Humor as Alternative Discourse – The Last Paper I Had to Write in College


I’d like to retroactively dedicate this paper to Dan Harmon, whose drunk voice was in my ear for the year leading up to this paper.


I love you too.



When I finished this paper I was unsure of how it would turn out. I had a deadline and when it was done it needed to be sent off whether I liked it or not. Usually if I’m feeling bad about a paper it gets a great score and if I’m confident it doesn’t meet my expectations, go figure. My writing process in college went like this; in the first few weeks of class I’d decide on a topic, usually vague but the earlier you know what you need to be reading the better off you will be. I would go to the library and check out several books and print off half a dozen journal articles and just get a lay of the landscape on the topic. Almost always what I wanted to specifically say had already been researched and explored by at least one if not a few other people, these two or three sources really become my lynch pins, these are the books I’d read cover to cover and the articles I would read many times. Then 6 weeks would pass and I would either do another round of library spelunking or I would reassess my resources and a more specific or a slightly new thesis would emerge enough at least to get a proposal down, just a half page or so. Then I would sit at my computer and stare at the screen, get up and take a shower because thats never a bad idea, make food, clean my house, sit back down at my desk and do some web research, open back up the blank document and then stare with a deeper sense of nausea than before. This would go on for days, interrupted only by the routines of my life that semester, class, friends, work, maybe a concert. One the last weekend before the due date shit would really hit the fan. I’d start typing out of a sudden burst of manic energy and maybe half a page would go by until I hit that knot again, the knot from the deepest part of my body having been pushed up my esophagus and was not lodged in my throat, obstructing my air, sitting painfully  in its unnatural and most noticeable place prevent any further thoughts on the topic. Somehow it was writing that dragged up this awful softball sized knot, a series of cords intertwined so long ago any ability to discern where one ended and the other began was beyond pointless. I’d chuck up a little bit of something,

Fuck you you god damn fucking fuck. You will die when I say so, you’ll never make it out of here alive and we will all know the shitty banal truth about how terrible your character is.

Well at least that’s something. 12 hours pass, I’m still at my desk full of energy, fear, and anger but paralyzed. One piece of knowledge we have now is the analogy of the knot rising out my throat, at the time I had no such story to tell myself to help make sense of my frustration; part of why it was occurring was my staggering ignorance of what was really happening. The only thing worse that hearing shitty things about yourself is believing them. If it was especially bad out came the fists, hitting the table once was not enough, it not like one good hit and a broken pen would satisfy me; I needed hit good enough to build on the anger and break the glass on the barrier keeping my from literally smashing everything in front of me. I’d get the one good hit that lead to a successive flurry of at least four more when at that point I was on cruise control until I could pull myself back into my body. My hand would kinda hurt but when later that evening I would do the same thing to my head you bet it will hurt a lot more. Good thing I had shaggy hair almost all the time. Hopefully there won’t be any talking to myself, bargaining with me to get to work or cruelly castigating me to type loud enough for anyone else to hear, but usually I was firmly entombed by the weight of my psychic paralysis.

Less than 24 hours  to go and if I’m lucky we have two pages. The knot will shrink enough to allow the rest of the paper to projectile vomit onto the screen for a few hours. Do that at least once or twice more and include citations as you go so with just a little bit of cleanup its ready to be turned in by my, feeling tired inside and out and dejected at my chances of ever thinking for a living. The papers that would never be written never even had a file to save, I was probably in bed hiding or pretending to be dead.

This paper had maybe the easiest birth, I had quite a bit of fun researching it watching comedians and late night shows with an eye toward the structure of their jokes and deeper themes. Maybe that’s what raising your youngest child is like when the others are out of the picture, you’re a pro you can do this and have fun at the same time! If only you had all the confidence and knowledge then that you have now! I’ve had the thesis of this paper come back at me while reading another book or while driving on the highway now that I live out here in San Diego. Communication has many paths to take to reach its final thesis, and that these paths are not mere rhetorical or artistic cosmetics; Guernica was having a different effect than a book pleading against war, both were true and shared a final concept in our minds but each left a unique footprint on our hearts. I really think there is something to this concept that would be useful for other projects that don’t involve demonstrating my ability to perform the carnival freak contortions of style that constitute “real” academic writing. So its going to be a long and probably boring read, it probably is related to why now I will break any rhetorical rule I want in my fucking writing because I don’t give a fuck what anyone thinks of me or of what I write. Its either this word vomit or nothing and I’m not about to get psychological sepsis for your dainty sensibilities.


