Comic Rules:Kierkegaard, The Idiots, and the Politics of Dogma 95
This essay attends to key questions about the lived experiences embedded in The Idiots, which unlike many of von Trier’s other movies is unusually place specific, targeting the Danish welfare state and the national culture underpinning it. To appreciate this dimension of the film, the essay stages an encounter between von Trier and another passionate auteur—the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. Combining von Trier’s cinematic vision with Kierkegaard’s philosophical existentialism is helpful because it allows us to foreground the techniques of filmmaking while also specifying the lived experiences enabled by these techniques. Even if we accept that The Idiots highlights the meta-diegetic level of filmmaking, and even if we accept that this tension points to a different politics, we still have to specify the embodiment of this opening as well as clarify how it contributes to democracy and society. The dialogue between Kierkegaard and von Trier is an important step in this direction.
A realization or recognition placed outside the possible. It moves at the fringes of one’s consciousness where one normally does not come.Lars von Trier (2010).1
Quite generally, the comic is present everywhere, and every existence can be identified and assigned at once to its specific sphere by knowing how it relates to the comic […] That is why it is unexceptionally the case that the more proficiently a person exists, the more he will discover the comic.Søren Kierkegaard (1846).2
Like so many of Lars von Trier’s other movies, The Idiots ends with an unfathomable scene of political contestation and social transgression. In the scene, Karen (played by Bodil Jørgensen) returns to her family after a two-week hiatus during which she has lived with a collective of men and women whose disenchantment with Danish society has led them to a project of “spazzing” in private as well as in public. At the time of the last scene, the collective’s self-appointed leader, Stoffer (played by Jens Albinus), has abandoned this project and concluded that no one in the group is able or willing to challenge the norms of society. Karen, who until then has acted like a naïve bystander, counters this conclusion and volunteers to validate the project by returning home in order to “spaz” in front of her family. As Karen prepares for this challenge, The Idiots reveals a whole other world, pointing us to the tension between a lost past and an improbable future. Indeed, as von Trier’s handheld camera surveys Karen’s return to the apartment, picking up on clues from her old life, it becomes apparent that Karen did not join the collective of “spazzers” due to some innocent goodness. Rather, her encounter with the collective intersected with something far darker, the death of her newborn child, and, we sense implicitly, the need to begin a new life. Informed by (but not entirely true to) the rules of the Dogma 95 Manifesto, von Trier documents this tension in an unfiltered way, panning back and forth between Karen, her friend Susanne (played by Anne Louise Hassing), and the other family members, including Karen’s estranged husband Anders (played by Hans Henrik Clemensen). Eventually, the tension is relieved when Karen’s “spazzing” provokes Anders to slap her in the face. “That’s enough now,” says Susanne, freeing Karen from the challenge, allowing both of them to leave the apartment accompanied by a riff on the melancholic score that introduced Karen at the outset of the movie. The circle is thus completed but in a uniquely indeterminate manner: What prompted Karen to accept Stoffer’s challenge? What did Karen achieve by “spazzing” in front of her family? Why “spaz” in the first place?
Many critics saw The Idiots as evidence of von Trier’s inclination toward a politics based on aesthetic manipulation and emotional exploitation.3 But film scholars such as Caroline Bainbridge, Mette Hjort, and Angelos Koutsourakis all suggest, each in his or her own way, that such reactions overlook how The Idiots uses a creative process, which highlights issues concerning representation, sociability, and technology, foregrounding the meta-diegetic level of filmmaking. According to Koutsourakis, von Trier’s filmmaking thus avoids charges of exploitation and manipulation because it exposes the contradictions of society by way of a post-Brechtian approach in which “…the audience, like the actors, is drawn inside the story and pushed away into a critical appreciation at the same time.”4 Such a reading seems largely correct (at least to this author), but it neglects key questions about the lived experiences embedded in The Idiots, which unlike many of von Trier’s other movies is unusually place specific, targeting the Danish welfare state and the national culture underpinning it. To appreciate this dimension of the film, we need to develop a hybrid-approach that foregrounds the techniques of filmmaking while also specifying the lived experiences enabled by these techniques. Even if we accept that The Idiots highlights the meta-diegetic level of filmmaking, and even if we accept that this tension opens up to a different politics, we still have to specify the embodiment of this opening as well as clarify how it contributes positively to conversations about democracy and society.
