Law, Reading, and Power: The ‘S’ Joke, Why You Find it Funny and Why I Don’t (with Reply)

by | 4 Jul 2018

A guy walks into a bakery known for making fancy cakes. He says, “I’d like to have a cake shaped like the letter S.”

The baker says he can do it, but the cake will be expensive. The man confirms that price is no object. The baker tells him to come back after three o’clock.

When he comes back, the baker unveils a beautiful S cake, but the man is upset.

“I wanted a cake with an S in cursive script, not a block letter!”

The baker says, “Not a problem, sir. Come back at seven o’clock and we’ll take care of you.”

At seven, the guy comes back, and the baker rolls out a beautiful cake shaped like an S in lavish script. The guy says, “The frosting is all wrong. Please make it pink and green only.”

The baker says, “OK, fine. We can do that. Wait here and we’ll have it right back out.”

A half hour later the baker brings the cake out again, shows it, and the man is finally happy. The baker pulls out a cake box and starts putting it in.

“Hey, no, don’t do that,” the guy says. “I’ll eat it here”.1Don Steinberg, ed., Jokes Every Man Should Know (Philadelphia: Quirk Books, 2008), 92-93.

Did you laugh? The editor of the little black book of jokes believes that this is one of the best jokes ever told, a joke that is a necessity in every man’s collection. He certainly found it funny. I didn’t. The reason that I don’t find the joke funny is not a matter of personal taste, but is based on years of researching the relationship between power, law and reading. I believe that I can explain why you found the joke funny or why you didn’t.


The man in the joke is “The man”, an American phrase that hippies used to refer to as “the white Establishment in all its various avaricious, capitalist manifestations”.2John Anthony Moretta, The Hippies: A 1960s History (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2017), 186.

It is indicative that the person is a man and not a woman, since men enjoy the most power in society. The man is also rich, since price is no object to him. The further inference is not only that the man is rich, but also that he is white, although this is nowhere spelt out. This is because the default mode of western society is to assume that everyone is white and to be non-white is the exception.

The story reflects on the man’s absolute power: he is in complete control of the baker and the forces of production. When he orders, he is obeyed in every single detail, despite his absolute caprice and whimsical demands.


“The Man” is in complete control of the law in the story, in the form of the legal contract between himself and the baker. The form of the contract is fashioned according to each and every one of his whims. The Man has not specified the conditions of the contract, which is his fault, but the one that pays for the mistakes is the baker who has to keep on meeting the demand. Note that the law in the story is all oral, rather than taking the form of writing. This will be important as I will explain below in the section of reading.


The joke is not only about law and the fashioning of a contract, but how the law produces letters and readings since the contract in the joke produces the letter ‘S’.

The Man wants to produce letters that are artistic. It is noteworthy that the cake is shaped like an S. The ‘S’ curve, or ‘the line of beauty’ in art has been regarded as the basis of beauty. William Hogarth wrote about it in a book called The Analysis of Beauty (1753). As outlined by Norah T. Hunter,

Mr. Hogarth theorized that the serpentine line formed the basis for all beauty. Hogarth called the two-dimensional form the “Line of Beauty;” whereas he called the three-dimensional S-curve “The Line of Grace”.3Norah T. Hunter, The Art of Floral Design, 2nd ed. (USA: Delmar Thomson Learning, 2013), 200.

As I can show in great detail in my own research, law is aligned with art and conceives of its writing as an art form. The Man speaks in the language of art and law to produce letters which are “beautiful”. He reads “artistically”, or his relationship to writing is figured in art terms.

The punchline of the joke shows how law, reading and power intersect in the joke. The cake, the art object, which we had thought was going to be shown to the public, is instead eaten by The Man. Law results in an artistic production which is only consumed by those in power, rather than the general public. If you laughed at this point, you find pleasure in this fact, that law is only for the powerful, not for the people. There is something else. The writing that law produces becomes one with The Man at this point: it is indicative of both his identity and himself. He internalises himself and becomes stronger, like the  ouroboros, the symbol of infinity, a snake or dragon (often described as a “serpent”) eating its own tail (The ‘S’ curve is said to be a serpentine shape).

The joke reflects that the letters and writing that the law produce merely serve to consolidate the power of the political elite: rich, white men. The law’s letters feed the political elite. That is their primary purpose.

In addition, the joke reflects the idea that the power of the political elite works through concealment and invisibility since their power is illegitimate in a society that thinks of itself as a democracy. The Man has to hide his power and the expression of that power. Firstly, it can be seen The Man is largely anonymous. His identity is heavily concealed and implicit rather than explicit. Secondly, The Man never writes down his contractual terms because they would be visible in a body of writing. Here, one notes that The Man does not articulate his law in writing, it is invisible since it is spoken. The Man speaks the language of invisibility. At the end of the joke, The Man literally makes his power invisible by eating the letter and not letting the public see it. This is what makes the joke even more pleasurable to the dupes that laugh at it. One notes that the S curve which William Hogarth praised as the basis of all art is invisible itself: you can only see it by looking beyond the immediately visible image as its invisible underpinning. This is why the letter S has to be invisible at the end of the joke.

