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.
‘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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