On Cynicism and Comedy: From Charles Baudelaire and Michel Houellebecq to Slajov Žižek and President Obama


Part II

Illustration by Carl Kylberg. Via

by Menachem Feuer

The American Approach to Cynicism: By Way of Silent Film

The USA has a much different comical approach to cynicism than Europe. This approach is given emblematic form in the silent films of Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin. In these films, the main characters find a way to avert fate and cynicism. And in the end, they find a better life rather than a bitter one.

In Jean-Claude Carriere’s book, The Secret Language of Film he points out how films were “born silent” and continue to “love silence.” But he makes a major distinction. He argues that, in its beginnings, silent film “wildly gesticulated.” But “over the past sixty years” since its inception, we have something different; namely, the “present inscrutability of faces.” Carriere argues that, today, the face and the gesture are much more sophisticated and meaningful than they ever were:

Nowadays, simply from the demeanor or expression of particular actors, we pick up a clear message, depending on our mood of the moment, on the day, on the theater we happen to be in, or in the spectators around us…But we also glean nothing specific, noting identifiable, nothing definable. A new bend in the road can be suddenly revealed by a glance or a shrug, a bend of which we can say nothing, for it is something we have no words for, and yet we sense that it contains something meaningful. (31)

This reading of gesture in film suggests that the gesture, by way of film, is enigmatic and mysterious. A single gesture can change everything in a film and, at the same time, one may have “no words for” it. The problem with this kind of reading is that it leans toward a reading of gesture that has no interest in the comedic. To be sure, all of the examples that Carriere brings to illustrate this – drawn from Bergman, Bunuel, and Kurosowa (amongst others) – are not comedic. The silence that surrounds the gestures of these characters is profound.

In contrast to this kind of reading, comedic gesture, the kind we find in silent films by Harold Lloyd or Buster Keaton is not simply “wildly gesticulated.”

The gestures in these films emulated freedom and chance:

Whether or not they indulged in slapstick, they invariably exposed their hero to all kinds of pitfalls and dangers, so that he depended upon one lucky accident after another to escape. When he crossed the railroad, a train would approach, threatening to crush him, and only in the last very moment would his life be spared as the train switched over to a track hitherto invisible. The hero – a sweet, rather helpless individual who would never harm anyone – pulled through in a world governed by chance.

In contrast, in Germany the reigning ideology was more interested in fate (even its humor was oriented toward fate):

That such comedy founded on chance and a naïve desire for happiness should prove inaccessible to the Germans arises form their traditional ideology, which tends to discredit the notion of luck in favor of that of fate.

This suggests that Lloyd and Keaton, in contrast to “the Germans,” are not “wildly gesticulating” in their films.

As one can see in these clips, the unexpected happens. Fate can be reversed in the turn of a hat. This brings us closer to the belief that, in the midst of chance happenings, the little man may get lucky and things can change for the better if he maintains his faith in the triumph of the goodness and happiness.

The silence that surrounds Lloyd’s gestures is not enigmatic in the same way it is in Bergman or Kurosawa because the gestures we see in their films focus more on fate than on comedy. The enigmas we see deal more with death, failure, and misperception rather than with the possibility of hope. Perhaps these kinds of films – and the gestures they evoke, in all their complexity – speak more to Carriere because, ultimately, he is more interested in the meaning of gesture than its ethical impact on the viewer who relates his or her body to a situation that may lead to success or failure, happiness or sorrow. It is in these simple gestures that Walter Benjamin and Siegfried Kracauer saw revolutionary potential since they opened up a sphere of freedom rather than of fate and myth. The fixation on gesture-as-mystery, however, risks falling in to this trap.

In his essay “Fate and Character,” Walter Benjamin associates character with freedom and fate with myth: “where there is character there will, with certainty, not be fate, and in the area of character there will, with certainty, not be fate.” Moreover, character is “placed in the ethical, fate in a religious context.” Benjamin sees character in relation to comedy and argues that, “there is no relation of fate to innocence.” Rather, we find that in comedy. Innocence, writes Benjamin, relates to “good fortune” and “happiness.” And what makes the deeds of the “comic character” interesting is that they are simple. In comedy, “complication becomes simplicity, fate freedom.” This all comes through character, which is all about…gesture.