If you laughed, I argue, that is because you are in love with the political elite and their system of concealed and invisible power. Their power and its concealment gives you both delight and pleasure. It is the ultimate source of authority and rightness for you, and the basis of legitimation. Like the concealed Judaeo-Christian God, it is the source of worship. I suggest that it is the task of the critical legal scholar to destroy this pleasure and the cultural productions which support it, which include not only jokes, but also fiction, film, music and art.

Suneel Mehmi is currently researching the relationship between law and photography in fiction in the first eighty years after the invention of photography. He holds degrees in Law and English Literature.



The ‘S’ cake and the cake(s)

“If I agree to judge a text according to pleasure, I cannot go on to say: this one is good, that bad. No awards, no ‘critique’, for this always implies a tactical aim, a social usage.” Roland Barthes

A joke exists, we might assume, primarily to provoke humour. Above other texts, how should a joke be judged except according to pleasure? Barthes’ statement that “The text is (should be) that uninhibited person who shows his behind to the Political Father.4Roland Barthes The Pleasure of the Text p53 might be thought to apply especially to jokes. But the critic may indeed have a tactical aim, and so it might also secondarily provoke analysis, or provoke condemnation. In the analysis just proposed, a condemnation is produced, not of the joke but of the hearer who is amused. He who laughs (the analysis presumes either a he or those in complicity with a he) stands condemned for being amused by (and therefore complicit with) the triumph of an oppressor over an oppressed victim. Whether this is the proper role of critique is one of the questions here addressed.

In the situation of the joke, the oppressing figure is identified variously as ‘a/the guy’ four times and ‘the man’ three times. The oppressed figure is ‘the baker’, identified eight times. We can observe two active participants, then: what makes one the oppressor, one the oppressed? The scenario, to this legal opinion, is about a contract between guy/man and baker, and where power lies in this contract must be the outcome of an analysis. However, the reading proposed does not offer an analysis of how power circulates in the contract. The reading claims to know where power lies, not because of contract but because of status (cf Henry Maine5Henry Maine, Ancient Law p141). The reading reads the figure of the guy (a term often now used in a gender-neutral sense , as in ‘hey guys!’) through the figure of the man, even though this is the lesser used term. In a quick progression, the man, it is inferred, becomes the Man, the Establishment, white, rich, and possessor of social power. No inferences are made concerning the gender, wealth, ethnic identity or social class of the baker, but, dialectically, the assumption is that, having identified a master, the man, then the baker must be his slave. No more nuanced, for example Foucauldian analysis of distributed power is entertained. 6Michel Foucault Power/Knowledge

The reading, having identified power at play, takes this as adequate to support the conclusion that the man has absolute power, and is in complete control of the baker and the forces of production, as his orders are obeyed. This is questionable. There is a contract, which the baker repeatedly fulfils. There is no inference that s/he is oppressed into doing so, nor that s/he is denied full payment for three cakes s/he produces, each one different, until the man is content, nor that s/he could not invoke the contract at any earlier stage to demand payment for the cake(s) produced, as meeting the general terms expressed by the man, even if not meeting his unexpressed preferences. The forces of production (oven, flour, labour etc.) remain entirely in the hands of the baker, who may be, we don’t know, an independent artisan or an employee of a bakery.

The reading then claims that the man is in complete control of the law, in the form of the legal contract. This relies on the inference now made explicit, ‘the one who pays for the mistakes is the baker’. There is no textual justification for this. Indeed, the man, who has confirmed ‘that price is no object’ could just as easily be seen as the victim of the baker’s exploitation of ambiguities in order to keep producing, and getting paid for, cakes that meet the terms of the legal contract but not the man’s desires, necessitating further expenditure on the part of the man.  It is reminiscent of an interminable contract with a builder who keeps hitting the customer with further expenses for unforeseen developments or adaptations.

The man desires beauty and grace, but his desire is continually frustrated by an object which does not meet his expectations; these expectation themselves are obscure to him, but he knows when they are not satisfied. He pays, again and again, for the frustration of his desires. The baker is paid, again and again, for delivering the frustration of the man’s desires, in such a way that meets the law’s letter but not the man’s desire. This is, at least to some tastes, comic.

The reading adds another inference, that we think the cake is going to be shown to the public, and that the humour of the joke lies in its instant consumption instead. Why infer public display? A specially commissioned, complex, beautiful and graceful cake, we might assume, gives pleasure by the ostentation of display, of the public performance of one’s ownership of such a thing, and the statements inferred about one’s wealth thereby. However, ‘shown to the public’ is not quite the norm — presented at a private party or celebration, a family occasion, seems more likely. It is funny that the man, once presented with the perfect object, consumes it immediately. His fulfilled desire delivers instant gratification. He is revealed as a man with no social human context. He does not plan to take pleasure in the responses of delight of others, in sharing, in showing. His pleasure is animal and asocial (“Hegel says that … the being that cannot risk its life in a fight for recognition, in a fight for pure prestige — is not a truly human being”7Alexander Kojeve, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel. p41). The humour lies in the exposure of a crude disparity between the fussiness of his demands and the fulfillment of his desire. If that’s all he’s going to do what do the fine details of the cake’s design matter? Wouldn’t any old cake do for immediate scoffing? He stands exposed as one of de Sade’s libertines,8De Sade taking endless trouble and time to arrange the objects of his desire, only to expend his jouissance in a moment. But no other arrangement would have done. The joke does a good job of identifying the absurdity of a catastrophic type of subjectivity.

