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  13. Humor and Irony

  Yi-Jinkyung, Professor

Seoul National University of Technology


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It is said that humor and irony belong to rhetorical arts. Going even further, Deleuze gives humor and irony the place of philosophical style in which questions are asked and answers are sought. As is the case of Nietzsche, here the style means the expression form that is correlated with the content of thought or philosophy. In other words, it is not just an art, but an expression form that leads the content itself or determines it conversely.

To make a simple contrast, irony is the art with which one goes upward by asking or asking back to a certain answer, whereas humor is the art that cast a question, going downward by answering or following. It is irony that traditionally held an important position in philosophy. As the word ‘Socratic irony’ shows, it is close to the style of mainstream philosophy that begins with the name Socrates. Humor, on the other hand, had only a very peripheral position like comic art, word and deed, or joke. Deleuze gives humor an independent status against irony which has a long tradition. In addition, he places a higher value on the positive method of humor in contrast with the negative method of irony which takes the form of ‘counter-question.’ But saying this way would be an oversimplification. Especially the status of irony or his evaluation changes in short period.

First of all, irony is an ‘art of questioning’ that asks about the reason or the ground of what the opponent says. This was often used in Socrates’ dialectics. For example, when Socrates asks ‘what is justice?’, his opponent answers by taking examples of just people or cases. Then Socrates asks again: What I ask is not about those cases but about the ground or the principle on which you can say they are ‘just’. “What makes you say they are just?” He asks these kinds of questions about all the central concepts such as ‘virtue’ and ‘beauty’ to eventually make the opponent say ‘I don’t know.‘ He, in this way, pushes the imperative ’know thyself,‘ that is, ’know your ignorance’ to the opponent. And he tells the opponent driven out to ignorance what justice and virtue are. Like this, irony is an art of ‘ascension’ that enables going up to a higher level thesis, ground or principle through questioning. It is an art that facilitates presenting one’s principle and having it accepted.

If this is the case, you may ask why it should be irony which means 'antiphrasis.' You are right. This is a philosophical questioning art irrelevant to rhetorical one. When asking this kind of question, he says like this: "I'm asking because I don't know well, you wise man will tell me." As you know, he is asking in the guise of ignorance though he's not ignorant, and thereby reveals the ignorance of those who thought they knew something somewhat. Using the method of feigned ignorance, he corners the opponent in argument and reveals his ignorance, amplifying it at maximum. It is again an art of 'ascension' in the sense that one makes himself high and his opponent low, on the contrary to what he says by mouth. So the word 'Socratic irony' implies ridicule, satire, and rebuke. Therefore, the driving power of irony is the force of negativity that neutralizes the opponent.

Deleuze believes that Descartes' and Kant's methods of doubting and questioning also belong to this concept of irony. Descartes questions about the sensuous, the learned, and all conventional views. By this method of doubt, he tries to reach a firm ground that can no longer be doubted. Through the doubt about the judgement of an individual 'I,' he tries to find the highest principle that supports all the judgements. Kant asks "what can I know? What ought I to do? What can I hope for?" in the situation where the possibility of truth seems to disappear because of Hume's skepticism. By questioning about his ability, he also finds a priori form that is not swayed by doubtful experiences, that is, the form which enables the truth. Not only they but also the philosophers who try to seek the truth, the immovable, the highest principles and grounds all think through these doubts and questions. These are all philosophies of irony.

As opposed to irony by which one goes up to a higher place casting questions and write down the answer there, humor is an art by which one drowns orders and rules by faithfully following down as told. Kafka's novel The Judgement illustrates this well. In this novel, the father, who was giving a long talk to his son Georg, finally sentences his son “to die by drowning.” Georg then runs out of the house according to the ‘judgement’ and throws himself into the river from the bridge. “Still I loved my parents,” he murmured. He obeys the order extremely faithfully. Dismayingly enough, the novel ends there, which sets the reader wondering. What if someone really goes out and dies after he's told: "go out and die"? Wouldn't that death caused by the extreme faithfulness to the order embarrass the person who said so? Wouldn't it haul the order itself into the death?

