Comic Exposure to Targeting: A Levinasian Reading of Andy Kaufman and Phillip Roth’s Portnoy (Part II)


The reflection on and implementation of comic targeting has a long history which stretches back to the origins of Greek philosophy.   The reflection on the target is of utmost importance for thinkers who wish to establish this or that kind of hierarchy or agonistics between appearance and reality, the mind and the body, being and becoming, and other topics germane to Western philosophy.

For Socrates, the role of irony was to create a sense that things are not always as they seem: he looked to separate appearance from reality, being from becoming, and truth from untruth in his ironies.  We see a good example of this in the Symposium where Alicabades, fully intoxicated, bursts into the Symposium and accuses Socrates of being a seducer.  In his drunkenness, Alciabades publicly accuses Socrates of lying about his quest for truth.  For Alciabades, Socrates acted ‘as if’ he thought physical was inferior to the love of wisdom.  It was a front that he used to seduce young men.  The irony is that Socrates “seems” to be into the former and is seducing young boys, but in actuality he is brining them closer to the truth.  His irony is that of a philosophical trickster. In the end, Alciabades claims that Socrates wears that mask of Silenius, the cohort of Dionysus.  He seems to be a seducer but, ultimately, he’s not.  He is committed to truth and being. And the target of his ironies is always what seems to be true: becoming.

In his book On Masochism, Gilles Deleuze argues that Socrates destroys this or that target in the name of this or that principle.  Irony has a philosophical use: it makes one distinguish and judge the difference between appearance and reality.  In contrast to irony, Deleuze, citing Sacher Masoch’s Venus in Furs, posits humor; for Deleuze humor doesn’t aim at destroying a target and establishing a principle so much as elaborating what he calls a contract which reduces absolutes to finite terms and relations.   In Delueze’s model, there isn’t a hierarchy so much as a lateral tension between beings which is not ironic so much as humorous.

In The Poetics (5:14) and The Rhetoric, Aristotle saw humor as introducing the “incongruous.”  The joke surprises the listener by offering something he or she did not expect in this or that series.  This laughter or surprise is another way of saying that what is laughed at is not beautiful or harmonious.  Humor is a distortion of proper mimesis and is, for this reason, a target.  Aristotle notes this in the poetics, Chapter 4:

Comedy, as I said, a mimesis of people worse than are found in the world – ‘worse’ in the particular sense of ‘uglier’, as the ridiculous is a species of ugliness; for what we find funny is a blunder that does no serious damage or an ugliness that does not imply pain, the funny face, for instance, being one that is ugly and distorted…

For Thomas Hobbes, the author of the classic on political philosophy, Leviathan, humor was wedded to power.  As Sander Gilman points out in an essay on post-Holocaust humor, for Hobbes humor was either aimed at people who had less or more than oneself.  And when one laughs, Hobbes tells us that one feels “superiority” and “sudden glory.”  It is this feeling that one strives for as it makes one feel “as if” one is a god and beyond it all.  One sees the other stumble and laughs by virtue of their not falling.  This feeling cannot be attained without the destruction or decline of this or that target.  One, so to speak, becomes free from the target once one wounds it.    Hobbes states it plainly in his opus, Leviathan:

Men experience the passion of a sudden glory by some sudden act of their own, that pleaseth them; or by apprehension of some deformed thing in another, by comparison whereof they suddenly applaud themselves (33)

For Immanuel Kant, comedy is also surprising.  And like Aristotle, he thinks it has a critical function. But for Kant laughter also has an ameliorative function.   Its target, like that of Aristotle, is that which causes tension and perplexity.

Simon Critchley, in his book, On Humor, notes that in Kant’s Critique of Judgment, Kant sees humor as offering “comic relief” to this or that tension.  Here’s Kant’s joke which, as Critchley notes, has racist overtones:

An Englishman at an Indian’s table in Surat saw a bottle of ale being opened, and all the beer, turned to froth, rushed out. The Indian, by repeated exclamations, showed his great amazement. – Well, what’s so amazing in that? asked the Englishman. – Oh, but I’m not amazed at its coming out, replied the Indian, but how you managed to get it all in. – This makes us laugh, and it gives us a hearty pleasure. This is not because, say, we think we are smarter than this ignorant man, nor are we laughing at anything else here that it is our liking and that we noticed through our understanding. It is rather that we had a tense expectation that suddenly vanished…

In this joke, the comic relief corresponds not simply to the structural tension presented by the joke but ethnic relations and tensions.   Regardless, what we find is that perplexity is the target and it is perplexity which creates the tension.  The surprise (that is the punch line) here is much like the surprise discussed by Hobbes: it grants one a sense of superiority which, ultimately, is based on realizing that what we thought was perplexing or worthy of serious concern really isn’t.