Humor as Alternative Discourse

“What is important in a text is not what it means, but what it does and incites to do. What it does: the charge of affect it contains and transmits. What it incites to do: the metamorphoses of this potential energy into other things – other texts, but also paintings, photographs, film sequences, political actions, decisions, erotic inspirations, acts of insubordination, economic initiatives, etc.”

-Jean François Lyotard Driftworks 1984 (Best)

Humor has not found a welcoming home in Western thought. From antiquity to modernity humor and laughter has been regarded as the antithesis of reason, an expression of emotion, and a cruel expression of superiority. In the landscape of the philosophy of humor there is much room to expand on a critical examination of humor as a sphere of discourse and  its relationship to the ideological superstructure of Western modernity. It is my project to examine the history and prevailing theories of humor, examine the rhetorical structure of humor, and ultimately present humor as an alternative metanarrative to reason and argue for its importance in promoting negative dialectical consciousness.  Humor is a form of discourse that reacts and explains aspects of the world but bypasses the rules of rational discourse. Because of this it can escape the totalitarian ideology of modernity and serve the purpose of promoting negative thinking.

In antiquity the rational philosophers like Plato and Aristotle reacted against the sophist as well as the poets. In Plato’s Republic the ideal society is devoid of art and poetry, and all of society is oriented toward the rational project of pursuing the good as primary teleology, or end goal of the project of developing a society. Later historians, psychoanalysts, and philosophers would use terminology such as a struggle between the Apollonian and the Dionysian impulses in ancient Greek culture. This sort of contrast is essential in understanding the dialectical method of the analysis of ideas the formally emerged in the 19th century under Hegel. In this system ideas are discussed in categories of competing abstract ideas labeled thesis, antithesis. These ideological categories interact with each other in which the thesis is contrasted with an antithesis; the antithesis has a complimentary character that when “combined” for back of a better term creates a new idea, the synthesis. This three way cycle is at the same time circular and linear, in that the synthesis become the thesis in a new contrasting relationship with a corresponding antithesis. History and ideas move forward as a stone being pushed along a path.

Rational discourse has been at the heart of Western thought and it was brought to its current state in the epoch of the enlightenment project. The enlightenment is under Hegel the critique of myth (Bernstein 22). The enlightenment corresponded to the transition from power of faith and feudalism in the middle ages to the further organization of political society and political economy around abstract power. This power manifested in both the East and West as either indirect democracy in the later and despotism of inherited empire in the Soviet and post-Soviet eras.  The enlightenment project and the political economy of abstract power (democracy and state socialism) and capitalism are dialectically linked to one and other. As one changes on the path of history so does other. Marx described the collection of ideas that rule society the ideology, or sometimes referred to as a superstructure. This superstructure of ideas rests upon the technological and economic forces that shape each historical epoch. Marxist analysis of history, which is the philosophical school of synthesizing sociological theory and economics, is referred to as dialectical materialism. Regardless of the terms used dialectical materialism is by its nature both a dynamic method of analysis, developed to track the trajectory of history and but is not entirely divorced from the philosophical epoch of the enlightenment and the broader Western philosophical tradition of privileging reason over emotion.

