According to Norman Malcolm’s memoir,
“Wittgenstein once said that a serious and philosophical work could be written that would consist entirely of jokes (without being facetious).” This puzzle of a statement (coming from a man less than renowned for a celebrated sense of humor) has befuddled both Philosophers and Gelotologists alike. What is it that Wittgenstein is referencing here? Is this hypothetical humorous philosophy simply a standard treatise sprinkled with comedy? Or is it something much deeper (and perhaps more sinister)? This essay will attempt to exposit, in relation to his notion of philosophy as therapy rather than theory, Wittgenstein’s concern for a philosophy consisting entirely of jokes (sans facetiousness) through the lens of Nicholson Baker’s riotous novella, The Mezzanine.
Wittgenstein and Humor
There have been numerous expositions of what Wittgenstein’s humorous philosophy might look like, and we will test each of the major opinions in order to see if they coincide with what the Austrian linguist had in mind. There are three principal parts to our thesis:
1. The work must be, as a whole, both philosophical and serious.
2. The work must consist entirely of jokes.
3. The work must not be facetious.
The first of our options is as follows: 1) A philosophy consisting entirely of jokes is akin to any philosophical discourse sprinkled with wit. Good examples of this tendency would be Hume’s tendency to satirize feeble-minded religious zealots in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion; or Nietzsche’s constant lampooning of Christianity in The Antichrist; or even Kierkegaard’s parody of the absurdity of the young Hegelians in Johannes Climacus. Perhaps Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground, with its parody of the western philosophical lifestyle, would even come to mind. After all, it is a tendency borrowed from Marxism which says that sometimes laughter is the best way to defeat an enemy. Reduce his grandiose claims, whether political or philosophical, to absurdities and you have nullified him. Slavoj Zizek, the most intentionally humorous of modern day philosophers, is well known for satiating his Marxist-Lacanian ramblings with copious amounts of humor. Unfortunately, however, none of these examples seems to fit the bill.
All of the above instances appear to contradict Wittgenstein’s initial statement. Let’s start with our original theses. The first principal part: both philosophical and serious. Check. The second: consisting entirely of jokes. Here is our first stumbling block. None of the aforementioned works (nor any in this particular form) consist entirely of jokes. The intention of humor in these works only succeeds if the joking is not the center of its argument. Humor is meant to relieve the reader from the stress of the heavy-lifting that is philosophy. Jokes are an aside, a rhetorical device that would never be included in a review or synopsis of the work’s dialectical reasoning. Here we see that this is definitely not the kind of work Wittgenstein was intending.
A second option: 2) A philosophy consisting entirely of jokes is akin to an authentic text read as a joke. This alternative approach resides in the realm of reader-response theory (and possibly various forms of post-Marxism; or at least tendencies of literary criticism that intersect with said political ideals). Films such as Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, or Chaplin’s The Great Dictator come to mind. The idea is of deconstructing the philosophical (or political, sociological, etc.) practices of another via satire. Downright banality is often used to lessen the sense of awe that would usually surround a certain authority figure. Peter Sloterdijk, in his German bestseller, Critique of Cynical Reason, reasons the position out well; and he calls it Kynicism. Kynicism is related to the ancient Greek idea of cheekiness. One commentator notes,
“Ancient Kynicism, at least in its Greek origins, is in principle cheeky… In kynismos a kind of argumentation was discovered that, to the present day, respectable thinking does not know how to deal with. Is it not crude and grotesque to pick one’s nose while Socrates exorcises his demon and speaks of the divine soul? Can it be called anything other than vulgar when Diogenes lets a fart fly against the Platonic theory of ideas – or is fartiness itself one of the ideas God discharged from his meditation on the genesis of the cosmos? And what is it supposed to mean when this philosophising town bum answers Plato’s subtle theory of Eros by masturbating in public?”
Sloterdijk explains the origin of Kynicism thusly:
“Kynicism is a first reply to… hegemonic idealism that goes beyond theoretical repudiation. It does not speak against idealism, it lives against it” (emphasis mine).
He explains further:
“In idealism… the ideas stand at the top and gleam in the light of attentiveness; matter is below, a mere reflection of the idea, a shadow, an impurity… [How does Kynicism react?] The excluded lower element goes to the marketplace and demonstratively challenges the higher element. Feces, urine, sperm! ‘Vegetate’ like a dog, but live, laugh and take care to give the impression that behind all this lies not confusion but clear reflection.”
