Archives for posts with tag: Humor

Conan struggles to make this speech. His feeling is obviously not bittersweet, but rather just sad; he really, really doesn’t want to leave, but thinks he should try to look on the ‘bright side.’

This form of optimism should be seen for what it is; it is not some ‘greater’ Cause that he chooses to believe in, but, rather, the obscene superego of social norms, weighing on his conscience, forcing him to feel a particular way about his situation.

(The parallels with workers going through massive layoffs should be obvious: we are told to think of being fired not as an affront to human dignity executed by huge corporations, but rather as a gift, a chance to develop a new skill, take up a new hobby, etc.).

What is meant by ‘superego’? In contrast to the ego-ideal (i.e., the Law, the explicitly stated, socially acknowledged ‘correct way’ of doing things), the superego is the unstated, a-legal or even illegal form of the law, the paradoxical supplement to the Law without which the Law could not operate, but which the Law ignores or even explicitly disavows.

Žižek explains this psychoanalytic notion in Metastases of Enjoyment:

Superego emerges where the Law […] fails; at this point of failure, the public Law is compelled to search for support in an illegal enjoyment. Superego is the obscene ‘nightly’ law that necessarily redoubles and accompanies, as its shadow, the ‘public’ Law. This inherent and constitutive splitting in the Law is the subject of Rob Reiner’s film A Few Good Men, the court-martial drama about two Marines accused of murdering one of their fellow-soldiers.

The military prosecutor claims that the two Marines’ act was a deliberate murder, whereas the defence succeeds in proving that the defendants simply followed the so-called ‘Code Red’, which authorizes the clandestine night-time beating of a fellow-soldier who, in the opinion of his peers or the superior officer, has broken the ethical code of the Marines.

[….’Code Red’] condones an act of transgression — illegal punishment of a fellow-soldier — yet at the same time it reaffirms the cohesion of the group — it calls for an act of supreme identification with group values. Such a code must remain under cover of night, unacknowledged, unutterable — in public, everybody pretends to know nothing about it, or even actively denies its existence. It represents the ‘spirit of the community’ at its purest, exerting the strongest pressure on the individual to comply with its mandate of group identification. Yet, simultaneously, it violates the explicit rules of community life.

[Therefore] what ‘holds together’ a community most deeply is not so much identification with the Law that regulates the community’s ‘normal’ everyday circuit, but rather identification with a specific form of transgression of the Law, of the Law’s suspension (in psychoanalytic terms, with a specific form of enjoyment).

….the opposition of symbolic Law and superego points towards the tension between ideological meaning and enjoyment: symbolic Law guarantees meaning, whereas superego provides enjoyment which serves as the unacknowledged support of meaning” (54-56).

So back to Conan: he appears to break with the norm by choosing the ‘nobler’ or more ‘classy’ way of signing off of the show, but this behavior is merely the necessary underside – obverse, inversion, supplement – of the symbolic, stated Law of “you can say whatever you want;” the point is that he can enjoy (along with the crowd) ‘rebelling’ against the established way of doing things, only because this rebellion itself is already taken into account by the Law.

This ‘classiness’ is nothing other than a violent social injunction to enjoy a situation that is fundamentally alienating for him, a situation in which he is ultimately given a forced choice – it may appear that he is choosing to look on the bright side, but this choice is already decided for him; he only chooses it because it is the only option that society will allow him – everyone would hate him if he didn’t do the ‘classy’ thing.

So what looks like an exception (his ‘class’) is actually the norm. When we call him noble or kind, we are only encouraging the same kind of malicious ideology to be perpetuated in the next person who has to sacrifice in front of the crowd. What are they sacrificing?

The void of free choice, the freedom to walk off the stage, to shout out in anger – think of the scene from Network, in which the newscaster begins to chant, “I want you to get mad… I want you to say ‘I’m mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take it anymore!”

That is what Conan wants to do: he jokes that, “even if we have to do it in a 7-11 parking lot,” the show will go on – and then immediately says in an understated, regretful, and even desperate way “I really don’t want to do it in a 7-11 parking lot!”.

This last exclamation is the sad truth of the entire show. It is the cry for escape from the social demand. This understated voice is what opposes his self-deception at the hands of the superego. But over all this superego-induced self-deception, the injunction to enjoy despite the traumatic excess of the imposition of the Law, is accomplished, and Conan himself buys into it, immaturely accepting the superego underside of the Law, even claiming it as his own, ‘classy’ gesture.

*Note: obviously it’s a bit absurd to worry about Conan’s dismissal, since his ‘desperate’ situation isn’t desperate at all; however, because of Conan’s popularity, and the publicity of the show, I think it makes sense to use it as an example.


