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The Smiling Face without Laughter


Ursula de Leeuw
29 June 2020

The very utterance of the term Cancel Culture brings about a cringe; a contortion of the face matched only by the snarls of those who dish out cancellations with tasteless moral vigour. Perhaps the only thing worse than the cancellation revolution is the low hanging fruit of its self-parody. I am of course talking about the edgelordism of shock jocks (provocateur is far too endearing a term) that is in a symbiotic relationship with the development of the virtue signal. In this puritanical doom-spiral, the guilt economy is thriving. It seems we have not strayed as far from the pasty glare of Christendom as we once thought. The parodic system of ethical self-commodification has now, naturally, given rise to cancel capital. The result is an ouroboric cycle of moral assertion and transgression that, if nothing else, is fundamentally boring. Boring, too, are the endless pontifications on the “culture” itself… and so it continues. But at least in parody one has the potential to laugh. The strained face upon which every wrinkle bears the trace of a cringeworthy remark finds some reprieve. Unfortunately, comedy too finds itself trapped within the tragic moral stock market.

A cultural turning point for the tragicomedy of cancellation was Hannah Gadsby’s 2018 Netflix special Nanette. With a degree in art history, Gadsby’s routine heralded the micro-cancellation of Picasso, Botticelli, and a random heckler who apparently misread Van Gogh. Around this time, the Art Gallery of South Australia displayed a statement outside their current Picasso exhibition, acknowledging his problematisation by “a prominent Australian figure”. Gadsby’s run was followed by a TED talk where she declared that she was no longer interested in evoking laughter, but wanted to make the audience feel pain. Resentment, repression, and malice… such is the character of comedy’s contorted face without laughter. Eyes sink into the back of the skull as knees scrape against the pews, bent before our profane ecclesiastical dictatorship. There is no divinity in sight, only all-consuming shame.

At the risk of bringing up he-who-shalt-not-be-named amongst the chancellors of cancellation, Friedrich Nietzsche spoke widely on laughter as absolutely necessary to deal with the trauma of being. Zarathustra, Nietzsche’s self-proclaimed “Laughing Prophet”, exclaims that to bear suffering, and thus overcome the human condition of self-obsession, one must learn to laugh alongside tragic afflictions, real or imaginary. Herein, learning to laugh is not a matter of ridicule, carelessness, or disregard. It is quite the opposite. For Nietzsche, to laugh is to affirm the eternal recurrence; his model for self-overcoming that, in order to bear the very thought of a repeated existence, one must rethink all systems of value and knowledge.

As Nietzsche guaranteed in The Gay Science, a demon will come to you in the loneliest of lonely nights and reveal to you, as if by a jolt of involuntary memory, that you must relive every cringeworthy moment.1 Every contortion of your human, all too human, face will repeat itself. This is the promise of the eternal return that will either crush or transform you. Nietzsche: “Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god, and never have I heard anything more divine!’”2 Nietzsche’s question could just as well be re-phrased, albeit by a far less poetically talented laywoman: “At the very proposition of the circle, do you throw your head back in a blood-curdling scream of terror? Or do you writhe in a fit of laughter, affirming all that has been, and all that will be, as existence melts into the void of chance?” As he regularly defers to images and allegorical fragments, I’m sure Nietzsche would agree with me when I say that your response to the eternal return is inscribed on your face. But this is all very easy for a Nazi incel to say, right? It’s unfortunate that I must elicit a cringe with such a remark, but it is important to debunk the Germannationalist appropriation of Nietzsche as it is rebuffed by another great philosopher of laughter; Georges Bataille. As he states:

“It’s wrongheaded to attribute definite intentions to him regarding electoral politics, arguing that he talked on “masters of the world”. What he intended was a risked evocation of possibility. As for the sovereign humanity whose brilliance he wanted to shine forth: in contradictory ways he saw the new humankind sometimes as wealthy, sometimes as poorer than the workers, sometimes as powerful, sometimes as tracked down by enemies. He required of the new humankind that it possess a capacity to withstand adversity—while recognising its right to trample on norms. Still, he distinguished this humanity on principle from men in possession of power. He recognised no limits, and confined himself to describing as freely as he could the field of a possible.”3

