Jeremy Arnold. Culture, Theory, and Critique. Volume 50, Issue 1. 2009.
The novelist Milan Kundera, in an interview with fellow novelist Philip Roth, responded to a question about the importance of laughter in his work, ending his answer by declaring: ‘Ever since [the Stalinist terror], I have been terrified by a world that is losing its sense of humor’ (Kundera 1983: 232). The connection of political terror to a lack of humour, of a world fundamentalist in politics and fundamentally opposed to the laughter the world provokes is a relation only a novelist, perhaps, could discover. Laughter has been anathema to philosophers such as Plato and Hobbes, and for precisely political reasons. The insight one might take from Kundera’s brief association of politics and humour is that a more democratic politics might be aided by attention to laughter, specifically the pleasure laughter takes in the contingency of human existence.
In this vein, this essay traces a line of thought from Kant’s phenomenology of laughter in Critique of the Power of Judgment (2000) through Hannah Arendt’s appropriation and modification of Kantian reflective judgment in order to explore how laughter may inform a mode and style of political judgment I call the politics of laughter. Laughter, for Kant, is a pleasurable experience that, within the Kantian system, challenges the limits of experience. More specifically, in laughter the subject takes pleasure in the contingency of existence. The disorientation and incoherence—the contingency—of the object of laughter is not a source of distress for the subject, but rather a source of pleasure. Contingency is an inalienable feature of democratic societies, often invoking fundamentalist and reactionary responses which feed off affects resentful towards an uncontrollable world. Laughter is an affect which offers a different affective stance towards contingency and opens new possibilities for an affirmative democratic ethos.
I then turn briefly to the relationship of pleasure and laughter to Hannah Arendt’s reading of Kantian aesthetic judgment. Although Arendt does not deal explicitly with the topic, key passages in her Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy (1992) are readings of the sections in the Critique of Judgment in which Kant discusses laughter. I argue that in Arendtian judgment the gratification of somatic affective experience—for example, in laughter—and the disinterested, generalised and representational aspects of judgment are thought together. Yet, this connection between affect and judgment is almost entirely absent in important interpretations of Arendt. Her reading of aesthetic judgment has become an important hinge between the aesthetic and the political in many strands of contemporary political theory. To read laughter and judgment together, to see the importance of somatic pleasure to disinterested reflective judgment may open up a more nuanced, richer account of both affective modes of being‐in‐the‐world and the judgments we make about these modes.
In the last sections of the paper I examine more closely a particular instance of laughter inspired by the movie Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006). I imagine a series of conversations emerging from the experience of laughing at the movie in order to highlight, on the one hand, that a politics of laughter must attend to the fundamental ambivalence between an affirmative and a resentful laughter; and on the other hand, to sketch in miniature what would be the affective tone of and substantive questions asked within a politics of laughter. If Kundera is right, a politics of laughter may be one promising road towards a more affirmative democratic politics.
The place of laughter in the Kantian system, more specifically in the Critique of Judgment (CJ), reveals that laughter is a limit‐experience. But it is a limit‐experience of a specific and perhaps not so radical kind. To fully understand the status of laughter within the Kantian system, it would be necessary to return to the origin and need for a critique of judgment in the first place. Such a task is beyond the scope of this essay. Briefly, a critique of judgment is necessary because, as Kant claims in the ‘First Introduction’ to CJ, the deduction of the conditions of possible experience does not guarantee the lawfulness of actual empirical experience (Kant 2000: 9). In other words, nothing in the Critique of Pure Reason guarantees that empirical experience, as human reason demands, also be a coherent system of lawful relations between appearances. The specific role of aesthetic judgment is that in it one discovers the
principle that the power of judgment lays at the basis of its reflection on nature entirely a priori, namely that of a formal purposiveness of nature in accordance with its particular (empirical) laws for our faculty of cognition, without which the understanding could not find itself in it. (Kant 2000: 79, emphasis added)
What CJ aims to demonstrate is that our understanding—with its concepts, its lawfulness and its ability to make sense of the world—does indeed find itself ‘at home’ in the world. One can see, even from this brief summary, what is at stake in CJ: the possibility of experience itself, which for Kant must be lawful and unified. Given the systematic importance of CJ in the Kantian architectonic, laughter suggests a particular kind of limit‐experience: the understanding may not always find itself in the world.
