LX:122 | Did you hear the one about…

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, author-less, 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.)1


1.  Less Than Nothing (London: Verso, 2012), 94-95


Žižek, Slavoj.  Žižek’s jokes: (did you hear the one about Hegel and negation?).  Ed. Audun Mortensen.  The MIT Press. 2014. vii-viii.

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