Sunday, December 5, 2010

Jokes, Hostility and the Production of a Community of Men

         So, my last pair of postings have been focused on the union situation, and I suspect that I will return to that topic as the organizing efforts to create a reform group within the union get underway, but I thought I would get back to some more theoretical questions.   This is an essay that I produced within the context of a psychoanalysis class a number of years ago.  It was my effort to think about the libidinal economy of the joke, and its role in creating exclusionary communities of men.  It also makes an argument for ways to challenge those structures through the joke as well.  I'll leave it there.

Jokes, Hostility and the Production of a Community of Men
“For the destruction of the racist complex presupposes not only the revolt of its victims, but the transformation of the racists themselves and, consequently, the internal decomposition of the community created by racism.  In this respect, the situation is entirely analogous, as has often been said over the last twenty years or so, with that of sexism, the overcoming of which presupposes both the revolt of women and the break-up of a community of ‘males’.”
                                    --Etienne Balibar[1]

            The above quote of Etienne Balibar’s has always been a powerful one for me.  What does it mean to be “a community of men?”  And, what produces a community of men in the first place?  I am going to approach these questions in a somewhat circumlocutory fashion through Sigmund Freud’s Jokes and their Relationship to the Unconscious.  Freud has never been particularly seen as an ally to the feminist community, and his texts are frequently seen as reinforcing the patriarchal gender structures of his time as much if not more than he deconstructs them.  His book on The Joke[2] is not altogether innocent of this.  However it does allow for a radical and productive way of reading community.
Freud’s book on the joke is an unusual one for him.  Unlike the majority of his texts (with the exception of perhaps Group Psychology)[3] it opens up from the small interpersonal relationships to the society at large.  The joke becomes the key to both open the intimate interpersonal forces of desire and aggression that Freud ascribes to the society at large, and to open the discussion of the society at large to the forces that Freud ascribes to the individual subject.  This strategy produces a dynamic that Jerry Aline Flieger refers to as “the joking triangle as social contagion.”[4]
            In effect, the joke must always open up to a form of community, but this form of community is never the organic whole that its advocates desire it to be.  Instead it is a confluence of relationships that is always fragmenting, splitting, breaking apart.  It is built up out of temporary alliances, common resentments, misunderstandings, etc.  It is never something that is, rather it is something always that is becoming, constituting, decomposing, and reconstituting.  In short, community is always a form of production, one that is as fractured and complex as the unconscious itself.
            The joke provides the intersection that allows these to two complex structures of the structure of the unconscious and the structure of the community to be explored. The joke offers a mechanism of contestation and alliance building within something called community.  More specifically I am interested in how the smutty joke produces a certain community of men.[5]  
            In order to get to that point, we first need to look at Freud’s conceptualization of the “joke-work”, that is, the processes that form the joke, and their relationship to the works of both dreams and the unconscious.  From there we will move into a discussion of how the “joke-work” differs from the “dream-work” in that it carries a societal effect.  I will move into a discussion of the tendentious joke, but unlike Freud, I will put less emphasis on the differences between the “hostile” joke and the “smutty” joke and instead explore the congruity of their functions.  However other than that difference, which is perhaps a merely heuristic device with Freud, I think that the text produces an excellent analysis of how a certain community of ‘jokers’ is produced.
            When looking at the production of the joke—or as Freud refers to it, joke work—it is impossible to avoid comparisons with Die Traumbedeutung.  Samuel Weber suggests this approach when he reads some of Freud’s letters to his early collaborator Willhelm Fliess in relation to the writing of Die Traumbedeutung.  Freud is at pains to excuse the “wittiness” of the dreams he recounts by stating that the processes that the unconscious comes up with are inextricably tied up in the same processes that produce wit or the joke.  Although not in the same terms, we find the same concepts within the joke as we do in the dream; some have direct analogues such as the condensation and substitutions that define verbal jokes, whereas others that are associated with the conceptual joke, such as displacement, faulty reasoning, absurdity, and forms of representation are less directly analogous.
            The idea of condensation is the most directly tied to the Die Traumbedeutung, and in many ways is the most important, as that it introduces the most important concept to the joke, the desire to psychic economy.  Condensation takes a number of different forms, from the combination of words, as in the joke of Heine’s “R. treated me quite as his equal—quite famillionairely.”[6]  In this example, the terms “familier” and “millionaire” merge to form a compound word, allowing for contradictory ideas to be contained within one idea. Condensation also allows for a quite tendentious thought to be expressed in an apparently more innocent manner.
The displacement joke is not produced through verbal play the way that the joke built on condensation is.  Instead, it relies on “the train of thought” and “not upon words.”  Freud notes,  “It’s essence lies in the diversion of the train of thought, the displacement of the psychical emphasis on to a topic other than the opening one.”[7]  The majority of the jokes that Freud terms ‘displacement’ jokes can be described as cynical jokes, such as the “Schadchen” jokes, the jokes about the cynical and mendacious matchmaker who is able to dodge around the accusations of the groom through his word play.
Jokes of unification work in a quite similar fashion, where “new and unexpected unities are set up, relations of ideas to one another, definitions made mutually or by reference to a common third element.”  Freud notes that these forms have a great deal in common with jokes built upon condensation in that they condense a number of irreconcilable ideas into a form of unity.
The other form of joke occurs within indirect representations.  Freud separates these between jokes built upon reference to a direct opposite and jokes built upon allusion.  The joke built on the opposite, says something by stating it opposite.  In effect, it says, “yes, but” when it really means no.  The joke built on allusion, on the other hand, plays off of similarities.
