- Slipping on Banana Peels, Tumbling into WellsPhilosophy and Comedy
[T]he philosopher . . . is the jest, not only of Thracian handmaids but of the general herd, tumbling into wells and every sort of disaster through his inexperience [hupo apeirias].—Plato, Theaetetus 174c
Why stop philosophy’s most precious intrinsic comedy when it comes to comedy?—Alenka Zupančič, The Odd One In
“Comedy,” writes Alenka Zupančič in The Odd One In, “draws our attention to the fact that something of our life lives on its own as we speak, that is to say, at any moment of our life” . Reelaborating some of Jacques Lacan’s formulations regarding comedy, drive, and desire, Zupančič clarifies that this “something” is the “Real of human desire”— namely, “the incongruence of the reality of desire and drive with all those (also quite factual) outlines that determine our supposedly realistic reality” . This extrapolation from Lacan frames Zupančič’s views on comedy and its subversive character; but it is her unique engagement with G. W. F. Hegel’s remarks on comedy—particularly the sections of the Phenomenology of Spirit in which Hegel tracks the passage from the Comedy of Aristophanes to Christianity—that give a distinctive arc to Zupančič’s highly original and generative approach to comedy and its subversive character. In this review essay, I will draw attention to some of the most original aspects of this critical appropriation of Hegel, while highlighting key elements of the text’s argumentative trajectory. Toward the end of this essay, I will also suggest ways that Hegel’s speculative remarks, which see the comic figure as symptomatic of a community that is not yet conscious of itself as such, might allow us to put into question some of Zupančič’s central claims regarding the subversive nature of both comedy and her own critical intervention.
Zupančič’s reflections on comedy—which are not only innovative, but also delightfully readable—merit, in their own right, the attention of anyone interested in the intersection of literature, philosophy, and contemporary culture; but her text is all the more significant in light of the oft-remarked rarity of sustained philosophical reflections on comedy. Although there are a number of books on comedy as a literary genre, philosophical studies of comedy are surprisingly rare.1 Henri Bergson’s Le rire (published in 1900) [End Page 3] is perhaps the most well known. More recently, Simon Critchley has written about laughter, wit, and jokes in On Humour. Perhaps the most comprehensive philosophical account of comedy to date—Agnes Heller’s Immortal Comedy: The Comic Phenomenon in Art, Literature and Life (2005)—was published only three years before The Odd One In.2
In contrast to Heller’s work, which offers a philosophical account of a variety of comic works and genres, and unlike these other earlier studies, which deal with the poetics of comedy and related phenomena such as laughter or jokes, Zupančič does not approach comedy as an object of inquiry that might be analyzed by philosophical categories or methods, nor even as a phenomenon that is extrinsic to philosophy. Instead, she sees comedy and philosophy as intrinsic to one another, such that the fate of philosophical activity is tied to the fate of the comical. In assessing Zupančič’s claims, therefore, I will strive less for a summary catalogue of the claims presented in the book than for a reelaboration of what I take to be her most provocative and important assertions regarding what she calls the “critical edge” shared by both philosophy and comedy [Zupančič 9].
The Odd One In is the eighth title in the series Short Circuits, edited by Slavoj Žižek, in relation to whose writings Zupančič’s text clearly stands in intellectual and stylistic propinquity. (Žižek himself might be taken as a prime figure in whom comic and philosophical practices, in Zupančič’s sense, coincide.) The book opens and closes with a reminder that we too often mistake the subversive side of comedy for “a consolation...