Full Moon Fever

Sublime Reflections

Poetics and politics of jokes and laughter

Azfar Hussain*, Republished from NewAge Eid Special Supplement, September 2007

The difference between seeing and hearing is just four inches.
Gopal Bhanr

Seven days without laughter makes one weak.
Mort Walker

So what’s the difference between seeing and hearing, Gopal?’ asks the king. Gopal Bhanr readily replies, ‘Just four inches.’ Puzzled, the king asks again, ‘What the hell do you mean?’ Gopal Bhanr fashions his own interpretation: ‘See, what you call seeing has to do with your eyes; while what you call hearing has to do with your ears. Now you got to measure the distance between your eyes and your ears. Yes, just four inches.’

One probably does not expect or anticipate the kind of answer – ‘just four inches’ – Gopal Bhanr provides, combining speed with minimalism. Also, one’s laughter does not immediately follow his answer but both our curiosity and our frowns do. In addition, as we see, the answer in question calls for an interpretation in order to morph the apparently weird into the apparently credible. In my reading, Gopal Bhanr’s jokes generally involve fiction, even metafiction (fiction about fiction within fiction), interpretation, and translation, profoundly interconnected as they all are. Simultaneously a story-teller, a hermeneutician, and even a theorist, Gopal Bhanr – more than a clown or a joker in the negative sense – amply attests to EM Forster’s famous injunction: ‘Only connect.’

One might argue that a joke ceases to be a joke when it is interpreted. There is an element of truth in this argument. But in Gopal Bhanr’s case in particular, jokes come to reside precisely in the kinds of interpretations he offers, making the point that not all interpretations are alike; that not all interpretations are jocular either. And it is Gopal Bhanr whose work also exemplifies that human beings are capable of producing all kinds of jokes: silly jokes, sick jokes, cruel jokes, aggressive jokes, dirty or vulgar jokes, and even serious jokes. Following Gopal Bhanr, then, one might say that philosophers themselves are nothing but serious jokers. In response to the nineteenth-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous pronouncement that ‘There are no such things as good and evil, but there are only interpretations of them,’ a theologian asserts, ‘You must be joking, Mister!’

And notice this: ‘God is dead,’ declares Nietzsche. ‘Nietzsche is dead,’ declares God.

Indeed, there are jokes that are short, quick, or terse. And there are jokes that are interpretive or even analytical, while there are other jokes that are stories and narratives, full of suspense and reversals of expectations. The Greek philosopher Aristotle in his Poetics places a great deal of premium on what he calls peripeteia – a reversal of expectation, that is – as an attribute of the tragic, while Gopal Bhanr suggests that the same reversal of expectation works in the comic as well. Further, Gopal Bhanr’s own jokes – numerous and available as they are in mostly, if not exclusively, folk communities – demonstrate that there are all kinds of tropes and techniques involved in the production and circulation of jokes themselves, a point that Sigmund Freud also makes in his classic theoretical work called Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. Invoking and using Freud, Salvatore Attardo states in his Linguistic Theories of Humour that there are at least as many as 200 techniques, which can be deployed to produce jokes.

Let’s follow, then, a quick conversation between a ‘fat’ American businessman and a ‘lanky’ Mexican economist. The American businessman says, ‘Looking at you, I understand there’s a famine in Mexico now.’ The Mexican economist responds, ‘Looking at you, I understand the cause of that famine.’ Political economy in a minute here? Yes. The rhetoric of insults here? Yes, again. Do we see in that joke a late-imperial relationship between Mexico and the US – the kind of relationship that the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano historicises in his major work called Open Veins of Latin America? Yes, indeed.

Now Mexico’s leading political cartoonist El Fisgon finds ‘wit’ in the kind of jokes I’ve used above. One can also speak of verbal economics vis-à-vis wit as a technique, predicated as it is on the principle that an investment of minimal lexical resources reaps maximal – even windfall – profits in the form of effects. Take this philosophical joke, for example: ‘What is Mind? No Matter. What is Body? Never Mind.’ And consider the way in which Charlie Chaplin quips: ‘Hitler has stolen my moustache.’ Shakespeare’s Polonius has already told us – something that is by now a cliché yet quoted often – that ‘brevity is the soul of wit.’

