Lacan, Psychoanalysis, and Comedy
Laughter is not a decision – it happens to us, at times inappropriately and inauspiciously. Psychoanalysis is well known for having shed some light on the perennial mysteries of what we do not control – dreams, parapraxes, symptoms, and sexual problems. While the Freudian slip and the bungled act have become part of Western culture’s lingua franca, it is less commonly known that psychoanalysis provides revelatory insights about the mechanisms of jokes, comedy, humor and their effects. Many people today would happily admit to their Oedipus Complex, but few would feel comfortable reflecting on why they laugh at the humiliation of their co-worker, titter at an ethnic or sexist remark, or realize that like jokes, their dreams are made out of puns, witticisms and one-liners. Few note, as Freud did, that dreams were “insufferably witty,” revealing an annoying predilection for bad puns. And fewer have noted, as Lacan did, that comedy allows access to the unconscious.
If someone were to ask what single book one should read to understand the psychoanalytic method, the answer would be Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. In one brief monograph, Freud succinctly explains how the unconscious operates: it does things with words. The psychoanalytic cure is not just a “talking cure,” but to further play on Austin’s famous dictum, it does things with jokes. We propose a paradigm swerve, a Freudian slip on a banana peel.
Freud revealed that dreams were the royal road to the unconscious. Freud also thought that by understanding the workings of the joke, we would be better readers of our hidden selves, discovering knowledge where we did not expect it. Jokes and dreams share several characteristics: they outwit an inner censor, allow satisfaction, are produced spontaneously and forgotten quickly, and are therefore subjected to repression. Jokes offer a shortcut to the unconscious we can use in broad daylight.
As he did with dreams, Freud gave intellectual and philosophical dignity to jokes in his watershed book, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious (1905).
While Freud’s book is not about comedy per se, it unmasks the working of the jokes and of language, and this is the stuff dreams and comedy are made of. Freud perspicaciously noted to Fliess that “The ostensible wit of all unconscious processes is intimately related to the theory of the joke and the comic.”1 As in comedy, dreams and jokes bypass the objections of consciousness outwitting censorship, disguised by riddles and homonyms. Dreams and jokes allow access to hidden wishes while granting aggression an acceptable outlet and establish a social tie that satisfies repressed unconscious desires.
Illuminating the joke by exploring its psychic economy, Freud showed that, linguistically, jokes and dreams work by condensing and displacing meanings and making witty use of polysemy. Both dreams and jokes function by disguising and deforming latent content. While the dream may grant wish fulfillment for the dreamer alone, the satisfaction of the joke is shared, at least most of the time. Economically, the joke bypasses the inhibiting factor both in the teller of the joke and in the listener, allowing for a gain in pleasure. As two essays in this collection by Drach and Rabaté will make explicit, the psychic payoffs garnered by jokes, witticisms, and puns are subject to dynamics of economy. Jokes, Freud tells us, are a way we profit from the unconscious in waking life with laughter as the delightful dividend.
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