This kind of art is often found in other works as well. In In the Penal Colony, being fascinated by the execution machine installed for the execution of the sentence of the law, a soldier steps on the execution machine on his own and gets himself executed without knowing the reason. The machine also collapses as it executes him. In A Report for an Academy, Rotpeters the ape faithfully obeys the demands from humans instead of escaping from the cage of the zoo where he is confined. He smokes if given a cigarette, drinks if given a drink, and finally can even speak what people say. The main characters of In The Castle and The Trial too just obey without asking back and get entangled into the event, wandering around outside of the castle and the law, In these ways, the execution machine is broken, the demand for imitation falls into the perflex, and the castle and the world dominated by law becomes embarssingly strange. This is the humor Deleuze refers to. Deleuze tries to make a place for the philosophy that thinks through humor in the world of philosophy dominated by irony. So he contrasts these two over and over again.

Irony and humor are two conflicting ways of causing laughter. Irony, which is the method of 'ascension,' causes laughter by lowering the opponent to the position of a fool. Socrates always uses this methode. Contrary to this, humor, the method of 'descension,' causes laughter by lowering its own self to the position of a fool. The laughter of irony is the negative laughter by which the one in a noble position criticizes and ridicules the other in a lower position, the laughter of humor is warm and comfortable laughter with which one goes down lower than the person in a lower position and affirms the world that is not noble.

The Chinese Zen monk Danxia provides a wonderful example of this humor. One winter day, he was staying at a very poor temple. The weather was unbearably cold, but there was no firewood to burn to heat. This monk strode into the Buddha hall to take one of the three wooden Buddha statues and chopped it with an ax to make a fire. The chief monk of this temple is startled to hear this, and runs to him and scream.

"No, how dare you burn the Buddha statue?"

"To get relics."

"What relics? Even a dog will laugh to hear this."

"Really? Then let's get the rest two as well and make a fire."

  Socrates would have asked the chief monk about the sense of the Buddha statue, the ground on which a piece of wood is revered as a Buddha statue, that is, what Buddha is. However, Danxia doesn't ask that kind of question. On the contrary, he deftly replies to the critical questions of the chief monk, insinuating that the chief monk is following the conventional view of Buddhism that relics come out when the body of Buddha or a high monk is burned. Thereby, the conventional view of equating Buddha with Buddha statue becomes a laughing stock at a stroke and collapses. Following the conventional view, he drags the conventional view down to the point opposite to it. By pushing the conventional view filled with senses into nonsense, he makes us rethink about Buddha and Buddha statue, or Buddhism and life. Deleuze defines this kind of serialization as ‘paradox’.

Here, Danxia doesn't try to ascend toward a higher principle or ground by attacking the opponent's ignorance. On the contrary, he goes down to the place of a fool who believes that it is possible to get relics by burning the wooden Buddha statue. By making a fool of himself as such, he causes a criticism upon himself. He doesn't even ask back about the criticism. He just suggests again to follow the conventional view, saying "If relics don't come out, let’s use the rest of the wooden Buddha states for firewood because it's unbearably cold."

When using irony, one feigns ignorance and lowers himself to artfully ask back about what the opponent says, it, in fact, is an attack method by which one ridicules, refutes, and attacks the opponent who believes he's smart. Socrates is not a fool by any standard. He is a sage pretending to be a fool. By digging into and refuting incongruities and contradictions, he tries to establish his argument as a higher principle. On the contrary, when it comes to humor, one accepts even the opponent’s criticism as it is. He outwits the opponent, saying “You’re right! I’m stupid.” rather than “You’ve been pretending to be smart. How come you’re saying that way?” Thereby, he drags the opponent’s criticism into a swamp hard to escape from and die together. By becoming himself a fool who follows the rules so faithfully, he makes a fool of the rule that makes him speak or act in that foolish way. Instead of refuting incongruities and contradictions, he goes into them on his own.

However, irony is not always just the method to establish principles. It also can be an art of criticism by which one asks back about the principles, such as morality and law, that govern life. Sade's work The 120 days of Sodom shows an irony of "only the law can tyrannize" through the sadists who maltreats by making strict rules for extreme violence(Masochism: Coldness and Cruelty 86). Justine, the protagonist of Justine, or The Misfortunes of Virtue, is an incredibly good woman. However, she suffers from bad guys owing to her good personality, and her misfortune continues to repeat. On the other hand, Juliette, or Vice Amply Rewarded is the story of Juliette, who does evil without hesitation. Juliette, who is also Justine's elder sister, enjoys success and prosperity, far from being punished or unhappy for her vice. Through these novels, Sade is asking back about moral categorical imperatives like 'be a good boy' or 'don't be evil.' It is commonplace that misfortune comes to any good person. If that is the case, do I need to be a good person? So often we see bad guys enjoy success. If so, what is the reason not to be evil?

