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Sigmund Freud
History and philosophy, Social and behavioural

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.

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