Five Jokes by Slavoj Žižek
For the inimitable Slovenian philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Žižek, jokes are amusing stories that offer a shortcut to philosophical insight. Anyone who has read his books or heard him speak knows that they are central to Žižek’s discourse, impossible to separate from his serious philosophy. Žižek “gives us a refreshing sense of what we might call ‘the lightness of profundity,'” writes author and songwriter Momus in the afterword to a book-length collection of Žižek’s jokes. “We see the charming playfulness of the great masters of philosophy, and perhaps begin to recognize philosophy itself, at its highest, lightest level, as something akin to laughter and joking.”
Culled from that volume, the sample of jokes below — accompanied by Žižek’s anti-introduction — covers a range of subjects, from the illusion of freedom to fantasmatic identification.
Instead of Introduction:
The Role of Jokes in the Becoming-Man of the Ape
One of the popular myths of the late Communist regimes in Eastern Europe was that there was a department of the secret police whose function was (not to collect, but) to invent and put in circulation political jokes against the regime and its representatives, as they were aware of jokes’ positive stabilizing function (political jokes offer to ordinary people an easy and tolerable way to blow off steam, easing their frustrations). Attractive as it is, this myth ignores a rarely mentioned but nonetheless crucial feature of jokes: they never seem to have an author, as if the question “who is the author of this joke?” were an impossible one. Jokes are originally “told,” they are always-already “heard” (recall the proverbial “Did you hear that joke about …?”).
Therein resides their mystery: they are idiosyncratic, they stand for the unique creativity of language, but are nonetheless “collective,” anonymous, authorless, all of a sudden here out of nowhere. The idea that there has to be an author of a joke is properly paranoiac: it means that there has to be an “Other of the Other,” of the anonymous symbolic order, as if the very unfathomable contingent generative power of language has to be personalized, located into an agent who controls it and secretly pulls the strings. This is why, from the theological perspective, God is the ultimate jokester. This is the thesis of Isaac Asimov’s charming short story “Jokester,” about a group of historians of language who, in order to support the hypothesis that God created man out of apes by telling them a joke (he told apes who, up to that moment, were merely exchanging animal signs, the first joke that gave birth to spirit), try to reconstruct this joke, the “mother of all jokes.” (Incidentally, for a member of the Judeo-Christian tradition, this work is superfluous, since we all know what this joke was: “Do not eat from the tree of knowledge!” — the first prohibition that clearly is a joke, a perplexing temptation whose point is not clear.)
In an old joke from the defunct German Democratic Republic, a German worker gets a job in Siberia; aware of how all mail will be read by censors, he tells his friends: “Let’s establish a code: if a letter you will get from me is written in ordinary blue ink, it is true; if it is written in red ink, it is false.” After a month, his friends get the first letter, written in blue ink: “Everything is wonderful here: stores are full, food is abundant, apartments are large and properly heated, movie theaters show films from the West, there are many beautiful girls ready for an affair — the only thing unavailable is red ink.”
And is this not our situation till now? We have all the freedoms one wants — the only thing missing is the “red ink”: We “feel free” because we lack the very language to articulate our unfreedom. What this lack of red ink means is that, today, all the main terms we use to designate the present conflict — “war on terror,” “democracy and freedom,” “human rights,” etc. — are false terms, mystifying our perception of the situation instead of allowing us to think it. The task today is to give the protesters red ink.
There is an old Jewish joke, loved by Derrida, about a group of Jews in a synagogue publicly admitting their nullity in the eyes of God. First, a rabbi stands up and says: “O God, I know I am worthless. I am nothing!” After he has finished, a rich businessman stands up and says, beating himself on the chest: “O God, I am also worthless, obsessed with material wealth. I am nothing!” After this spectacle, a poor ordinary Jew also stands up and also proclaims: “O God, I am nothing.” The rich businessman kicks the rabbi and whispers in his ear with scorn: “What insolence! Who is that guy who dares to claim that he is nothing too!”
There is a nice joke about Jesus Christ: in order to relax after the arduous work of preaching and performing miracles, Jesus decided to take a short break on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. During a game of golf with one of his apostles, there was a difficult shot to be performed; Jesus did it badly and the ball ended up in the water, so he did his usual trick: he walked on the water to the place where the ball was, reached down and picked it up. When Jesus tried the same shot again, the apostle told him that this is a very difficult one — only someone like Tiger Woods can do it; Jesus replied, “What the hell, I am the son of God, I can do what Tiger Woods can do!” and took another strike. The ball again landed in the water, so Jesus again took a walk on the surface of the water to retrieve it. At this point, a group of American tourists walked by and one of them, observing what was going on, turned to the apostle and said: “My god, who is this guy there? Does he think he is Jesus or what?” The apostle replies: “No, the jerk thinks he is Tiger Woods!”
This is how fantasmatic identification works: No one, not even God himself, is directly what he is; everybody needs an external, decentered point of identification.
A joke from the early 1960s nicely renders the paradox of the presupposed belief. After Yuri Gagarin, the first cosmonaut, made his visit to space, he was received by Nikita Khruschev, the general secretary of the Communist Party, and told him confidentially: “You know, comrade, that up there in the sky, I saw heaven with God and angels — Christianity is right!” Khruschev whispers back to him: “I know, I know, but keep quiet, don’t tell this to anyone!” Next week, Gagarin visited the Vatican and was received by the pope, to whom he confides: “You know, holy father, I was up there in the sky and I saw there is no God or angels …” “I know, I know,” interrupts the pope, “but keep quiet, don’t tell this to anyone!”
In the good old days of “actually existing Socialism,” every schoolchild was told again and again of how Lenin read voraciously, and of his advice to young people: “Learn, learn, and learn!” A classic joke from Socialism produces a nice subversive effect by using this motto in an unexpected context. Marx, Engels, and Lenin were each asked what they preferred, a wife or a mistress. Marx, whose attitude in intimate matters is well known to have been rather conservative, answered “A wife”; Engels, who knew how to enjoy life, answered, of course, “A mistress”; the surprise comes with Lenin, who answered “Both, wife and mistress!” Is he dedicated to a hidden pursuit of excessive sexual pleasures? No, since he quickly explains: “This way, you can tell your mistress that you’re with your wife, and your wife that you are about to visit your mistress …” “And what do you actually
do?” “I go to a solitary place and learn, learn, and learn!”