well in one of the most archaic fragments of Western philosophy: Thales, the pre-Socratic philosopher from Miletus, observes that there is no difference between life and death. “Why don’t you kill yourself, then?” his antagonists goad. “Because there’s no difference, like I just told you,” the philosopher replies. One suspects, in fact, that in its most archaic expressions, philosophy itself had not been fully separated from gelastics.
There is at least one dimension of humor that the superiority theory misses, but that the Kantian transformation into nothing is general enough to include. Much humor, and much of the best humor, is self-deprecating, which is to say that it is self-cruel, that it intentionally exposes the conceits of the very person who produces it. This is why the on-air dialogues some years ago between Howard Stern and Donald Trump were so remarkable. Both boast of their sexual rapaciousness and their contempt for ordinary people and ordinary morality. But Stern cuts his big talk with running asides on his own ridiculousness, on the vanity of these pursuits, on his tragic awareness of where it is all headed. Trump only knows one register. He wants to impress Stern, to convince him that he is no less a bad boy than his host is. It is painful to listen to him, and it is part of Stern’s comic genius that he knows how to inflict this pain on us, the listeners, by playing on Trump’s infantile perception, or hope, that he and Stern are creatures of the same nature.
Over the past several months many of us have found ourselves wondering whether Donald Trump has ever reflected on his own mortality. We would never have the same question about Howard Stern. It is by this difference that we are best able to understand the nature of a life lived in the comic mode. Humor is a meditation upon death. The fact that I will not live two hundred years, let alone forever, is what is preventing me from writing my gelastical magnum opus. It is also what makes gelastics possible in the first place: that we are mortal, and therefore doomed. Even a young child’s delight in scatology and absurdity seems to reflect a first feeling-out of what will later become the defining horizon of her life: that it all comes to nothing. If we were immortal, nothing would be funny, and there would be no reason at all to write a critique of gelastic judgment. There would be no joke books, no sharp political satire, no raunchy farces, either. Everything would be just fine, and no human experience would need to be passed through the lens of humor.
In 2015, after a group of humble caricaturists who made me laugh were murdered for their work, I went on a year-or-so-long tirade about how humor is the highest expression of freedom and the thing most to be defended in society. The tirade culminated in my delivery of the Pierre Bayle Lecture, in November of that year, on “The Gravity of Satire.” I had been invited to speak in the same forum that had hosted such defenders of freedom as Adam Michnik and Leon Poliakov, and I chose to focus on humor. This turn of events gave me new impetus and motivation to bring my gelastical project to completion.
The events of the next year, however, forced me to reconsider some of my conclusions. In 2016, I, a latecomer and a normie, was finally made to understand the new political force of dank memes. What are these? I still can’t really say: digital mash-ups of text and image in original and clever combinations, but somehow also tinged with evil. I think “dank” has something to do with bong residue, but I could be wrong. They scared me, anyhow. By August I was scouring the dirtiest parts of the internet trying to understand Pepe the Frog—whom Hillary Clinton had called out that same month, to the delight of his supporters, as the mascot and avatar of the alt right—and knowing, in my heart, as I witnessed the ebullience of his followers, that Donald Trump was going to win this damned election. As Emily Nussbaum observed in the New Yorker, Trump’s victory was in no small measure the victory of jokes. “Like Trump’s statements,” Nussbaum wrote of the armies of online “shit-posters,” “their quasi-comical memeing and name-calling was so destabilizing, flipping between serious and silly, that it warped the boundaries of discourse.” In the words of Chuck Johnson, a troll who has been banned from Twitter: “We memed a President into existence.”
Now someone who is both the butt and the protagonist of the shit-posters’ jocularity is doing everything he can to destroy the global liberal-democratic order as we knew it, and for the first time in my life I find myself echoing the scolds I used to despise, who would conflate offensiveness and unfunniness every time they judged of something, “That’s not funny!” It turns out they were right: the enormous, singular joke of our epoch is not funny. We can see that it is a joke, we can discern its formal gelastic structure, but we are not laughing.
Trump’s electoral victory amounts to a conquest of reality by satire, and so by forces that naturally and fittingly ought to be confined to the playing fields of the human imagination. Trump is a joke, in other words, but to the extent that he is being taken as something else, as “president,” he is truly, literally, not funny. This judgment is not a gelastic category mistake on my part; it was a mistake on the part of his supporters to allow him to be taken for anything other than a joke.
The strained expectations of those who voted for him will transform, are transforming, into nothing, and I suppose this is, for rigorous Kantian reasons, funny. But until his nothingness is a fait accompli, until it becomes universally clear that he is nothing but a grotesque body and that his attempts at exercising political will are in fact only this body’s morbid secretions, we must not content ourselves with the palliative in-group humor of the late-night liberal bards and their merely figurative eviscerations, nor with the spectacle of Trump’s physical person, but only with the final and definitive political defeat of this impostor.
Perhaps there is no reason why we cannot move on both levels at once, letting off steam with a good laugh at Alec Baldwin on Saturday Night Live while maintaining the political struggle against the real-world injustices this regime is working to impose. But we must not forget that durable authoritarian regimes have always carved out a space for jesters. Nazi Germany had Tran and Helle, a comedy duo whose mild political satire enabled them to squeak through with official acceptance for much of the regime’s duration, while managing to convince admirers, and perhaps themselves, that this approval was not incompatible with true subversion. In retrospect, it is not hard to see that their comedy sketches were hardly what was needed in that historical moment. By contrast, as Rudolph Herzog comments in his Foreign Policy article “Laughing All the Way to Autocracy,” “It is hard to imagine Claus von Stauffenberg, the one-eyed war veteran [and would-be assassin of Hitler], ever cracking trivial jokes.”
But could there really be no liberation short of offing the tyrant? Is there not another species of emancipation in flights of the spirit, even if they change nothing in our material reality? The playing field of the imagination is infinite, after all. So even though humor forces us back into our heavy bodies—and even though, therefore, we can never mistake a gelastic experience for an aesthetic one—nevertheless in the gelastic mode too we experience a variety of freedom. When this freedom is the only sort available, as in the thriving Soviet circulation of underground anekdoty that gave us Rabinovich and so many other delightful characters, it is merely palliative. It should not for this reason be condemned, but we must nonetheless do what we can to hold on, by political means, to a form of freedom more concrete than palliative humor. It will always be a difficult matter, based on a million subtle contextual facts, to determine when humor merely functions as autocracy’s built-in pressure valve, and when it is the dynamite autocracy fears. One and the same comedy sketch might devolve from confrontation into palliation if it is drawn out too long, and the regime finds a way to adapt to or even co-opt it. There are no easy rules for determining which role humor is playing in society at any given time. Jokes are, in the end, entirely dependent on context. (“Finally, something warm,” legend has Winston Churchill saying when he was brought a glass of champagne after a meal.) Jokes can even degenerate into non-jokes, as circumstances change, or indeed bold and revolutionary humor can become normalized to the point where it helps to maintain tyranny rather than challenge it.
If I were to write my critique of gelastic judgment, I would argue that just as judgments of beauty are trapped between subjectivity and objectivity, so the experience of humor moves perpetually between two poles. At one of them, there is indignation at the injustice that pervades our short lives coupled with aspiration toward something better. At the other, there is a desire for compensation, palliation, a need to come to terms with the fact that nothing better is on the way. Just as judgments of beauty move between the twin poles of subjectivity and objectivity, so too humor must be understood as a tertium quid between palliation and world-changing action.
What is this third thing? It is the freedom experienced in riding along with our bodies (rather than escaping them, as we do in the experience of beauty). It is the pleasure of being mortal, of coming to nothing.