Comedy’s pleasure comes in part from its ability to dispel anxiety, as so many of its theoreticians have noted, but it doesn’t simply do that. As both an aesthetic mode and a form of life, its action just as likely produces anxiety, risking transgression, flirting with displeasure, or just confusing things in a way that both intensifies and impedes the pleasure. Comedy has issues.
Philosophers have often condemned Schadenfreude, the pleasure someone takes in someone else’s suffering, as proof of moral failure. Meanwhile, witnesses for the defense go as far as to deny the guilt routinely assigned to apparently malevolent enjoyment—by, for instance, identifying it with an appetite for justice that rightly takes satisfaction in the correction of vice. This essay cuts against both accusatory and apologetic perspectives—but not by offering a competing moral evaluation. In what follows, I rest content with a description of Schadenfreude and limit my inquiry to a single case. In his Essais (1572–1592), Michel de Montaigne anticipates modern conceptions of Schadenfreude (and echoes ancient ones) when he savors the exultant pleasure of safety from another’s misfortune. He proposes that the ground of this experience is awareness of danger: the perception of a threat from which he finds himself spared. What distinguishes his perspective on Schadenfreude from that of other philosophers is his insistence that susceptibility to harm is a fundamental premise rather than simply an attribute of certain situations. Thus even his eager withdrawal from danger retains a feeling of tense anticipation. Like the contorted face that accompanies the body’s wincing retreat from near-injury, the Freude (joy) in Schadenfreude (harm-joy) is distorted by an ongoing sense of vulnerability. Yet such alertness to the possibility of harm, interrupted but not suppressed by the pleasure it enables, does not necessarily generate fear. Instead, Montaigne directs our attention to a physiological reaction we do not ordinarily associate with existential danger. We can listen for the alarmed elation of Schadenfreude, he suggests, in rumbles of laughter.
We all smile and laugh occasionally. To do so is as much part of a normal human existence as to eat or drink. But while one can invariably understand the part played in our life by eating and drinking, it is much more difficult to grasp that of smiling and of laughing. Many other living things eat and drink; few of them can smile or laugh.
We are all combover subjects; let us put this image at the heart of humorlessness. In its conventional appearance, humorlessness involves the encounter with a fundamental intractability in oneself or in others. In affective terms, it is typically associated with a bracing contraction of relation. Sovereignty is a fantasy of self-ratifying control over a situation or space—a stance that might or might not be sanctioned by norm or law.The sense of relational rigor mortis involved in sovereign-style humorlessness might take on any form representationally, but it is often associated with a tone drained of whatever passes for warmth or openness. This is why humorlessness is associated both with political correctness and with the privilege that reproduces inequality as a casual, natural order of things. Humorlessness wedges an encounter in order to control it, creating a buttress of immobility and impasse.
Aleksandar Hemon’s fiction, particularly his novella Blind Jozef Pronek and the Dead Souls, in the collection The Question of Bruno (2000), and his novel The Lazarus Project (2008) reinvents the mirror scene from Duck Soup. In this fiction, Hemon transforms the physical comedy of the Marx Brothers into a form of slapstick capacious enough to include pathos in order to dramatize the threat and reality of death in immigrant lives. Like Junot Díaz, Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, Teju Cole, Dinaw Mengestu, Edwidge Danticat, among others, Hemon is part of a new wave of immigrant writers that, while working in the US, nevertheless rejects the predominant trajectory of its immigrant narratives—“stories of upward mobility tinged with nostalgia for the motherland and animated by the character’s struggle to balance individual desires and the demands of the family or community.” Instead, Hemon narrates the lives of those who barely survive displacement and eulogizes those who perish altogether. The immigrant figure has been represented, at least in American fiction, as a Whitmanesque character that can contain if not multitudes at least two or more cultural traditions of response to events in the world. Hemon explores the possibility of the immigrant as a figure of stasis struggling with reinvention, turning his attention to the dark loneliness and comic absurdity of individuals who often fail to contain disparate realities.