Fortunately, the gestures of Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd or Charlie Chaplin teach us that comedic movements can take us into a different relationship with the world, our tenuous place in it, and the possibility of happiness. And they do this by being framed in silence.

In this 1921 film, “The Goat,” Keaton can’t apply for a job because he’s waiting behind mannequins; but when he figures this out it’s too late. He can’t apply. He finds a horseshow, a sign of good luck; but before he gets to it, somebody else finds it and gets the good luck. He desperately looks for it, finds it, but when he throws it backwards, it is hits a cop. Now he’s on the run.

This goes on and on. But so does his search for good luck and a lucky break. He is what Hannah Arendt, in her reading of Charlie Chaplin in the “Jew as Pariah,” called “the suspect.” In the midst of all this, he saves a woman from an altercation with a man who accidentally trips on a dog leash. However, as we see later in the film, he imagines that he is wanted for killing the man (he left him in the street because he was being chased by the police). He runs into a man who falls into paint and comes out of a room near him; he mistakes him for a ghost. But then he sees that a photo was accidentally taken of him that ultimately, was supposed to be of a real criminal.

He is a (scape)goat; he is innocent. But this is not tragic or fatal as it is in many a passion play. Keaton is not like Prince Myshkin in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. His innocence is not laughed at and slowly destroyed as it is in that Dostoevsky novel. It is not, as Benjamin said of fate or as Carrierre would say of film, complicated. Rather, each of Keaton’s comic gestures evince a simple, free, and vital relationship with accidents. Informing each of his comic and erratic gestures is a search for a situation that will, finally, be good. But, contrary to Carriere, they are not “wild gesticulations.” Each gesticulation is intimately related to the possibility of good luck and a better world. There is nothing enigmatic or mysterious about these gestures…framed in silence. In these films, we see how a simple gesture…in the right situation…can change everything. There’s nothing complex or enigmatic about that.

Simplicity of character is something Yiddish writers of the schlemiel, which emerged out of Eastern Europe, knew very well. If read against what we see in these early silent films, we can better understand how the schlemiels we find in the novels or short stories of Yiddish writers like Sholom Aleichem or I.B. Singer find a safe haven in America. Since they live in a world of chance, narrowly avert disaster, and, still remain innocent and happy, Motl and Gimpel have a lot in common with Keaton, Lloyd, and Chaplin. Walter Benjamin was right on this account: where there is freedom (America) there can be no fate. And where there is freedom, there must be comedy. And contrary to Carriere, the gestures of these characters are not “wild” and lacking enigmatic depth; they are the best challenge we have to fate, mythology, and cynicism.

And what “The Goat” teaches us is that the image of Buster Keaton behind bars, the image of his fate, is the false one. Fate is narrowly averted by the simple genius of comedy and comic gesture. In other words, cynicism is narrowly averted and the “image” of fate is false while the comic gesture of defiance is true.

President Obama’s Gesture Against Political Cynicism

On April 27, 2013, President Obama’s approval ratings were at an all time low. To make amends, he made major appeals to a rhetorical strategy that used the words cynical in many public appearances. President Obama used the word “cynicism” to suggest that if an electorate doesn’t trust its leaders – and expresses “cynicism” about them – then the polity will be divided. To stem the flow of this, the President made use of comedy so as to gain back the trust of the people. During the media dinner, he showed a film short, produced by Steven Spielberg, that used a tactic used by schlemiel comedians (dating back to the late 19th century) to charm the audience and gain their trust; namely, self-deprecation:

In Spielberg’s “Obama,” the mock-up the image of the President is, in some ways, restored. He is the dream and the reality. Daniel Day Lewis is trying to imitate him.

Noting that President Obama is already a “lame duck,” Spielberg introduces the schlemiel theme: President Obama as aging and unpopular. There seems to be no hope for him. The comic concert of this video works on the doppelganger. Here, Daniel Day Lewis is said to have become President Obama when “we” can all see that this is a joke.

