Tragedy, Rage, Grief and Being an Arsehole

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parallax, 2012, vol. 18, no. 2, 45–55

Tragedy, Rage, Grief and Being an Arsehole Simon Critchley Talks with Dave Ronalds

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Dave Ronalds: Can you tell me about what you’ve been working on recently in relation to losing it, anger, temper and so on? Simon Critchley: I’m working on Greek tragedy at the moment and it’s very interesting in that regard. There is, as I think you allude to in the introduction to this issue, a tradition that you can find in philosophers like Seneca which is that the philosopher should maintain their temper. This goes back to Aristotle; there’s extreme anger and extreme indifference and somehow the right thing is the mean, the middle between the two, so the philosophical temperament is equanimity. There’s a very long cultivation of the sense that anger, rage and loss of temper are dangerous things and that equanimity should be maintained. The thing that I have observed about ancient Greek tragedy however (and not just ancient Greek tragedy, but we could also talk about Shakespeare in relation to this or go all the way up to people like Sarah Kane and many, many others), is it’s full of rage, it’s full of anger, and the anger has two sources that I’ve been able to identify, both of which are really interesting. There’s the wonderful set of translations of Euripides by the Canadian poet Ann Carson, where she asks, what is tragedy or why does tragedy exist?1 She answers that there is tragedy because there is rage. But why is there rage? For her, because there is grief. The question that I’d add to that is, why is there grief? The answer must be because there is war. So what you’ve seen in tragedy after tragedy is a situation in which we have someone in a rage because someone has died and they’ve died in a situation of war. So in the tragedy of Antigone her rage at Creon is based in her grief for her brother, Polynices, who was murdered during a civil war and you can find example after example like that. So there’s a sense in which there’s a form of rage which is linked to grief, which is linked to a situation of social unrest. That interests me in relationship to whatever’s been going on in the last year, which perhaps we should come back to. The funeral has become a privileged site for political protests. We’ve got used to the spectacle of people being shot at funerals which are held for people who were shot during protests. DR: For a long time now, in Northern Ireland for example that was certainly the case. SC: Absolutely, yes. But it’s an ancient tradition. In a sense there’s what we could call a legitimate expression of rage, still blind in its way, but a powerful and legitimate sense of rage which is bound up with an illegitimate death in a civil war situation. parallax ISSN 1353-4645 print/ISSN 1460-700X online q 2012 Taylor & Francis

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There’s an awful lot that could be said about that. That’s one model of Greek tragedy I want to think about. The other model which is another side of anger for me, just to think about in terms of an idea, is based on the classic example of Oedipus the King. We begin with Oedipus going onto the stage and saying, ‘I am Oedipus the King, you know who I am. I am glorious in the eyes of gods of men. I solved the riddle. There is pollution in the city, things are going very badly. What do you want me to do?’ So Oedipus expresses the, as it were, narcissistic equanimity of the tyrant. What we see in that play is Oedipus involved in a process in which he learns the truth about who he is. He’s a parasite and he is having incestuous relations with his mother. But what accompanies each step of his enquiry is rage and anger. So Oedipus rages against the truth that seems to be continuously dawning throughout the play. He, essentially, acts like an arsehole. So perhaps we should talk about something like what it means to be an arsehole or what’s going on in that experience of being an arsehole. It seems to me that if we think about the basic situation and story of someone like Oedipus, he can tell us something very interesting. The story goes that he was in Corinth, where he thought he was from, and he was at a banquet where there was a drunkard who said to him, ‘you’re not who you think you are; you’re a bastard’. He immediately disavowed it but it wormed its way into his psyche. He eventually went off to the oracle at Delphi to find out the truth about who he was and what the prophecies were saying. He heard the prophecy and the prophecy was, you will kill your father and you will murder your mother. At this point he is uncertain about who he is. He’s not going to go back to Corinth because he’s terrified. He walks along the road and then he gets to a place where three roads join one road, at a place called Phocis and he encounters an older man and each of them refuses to give way. An argument ensues, they both unleash anger towards each other and Oedipus murders the older man who, it turns out, is his father. Now there’s a sense in which what’s really interesting about that example is that Oedipus knew what the prophecy foretold for him and given its nature it might not be the wisest course of action to kill older men, particularly older men that look something like you. There’s a line later in the play where he asks Jocasta, his wife/mother, what this man, the king, looked like and she says, well actually he looked a lot like you – but obviously he was older. So Oedipus both knew and he didn’t know and it’s in that space of knowing and not knowing that his anger or rage kicks in. He raises his arm and he strikes the older man. There’s something there about what it means to be an arsehole in the sense in which when one flies into a temper or flies into a rage, you know that you’re flying into a rage and yet at the same time you are out of control. You know you’re losing it despite yourself. You end up at that point enacting, as it were, the prophecy under which your life is lived and you constantly disavow. You end up re-enacting the violence of your familial background or whatever it might be. That just strikes me as an interesting model; a way in which anger can arise in a situation of knowing and not knowing. I think we do that all the time. When we get into arguments with people that we love, we know that we’re being an arsehole at the point in which the voice is raised or, god forbid, the hand is raised, yet we still do it nonetheless. DR: It seems to me that arsehole can mean two different things in this context. It can signify both idiot and bastard. Oedipus is obviously a bastard in the illegitimate sense, but as an arsehole he could also be a bastard in its sense as a nasty person. How are you thinking of it here? Critchley/ Ronalds 46

