Stop Laughing: Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno on Laughter, False Happiness, and the Culture Industry


When one thinks about philosophers, one doesn’t think about humor. Thinkers are usually represented as morose, austere,introspective, and serious. We also see the same thing in Western theology and religion. To be sure, folly is thought to be the opposite of wisdom and the laughter of folly is thought to be irreligious. Nonetheless, in the modern period, thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche and Henri Bergson found something urgent and modern in laughter. Nietzsche embraces laughter and uses sarcasm throughout his work to invert concepts and treasured practices; Bergson suggests that humor is intrinsically connected to “élan vital” and what he calls “creative evolution.” Laughter, for Bergson, allows society to become better and to live better. But Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, in their famous chapter in The Dialectics of Enlightenment, “The Culture Industry,” see laughter (at films or cartoons, specifically) in a very negative light. If anything, for them, thinking seems to begin when one stops laughing.

Using a phrase coined by Walter Benjamin, they tell us that the “mechanical reproduction” of beauty by film and photography “leaves no room for what was once essential to beauty.” And this “triumph over beauty” is “celebrated by humor”(140). Every joke, though it may not have beauty as its target, is sadistic and dark. Every joke is a “deprivation” that “calls forth” “Schadenfreud.”

They go on to tell us that, really, there is no reason why anyone in the western world should laugh: “there is laughter” because “there is nothing to laugh at.” In fact, laughter only happens when “some fear passes.” For them, laughter will always be in the wake of what is most. It is an “escape” or “liberation” from “either physical danger or from the grip of logic.” Laughter, in other words, also indicates an inability to face the world and to think in a serious manner. It is a vacation from the world and its problems.

But, most importantly, Horkheimer and Adorno make the claim that humor is “the echo of power as something inescapable” and it destroys what Adorno, elsewhere, calls the “promise of happiness.” If one laughs, one is basically accepting the fact that nothing can change and is at its core, for them, cynical:

Fun is a medicinal bath. The pleasure industry never fails to prescribe it. It makes laughter the instrument of the fraud practiced on happiness.

A person who laughs is not truly happy. For them, “moments of happiness are without laughter.” To illustrate, they argue that the poetry of the greatest (in their view) poets of the modern, Charles Baudelaire and Friedrich Holderlin, there is no humor (141). They understood true happiness, modern culture (“false society”) does not. Moreover, although Henri Bergson’s essay on laughter affirmed laughter in a way that many thinkers thought plausible, Horkheimer and Adorno think its argument has got it all wrong. Instead of elevating humanity, humor opens the gate for barbarism. The laughing audience is, on the contrary, a “parody of humanity.”

In the false society laughter is a disease which has attacked happiness and is drawing it into its worthless totality. To laugh at something is always to deride it, and the life which, according to Bergson, in laughter breaks through the barrier, is actually an invading barbaric life, self-assertion prepared to parade its liberation from any scruple when the social occasion arises. Such a laughing audience is a parody of humanity. (141)

And the “harmony” that Bergson extols between audience members who laugh is not the harmony of humanity is a “caricature of solidarity.” Perhaps drawing on Baudelaire’s notion of “satanic laughter,” Horkheimer and Adorno argue that what is most “fiendish” about “this false laughter” is that it is “conciliatory” when it is, in fact, based on “everyone else’s expense.” The only kind of delight, says Horkheimer and Adorno, is “austere.”

In other words, if one is to be truly happy, he or she must stop laughing.

If this is the case, Horkheimer and Adorno’s reading of early cartoons suggests that when the critical reader/viewer watches them s/he doesn’t laugh because s/he finds an idea in them; namely, the idea that even though a cartoon character can be “electrified” it gets a “second life” and gives the viewer hope that “justice was done” and will be done. These cartoons, in particular, give the audience what Adorno calls the “promise of happiness.” Today, however (the late 1930s and early 1940s when they wrote the book), they don’t.

