Art, Criticism and Laughter: Terry Eagleton on Aesthetics

Art, Criticism and Laughter: Terry Eagleton on Aesthetics

This paper was given at the conference `Aesthetics, Gender Nation’, a day of discussion of the work of Terry Eagleton, organised by the Raymond Williams Trust, Oxford, March 1998.

Laughter consists in the fact that the blood, which proceeds from the right orifice in the heart by the arterial vein, inflating the lungs suddenly and repeatedly, causes the air which they contain to be constrained to pass out from them with an impetus by the windpipe, where it forms an inarticulate and explosive utterance; and the lungs in expanding equally with the air as it rushes out, set in motion all the muscles of the diaphragm from the chest to the neck, by which means they cause motion in the facial muscles, which have a certain connection with them. And it is just this action of the face with this inarticulate and explosive voice that we call laughter.

René Descartes, The Passions of the Soul, Part II, Article 124.

It is almost de rigueur to begin any serious philosophical account of the functions of comedy and laughter with an embarrassed and self-exculpatory reference to the story of the acquaintance of Doctor Johnson, who, on hearing of Johnson’s reputation as a philosopher, said: `I have tried in my time, too, to be a philosopher, but I don’t know how; cheerfulness was always breaking through’. The humourlessness that may derisively be conceded of philosophy as a whole would seem to be true in spades of Marxism. Is it not odd that the most deeply and heroically optimistic philosophy that humanity has succeeded in wringing out for itself from the nightmare of history should be so conspicuously lacking in cheerfulness? With some notable exceptions, to whom I shall come to a little later, none of the great Marxist thinkers of last century or of this – Marx himself, Gramsci, Lukacs, Benjamin, Adorno – can be said to have been exactly masters of the arts of wit and hilarity. The Bumper Book of Marxist Jokes, one suspects, would slide easily into an inside pocket.

Since Weber, we have been schooled to think of capitalism as a matter of Protestant self-renunciation and stern devotion to duty and the reality principle. Late in his life, the most Weberian of Marxists, Theodor Adorno, wrote an essay which exemplifies the Puritan streak in Marxism. Adorno’s essay `Free Time’ was written in the very midst of the rise of that pleasure-centred counter- culture to which Adorno himself was able to react only with bewilderment and scorn. In it, Adorno offers at one point to elucidate his subject with the help of what he calls `a trivial experience’ of his own. `Time and time again’, he writes, `when questioned or interviewed, one is asked about one’s hobbies.’ There is a moment of delicious anticipation here, as one prepares oneself for Hello-esque revelations about the private life of the great Marxist aesthetician: to discover, perhaps, that, after a hard day’s negative dialectics, Teddy Adorno likes nothing better than to snip happily at his collection of bonsai trees, or disappear into the garage to tinker with his Harley Davidson. But, of course, this reverie has scarcely had time to form before it is met by Adorno’s scorching response:

I am shocked by the question when I come up against it. I have no hobby. Not that I am the kind of workaholic, who is incapable of doing anything with his time but applying himself industriously to the required task. But, as far as my activities beyond the bounds of my recognised profession are concerned, I take them all, without exception, very seriously. So much so that I should be horrified by the very idea that they had anything to do with hobbies – preoccupations with which I had become mindlessly infatuated merely in order to kill the time – had I not become hardened by experience to such examples of this now widespread, barbarous mentality.{1}

Adorno’s judgement on hobbies and free time will in fact turn out to be another version of the grim verdict supplied in his long, contemptuous condemnation of `The Culture Industry’ of two decades earlier, that `Laughter is the fraud practised on happiness’. For Adorno, the very distinction between the seriousness of work and the irresponsibility of free time is to be understood as an extension of the remorseless drilling of the bourgeois subject into the required rhythms of modern life. For Adorno, just as much as for an Origen or a John Chrysostomos, the sound of laughter in the era of what he did not live to see called postmodernism was the cackling of the damned.

The recent history of Marxism poses the question of the relations between pleasure, austerity and truth with a particular intensity. If the revival of Marxism from the late 1960s onwards was propelled by the libertarian embrace of hedonism within the counter-culture of the 1960s, that powerful association between pleasure and revolution has been blunted off in the era of postmodernism to which 60s culture has turned out to be one kind of prelude; an era in which pleasure has been repressively desublimated into the grotesquely compulsive and compulsory pleasures that form the subject of so much postmodernist `celebration’, from the alleged ecstasies of the cyber-body through to the stern delights of fin-de-siècle sadomasochism, with its recruitment to the pleasure principle of every possible form of consensual assault and battery. Adorno is surely right to have seen how consumer capitalism has meant the crossing over of the Protestant ethic into a kind of duty of hilarity. But while acknowledging how right he is, and sympathising with his exasperation at Benjamin’s own dubious interest in Charlie Chaplin and the stinkbomb dissidence of surrealism, one must feel that some vital element must be missing from a political and ethical philosophy that has been able to make so little accommodation to the powers of laughter.