Kant defines laughter as ‘an affect resulting from the sudden transformation of a heightened expectation into nothing’ (Kant 2000: 209). Kant defines ‘affect’ in Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View:
the feeling of a pleasure or displeasure in the subject’s present state that does not let him rise to reflection (the representation by means of reason as to whether he should give himself up to it or refuse it) is affect. (Kant 2006: 149)
Affect is also ‘surprise through sensation, by means of which the mind’s composure is suspended. Affect is therefore rash, that is, it quickly grows to a degree of feeling that makes reflection impossible (it is thoughtless)’ (Kant 2006: 150). Affects, then, are: 1) related to the faculty of pleasure or displeasure (and thus the faculty of taste/judgment); 2) surprising, rash, fast; 3) purely sensation; which all lead to 4) overwhelming to the point where thought is suspended and reflection (judgment) impossible. Laughter, as an affect, suspends judgment and reflection. In that suspension, it is pleasure and gratification which mark the experience. For Kant, laughter is a vital activity, promoting health in the body, restoring the body’s equilibrium through the exhalations of breath and inducing rapid pulsations in the viscera: laughter, in short is the ‘promotion of the business of life in the body’ and a cause of cheerfulness (Kant 2000: 208). Although I will not return to the question of pleasure until I turn to Arendtian judgment, it must be kept in mind throughout that laughter is, above all, a pleasurable experience. But what makes us laugh?
Kant has an answer: ‘In everything that is to provoke a lively, uproarious laughter, there must be something nonsensical (in which, therefore, the understanding in itself can take no satisfaction)’ (Kant 2000: 209, emphasis added). In laughter the understanding cannot take satisfaction in the object, which means that the understanding cannot apply its lawful and ordering concepts to it. One might say that the understanding does not find itself in the object of laughter (recall that CJ aims to show that the understanding can and does find itself everywhere in the world). The examples Kant employs to demonstrate his analysis are verbal jokes; but against what some interpreters claim, these jokes are not logical fallacies or incongruities. The structure of the joke, indicated in the definition of laughter, is that of a ‘heightening’, a development and intensification of the understanding’s interest in the expected conclusion to the events the joke narrates. Thus, in this process an expectation of the end arises. However, the joke contains a moment of ‘deception’ which ‘can deceive for a moment’ but when the joke ends ‘the illusion disappears into nothing’ (210). In the joke it is not simply incoherence or logical fallaciousness that causes us to laugh, but nonsense.
On the one hand nonsense is meaninglessness (at the level of ideas); on the other hand, nonsense can be taken to mean a sense for the ‘non;’ i.e., a sense for the ‘nothing’. This latter kind of nonsense—a sense for the nothing—is key. Even though laughter is provoked by the relaxation of the understanding, and thus from the realm of ideas, it is nonetheless, as affect, a bodily sensation which senses nothing. In a joke intuition, imagination, understanding and judgment work normally such that there are objects for each idea that arises during the course of the joke—up to the crucial point. Kant’s description:
In the joke … the play begins with thoughts which, as a whole, insofar as they are to be expressed sensibly, also occupy the body; and since the understanding, in this presentation in which it does not find what was expected, suddenly relaxes, one feels the effect of this relaxation in the body. (209, emphasis added)
Just as in the heightening of the joke there is an experience of objects for the understanding, there is also an ‘object’ for the understanding in its relaxation: nothing. On the side of ideas, i.e. from the perspective of the understanding, there is nonsense as meaninglessness, which induces relaxation. But from the perspective of nonsense, i.e. from the perspective of objects, there is nothing (what this nothing is will be discussed in detail in a moment).
Kant is quite clear on this point. He emphasises that ‘it [the expectation] must not be transformed into the positive opposite of an expected object—for that is always something, and can often be distressing—but into nothing’ (209). What appears difficult to understand in this formulation is that jokes have punch lines. Certainly a punch line is something; hence the interpretations of Kant that point to the incongruity or logical fallacy between two ‘somethings’. Yet, if we take Kant seriously about the importance of the nothing, then we cannot accept this interpretation. It is not only the punch line but the simultaneous reception of both the punch line and nothing. And, as we have seen, insofar as this nothing frustrates the Understanding; and further, insofar as what we experience is, for Kant, formed by our own faculties; then when those faculties break down, we experience something very, very different from what we normally experience.
