Tied to the mast
…but orange now and black

Laughter & joy

2010 UPDATE: I originally posted this on July 16th of 2009, but am refreshing it for its relevance to the conversation at the Influency salon this week, spurred by Susan Holbrook’s Joy is So Exhausting, about the power dynamics of humour in poetry. I’ll elaborate on this suggested relevance in my response to her book, which I’ll try to post by Sunday.  ❤


Confronted with a laughing audience at a Charlie Chaplin film, Theodore Adorno is profoundly disturbed. As he writes to his friend Walter Benjamin in 1936:

“The laughter of the audience at a cinema—I discussed this with Max [Horkheimer], and he has probably told you about it already—is anything but good and revolutionary; instead, it is full of the worst bourgeois sadism” (Adorno, 1973: 66).

Why does it strike him as such? What does he mean?

Adorno and Horkheimer develop this idea in some detail in their theoretically expansive masterwork, The Dialectic of Enlightenment. They write:

“The triumph over beauty is completed by humor, the malicious pleasure elicited by any successful deprivation. There is laughter because there is nothing to laugh about. Laughter, whether reconciled or terrible, always accompanies the moment when a fear is ended. It indicates a release, whether from physical danger or from the grip of logic. Reconciled laughter resounds with the echo of escape from power; wrong laughter copes with fear by defecting to the agencies which inspire it. It echoes the inescapability of power. Fun is a medicinal bath which the entertainment industry never ceases to prescribe. It makes laughter the instrument for cheating happiness” (1987: 112-3).

In one sense then, such laughter is a means by which the dominated respond to the stresses of  their domination in the post-liberal capitalist system. Inversely, this laughter is induced through industrially produced amusement as a valve by means of which the dominating system depressurizes the mass experience, which is strained by the irrationality (from the perspective of living life) of the demands the system puts on those it dominates. The point is that such laughter is neither spontaneous, nor meaningful, nor free, though it is disguised as such. And it’s certainly not beautiful. As they say, the system has triumphed over human beauty.

But why label this laughter sadistic?

Individuals are distracted from the artificiality of their domination by a systemically fostered agonism. The dynamics of this agonism are described in this passage:

“The less the danger to the one on top, the more unhampered the joy in the torments he can now inflict: only through the hopeless despair of the victim can power become pleasure and triumphantly revoke its own principle, discipline. Fear averted from the self bursts out in hearty laughter, the expression of a hardening within the individual which can only be fully lived out through the collective” (1987: 88).

The system fosters a feeling of smallness and isolation, which translates into a sense, in the bourgeois subject, of real vulnerability and fear, especially from the threats to what position they’ve managed to scrape together that might lurk looking up at them resentfully below. From this position of felt vulnerability, any victory over anyone (since in a world of scarcity, there is a threat potential in any fellow consumer of resources) is cathartic. We end up with a society of people motivated, at a pre-conscious, emotional level, by a materially self-interested blood-lust that the system is set up to satisfy intermittently with these cathartic simulated victories.

This struggle is symbolically and safely played out in the banal context of a movie theatre, the victories shared in “hearty laughter” that, engaged in collectively, reinforces a kind of solidarity of victors; a solidarity that simulates the kind of kinship that is eroded through the alienating pressures inherent to capitalism, but a solidarity that is pre-linguistic, and thus pre-rational. The group is bonded not on the basis of their conscious mutual recognition as subjects, but strategically, at a brain-stem, survival-instinct level, on the basis of the elimination of a shared threat.

This bond is too ephemeral—rapidly fading and dependent on the culture industry’s products to be renewed again and again, laughing along with the crowd at movie after movie, with laugh tracks at show after show—to bear the deliberative genesis of an intersubjectively recognized critical framework (which requires trust, openness and time). In this way the mass is critically anesthetized outside of the context of productive work where its violent energy, if unified and structured by a deliberatively established critical framework, could otherwise be destabilizing or even crisis-inducing. The mass is anesthetized, and the system is immunized.

Need all laughter be sadistic?

This question is partially addressed here:

“To moments of happiness laughter is foreign; only operettas, and now films, present sex amid peals of merriment. But Baudelaire is as humorless as Hölderlin… What is infernal about wrong laughter is that it compellingly parodies what is best, reconciliation. Joy, however, is austere” (1987: 112-3).

They don’t want to condemn the entire category of laughter, and they avoid doing so by creating a distinction between sadistic “wrong” laughter, and “reconciled” laughter (also apparent in the first DoE quote above). What’s “wrong” about wrong laughter is its elevation to a status that ought to be occupied by the true joy of free human experience, bearing the pretense of itself representing some kind of existential pinnacle.

Reconciled laughter, as quoted above, “resounds with the echo of escape from power.” It is a laughter that is not staking an aggressive claim, and that is not “appropriate” before it is a reaction to some particular emancipatory thing or occurrence; an escape “from power,” over and above danger.