Nietzsche’s fundamental hatred for moral idealism in general, specifically in regards to German nationalism and anti-Semitism,4 led him to seek an entirely transvalued perspective separate from the servility of established norms. With an unrestrained imagination, he travelled to the edge of what is possible in the shape of the “superhuman”, much like Mary Shelley’s monster or Lovecraft’s unnameable demons. As Bataille reminds us, Nietzsche thought that “when something is free, you can’t define it”.5 As it is heavily influenced by the thought of Nietzsche, indefinability is at the core of Bataille’s philosophy of laughter. For Bataille, to laugh is to fall into the abyss of joyful failure, insufficiency, and exhilarating nothingness:

“Laughter arises from differences in level, from depressions suddenly provoked. If I pull the rug out from under … the sufficiency of a solemn figure is followed by the revelation of an ultimate insufficiency … I am made happy, no matter what, by failure experienced.”6

The immediate response of laughter shows that there is a space of unthought which language cannot grasp. If the response of Nietzsche’s superhuman is to laugh at the thought of the eternal return, they affirm the insufficiency of language to explain what goes on beyond explanation. Read through Bataille’s sacred knowledge of negation (that is to say, the negation of reason and explicable knowledge) the joyful failure of language in the act of laughter proves that there is a limit to knowledge, but the path to mystic non-knowledge is infinite. As Bataille elaborates in Unknowing: Laughter and Tears, one laughs at the presence of the unknown. Herein, laughter not only disables speech, but the condition of the “self” as fundamentally governed by language:

“We perceive that finally, for all the exercise of knowledge, the world lies wholly outside its reach, and that not only the world, but the being that one is lies out of reach. Within us and in the world, not given in knowledge, and whose site is definable knowledge. It is, I believe, at this that we laugh.”7

For Bataille, to laugh is to celebrate the joyful failure of the fall. It is to lose oneself in the process; to conceive of oneself beyond the subject-object relations of language. Laughter as a process of affirmation, then, is an affirmation of nothingness. It is to gleefully fall into that sacred, irreducible abyss of laughter and transform over, and over again. Going back to Nietzsche, it is now worth clarifying what he means by affirmation, in combination with Bataille’s interpretation.

Affirmation is not a matter of passive acceptance, of fatalistic resign, or limp submission. Rather, affirmation is an act of active nihilism, where one confesses that the operations of the universe are entirely indifferent to one’s self-interest. Moreover, it is to affirm the presence of an irreducible nothingness; the divine nihil of mysticism. Thus there are astronomically larger forces at play than the individual, human will. In this acknowledgement, one’s will is limitless; it’s no longer chained to narcissistic ruminations on shame. It is no longer ruled by homogeneous ideals of linear progress, puritanical morality, and the commodification of the self that comes with it. Nietzsche’s nihilism is to completely transvalue the world as it stands, lampooning the degeneracy of hierarchy, vulgar individualism, and the feeble power it possesses. To devalue the highest values: this is the will to power.8 No wonder Zarathustra and Nietzsche’s madman were untimely. Who could bear to admit that liberation is to exist as a speck of dust?

Moreover, who could harness the power of pure potential by declaring the limitless joy in this proposition? For Bataille, the active nihilist affirms this fertile nothingness in the formless space of laughter. Thus Zarathustra declares that, in order to bear the terror of existence, the temptation of ressentiment, and the fundamental predicament of being born, “laughing lions must come”.9 But this is not a mere matter of “coping”. These laughing lions are “higher, stronger, more victorious” than the “Higher humans” Zarathustra encounters (the soothsayer, the two kings, “the last pope”, “the voluntary beggar”, “the conscientious of spirit” and others). Zarathustra’s laughing lions are part of the aristocracy of the low, the transvalued aristocracy of the wise fool. Through laughter, they bask in the circle of pure potential where the perpendicular axis of rising and failing is reconsidered and grasped anew. This is the practise of Nietzsche’s “gay science” wherein “laughter has formed an alliance with wisdom”.10 Wisdom, then, is inseparable from the affirmation of one’s silliness in the wordless intoxication of laughter. Having completely rejected the all-tooGerman schadenfreude in a sadistic sense (there is debate to be had concerning Nietzsche’s nuanced relation to the term), the laughter of Nietzsche and Bataille is more like that of the divine tragicomic (which has nothing do with a puritanical divinity, but divinity as the space to which laughter delivers us, beyond the abstractions of language). A definition of the tragicomic is thus worthwhile. As Alenka Zupančič makes clear:

“What is at stake in this difference between “tragic” and “comic” perspectives are not two ways of looking at the same configuration, one more negative and bitter, the other more positive and forthcoming. Instead, the “tragic” and the “comic” perspective spring from two different points inherent to the same configuration … they look from this configuration out, they are part of its antagonism.”11

The configuration of tragicomedy thus could be seen under a different mask: the infernal circle of the eternal return itself. The eternal return is a figure 8, always moving from one circle to the other upon its remembrance, and its forgetting; the shock of self-death upon return, and the transformation of its embrace. But there is no thought of moving out of the cosmological configuration. Like the eternal return, the tragicomic figuration does not make false distinctions between life and death, “positive” and “negative” experience. Rather, it faces them in their simultaneity as a springboard for acrobatic movement, pantomimic emotion, and the antagonistic impingement of chance upon hegemonic ideals of linear progress.