What is this nothing? Why does the understanding not latch onto the punch line itself? In other words, what is it about the punch line that makes enough sense (in its nonsensicality) to us that we understand it to be not what we were looking for, and also not something new for the understanding to understand? Why do other examples of expectations collapsing into nothing not produce laughter? As neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran points out, a pilot telling us that the bumps we expected to be normal turbulence are in fact signs of engine failure probably would not produce laughter (Ramachandran 1998: 1857). There appears to be a specific connection between the punch line and the nothing that produces laughter. Kant does not have an account of this relationship; and at this point, it may be necessary to depart from Kant, taking some of his insights and expanding upon them in a way Kant never did.
An example of a failed joke might help. Imagine the situation, not uncommon, of ‘getting’ a joke—a joke that you have never heard before—prior to the punch line. What is that experience like? It often takes the form of a recognition: ‘Oh, I get it’. But what does one ‘get’? One gets, perhaps, the play between what is supposed to be expected and what will actually take the placeof that expected thing. The experience of getting a joke prematurely shows something important. In addition to the punch line (actual object) and nothing (transformed expected object), one also needs the expected object itself. Further, getting a joke depends upon an ‘experience’ of that which lies between objects, the place in which objects come to appear. When we get a joke prematurely we might also say ‘I know where this is going’. What we know however is not simply the punch line, nor simply the expected object, but the ‘where’ of the joke, the place in which, and how, these two objects will play upon each other, producing laughter. Laughter depends upon three things: the expected object, the ‘actual’ object, and the place in which these two objects will and will not appear.
This example show something else as well: laughter needs all three things. To get a joke one needs to know/experience the two objects (expected and actual); but one also needs to experience, without knowing, the place in which the objects will and will not appear. In my example of a failed joke, the hearer knows how the two objects will interact, and also knows in what place and how they will play with each other; thus the joke fails. In Kant’s own examples, a failed joke does not include the place at all; it simply includes the appearance of some object, perhaps the opposite of the expected object, and thus the joke fails (as in Ramachandran’s plane example). The Kantian failed joke makes too much sense. But when one does not get a joke, it is often the case that one does not get either the object to be expected or the punch‐line (in the sense that one doesn’t get the relation of the punch‐line to the expected object); or, the hearer may get neither object, and thus the joke makes no sense. This is an important point, because to recall Kant, what provokes laughter is ‘something nonsensical’; but this does not mean the joke is, in its totality, nonsensical.
Looking more closely at the transformation of the expected object into nothing, what is left in such a transformation is the empty space within which the expected object was to appear, as if the expected object ceded its place. This empty place opens up an area between the two other elements of the triad: the expected object and the actual object. Neither object can take the place of the nothing—or else we do not laugh. But that does not mean that the two objects disappear; on the contrary, the nothing/place between them relates and separates the expected and actual objects. It is in this place that the sensed and the sense‐ful play, but without achieving (a full) sense. It is clear why the joke needs the two objects and the nothing: it is the nothing that prevents the two objects from being lawfully unified experiences; and it is the two objects which prevent the nothing from precluding the possibility of any mental movement through a completely nonsensical experience which simply passes by unnoticed (or distresses, thus displeases, perhaps at best baffles, at worst foments hatred and repulsion).
It is in this way that we can call laughter a limit‐experience. It is not completely lawful, because the understanding fails to make sense of the experience; but it is not completely lawless because laughter requires two meaningful objects in order to be sparked. Laughter points to an experience of the world that is neither/nor, neither completely lawful nor completely anarchic. Laughter does testify to an experience of the world, its objects, its senses, its coherences, its laws and its unities. But this testimony is, as it were, paradoxical. It testifies to the experience of the world from a perspective that challenges and tests experience. Laughter is an experience that finds lawful experience to be itself limited. One might also claim that the world and the faculties, just as Kant hoped, are in accordance with each other. In laughter the subject finds that it does have a relationship between the faculties that corresponds to a particular kind of empirical object. The object of laughter resists both lawfulness and anarchy; the faculties of the subject respond perfectly to the resistance of this object through the relaxation of the understanding. But my account of Kant’s analysis of laughter leaves open the ethical and political potential of laughter. With Kantian laughter in mind, I would like to now move on to the ethico‐political possibilities opened by the experience of laughter.