This “ambiguity of laughter” is very well explored in a passage Lizzie just pointed me to from the Excursus on Odysseus:

Indeed, the motif of forcing the gates of hell, of abolishing death, is the innermost cell of all antimythological thought. This antimythological element is contained in Teiresias’s prophecy of the possible placation of Poseidon. Odysseus is to wander even farther, carrying on his shoulder an oar, until he reaches a people “who know nothing of the sea and never use salt with their food.” When he meets another traveler who refers to the oar on his shoulder as a “winnowing fan,” he will have reached the proper place to offer a sacrifice to Poseidon. The core of the prophecy is the mistaking of the oar for a winnowing fan. This must have struck the Ionian as completely comic. However, this comic effect, on which the reconciliation is made to depend, cannot have been directed at humans but at the wrathful Poseidon. The misunderstanding is meant to amuse the fierce elemental god, in the hope that his anger might be dispersed in laughter. That would be analogous to the neighbor’s advice in Grimm, explaining how a mother can rid herself of a changeling: “She should carry the changeling into the kitchen, set it on the hearth, light the fire and boil water in two eggshells. That would make the changeling laugh, and if he laughed then that would make an end of him.” If laughter up to now has been a sign of violence, an outbreak of blind, obdurate nature, it nevertheless contains the opposite element, in that through laughter blind nature becomes aware of itself as such and thus abjures its destructive violence. This ambiguity of laughter is closely related to that of name; perhaps names are nothing but petrified laughter, as nicknames still are–the only ones in which the original act of name-giving still persists. Laughter is in league with the guilt of subjectivity, but in the suspension of law which it announces it also points beyond that complicity. It promises a passage to the homeland. It is a yearning for the homeland which sets in motion the adventures of subjectivity, the prehistory of which is narrated in the Odyssey, escapes the primeval world. The fact that–despite the fascist lies to the contrary–the concept of homeland is opposed to myth constitutes the innermost paradox of epic.

But it’s important to remember that the escaping “resounding” in reconciled laughter isn’t a creating of meaning. It’s simultaneously an acceptance of reality and a shrugging off of oppressive abstractions, which has the effect of freeing the subject to be able to move forward, but the laughter is not itself a step forward. It’s reactive. And for that reason, reconciled laughter is certainly not equivalent to joy. To Adorno, the joyful act of creating meaning through free experience is austere. I think this poem by Baudelaire provides some insight into Adorno’s use of this word, “austere,” with reference to joy:


I AM as lovely as a dream in stone,
And this my heart where each finds death in turn,
Inspires the poet with a love as lone
As clay eternal and as taciturn.

Swan-white of heart, a sphinx no mortal knows,
My throne is in the heaven’s azure deep;
I hate all movements that disturb my pose,
I smile not ever, neither do I weep.

Before my monumental attitudes,
That breathe a soul into the plastic arts,
My poets pray in austere studious moods,

For I, to fold enchantment round their hearts,
Have pools of light where beauty flames and dies,
The placid mirrors of my luminous eyes.

To finish things off, from Adorno:

“I have no hobby. Not that I am the kind of workaholic who is incapable of doing anything with his free time but applying himself industriously to the required task. But, as far as my activities beyond the bounds of my recognized profession are concerned, I take them all, without exception, very seriously” (Adorno, 2001: 188).

Funny guy.


Adorno, Theodor W. “Free Time,” in The Culture Industry, ed. J. M. Bernstein, trans. Gordon Finlayson and Nicholas Walker. (2001). Routledge Classics: New York.

————————. “Letters to Walter Benjamin: 1935-1938” New Left Review I/81, (September-October 1973).

Horkheimer, Max & Theodore W. Adorno. The Dialectic of Enlightenment. (1987 ed.). Stanford University Press: California.

The Poems and Prose Poems of Charles Baudelaire. Ed. James Huneker. New York: Brentano’s, 1919.


6 Responses to “Laughter & joy”

  1. Do you agree with this guy?

    I can see how there’s an element of different power levels to humour, but for me it’s always been about broken expectation. We use logic to build our expectations, without trying, often going so far as to plan our next move; only to find we were wrong from the get-go. I think the pleasantness of humour and laughter has something to do with everyone being familiar with this experience. There’s a joy to realizing this pattern and seeing it in others even though not everyone sees it that way. It’s a non-judgemental and communicative way of acknowledging and even at times celebrating error.

    As for Slapstick though, I don’t know what the fuck that is.

  2. “[W]rong laughter copes with fear by defecting to the agencies which inspire it. It echoes the inescapability of power [making] laughter the instrument for cheating happiness.”

    I agree with Adorno that that element of laughter is deeply disturbing.

    When you describe laughter as “a non-judgemental and communicative way of acknowledging and even at times celebrating error,” you’re talking about reconciled laughter, and I think Adorno would mostly agree with you.

    I don’t know about the “celebrating error” part. If anything, it’s making the best out of error, acknowledging it while at the same time acknowledging that life goes on.

    Wanna buy my bike? (I like my new one better and am now moving to NY).

  3. […] check out the comments below the video for a great example of the bourgeois sadism discussed a couple of posts ago. There’s evident delight being taken in using Starnino’s “uhh”s as grounds […]

  4. You have done it once more! Great writing.

  5. Haha I’m really the first reply to your amazing writing.

  6. Neither of you are human are you.

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