All of these joke structures hide something that is unacceptable to say.  The pleasure of the joke is revolves on the unearthing of what is not stated or the allusion to what is hidden or distorted within the joke.  Freud states that “the joke, it may be said, is the contribution made to the comic from the realm of the unconscious.”[8]  Freud continually emphasizes the fact that the joke can not be successful if the listener has to put a great deal of conscious effort into it.  In effect, the same mechanisms that allow the forbidden thought to be expressed in the dream are at work in the production of the joke.
            However the difference between the joke and the dream is in its transmutability, its “contagion” into society at large. There can be some linkages made between the triangular structure of the joke and the triangular oedipal structure, and in its contestations within that structure.  Both structures regulate the flow of desire, placing acceptable and unacceptable objects of desire on the table. As Freud points out, there is a highly powerful reproductive element to the joke, “An urge to tell the joke to someone else is inextricably bound up with the joke-work: indeed, this urge is so strong that it often is carried through in disregard to serious misgivings. A joke must be told to someone else.”[9]
However the analogy only holds at that level. This movement to ‘tell someone else” is not a simple one. Unlike the Oedipal complex, the joking community is not an idealized regulatory model, instead it introduces a highly slippery, antagonistic quality to it.  Freud’s concept of der Witz places contingency within the functioning of its structures:  “A person who is responsive to smut will be unable to derive any pleasure from witty jokes of exposure; Herr N.’s attacks will not be understood by uneducated people who are accustomed to give free play to their desire to insult.  Thus every joke calls for a public of its own and laughing at the same jokes is evidence of far-reaching psychical conformity.”[10]  We can push this contingency farther and more explicitly into the realm of the political.  This conception is already a multiplicity of potentially antagonistic social formations.
            From this brief sketch of the concepts, we can see that the joke operates by expressing the forbidden within terms that escape the purview of the censor, both on the level of the psyche, and on the level of the socio-political.  The question must be finally asked on how a particular community of “men” is formed by the works of the joke.  This community, I argue, is formed out of the interactions within the joking triangle.  At its core, the joke is a triangular formation.  This structure is particularly important for the “tendentious joke,” which is built upon the teller of the joke, the listener, and the person against whom the joke is directed.  In the case of the smutty joke or joke of exposure, this structure relies on a group of “men” directing a joke against a “woman.”  
            Freud begins with an imaginary origin of smut: “Smut is like an exposure of the sexually different person to whom it is directed.  By the utterance of the obscene words it compels the person who is assailed to imagine the part of the body or procedure in question and shows her that the assailant is himself imagining it.”[11]  Two things need to be recognized here.  The first is that we are already operating within a certain ideology of gender.  Freud smoothly transitions from the ambiguous terms of “person” to a “male” “assailant” and a “woman” who is being attacked.  This original act is already an aggressive one, and already accepts that it will be thwarted.
            The non-acceptance of this aggression turns this drive “hostile and cruel.”  This resistance sets up a new scenario that requires a third person, another “man” to plan out a displaced act of aggression.  “The men save up this kind of entertainment, which originally presupposed the presence of a woman who was feeling ashamed, till they are ‘alone together.’  So that gradually, in the place of the ‘woman’, the onlooker, now the listener, becomes the person to whom the smut is addressed, and owing to this transformation it is already near to assuming the character of a joke.”[12]
            This shift in audience is crucial.  In place of the thwarted object of desire, the speaker seeks solace in an alliance with his former rival, while at the same time he attempts to injure the person who thwarted his desire.  Unlike most of the other jokes that Freud relays in his book, such smutty jokes don’t seem to act in what could be termed a liberatory valiance.
Instead, as Freud carefully outlines, sexual desire transmutes into hostility, with surplus pleasure staged for the benefit of the rivals: “In the case of smut the three people are in the same relation.  The course of events may be thus described.  When the first person finds his libidinal impulse inhibited by the woman, he develops a hostile trend against that second person and calls on the originally interfering third person as his ally.  Through the first person’s smutty speech the woman is exposed before the third, who, as a listener, has now been bribed by the effortless satisfaction of his own libido.”[13]
            The act becomes a joke, one that founds a certain type of community.  This crude form of community amongst “men” can not exist without an “Other.”  This “Other” is the “woman”, who resists the sexual aggressivity of an individual “man”, with this refusal, the implicit aggressivity of desire shifts to an overtly hostile form.  The former adversaries for the ‘woman’s’ attentions build a form of alliance.  This alliance arise through an exchange that occurs within the joke, an exchange that offers the listener “the effortless satisfaction of his own libido” in exchange for the support in the hostile attack on the ‘woman’ who spurned the first’s aggression.
            The joke that originated within a certain scenario among three discreet individuals begins to shift as the drive behind the joke takes effect.  As the joke is transmitted on to other men, it begins to produce, or to be more honest, reproduce, a certain community of “men.”  This provisional community is produced in the fragile environment of the joke.  It operates on the assumption of what Freud terms “far-reaching psychical conformity.”  It operates on the common recognition and acceptance of a certain scenario.  Indeed, the joke does not create an inevitable success at forming this community; the listener may read it in a number of manners and its dynamics may misfire in any number of ways.  There is no reason that the joker himself can’t have the joke turned around on him and become the “woman” in a completely different configuration of a community of “men.”
            This expansion and abstraction requires new rules within the community form. 