Laughter and Aesthetic Judgment
The attempt to bring Kantian aesthetic judgment into questions of political theory has often centred on Hannah Arendt’s distinctive reading of Critique of Judgment in Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy. Many critics have attempted to flesh out Arendt’s reading of Kant, often focusing on themes such as ‘enlarged mentality’; ‘representative thinking’; the training of the imagination to ‘go visiting’; the differences between moral and political judgment; and the relationship of judgment to thoughtlessness (Benhabib 1988; Beiner 1992; Villa 1999; D’Entreves 2000; Zerilli 2005). Important as all these aspects of judgment may be, what is rarely noted is the explicit reason, given at the end of the section on Willing in The Life of the Mind, that Arendt turns to judgment at all: the pleasure we might take in being free (Arendt 1978: 217). Arendt’s Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy does not constitute a fully coherent theory of judgment, nor does it help us resolve the problem of whether we should be ‘pleased’ by our freedom. Emphasising the very last sentence of Willing does not exclude the other important aspects of judgment for Arendt’s political thought; it does, however, invite the idea that judgment is to help us get a sense of what is pleasurable in our being free, more specifically, in the contingency that makes possible our freedom. And pleasure, as I noted above, is central to Kant’s phenomenology of laughter.
Perhaps surprisingly, it is the very section of Kant’s text in which he discusses laughter that Arendt relies on to spell out the relationship between judgment and pleasure in the ‘Twelfth Session’ of Lectures On Kant’s Political Philosophy (see Kant 2000: 207). Central to Arendt’s analysis of Kant’s distinction between the disinterested pleasure of reflective judgment and the interested pleasure of gratification is the second‐order judging undertaken in reflective judgment. As Arendt puts Kant’s position, ‘this choice [the it‐pleases‐me or it‐displeases‐me] is itself subject to still another choice: one can approve or disapprove of the very fact of pleasing; this too is subject to approbation or disapprobation’ (Arendt 1992: 69). In other words, I may very well find myself pleased when I hear of a friend’s recent break‐up to a woman he truly loved—for I always disliked her—but that does not mean I must be pleased with being pleased; on the contrary, I might disapprove and reprimand myself for the joy I am experiencing in my friend’s misery. This second‐order reflection on what pleases or displeases me is, for Arendt, the act of reflective judgment. In imagination one reflects not on the particular event or object but on the representation of that event or object; in this case, the representation of pleasure itself. When one chooses to approve a particular gratification, one feels pleasure, but ‘in this additional pleasure it is no longer the object that pleases but that we judge it to be pleasing’ (Arendt 1992: 69).
Against Kant, Arendt sees imagination as the pivot between a particular affective experience of pleasure—gratification—and a broader, communicable and pleasurable judgment which arises from reflecting upon an affective experience of gratification. Arendt’s re‐writing of Kant suggests that the difference between gratification and reflective judgment—i.e., between sensual pleasure and disinterested judgment, be it of particular experiences or even existence as such—is less stark than the difference Kant claims, and that readers of Arendt may tacitly accept. Arendt’s twist on Kant takes us from sensual gratification to judgment, and thus from one form of pleasure—the somatic—to another—the reflective. When read against both the last pages of Willing and Kant’s discussion of laughter, laughter, far from foreclosing the possibilities of reasonable judgment (as Kant thinks), may be an experience from which judgment can proceed such that the affective and the cognitive, pleasure and reason, the body and the soul work together to form political judgments infused with both interested and disinterested pleasure, gratification and the affirmation (or reprimanding) of pleasure.
Arendt’s sole description of the mental operations of judgment does not echo Kant’s free play of the imagination and the understanding; rather, as we have seen, she describes it in terms of the second‐order judging of somatic (dis)pleasures. Speculative as my interpretation may be, Arendt’s reading of reflective judgment as a second‐order disinterested judgment on what pleases or displeases us (gratifies or does not gratify us)—and not as the free play of the understanding and the imagination—makes of reflective judgment, and thus political judgment, a ‘free play’ between the somatic and the reflective, bodily pleasure and the pleasure of, as Zerilli puts it, ‘feeling our freedom’. This felt freedom is the ability to distance oneself from one’s immediate pleasures in order to ‘see’ our pleasures and what pleases us from other positions, and therefore the ability to communicate our pleasures and displeasures to others. Somatic pleasure may be incommunicable as such—although mirror‐neurons suggest otherwise—but reflective judgment can communicate with others because it asks of others to be pleased by what pleases me, i.e., it asks of others—or demands of others—that one should be pleased by the experience of pleasure in an object.