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SC: Oedipus is a bastard that acts like an arsehole or rather acts like an idiot. He’s a bastard that acts like an idiot. What goes on in that moment when you lose it and you become an idiot? In a sense you become malevolent, you become nasty. So I think both things happen. I think bastard and idiot sort of run together. There’s a sense for me that when you lose it, it’s as if you’re possessed by a malevolent force which can be bolstered by alcohol or drugs or whatever, or justified in relation to them. But there’s still a moment when we can step back from that and still we lose it. I have a deep distrust of Buddhists [laughs] or people that always seem to be in control of their emotions and I’m deeply suspicious of people that don’t get angry. It seems to me that it’s essential to lose it and when you lose it something is revealed and something is concealed. We lose it most quickly in relationship to the people that are closest to us. One often loses it with ones parents, for example, after a very short period of time. What’s involved in that? It would require an awful lot of analysis. Anyway, I guess that there’s a dominant idea that you should rationally step back or that you need to manage that anger in some way. But the anger reveals something. Oedipus’ anger, the anger of disavowal, of ‘no I’m not that, I’m not a motherfucker I’m the child of chance!’ That anger also allows a circuit back to forms of reflection. That’s why I’m in favour of friendships or relationships where people lose it. I don’t think that people beating each other senseless is a good thing, but I’m always suspicious of couples who say that they never argue. It makes no sense to me. DR: My wife’s analysis of that is that one partner must be absolutely controlling the other and so it’s not really a two way relationship. SC: Someone’s in absolute control and there’s a massive sense of inhibition governing it. It’s not that there is something necessarily more authentic or true about losing it, it’s not as simple as that. But there’s a sense in which, if we go back to Oedipus when he raises his hand and kills the older man, something is revealed about who he is. He knows it and he doesn’t know it. I think to that extent we live in societies where those sorts of expressions of rage or of losing it are definitely not condoned. One wonders why that is. Why shouldn’t, say politicians or public figures lose it? It’s always great when they do; when a celebrity hits one of the paparazzi or whatever. We all go, yeah, yeah why not? It must be deeply frustrating to be followed round the whole time by camera people. Or there was something in watching the video of John Galliano, where he was accused of anti-Semitism, which I thought was preposterous. He might be anti-Semitic and the man definitely has issues. But in his drunkenness and rage something is revealed. The idea of just keeping that buttoned up or sanitized through appropriate amounts of yoga or something strikes me as implausible. DR: Yes. This is really close to the problem I’m trying to solve. I don’t entirely trust people who say, oh I entirely lost it, I didn’t know what I was doing for whatever reason or because of this or that. I think in some sense we always know what we’re doing even if that thing is to give oneself over to some kind of oblivion, and that’s what’s interesting about it. There is that silver thread that we know, or we hope, we’re always going to come back on. We are ultimately responsible for going out there and losing our reason or whatever else. There’s a certain kind of pleasure in letting yourself lose it under the risk that you are going to make it back again. parallax 47