What I have described above, both dialectics and the direction of enlightenment are described by postwar philosophers as metanarratives. A metanarrative is a description of the characteristics that define a system of thought, which reach their development through discourse. These are the rules of the “game” so to speak that govern what qualifies as a conclusion. The master metanarrative has been in the West and in the modern enlightenment tradition has been the favoring of the constructive and forward tendency of reaching truth through the successive logical connection of theses to reveal a hidden truth. This master metanarrative governs the sciences from philosophy to physics. In my opinion in the paper this can be all summed up in a striving toward congruity in approaching the truth.  Understanding this is important because this metanarrative exists in a dialectical relationship with as we referred to earlier as the Dionysian impulse. Nietzschean vitalism, play, romantic and avant-garde art and  literature. These impulses and expressive modes are the antithesis of the rational thesis, summed up in the word incongruity.

The relationship between these two metanarratives is dialectical and because this can be subject to the format of Hegelian-Marxist analysis. Instead of dialectical materialism as the engine in the vehicle of historical progress, I want to engage in dialectical discursiveness. Particularly this paper will be a dialectic focusing on the relationship between reason and humor as it is framed the context of the superstructure of the modern postindustrial super structure. I draw heavy influence from Lyotard in his analysis of modern discourse but diverge from his thought in my use of the dialectical method to keep the analysis within the metanarrative. I do not share is radical rejection of  metanarrative and tenancy to depart from even the goal of philosophy its self  in his tendency to set Western thought adrift and without any orientation at all. Dialectics is, like I said before an analytical tool and yet remains squarely in the rational metanarrative in that it seeks conclusions through congruity. There is in my opinion an important need to integrate the language game of humor into the critical theory tradition.


The theories of humor

In the philosophy of humor there have been two significant strands of thought regarding the nature of humor and laughter. A third less important theory of humor has more to do with the psychology of laughter but I will briefly mention it here for the sake of being thorough. This is the “relief theory” that posits all laughter is a release of pent up human emotions like fear and stress. This idea that humor is an emotional release parallels emotivism in that humor and laughter is non-cognitive. We may feel happy from laughter but this is not a sufficient and direct indication that humor itself a release of emotion that is because in any instance of humor there is a joke to “get”. We may receive a letter with good news and feel happy and relieved but no one would doubt that we used our cognitive faculty to read and understand the letter. A joke also reads like a text that requires our minds to intemperate and then to contrast that text with our experience. This is “getting” the joke. Even laughing infants read faces and jingling keys as texts, laughing at their newfound understanding that something is new and different from  their normal experience. Whether we are laughing at jingling keys or a New Yorker cartoon we must come to some kind of understanding prior to laughter. Humor may make us feel happy, but it cannot be said that humor is only an expression of emotional relief. There is an inescapable textual and contextual element to humor.

The next prevailing theories of humor are both within the cognitivist camp but differ as to what characteristic in the text gives rise to laughter. Historically important for classical philosophers is “superiority theory”. Under this school of thought when the subject feels a sudden realization of superiority to an object he or she is overcome with laughter. (Holm) In other words as this argument points out, there must always be the butt of a joke, and thus the key element in humor is ridicule. It has been under this paradigm that humor has been rejected by Plato and others as being a vice, a sign of poor character. In Poetics Aristotle claims comedic theater is vicious because it relies upon portraying people in a way that is worse than they actually are. (Carroll 6) There are entire comedic traditions built around insult, every culture has a group of people who are the butt of an entire genre of jokes. Think of Irish and Polish jokes, which when told in those countries the same jokes are used to describe another smaller group of people. In Ireland, the joke; “Why did the Irish space program plan a mission to the sun? They thought they could go at night.” has been replaced with Kerryman (a person from  the rural county Kerry).

If we didn’t feel a rush of superiority in this humor it would seem less funny as this genre of joke, or any form of ridicule, is based around the perceived stupidity of the group. Refer again to the above Irish joke, only a fool who doesn’t understand basic astronomy would attempt to fly to the Sun, and if they did they would burn to death. A darker extension of this joke could include a description of the failed flight, eliciting laughter that reveals an even more intense disregard for the butt of the joke and false superiority on the part of the laughing party. This feeling of deep superiority leads to a kind of false consciousness, where the put down party is seen as inferior only through the sophistic trick of humor, not because of any real rational reason to feel that way. Plato writes about this in Philebus (Carroll 6) citing it as the opposite of the wisdom of knowing yourself.