The aim of this essay is to address this issue by focusing on von Trier’s use of irony and the comic more generally.5 It should be noted from the outset that these terms are meant to connote something different and more powerful than their current uses may seem to suggest. Although many audiences do laugh when they watch The Idiots, often for reasons that feel embarrassing and transgressive, it is not the laughter itself that makes the movie comic, let alone funny. Indeed, as the last scene demonstrates with indubitable clarity, the film is often not funny at all. Thus, to appreciate the movie’s comic dimensions, we must instead highlight the tensions internal to it while explicating and augmenting elements that otherwise would have remained hidden or implicit. One way to do this is to stage an encounter between von Trier and another passionate auteur—the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. Staging an encounter between these two figures makes sense, even apart from the obvious overlap in nationality, because of their common interest in what best can be described as “comic rule following,” by which I mean a conception of rule following that aims to strengthen our attachments to the world through an ethos of empowerment and singularity. Kierkegaard develops his version of this kind of rule following in a philosophical register that subverts the cultural foundation upon which the Danish welfare state would be based. Von Trier, on the other hand, presents us with images of “spazzing” to reflect on the limits and afterlife of Danish culture and politics. As we shall see, it is the oscillation between these two registers—the philosophical and the cinematic, the past and the future—that turns The Idiots into something more than a depiction of a frivolous politics defined by aesthetic manipulation and emotional exploitation.
Comic rule following may seem parasitic in the sense that it evacuates the meaning of existing terms. (Kierkegaard would associate this with irony, something that von Trier masters better than most.) But this makes it neither parochial nor frivolous in the sense of being without an affirmative orientation toward future constellations of power. In the case of The Idiots, we get a sense of what this orientation might look like by tracing the way in which von Trier affirms comic rule following, not only in order to criticize the Danish welfare state, but also to empower political contestation and social transformation. This contestatory and transformative practice is what allows us to appreciate Karen’s “spazzing” in the last scene of The Idiots as the culmination of an ongoing effort that points towards a different future. As Karen “spazzes” in front of her family, regurgitating the cake that her mum has prepared, another world shines forth, one that sets the singularity of an emancipated life over the drive to repressed mourning and social homogeneity. Or at least that is my wager.
Section 2 establishes the claim that the Dogma 95 Manifesto is best seen through the lens of comic rule following, and it then goes on to discuss in more detail how this rule following is developed and expressed in a movie like The Idiots. Section 3 takes the form of a digression—a jump cut, if you like—looking at how Kierkegaard responds to pressures in his own time in order to develop a non-dialectic conception of the comic linked to an ethos of empowerment and singularity. Section 4 returns our discussion to The Idiots and examines how thinking about von Trier and Kierkegaard together sheds new light on the politics of comic rule following in both The Idiots and the Dogma 95 Manifesto. I conclude in Section 5 with a discussion of how attention to comic rule following more generally can inform our appreciation of the politics of von Trier’s filmmaking as it has developed over the course of the past thirty years.
2. Two Rules of Comic Rule Following
Although it may seem like an exaggeration, it would not be wrong to say that the Dogma 95 Manifesto was comical from the very outset. Prompted by an invitation to participate in a symposium titled “Le cinéma vers son deuxième siècle,” which was organized by the French film critic Jean-Michel Frodon and held at the Théâtre de l’Odéon on March 13, 1995, the manifesto was conceived by von Trier who co-authored the first draft with Thomas Vinterberg and later asked Søren Kragh-Jacobsen and Kristian Levring to become co-signatories.6 The result of their shared efforts was the Dogma 95 Manifesto, which also served as the basis for von Trier’s participation in the Frodon-symposium. Von Trier himself did not disappoint at the symposium. Rather than giving a formal speech, von Trier made a few general remarks about the crisis of contemporary filmmaking and then proceeded to throw hundreds of Dogma 95 Manifestos printed on red paper into the air, leaving the stage without saying anything else. Footage of the event shows both the audience and von Trier’s fellow panelists chuckling in disbelief. For everyone watching it was clear that something incongruous—something comical—had occurred.