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SC: On a slightly different tack, my wife with whom I frequently lose it and whom I love passionately is a psychoanalyst and she was working with psychotic patients in New York a few years ago. I met a few of them because we used to go in there during the holidays, particularly over the Christmas holidays, and take in coffee and things like that. From this side of psychosis, we imagine that neurotics and psychotics are in some other state. From this side of that dividing line, it looks like they’ve lost it; they’ve lost it and we haven’t, or at least that when we lose it we can go back on that silver thread of knowing who we are. A really interesting question is whether a psychotic ever really loses it. I mean whether a florid psychotic who is experiencing the most profound delusions is actually in some alternative reality. It’s not clear. But if you actually spend time with psychotics it’s clear that they can move in and out of levels of losing it. So I remember one encounter with a man in a psychiatric unit in New York whose name was Samson. He was an engineer from Ethiopia. A very nice man, but his initial response to me when he first met me was to act out his delusions. We had half an hour of him raving about the food being poisoned and he wouldn’t take the drugs because they were poisoned too. People were trying to kill him and all of that. It was like a paranoid fantasy. Then as things began to settle down his mood changed and at a certain point I remember asking him, ‘so what’s the food like in here?’ and he laughed and said ‘yeah, it’s alright’. We have an idea of madness as losing it but I’m not so sure. I mean psychosis isn’t a break, it’s the end of a continuum or the end of a piece of string and we’re holding the other end. So there are moments, I think in all of our lives when we can go into that delusional state and then we can pull back from it. But perhaps it’s also true for the so-called mad, and that’s an interesting phenomenon. Another thing that happens in New York and pretty much everywhere else now, is that people who are mad are generally picked up on the street because they’re homeless and they’re put into a form of incarceration in psychiatric units and given anti-psychotic drugs that rob them of their delusions and just make them miserable. They can’t even lose it in their hallucinations, which is the ultimate form of punishment. It’s a bit like what happens to Alex at the end of A Clockwork Orange. We live in a context where losing it is a problem that has to be regulated with drugs. DR: Yes, in some sense a psychotic person’s psychosis has become their identity and, whether that identity is violent, or delusional or whatever, if you take it away . . . SC: . . . they cease to be at that point. DR: Can we just go back to the cycle of rage, grief and war for a moment? When you were saying that I was wondering about the idea of an intemperate state, which is something else that I mention in the introduction to this issue. In your model, war, being an extreme of intemperate state, is the ultimate end of a causal line at the other end of which is individual rage, or perhaps to put it another way, the intemperate person or loss of temper. So firstly, perhaps you could say something general about that proposition. Then secondly I wanted to mention the 2011 riots in the UK, which were apparently sparked by the shooting of Mark Duggan and was played out as a kind of mourning. It was a total pantomime, but for a short time everyone who got involved in the civil disturbance did so under the veil of it being a protest or mourning. But whatever your point of view about the shooting, really it was an excuse. So perhaps we Critchley/ Ronalds 48