Cartoons were once exponents of fantasy as opposed to rationalism. They ensured that justice was done to the creatures and objects they electrified, by giving the maimed specimens a second life. All they do today is confirm the victory of technological reason over truth. (138)

In Donald Duck and many other cartoons there is only one lesson that all of the violence against characters expresses: “the breaking down of individual resistance,” which is the “condition of life in this society.” By seeing this and laughing at this the audience learns, according to them, how to “take their own punishment.” And this is nothing to laugh at.

Built into their reading of the “culture industry” and their “critique” of laughter is the imperative to stop laughing. Horkheimer and Adorno find nothing funny about cartoons and will only affirm cartoons (and perhaps comedy) that promise a better world than the one we live in now. They, as Adorno says elsewhere by way of Samuel Beckett, are more interested in the laugh that laughs at the laugh. Horkheimer and Adorno scoff at laughter and believe that, in doing so, they are on the path to true happiness. And this suggests that, in this world of media and endless humor, they were always unhappy and found nothing to laugh at. One wonders what Horkheimer and Adorno would say about facebook or social networking which is constantly sharing humor.

One wonders if they would like the schlemiel and if, at the very least, they would smile. For Adonro and Horkheimer it all depends on whether or not the schlemiel’s humor advances the “promise of happiness” and hopes for a world much different from this one. Regardless, Yiddish audiences and thousands of readers did like to laugh but, unlike Horkheimer and Adorno, they saw no contradiction between laughter and the promise of a new world. For Sholem Aleichem, the commandment is not to stop laughing but to laugh more (but in such a way that hope could break through all the darkness of the world). The medium of such laughter is the schlemiel.

12 thoughts on “Stop Laughing: Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno on Laughter, False Happiness, and the Culture Industry

    • Where is the source for that, I’m curious. I like the coutner-reading to Adorno. It’s necessary. (And there are many other thinkers that speak positively of laughter. The list includes Jacques Derrida, Avital Ronell, Jean-Luc Nancy, Irving Howe, Paul deMan, and even Baudelaire himself (who, I think, Adorno many have misread – vis-a-vis his essay on the “Essence of Laughter”). Adorno has much in common with Crichley, who I hope to write on over the next few days (Critchley favors the smile over the laugh, fyi).

      • Foucault is in the beginning of The Order of Things.
        Crichley did a nice job in his Humour book, even hinting to messianic laughter, which I see as the primary function of laughter in Jewish thought.
        I would imagine, although just an opinion, that Adorno found it difficult to laugh, philosophical theory notwithstanding.

      • I love the notion of messianic laughter and am, in fact, thinking about this in the book I’m currently revising (on the schlemiel). Derrida talks briefly of it in his notes (see the Acts of Religion book). Simon Crichley also suggests it. Benjamin, in contrasts, alludes to it. I haven’t found any direct references. But I’m discussing his views on comedy, the messianic, etc in my book.

  1. Great! I have the book and will look over it (I haven’t read it for a few years). Yes, there is a lot to discuss with Critchley. I liked some of the book but disagreed with some parts and found it to be a lot of threads. That’s good for me or you because we can build on it. And, yes, I agree with what you say vis-a-vis Jewish thought. I’ve blogged on this and want to write more on the topic. I’d love to hear your thoughts. I see a Rabbinical root with Rabbi Akiva (the fox in the temple story) and the prohibitions against extreme laughter in the Talmud. Now – to relate it to Jewish philosophy – that’s an open field!

  2. “One wonders what Horkheimer and Adorno would say about facebook or social networking which is constantly sharing humor.”

    Or what they would have thought of people like George Carlin.

  3. Thanks, comments were good too. Horkheimer, Adorno did get a lot right, but so did Bergson, Foucault. I guess some types of laughter could lead, or eventually lead to emancipatory concepts beliefs in the spirit of Bergson. Or some could serve as a pathetic reconfirmation of one’s prison cell. I, unfortunately, am not Jewish, but many Jewish comedic talents have displayed an incredible talent of producing the perfect laugh at the perfect time. Whether it was Lenny Bruce, Joan Rivers, Larry David, Mel Brooks or SBC. We are in desperate need of a good, belly aching laugh, so let’s put those creative genetic forces to work.

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