One of the most extraordinary aspects of American culture is bound up in what could be called, for lack of a better term, a "diversionary tactic" that functions much like a magic trick. On the one hand there is this obsession with the artificial image (film, advertisements, television, body type and so on), and on the other hand, this "image" itself reveals something deeply and profoundly disturbing about who we are as a society. It is this palpable tension that exists between the artificial image and what it reveals that shows us truths about our social condition.
Think of Dove's popular video a few years ago, in which a time-lapsed camera shows you how a "normal"-looking woman can be manipulated to become a male-objectified image so that products can be sold. Or think of the film There's Something About Mary, in which Cameron Diaz plays a woman who is nothing more than a dangerous male fantasy that we internalize and then project onto our social relations. But, of course, we don't like to know the underlining subliminal affects that go on, if you will, underneath the surface of things. But some can't help but to reveal the deep, even humorous, anxieties that living in an image-obsessed culture convey.
In this respect, philosophers, cultural theorists, psychoanalysts, artists and stand-up comedians all share a common trait -- they are concerned with disclosing this tension between the surface and what's hidden behind it, albeit in different genres. Think of my friend Slavoj Zizek's style of doing philosophy: He reveals that which we know but don't want to admit that we know it. In this sense, Zizek reveals a certain level of "repression" that we have learned to master about our existential predicament, which is commonly referred to as ideology or "alienation." In 2011, Zizek nicely captures this idea in the London Review of Books: "The real disturbance was at the level of appearances: we can no longer pretend we don't know what everyone knows we know. This is the paradox of public space: even if everyone knows an unpleasant fact, saying it in public changes everything."
It is revealing that stand-up comedy, as a new performance genre, arose simultaneously with the rise of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries in music halls in Britain. And this performance genre too, it is also interesting to point out, waxed on as Christianity's grip on culture began to wane. The joke, in other words, has become a way of releasing the repressive psychological survival habits humans have adapted in order to cope with the inhuman demands placed on us, something that Max Weber called, "The dialectics of social rationalization."
The stand-up comedian can thus be understood as a psychoanalyst who helps us enjoy our symptom of "alienation" by laughing at the absurdity of life's contradiction. And this started to happen in contract to religion's ability to go on living our lives without honestly confronting our impossible social predicaments, which Weber called the "Iron Cage."
Robin Williams embodied and reveals this American angst between the appearance of things and the socially distorted realities operating beneath them, by ingeniously channeling our deepest anxieties in a way that we could collectively laugh at them. In a way, Williams has personally been my "Doctor" (in the Freudian sense) throughout my life. As a child, for example, one of my favorite TV shows was Mork & Mindy, in which Williams played an alien from Ork -- a planet he didn't fit into. So, Mork didn't actually fit anywhere in the universe, neither on the planet Ork nor on planet Earth. This is telling indeed and for me, as a child who had trouble fitting in anywhere, I felt Mork's displacement and so related to him by our common "alienation" in American society.
It too is telling that the show took place in Boulder, Colorado -- a place where the misfits of this American life can live in relative peace. As someone who has suffered from the dis-ease of not fitting into America culture as much of us have and something that I think is built into the very foundations of how this country was founded (i.e., displacement of indigenous cultures and the enslavement of many cultures from Africa in the form of an economy founded on slavery) and that continues to reverberate throughout our collective consciousness to this day. This raises the question about the basic mental health of our collective culture called "America."
But for me, I think of Williams and many of the characters he has "acted" throughout his extraordinary career and how they found a place for me to feel at home in a culture whose history is most basically about the up-rooting of the very concept of "home." I think this is why there is such a need for us, especially in America (i.e., North America), to find communities that can help us reclaim the idea of what it means, in our common human experience, to belong anywhere. Perhaps we can take this coping mechanism of laughter to help us deal with our shared form of alienation that Williams revealed to us and try to address it. Perhaps we could both enjoy our symptom (laughter) and start organizing a different "cure" for the disease that is "America"? In this way, Williams could be for us a prophet that points us beyond laughing at ourselves and into a consciousness in which we realize we, as humans, have the power to no longer live under these alien conditions.
Creston Davis is the founder and director of The Global Center for Advanced Studies (GCAS) & Professor of Philosophy & Psychoanalysis at the Institute of Social Sciences & Humanities--Skopje. He is the coauthor (with John Milbank and Slavoj Zizek) of Paul's New Moment: Continental Philosophy and the Future of Christian Theology; coeditor (with John Milbank and Slavoj Zizek) of Theology and the Political: The New Debate; editor of John Milbank and Slavoj Zizek The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic? and author of Ghostly Icons.