I don’t however believe that this theory shows us the entire picture of humor. Let us look back at the Irish joke, this joke is socially transferable by interchanging Irish for Kerryman and doubtlessly can be done again in another place. The joke its self stays the same in each iteration. This is important to remember because if it was really being translated to account for a new target of ridicule as superiority theory would suggest the content would change. Kerrymen are not Irishmen in the sense that they carry the same social markers and stereotypes. Instead in both instances of this joke it requires the listener to contrast what they know to be wise and expect with the joke’s content which is contains an absurd contradiction. While the ridicule function serves a social purpose of alienating and isolating groups of people, what “makes” it funny is incongruity, play and misdirection. Ridicule and superiority are not the essence of humor, if that were the case than there would be no distinction between comedy and tragedy, all instances of perceived imperfection in others would be left with laughter. The feeling of triumph at finishing first in a race would be indistinguishable with the laughter we feel at a joke. Clearly this is not the case. John Morreall writes:

“When  we meet a poor  beggar on the street, for example,  why do we not double  over  in laughter when we realize how much better off we are than the beggar?” (Morreall 246)

This brings us to the incongruity theory of humor. This theory argues that the essence of humor and the source of laughter is the juxtaposition of two or more ideas that do not belong together creates a misdirection of expectation resulting in laughter. This very basic description of the theory comes in part from Kant and Schopenhauer but in my opinion this theory of humor cannot be said to be complete without addressing the social character of humor. We may ask ourselves why isn’t 2+2=5 funny? Why is it that despite laughter being universal not everyone has the same taste in humor, finding some comics funny while finding others distasteful, boring, or offensive. We like to laugh, I think, at each other. There are social ties that bind individuals and rules of society that bind us together in political, social, and religious communities. Take for example the Islamic joke:

 “Do you know the secret to an Islamic marriage? The husband gets a striptease every night”.

This joke is only funny if you are from a Muslim community or are familiar with Islamic dress codes.

There is an entire genre of humor based around the social community, satire. Satire isn’t just social commentary on its own, if that were the case Utopia by Thomas Moore would be a comedic masterpiece. Satire is funny in the way it highlights the contradictions in society and points directly to them bluntly. There is not rational argumentation in the satire of cable news called The Daily Show.

In a faux interview during the dawn of the Tea Party political movement Daily Show “anchor” John Oliver says he takes offense at the use of metaphor and hyperbole by the movement to compare the Obama administration to the British Empire. He exclaims (my paraphrasing) “You call taxes thumbscrews but we would literally screw people’s thumbs to chairs!” (“Ben Affleck”) In this exchange we see humor in the conflict between not two political ideologies but of two language games passing each other like ships in the night. The Tea Party interviewee made “serious” point through historical metaphor, his aim and the expectation of the listeners is to build up rationally to a truth claim in the form of a political assertion that the Obama administration was bad. The comic, refusing the engage with the rational discussion points toward the absurdity of the metaphor by pretending to be offended and then juxtaposing that with an incongruous comparison to the gruesome practice of thumbscrews. The comic may not have chosen to engage in the rational “serious” discourse but in order to be funny he still engaged with the topic and had a point to make. They were both talking about the same topic but were engaging in different spheres of discourse, or language games.

The Humor Industry

Both humor and rational discourse exist in the some social reality as each other and thus for either to perform their function they must rely on the listener to be familiar with the dominant ideology of society. So far I have demonstrated that the essence of humor is social incongruity. How then does the practice of humor manifest its self in the modern ideological landscape?

Humor certainly exists in a commodified form, for the sake of clarity I’ll refer to humor as the structure of inciting laughter, and comedy as the manifestation of humor in the media culture. Comedy emerged from the theater and became integrated into the music business with the proliferation of records in the mid-20th century. Narrative comedy became part of the emerging film industry during the silent age of cinema. These mediums place humor as the attraction, if you go see a Charlie Chaplin film or put on a Richard Pryor record you expect to laugh, laughter then becomes alienated, reified. To laugh one must engage in the modern postindustrial economy by supporting the commodification of laughter and the professionalization of talent. What once was an organic experience of laughter among friends and shared intimacy is now simulated.