Socrates is asking questions to suggest higher principles, whereas Sade only asks questions without suggesting principles. Irony becomes a method of criticism when trying to reveal real problems by repeatedly asking questions rather than suggesting hidden answers as the highest principles. So Deleuze says irony is an art of problem and question “to proceed to the differentiations necessary within the calculation of problems or the determination of their conditions”(Difference and Repetition 247), and is related to 'Idea.' The difference between Socrates and Sade is whether the Idea is the principle underlying the whole or the repetition of questions without answers.

Sade shows the critical art of irony, whereas Masoch shows that of humor. It is said that a sadist gets pleasure from the act of inflicting pain on others while a Masochist enjoys the act of suffering pain. According to this, the two are symmetrical pair. Deleuze criticizes this conventional view. When one asks if the sadist can get pleasure by whipping his/her partner if this partner enjoys the pain this sadist inflicted, the symmetry between the two disappears. Furthermore, he criticizes the conventional view that masochist is the one who gets pleasure from pain. According to Deleuze, when knowing the order of the law that ‘if you seek pleasure, you’ll pay for it with pain', Masochist is the one who asks for pain to get pleasure, on the contrary to the ironist who asks back to the order of the law why the price of pleasure is pain. “We then behave as if the supreme sovereignty of the law conferred upon it the enjoyment of all those pleasures that it denies us..., Thereby, the very law which forbids the satisfaction of a desire under threat of subsequent punishment is converted into one which demands the punishment first and then orders that the satisfaction of the desire should necessarily follow upon the punishment”(Masochism: Coldness and Cruelty 88-89).

Socrates’ irony is an art of ascension by which one goes up to the ‘episteme’, the principle-based knowledge through the questions about the ‘doxa’, the conventional views, whereas humor is an art of descension by which one pushes the ‘doxa’ down to paradox(para-doxa), nonsense, by excessively following the rules. What matters to irony is the question, whereas what is important to humor is the intensity that is obtained by using methods such as ‘excessiveness’ or ‘exaggeration.’ That's because, without the intensity that pushes it into embarrassment, the obedience to the rule can't be humor. Therefore, Deleuze says irony is the art of question and problem ascending toward the Idea, whereas humor is the art of the aesthetic that descends toward the individual(Difference and Repetition 245).

Thereby, irony, along with humor, becomes one of the methods of criticism, and is linked to the concepts of Idea and intensity, the core concepts of the philosophy of difference. Nevertheless, Deleuze seems not to think these two can be placed on the same rank. In The Logic of Sense published one year after Difference and Repetition, he criticizes that "what all the figures of irony have in commons is that they confine the singularity within the limits of the individual or the person,” and "irony only in appearance assumes the role of a vagabond"(The Logic of Sense 139). He says the universality of Idea, cogito, and the universality of a priori form all start from the individual and return to the individual. According to Deleuze, humor, on the other hand, joins hands with the nomadic singularity and aleatory point running on the paradoxical surface where all the senses disappear simultaneously while expressing pre-individual and impersonal singularity.

What does this mean? For example, if a person in a detention facility protests, saying "Am I a dog?,“ when he is treated 'like a dog,' he wants to ascend from the individual meaning me to the universality of 'human,' and request the individual 'I' to be treated like a human. He criticizes it in the method of irony. Thereby, he wants to return to a proper individual life, humane treatment. On the other hand, there's another way of protesting in which he yells, behaves as if he doesn't know the rule at all, and defecates just anywhere like a dog, saying "Yes, I'm a dog. So I'll act like a dog." By descending to the place of a individual dog, he reveals the singularity of the field he belongs to, amplifying pre-individual singularity and impersonality expressed with the word 'dog.' Through the paradox that goes against the conventional view of dog or human being, the wave of nonsense becomes flooded. By bringing in aleatory points near the singularity, he seeks to open up a possible zone of new life different from that of a dog or a human.

Therefore, we can say irony and humor are also different ways of life, different ways of politics. Aristotle distinguished between logos(speech) and phone(voice) and said that only humans had logos(Politics, I, 1253a9-10). It is possible to say that trying to argue his own protest is also human speech against the attempt to drive out the ‘noise’ of protest into voice is the politics of irony(Ranciere, Disagreement 53), whereas trying to drag his own protest down into animal’s voice and to become an animal is the politics of humor to invent a new relationship between logos and phone.


translated by Jung Ki Lee

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