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should tie these things up in regard to these disturbances: a sort of petty and rather short lived civil war and social unrest on the back of this kind of prosthetic grief. SC: I remember seeing an interview with Darcus Howe who I remember from debates on the left a long, long time ago. He was a Member of Parliament and he used to have a TV show on Channel 4. He was interviewed on the Broadwater Farm Estate, which is where it all started. A policeman had been more or less beheaded there in the early eighties; it’s not a neutral environment, it’s somewhere with a history of violence and counter violence and it’s a situation which for me is incredibly dense and resonant and needs to be thought through carefully. Howe was being asked for his views, which weren’t that controversial actually, but at a certain point he says ‘people are angry here, they’re upset and I don’t know whether this is the beginning of a revolution’. Then the BBC interviewer said to him, ‘well Mr Howe, you’re no stranger to rioting yourself are you?’ She’d obviously been prompted by some researcher saying that Howe had been allegedly involved in stuff in the past. And he replies, very simply, ‘please have some respect for an elderly West Indian gentleman’. The BBC then dropped that from the website and you can’t find that clip apparently. The point being though that the original context there is saturated with the kind of violence and counter violence that we’ve been talking about. But yes, there is a fake grief. I think that what perhaps interests me more was the sort of enjoyment and pleasure that might be behind it. There’s a certain jouissance as a political factor there which is really quite interesting. I was thinking about that in relationship to Owen Jones’ book about chavs and the demonization of the working class which came out last spring.2 There’s a sense in which this was the demonized working classes playing out their demonic qualities in the face of Cameron, who really began to channel a Thatcherite discourse. Whether it was a decision or whether it was unconscious, it was weird. I was listening with my wife who’s American, and this talk about ‘pure criminality’, ‘we will not accept this’, ‘we will hit back’, sounded exactly the way that the Tories spoke in the eighties and to foreign ears it’s just bewildering and hysterical. So there’s a sort of enjoyment on many levels. You’ve got the enjoyment of people smashing things up, which is not nothing; you smash a window, you get some trainers or a drink and you can then blame the government. But then there’s the enjoyment on the part of the government to castigate the working classes, which should never be underestimated in a British mentality; how much people get off on demonising the working classes. There’s a meta-question that has popped into my mind in relation to what you’re saying. Was there fake grief and fake mourning in those protests in Syria or Yemen or Egypt or Libya? That would seem to be going too far, and I am probably exoticizing the other at some point. I don’t know. There are a couple of ways of looking at the Arab Spring. To begin with, they want what we have and therefore there’s the liberal response that we should encourage it. Then there’s a leftist response that they embody an authenticity which we lack and which we need to imitate. Both I think are wrong, it’s more complicated than that. I’ve said that more than once in this interview. DR: The reason that I wanted to pick up on the events in UK in particular was really that it’s in that line of what you’re saying, rage, grief, war; except in this parallax 49

instance there was no war to start the grief which perhaps cannot be said to be entirely true in regards to the Arab Spring. It almost seemed like the kind of decision to lose it that we’ve spoken about disguised behind a veil of grief. So the decision and the associated pleasures seem to be tied in to that line as well. The traditional cycle of rage, grief, war is not present here but is rather just a mask for pleasure. *

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DR: As I understand it, part of the trajectory of your new work Faith of the Faithless is a search for some form or idea of responsible or non-violent violence that results from the acknowledgment that we cannot rid ourselves of violence and sometimes it’s even necessary.3 It seems to me that in the model that you constructed around Oedipus there is a possible and comparable contradiction. At the risk of proposing a far too simplistic opposition, perhaps it is the case that a responsible violence must be something more like a strategic dismantling of something in which there exists a decision or consciousness; I am going to enact violence, and then because one is being responsible one does it very carefully. It’s the opposite to the sort of uncontrollable rage that one might class as truly ‘losing it’, if such a thing were possible. One must either conduct the violence in a very cold and calculated manner, which would be very knowing, or temporarily let oneself lose it under the risk that one can make it back again. I’m wondering whether there is something here in the knowingness of responsible violence, which is comparable to Oedipus’ knowing and not knowing that makes him such an arsehole. In either case, is the knowingness that is embedded in responsibility something that renders even nonviolent violence plain wrong? Is this problematic for any notion of non-violent violence and could it be something that connects the sort of everyday violence that you already mentioned with political or emancipatory violence? SC: Well, to begin with, I think anger, against this let’s say Senecan tradition of controlling your temper with equanimity, is the first political emotion. But the consequences of that emotion are extremely ambiguous. In the United States, for example, in the last two years we’ve seen two diametrically opposed political movements take shape, both of which are motivated by anger and which go in very different directions, the Tea Party on the right and Occupy Wall Street on the left. I think anger is necessary in politics but it’s not sufficient if you like. To extend this into political violence, what you say is very interesting. The problem for me is the following. If you want to argue for an ethics and politics of non-violence as a better course of action as I do then does that mean that you are obligated to condemn all political movements which express violence? It seems to me that that’s a false inference which is based on a kind of historical amnesia. Violence is never one thing. Violence is always cut in two. It’s always a cycle of violence and counter violence. So if we were to think about actual violent situations we could use Northern Ireland, which you mentioned, as a very good example. In the Irish situation we have violence and counter violence and both lines of action are justified in relationship to perceived wrongs which have a more or less historical, theological and religious basis which go back 400 years. There are people like the Serbians that can go back even further. It’s a wrong that goes back to the battle of Kosovo in 1389. So there’s this movement of violence and counter violence, seemingly without end. To simply assert Critchley/ Ronalds 50

