Freud and the language of humour
At the Annual Conference in Blackpool, Michael Billig questioned whether Freud’s analysis of jokes revealed his own repression.
18 September 2002
Only joking’ – It’s one of the most common phrases in the language, frequently used when our attempts to be funny seem to be leading to problems.
But can a joke be ‘just a joke’? Or is there much more involved in humour? These were among the questions Freud pondered when he tried to solve the riddle of why we laugh.
Over the past few years I have been turning back to the work of Freud, seeking to reinterpret his central idea of repression in terms of language (Billig, 1999).
In doing so, I have attempted to connect the new ideas of discursive psychology with some old ideas of psychoanalysis.
I have looked at the topic of humour, especially its darker side, and suggested that ridicule plays a central role in social life (Billig, 2001a).
I have also been investigating the humour of extreme bigotry (Billig, 2001b, 2002). This work is at a comparatively early stage, but I hope eventually to connect it with my earlier reinterpretation of Freud.
Freud’s great work on humour, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious (first published in 1905) bears careful re-examination. Even its limitations and failures are instructive.
Freud himself had a great love of humour, telling jokes as he elaborated his ideas. By looking carefully at his theory a number of key issues, including that of ethnic humour, can be highlighted.