The fragmenta antiquitatis, and other hobby horses, that make up the extraordinary and infinite particulars of law are replete with innumerable humorous instances, comedic cases, and jocular legislations. Revels, mock trials, ludic exempla, witticisms, japes, puns, bizarreries, bagatelles and proboscations abound. Far from being obnubilations or instances of nescience this article argues that there is a method, mood and rhythm to the comedy of law. Elaborating the concept of proboscation, of reasoning by the nose, it is argued that jocastic jurisprudence is a method of morphosis, and plays a crucial role in juristic détournement, the transformation of norms and the rendering of justice. Humor, at its most pointed, renders justice to law.
Gary Sullivan’s comic “You, Again?” examines mechanisms by which comedy is made manifest in comic art and animation. The captions involve a series of tropes and clichés that are part of the visual language of humor comics and cartoons—the use of wavy lines to symbolize smells, or stars to symbolize pain, for example. Sullivan puts these texts into poetic play by inserting them into speech and thought balloons coming from the mouths and foreheads of generic and iconic characters from comics around the world—from Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy (page 2, panel 4), to Mette K. Hellenes’s Mette and Vanessa (page 5, panel 1), to several iterations of Mickey Mouse (page 9).
“You, Again?” draws upon Sullivan’s prior work as a poet and the creator of two ongoing poetry comics series, “The New Life” and Elsewhere. (The title page was actually redrawn from a page in the second issue of Elsewhere.) Rather than narrate stories (or tell jokes) with text and sequential images, Sullivan’s work samples and remixes existing comics and other found images to create destabilizing poems that proceed along associative lines, rather than plot-based narrative.
This is a story about giants, about giants in literature but also, and more importantly, about the disappearance of giants from literary history or, rather, their migration from the mainline of that history to its margins, such that the phenomenon traditionally described as the rise of the novel occurs largely unburdened by the supersized beings who live on in children’s literature and cinema and advertisements for frozen vegetables.
This essay argues that insofar as there are genres in the first place, the trajectories they describe are intrinsic to the movement of history and have an objective existence, and are neither a matter of emplotment nor angle of observation. However, this is not true in all periods; it is only within the era of capitalism that history takes on this objective character, and thus that genre itself becomes objective. From the longue durée of world-systems analysis, the history of capital as a whole appears as series of rises and falls, each cycle of accumulation centered by a leading hegemon which, in its decline, gives way to a new hegemon, recentering global capital on a larger basis. The logic of capitalist crisis, its self-undermining character, derives from the inevitability with which it frustrates accumulation in pursuit of profit, misrecognizing the very source of its power. The hegemon thus acts as the tragic hero, driven by fate to its own destruction, unable to recognize its own fatal flaw. However, tragedy for the hegemon becomes comedy for capital as a whole, as it is able to reform at a larger scale in a comic remarriage of productive factors driven apart and destroyed in the previous act. Thus we might see the long course of capital as not only featuring but requiring a dialectic of tragedy and comedy, a generic dialectic which allows not just generational reproduction but expansion. These constant increases in scale, however, are not only a logical dialectic amenable to ceaseless repetition, but a historical and concrete dialectic which reaches its limits at the limits of the globe, when the scalar growth of the world-system finally includes the entirety of the world. At this moment comedic reformation is no longer possible, and something new must happen; not only are the tragedy and comedy of capital abolished, but the dialectic itself is revealed as itself a genre, the genre of capital, in the very moment of its abolition.
Humor, the kind that makes us really laugh, is often thought to be untranslatable. This reading of several jokes and joking situations both accepts and challenges the possibility of translation in an ethnographic examination of conversations with colleagues in China. After considering how some official pronouncements can be received as black humor, a convivial conversation over lunch is described and translated. My colleagues were amused to discover how little they understood, or could explain, about the Ministry of Propaganda’s campaign valorizing “the Chinese dream.” And some minor translation difficulties were met with jokes about the social distances across which communication, successful or not, must take place even within the “same” language world. The discussion concludes with a contrast between classical Chinese rulership and modern nation-state sovereignty, and asks why the dark jokes issuing from government headquarters are met by popular laughter even as so many modern leaders fail to get the joke.