The idea here is of a revolution from within. In Wittgensteinian terms: using a language-game against itself; or, climbing up the ladder only to kick it away, having reached the higher domain. However, it is still not quite clear that this was what Wittgenstein had in mind.
Wittgenstein could easily be considered apolitical. He never joined a political party; never fought for the rights of the proletariat; and never developed a political philosophy. His idea of a ‘philosophy consisting entirely of jokes’ seems to be much more subtle than a deconstruction of social ideology. Something much deeper, at a more concrete level, is happening here – at the level of signs; where we live and move and have our being. The forms-of-life, in Wittgenstein’s terminology, which occupy our daily lives. This is why he calls it a philosophy of jokes. Kynicism, as a public clashing of ideologies, would not be properly described as consisting of jokes. It is critique; not comedy. Therefore, our second option, while somewhat viable, is not in line with the second principal part of our thesis.
And here is where we must change directories. Before we understand the philosophy, we must understand the man. It is only through an overview of Wittgenstein’s overall project that we will understand exactly how our thesis is to be understood.
Studies of the late, great Austrian thinker, Ludwig Wittgenstein, are not lacking. There are numerous frameworks that can be used to elucidate his many works into a trajectory of thought (and most result in at least two distinct phases – early and late Wittgenstein). Yet only one seems to place Wittgenstein into a consistent course; where each of his major works begins at one place at ends at another; with subsequent volumes taking up where the previous left off. This approach is generally referred to as the New Wittgenstein.
While there is not enough room in this essay to explore every level of this new approach to the great philosopher, suffice it to say that one idea stands paramount: Philosophical therapy. Wittgenstein’s objective in his own words: “Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.” And again: “Philosophy is not a theory but an activity.” Once more: “A philosophical problem has the form: I don’t know my way about.” The New Wittgenstein takes these statements as a sort of course description. How do we do philosophy? We direct ourselves about through clarification. Is it clarification through simplicity of communication? Not precisely, but an illumination of the philosophical grammar at work in our language-game.
When philosophy entangles itself in conceptual problems, the answer does not lie in further observation or purely logical analysis, but in ‘finding its way about’. This is philosophical therapy. And the best place to find this theory in practice is in Wittgenstein’s earliest text, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Most histories of philosophy have developed a two-fold space for Wittgenstein – the early phase (Tractatus/positivist) and the later phase (Investigations/linguistic). However, the New Wittgenstein approach relegates the Tractatus to a place in the common path of the rest of Wittgenstein’s work. Essentially, it is seen as an anti-joke. Something that begs to be taken seriously, but, in the end, means absolutely nothing; thus playing a joke on the interlocutor. This is Wittgenstein’s cure for our philosophical (or, at least, positivistic) troubles. The Tractatus walks us through a careful construction of meaning that relates pictures with propositions (the “picture theory of meaning”) only to inevitably produce a Gödelian machine that demolishes itself in the end. If the work were a narrative, the denouement would be a reverse Deus ex Machina. The God in the machine is only a simulacrum, so the machine must collapse onto itself and die. Our hero is left abandoned with a twisted sense of irony.
If the Tractatus is Wittgenstein’s attempt at a philosophy of jokes (which still may seem rather improbable), then it appears to be a great failure. Perhaps he looked back at his great work when relating this idea to Norman Malcolm and decided that it must be categorized thusly: as a joke; not something to be taken seriously any longer. But if Wittgenstein’s attempt was a failure, then who might come along and solve this riddle? What would it take to write a piece of ostensibly comedic fiction that was but a guise for true philosophical therapy? Nicholson Baker’s, The Mezzanine, will suffice for our purposes.
Baker’s novel, The Mezzanine, is a rambling piece of fiction consisting of 130 or so pages relaying the thought-life of a male twenty-something as he rides the escalator up to his office. The synopsis is quite a bore; but the experience of reading it is to the other extreme. Our protagonist, Howie, waxes sophisticate all over shoelaces, earplugs, doorknobs, the Beatles, public bathrooms, straws, and everyday awkward moments we know all too well. The book seems to take a cue from the hit sit-com Seinfeld – it’s about nothing! But it is in this sense that it has something to say concerning everything.