The reading claims those who laughed have been duped, and are in love with oppression, a concealed oppression, revealed by the joke, whose revelation delights and pleases only those complicit with oppression. This is a confused conclusion as it claims that concealed power delights the oppressor, but will not concede that the joke’s work is to reveal what is concealed, and that this could be the pleasure of the joke. Nor is the possibility recognised that the reading found in the joke only what it read into the joke in the first place. The reading concludes by defining the job of the critical legal scholar as being to destroy the concealment of power, not noticing that the joke has also performed this task. The leap from a tentative reading to a definitive condemnation is unwarranted.

As in any good Hegelian analysis, it remains to point out that in the master/slave dialectic, it is the slave who holds ultimate power.9GWF Hegel, Phenomenology The baker triumphs, keeps the profits, the laugh is on the man left with nothing, nothing but a satisfied desire, and the unavoidable sequel, melancholy. Or must we imagine him happy? No, because the desire for the perfect cake is a desire for recognition from the baker of this desire, a recognition the baker stubbornly refuses, delivering in its place cake(s).

Freud’s study of jokes10Sigmund Freud distinguishes joke-form from thought-content. The reading’s fundamental error is to focus only on the thought-content, to issue a judgment that this thought-content is in alliance with oppressive power, and therefore to chastise the amused for being amused. I hope to have shown that the joke-form is susceptible to an alternative reading that identifies a different thought-content. It would be a poor conclusion, though, to then end by saying, so it’s OK to laugh. For the joke-form can be in contradiction to the thought-content, and it is a common enough experience to find oneself laughing at a joke-form whose thought-content one in no sense endorses, indeed finds appalling. The reading misses this disjunction — laughing at the joke need not mean endorsing the thought. It may mean detecting another thought, or indeed it may mean enjoying the exposure into the public realm of an appalling thought not susceptible to being stated without the camouflage of the joke-form. The delineation of the consumer’s desire in the man’s behavior is one such appalling truth, and it is funny, in the way that Beckett is funny.11Samuel Beckett, Endgame Nell: “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness, I grant you that.” P20

Angus McDonald is Associate Professor Emeritus of Law, Staffordshire University.

  • 1
    Don Steinberg, ed., Jokes Every Man Should Know (Philadelphia: Quirk Books, 2008), 92-93.
  • 2
    John Anthony Moretta, The Hippies: A 1960s History (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2017), 186.
  • 3
    Norah T. Hunter, The Art of Floral Design, 2nd ed. (USA: Delmar Thomson Learning, 2013), 200.
  • 4
    Roland Barthes The Pleasure of the Text p53
  • 5
    Henry Maine, Ancient Law p141
  • 6
    Michel Foucault Power/Knowledge
  • 7
    Alexander Kojeve, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel. p41
  • 8
    De Sade
  • 9
    GWF Hegel, Phenomenology
  • 10
    Sigmund Freud
  • 11
    Samuel Beckett, Endgame Nell: “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness, I grant you that.” P20


  1. Than you I enjoy your blog but this post made my stomach churn

    • Why?

  2. Is this a parody account?

  3. “Why I have no sense of humour in 5000 words or less.”

    • So true

  4. Mehmi should feel a kinship with the customer, as his dissection plumes from a desire for “instant gratification” as well.

  5. What’s the copyright protection on this piece of work and can it be reproduced in whole? Is it open acess?

  6. By coincidence, I’ve been discussing this joke with a friend who gives lectures on American humor. He was surprised that I had head it before — he thinks it’s an obscure joke. I first encountered it in a Big Book of Jokes when I was a kid, in the late 1950s.
    However in both my recollection of the joke and the way my friend and joke scholar tells it, the customer is apologetic each time the cake is not to his liking, and offers to pay for his mistakes — he readily admits that he’s at fault in not giving clear instructions.
    I don’t recall if the baker takes the customer up on his offer to pay for the first two cakes. Either way, In my version, the baker is not expected or forced to expend extra time and materials without compensation. The customer is respectful of the baker and his time/effort.
    So I can’t agree with you that the customer is oppressing the baker. I can only assume the baker is happy to get paid for an order from this customer, and, at the baker’s option, to get paid for each of the three cakes.

    • Yes! I was also taught a similar version, where the man apologies and pays after each draft.

      I was also taught that it was the letter “B” if that changes anything for you.

  7. I just came across the joke and loved it.
    It joined my pantheon of greatest jokes.

    Then I googled and found this post.
    Looks like someone has an inferiority complex that’s fully justified!

    No cake for you, I guess.


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