So, what might the tragic face in the act of laughter laughing look like? I think of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and the golden age slapsticks. Amongst depression-era misery and the apocalyptic warfare of World War One and Two, Chaplin and Keaton’s laughter breaks through.12 Embedded in the very form of slapstick is a deep affirmation of the fall. As Chaplin traverses the modern metropolis, he dons a tragicomic costume. Chaplin’s comic mask of boldly painted facial hair, and poorly fitted clothing, reveals him to be a comic genius of failure. In Chaplin movies, it is his failure that is his nobility; the failure to stay in the workforce, to obey laws. In tramps clothing, he is often a genius savant; accidentally becoming the best performer at the circus, accidentally falling in love, accidentally inspiring mass protest. It is these moments which make us laugh; moments that are in undeniable proximity to tragedy. The allegory of Chaplin’s costume attests that when there is a sob, there is also a laugh, when there is tragedy, there is also its redemption in laughter. In Chaplin one finds a sublime blend of form and feeling in opposition to the sadistic flagellation enacted by Gadsby’s priestly class of comedy. “I thought my life was a tragedy, but now I know it’s a comedy”. Such is the tagline of the most recent Joker film (2019), linked to Chaplin as Joaquin Phoenix’s character laughs with a scene from Modern Times (1936). What more can the Joker figure tell us about the contorting face of tragicomedy? Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight (2008) tells the tale of “how he got these scars”. Drawing a knife across his mouth from ear to ear, Ledger’s Joker was disfigured so as to never be without the blood-red smile of a clown. It is this image of the bloody smile that has a history in 19th century literature, hereby shaping the physiognomy of modernity and its mutilated face of laughter. One day, when I was talking about the Joker with my supervisor, she showed me the following passage from the Comte de Lautréamont’s 1868 The Songs of Maldoror:

“Throughout my life, I have seen narrow-shouldered men, without a single exception, committing innumerable stupid acts, brutalising their fellows and perverting their souls by every means. They call the motive for their actions glory. On seeing these spectacles, I wanted to laugh with the others, but such a strange imitation was impossible, so I took a sharp-edged penknife and slit my flesh in the two places my lips joined. For an instant I believed I had achieved my aim. In a mirror I saw my mouth mutilated by an act of my own will! It was an error! The blood that flowed abundantly from the two wounds prevented me from distinguishing if it was really possible to smile like the others. But, after some moments of comparison, I clearly saw that my grin did not resemble that of humans. The reality: I was not laughing. I have seen men, ugly men with terrible eyes sunk deep in dark sockets that surpass the hardness of rock, the rigidity of cast steel, the cruelty of the shark, the insolence of youth, the insane fury of criminals, the treachery of hypocrites, the most extraordinary actors, the strength of character of priests, and beings who are the most impenetrable and secretive, colder than anything of heaven or earth; the weary moralists who have discovered their hearts and bring down implacable anger on themselves from on high.”13

Lautréamont’s protagonist, Maldoror, is a supremely alienated pervert that can hardly be called human (he does some weird shit). Nor does his grim resemble that of a vulgar, “inhumane” humanity incarnate by Lautréamont in priestly figures, weary moralists, and brutalising thugs. Maldoror cannot laugh with them, only mutilate himself like the sick freak he is. So what do the deformations of Maldoror tell us?