In this way, the dominant ideology suppresses the irrationality of humor and becomes like art and other cultural artifacts, an object that must be approached from the starting point of reason. Every step of the way, from both the production and consumption side of the equation the pursuit of comedy is in accordance with the teleological ends of modern capitalist society. Does this process of reification and rationalization of the irrational and incongruent pave the way for a shift in the content of humor its self? Does what I find funny change because of its commodification, and just as importantly does the content of comedy create a humor that promotes pacification?

I would argue that the discursive nature of humor prevents comedy from being totally forced into the service of the modern ideology. As we have discussed with humors essence, social incongruity is reflective by nature, and exists as an antithesis to rational discourse by reflecting upon it and creates new modes of thinking about the world we live in. Humor, in the modern paradigm is both reified and negative. With the reification and totalitarian ideology as the thesis and the expression of incongruous forms of discourse as the antithesis a dialectic of humor is formed between these two metanarratives that can result in social commentary. This gives rise to another question; is the resulting social commentary enough to promote real change? Does it express alternatives clearly enough to be truly subversive?

Musical comedian Bo Burnham sings in his act

“Stand-up comedy is actually pretty easy; if you are an Asian comic just get up and say ‘My mother’s got the weirdest fucking accent’ then just do a Chinese accent because everybody laughs at the Chinese accent. Because they privately thought that your people were laughable and now you’ve given them a chance to express that in public.”

In order to get a laugh here Burnham necessarily engaged in an alternative way of making a point, he revealed rather than rationalized as the audience laughed signaling their understanding as well as their joy. This pushing and prodding by the comic if done rationally would have expressed the same information but not the same content. Imagine a person saying “Racial humor is blatant and mocks our differences. It gives the audience an opportunity to reveal their private feelings of mockery public.” (Burnham)

These two sentences exists in parallel spheres of discourse because they follow different metanarratives. The latter pushes outward, builds upon its self to reveal the truth. It promotes guilt, shame, and obedience.  In this model there is but one truth and the conclusion must follow from premises. The former is a sphere where in order to be true to its self and remain funny, must pull upon the suppressed feelings of the audience. Humor as discourse creates a safe space rather than a forward oriented space. Rather than promoting obedience the laughter relieves the audience of any guilt promotes a potential dialogue about race and the ethics of joking that can be open to any direction.

Because of this, humor as a sphere of discourse must be irreverent and disobedient, only those who could find humor in Auschwitz are the victims themselves, because they were in a position to see the contradiction in the system of progressive rationality and the barbarism of their treatment.

Knowledge and Humor

Humor and rational discourse both derive knowledge form the same source at its base; the experience of the world. However rational discourse is plugged into the metanarrative of science for legitimation and propagates the significance of scientific institutions and the technological rationality that comes with it. Humor cannot plug its self into the scientific narrative because of its inherently social character. Refer again to the example of the incongruity of the false math equation 2 + 2 = 5. The knowledge humor derives its self from it’s the knowledge of human life within modern society. What is funny becomes a distorted fun house mirror’s reflection of the rationality.

As the march of progress moves our means of knowing in more technical and increasingly computerized ways distributing knowledge humor will too become a strained reflection on technical society. Humor’s inherit nature of reinforcing socialization while subverting power can point to a future where humor’s relevance to promoting negative thinking will only increase.