Some of my memories of Terry Eagleton as my tutor at Wadham College between 1973 and 1976 (when, I realise with a complicated kind of shock, that he was ten years younger than I am now), feed into this question of the difficulty of integrating pleasure and commitment. For a long time, I and my peers had wondered quite how it was that the man who could while away so many hours in song and, shall we say, cordiality in The Greyhound, outlasting any mere undergraduate – as we mumbled our lame apologies about essays to finish and slipped away exhausted into the night, we would hear behind us, the sounds of Terry launching into another chorus of `Wild Mountain Thyme’ – quite how it was that he managed to find the time to crank out all this writing. For a long time, I suspected that he was employing a body double who came on duty at 9 o’clock, as his dissolute alter ego snored away the forenoon. Then I discovered the mundane truth, as I stumbled past his room on the only occasion that I ever succeeded in getting up in time to assist at those parodic, so-called revelries which take place on May morning under Magdalen Tower, and heard the furious clicking of his typewriter vying with the twitters of the birds. I knew then that all the legends were true: no matter what epic condition of intoxication he had achieved the night before, or whatever conveyance it took to get him to his desk, whether ambulance or wheelbarrow, it was he himself, and not some Jekyll to his Hyde, who was always there the morning so shortly after the night before. The hilarity and the austerity formed a complex, but still, at this period, so to speak, underground continuum.

The adjacency of play to work now seems very appropriate given the way that, unlike any other Marxist theorist I can think of, Eagleton has striven to bring the question of comedy to the forefront of his work. One relatively straightforward and in many ways very attractive option here would be to explicate the explication of comedy, laughter and the ludicrous which Eagleton develops through his various works, for example in the dazzling chapter on Marxism and comedy in his book on Walter Benjamin. If all goes well, I will indeed succeed in doing something of this kind. I will try to say that Terry Eagleton’s attempts to associate Marxism not only in principle with happiness but performatively and in practice with laughter sends him on a route through a sort of buried tradition within Marxism. But I have two other aims in mind too. I want to try to persuade you that Eagleton’s most important work, his book on The Ideology of the Aesthetic, and the works which have fed into and have been released by it, involve a sustained attempt to read the history of Marxism, the history of philosophy itself, sideways through its concern, or failure to concern itself with, the comic. If you buy that, then you might be sufficiently softened up to buy the further suggestion that the topic of comedy, can in a sense be seen as the internal mirror or mis-en-abyme of the whole argument of The Ideology of the Aesthetic; even to the point of licensing a perverse, arsy-versy reading of the whole of the book, as no more than the alibi or excuse for the investigation of its true, disguised subject, the comic.

Secondly, though, I want to suggest that the comic and the aesthetic become so bound up for Eagleton, that the question of comedy somehow melts away from view, like Alice passing through the mirror, becoming part of the very style and substance of his engagement with the aesthetic. Eagleton’s theoretical encounter with the aesthetic in The Ideology of the Aesthetic marks the last heroic effort to keep comedy in its place, in his sights, as the intermittent subject of his work. Thereafter, the lessons that Eagleton has attempted in earlier work like the Walter Benjamin chapter to spell out, spill across into his own relation to his subject. Eagleton tells us in his preface to The Ideology of the Aesthetic that he had planned at one point to interleave his historical analysis of aesthetic ideology with an account of the development of Irish cultural nationalism, from Thomas Davis through to Seamus Heaney.

The result of this ambitious venture would have been a volume which only readers in regular weight-training would have been able to lift; and I will therefore reserve this work either for a patented board game, in which players would be awarded points for producing the most fanciful possible connections between European philosophers and Irish writers, or for some future study. {2}

Eagleton made at least one move in this game. I chaired a lecture at a conference on Walter Benjamin in which he elected to speak on the intriguing topic of Benjamin and Ireland, which had seasoned Benjaminians in the audience scratching their heads and jealously wondering if Eagleton had somehow got his hands on some great, hitherto unsuspected work of Benjamin’s on Finnegans Wake and the Irish Free State. That unwritten complement to The Ideology of the Aesthetic turned into Heathcliff and the Great Hunger; but, first of all, and perhaps more significantly for my purposes, it took the form of a turn to the theatre, with the writing of Saint Oscar at around the same time as The Ideology of the Aesthetic was being assembled. Saint Oscar and the plays and screenplays that have followed it, though certainly no simple move from theory to practice, from touchline to penalty area, are the fruit of a willingness to allow that thinking is not something you do in advance of or to the side of your writing, but something that occurs through it.