Freud notes the increase of distortion that is required to allow the joke within the broader society,

“The smut becomes a joke and is only tolerated when it has the character of a joke.  The technical method which it usually employs is the allusion—that is, replacement by something small, something remotely connected, which the hearer reconstructs in his imagination into a complete and straightforward obscenity.  The greater the discrepancy between what is given directly in the form of smut and what and what it necessarily calls up in the hearer, the more refined becomes the joke and the higher, too, it may venture to climb into good society.”[14]

The joking community shifts as the level of displacement and condensation within the joke increases.  The need for the actual woman recedes and frequently the joking community operates behind closed doors in private groupings of men.  Yet Freud notes the woman is still there, as a spectral figure:  “The woman who is thought of as having been present in the initial situation is afterwards retained as though she were still present.”[15]  The imaginary presence of the woman motivates the continued use of coded language, while also charging the joke with a transgressive pleasure, against the putative “repression” of the woman who cannot hear sexually explicit material discussed out loud. 
This regulatory and restrictive force, which Freud calls “repression,” is in fact constitutive of an entire community.  It displaces the erotic and aggressive force that is the source of the joke into an increasingly complex series of secondary formations.  This force however, doesn’t lose its power as it moves along these corridors.  The joke, in effect, redirects and sublimates the individual male’s sexual aggressivity to a more comprehensive program of social aggression.  Despite these societal effects, Freud nonetheless argues that the pleasure around the joke cannot be in any sense connected to power.[16]  I have to disagree, and like Samuel Weber, follow Freud’s theorization within Beyond the Pleasure Principle, which finds in the activities of the child’s play, an underlying will to mastery.  The ‘civilizing’ effect of the joke in this case is only a normalization and intensification of the power taken by the individual male in the originary scene.
What is more, the sublimatory processes that shift the joke from a community that interacts with women in the production of its jokes (no matter how uneven that interaction is), to one that excludes women from this field of discourse, thereby eliminating the direct forms of contestation on the part of women that may have been possible in the earlier form of the community.  The “woman”[17] that is constructed in this community is absent; she cannot contest this joke.  She is posited as someone who is incapable of engaging in this form of activity.  Posited as a repressive force incapable of sexual drive, aggression, or speech, she becomes the despised object of them all.  She cannot contest the joke’s aggressivity, because it occurs through her structural absence: and when the language of the joke becomes public, its terms are so deformed that no direct response is possible.
However, my intent here is not to propose a totalizing community form.  The community of men described above does not constitute any sort of originary or uncontaminatible whole.  In a sense, it is easy to get caught up in the imaginary force of this schema, to buy into the power of its own ideology. But we must ask the question of production: how is this community produced and how does it reproduce itself?  Then we must return to the question of the individual subject, and his role in this economy.  And we must articulate the potential failures and gaps within this productive community as well.
Freud wants us to believe that “the pleasure in the case of a tendentious joke arise from a purpose being satisfied whose satisfaction would otherwise not have taken place.”  Certainly, this is true of the joke in its genesis.  But why are these tendentious jokes circulated?  And what is produced in their circulation?  Freud is diagnoses the “economy” of the joke in terms of its psychic savings, its preservation of libidinal energies.  However, the circulation of the joke suggests another way of making use of this economy.
This circulation requires a continual production of new material.  Without the renewal of material, jokes become stale, and the pleasure taken from them diminishes.  As Freud says, in order for the circuit to remain, new and fresh material must be continually introduced:  
“Thus a great number of the jokes in circulation have a certain length of life: their life runs a course made up of a period of flowering and a period of decay and it ends in complete oblivion.  The need men feel for deriving pleasure from their processes of thought is therefore constantly creating new jokes based on the new interests of the day.  The vital force of topical jokes is not their own; it is borrowed, by the method of allusion, from those other interests, the expiry of which determines the fate of the joke as well.  The factor of topicality is a source of pleasure, ephemeral it is true but particularly abundant, which supplements the sources inherent in the joke itself.”[18]