What makes Obama funny in this piece is that he acts “as if” he is imitating President Obama. And this works to efface the line between image and reality. The whole distinction itself, Spielberg seems to be saying, is a joke. In other words, the media has gone to far and has made him into a schlemiel.

But this message is driven home by the last joke the President makes; drawn straight from Groucho (“and not Karl”) Marx:

“Before I speak, I have something important to say.”

However, and this is the unspoken implication, when the President opens his mouth the press effaces that “something important” that he wanted to say. The media caricatures everything the President says and this conflicts with his intentions. The message: his ‘real’ words will always be mediated for the better or for the worse.

In other words, the President will always be made into a schlemiel by the media. He will always be misunderstood. Like a schlemiel, he is largely innocent while the media is guilty.

But of what?

The final note, which follows the joke, spells it out. The media is guilty of cynicism and a lack of trust:

And so, these men and women should inspire all of us in this room to live up to those same standards; to be worthy of their trust; to do our jobs with the same fidelity, and the same integrity, and the same sense of purpose, and the same love of country. Because if we’re only focused on profits or ratings or polls, then we’re contributing to the cynicism that so many people feel right now.

After saying this, only a few people in the room clap. After all, the President was implying that the majority of “us” (which could either mean people in the media or Americans in general) have become cynical. This isn’t funny.

To be sure, the choice of words and the response are very telling. Given the President’s jokes, one can say that he played the schlemiel routine in an effort to regain trust. In other words, he used the schlemiel to charm the audience.

The interesting thing about all of this is that the schlemiel is used by Woody Allen, Charlie Chaplin, Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler, Sacha Baron Cohen, and others to create an awkward but charming character. It works to make these artists popular but can it work within the realm of politics?

What happens in routines like this is that the schlemiel is used to blur the line between politics and aesthetics or, at the very least, to put their relationship into question. At the end of his essay on “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” the Jewish-German thinker Walter Benjamin spoke explicitly of his worries about the aestheticization of politics in the modern age. He linked it directly to the media, film, photography, and speed. However, he saw the fear as relating to the glorification of destruction in fascism. And this may not concern us as fascism is not on the table with such jokes.

What we can walk away from this performance with is the fact that Benjamin warned us that the blurring of the lines between aesthetics and politics happens when we are radically alienated from ourselves. And this happens, for him, by way of mass media. He didn’t have Twitter, Facebook, live feeds, or real time news, but he could see the enlargement of mass alienation and mass cynicism coming down the road.

The cynicism that President Obama mentioned, the cynicism that he tried to relieve by way of his schlemiel routine, is still with us. Benjamin understood (like Kafka, as he says to Gershom Scholem) that in a time of crisis, “only a fool can help.” The question is whether the fool, that is, the schlemiel’s help can do humanity any good. This question remains alive today and it was alive last night as President Obama did his comic routine. What this crisis is all about is clearer to us, however, than it was for Benjamin. It’s clear to the President as well: it’s a crisis of trust and the stakes are high. Cynicism may be too much for the Schlemiel. But President Obama – soliciting the help of Steven Spielberg, Daniel Day Lewis, and a good scriptwriter – took a risk and posited the contrary.

Žižek: Cynicism and Kynicism

In contrast to the humor of the schlemiel, however, there are other forms of humor that, to be sure, look to exacerbate cynicism. Slovoj Žižek, who, in academia and beyond it, is thought of as a ‘rock star’ of sorts, is well known for his delight in humor. He is less known, however, for his explorations of humor and cynicism.

In The Sublime Object of Ideology, Slovoj Žižek pits cynicism against what the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk calls kynicism. Žižek’s reading of cynicism is much different from President Obama’s. And his privileging of kynicism over cynicism brings this out. Hope is not an option; kynicism is.

Writing on Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, Žižek notes that “what is really disturbing” is the “underlying belief in the liberating, anti-totalitarian force of laughter, of ironic distance.” In other words, the emancipatory aspect of sarcasm, for Žižek, is disturbing because “in contemporary societies, democratic or totalitarian, that cynical distance, laughter, irony, are part of the game. The ruling ideology is not to be taken seriously or literally”(28). On the other hand, taking ideology literally, and not laughing, is “tragic.” In this scenario, Žižek seems to be in a double bind as laughter and sarcasm are too ideological for him. Yet, on the other hand, he prefers laughter to taking ideology seriously.