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that non-violence is a principle that needs to be accepted in all cases is to disavow history. History is a history of violence. It’s to unwittingly put yourself onto the side of the oppressors and actually begin to mould the ideological position. I think you can see this in relationship to the UK riots that we’ve already spoken about. We move very quickly to the ideological discourse of pure criminality and any act of violence has to be condemned. If you don’t condemn acts of violence, then you’re as bad as they are. But that disavows the historical basis which would enable us to actually understand that situation. So the question for me is how we can group together an ethics and politics of non-violence, with a historical understanding of violence as something that has been inescapable for us. If we look at the question of protest movements for a moment, (as political forces that have traditionally grappled with the problem of violence against non-violence), you’re right, there is, or has been, a decision to lose it, especially, I suppose, in debates on the American and German left in the late sixties and of course elsewhere as well. A point is usually reached in discussion which says, well our non-violent protest movement is doing nothing, therefore we need to take it to the next level. We need to bring the war home and start a civil war. If the objective, in that case, of say, anti-Vietnam protests, was to bring the war that’s being fought overseas home to the United States, then there needs to be a programme of calculated violent intervention. That’s how the Weather Underground got started and all the rest. The Occupy Wall Street Movement has been scrupulous so far. Their tactical and organisational skill in terms of organising that space and the series of protests has been remarkable. But if you look at it in its historical context then I guess you don’t know what’s going to happen. You can imagine a debate happening at a certain point like, well, this is doing nothing; we just could sit here forever and it’s not going to bring down capitalism. So what are we going to do? We’re going to start blowing up banks or whatever it might be, or we’re going to start arresting hedge fund managers. So, yes, I think in political situations there’s a decision to lose it. Then, of course, once you’ve made that decision you can do so repeatedly. The history of the extreme left in the early seventies is a history of what could happen in that regard. To return more directly to this opposition between irresponsible and responsible violence, which is, as you rightly say, far too simplistic, I’m not sure whether we can say that either are better or worse. Perhaps we could say that the latter is more cynical in a way, or rather more instrumental. We have ends in a movement. The question is about means. So if non-violent protest is a means and that means is seen to fail then one could begin to adopt different means. Let’s make selective strikes on the infrastructure of capitalism. Let’s start blowing up banks for example. Let’s make a decision that violence against property is fine. Violence against persons is not fine. We could do, say, what the Angry Brigade did with remarkable incompetence in the early seventies and leave bombs in plastic bags outside Nat West or whatever. But then maybe in one of those situations a bank worker gets wounded and you cross another line between violence against property and violence against person. So there is a sense in which perhaps it serves no purpose to say whether it’s better or worse, but rather that there’s something necessarily instrumental about a decision to wage a violent campaign. parallax 51

A problem that I’ve been wrestling with a little bit is the prohibition against murder that you can find in a number of Biblical variations but is essentially thou shalt not kill. DR: This is in response to Benjamin?

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SC: Yes, Benjamin picks this up in Critique of Violence.4 The issue is, what is the force of the commandment against murder? Does it mean that murder is prohibited? Does it mean that murder will not happen? Benjamin’s thought is no, it doesn’t mean that murder isn’t going to happen. It means that murder is happening, but that murder is murder. The complexity of this is odd and I’ve tried to analyse it in my relationship to Levinas’ work in a different way. In Totality and Infinity Levinas says that the first word of ethics is thou shalt not commit murder.5 People will always object to Levinas on the basis that one can’t say this because we live in a violent world. But Levinas was perfectly well aware that we live in a violent world and experienced it first hand in the Second World War and he doesn’t need to be reminded of that. So if that’s the case, what’s going on? I think the situation is one in which we inhabit a world of war and violence and we have a fragile guide line or plumb line, as Benjamin would have it, of non-violence. This guideline of nonviolence is something that we have to wrestle with in actual situations. Non-violence is not some sort of Kantian moral law or the word of god. It’s a guideline that certain of us might choose to follow, yet we might also find ourselves in situations where that guideline has to be transgressed. One enters into a sequence of violence. If you do engage in a series of violent acts, does that mean that the violence is justified? No it doesn’t. So where this gets interesting is that Benjamin offers this fragile guideline for action, namely non-violence, while at the same time accepting the reality of the situation of violence into which we have been inserted by the fact of being alive. That means that we might have to transgress that commandment of non-violence, yet that transgression is never justified. So it’s a situation where rather than thinking about responsible violence it would be a question of thinking about occasions where violence is necessary but at the same time knowing that it is never justifiable. We live in a world where violence always seems to be justified one way or another. The violence of Al Qaeda against the United States was justified because of the humiliation of the Arab peoples or the occupation of Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War. The violence of what happened in Afghanistan and Iraq is justified because of 9/11. So a violently imposed wrong becomes the basis for justification. It’s very complicated and it can’t be a question of simply maintaining a principle of nonviolence all the way down and neither is it simply a question of accepting and embracing forms of violence in the way in which someone could do on the basis of Zˇizˇek’s work for example. It has to be a much more complex dance or negotiation between non-violence and violence which I think is more supple and more true to the reality of the situation that we find ourselves in. DR: Yes. Zˇizˇek is certainly worth bringing in here. Earlier on you were referring to cycles of violence and histories of violence and that could perhaps be interpreted as a permanent state. I wondered if you could distinguish that from systemic or objective violence as Zˇizˇek might have it? To put it as simply as possible, as violence as a default situation which is now and again ruptured by abnormal non-violence. Subjective violence would be the opposite state of affairs. Critchley/ Ronalds 52