Saint Oscar and the plays were actually preceded by a novel, Saints and Scholars, which appeared in 1987. If some of Eagleton’s writing for the theatre appears at times like literary theory masquerading as drama, then Saints and Scholars reads very much like a drama on the run from itself in the disguise of a novel. The central donné of the novel is that, had James Connolly somehow magically escaped the bullets that blazed towards him in his execution cell, he might have ended up in hiding in the West of Ireland. With a bit of manipulation of time, he might have run into the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who lived for a while in a cottage on the west coast of Ireland, who might well have been there with his Cambridge friend Count Nikolai Bakhtin, the elder brother of the Russian critic Mikhail. Once you’ve granted all this, nothing could be more natural than for them to be joined for a debate about language, history and revolution by a portly Jewish commercial traveller whose wife had recently run off to Paris with a young poet almost half her age, to whom he had ironically himself introduced her 12 years before – a man named Leopold Bloom. The book is about four characters on the run and in hiding, but is itself perhaps a way of going undercover for a while, for example in the wonderful parody of a Bloomian interior monologue on the anti-Beckettian predicament of not being able to stop writing:

Wittgenstein returned to the living room, leaving Bloom sunk in thought at the table. Can’t stop writing, he says. That’s a queer one. Could always try wearing boxing gloves. Get someone to tie them on, lots of knots, can’t get one off with the other. Or a tablet maybe, some kind of contrascriptive. Dry up your ink. Or treat the paper chemically so the ink doesn’t take, fades as you write, write all you want and damn all to show for it. {3}

Wittgenstein’s predicament sounds a bit like Eagleton’s own at this period: asked by Donal Tierney ` “And who might these gobshites be who are coming after you?” ‘, Wittgenstein replies contemptuously `Dons…Vultures, parasites. They may arrive any moment.’ ” {4}

Eagleton has treated Saints and Scholars subsequently as a source book or secret bank account, raiding it at intervals for turns of phrase, dramatic ideas and runs of argument. His dramatisation of the life of Wittgenstein for Derek Jarman derives from the Wittgenstein passages, especially the hilarious dialogue between Wittgenstein and Bertrand Russell; Saint Oscar seems to open out from some of the dandaical self-dramatising discourse of Nikolai Bakhtin; the idea of using drama to effect a daring last-minute rescue of James Connolly from history has been re-used in the play The White, the Gold and the Gangrene, first produced in 1993, which ends as a kind of Brechtian burlesquing of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. That whole sequences of argument should also have commuted across from Saints and Scholars to The Ideology of the Aesthetic should be seen as evidence, not of Eagleton’s incapacity to stop writing theory even on his days off, but rather of a fundamentally comic and theatrical motivation that comes to characterise The Ideology of the Aesthetic and Eagleton’s critical writing thereafter. It is as though Lenin should turn out to have been merely another pseudonym or cat’s-paw for Mikhail Bakhtin.

The Ideology of the Aesthetic depends upon a restated analogy between organicist thinking in political and aesthetic orders of thought. The terms of this analogy are stated early in The Ideology of the Aesthetic. `The mystery of the aesthetic object is that each of its sensuous parts, while appearing wholly autonomous, incarnates the “law” of the totality. Each aesthetic particular, in the very act of determining itself, regulates and is regulated by all other self- determining particulars’ (IA, 25). The theory of the balancing of particular and generality in the art work provides a `dream of reconciliation – of individuals woven into intimate unity with no detriment to their specificity, of an abstract totality suffused with the flesh-and-blood reality of the individual being’ (IA, 25) for an emergent middle class that has dismantled absolutist power and traditional forms of religious authority, but has nothing yet to put in its place. Even if there are moments of rush and forcing in the book, as Eagleton moves too neatly or precipitately from arguments about the nature of the work of art to corresponding arguments about the nature of the State; still the great triumph of the work is to have shown the many ways in which the aesthetic acted as a kind of doodlepad allowing the sketching of imaginary or dreamwork solutions to tenacious and sometimes unresolvable political contradictions.

The key to The Ideology of the Aesthetic is to be found in some sentences of Adorno concerning the ways in which the work of art encodes and enacts relations of domination.

The origin of domination is always the paradoxical, and thus unexpected, subsumption of an object under a concept that is in other respects heterogeneous to it. Accordingly, the phenomenon of aesthetic form always signifies the sudden apprehension of an incongruity between such a concept and the real object thought through it, and hence between what is abstract and perceptive.

This is a passage which prototypically fuses relations of power and aesthetic processes, lacing together all of the problems and possibilities of the aesthetic, as well as providing Eagleton with the central dynamic of his argument: the aesthetic as the utopian possibility of what escapes identity thinking, even as it serves as the very occasion for the enlargement of the domain of identity thinking, for that way of taking into theoretical custody the errant, libidinously unassimilable particular which Eagleton names the ideology of the aesthetic. This quotation demonstrates in its very form the relationship between dialectical thinking and the workings of style, a relationship that Eagleton both points to, and himself imitates in pointing to it, when he says that Adorno’s is

a style of philosophizing which frames the object conceptually but manages by some cerebral acrobatics to glance sideways at what gives such generalized identity the slip. Every sentence of his texts is thus forced to work overtime; each phrase must become a little masterpiece or miracle of dialectics, fixing a thought in the second before it disappears into its own contradictions (IA, 342).