Humor as sufficient subversion

Humor has the seed of negative thinking and promoting alternative forms of discourse but so far there has been a need to tread lightly. Humor’s gentler hand might create amusement where it could promote radical change. Consider the case of the Class Struggle board game. Bertall Ollman created a board game called Class Struggle, this game simulated the abstract concepts of Marx’s writings on relationship between the proletariat and capitalist classes. The game was met with amusement and attention by the media. Ollman writes:

“…Still, with a few exceptions, the overwhelming response of the media was, “Here is an amusing game about, of all things, class struggle.” Or, alternatively, “Here is a Marxist who is funny.” What a surprise! Not that anyone missed the serious political message in the game—how could they? Socialist tracts were nothing new; a socialist tract in the form of a game was. And just because it was amusing, the socialist arguments were somehow less threatening, perhaps even less objectionable. In light of this, the square on the Class Struggle board that speaks of the capitalists’ control of the media and its use to present the capitalist point of view requires at least this small qualification.” (Ollman)

This presents a problem for my thesis and the chance of using humor as the discourse of liberation. When confronted with an idea contrary to one’s own in a rational discussion it will lead to the irrational psychological condition where the person will leave the argument feeling even stronger about their position. With discourse designed to elicit amusement it may suffer from a similar pitfall. The person laughing will be so off guard that they will return quickly to the dominant ideological way of thinking and remember the event fondly. Laugh and walk away. This is because radical voices are nothing new, they are just as much part of our shared experience as our familiarity with the dominant ideology. Subversive humor then when subject to the discourse of humor is necessarily contrasted with the image of the sour or fanatical radical.

If we hope for humor to be a liberating force there must be a way of overcoming this problem. The logistics of addressing this problem are beyond the scope of this paper but I hope to have demonstrated to you that humor is a significant tool in the landscape of modern discourse and can play a role in subverting the totalitarian rationality in a dialectical relationship with humor.

Humor exists in opposition to the machine of the dominant modern ideology. It plays rather than analyzes. It performs this function in parallel with art. Comedy, reified artistic humor exists in a push pull relationship with modern discourse. It is in the world but not of it, it contains the elements of liberation packaged within a reified commodity. Comedy as the art of humor then can be integrated into Adorno’s theory of art as containing the element of nature.

“[arts] enigmaticness and its truth content, inherently contradicts the homogenizing effects of reification on which the culture industry is built.” (Coulson 149)

Humor as discourse, like art, cannot escape reification despite its nature undermining the dominant ideologies rational paradigm of discourse. Humor, whether we are laughing out of joy or relieving tension, opens up new vistas of social reality, new methods of discourse that are inherently contradictory to the machine of modernity. That fact, that it is fundamentally different from rational discourse, means that humor can join one of many tools that serve to construct alternative ideologies in modern society.

The photo from my philosopher’s license.




I’d like to believe that my professor at least laughed at the Noam Chomsky joke.








Sources and Citations

“Ben Affleck.” The Daily Show. Comedy Central. New York, New Y Ork, 16 Apr. 2009. Television.

Best, Steven, and Douglas Kellner. “Lyotard and Postmodern Gaming.” Postmodern Theory: Critical Interrogations. New York: Guilford, 1991. N. pag. Print.

Billig, Michael. Laughter and Ridicule: Towards a Social Critique of Humour. London: Sage, 2005. Print.

Bo Burnham. What’s Funny. 2010. CD.

Carroll, Noël. Humour: A Very Short Introduction. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.

Coulson, S. “Funnier Than Unhappiness: Adorno and the Art of Laughter.” New German Critique 34.1 100 (2007): 141-63. Web.

Holm, Nicholas. “Laughing in Spite of Myself: Theorising the Politics of Humour.” (2009): n. pag. Web. <;.

Huhn, Tom, and J. M. Bernstein. The Cambridge Companion to Adorno. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2004. Print.

Morreall, John. “Philosophy of Humor.” Stanford University. Stanford University, 20 Nov. 2012. Web. 05 Aug. 2015.

Morreall, John. “The Rejection of Humor in Western Thought.” Philosophy East and West 39.3, Philosophy and Humor (1989): 243-65. JSTOR. Web. 06 Aug. 2015.

Ollman, Bertell. “The Use of Humor.” The Use of Humor. NYU, n.d. Web. 05 Aug. 2015.

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