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SC: I think that both claims could be true in a sense. Zˇizˇek’s critique is a critique of subjective violence and that debates around violence are always subjectivized; how can you be violent? The ideological objective substrate of that is that there is an order of peace. He opposes that by emphasising the objective character of violence, namely that there is something intrinsically violent to the, let’s say capitalist system that we live within. That’s undeniable but I still don’t think that eliminates the question of subjective violence. In order to really tackle this we must also address the question of how we define violence. I remember years and years ago you’d get into debates at places like the ICA with Foucauldians and for them everything was violent. Language was violent, I mean everything. Violence had no limits and everything was an expression of some sort of intrinsic, almost metaphysical sense of violence. Such a view is, I think, unhelpful. When I’m talking about violence, I’m not talking about the violence of language or the violence of the system. I’m talking about physical violence and acts of physical violence because at least at that level it can be a little bit more contained. Maybe all the rest of it is true, that everything is violent, but at that point one starts to lose focus. Part of the violence/counter-violence issue for me is that I think this question really only takes on force in specific situations. So if we think about say, Ireland, or if we think about colonial situations, we’re presented with a cycle of violence and counter-violence that seems to be permanent. There can be different tales of the origin of that violence. There will always be some story about who started it . . . you started it, you invaded Ireland with your plantations and therefore what we do against you is justified. Or something like, we gave you civilisation, we brought you French language, you should be grateful. So the political situations we find ourselves in are very often marked by a seemingly permanently back and forth of violence and counter-violence. The question is how can that be arrested in a way that doesn’t disavow it. That for me is the issue. DR: Before we finish I was hoping we could shift focus a little and say something about humour, which I know you’ve thought and written about extensively in the past. Throughout our discussion about violence and losing it there has seemed to be a persistent allusion to an idea of a sort of splitting of self; of a presence of mind and a line which we can cross the other side of which is madness, or untamed violence and so on. I know you’ve spoken about a form of splitting of self in relation to humour and I was hoping you could say a bit about that.6 Is it at all comparable to what we’ve been talking about? SC: Well, perhaps to begin with, in relation to politics, which we’ve been speaking about, humour is an ambiguous tool. The great comic tradition really is a conservative tradition of people like Swift and Sterne and the rest. In a sense from Aristophanes onwards the comedians and the humorous have always been on the side of the past, trying to assert the values of the past and tradition against the absurdities of the manners of the present. So when let’s say progressive or left wing movements use humour they often make use of exactly the same forms as those people they oppose. For example, the old early eighties radical feminist separatist gag, how many men does it take to tile a bath? DR: It depends how thinly you slice them. parallax 53

SC: Yes. It has the same form as a racist joke or a sexist joke. So the book on humour that I wrote does not have a chapter on politics because in a sense the politics of humour can point in two directions at once. There’s nothing necessarily progressive or emancipatory about humour. That would be the first thing I’d say. Great traditions of satire are often deeply and properly reactionary.