And, indeed, wit has been taken as an important technique of jokes, although some hold that wit is more than a technique, more than an architectonic principle, more than a branch of rhetoric as such. Wit itself is a relatively autonomous art-form, as others argue. In fact, wit has been hospitable – sometimes even vulnerable – to both converging and conflictual definitions. The eighteenth-century British pundit Samuel Johnson – who is also a lexicographer – defines wit in his Dictionary as ‘the powers of the mind; the mental faculties; the intellects.’ Johnson also reckons wit as the ‘quickness of fancy.’ There are seven other definitions in Johnson’s Dictionary, of course. On the other hand, Webster’s Dictionary defines wit as ‘the association of ideas in a manner natural, but unusual and striking, so as to produce surprise joined with pleasure.’ Others define wit as an intellectual form of humour.

Whatever wit comes to signify – be it intelligence, presence of mind, sharpness, cleverness, intellectual humour, a play of words and syllables, the ability to yoke together the sublime and the banal, or the ability to orchestrate a unity of surprise and pleasure – wit no doubt plays an important role in the production of jokes, whose effects and appeal, however, might vary. Wit is also made synonymous with epigrammatic and pithy assertions – assertions that make one think and laugh, both. You may not always laugh, though – laughter, more precisely, is the effect of what we call humour – but wit tends to call for at least some exercise of your intellect. Of course, again, there are witty humour and humorous wit. Think of the Irish playwright Bernard Shaw’s wit. Here is an example of what is famously called Shavian wit: ‘Gambling promises the poor what property performs for the rich – something for nothing.’ Another example from Shaw: ‘The liar’s punishment is not in the least that he is not believed but that he cannot believe anyone else.’ Yet another: ‘I often quote myself. It adds spice to my conversation.’


Think, then, of Bernard Shaw, Gopal Bhanr, Charlie Chaplin, Sukumar Roy, Oscar Wilde, and Sigmund Freud attending a roundtable conference in the office of New Age. There Shaw says, ‘See, I can make you think and laugh, both.’ Gopal Bhanr asserts: ‘I interpret, I reveal, I make you see what you cannot, and thus I make you laugh even at yourself.’ Chaplin quips, ‘Hell yeah, I enact what you all think, say, and do, for jokes lie in my acting.’ Roy makes his own point, ‘I show how the nonsensical is not merely nonsensical; it is desirable because it is laughable.’ Wilde characteristically provides a one-liner: ‘Genius is born – not paid.’ Finally, Freud: ‘I am a Chaplin with a theoretical cause.’

Freud – an important theorist of jokes – tells us that not only wit but also humour and the comic are all differentially involved in the production of jokes themselves. He also suggests that wit, humour, and the comic all constitute both the mechanics and architectonics, both the forms and contents of jokes, although, according to him, those three elements are not identical or similar, their certain overlaps notwithstanding. Suggesting that jokes are like dreams – wet or dry – over which you have no control, and that jokes, like dreams, furnish clues about the unconscious, Freud theorises how jokes help us overcome what he himself calls mental ‘censors’ that imposes all sorts of limits and closures on thinking the ‘forbidden.’ One can apply Freud to the social and can speak of social censors in addition to mental ones, although they implicate and inflect one another in both mental and social spaces produced by, and producing, human beings themselves.

Speaking of Freud-the-joke-theorist, Marvin Minsky tells us well, ‘[For Freud] censors in the mind form powerful, unconscious barriers that make it difficult to think “forbidden” thoughts. But jokes can elude these censors – to create the pleasure of unearned release of psychic energy, which is discharged in the form of laughter. He explains why jokes tend to be compact and condensed, with double meanings: this is to fool the childishly simple-minded censors, who see only innocent surface meanings and fail to penetrate the disguise of the forbidden wishes.’ One can sense that Freud, like Marx, is a depth-hermeneutician, among other things, although Freud and Marx work in different areas.