Actually, that is not strictly speaking true. I don’t mean that what Eagleton says about Adorno is mistaken; and I don’t mean that I haven’t got things quite right, I’m not acknowledging a theoretical error or coarseness. I mean that it is untrue in a grosser, more vernacular, less parliamentary sort of way: I’m owning up to a fib, a fabrication, a porky, a whopper. You will search Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory in vain for the paragraph I have just quoted. Where you will find it is in chapter 8 of the second volume of Arthur Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation, where it runs as follows (my replacements are indicated in square brackets):

The origin of the ludicrous [domination] is always the paradoxical, and thus unexpected, subsumption of an object under a concept that is in other respects heterogeneous to it. Accordingly, the phenomenon of laughter [aesthetic form] always signifies the sudden apprehension of an incongruity between such a concept and the real object thought through it, and hence between what is abstract and perceptive. {5}

The point of this forgery, or application of Benjaminian dynamite to the tedious continuities of history, is, I hope, by now becoming obvious. Indeed, my act of forgery is motivated by the fact that Schopenhauer’s discussion of jokes indeed comes in for extended discussion in Eagleton’s The Ideology of the Aesthetic, a discussion which seems to demonstrate plumply enough my own rather slender point, which is that the question of laughter and the ludicrous attracts to itself and replicates all of the terms in which the problem of the aesthetic is posed.

It is a striking fact that the period which Eagleton takes as his subject, the period during which the concept of the aesthetic gets substantiated (one might say invented) also saw the development for the first time of something like sustained philosophical curiosity about the workings of laughter and the comic. As John Morreall has suggested in his useful volume The Philosophy of Laughter and Humour, the systematic inattention to laughter and the comic, at least up to mid-eighteenth century, has made for a an extraordinary conservatism about the subject. Insofar as they have paid any inattention at all to comedy, philosophers have only ever managed to come up with two kinds of explanation for how it is produced. These are what Morreall calls the Superiority Theory and the Incongruity Theory (Morreall actually proposes a third category, which he calls, somewhat dubiously for British ears accustomed to contemporary sexual slang, the Relief Theory, but I set this aside, perhaps precipitately, as merely a rewriting of the Incongruity Theory in terms of a sort of physiological hydraulics). {6}

Up until the middle of the eighteenth century, an Aristotelian conception governed theories of laughter. Not that Aristotle had much to say on the subject. It may be that the medieval rumour that Aristotle had written a now lost book on comedy is true: but judging from the little that Aristotle has to say on the subject of comedy in the rest of his work, it does not seem likely to have been a very substantial work. Aristotle shares with Plato the idea that laughter is derision, or the expression of superiority. Aristotle saw laughter as proceeding from `the joy we have in observing the fact that we cannot be hurt by the evil at which we are indignant’. Insofar as we tend to laugh at the lowly and the undignified (what is ugly without being offensive, as Aristotle says, in an interesting prefiguring of aesthetic language), laughter should be kept within bounds, since laughing too much at what is ridiculous or unbecoming starts to put your own dignity on the line. Aristotle is here in concord with Plato, who recommended the banning of depictions of gods or heroes doubled up in laughter on the grounds that it was unbecoming and conducive to disrespect for the divine.

The Superiority theory was still the best that Hobbes could do with the topic: `The passion of laughter’, he wrote in his Human Nature, `is nothing else but sudden glory arising from some sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others, or with our own formerly.’ During the period with which Eagleton concerns himself, however, the emphasis began to shift from this agonistic or political reading of comedy as a kind of assertion of superiority, to the cooler, more cerebral, more formalist kind of explanation that Morreall characterises as the Incongruity Theory. One of the most important mediators of this shift was the Scottish philosopher of common sense, Frances Hutcheson. It is Hutcheson who, finding Hobbes’s account of laughter as aggressive self-assertion repulsively antisocial, began the long work of socialising laughter and the pleasures of the body, a work that parallels the development of aesthetic discourse from the mid- eighteenth-century onwards. Stung by Addison’s repetition of Hobbes’s argument in The Spectator, Hutcheson published three letters on comedy and laughter, which he gathered together with a parallel critique of the Hobbesian aspects of Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees in a volume he published in 1758 entitled Thoughts on Laughter. The attempt to associate or as it were bind in laughter with the binding effects of sympathy and fellow feeling, is accomplished through a shift from the Superiority Theory to the Incongruity Theory. Laughter results from `the bringing together of images which have contrary additional ideas as well as some resemblance in the principal idea’. {7} To be sure, the most common kinds of incongruity still involve differences in social rank: `this contrast between ideas of grandeur, dignity, sanctity, perfection, and ideas of meanness, baseness, profanity, seems to be the very spirit of burlesque; and the greatest part of our raillery and jest are founded upon it’. {8} But Hutcheson’s essay, which is acknowledged by Schopenhauer in his chapter on the ludicrous, has begun the work of evacuating ideas of power from ideas of laughter, that process of formalising and aestheticising laughter which makes it so apt a mirror for the emergent discourse of aesthetics itself.