The usual definition of the comic centers on a condition and an outcome: the comic embodies an incongruity between two opposites that preclude reconciliation but nonetheless accelerate our ability to think and to act.7 If we accept this as our working definition, then it is clear that Dogma 95’s preference for the comic is not limited to von Trier’s performance at the Frodon-symposium. As is well known, the Dogma 95 Manifesto starts out by addressing some of the most powerful players in the film industry, including Hollywood, which the Manifesto not only criticizes for dramaturgic “predictability” and “superficial action” but also links to the failure of the 1960s French New Wave to overcome the spell of “bourgeois romanticism.”8 In opposition to both schools of filmmaking—Hollywood and French New Wave—the Dogma 95 Manifesto describes itself as a “rescue action,” which surely is meant humorously given the limited resources available to the four Dogma brothers. Without dwelling on this, however, the Dogma 95 Manifesto proceeds to outline the core of its mission, which in turn leads to the “Vow of Chastity” and the ten Dogma rules for filmmaking. It is here that the Manifesto’s link to comic rule following is most obvious. At one end of the Manifesto, we thus find an emphasis on “discipline” and the need for a new “avant-garde” that can bring filmmaking and the cinematic experience back to reality (such as it is). At the other end of the Manifesto, this faith in artistic creativity is countered by the desire to incarnate the infinite potential of film itself, which leads to the rule that no Dogma director should be credited for his or her own movie. The incongruity between these two positions—between the artist and his art—mirrors how the Manifesto juxtaposes one set of rules—the ones used by Hollywood—with another set of rules—the ones listed in the Manifesto—thereby pointing us to what we might call the first rule of comic rule following. The rule is this: institute one rule in order to avoid another rule, which is not unlike saying that rule following requires rule breaking. How comical it can be to follow a rule!
Examples of how von Trier deploys this rule abound in The Idiots. Before turning to them, however, we first need to appreciate how comic rule following provides an alternative to other engagements with the politics of von Trier’s filmmaking. As I noted in the Introduction, most critics have not engaged the comic aspects of the Dogma 95 Manifesto, which is rather surprising, not only because of the incongruities that subsist throughout the Manifesto, but also because their readings themselves point in a comic direction. Koutsourakis, for example, bases his post-Brechtian interpretation of von Trier on the director’s use of montage and gestic acting, but does not mention how these meta-diegetic techniques traditionally have been seen as harboring a comic element, a point Brecht himself emphasizes in a 1921 diary entry praising the work of Charlie Chaplin.9 A similar problem arises with the interpretation of Hjort who draws on the work of Jon Elster in order to show how the Dogma 95 Manifesto sees the constraints of rule following as the precondition for the ability of contemporary cinema to develop creatively. Like Koutsourakis, Hjort interprets von Trier’s filmmaking as aiming to unsettle the flows of late modern experience. Unlike Koutsourakis, however, Hjort links this unsettling to the ten Dogma 95 rules, which she says are needed in order “to make room for the…indeterminacy that makes choice, and hence creativity, possible.”10 The reluctance to tell us more about the nature of this creativity is emblematic of most engagements with the Dogma 95 Manifesto. Indeed, the closest we get to something specific is the recent work of Bainbridge, who suggests that whatever the Dogma 95 Manifesto produces, it is only successful if and when it evokes an affective response in the audience. As Bainbridge puts it, “much of von Trier’s work appears to tap into…structures of affect and emotion, and The Idiots is a good example for analysis.”11
If I am reluctant to embrace this statement and the ones preceding it, it is not because they emphasize the importance of affect, creativity, and technique. Quite the contrary; rather than suggesting that attention to these aspects of filmmaking is misguided or wrongheaded, I want to argue that the existing engagements with affect, creativity, and technique—and indeed lived experience more generally—fall short of appreciating how von Trier’s approach to rule following aims to reorient the conditions of politics in late modernity. The failure to do so may stem from a trend accompanying the reluctance to spell out the affects and commitments embedded in von Trier’s movies—namely, that “serious” critique requires setting the meta-diegetic over the diegetic. This trend is problematic for two reasons. First, it limits the discussion of rule following to just one level—the meta-diegetic—something that limits our appreciation of von Trier’s attempt to uproot or contest perceptions of the world. And second, it obscures the contextual references of The Idiots, which limits our capacity to track the actual work of rule following. The tendency in von Trier scholarship to privilege the meta-diegetic level of filmmaking thus produces a strange double-effect: rather than expanding the significance of his filmmaking for politics, the critique limits the discussion to one dimension, which in turn leads us to an abstraction devoid of any real content. The result is a critique that undermines its very own ambitions for political contestation and social transformation.
