Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Freud, S. The Joke and its Relation to the Unconscious.

Freud, S. The Joke and its Relation to the Unconscious. Trans. Joyce Crick. New York, NY: Penguin, 2005.

The pleasure of a joke, Freud suggests can arise either from its “joke-technique,” an economy of phrase which produces mild amusement (“Jokes,” 85-91) or from its “tendentious” qualities, by which a joke circumvents socially-conditioned repression and allows one to take pleasure from normally inaccessible sources, such as sexuality, hostile mockery or cynicism (“Jokes,” 92-111). Tendentious humour achieves this breaking of social taboos by ‘bribing’ the listener with the pleasure of jest and joking, so that they might permit the expression of what is customarily repressed and suppressed which affords even greater pleasure. The humour of tendentious jokes, because it arises more from the statement they convey than the form they take, forces us to distinguish between the substance of the joke and the joking form, or “joke-work” which, in the case of tendentious humour, merely operates as a Trojan Horse, allowing the impermissible idea to be given expression.

While the tendentious elements might suggest the potential for the joke to act as a vehicle of political criticism, this is undercut by Freud’s account of the fundamental pleasure of the “joke-work,” which is explained as a source of play, wherein the pleasure arises out of “savings in psychical expenditure” itself caused by the recognition of the familiar and the repetition of the similar (“Jokes,” 119-24). Thus any critical political potential of tendentious humour stands in contrast with the conservative function of this joke-work, which, as in Bergson’s model, involves a return to that which is already known, here presented as a source of pleasure. Thus while Freud does not state his model in ideological or political terms – rather he understands the social motivation of the constructing and sharing of joke as a means to release psychic energy (“Jokes,” 135-43) – a certain conservative political aesthetic may be conceived within.

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