To continue with Freud: now if you want to say what you otherwise cannot say – for instance, if you want to say, or if you cannot say, that your governor is an ugly dictator, or that your boss is an asshole (of course I’m speaking here of both mental and social censors, dialectically interconnected as they are) – you resort to jokes and release the repressed, while manufacturing meanings that are not unitary, or that are relatively indeterminate. In fact, in order to release the repressed, you play what some African-American story-tellers and theorists call the ‘signifyin’ monkey’ – a word-player who makes meanings slippery, one who is a semantic clown, even an epistemological joker.

Instead of putting things straight, a signifyin’ monkey uses innuendo, indirection, irony – in fact, all kinds of tropes, including metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and so on. In some ways, then, jokes – not only signifying practices but also ‘speech acts’ in the Austinian sense – do not merely reveal but also conceal, if not repress. But the question of release is surely important here. Freud indicates that release itself provides pleasure, and jokes come to serve this function, among others of course. Juxtaposing Freud with Gopal Bhanr, one might, then, say that joking is like shitting. As we know, there are smooth jokes and constipated ones.

More on Freud’s theory of jokes. He theorises at least two purposes of jokes – aggression and exposure. The first one involves nothing short of hostile jokes, ones that might take the form of satires and even lampoons – think of some English satirists such as Dryden, Pope, and Byron, for instance – while the other purpose of jokes, namely exposure, has to do with dirty jokes themselves, although dirty jokes are not merely ‘dirty’ but can mobilise an entire battery of innuendos, suggestions, symbols, and other signifying ticks, some of which, for instance, one can see in the seventeenth-century English poet Andrew Marvell’s argumentative, syllogistic poem called ‘To His Coy Mistress.’ A number of critics – probably puritan ones – have already asserted that this is the ‘dirtiest’ poem in the entire history of English poetry. To quote, then, lines from Marvell’s poem:

Thy beauty shall no more be found,
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song; then worms shall try
That long preserv’d virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust.
The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none I think do there embrace.

Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may;
And now, like am’rous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour,
Than languish in his slow-chapp’d power.
Let us roll all our strength, and all
Our sweetness, up into one ball;
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Thorough the iron gates of life.
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.


Someone writes: ‘That was fantastic as a (w)hole.’ Someone responds: ‘You dirty old pig!’ But what’s so dirty about that line? Is it a matter of interpretation or reception? One might argue – borrowing from the language of political economy – that jokes, like commodities, have both a use-value and an exchange-value. What is called ‘use-value’ has to do with the ability to satisfy certain needs. Jokes do satisfy our needs — biological, linguistic, even aesthetic, sexual, political. On the other hand, ‘exchange-value’ for commodities has to do with buying-and-selling. Of course, it is common knowledge that there is no selling without buying and vice versa. In the case of jokes, then, there are is no production of them without their reception and vice versa. A joke ceases to be a joke if it is not received by someone in ways in which s/he can respond to the generally, if not exclusively, intended effect of laughter, although jokes — dirty jokes, for example — do not merely induce laughter but also invite, provoke, and prompt various emotions on various registers, ‘ranging from disgust to anger, and reactions like face-cringing and angry retorts,’ as a critic rightly puts it.

As was already indicated, jokes serve many functions, range freely within a broad zodiac of discourses, use an entire range of tricks and techniques, and produce a variety of effects. Still, one might relatively safely say that the production of jokes primarily, if not exclusively, aims at the production of laughter. But why do people laugh? There is in Germany a tradition of theorising laughter from Kant to Freud himself. In his Critique of Judgement, the late-eighteenth-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant tells us that ‘laughter is an effect that arises if a tense expectation is transformed into nothing.’ Notice what more Kant has to say on the subject: ‘An Englishman at an Indian’s table in Surat saw a bottle of ale being opened, and all the beer, turned to froth, rushed out. The Indian, by repeated exclamations, showed his great amazement. Well, what’s so amazing in that? asked the Englishman. – Oh, but I’m not amazed at its coming out, replied the Indian, but how you managed to get it all in. – This makes us laugh, and it gives us a hearty pleasure This is not because, say, we think we are smarter than this ignorant man, nor are we laughing at anything else here that it is our liking and what we noticed through our understanding. It is rather that we had a tense expectation that suddenly vanished….’

