Foucault’s Laugh: A "Queer" Tactic Before Queer
“The Divine Comedy of [life] means we can retain the basic right to collapse into fits of laughter … an unexpected laughter which shame, suffering or death cannot silence." —Deleuze, Foucault, 25
In a photograph for The Advocate in 1982, Foucault is wearing a back, leather jacket, and he is taking about S/M (later he would specifically discuss fist-fucking) and theorizing on “inventing new possibilities of pleasure with strange parts of the body.” In France, he is wearing a turtleneck with a blazer, and he is lecturing on a hermeneutics of the self, a care of the self, and an aesthetics of existence—which is living and creating life as art and developing new modes of resistances and relations. This isn’t, as some have wrongly argued, Foucault’s “return” to the Self, the Individual, but rather a new way to look at and resist power, as well as a re-orientation and re-commitment to the forgotten Delphic Code: “care for thy self”—as opposed to “know thy self.” At both places he is joyous: smiling and laughing like a little boy who found new toys (for him, men’s fists, Crisco, and Greek and Roman texts). In both spaces of articulation, he is ecstatically articulating, exploring, and expanding upon his post-Discipline and Punish theories on power—now with more future oriented goals (but always without mandates, truth, blueprints) of creating resistances and life-styles (read: aesthetics) in relation to his re-readings of Ancient texts that opened him up to bios and aesthetics (not metaphysics), and creative lines of flight, which are tied to the histories and counter-memories of male-to-male sexual relations and friendship, as too the immediate vibrancies and virtualities of contemporary homosexuality; he articulates new inventions with the body/self: one can say an “updated” Delphic code of “(re-)invent your self.”
It is disappointing (but not surprising) that many philosophers, theorists, and historians have refused to explore Foucault’s ideas as a philosophizing through the body that were aided by his experiments with LSD and beautifully perverse pleasures—both of which he would indulge in while in San Francisco in the late seventies and early eighties. Without a doubt, he was performing the life of a “notorious man,” the “outcast,” the “criminal,” the “mad man” (the bodies/selves of his earlier works). Eventually, like so many explorers of the body, he came down with a “cancer” that, as the story goes, was nothing more and nothing less than the wrath of God—and one only for a select few. Foucault said, “A cancer that only gay men get!” He laughed at the idiotic mentality and the insipid and dull Christian-Euro-American moralism that fueled it (Eribon). He was right to laugh. His laugh, in this case, was a refusal of the Christian take-over and suppression of an aesthetics of existence and the invention of new modes of living in a vibrant word—instead of a religiousity that promoted ressentiment and damnation of the other: those godless fags. He laughed at the thought of a curse from God. He was performing a modern-day “mad” Nietzsche who knew the art of laughter.
It has been said that Foucault’s laugh, by those who knew him, was so loud in its bursting forth that it was like that unfurling of an ancient affect, and a perverse, mad, cunning joy in the form of noise (read: disruption). It was the kind of exploding laughter that would slice through conversations—erupting and rupturing and making heads turn: “its own exorbitant fist-fucking filled with exhalation and exaltation;” and “it was not the first, or even the last laugh, but the one that intrudes, unexpectedly” (Ricco). And in the eighties, like so many after him, there was laughter at the so-called punishment from the Divine, the damnation of the flesh and of acts, an interdiction against exploring the porous body with anonymous and multiple others. Foucault, much to the chagrin of many a gay and queer historians and theorists, neither wrote nor spoke about gay cancer, GRID, or, as we call it now, AIDS; rather, he laughed, and it is a laugh that can still be heard in dark alleys, sex clubs, unlit parks, public restrooms, and parked cars (and not too few hotel rooms after a “gay marriage”) today. Simply stated, laughter against moralism and power—be this power bio or religious (usually both).
Years after his (political) death, ACT-UP and Queer Nation would use humor to critique and short-circuit the moralisms of the church and/as state: placards read: “I am a shameless cocksucker!” “Wrap Your Candy!” and various kiss-ins and the continuation by many to explore anonymous and multiple sex acts. In laughter, sex continued as a joyous act, a refusal to power and its corollaries, and, what I call, a queer aesthetics of existence. Of course, there was rage and grief and an ever-widening array of affects, but it is laughter (rooted in joy) that I think we sometimes forget; we sometimes do not remember it as a refusal to power—which is such a gay-performative tactic: Laughing! Why is it that rage is privileged over joy? Yelling over laughing? Why not performatively reiterate Foucault’s laugh? Practice it and learn it, like so many of us do with his written work? And also, let us not forget that many of his books are filed with a joy, a laugh, a happy resistance to the matrices of power. Indeed, we may otherwise read and hear Foucault as doing a different, profound, and affective performative so that we too may play an-other, embodied enactment: laughter. I argue, through Foucault, that laughter can be a brilliant antidote to undermine the viruses of power and moralism. “Laugh, I tell you!” So, why only promote rage? Why only remember the anger? Is this not a kind of ressentiment—especially here and now? Why not joyously engage in the “sweetness of the fuck”—and laugh as we cum together (Haver)? Why not quote and think about the hilarious poems, essays, and books by people with AIDS in the eighties and nineties Celebrate what is under the “pinkwashing” or called “uncritical” by certain “queer” academics and activists! Why not say, “Fuck well, my dears, and laugh!” Why not sing “Married or poly-amorous, who cares the form, both can be restrictive in different lights, so let you porous body do what is wants to!”—a queer kind of Spinozism, an affectivity “materialized” by open mouth, showing teeth, and spastic (orgasmic?) vocal cords?
I think, in this era of homonormativity (which is not an entirely new phenomena—it is older than Stonewall) and the critiques by “radical queers” (as if “radical” was inherently progressive and political; it can be easily re-deployed to promote the most restrictive forms of law and order—and also half the time it is utterly boring and uncreative, but ironically in the name of “radicality”). Indeed, homonormativity and “radical queer” activism act righteously and seriously (“but, why so serious?”). I suspect, following Foucault, that it may do us well to remember to laugh—and one that is a loud, indecorous, sweaty, fleshy performance in the face of it all. Laugh like Foucault—and in doing so, perhaps, disrupt law and order and also enact a “queer differential with a difference”—as opposed to all the dullards on both sides of the binary that makes up the debates in gay culture, queer theory and studies, and current activisms and arguments from “gay marriage” to AIDS activism and beyond. I hope that all of the beautiful, perverse creatures that Foucault surfaced drown out the droning on with laughter! Finally, for now, I simply want to surface, but to be discussed at a later time, the necessity of Foucault’s laugh with what Sianne Nagai calls “stuplimity”—and see how an-other queer tactic, one engaged in joyous laughter as it mingles with a “sublime” stupidity (like when one is fucking, madly), may be of importance to escaping the binary machine that is dominating the discourses around gay or queer issues in Euro-America. (End of part 1)
— Robert Summers, PhD