An April Fool’s joke, honed to perfection and often benefiting from the victim being recently awakened from an overnight slumber, serves for more than mere guffaws. Laughter on this day serves to shine torchlight on the nature of everyday reality; that is, normality’s relatively preposterous underpinnings. Life, like our learning, requires levity to function. Does humor mask or reveal important truths, though? At AU we dodge many trappings of well-adjusted academic life: long rat race traffic jams and repetitive classroom debates about current events come to mind. Occasionally fissures appear in the normal meaning of reality. The question might be asked: are we still the fools of society?
Consider the notion of common sense. Study hard, get good grades, have a pleasing life narrative. It all can be swept away with a laugh when it becomes too boring. Identities are not such a simple riddle, however. During recent, err, cross-examinations about her views on gender and sex (social science famously shows how gender is cultural and sex is physiological), the newest US Supreme Court Justice Nominee replied: “I’m not a biologist” (Jackson, online). While the literal setting was no laughing matter, guffaws were heard across the pop cultural spectrum.
Jackson might have meant that she figures that our gender, regardless of our inclinations, is tied to science. That means that if we have 2 X chromosomes that makes us female and if we have a Y and an X chromosome we are male, and case closed. Or Jackson’s answer could mean that she didn’t want to reply so as to leave space for each of us to decide our gender according to how we feel in a day or a lifetime.
As a kid who from, preschool on, was called Hazel (owing to my middle name), I can tell you that occasional schoolyard taunts reminded me that being a girl was something I had to decide for myself as a boy to reaffirm my identity and maintain my psychological balance.
Being called a girl meant I had to answer the same basic question of a Supreme Court justice to-be. At a tender young age, before hormones defined their gender, most kids figure out the differences in physiology. The legalese for such a question might best be circumvented by an answer to the effect of girls pee sitting down and boys pee standing up? So, the joke seems to be on society when common sense falls prey to political correctness. Of course, twitters from the meme-ocracy peanut gallery disguise the real realty of gendered violence. Whether biology is destiny has cultural consequences that are surely not above anyone’s moral pay grade.
What is Fun Hiding? Humor as a Hidden Hand of Constraint: Repressive Desublimation
So, who is the joke on when reality gets obfuscated? Conveniently, for most cultural questions there abides a Marxist Frankfurt school analyst who has studied possible explanations in detail. In this instance the concept of repressive desublimation serves the purpose. In short, repressive desublimation (RD) connotes the idea that culture represses our essentially creative, seemingly sexual, drives, and then releases them in small bits akin to the flaking away of a tasty puff pastry after it was dropped off of the lip of a college dorm roof as a prank. As the pastry bounces along the side of the building, and before it hits a too-anal professor in the noggin, it shears off bits of itself. This anticipated release provides humor to all except for the butt of the joke. This is where desublimation occurs: by releasing humour, or awe, or joy, or competitive drives (think here of the all-too-masculine concept of a pissing contest where combatants compete to see who can create the longest and widest arc) a sense of fulfillment is achieved.
Thus, RD shows how entertainment in all its form suppresses the essential creative drives of we humans. April Fool’s is no exception: by making absurd and preposterous gestures people relieve some cultural tension before being expected to return in lockstep to ordinary, mundane, reality. And all the while in the background (cue spooky music) convention and conformity are enforced and with even greater precision and efficacy. April Fool’s, like Mardi Gras and Carnava, allows for a brief suspension of convention to better enforce societal expectations.
But You Don’t Have to Take My Snide Word For it.