This circulation is reminiscent of “bricolage,” the using of the ideological material at hand.  This circuit engages in “bribing” the listener and the joker into keeping within its parameters.  It acts as the unconscious force that continues to reproduce the ideological nature of the community.   At the same time, the circuit of the joke is an open one.  The joker constantly pulls in new material in order to replenish ‘the vital force of topical jokes.’  In this sense, the joke is both a reproductive act, in that it preserves a certain structure of desire, while at the same time it opens up the possibilities of different types of community based on this pleasure generated by the different structural instances of the moment.
There is a second and equally important function of the joke within this community, that of policing.  The joke is not only opens a certain pathway for the circulation of desire within this community, but it also cuts off other possible structures and alliances.  It becomes a regulatory structure.  The listener has the option of either acting as the ally of the joker or becoming the but of his joke.
It must be remembered that the joking community of ‘males’, like all communities, is one built upon common notions, not a common essence.  It is a community built upon a commonality of libidinal pleasure contained in the joke, not a common psychical essence or substance, as our neo-Jungian friends would like.  This makes this community both historical and contingent.  More significantly, it is a form of community that can be changed.  
To escape this apparently monolithic construct of the society of “males,” we must return to the individual subject.  What is it that this subject gets out of these arrangements?  Freud’s argument is that the listener of the joke receives libidinal pleasure from the joke in exchange for his alliance with the joker.   As he puts it, “We are inclined to give the thought the benefit of what has pleased us in the form of the joke; and we are no longer to find anything wrong that has given us enjoyment and so to spoil the source of a pleasure.”[19]  This benefit of pleasure allows the joker to direct criticism away from himself, and displace it upon the female subject.  Its economy of shared enjoyment builds psychic homogeneity on perceived gendered difference.
Then how can one break the circuit of the joke?  It is the pleasure produced by the circulation that constructs and permits the continuation of this “community.”  Yet, the pleasure of the joke, and the community that arises out of it can take any number of forms.  The joke, and even the smutty joke, in no way has to follow this patriarchal model of community.  The joke itself can act as a mode of contestation, redirecting desire or hostility onto different series of objects, to construct quite different alliances. 
In a strange way, which is not at all that strange for Freudian thought, the disease itself becomes the cure and to read the joke in this manner is much more in line with the reading that Freud gives to the joke throughout his book.  As he points out, “The joke then represents a rebellion against that authority, a liberation from its pressure.  The charm of caricatures lies in this same factor: we laugh at them eve if they are unsuccessful simply because we count rebellion against authority as a merit.”[20]  The joke can be made into a tool of contestation along these lines.  More over, the joke itself can turn the challenging of the community of men into a pleasurable activity.
There is a deconstructive side to this as well.  In order for the libidinal economy of the smutty joke to collapse, its structure must be broken.  An approach to this may occur by the act of explicating the unspoken structure of the joke itself.  Freud himself apologizes for ruining the jokes through his explication of them.  The explication of the joke accomplishes two things.  The first is that it breaks up the economy of the joke.  It turns what was a joke into a mere statement of fact.  The second thing is it brings the structural logic of the joke out into the light of day to be examined with a critical eye, an eye that has not been bribed through the pleasure of the joke.  
At the same time, an alternative structure of pleasure must replace the old patriarchal one.  Without recognizing, and essentially embracing the discharge that is involved in telling the joke, there is no dismantling this community.  An alternative community is required to disrupt this normative structure, and that alternative community must offer a tangible reward to its members beyond the non-transgression of some form of morality.  Transformation must occur within new forms of desire, and communities built upon that desire.  Yet all too often, in an attempt to challenge the power of the community of “men” that is produced through the joke, the joke itself is made the target of assault.  Such strategies, however “correct,” are bound to fail.  The drive and desire generated by the joke cannot be destroyed, but it can be shifted and displaced onto new objects into new contexts.  Without the recognition and embrace of this desire, the internal decomposition of a community of “men” is not possible. 