It is against this background that I insist on seeing comic rule following as a defining element of both von Trier’s filmmaking and the Dogma 95 movement more generally. As already indicated, comic rule following is particularly prominent in a movie like The Idiots, which deploys the practice of “spazzing” in order to show how Denmark’s welfare state has turned against itself. Revealing hidden structures of hierarchy and stigmatization in a number of places, including an old restaurant, a modern factory, a public swimming pool, and a local municipality office, The Idiots links the image and practice of “spazzing” to the rules laid out in the Dogma 95 Manifesto. Thus, the Idiots elaborates a critique begun by Kierkegaard one hundred and fifty years earlier, namely, that Danish democracy, including its famed welfare state, is based on a national culture that extols the good of the community at the expense of singular individuals who diverge from the norm and who do not subscribe to Denmark’s ideological self-image as both more equal and more liberated than any other country in the world. This self-image is associated less with a single political party and more with an underlying trend expressed by some of Denmark’s founding fathers, including N.F.S. Grundtvig (whom we shall discuss in the next section). But von Trier adds his own cinematic twist to Kierkegaard’s critique: “spazzing” is necessary in order to unveil the hierarchy and superiority that betray Danish egalitarianism.12 This approach culminates midway through The Idiots when Stoffer runs naked through the wealthy suburb of Søllerød, shouting “Søllerød fascists” to the innocent bystanders who represent mainstream Denmark. Comical for sure, but that seems to be the point.
A particularly challenging aspect of The Idiots is how to relate its critique of the Danish welfare state to the more affirmative transformation that we find in the final scene where Karen returns home to her family’s apartment. The issues related to this aspect of the movie are especially pressing given the downfall of Stoffer, which follows after he has succeed in leading the “spazzers” in their fight against Danish mainstream culture. One option might be to read Karen’s return as the next logical step, which adds to the emptiness and failure with which von Trier leaves Stoffer, confirming the critics’ charge about The Idiots amounting to nothing but aesthetic manipulation and emotion exploitation. Such a reading, however, fails to account for Karen’s own agency in the final scene. Karen is neither a victim of an unspeakable injustice nor a tragic heroine who has succumbed to faith; instead, she is an individual who exposes her own vulnerability in order to inaugurate a break that will allow her to start a new life after the loss of another. If we take this transformation seriously, then it becomes evident that something else is at stake in the final scene, something that in turn adds an affirmative element to the Stoffer critique of the welfare state that is especially prominent in the first half of The Idiots.
A close reading of the final scene may help us to unveil the contours of this affirmative element. At the diegetic level, the final scene stands out because it pushes comic rule following to its extreme, depicting Karen as an abject child-like provocateur who forces the audience to ask whether “spazzing” ultimately is the best way to criticize the Danish welfare state. Can regurgitating the mother’s cake really be the best—let alone the only—way to overcome a national culture with a propensity to marginalize and stigmatize others? Must we turn ourselves inside out before the claustrophobic communitarianism represented by the narrow walls of Karen’s apartment can become undone? Von Trier extends this self-questioning when the camera movement shifts midway through the final scene from one that “points” and “looks” to one that, in the more traditional Hollywood style, “anticipates” the action. This meta-diegetic shift occurs right when Anders slaps Karen in the face.13 In this very moment, perhaps the most dramatic moment of the film, The Idiots reverses its own opposition to Hollywood techniques and returns to controlling the viewing gaze in order to shore up feelings of attachment and sympathy. Given von Trier’s prior critique of this technique, such a reversal cannot be without irony, and indeed it suggests an amplification of indeterminacy, one that extends from an emphasis on the split between the diegetic and the meta-diegetic to an emphasis on the incongruities internal to both levels of filmmaking. No longer are we asked to determine which rules apply and which do not; instead, we must consider whether there is any use whatsoever in being subject to the power of rule following.