This essay offers a theory of the gimmick as an explicitly capitalist aesthetic category. The gimmick is both a form that simultaneously repels and attracts us and the judgment by which we express this ambivalent mixture of feelings. Like all aesthetic categories, it is also the relationship between the form and the judgment, between a way of perceiving and a way of speaking. Brought out in a unique way by comedy, the particular mix of irritation and charm that the gimmick elicits stems from a series of internal contradictions, each connected to the others and all related to labor, time, and value. Most significantly, gimmicks strike us as both working too little (e.g., as labor-saving “tricks”) but also as working too hard (overstrained efforts at getting our attention). In both cases the aesthetic judgment implies a norm of social labor akin to Marx’s concept of the “historical level of productivity,” which in turn mediates the gimmick’s unusually direct relation to a judgment of economic worth: “cheap.” This sets the gimmick apart from all other aesthetic categories, including commodity aesthetics like cute or glamorous, which do not wear ties to the economic world on their sleeves. As both a compromised aesthetic form and equivocal aesthetic judgment encoding a specific relation to production, the gimmick offers us an surprisingly rich place to think about capitalist aesthetics and the intertwining of technique and enchantment therein.
Is it possible that not only car parts, electronics and sweatshirts are today “made in Mexico,” but even laughter? A reading of Yoshua Okón’s installation Canned Laughter (2006), which it puts in dialogue with Hermann Hesse’s novel Steppenwolf (1927), this essay is a meditation on laughter and affective automatism.
Remember the last time someone told you to lighten up? It’s a gut punch, a low blow. Accusations of “why so serious” feel like serious attacks, striking at a core failure of character in societies ruled by laugh tracks, witty tweets, and punny headlines. Even (or especially) in times of strife, humor should presumably serve as fantastic armor against no-good realities. But this armor is not so much iron as it is ironic: for within neoliberal logics, people who endure systemic oppression (blacks, queers, crips)—who might have the least reason to lighten up arbitrarily—tend to be the ones who are most exhorted to gain a sense of humor, to take a joke, and to laugh things off. A quotidian illustration involves men who goad women to smile, as if an unhumored female countenance (“‘resting bitch face’”) were an affront to physiognomic aesthetics and social mores.
Comic opera presented a challenge to the Enlightenment aesthetic doctrine of mimesis. Until the mid-eighteenth century, critics had seen opera as a union of poetry with music on the stage. Each moment in the drama employed these forces together to create a coherent image and action, using stock musical figures and procedures to amplify the intended affect of the drama. Especially in the case of French criticism, music was understood to be subservient to the poetry of the libretto; even in passages without singing, the music of the opera was tied to the expression of its text. Using these procedures, opera fell into accord with the neo-classical doctrine of mimesis, in which the goal of art was the imitation of the natural world. Comic opera originated, in part, as a parodic, metatheatrical critique of this operatic aesthetic. Composers of comic opera adopted several new mimetic techniques that mocked the ossified musical procedures of serious opera and, further, the neoclassical mimetic doctrine itself. These composers employed mimesis in exaggerated, excessive, and rapidly changing forms; they also began to use poetry and music as autonomous signifying systems, engaging in musical mimesis to suggest something other than what was expressed in the opera’s poetry and thereby subverting the meaning of the text. These practices bolstered the relatively new notion that music had the power to act as a sign independent of poetry.
Against all odds, there is in Christianity a patron saint of actors, despite the ways in which Christianity has largely regarded acting, and theatre, as a dubious profession, a source of sinful entertainment and questionable virtue. There are condemnations of actors and acting, in most serious terms, from no lesser authorities than Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. But there is an actor who was worthy not only of redemption but also of sanctification. His name is Genesius, and his feast is celebrated on 25 August by the Catholic Church. So how did Genesius become worthy of sainthood and the patron saint of acting to whom actors are to commend their soul (if they have one)?