It is in these terms that the topic of laughter gets into Kant’s Critique of Judgement. In taking it at its own earnest self-estimate Eagleton’s discussion of Kant in The Ideology of the Aesthetic rather lets it off the hook. On the other hand, it must be said that Kant’s discussion of laughter is easy to miss. It comes right at the end of Book II, the `Analytic of the Sublime’, and its subject is modestly veiled by the title of the section which is simply `Remark’. Kant wishes to show that laughter comes about as a kind of mechanical or purely physiological version of the disinterested play of the understanding that is involved in the contemplation of the beautiful. Instead of the disinterested play of the understanding, we have the play as it were of sensation. While allowing the analogy between jokes and works of art, Kant carefully empties out any kind of cognitive content from his account of the stimulation of laughter:

it is readily intelligible how … shifting the mind now to one standpoint and now to the other, to enable it to contemplate its object, may involve a corresponding and reciprocal straining and slackening of the elastic parts of our intestines, which communicates itself to the diaphragm (and resembles that felt by ticklish people), in the course of which the lungs expel the air with rapidly succeeding interruptions, resulting in a movement conducive to health. This alone, and not what goes on in the mind, is the proper cause of the gratification in a thought that at bottom represents nothing. {9}

A joke, for Kant, offers the same kind of `intricately wrought composure’ that a poem does for I.A. Richards, only somehow bypassing the intellect in a form of bodily contemplation. If this account of laughter as mechanical process resembles not only Descartes’s hilariously hapless attempt to get at the essence of laughter by describing its physiological effects, it also seems to look forward to Bergson’s account of laughter as resulting from the diminution of a living creature to the condition of an object or a machine. This is no accident. For Bergson’s Laughter climaxes with a discussion of the relations between art and laughter, which insists that, since art has to do with the individual and the particular, and comedy with what is typical and general, art can have nothing to do with the comic. Comedy, he concludes, `turns its back upon art, which is a breaking away from society and a return to pure nature.’ {10} Bergson here completes the dissociation that Kant begins but does not carry through. Kant therefore both digests laughter into the notion of the aesthetic and carefully distinguishes laughter from aesthetic understanding. We can say that, following Kant, culture, in the Arnoldian sense of a free play of the mind, is the damping down of laughter, a way of learning how not to giggle in church or fart in art galleries. (The work of Bakhtin will later suggest the undecidability of the question of whether laughing is bad because it is a kind of farting or vice versa.) Art and the aesthetic mean the kind of seemly, self- including, self-limiting continence that Kant prefigures here in his account of the comic; they mean that act of simultaneous inclusion and exclusion that Kant himself practises with respect to laughter. Jokes and laughter are allowed into the saloon, so to speak, only on condition that they leave their guns at the door, and obey the rules of the establishment, which is to say, submit to the kind of formalist account which allows them to be assigned their modest role as a minor version of the free play of judgement.

The interesting feature about Kant’s version of the Incongruity Theory as here set out is that it is actually contradicted by the example he gives. Here, is Kant’s Joke:

Suppose that some one tells the following story: an Indian at an Englishman’s table in Surat, saw a bottle of ale opened, and all the beer turned into froth and flowing out. The repeated exclamations of the Indian showed his great astonishment. `Well, what is so wonderful in that?’ asked the Englishman. `Oh, I’m not surprised myself,’ said the Indian, `at its getting out, but at how you ever managed to get it all in.’ {11}

`At this’, declares the Sage of Regensburg, `we laugh, and it gives us hearty pleasure’. He is instantly at pains to make it clear that there is no crude triumphing in disadvantage: our laughter `is not because we think ourselves, maybe, more quick- witted than this ignorant Indian. It is rather that the bubble of our expectation was extended to the full and suddenly went off into nothing.’ {12} Our contemporary discomfort with this joke – it is, after all, an Irish joke – is the mark of the inadequacy of any formalist account of humour – and of art – which attempts to drain out from it power and politics.

Schopenhauer’s account of the ludicrous, to which I have already referred to, breaks with Kant’s, and in a sense, makes it possible for us to see how unintentionally comic Kant’s whole enterprise in the Critique of Judgement is. For Schopenhauer, the comic impulse does not come from a pure, disinterested play between alternative frames of judgement on the same plane, but a struggle between epistemological levels, namely between a concept and a particularity. For Schopenhauer, we might say, Hegel’s dialectic of history would be comic, where Kant is merely ridiculous. (It was in response to precisely this sense of what Kant left out precisely by trying to cram everything grotesquely in, that Schopenhauer’s theory of the ludicrous was developed.)