This kind of indeterminacy suggests that we must place ourselves at the intersection of rule following and rule breaking in order to appreciate von Trier’s approach to filmmaking. At this intersection, rule following is an exhilarating affair in which obedience to one rule supersedes obedience to another. At this intersection, the aim of rule following is not merely to criticize a national culture defined by marginalization and stigmatization but also to inhabit the specter of indeterminacy in a different and more empowering manner. Even though the latter of these two aspects often escapes von Trier’s critics, it remains so ubiquitous that we may elevate it to a second rule embedded in his conception of comic rule following. One way to express this rule would go like this: the comic is only comic if it empowers our attachments to the world in a manner that makes them stronger rather than weaker.14 Is this not what Karen’s “spazzing” signifies—not as the critics suggest an afterthought to Stoffer’s downfall, but rather an empowering break from one state of being to another state of being, one that strengthens rather than weakens our attachment to a world after the welfare state?
3. An Ethos of Comic Rule Following
To better appreciate how the answer to this question is affirmative, and thus to see why Karen may embody something other than a politics of manipulation and exploitation, I suggest that we jump cut from the cinematic vision of von Trier to the philosophical existentialism of Kierkegaard. This jump is of course not without its own comic dimension, for von Trier never mentions Kierkegaard as a source of inspiration. Nietzsche, Brecht, Kafka, Bergman, Tarkovsky, and Dreyer—these names, not Kierkegaard’s, are the ones that von Trier discusses in interviews about his filmmaking and the philosophy behind it.15
Kierkegaard’s absence, however, should not make us overlook the fact that von Trier and Kierkegaard have a great deal in common, culturally as well as politically. Like von Trier after him, Kierkegaard has deep reservations about the national culture that underpins the political system from which the Danish welfare state sprung. Moreover, anticipating von Trier’s critique, Kierkegaard develops his own critique of Danish national culture by addressing one of his contemporaries—N.F.S. Grundtvig, a profoundly influential pastor and a member of the Danish Parliament whose conception of the Church as a living communitarian organism continues to inform Danish welfare politics.16 At the time of Kierkegaard, Grundtvig’s vision was important in securing popular support to Denmark’s first “democratic” constitution, a constitution that married politics and religion through the codification of a State Church, setting off the ire of Kierkegaard who saw the conflation of the spiritual and the worldly as an affront to both.17 Moreover, although Grundtvig himself had reservations about the State Church, his use of Christianity to define and privilege the good of the community quickly became a mainstay in the justification of Danish welfare policies, allowing the national and the religious to blend into one. The way Kierkegaard develops his critique of this development in Danish politics is particularly pertinent for our purposes because it allows us to explicate what remains implicit in von Trier’s approach to filmmaking, namely, how and why we should see comic rule following as a way to criticize the national culture underpinning the Danish welfare state as well as to strengthen rather than weaken our attachments to the world writ large. That the comic plays a significant role in both cases is evident from how Kierkegaard phrases his critique of Grundtvig: “If one [like Grundtvig] wants to stress the sacrament of baptism, basing one’s…happiness on the fact that one is baptized, one again becomes a comic figure. Not because the infinitely interested passion is comic; far from it, just this is honourable, but because the object is an approximation-object.”18
A first step toward unpacking this statement would be to situate Kierkegaard’s conception of the comic within the larger train of his fragmentary and often wild writings. The thread that runs through these writings is an emphasis on “existence” rather than “essence” as well as the wager that all stages of lived experience can be placed within the triad defined by the “aesthetic,” the “ethical,” and the “religious.”19 Insisting that the last of these three embodies the highest form of existence, Kierkegaard furthermore argues that the passage from one stage to the next is empowered by a distinct mode of expression, which in turn leads him to the suggestion that we link “irony” (defined as a continuous questioning of the given) to the passage from aesthetics to ethics, and “humor” (defined as a hastened departure from true reflection) to the passage from ethics to religion.20 This much is known to most. What may be less known, however, is how Kierkegaard develops a rather persistent interest in the comic, which we can find in all of his works stretching from On Irony with Constant Reference to Socrates (1841) to Either/Or (1843) to Concluding Unscientific Postscript (1846).21 In all of these works, the comic is not simply an umbrella term that represents the sum of irony and humor; rather, it stands forth as an independent concept that goes beyond irony and humor, embodying two aspects concomitantly—namely, an account of the human condition and a way of responding to this condition. The comic appears on both sides of this process because it combines two opposites into one structure—Kierkegaard’s preferred example is Jesus as both man and God—and because it deploys this incongruity to interrupt and reveal gaps in lived experience, allowing new modes of thought and action to take hold on our existence. The latter turns the comic into a condition of thinking and acting. Without it, Kierkegaard argues, no passage to a higher level of being is ever possible.