Why should rethinking the relationship between somatic pleasure and judgment matter to readers of Arendt, and more broadly to those who theorise and practise democratic politics? And, further, how could, or why should, the experience of laughter in particular play a crucial role? Firstly, Arendt’s theory of judgment implies that political judgment cannot be divorced from the affective experience of that which is judged. Why? Because judgment begins from a particular phenomenal experience of an object. Judgment, for both Arendt and Kant, is impossible without something given to the judge, something which impresses upon the subject. Reflective judgments are not subsumptions of particular objects under an already‐given concept of the beautiful, nor are they syllogistic conclusions; rather, each reflective judgment arises from a singular affective experience of a particular object, even if the pleasure we take in the experience stems not from the object but from the subject’s experience of the object. Arendt goes even further, because the Kantian play between the faculties of imagination and understanding becomes the play between two kinds of pleasure, the somatic pleasure of interested gratification in the object and the pleasure which we feel in our second‐order judgments approving or disapproving the initial feeling of pleasure.
On this reading of Arendt, political judgments do not achieve communicability and generality by transcending everyday existence. Whether it is the Rousseauian demand that the general will take precedence over the private will; the Kantian imperative that makes moral freedom an attribute of the noumenal self; or the Rawlsian subject in the original position, political and moral thinkers have a tendency to assume that judgments, in order to be fully communicable, autonomous, obligatory, moral, and rational, must be made in conditions which abstract the judge from a singular context. How, we might ask in regards to Rawls, is it possible to judge correctly—if at all—the justness of a particular distributive scheme in the absence of any affective experience of life under such schemes? Rawls explicitly claims that those in the original position ‘do not know how the various alternatives will affect their own particular case and they are obliged to evaluate principles solely on the basis of general considerations’ (Rawls 1999: 118). The veil of ignorance, of course, is the whole point of the original position, what makes possible the rationality of the moment of decision such that the most just system of distribution is chosen. However, as Stanley Cavell has argued, justice and the claims of others to participation in a just society may exceed the narrow parameters of the most just ordering of basic goods in a society, a position which includes within the concept of justice the possibilities and limitations of the actual lives lived in a particular society (Cavell 2004: 164-89). If my reading of Arendt is correct, then the generality of political judgment is not a function of removing as much of empirical existence and knowledge as possible, but rather a reflection on that existence: the generality of judgment is always made in, indeed a product of, a life in media res.
One might go further and claim that our political judgments are infused with the affective experience of the objects we judge; in other words, affects are not only what we judge when we judge reflectively; how we judge reflectively is influenced by our affective experiences (Connolly 2002: 64-78). Affects, Martin Heidegger claimed (and Spinoza, Nietzsche, Emerson, Deleuze and many others), are not secondary accompaniments to our thoughts; they are a fundamental aspect of our existence, altering at a deep level the very colour and rhythm of our being‐in‐the‐world (Heidegger 1962: 173-75). When we are fearful the world is judged fearfully; when we are joyous the world is judged joyfully. If, as Zerilli rightly argues, Arendtian judgment judges objects and events in their freedom, this does not mean that our judgments will therefore be affirmative of—or, as one might put it, take pleasure in—that contingency and newness. This point is crucial: acknowledgment and acceptance is not affirmation. Affirming freedom is not only a matter of acknowledging contingency and freedom; as Arendt herself put it in Willing, it may be the case that we are doomed to freedom, whether we like it or not (Arendt 1978: 217). To judge objects and events in their freedom from the standpoint of one doomed need not make any of us very pleased. In fact, ressentiment would seem to emerge quite easily from—or open up the possibility of—judging events in their freedom; what else, as Nietzsche repeatedly reminds us, is the will’s frustration in the face of ‘it was’ other than the experience of the radical contingency of one’s own existence?
It is at this point—where ressentiment seems as likely an outcome of the acknowledgement of freedom as affirmation—that the importance of laughter emerges. For laughter is a distinct, perhaps singular affect in which we experience pleasure in an object because such an object does not fit in to the lawfulness of the phenomenal world—it is, as it were, a ‘difficult object’ for affirmation. Laughter expresses a pleasure taken in an experience of disorder, of unexpectedness, of sudden change, of transformation, even, from the perspective of the understanding, of disappointment—in short, an experience of freedom. Yet laughter, far from seeking to deny, repress, or eliminate its object, revels in it. Laughter is the spontaneous response to the spontaneity of the world, to the emergence of something unexpected, or of something which is revealed to be other than we thought it was. The pleasure of laughter—the somatic pleasure taken in contingency—can infuse reflective judgment and thereby politics with an affirmative ethos springing from the very events that can also lead to ressentiment.