The difference between interested and disinterested laughter (which is really the difference between laughter and the absence of laughter) is illustrated in some of Schopenhauer’s own jokes. Here is what I believe to be the unfunniest joke ever propounded:

Bearing in mind that for an angle two lines meeting each other are required which when produced intersect each other; that the tangent, on the other hand, touches the circle only at one point, but at this point really runs parallel to it; and if we thus have present in our mind the abstract conviction of the impossibility of an angle between the circumference of a circle and the tangent, but yet have such an angle visibly before us on paper, all this will easily make us smile. In this case, of course, the ludicrous is extremely feeble. {13}

A moment later, we get a more effective example of the interference of concept and particular, in an anecdote told of the famous German actor Unzelmann.

After he had been strictly forbidden to improvise at all in the Berlin theatre, he had to appear on the stage on horseback. Just as he came on the stage, the horse dunged, and at this the audience were moved to laughter, but they laughed much more when Unzelmann said to his horse: `What are you doing? don’t you know that we are forbidden to improvise?’ {14}

The `subsumption of the heterogeneous under the more general concept’ which Schopenhauer observes in this last example is powerful and provocative of laughter to the degree that something is at stake in the imposition of a law and resistance to it. Depressingly, but not surprisingly, Schopenhauer, like Kant, finds his most natural example in a racist joke that insists on the actuality of relations of power in the abrasion of the concept and the particular:

one of the free Negroes in North America, who endeavour to imitate the whites in all respects, recently placed an epitaph over his dead child, which begins: `Lovely, early broken lily.’ {15}

It is striking how regularly such dynamics of racial or ethnic power and disadvantage creep into those abstract or aestheticised theories of laughter that began to predominate during the later eighteenth century. The preface to a pseudonymous verse account of The Art of Joking, which appeared around 1780, proclaimed that `Laughing is that noble faculty which distinguishes man from beast, which shews the rationality of the soul, that can be moved independent of the sense’. {16} But a centrepiece of its evocation of the contemporary conditions of wit involves the degradation of reason into blundering foolishness which is characteristic both of the Irish and the English who make themselves ridiculous in imitating them:

The vulgar ear Hibernia’s jests delights,
Who turns to blunder all her merry flights;
She knew incongruous jests wou’d please the croud,
So gave her sanction, and those bulls allow’d.
Behold her sons perpetually mistake,
And one idea for another take;
But of [sic] ungrateful to avoid the slur,
They gave to us what they derive from her.
Imported bulls the grinning rabble please,
Hibernian lawyers blunder for their fees;
Hibernian actors blunder on the stage,
And, while derided, look immensely sage.
The English, proud what’s bad to imitate,
In Irish accent British blunders prate;
Against Hibernia’s sons her weapons turn,
And at the mighty blunder-masters spurn;
So where a master-painter shews his skill,
Vile daubers copy, and expression kill. {17}

That this laughing cruelty survives into our own time is indicated by the very similar use made by Bergson of race: we find Negroes funny, says Bergson, because they look to us like objects. Why do they look like objects? Because the blackness of their skin makes it look as though they have been painted.

Eagleton’s own embrace of the affirmative power of laughter comes from its own acknowledgement and activation of something more like a Schopenhauerian than a Kantian perspective. Not that Eagleton has not had his own Kantian methodological moment with respect to comedy. In an essay published in 1983 entitled `Poetry, Pleasure and Politics’, Eagleton undertook an analysis of a single line of Yeats’s `Easter 1916′, with the aim, he says of articulating the different levels at which pleasure is derived from poetry; this in turn, he suggests would lead to a theoretical knowledge of how it is that the mechanisms of pleasure might be harnessed to political objectives. Fortunately, this grim extension of the technological mode of Criticism and Ideology to the question of pleasure is subject to a parodic explosion from the start. The essay is comically poised between convincing its reader of the possibility of subsuming pleasure within cultural politics and acknowledging that such a work of analysis could never be complete or sufficient, would always remain comically, laboriously retarded with respect to its object.