This emphasis on empowerment offers a good platform for a more detailed account of the affirmative side of comic rule following. As the basis for further discussion, consider thus the following three statements from the Concluding Unscientific Postscript22:
The comic is always the mark of maturity; and the only thing is that in this maturity the new shoot should appear, and the vis comica not stifle pathos but simply indicate the beginning of a new pathos. Power in the comic is something I regard as an indispensable legitimation for anyone who is to be regarded today as authorized in the world of the spirit.
Power in the comic is the police badge, the badge of authority which today every agent must bear who really is an agent. But this is not hot-tempered or vehement comedy, its laughter shrill; on the contrary, it attends with care to the immediacy that it sets aside.
Quite generally, the comic is present everywhere, and every existence can be identified and assigned at once to its specific sphere by knowing how it relates to the comic. Someone who is religious has discovered the comic on the largest scale and yet does not consider the comic the highest, for the religious is the purest pathos. But if he does look on the comic as the highest, then the comic is for him eo ipso lower; for what is comic lies always in a contradiction, and when the comic itself is the highest, it lacks the contradiction in which the comic is and in which it shows itself to advantage. That is why it is unexceptionally the case that the more proficiently a person exists, the more he will discover the comic.23
Considering how often von Trier is accused of being childish, these statements stand out for how they envision the comic as a “mark of maturity” as well as a “badge of authority.” These claims follow from Kierkegaard’s critique of Grundtvig, which we now can say is motivated, not by the presence of the comic per se, but by the way in which Grundtvig disavows it in the pursuit of the good of community. That is, Kierkegaard is critical of Grundtvig because he thinks Grundtvig fails to recognize the comic aspect of the human condition, and because Grundtvig therefore ends up justifying a national culture that seeks to protect its members from their own contradictions and incongruities. This cover-up is challenged by Kierkegaard’s conception of the comic.24 Refusals to confront and affirm the comic, Kierkegaard argues, reduce authority to a question of conformity with a law given by the leaders of any given institution (be it the Church or the State) and, second, stifle the emergence of new modes of thinking and acting. As Kierkegaard sees it, the result is a mode of politics that leads society down the path of stupidity and impotence rather than maturity and power.
This insight suggests a spectrum of powerful resonances between the philosophical project of Kierkegaard and the cinematic vision of von Trier. Further augmenting these resonances is a deeper explanation of why an affirmation of the comic can do what Grundtvig’s “uncomic” communitarianism fails to do—to expand our attachment to the world and empower new modes of thought and action. As in the case of von Trier, this aspect of Kierkegaard’s work tends to elude his critics, and indeed many readers interpret Kierkegaard (as well as von Trier) as a neo-Hegelian who, despite his own words to the contrary, avoids anything affirmative.25 Invoked by commentators such as Slavoj Žižek and Alenka Zupančič, this reading starts with Kierkegaard’s conception of the comic as an irreducible incongruity—what Žižek calls the “splitting of the split”—and it then goes on to suggest that we interpret this split as a dialectical force that negates rather than affirms the gaps and incongruities subsisting within all modes of lived experience. The result is a different, more non-affirmative inflection of Kierkegaard’s critique of Grundtvig: on these accounts, not only does Kierkegaard’s conception of the comic show us that “negativity…is the only true remaining universal force,” it also tells us that the best response to this universal force is a mode of subjectivity that relieves all modes of lived experience from their “self-identity or coincidence with themselves”—what Zupančič calls “disidentification.”26
Despite its powerful rhetoric, and despite its fascination with the comic as a privileged site of thought and action, I want to caution against this reading of Kierkegaard and its implications for how we understand the politics of von Trier.27 Caution is warranted because the emphasis that Žižek and Zupančič put on “negativity” and “disidentification” ignores how Kierkegaard’s conception of the comic goes beyond the negative dialectic insofar as it imbues thoughts and actions with a transformative power at all levels of lived experience, including those associated with affect and perception. Associated with a non-dialectical tradition defined by thinkers such as Spinoza and Nietzsche, the nature and role of this empowerment is indicated by Kierkegaard in the passages cited above, which link the comic to terms such as “maturity,” “pathos,” and “care,” thereby highlighting the comic as a mode of power with which to negotiate the incongruities embedded in lived experience. To be sure, these incongruities are often seen as a reason to stress the tragic nature of human life—a view that Kierkegaard is intimately familiar with, as evidenced by his lengthy discussions of Antigone, suffering, and the passion of Christ.28 Still, Kierkegaard goes further by reconfiguring the pain embedded in them.29 Thus, according to Kierkegaard, we might say that the one “who really is an agent”—i.e., the one who exists “proficiently”—is the one who turns existential pain into a passion for life in all its different instantiations. This emphasis on singularity rather than universality points to the non-dialectical aspects of Kierkegaard’s writings, and it exceeds the “negativity” and “disidentification” that Žižek and Zupančič highlight. Irreducible to such terms, Kierkegaard’s conception of the comic implies an affirmative process, reorienting lived experience, directing it toward a higher, more ennobling dimension of socio-political life.