Comic relief happens when the target is eliminated; strangely enough, this happens when one learns that the target (the perplexity) is not a target (or perplexing).   It only “appeared” to be so.  Comedy, like perplexity, may make one fell uneasy, but in the end it is supplanted by knowledge.  To be sure, this process of experiencing wonder/perplexity (and unease) and the displacement of it is rooted in Aristotle’s approach to wonder and philosophy in The Metaphysics.   Indeed, Aristotle saw happiness in terms of relieving the tension one feels in the face of wonder (that is, not knowing).  In the wake of perplexity, knowledge is relief; just as in the joke, as Kant understands it, the knowledge that the perplexity was a ruse also grants relief.

One can be assured, that there is no tension.  It was just a joke. And in learning this, one feels superior rather than subordinate to this or that perplexity.

Even for the Romantics, comedy has a target. Irony looks to play with and destroy things.  It is violent.  Wit is, as Novalis says, a Menstruum Universale,  a chemical substance.  It targets thinks and breaks them down.  And what we laugh at, like children, is the fragmentary remains (or the process of this breakdown).  Wit demonstrates one’s ability to break things down and, in the process, one elevates oneself (one’s tactical, practical sensibility) over these things.  Instead of the reign of reason, as with Kant, we have the reign of play and tact.  Regardless, there is a kind of superiority – either of play, humanism, or reason – at work which is based on overcoming this or that target.

As I have pointed out in various blog entries, Kierkegaard saw irony as a challenge to the world and all our mental machinations. Irony can make one into a god of sorts.  As Kierkegaard points out in his book Either/Or, humor seems to come out of nowhere to rescue one from despair.  In a section of the book entitled “Rotations,” Kierkegaard sees humor in relation to what he calls rotation.  In the aesthetic (as opposed to the religious or the ethical) one moves from one thing to another – from melancholy to comedy. Although humor “saves,” it does so by taking the world as its target.  It rotates from being brought down by the world to lifting oneself above it, like a god.  But, ultimately, Kierkegaard sees humor as subservient to faith.  Irony divests oneself of the mind, world, etc.  But it is fear and trembling which, for him, supercedes humor.  Regardless, the theme is, still, about targeting and elevation.

Like Kierkegaard, Henri Bergson, in his “Essay on Laughter,” also has a distinct target.  He argues that laughter takes the mechanical gesture as its target.  For Bergson, it targets the mechanical because laughter is connected to becoming, change, and life – to what he calls élan vital – while the mechanical is connected to stasis.  Laughter is a part of what he calls “creative evolution.”  To illustrate this, Bergson talks about different toys that children find funny: like the Jack-in-the-Box, a toy that mechanically repeats the same “surprising” mechanical gesture.  The same goes for mimes or clowns who repetitively repeat this or that action.  We laugh at it because we want to identify with and yet exclude this behavior from society as society. For Bergson, humor is based on “creative evolution” and becoming not repetition.     We laugh because we want to grow and that requires that we target that which keeps us from being free and becoming.

The surprise we feel is, for Bergson, connected to the fact that what we see is repetitive.  It is ultimately transcended by the desire for change which is surprised by that which can change but does not.  It finds these things that repeat over and over again surprising as they go against becoming which Bergson finds germane to humanity.  Here, the surprise is not wonder so much as an articulation of the superiority of élan vital which cannot tolerate the mechanical, which is below life.

In the next blog entry I will discuss Paul deMan’s targeting as the culmination of all of these targeting theories and, from there, I will relate this to Emmanuel Levinas, Phillip Roth, and Andy Kaufman who either extend or challenge this reflection on targeting.  The point of all this reflection on targeting is to show how deeply entrenched this tradition is and to think about whether or not Levinas, Roth, and Kaufman present an alternate route.