But there is a problem, since even laughter and sarcasm are ensnared by ideology; they are guilty of being naive. Žižek cites Marx who says that “the very concept of ideology implies a kind of basic, constitutive naivety: the misrecognition of its own presuppositions, of its own effective conditions, a distance, a divergence between so-called social reality and our distorted representations, our false consciousness of it”(28).

But, contrary to Marx, Žižek claims that the point is not to unmask ideology – so as to see reality “as it really is.” Rather, “the main point is to see how the reality itself cannot reproduce itself without this so-called ideological mystification. The mask is not simply hiding the real state of things; the ideological distortion is written into its very essence”(28).

Following this insight, Žižek asks: “Does the concept of ideology as naïve consciousness still apply to today’s world?”

His answer, of course, is no. Ideology is no longer to be thought of as naïve. Žižek argues that it knows it is lying. It is deceptive. But, more importantly, “ideological distortion” is not separate from reality; it is “written into its very essence.”

Citing Peter Sloterdijk, Žižek argues that, “ideology’s dominant mode of functioning is cynical, which renders impossible…the classic critical-ideological procedure. The cynical subject is quite aware of the distance between the ideological mask and the social reality, but he none the less insists on the mask.”

In other words, things have, literally, changed. Ideology is no longer innocent or naïve. It is deliberate. And it cannot be unmasked since it is “written into the very essence” of reality. Paraphrasing Sloterdijk, Žižek says that, “they know very well what they are doing, but still, they are doing it.” In other words, if everything is ideology, everyone is lying. No one believes in ideology, yet they act as if they do while knowing full well they don’t.

Taking into consideration what Žižek is saying, we would have to say that our assessment of cynicism is wrong. Cynicism is not based on distrust of the government. No. For Žižek, cynicism is knowing that you are lying while acting “as if” you are telling the truth. This masking operation, for Žižek, discloses a near universal dishonesty that touches everything that advances freedom, justice, equality, etc. According to his logic, we act as if these ideals, principles, etc are real when, in fact, we know they are not.

In a surprising turn Žižek excludes himself from the all-encompassing cynicism that touches all reality by aligning himself with what Sloterdijk calls kynicism:

Kynicism represents popular, plebian rejection of the official culture by means of irony and sarcasm: the classical kynical procedure is to confront the pathetic phrases of the ruling official ideology – its solemn, grave tonality – with everyday banality and to hold them up to ridicule, thus exposing behind the subtle noblesse of ideological phrases the egotistical interests, the violence, the brutal claims to power. (29)

Žižek notes that the kynical procedure does not play according to the rules of logic. It is “more pragmatic than argumentative: it subverts the official proposition by confronting it with the situation of its enunciation; it proceeds ad hominem”(29).

Žižek notes that what we have today is a battle between cynicism and kynicism: “Cynicism is the answer of the ruling culture to this kynical subversion: it recognizes, it takes into account, the particular interest behind the ideological universality, the distance between the ideological mask and the reality, but it still finds reasons to retain the mask”(29).

Given this “logic,” Žižek would say that upholding “individuality,” “freedom,” “justice,” and even “rights” by the “ruling culture” is cynical. It is a mask. Žižek would say that people don’t really believe in these things but act “as if” they do. And for his reason, we are all cynical: “the model of cynical wisdom is to conceive probity, integrity, as a superior form of dishonesty, and morals a supreme form of profligacy, and truth as the most effective form of a lie”(30).

The kynical person, in contrast, discards the “mask.” Moreover, the kynical person laughs. But, somehow, this laughter is pure of ideology. This is odd, since, at the beginning of this section (as we note above) Žižek says that emancipatory laughter and sarcasm (which sounds a lot like kynic laughter) are wholly ideological. Here, somehow, sarcasm (as kynicism) is not.