And I’ve already taken up Freud. His basic points, however, can quickly be rehearsed here: we need to release the repressed in the form of laughter. In fact, according to Freud, we laugh because the psychic energy moves from the unconscious to the conscious in unexpected manners, mediated as they are by certain techniques deployed at a given point. Laughter – a mode of expression as it is – has to do with the surplus of that energy. Freud has been contested by many, but his point concerning the relationships among laughter, release, and jokes has been taken up by a number of joke-theorists today.

It is interesting that a French writer makes fun of Germans themselves, saying that the title of the world’s shortest book is One Hundred Years of German Humour. Of course, there are numerous jokes that reveal hostilities and conflicts between nations, classes, ethnic communities, religious sects, professions, and collectivities. There are all kinds of classist, racist, patriarchal, nationally chauvinist, and even fascist jokes in the world. Thus jokes themselves turn out to be the sites of class-race-gender struggles in many instances, while jokes are ideological productions as well. Also, jokes serve as the weapons of the weak and as the weapons of the powerful, both. In other words, jokes can be both subversive and complicit. Given all this, then, it is obvious that jokes are political in more senses than one. But in order to account for – or to demystify – the politics of jokes, it is always important to raise such questions as: Whose jokes? What kinds of jokes are they? And what probable effects do they produce?

Now in order to see how politics works, let me turn to what the Marxist theorist and humorist Bertell Ollman – the inventor of the famous ‘Class Struggle Game’ for children as opposed to the capitalist ‘Monopoly Game’ – calls ‘radical jokes.’ One of his radical jokes is this: ‘Question: How many capitalists does it take to screw in a light bulb? Answer: None, since we don’t need capitalists to screw in light-bulbs or any thing else that really needs doing in our society.’ Mark how Ollman points to the struggle between those who do things (labourers), and those who reap profits because of what those labourers do. Another radical joke from Ollman:

Student asks his principal, ‘Where is my teacher?’
‘Citywide layoffs,’ replies the principal.
‘My textbooks?’ asks the student.
‘State austerity plan,’ says the principal.
‘Student aid or scholarship?’ continues the student.
‘Federal budget cuts,’ says the principal.
Finally, exasperated, student asks, ‘But how am I going to get an education?’
To which the equally exasperated principal replies, ‘This is your education.’

Poems can be jokes, and jokes poems. The Chilean poet Nicanor Parra – noted as he is for what he calls his ‘emergency poems’ – mobilises a poem-as-a-joke and a joke-as-a-poem:
No prying allowed, no sneezing.
No spitting, eulogizing, kneeling
Worshipping, howling, expectorating.
No sleeping permitted in this precinct
No inoculating, talking, excommunicating
Harmonizing, escaping, catching.
Running is absolutely forbidden.
No smoking, no fucking.

Indeed, when there are repressions and censorships – mental or social – jokes arise. But this is not to suggest that jokes do not exist under democracy, for instance. Under democracy, jokes follow different itineraries and routes – they are invested with different creative or tropological energies. But at this point we need jokes that are nothing short of liberating – jokes that make us think, question, and act, and jokes that make fun of all anti-democratic and anti-people forces and practices.

In fact, we need jokes as weapons of the weak.

*Azfar Hussain, Cultural Critique and Faculty at North South University, Dhaka, Bangladesh. Contact: azfarhussain1@gmail.com

September 24, 2007 Posted by | Azfar Hussain, Cultural Studies, Essay, Language | 1 Comment