The Last Laugh

Slavoj Zizek, Zizek's Jokes

MIT Press, 168pp, £12.95, ISBN 9780262026710

reviewed by Marc Farrant

The American scholar, Barbara Johnson, once said of the philosopher Jacques Derrida that his writing traces the movement of desire without reaching its fulfilment. In contrast, Slavoj Zizek’s notoriously joke-laden prose fails to even hint at the possibility of seduction, and generally prefers instead to prance out of the dark like a molesting arm, punch you in the genitals and scuttle away. Zizek’s Jokes is overly brimming with examples of these peculiar verbal grope attacks (‘nicely vulgar’), from the opening ‘Three Whites and Two Blacks’, to the infamous ‘chocolate laxative’ formulation, to quite a number about Jesus Christ, such as:

There are three reasons we can be sure that Jesus Christ came from a Jewish family: 1. He took over the profession of his father; 2. his mother thought her son was a god; 3. he couldn’t imagine his parents had sexual relations.

One can imagine enormously fraught publishing meetings at MIT Press, and an erudite editor able to suspend the disbelief of his or her colleagues amidst cries of ridicule and horror (‘aren’t we an academic press?!’). Nevertheless, there’s potentially also something intellectually dishonest — something calculatedly disarming, even condescending — about Zizek’s jokes (the ‘make it fun and they’ll learn more’ kind of approach):

We all know the old joke referring to the enigma of who really wrote Shakespeare’s plays: ‘Not William Shakespeare, but someone else with the same name.’ This is what Lacan means by the decentered subject; this is how a subject relates to the name that fixes its symbolic identity: John Smith is (always, by definition, in its very notion) not John Smith, but someone else with the same name. As Shakespeare’s Juliet knew, I am never ‘that name’ – the John Smith who really thinks he is John Smith is a psychotic.

The word ‘joke’ here really ought to be placed in inverted commas, as is qualified in the afterword by Momus (Nick Currie), who, following Zizek, refers to jokes as ‘situational shapes’; structures of thought that happen to match the ‘real world’. The capacity of these so-called jokes to reveal the ‘lightness of profundity’ pivots on their capacity to incite unrest and destabilise convention. Arguably, however, jokes have an equal capacity to placate, and it is in this tension that Zizek’s work as a whole might best be viewed. Here, at least, Zizek’s reliance on the staid possibilities of the stereotype seems to reinforce as much as to overturn (the conflict between the form and content of jokes is itself the subject of a joke in the book, where Zizek declares a preference for ‘dirty topics’).

There is something assuredly self-fulfilling about Zizek’s Jokes. The book doesn’t just capitalise on a pre-given success - it is itself part of the Zizek industry, the inscribing of ‘Zizek’ (the brand whose slogan runs ‘The Elvis of Cultural Theory’) into our collective consciousness. Its mission statement is to reveal how ‘comedy is central to Zizek’s seriousness’. Rather than light profundity, however (which fittingly, for Zizek, sounds like a diet soft drink), I would suggest that Zizek’s Jokes reveals to us—in a peculiarly self-conscious way — our willingness to buy into a perceived seriousness. Indeed, one of the perverse things about collating Zizek’s (largely perverse) jokes, is that taken out of the performance (often live as well as textual) they simply aren’t very funny. When we do laugh at Zizek’s jokes (in context), we are laughing because they are Zizek’s, not because they are jokes (which also means, to an extent, we are laughing at Zizek). The interest — sociological perhaps rather than theoretical — is the extent to which Zizek pre-empts, prompts or is aware of this. If the supposed profundity of the jokes is based on a perceived belief in Zizek’s theoretical rigor, by disassociating the jokes from their illustrative origins in the Zizek oeuvre, Zizek’s Jokes opens a distinct space of radical doubt. Thus, insomuch as the book relies on this (collective) faith in Zizek, it goes some way itself to undermining it.

Zizek’s Jokes embodies a peculiar test for Zizek, then, but perhaps less as thinker or philosopher and more as a sociological and cultural phenomenon. His recent admonition to interpret the world rather than attempt to change it belies the fact that Zizek, as phenomena, has changed the world (a little bit, anyway) – he’s changed our perception (and perhaps the very function) of the public intellectual; its purpose, necessity and, specifically, its permissibility. For Momus, comedy in general marks a ‘legitimacy crisis followed by the sudden appearance of a cornucopia’. Indeed, perhaps the distillation of the comic in Zizek does provide the best means to discuss the legitimacy of his work, but it is hard to make the leap to the position of Zizek’s jokes really promising the possibility of ‘cornucopia’.

To paraphrase the late Ernesto Laclau, Zizek’s forays don’t add up into a coherent system (philosophical or otherwise), and instead he appears more like a clinician operating on the minutiae of popular culture; each analysis specific to its mode of illustration. Consequently, Zizek’s reception in a general sense is both predictable and understandable, but his reception in the academy is, by an opposite measure, intensely interesting (i.e. utterly resentful) and performs a valuable service. By undermining so vividly and consistently the pretence of the humanities-cum-sciences, he reveals a certain value in the valueless necessity of the university (as a societal space to question and ascertain the very nature of ‘value’). If this is true, then this service is perhaps best measured by the popularity that his work has fostered outside of the academy; a popularity exemplified by the sheer fact of Zizek’s Jokes.

PS:

Two Jewish friends pass a Catholic church on which a large poster addresses non-Catholics: ‘Come to us, accept Catholicism, and you instantly get $30,000 in cash!’. While walking away, the two friends become engaged in a debate about whether the offer is meant seriously. A week later, the two friends meet again in front of the same church, and one of them confides to the other: ‘I still wonder if that offer is serious’. The other replies condescendingly: ‘Ah you Jews, all you think about is money!’