Consider this: if you replaced the panda with a business executive in a suit — the capitalist par excellence — it would totally shatter the symbolic functioning of the advertisement; this intrusion would rupture the commercial’s marketing force. The capitalist ideology at work here would collapse under its own weight once we realize the horrible fact that an ambiguous panda is the only thing standing in the way of our seeing the true violence of capitalism; in other words, if we just disambiguate the absurdly comical panda-figure, then we see that we’re actually always suffering violence done by real people, not by imaginary pandas, as the commercial wants us to believe. Indeed, it’s almost ridiculous how easy it is to disintegrate the ideological functioning here: replace the panda and the whole thing turns into a horrible farce. Destroying the “panda” — the core of the fantasy — is the way to dissolve capitalist ideology in this case: the panda is the sublime object, the mask that sustains an ideological fantasy as if to say capitalism really is this innocuous.

To understand this, we have to see that the panda-figure is so enigmatic, so bizarre, that it keeps you searching for a reason why it’s there, a reason for what it’s doing. The point not to be missed is that sustaining your curiosity is precisely the function of the panda: it absorbs your attention so as to obfuscate, to mystify, what would otherwise — if it were a human being — be a strikingly obvious case of brutal violence, akin to the work of an SS or KGB operative. So think of it in the following way: if a human did these same things, the commercial would inspire not laughter, but horror. This horrible violence is what’s really happening every day. It’s no coincidence that we say we’re “bombarded” with advertisements, pushed more and more to buy, to consume, to enjoy.

But it would be too traumatic if a human being played the role of the panda, violently imploring you to buy, eat, and enjoy the cheese. And that is why, in all seriousness, the panda represents the crucial pivot point or “crux” of ideology today, the enigmatic figure which traps the imagination in a closed loop of fantasy; the panda deflects our critical gaze – fully operative, of course, in the case that a business executive played the part – reflecting it back to us, distracting the critic and getting the critical view out of the way so that we can feel comfortable enough to respond in laughter, effectively sustaining the ideology.

The truly grotesque thing about this commercial, however, is the hideous blank stare that the panda directs toward its ‘victims.’ It doesn’t even speak; it just acts. So there are two things at work in this character: (1) its plain absurdity, the ridiculous spectacle of a panda being there at all, and (2) its sublime character: its stare captures the look of its viewers, draws the consumer in (it gazes into us), standing in for the hole in the symbolic understanding, Lacan’s object a, the result being a perpetual non-satisfaction of our curiosity, an irresolution of the question ‘What the hell is this thing, and what is it doing here?’. Once the gaze is captured, the panda suddenly acts, violently breaking the rules. But this should not stop us from seeing the more insidious ideological point of this rule breaking: the panda figure is made all the more absurd – all the more laughable (enjoyable) – by its rule-breaking: it’s just that much easier to deny what’s actually going on here, to say to oneself “that is such an absurd thing that the whole point of this commercial must be some farfetched joke, there’s not really consumerism/capitalism playing itself out here.” Thus the viewer finds it all the more believable that this couldn’t possibly represent anything other than a fantasy, couldn’t reveal something about the functioning of a social system, of capitalism (and capitalist ideology) itself. At least, this is the advertisers’ wager.

The violence in the commercial is thus senseless on two levels: first, of course, the violence is totally unnecessary, and, second, it’s not clear what on earth the panda’s motivation would be, or if this would-be animal, which we’d normally distinguish from human beings for its lack of conscious intentionality, could even have a motive at all. And therein lies the danger. For once we fail to determine a motive, we have given up the critique; only if we can figure out the underlying cause can we reveal the workings of the system itself. This is why comedy, with its absurd figures, can be so subversive: it temporarily suspends our judgment, postpones it from reaching its “target.” With figures like the panda as its mascots, capitalism, and other ideologies, thus thwarts anyone who wants to get at the true language of ideology.

So if we laugh at this commercial, then ideology is functioning flawlessly. If, on the other hand, we come away confused, then, although we haven’t “bought into” the joke, we have still failed to puncture the horrible thing going on here, to resolve the ambiguity. In effect, unless we penetrate this commercial with a critical gaze, the ideological schema remains in tact, we walk away puzzled or apathetic.

Further, I’d assert that when the capitalist puts on the ‘mask’ of the panda, we feel that we are somehow more free in our decision to obey the command and to buy the cheese, because, after all, it’s just a panda… We might even think that because we can laugh at it, we have command over it, we “get” the joke, understand it, and thus maintain a dominant position of anxiety-free knowledge with respect to the otherwise potentially threatening ideological injunction: it is much easier, and much more gratifying, to confront the agent of capitalism in panda form, than to confront it in human form.

Here, a major problem is that while individuals today feel relatively autonomous, thanks to modern democracy, liberated from the violence of an outside force, of a religious, military, or cultural imposition, they nevertheless submit to the demands of the supposedly “benevolent” authority of the absurdly comic figure, whether this figure is a panda, or a self-deprecating idiot, or a silly spokesperson with strange quirks (see examples 1 and 2).