Not that there isn’t something a little formulaic about the uses of pleasure and the comic as they are claimed and enacted in The Ideology of the Aesthetic. Eagleton’s own comedy is on the whole the comedy of derisive desublimation: it works often by a kind of personification, which reduces the play of concepts to the slapstick actions and struggles of imagined types or situations. Take, for example, this colourful account of the Nietzschean creed of self-overcoming:

In contempt for the timorous bourgeois, he [Nietzsche] unveils as his ideal that violently self- willing creature, conjuring himself up anew at every moment, who was for Kierkegaard the last word in `aesthetic’ futility. But this ferocious new creation, stamping his overbearing shape on the world with all the hauteur of the old transcendental ego, is hardly as new as he appears. If the furious dynamism of the Übermensch terrifies the stout metaphysical citizen, he may also figure as his fantastic alter ego, in the sphere of production if not in the sacred precincts of family, church and state. (IA, 259)

Or take these two versions of a judgement regarding the importance of the flâneur for Benjamin, taken from Walter Benjamin and its reworked form in the chapter on Benjamin in The Ideology of the Aesthetic:

The flâneur‘s every dallying step speaks ideological volumes; in the very poise of his head and rhythm of his gait Benjamin reads the imprint of the class struggle itself. Peerlessly self-composed, resisting the dismembered crowd, the flâneur moves majestically against that historical grain that would decompose his body into an alien meaning, reduce his numinous presence to an allegory of loss. {18}

The flâneur, or solitary city stroller, stepping out with his turtle on a lead, moves majestically against the grain of the urban masses who would decompose him to some alien meaning; in this sense his style of walking is a politics all in itself. (IA, 335-6)

The second version thins out the camp, flâneurial self-regard, parodic to be sure, but perhaps too self-indulgently so, of the first; and that detail of the turtle gives the sentence a derisive comic stab that opens up a gap of hostility between the parody and what it parodies. In it Villiers de L’Isle Adam is suddenly diminished to a kind of Quentin Crisp. glimpsed, as it were, from the top deck of a number 19. There is enormous energy in these personifications, but it is an energy that can become routine.

There is something rather fixated, too, about the way in which the comic is identified with the force of the body in The Ideology of the Aesthetic, the ways in which the comic can become the guarantee of the `ineffably particular’. Here, The Ideology of the Aesthetic can I think be accused of the same kind of over-estimation of the work of Bakhtin as is to be found in the chapter on comedy in Walter Benjamin. The evidence of this overestimation is, I think, to be found in the curious fact of his absence in The Ideology of the Aesthetic; although Eagleton declares, at the end of his chapter on Adorno, that Adorno himself, Benjamin and Bakhtin are `the three most creative, original cultural theorists Marxism has yet produced’ (IA, 364), there is no chapter devoted to Bakhtin. It is as though Eagleton in a certain sense might not wish to diffuse the impact of Bakhtinian assumptions about the redeeming comic openness of the body upon which he depends too much to want to subject it to analysis. But here, Eagleton appears to miss a chance of disentangling his own Bakhtinianism from that of the textual- libidinists who during the 1980s seized on Bakhtin’s work as the best hope for gingering up what had become the pallidly predictable procedures of deconstruction. And such an act of disentangling was surely necessary. One might say that the difference between Eagleton’s Marxist-materialist-corporealism and libidinal-textualist corporealism amounts to little more than a disagreement about whether bums are funnier than the word `bums’.

Actually, there are two slightly different views of the claims and powers of laughter which pull against each other in Eagleton’s work. The first is to be found in Eagleton’s reference to Benjamin’s judgement that `there is no better starting point for thought than laughter; speaking more generally, spasms of the diaphragm generally offer better chances for thought than spasms of the soul. Epic theatre is lavish only in the occasions it offers for laughter.’ {19} The second is to be found in the suggestion made in Walter Benjamin that `Marxism has the humour of dialectics because it reckons itself into the historical equations it writes; like the great heritage of Irish wit from Swift and Sterne to Joyce, Beckett and Flann O’Brien, it has the comedy of all “texts” that write about themselves in the act of writing history.’ {20}

Part of the power and fascination of The Ideology of the Aesthetic is that it offers itself and its own procedures to be read in terms of the very arguments it offers about and against the aesthetic. The aesthetic appears as just that realm of troublingly unassimilated particularity for which materialist analysis must articulate the law, without merely abolishing it into politics. For Eagleton’s own antagonists throughout this book are those post-Marxists and postmodernist theorists who would see the aesthetic as pure self-determination, excessive to all law, politics or ethics. The kind of lawfulness, the articulation of the aesthetic into larger historical and political totalities, which Eagleton’s argument generates, asks to be read in terms of the aesthetic lawfulness which is its subject. As one might expect, it is in the chapter on Marx, right at the heart of the book, that this reflexivity becomes clearest; this is a chapter which, as I once tried to argue in a book of my own, runs into a problem when it tries to argue that Marx’s own theoretical writings represent a kind of compromise between a totalising aesthetics of the beautiful and an open, excessive aesthetics of the sublime. For how are we then to judge the aesthetics of the blending, which certainly sounds like it trumps the sublime with the beautiful? {21} This question could be reformulated in terms of the tragic and the comic.