However, laughter is not necessarily an affirmation to which we ought to turn. It was in his most laugh‐filled and affirmative book that Nietzsche pointed to the cruelty of laughter: ‘Laughter.—Laughter means: being schadenfroh but with a good conscience’ (Nietzsche 1974: §200); Hobbes’ opinion of laughter was strikingly negative (Hobbes 1997: 35). Laughter may be, of course, a response to or an example of abjection, cruelty, and humiliation. Laughter may accompany the nihilism which aims to destroy for the sake of destruction—the laughter which makes The Joker such a terrifying character in the recent movie The Dark Knight. Or laughter may sever some from a community, as many junior‐high school students discover.
Yet this is where reflective judgment returns. Even if it is the case that what we laugh at pleases and gratifies us, it is not the case that we must be pleased by our taking pleasure in an object. One may find that the fact that one is laughing, upon reflection—that is, seen from the various standpoints our imagination can visit—is reprehensible. Or, one might discover that even if something makes us laugh, it might be prudent to remember when and where that laughter is appropriate. But note that such reprehensibility or prudence would rarely be directed toward the object of laughter; on the contrary, one would disapprove of oneself. Unlike ressentiment, which takes out its wrath upon the world and many of the objects and people in it, Arendtian judgment begins by focusing on the experience of the object, how we ought to respond to that experience, and how we can communicate that experience to others. The second‐order judgment would then be: ‘one ought not to be pleased, to laugh, at this (object, person, event, etc.)’. This is less a judgment about the object then about us, that is, those of us who make up our political community, or who ought to make up the political community of which we would like to be members. Laughter, as Bergson noted, is a social phenomenon; it is one way to seek out others, of discovering who is there with you in the theater, or the world, a call to an other or the realisation that laughter is that call (Sypher 1956: 64). It can also signal where our political and social relationships come to an end, as if laughter delimits the intangible borders of a ‘we’. Laughter bears an ineluctable ambivalence. However, that one begins from pleasure taken in the world and existence—even if that pleasure is reflectively judged to be displeasing to us—and not from fear, hatred, or the whole gamut of what Spinoza calls passive affects, is important.
Towards a Politics of Laughter: Borat
To ‘test’ both Kant’s phenomenology of laughter and the ethico‐political possibilities of a politics of laughter, let us turn to the recent movie Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, in which the ambivalence of laughter is evident. The title alone informs us that one object of laughter is an assemblage of vague stereotypes about a country in Central Asia many in America have never heard of. Thus, initially we laugh at the image of a reporter from a foreign country speaking in broken English, a country shown to be a hotbed of anti‐semitism, anti‐gypsyism, the caging of women, and other remnants of barbarism and fascism. Our laughter at Borat himself brings to the surface our own ignorance of a country and culture we know little about, and may incite some reflection as to what our laughter says about ourselves and our own prejudices. Yet, at the same time, Borat utilises these same stereotypes to reveal within America similar forms of stupidity, instinctual anti‐semitism, misogyny, racism, and xenophobic nationalism. One scene in particular exemplifies both Kant’s theory of laughter and the political fecundity of humor. Borat sings the national anthem at a rodeo (truly an American stage), introducing himself by claiming that Kazakhstan supports the United States’ ‘war of terror’. Note that the expected object (‘war on terror’) and the actual object (‘war of terror’) play between both the comedic and political import of the slip between ‘on’ and ‘of’, between a preposition and the possessive. The crowd responds with a patriotic cheer (they also cheer his call for George Bush to drink the blood of every man, woman and child in Iraq), and the point is brutally clear: Americans affirm not a war on terror, but the terror of their war, the violence it unleashes (also recall the open mic night at the bar in Arizona, where the audience enthusiastically sings along to his song ‘Throw the Jew Down the Well’). The crowd turns against Borat when he sings the ‘Kazakhstani’ national anthem to the tune of the ‘Star‐spangled Banner’, in which he claims Kazakhstan to be the greatest country in the world and all other countries to be run by girls. In these scenes we often find ourselves laughing at the Americans Borat is revealing as stupid and racist. Yet, even at this moment, reflecting upon our laughter might make us wonder whether we are once again buying into a set of prejudices Americans bear towards other Americans, prejudices which may not tell the whole story about the communities shown to us on the screen (or we might think: police interrogators often feign sympathy with the suspect in order to drag out a confession; would I have joined in the booing, or the singing?). After all, a man speaking in broken English may be given the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the difference between a preposition and a possessive. But, of course, it is funny.
