Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The Greek Chorus and the Laugh Track

The psychoanalytic theorist Jacques Lacan posited that the ancient Greek chorus performed emotional labor not simply with the audience, but instead of the audience.

No audience member, after all, can fully feel the sorrow and compassion necessary for a tragedy like Oedipus or Antigone. However, when attending a play, the audience got to feel those intense emotions through the chorus.

As Lacan observed in his seminar on The Ethic of Psychoanalysis, "You are then relieved of all worries, even if you do not feel anything, the Chorus will do so in your place." Even those audience members who were bored by the show could feel they were doing their duty of having compassion for the hero, simply by having a Chorus there to have compassion for them.

In his book The Sublime Object of Ideology, philosopher Slavoj Zizek posits something similar regarding the sitcom laugh track. "After some supposedly funny or witty remark," he writes, "you can hear laughter and applause included in the soundtrack of the show itself." Zizek calls this the exact counterpart of the Chorus in Greek tragedy.

The laughter, Zizek argues, is not there to remind the audience when to laugh. Rather, the television set is relieving viewers or their duty to laugh, since it laughs for them.

"So even if, tired from a hard day's stupid work, all evening we did nothing but gaze drowsily into the television screen, we can say afterwards that objectively, through the medium of the other, we had a really good time," Zizek writes.

Whether he's right or wrong, I think I'm going to look at the Greek chorus differently now. And laugh tracks.