On April 8, Charles R. Douglass, the inventor of canned laughter — the artificial jollity that accompanies comical moments on TV shows — died at 93 in Templeton, California. In the early ’50s, he developed the idea to enhance or substitute live audience reaction on television. This idea was realized in the guise of a keyboard machine; by pressing on different keys, it was possible to produce different kinds of laughter. First used for episodes of The Jack Benny Show and I Love Lucy, today its modernized version is present everywhere.
The overwhelming presence of canned laughter makes us blind to its core paradox, even as it undermines our natural presuppositions about the state of our innermost emotions. Canned laughter marks a true “return of the repressed,” an attitude we usually attribute to “primitives.” Recall, in traditional societies, the weird phenomenon of “weepers,” women hired to cry at funerals. A rich man can hire them to cry and mourn on his behalf while he attends to a more lucrative business (like negotiating for the fortune of the deceased). This role can be played not only by another human being, but by a machine, as in the case of Tibetan prayer wheels: I put a written prayer into a wheel and mechanically turn it (or, even better, link the wheel to a mill that turns it). It prays for me — or, more precisely, I “objectively” pray through it, while my mind can be occupied with the dirtiest of sexual thoughts.
Douglass’ invention proved that the same “primitive” mechanism works also in highly developed societies. When I come home in the evening too exhausted to engage in meaningful activity, I just tune in to a TV sitcom; even if I do not laugh, but simply stare at the screen, tired after a hard day’s work, I nonetheless feel relieved after the show. It is as if the TV were literally laughing in my place, instead of me.
Yet before one gets used to canned laughter, there is nonetheless usually a brief period of uneasiness. The first reaction is of mild shock, since it is difficult to accept that the machine out there can “laugh for me.” Even if the program was “taped in front of a live studio audience,” this audience manifestly did not include me, and now exists only in mediated form as part of the TV show itself. However, with time, one grows accustomed to this disembodied laughter, and the phenomenon is experienced as “natural.” This is what is so unsettling about canned laughter: My most intimate feelings can be radically externalized. I can literally laugh and cry through another.
This logic holds not only for emotions, but also for beliefs. According to a well-known anthropological anecdote, the “primitives” to whom one attributes certain “superstitious beliefs,” that they descend from a fish or from a bird, for example, when directly asked about these beliefs, answer, “Of course not — we’re not that stupid! But I was told that our ancestors did believe that.” In short, they transfer their belief onto another. Are we not doing the same with our children? We go through the ritual of Santa Claus, since our children (are supposed to) believe in it, and we do not want to disappoint them; they pretend to believe not to disappoint us and our belief in their naiveté (and to get the presents, of course).
In an uncanny way, some beliefs always seem to function “at a distance.” For the belief to function, there has to be some ultimate guarantor of it, yet this guarantor is always deferred, displaced, never present in person. The subject who directly believes need not exist for the belief to be operative: It is enough merely to presuppose its existence in the guise of, say, a mythological founding figure who is not part of our reality.
Against this background, one is tempted to supplement the fashionable notion of “interactivity” with its shadowy and much more uncanny double, “interpassivity” (a term invented by Robert Pfaller). Today, it is a commonplace to emphasize how, with new electronic media, the passive consumption of a text or a work of art is over: I no longer merely stare at the screen, I increasingly interact with it, entering into a dialogic relationship with it, from choosing the programs, through participating in debates in a virtual community, to directly determining the outcome of the plot in so-called “interactive narratives.”
Those who praise the democratic potential of such new media generally focus on precisely these features. But there is another side of my “interaction,” which the object of interaction itself deprives me of: my own passive reaction of satisfaction (or mourning or laughter). The object itself “enjoys the show” instead of me, relieving me of the need to enjoy myself. Do we not witness “interpassivity” in a great number of today’s publicity spots or posters that, as it were, passively enjoy the product instead of us? Coca-Cola cans bearing the inscription, “Ooh! Ooh! What taste!” emulate in advance the ideal customer’s reaction.
When a man tells a tasteless bad joke and then, when nobody around him laughs, he bursts out into a noisy, nervous laughter, he has found himself obliged to act out the expected reaction of the public for them. This supplied laughter is similar to the canned laughter of the TV set, but in this example, the agent that laughs instead of us (i.e., through which we, the bored and embarrassed public, laugh) is not an anonymous audio track claiming to laugh for an invisible public — the “Big Other” — but the narrator of the joke himself. He does this in order to ensure the inscription of his act into the “Big Other,” the symbolic order of all those around him. His compulsive laughter is much like how we feel obliged to utter “Oops!” when we stumble or do something stupid. If we do not say “Oops!” — if we do not inscribe our acknowledgement of the error onto the public order — it is as if, by allowing an imaginary dialogue between ourselves and the “Big Other” to remain incomplete, we commit ourselves to symbolic oblivion.
VCR aficionados who compulsively record hundreds of movies (myself among them) are well aware that the immediate effect of owning a VCR is that one effectively watches less films than in the good old days of a simple TV set without a VCR. One never has time for TV, so, instead of losing a precious evening, one simply tapes the film and stores it for a future viewing (for which, of course, there is almost never time). So, although I do not actually watch films, the very awareness that the films I love are stored in my video library gives me a profound satisfaction and, occasionally, enables me to simply relax and indulge in the exquisite art of doing nothing — as if the VCR is, in a way, watching and enjoying them for me, in my place.
In the interpassive arrangement, I am passive through the Other; I accede to the Other the passive aspect (of enjoying), while I can remain actively engaged — that is, I can work longer hours with less need for “nonproductive” activity, such as leisure or mourning. I can continue to work in the evening, while the VCR passively enjoys for me; I can make financial arrangements for the deceased’s fortune while the weepers mourn in my place.
One should therefore turn around one of the commonplaces of conservative cultural criticism: In contrast to the notion that new media turn us into passive consumers who just stare numbly at the screen, the real threat of new media is that they deprive us of our passivity, of our authentic passive experience, and thus prepare us for mindless frenetic activity — for endless work.
So then, would it not be a proper funeral for Charles R. Douglass if a set of sound-machines were to accompany his coffin, generating whispered laments, while his beloved surviving relatives enjoyed a hearty meal, or perhaps got some work done elsewhere? Far from finding it offensive, I think perhaps he would appreciate the recognition of such a burial.