Take, for example, this musing on the perforations of toilet paper rolls:
“Perforation! Shout it out! The deliberate punctuated weakening of paper and cardboard so that it will tear along an intended path, leaving a row of fine-haired white pills or tuftlets on each new edge! It is a staggering conception, showing an age-transforming feel for the unique properties of pulped-wood fibre. Yet do we have national holidays to celebrate its development?”
A level of absurdity that has garnered Baker less the admirable commentary from some. But later it is added,
“The lines dividing one year from another in your past are perforated, and the mental sensation of detaching a period of your life for closer scrutiny resembles the reluctant guided tearing of a perforated seam.”
What is it that is so comedic about this silliness? Is Baker merely switching language-games mindlessly in mid-sentence in order to play with the reader’s mind? Or could he be pointing out the arbitrariness of our philosophical grammar through jokes? Baker seems to hint at his aim as an aside:
“But conterminously, while the problems you were paid to solve collapse, the nod of the security guard, his sign-in book, the escalator ride, the things on your desk, the sight of colleagues’ offices, their faces seen from characteristic angels, the features of the corporate bathroom, all miraculously expand: and in this way what was central and what was incidental end up exactly reversed” (emphasis mine).
Here we see clearly how philosophical therapy is achieved through comedy. When the tedious things in life (made further mundane by less than lively adjectival ascriptions) are enlivened through mixed metaphor, our imagination is provoked. A historiography of perforations seems to be a misnomer. Historiography is for more important topics like religion, or politics; and perforations are not meant to be considered at length at all, excepting their common utility. But what if we looked with new lenses? What if we removed the scabs from our eyes and saw a world that wasn’t meant to simply be used? This is a violation of philosophical grammar; or, as commonly understood, a joke.
Near the end of the Mezzanine, Howie picks up a copy of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations and reads the following line: “Manifestly, no condition of life could be so well adapted for the practice of philosophy as this in which chance finds you today”. And so his tangential reflections turn towards philosophizing proper:
“Chance found me that day having worked for a living all morning, broken a shoelace, chatted with Tina, urinated successfully in a corporate setting, washed my face, eaten half of a bag of popcorn, bought a new set of shoelaces, eaten a hot dog and a cookie with some milk; and chance found me now sitting in the sun on a green bench, with a paperback on my lap. What, philosophically, was I supposed to do with that? I looked down at the book. A gold bust of the emperor was on the cover. Who bought this kind of book? I wondered… And then I considered the phrase “often wondered”. Feeling Aurelius pressing me to practice philosophy on the scant raw materials of my life, I asked myself exactly how often I had wondered about the profitability of Penguin Classics…”
And off he goes again. But something has been made clear, even in this peripheral mess of a tale: philosophy is done with the raw materials of life. The given is not the transcendental ideal, or some kind of ethical imperative; but the very raw ‘stuff’ of life that we handle everyday. The Mezzanine exposes this truth (the same one Wittgenstein fought to make clear, calling it Lebensformen, or forms-of-life) by committing grammatical fallacy.
We have seen that Wittgenstein opposed theoretical speculation in philosophy. We have grasped the fact that philosophy should, instead, be used as a therapy to cure us of our philosophical ills. We have understood that a proper way to cure these ills is through jokes. We have observed that jokes of this sort warp our pre-conceived socio/philosophical grammar. We have witnessed Nicholson Baker’s attempt to enlighten the humdrum monotony of everyday life with these jokes. So, in the end, what is it that we can say? Has it been prescribed by these two great writers from completely different worlds that mankind should resort to contemplating the wholly immanent while disrespecting the great transcendental ideals of history’s greatest minds? In this regard, wouldn’t philosophical therapy, our entire project, itself be suspect? Perhaps Howie, our protagonist, would have something to say on the matter:
“And Wittgenstein, as well, I read in some biography, loved to watch cowboy movies: he would go every afternoon to watch gunfights and arrows through the chest for hours at a time. Can you take seriously a person’s theory of language when you know that he was delighted by the woodenness and tedium of cowboy movies? Once in a while, fine – but every day? Yet while these tiny truths about… philosophers (of whom, to be honest, I have read very little) have at least temporarily disabled any interest I might have had in reading them further, I crave knowledge of this kind of detail.”
Shouldn’t we all?