The pleasure we feel in laughing at a movie like Borat can give rise to many questions about ourselves and others, about why we are laughing, what we are laughing at, and what that laughter says about ourselves and others (why am I laughing at ‘Throw the Jew Down the Well’? Why are you?). Reflecting on our laughter may force us to reprimand ourselves; or, we may discover that our laughter means something entirely different, that we are not laughing in the contemptuous mode Hobbes detests. More important is in what spirit, with what affective tone, self‐reflection or conversation about the experience of pleasure would proceed, for that affective tone may lead to different political judgments and arrangements. I argued above that the disapprobation we may discover in reflecting on our pleasures would be directed towards the self (or to others who laugh), and not towards the object. Of course, this is not to deny that some will laugh and affirm their laughter in judgment precisely because it makes them feel superior to the object of laughter (or out of some mode or another of ressentiment). But imagine a conversation amongst viewers who approve or reprimand themselves for laughing; some who laugh out of contempt for Borat and his country, some who laugh out of contempt for other Americans and some who laugh without contempt at all. What would such a conversation be like?
At the least they would agree that the movie is funny, that it pleased them. They might even agree—if they have read this paper—that their laughter is a result of a play between what they expected and what appeared, between lawful sense and anarchic non‐sense (between ‘on’ and ‘of’). Still, they might very well agree, in some formulation or another, that their laughter is pleasure taken in contingency. And this is, already a good deal of common ground insofar as taking pleasure in contingency is now a live possibility for response to the eventfulness of the world. If my presumptions are plausible, then the discussants in this imagined conversation have already discovered each other in a particular way: they find pleasure in, i.e. they (can) laugh at, contingency. The disagreements between them, however heated they become—and they would probably become quite heated—would be, let us say, ‘only’ political. In other words, the disagreements would be about whether they can form or maintain a community in the face of their disagreements about the propriety of their laughter.
For those who find themselves laughing at Borat out of contempt (whether of Borat or of Americans), it is up to them to judge whether such laughter is affirmable or not. For those who do affirm that laughter, say an American affirming his laughter at the stupidity and racism of other Americans, one might respond: and what does this mean for the country you, at the moment, share with these other Americans? If they are so stupid and racist, to what extent can you accept them as members of the demos, thus as participants in a democratic politics? What is the point of democracy? Is it simply the rule of the demos, or is democracy a political project necessarily inclusive of notions of justice, of equality, of legitimacy? If the former, then what to do; are you not stuck with them? If the latter, then to what extent can you continue to remain a member of a polis consisting of those who deny justice and equality to others and thereby de‐legitimise the polis (Thoreau’s position in ‘Civil Disobedience’ comes to mind; Thoreau 1993, 3-8)? Or one might say, in response: is not democracy itself, unlike reflective judgment, the place in which these very questions about democracy are not only asked of oneself and of imagined others but of actual others, actual citizens of the polis (can such questions take place in an aristocracy or oligarchy)? Should we measure the ‘democracy’ of our politics not solely by its justice, equality or legitimacy (for these are essentially contested concepts), but also by the tenacity of our desire to speak to others? Should we not settle with finding others stupid and racist, incapable of responding to, even incapable of hearing, claims made upon them to change? Thus, laughter may also be revelatory of the limits we set upon our desire to engage in a democratic project, and reflection upon that laughter may very well (compel us to) transgress those limits.
As an alternative scene, take Hobbes’ description of the formation of a body politic (and by extension a conversation after the formation of the Leviathan). There too the various discussants would agree that the world they live in is contingent, more or less anarchic, likely to frustrate their ability to fulfil their various individual and collective desires. Yet in Hobbes’ account, the affective experience driving the conversation is the fear of violent death, a fear manifested in the very existence of the other person (and we already know that this affective response is a reality for many). The difference between the two conversations I have imagined are not differences in accounts of human nature; for Hobbes, human beings are not fundamentally evil, they are fundamentally desirous, and these desires conflict in such a way that one can reasonably fear violent death as the outcome of the structure of human desire. Fear of others—and fear of a contingent world—are not starting points, but conclusions of Hobbes’ account of human nature (and thus the beginning of Hobbes’ political philosophy). The difference between the two conversations is not the difference between an ‘optimistic’ and ‘pessimistic’ account of human nature. The difference between the two conversations is fundamentally affective: on the one hand, pleasure taken in contingency, on the other fear in the face of contingency.