Repressive desublimation, then, is essentially the fact that sports and arts and pleasure all serve to mask the fact that culture itself represses are most creative of instincts. Experts claim:
“Herbert Marcuse argues that the mass production and distribution of art and its concomitant permeation of almost every aspect of daily life has destroyed what was most potent in art to begin with, namely its antagonism toward the ordinary (Walter Benjamin’s word for this is aura). This antagonism is achieved via the process Sigmund Freud called sublimation, which according to psychoanalysis is what happens when the libido is brought under the control of the reality principle: gratification of sexual desire is delayed and transformed into an aesthetic achievement or what Marcuse refers to as Eros. Under such conditions, Marcuse argues, the artistic realm is an ‘other’ dimension, radically distinct from and intrinsically antagonistic to everyday life, and society can therefore be said to be two-dimensional at least. It is the loss of this dimension through the process of desublimation whereby Eros is reduced to sexuality that results in society becoming one-dimensional and therefore unable to resist the transformations imposed upon it by the changes in the mode of production.
Where before in art and literature representations of artists, prostitutes, adulterers, and so forth testified to an other, perhaps utopian, life, now they are simply an affirmation of the existing order and carry no power of negation. Desublimation is in this sense repressive. So-called sexual liberation, Marcuse argues, comes at the price of the destruction of Eros, which leaves us with an intensified sexual existence but no resistance to the present, no space that can be considered ‘other’” (Oxford, online).
One might in passing note that the best comedy is surely an art form. This may be why an April Fool’s joke contains a joyful element when successful and a dire foreboding when executed poorly. I once, to my detriment, made an ill-advised April Fool’s joke to a then-spouse that I’d picked up divorce papers that very morning. Her and her lady friend, despite the latter’s good humour and fascinating revelations of her Kutenai Nation’s bawdy humour, were suitably unimpressed.
Likewise, if a Supreme Court justice came to work one fine sunny American morning wearing a wedding dress, and humming Shania Twain lyrics, those in attendance would be just as appalled as if she’d claimed to not know how to define woman. Twain sang:
“No inhibitions, make no conditions
Get a little outta line
I ain’t gonna act politically correct
I only want to have a good time
The best thing about being a woman
Is the prerogative to have a little fun…oh, go totally crazy, I’m a lady
Men’s shirts, short skirts
Oh, oh, oh, really go wild-yeah, doin’ it in style
Oh, oh, oh, get in the action, feel the attraction
Color my hair, do what I dare
Oh, oh, oh, I want to be free yeah, to feel the way I feel
Man! I feel like a woman!” (online)
Marcuse would claim that despite attempts at liberation, sexual and behavioural, capitalist consumerism and superficial cultural norms still entrap Twain and her lady friends. For her part, Twain gleefully seems to be, as they say, taking the piss in that often times ladies who go a bar-hoping (not unlike the song Froggy Goes a Courtin’), often seem to have as much or more fun dancing with each other than in dealing with their lummox-esque gender counterpart. In the moment it’s fun and makes ordinary patriarchy more bearable and yet life continues basically unchanged. The joke in such instances is also on the guys silenced from participation in the song’s romp. These are guys who (it’s true) get all coiffed up for a night of bar star heroics only to end up kind of bored and definitely lighter in the wallet from buying lady’s their drinks in vain. No wonder academia seems a better climate to really engage with other beings, and plus the music’s quieter and more conducive to intelligent discourage! Nevertheless, a sense of humour goes a long way as does knowing your audience.
To be sure, jokes depend on social context and who is telling them. Humour, like all entertainment, is lashed to expectations. In fact, a pre-millennium high school graduation tradition in my hometown (now a verboten tradition along with the smoke pit and assorted underwear strung up once a year on top signs) was grad-napping. Each of us males, even your humble and lowly Fly on the Wall, were snatched out of bed early on a June morning and dressed in womanly finery, complete with water balloon boobies that invariably knocked over coffee cups at A and W due to our masculine lack of proclivity with the deployment of such appendages. Most everyone laughed at the time, but back now in 2022 it all seems a bit inappropriate. On the other hand, who knows what sort of gendered humor and normality will be acceptable in another quarter century. If there’s one thing we learn at AU as we expand our minds, it’s that knowledge pauses for no one. And that fact is no joke.