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The relationship between humour and losing it is interesting though. The forms of humour that have interested people in theory and philosophy have largely been influenced by Bakhtin and Bataille and people like that and are centred around the idea of laughter; excessive transgressive humour where you lose it. So for Bataille laughter is an expression of sovereignty. For Bakhtin it’s the eruption of the lower bodily material strata. For me though that’s not what’s interesting about humour. Humour is a way of not losing it. It’s a way of almost checking against oneself of that. To lose it is, in a sense to cease to be oneself, to imagine that you become something else, an animal, an organism. Whereas what happens in humour is that there is this reflective distance from yourself that opens up. I analyse this in relationship to the hanged man gag of Freud. ‘Well the week’s beginning nicely’ when the condemned man walks onto the courtyard in the prison house and sees the gallows ahead of him. What’s going on in that form of humour is a sort of cognitive and theoretical selfdistancing from the situation, which is a way of not losing it. It’s a way of being aware of what’s going on when you’re losing it or something like that. So humour is a kind of corrective to losing it. In a situation of real grief or anger where you could lose it, humour gives you a certain contemplative distance. So when I talk about the splitting of the self, it’s in those terms. For Freud, humour has this function of looking at yourself from outside and finding yourself ridiculous. It’s that structure that interests me. One could say that to lose it is to cease to split yourself and to cease to be self-conscious in some way and to just become a pure assertive being whose hand will raise and strike. DR: The silver thread is broken or something? SC: The silver thread is really pushed in one direction. But there is an aspect of our fantasy here that we are these inherently reflective self-conscious creatures and that the flip side of that is that we’re depressed and melancholic and you end up like Hamlet. Whereas often what we dream of is some experience where you can lose it. So we talked about losing it in relationship to violence, but we could talk about it in relationship to sexuality as well. DR: Back to Bataille. SC: Yeah, back to Bataille. What many people are after in sex is some sort of feeling of losing it, of some transport or momentary epiphany or whatever it might be; to somehow pull oneself out of those circuits of reflection that we find ourselves within. There’s a wonderful text by Freud called ‘On the Universal Tendency to Debasement in the Sphere of Love’ where he talks about male sexuality, and it’s one of the few places where he really addresses the topic head on.7 He begins the essay by saying that the clinical phenomenon that’s faced him most often over the years is psychical impotence; a man cannot have sex with his wife who he loves or reveres, but in relationship to the figure of the prostitute or the whore, he experiences Critchley/ Ronalds 54

extraordinary potency. So there’s somehow in the structure of sexuality, this play between fantasy and potency which requires a suspension of love and a transgression of some kind. To conclude though, one of the fantasies that we got from psychoanalysis in the fifties and sixties was that society had been inhibited through Bourgeois morality and that there could be liberation and a progressive deinhibition of society and you had Marcuse and Wilhelm Reich and so on. But in fact I think what we see is precisely the opposite. We are seeing a massive increase in ever more extraordinary forms of inhibition, so losing it in that sense becomes an ever more difficult thing and, as such, is ever more regulated.


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Euripides, Grief Lessons: Four Plays by Euripides, trans. Anne Carson (New York: NYRB Classics 2006). 2 Owen Jones, Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class, (London: Verso 2011). 3 Simon Critchley, Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology, (London: Verso 2012). 4 Walter Benjamin, ‘Critique of Violence’ in One Way Street and Other Writings, trans. Edmund Jephcott (London: Verso 1997).


Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press 1999). 6 Simon Critchley, On Humour, (London: Routledge 2002). 7 Sigmund Freud, ‘On the Universal Tendency to Debasement in the Sphere of Love (Contributions to the Psychology of Love)’ [1912], The Complete Psychological Works Of Sigmund Freud, Vol 11, ed. James Strachey, (London: Vintage Classics 2001).

Simon Critchley is currently the Hans Jonas professor at the New School for Social Research, New York. His published works largely arise from ideas of political and religious disappointment and its relationship with philosophy. Amongst his published works are Very Little, Almost Nothing (Routledge, 1997) and Infinitely Demanding (Verso, 2007). His most recent publications are the selection of interviews, Impossible Objects (Polity, 2011) and The Faith of the Faithless – Experiments in Political Theology (Verso, 2012), in which he examines the possibility of a belief for unbelievers, alongside the question of violence and the limits of nonviolence. E-mail:

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