Returning to the first conversation, recall that the political issue is whether people laughing for very different reasons can, in the face of such disagreement, continue to maintain a democratic community. I am not sure they could. Things are more complicated if we throw into the conversation someone who doesn’t think Borat is funny at all, and perhaps also one of those quivering fellows (or ladies) Hobbes describes. At this point the subject of conversation broadens and deepens. Here what is at issue is not only community but our very ability to adequately account for why we do or do not laugh, as well as our capacity to make intelligible why we should take pleasure in contingency, and not rather fear it. These issues are no longer ‘only’ political, but existential, perhaps even ontological (perhaps even ‘religious’ in some expanded sense of that word); they are trickier issues, pressing the limits of our language and even our desire to communicate with others. Yet, insofar as the desire to make oneself intelligible to others remains, the conversation is potentially, in Arendt’s sense of the term, political. Against Arendt’s own limitations on the content of political speech, a politics of laughter embraces the form of Arendtian politics while expanding the content (but does this contaminate and de‐form the form?). So where does this conversation turn, now that it is fully broadened to include our potential ethico‐political responses to contingency in general?
To answer this question, imagine a side conversation between the Hobbesian subject and the one who laughs at Borat unabashedly, without reflectively discovered reservations. The contestation is no longer about whether Borat is funny—the Hobbesian has not seen it—but about ethos, about what one ‘does’ with contingency, about what affects to cultivate and endorse given the fact of a contingent world. The two do not disagree in their assessment that the world reveals itself in completely unexpected and uncontrollable ways; they ‘disagree’ in the range of possible affective experiences of that world, as well as the political possibilities such affects engender. As one can see clearly enough in Hobbes’ Leviathan, when one begins with fear one ends with an ever‐present space of potential violence necessitating an even stronger form of violence as the only reasonable response: affects infuse Hobbesian rationality. Political conversation and judgment, for Hobbes, requires the fear of violent death in order to arrive at rational and reasonable decisions.
For the unabashed Borat lovers it is unclear what specific political arrangements would follow from their taking pleasure in contingency. However, one can guess that the major political issues confronting them would not be how to avoid, repress or eliminate aleatory elements in their world and lives; on the contrary, one would expect that their response would be more measured, more chastened, more affirming, if only because they realise that pleasure can be taken in a contingent world. In a politics of laughter the political becomes a space in which, individually and collectively, human beings move back and forth between their affective experiences and their assessments of those experiences, checking with themselves and others as to what their experiences of pleasure and displeasure mean for bringing a more democratic polity into being. One dominating question might be: how do we convince those Hobbesians that pleasure taken in contingency may be just as empirically justifiable and reasonable a response to the world as fear; and that such a response may open new possibilities for political life? For that is the broad question faced by those who try to think through the possibility of persuading others to take pleasure in the world as they do, to embody an ethos and a politics of laughter. Even the posing of such a question reveals the limits of the public/private divide which marks so much thinking about democratic politics. Such a divide is both empirically suspect—‘private’ affects always infuse ‘public’ judgments—and strategically limiting (insofar as the reasonable assessment and criticism of policies can, does and should take affects into account).
These are, of course, just sketches in miniature of a politics of laughter. Yet I hope that the conversations I have imagined, humble as their origins may be, show that judgment and conversation provoked by the experience of laughter can bring important questions to bear on the ways we think about and practise democracy. Laughter reveals not only that questions of the limits of community but, more broadly, that affects are ineluctably tied to the judgments we make and the kinds of politics we cultivate. If democracies are often threatened by fundamentalist reactions to contingency—reactions driven by affects of fear, resentment, revenge and despair—then it may not be enough to simply articulate ‘better’ reasons for democracy. More than reasons, we need to change the affects of democracy; and laughter, I hope to have shown, may be one affect to inculcate in ourselves and others. If, as Milan Kundera warns us, the loss of our sense of humor is connected to fundamentalist, even totalitarian, politics, then it may be laughter, more than any other affect, which we need in dark times.