Zarathustra speaks of the laughter of the herd and the laughter of the height. Herd laughter is for those who would jibe at the hanging of a petty criminal, throw rotten fruit at the peasant in the stocks, or cheer on a witch burning at the stake. This is the only laughter that Maldoror has witnessed. As the physiognomy of modernity is distilled into the contortions of the human face, the bloody smile is an eternally returning image: in Victor Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs (1869), in Bertrand Bonello’s 2011 film House of Pleasures, and in the “Black Dahlia” murder of 1947. What the West’s Glasgow smile exemplifies is this: the moral excesses of modernity have grotesquely construed the face of laughter, mutated into Maldoror’s bloody face that can smile but cannot laugh.14 What poison has infected our cultural pathology, making one hate the sound of laughter? What perverse hierarchies have deemed what is “laughable”, inevitably turning in on their puritanical facade at they sadistically enjoy the herd mentality of cancellation? Moreover, what sickos do they create in the process, who have only learned to react with it, completing the transgression the taboo invites? We must learn a different laughter. The laughter of the height is much more sublime; it is that spiritual self-mutilation of the unneameable super(non)human that Bataille refers to. Rather than sadism, joyful self-sacrifice. It is to embrace the eternal return, and fall down laughing.

  1. Obviously I am taking creative license here, if you would like to read Nietzsche’s full proposition see the aphorism entitled “the heaviest burden” in Nietzsche, The Gay Science, trans. Walter Kauffman (New York: Vintage Books, 1974), 273. 

  2. Nietzsche, The Gay Science, trans. Walter Kauffman (New York: Vintage Books, 1974), 273. 

  3. Georges Bataille, On Nietzsche, trans. Bruce Boone (New York: Paragon House, 1994), 170-171. 

  4. The misconception surrounding Nazi-Nietzsche stems from the activity of his sister, Elisabeth Förster, who was responsible for publishing his Will to Power notebooks after his death in 1900. She was married to the Nazi, Bernhard Förster, and later became part of the Nazi party herself. Thus she propagated Nietzsche’s work as such, introduced it to Hitler, and so on. However, if you actually read Nietzsche you will find reference after reference to his hatred for anti-semitism, and the idealism of German nationalism in general (the most obvious being his call to have “all anti-Semites shot” lol! From: Friedrich Nietzsche, Sdmtliche Briefe, vol. VIII, 575, 579. 

  5. Bataille, On Nietzsche, 171. 

  6. Georges Bataille, Inner Experience, trans Leslie Anne Boldt (New York: State University of New York Press, 1988), 89. 

  7. Georges Bataille, “Unknowing: Laughter and Tears,” trans Annette Michaelson, October 36, 1986, 91. 

  8. As Nietzsche defines nihilism in the Will to Power notebooks: “Nihilism: there is no goal, no answer to the question: why? What is the significance of nihilism? – that the highest values devalue themselves.” Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power: Selections from the Notebooks from the 1880s, translated by R. Kevin Hill and Michael A. Scarpitti (London: Penguin, 2017), 15. 

  9. Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, trans. R. J. Hollingdale (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969), 294. 

  10. Nietzsche, The Gay Science, 74. 

  11. Alenka Zupančič, The Odd One In: On Comedy (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2008), 131. 

  12. It is worth making this point more nuanced, as comedy and the tragicomic are not to be considered mere coping mechanisms. While I do not have the space to elucidate these idiosyncratic definitions here, I will supply a quote from Alenka Zupančič that illuminates the topic somewhat: “To define comedy as the genre of the copula is in fact to place it at the most sensitive and precarious point of this fabric, the point where it is being generated and regenerated, torn apart and fused together, solidified or transformed. This would explain, for example, why comedy has often thrived in moments of social crisis. The explanation according to which this is due to the fact that in order to survive in hard times, people need comedy and laughter, is inadequate, and does not cover the whole issue; or it should be formulated slightly differently and in more precise terms. It is a fact that keeping comedy going in critical situations can be a form of resistance, resistance to that tendency of completely reducing the subject(ivity), say, to a victimised ‘suffering flesh’ or to some other all-absorbing determination—a tendency which usually accompanies critical situations and ‘hard times’. The zone of subjectivity that comedy might thus help us preserve and sustain is, of course, fundamentally ambivalent. It could function as that distance that ultimately helps to sustain the very oppression of the given order or situation, because it makes it bearable and induces the illusion of an effective interior freedom. On the other hand, however, it is precisely a surplus, empty place of subjectivity that constitutes the playground of any possible change, and gets mobilised in this change. It is the production of this kind of subjectivised empty space that the movement of comedy is very good at.” Zupančič, The Odd One In: On Comedy, 216-17. 

  13. Le Comte de Lautréamont, The Songs of Maldoror, trans. R.J. Dent (Solar Books: 2011), 14. 

  14. There is much, much more to say on Lautréamont and Maldoror that I cannot go into here (perhaps I have done a disservice here keeping things short). 

Cover image: Tompelo