We should see in all of these commercial figures a strict equivalence to the kind of ideological activity that happens in the political realm: political leaders such as Berlusconi maintain their charisma and power not by following and administering the letter of the law, but rather by openly admitting that they break the law, so as to stand at an ironic distance to their actions; they do not deny responsibility, but rather make a much more subversive move: in their overt hypocrisy they deny that the notion of responsibility is itself important. So what we should see in the comic character of the panda here is that capitalist ideology has managed to convince the consumer that capitalism, after all, is just a game, shouldn’t be taken too seriously; the message is that, because capitalism is “the best we can do,” we might as well laugh, might as well stand at an ironic distance from our activities in the market, might as well enjoy the product and ignore the system that created it.

And this is, to be precise, the same mark of a smug self-assurance that says “things are under control.” It is an attitude that pervades yuppie culture, from the “life is good” brand, to other obsessions with reducing anxiety, from Zen Buddhism and yoga all the way down to smoking pot and partying non-stop.

Ideological critique is that which seeks to identify the symbolic operations that sustain an ideology, and these objects are harder and harder to find today, because they are cloaked in the mask of an innocuous, absurd joke. But luckily for the critic, the ideological coordinates of this commercial are rather simple. Most people probably have an automatically averse reaction to something in this commercial anyway; it is vulnerable from the start because of the panda’s senseless violence, which I expect many people do find unsettling. And, again, all we have to do as critics in this case is to replace the panda with the true agent of capitalism, the banal (and for that reason all the more terrifying) human being, in order to get at the point. We should thus see this as an incredibly clear illustration of our theoretical concepts.

Started the blog very recently. This post isn’t about how exciting this is going to be or anything like that. What’s interesting, rather, is a bit different.

When you delete the standard template that Word Press gives you at the beginning of your blog – the page that says “Hello, World!” and then gives a sample blog entry, describing along the way the things that usually go into a blog post – there is essentially nothing on your blog site… The page is empty, so that when you type in the URL, you’re taken to a template with virtually no content, form without substance; there’s a title page, a list of tags, etc., but no post. And so Word Press, very appropriately, puts this in its place:

“Sorry, but you are looking for something that isn’t here.”

We’d like to introduce you to our blog in just this way. As Lacan would have put it, ‘there is no Big Other’: the thing that you’re looking for us to tell you, the particular content that you think will satisfy your desire, is horribly incapable of doing just that. (We see this reflected in the way that a site like Stumble Upon draws you in, keeps you searching, never really ‘helping’ you to stop; you simply see more and more interesting things, each of which ‘begs,’ in a way, for your attention). And so the proviso of this blog is: watch your step, and laugh a little. We don’t (any of us) have ‘the’ answers. But hopefully we can provide you something to believe in, something that might engage you in a way which would suggest that you belong to a community, in a kind of solidarity: that, indeed, is what we can hope for today, ‘belonging’ in a radically unqualified sense, with a sense of irony, which entails a fundamental act of faith, of belief.

This is belief that makes no excuses for itself; first there was thought, but then there was action: belief is a gap in reasoning (Kierkegaard), an abyss (Camus), a momentary suspension of the symbolic (Badiou), and a revolutionary act (Zizek). Instead of a typical post-modernist interpretation of our lives – along the lines of Derrida or Foucault or Lyotard, an all-encompassing radical deconstruction, obsessive analysis in search of a justification for action – we should insist on belief in all its splendor. Its ‘sublime’ aspect is that it cannot be justified. The point is not to buy into the illusion that if we could somehow get rid of all the illusions, then we would have reality; rather, there will always be illusions; the point is not to blindly obey, nor to rationalize or simply think, but rather to obey and to think. The properly moral act, and the properly political act, can only happen once this myth of the fantasy/illusion-free existence is dispelled.

So, ‘you are looking for something that isn’t here’ is the message we should read anytime we think of the reason why we go on doing what we do. It is not the ‘thing’ but rather the looking that matters: precisely, it is the form of desire which deserves our attention, not any actual object of desire; there is no ‘object’ to be attained. The object, rather, is a ‘partial object,’ a pseudo-thing, a sublime thing – beautiful or horrific, it doesn’t matter – which forces itself as an imposition to enjoy, an object which is, as it happens, in this particular, contingent moment, the thing which serves to quell desire, which constrains its focus, occupies the entire space surrounding its lens, creates a ‘vanishing point,’ towards which the gaze can then direct itself, maintain itself as a sacrificial offering to this peculiar ‘abeyance’ of rationality.

That is the form to notice, underlying all of the particular contents of any kind of media, and, indeed, even of the most basic medium, the medium of language as a communicative tool. What we have to realize, per Lacan (via Zizek, as he elaborates in The Plague of Fantasies and elsewhere) is that there is no ‘deep structure’ underlying the ‘surface structures’ we deal with in everyday life: rather, the surface structure is the very same level on which the ‘deep structure’ exists, plays itself out – the particular content changes only in virtue of the ‘fluidity’ it gains as a result of the intrusion of the Real (the would-be deep structure or formal drive). And so the plane of the basic and the everyday is simultaneously the plane of ideology; the structure of reality is built on multiple overlaid fantasies, imaginary relations which function to short-circuit the thought, “but what if…?”

Join as a participant, not as an idle spectator! Maintain your desire, but maintain it in your own hands.