Perhaps the most telling question raised by Eagleton’s account of the workings of aesthetic ideology, and raised in particular by the distinctively comic manner of his account is how far one should allow the aesthetic to dictate the terms in which it is read and understood. Arguably, Eagleton allows a particular, dominant tradition of thinking about the aesthetic to appear to determine the nature of the aesthetic itself, when it may be just as important to insist that there is no more an essence of the aesthetic than there is for Wittgenstein an essence of language, or a way of isolating from the forms of behaviour we gather together with the term language some uniquely and intrinsically `linguistic’ quiddity. It turns out that, as we should have known all along, the aesthetic is everywhere.

If that is Eagleton’s point, it is a point that runs the danger of getting lost in a discourse that can be accused of treating the aesthetic too aesthetically. In one sense, comedy and laughter are what wrench us dialectically out of this tautology. And yet, since the comic appears to be thought so much in parallel to the aesthetic, precisely the same point could and should be made, and for precisely the same reasons, about laughter and the comic as I have just made about the aesthetic, namely that it is thought too systematically, again too aesthetically. For all the subtlety of Eagleton’s discussions of the problems of how to keep the liberating corporeal force of laughter safe from the danger of incorporation, one wonders whether this very characteristically aesthetic problematic is not part of the problem. To treat the comic as either so thoroughly assimilated as to have been abolished within Romantic aesthetics, or as that which remains troublingly outside its precincts, as the very essence of the inessential, as the category of the `free particular’ or the noncategorial, is to have constrained the comic within a suspiciously invariant formal structure that it might have been the point of the exercise to kick away from. If the discourse of the aesthetic is a kind of ideological switchboard, then the comic is a parasitic but still structural noise on the line, which hotwires the aesthetic across into questions of power, as they are expressed in concerns with, for example, gender, and nationality.

We just do not need to know what the comic is; as with the aesthetic, we could do most of all with knowing what it is we do with laughter and what it does with us. The fact that our failure to do this, to pick up the tongs with that same pair of tongs, as Eagleton puts it in Saints and Scholars, is so irresistibly comic, is also part of the point. But there is one feature of comedy and laughter to which I have paid no attention to at all, even though it is the enabling condition for everything I have been able to say, and the way in which I have been able to say it. The identification of this feature is the one absolutely new contribution which Freud makes to the understanding of laughter, when he observes that laughter is always social. He does not mean by this another version of the Superiority Theory, that laughter always involves social relations, between high and low, dominators and dominated. Rather it is the fact that nobody can laugh alone, without wanting to let some other in on the joke, that attracts Freud’s attention. We can no more laugh alone, than we can be in company for long without laughing. We laugh as we live, in company; and our laughter is one of the ways in which we make the company we keep. For laughter is a way of making, of taking thought, a creative, companionable labour, the kind of labour we cannot choose to do without, because it is the labour out of which we are ourselves made and remade, and make and remake each other. Laughter, in short, and at last, is the labour, as this has been today, for me, of love.


1. `Free Time’, in The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture, ed. J.M. Bernstein (London: Routledge, 1991), p. 163. Back to Text

2. The Ideology of the Aesthetic (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990), p. 11. References hereafter to IA, in the text. Back to Text

3. Saints and Scholars (London: Verso, 1987), p. 121. Back to Text

4. Ibid, p. 77. Back to Text

5. Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, Vol. 2, p. 91. Back to Text

6. The Philosophy of Laughter and Humour, ed. John Morreall (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1987). Back to Text

7. Frances Hutcheson, Thoughts on Laughter and Observations on the Fable of the Bees In Six Letters (Glasgow: Robert and Andrew Foulis, 1758; facsimile reprint Bristol: Thoemmes, 1989), p. 24. Back to Text

8. Ibid. Back to Text

9. Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Judgement, trans. James Creed Meredith (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1957), p. 201. Back to Text

10. Henri Bergson, Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, trans. Cloudesley Brereton and Fred Rothwell (London: Macmillan, 1911), p. 171. Back to Text

11. Kant, Critique of Judgement, pp. 199-200. Back to Text

12. Ibid, p. 200. Back to Text

13. World as Will and Representation, Vol. 2, p. 92. Back to Text

14. Ibid, p. 93. Back to Text

15. Ibid. Back to Text

16. Walter Benjamin: Or Towards A Revolutionary Criticism (London: Verso, 1981), p. 154. Back to Text

17. `Samuel Smilewell’, The Art of Joking: or an Essay On Witticism; In the Manner of Mr Pope’s Essay on Criticism: With Proper Examples to the Risible Rules (London: for Joseph Deveulle, c. 1780), p. 51. Back to Text

18. Walter Benjamin, p. 154.Back to Text

19. Walter Benjamin, Understanding Brecht, trans. Anna Bostock (London: New Left Books, 1973), p. 101. Back to Text

20. Walter Benjamin, p. 161. Back to Text

21. See my Theory and Cultural Value (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1992), pp. 135-48, esp. p. 140. Back to Text