On the one hand, laughter, satire, and sarcasm are a “part of the game.” On the other hand, they are the epitome of popular revolt. Can we say that neither cynicism nor kynicism are naïve? Wouldn’t it be naïve, according to Žižek’s standards, to think one can simply throw off the ideological mask and escape cynicism? Isn’t it the case that they both know that what they are doing is a lie but do it anyway? To be sure, isn’t Žižek saying that all ideology today is dishonest and nothing escapes it? Wouldn’t that also include kynicism? Or is kynicism beyond ideology and dishonesty?

If kynicism goes by way of the ad hominem and not by way of argument, is it beyond ideology?

To be sure, Žižek explicitly notes kynicism’s dishonesty when he says that kynicism deliberately uses ad hominem arguments to mock the ‘ruling culture’ (which includes the culture of the Enlightenment). Kynicism doesn’t argue. It attacks and it knowingly tells lies. But, and here is the question, does it do so while holding up a mask? Do the kynics sarcastically mock the ruling ideology while acting “as if” they are “right,” “true,” and “just”? If they do, then they are also wearing a mask and they too are cynical.

So, what is the meaning of all this dishonesty? And, given what we noted regarding what the President said at the Correspondents’ Dinner, is there any way to end cynicism if both sides are engaged in some sort of deception – knowing that they don’t believe in justice, rights or truth but act ‘as if’ they do?

To be sure, given his love for sarcasm, it seems clear that Žižek prefers kynicism over cynicism. But isn’t Žižek caught in the lie of ideology, too? Didn’t he say that sarcasm plays the same game? Žižek certainly celebrates mockery in his work and encourages satire, but a close reading of The Sublime Object of Ideology shows us that he also recognizes the sarcasm may not be free of ideology.

This recognition is fundamental to understanding what is at stake. The truth of the matter is that Žižek’s appeal to kynicism is an attempt to leave the Enlightenment and its rhetoric of emancipation behind. To do this, he looks for a kind of sarcasm that is free of emancipation or any enlightenment ideal. How is this possible? Is the sarcasm he affirms simply a violent force that denies all truth and no longer acts ‘as if’ it is anything? A “naked” kind of sarcasm free of any Enlightenment ideal?

In the introduction to his book Philosophy and Law, Leo Strauss argues that the Enlightenment’s main weapon against orthodoxy is humor. And in many ways, Strauss agrees with Žižek:

As Lessing, who was in a position to know, put it, they attempted by means of mockery to ‘laugh’ orthodoxy out of a position from which it could not be dislodged by any proofs supplied by Scripture or even by reason. Thus the Enlightenment’s mockery of the teachings of the tradition is not the successor of a prior refutation of these teachings; it does not bring to expression the amazement of unprejudiced men at the power of manifestly absurd premises; but it is the refutation: it is in mockery that the liberation from ‘prejudices’ that had supposedly been cast off is first accomplished; at the very least, the mockery is the admittedly supplementary but still decisive legitimation of liberty acquired by whatever means (30).

Were the Enlighteners kynical, did they really (cynically) believe in freedom and rights, or did they naively believe in freedom and rights? After all, Strauss claims that they knew they had no real argument with Orthodoxy but preferred, instead, to mock it. Strauss’s reading implies that the Enlightenment doesn’t really have a full grasp of its principles but acts “as if” it does for purely pragmatic reasons. Like the kynics that Žižek writes of, Strauss’s Enlighteners also use ad hominem arguments and sarcasm to challenge the “ruling ideology.” But there is one difference: they do so in the name of “liberty.”

In effect, Žižek is telling us that political humor can battle cynicism with kynicism. Kynicsm is not interested in self-deprecating humor, which looks to re-instill trust. And if we take Žižek’s words on ideology seriously, we would have to say that, in the end, it’s the same result. Cynicism and kynicism are both caught up in ideology, but an ideology that is not simply naïve but rather dishonest.

For Žižek, no one really believes in the truth anymore. We only act “as if” we do. Žižek suggests that “the people” are all kynical. He suggests that their sarcastic rebellion against the ruling culture, which acts “as if” truth, justice, freedom, etc exist (and defend it), is somehow pure. But, wait, doesn’t this rebellion act as if it is just? Aren’t many latter day rebels naïve? Or are they just acting “as if” they believe in justice? Perhaps we’re all being duped?