[1] Balibar, Etienne “Is There A ‘Neo-Racism’” in Etienne Balibar and Immanuel Wallerstein, Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities (London: Verso, 1991), 18.
[2] The German word, Der Witz, is strictly speaking, not translatable, it both implies the wit, and the joke.
[3] Although one may even want to ask whether or not the majority of the text looks at the way that good organizations replicate the patriarchal family.
[4] Jerry Aline Flieger, The Purloined Punch Line: Freud’s Comic Theory and the Postmodern Text (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1991), 76.
[5] An interesting parallel to this discussion within a non-Freudian discourse can be seen in James C. Scott’s Weapons of the Weak, primarily in his description of gossip as a form of “small arms fire of the class struggle”
[6] Sigmund Freud, Jokes And Their Relation To The Unconscious (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1963), 18.
[7] Jokes And Their Relation To The Unconscious, 51
[8] Jokes And Their Relation To The Unconscious, 208
[9] Jokes and their Relation To The Unconscious,
[10] Jokes and their Relation To The Unconscious, 151.
[11]  Jokes And Their Relation To The Unconscious, 98
[12]  Jokes And Their Relation To The Unconscious, 99
[13] ibid., 100
[14] ibid.,100
[15]  Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious, 101
[16] Freud primarily reads smut as a way of escaping the restrictive mores of “civilization.”  see Jokes and their Relation to theUnconscious, 101-102
[17]Let’s remember that this construct of ‘woman’ is a classed, as well as raced community.  Freud himself points out that, “We can observe how men of a higher class are at once induced, when they are in the company of girls of an inferior class, to reduce their smutty jokes to the level of simple smut.” (Freud  101)
[18] Jokes And Their Relation To The Unconscious, 123-124
[19] Jokes And Their Relation To The Unconscious, 132
[20] Jokes And Their Relation To The Unconscious, 105

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