By not looking into it deeply, Žižek implies that all popular sarcasm directed against any group in power is just. But isn’t the act of speaking truth to power an act that is based on Enlightenment ideals? And how can one justify activism that is supported by kynicism? Is that activism random?

Is the difference between kynicism and cynicism the fact that cynicism acts “as if” truth and justice are real while kynicism doesn’t waste its time with such self-deceptions?

What I find most interesting is Žižek’s brief moment of reflection on subversive laughter and its possible destructiveness. His hesitation is ultimately left behind for the revolution. His laughter is a laugh that is, seemingly, not based on any kind of truth. Nonetheless, the appeals for justice and truth made my many kynics disclose some form of ideology. So, what is it? Is kynicism deceiving itself or not? Is its only purpose to sarcastically destroy any ruling ideology in the name of noting save… destruction. Or does it act “as if” it challenges the ruling ideology in the name of progress, justice, etc? Žižek’s laugh, it seems, is unsure of whether or not it is based on truth or deception. It originates in a humor that is not seeking to end cynicism so much as exacerbate it. For if ideology is inescapable, so is the impulse to act “as if” justice, truth, and freedom exist when one “knows” that they don’t. If we take Žižek to the end of his thought on sarcasm, this is the conclusion.

And with this, I return to my original concern regarding the use of comedy in the political sphere to battle cynicism. Will the political use of comedy produce trust or dissolve it? For Žižek, sarcasm, not the kind of self-deprecation we find with the schlemiel, is the choicest of all comic weapons. His strategy is completely different from President Obama’s insofar as the President played the schlemiel while Žižek plays the kynical comic.

At stake in this difference between the schlemiel and the cynic (or kynic) is a choice between one way of evaluating and understanding reality, chance, and humor and another. Laughter can be read, as Baudelaire, Celine, or Houellebecq read it: in terms of cynicism. Or it can be read in terms of the affirmation of chance, the power of gesture, and the hope that, despite it all, things can and most likely will get better. Although, for one kind of audience, this perspective is naïve; for another, it is necessary.

For others, like Žižek, laughter will always be uncertain of itself. Even if kynical humor battles with cynicism, it can, because it is so subversive, still easily slip into nihilism; or even, despite itself, into another ideology or…more cynicism. That’s the problem it seems for anyone (or any group) who (or that) wishes to employ cynical humor today against this or that foe. Even for Žižek, who sees kynicism through a more political post-Enlightenment lens, the problem remains and will continue to do so as long as one is bitter about anything. The only alternative, it seems, is to take on a humor that relies on chance, hope, and the possibility of goodness.

But, as Franz Kafka once wrote, in a November 18, 1917 journal entry, that kind of humor may require a comic character that acts “as if” he or she has no knowledge of evil: “Evil knows the good, but good does not know evil.” And that kind of character – who is often devoid of any cynicism – would be called a schlemiel. In truth, cynicism wouldn’t be cynicism without the knowledge of the good. But to be good, to be devoid of any cynicism, one would have to not know evil and, as Kafka also suggests, good doesn’t even know itself. And that, for writers such as Baudelaire, Celine, and Houellebecq, is a foolish proposition. Nonetheless, it’s one that some writers – like Sholem Aleichem, I.B. Singer, or Kafka himself – liked to toy with.

The question we need to ask – based on what we have been reflecting on in this essay – is whether and how it is possible to leave cynicism behind. Perhaps the only thing we can do is deal with it. For, if Houllebecq is correct, leaving cynicism behind would be like leaving mortality, desire, and love behind. On the other hand, the schlemiel suggests that even though we are entrenched in bitterness we need not believe it is our fate and that, ultimately, things can always get better.

Read Part I

About the Author:


Menachem Feuer has a PhD in Comparative Literature and a Masters in Philosophy. He teaches Jewish Studies and Jewish Philosophy at York University in Toronto. Feuer has published several essays and book reviews on philosophy, literature, and Jewish studies in several book collections and peer-reviewed journals including Modern Fiction StudiesShofarMELUS, German Studies Review, International Studies in Philosophy, Comparative Literature and Culture, Ctheory, and Cinemaction.