Another way of saying this is that Kierkegaard locates the affirmative side of comic rule following within an ethos of engagement. That ethos gives to those who engage in comic rule following a sense of direction and purpose. Three insights stand out in this regard. First, the comic operates in a zone of indistinction in which all elements, including life itself, are put into question. Second, the comic requires a high degree of maturity because the ones embodying it are asked to inaugurate a radically new state of being while caring for what becomes undone. And third, the comic targets not the comic itself but an enlarged pathos, one in which all claims to truth and universality are measured according to whether or not they enable a perpetual pluralization of inconclusive singularities. This last gives the comic its gravitas and allows us to speak about an ethos embedded in comic rule following. What matters, if you will, is less how much we laugh and more the direction in which our thoughts and actions are heading.
4. Toward a Politics of Comic Rule Following
Although von Trier makes no explicit reference to Kierkegaard’s work, and although many of von Trier’s commentators have resisted his recurrent use of irony and the comic, I believe that these terms best capture the political agenda embedded in The Idiots. To further elaborate on this insight, let us go back to the final scene in order to re-examine how the image of Karen “spazzing” in her old apartment does indeed affirm an empowering break that strengthens rather than weakens our attachment to a world beset with irreconcilable incongruities. Given what we have seen in the past two sections of this essay, we might say that the final scene does so because it achieves three things concomitantly, uprooting (1) a practice of repressed mourning (the film’s late-revealed deceased infant son) linked to the legacy of Grundtvig’s communitarian nationalism while (2) following as well as breaking an alternative set of rules (“spazzing”), invoking (3) an affirmative desire for empowerment and singularity (the beginning of a new life). It is Karen—not Stoffer—who brings these elements together. As the embodiment of von Trier’s approach to filmmaking, Karen “is” The Idiots: an agent who works at both the diegetic and meta-diegetic levels, exhibiting the singularity of an emancipated life in contrast to the suffocating drive to repressed mourning and social homogeneity.
What are the broader implications of this insight for the politics of community embedded in The Idiots? One way to answer this question is to clarify how and why the movie does not fit with what commentators such as Hjort have interpreted as “a small nation’s response to globalization.”30 Although such an interpretation may seem uncontroversial, in particular given its emphasis on von Trier’s challenge to the Hollywood industry, it does not fit with what we have seen so far here: “spazzing” in public, Stoffer’s objection to his fellow Søllerød citizens, and Karen’s rejection of the nuclear family. As already discussed, these contextual references are meant to show not only how one might oppose the rules of Hollywood, but also how one might oppose the conversion of the Danish welfare state from tolerance and open-mindedness into hierarchy and stigmatization. If anything, it may be better to say that von Trier’s appeal to the nation is articulated in a playful—even “spastic”—manner that aims to undermine rather than strengthen Danish nationalism. This approach is not unlike the one of Baruch Spinoza, another nonconformist who also resisted the national-cultural demands of his time, leading Antonio Negri to characterize him as “an anomaly within an anomaly.”31 Adding this characterization to our discussion of von Trier’s political vision is particularly helpful because it suggests that the geopolitical challenge posed by a movie like The Idiots is how to replace the traditional dichotomy between the national and the supranational with an alternative map of the world, one in which individuals belong to everywhere in general and therefore also to nowhere in particular.32 It is the construction of this political space that represents the real challenge of von Trier’s political vision. Von Trier may be a child of the Danish welfare state, but this does not make his films a vehicle for a project that posits the nation as the apex or the nadir of political contestation and social transformation.
To take this insight one step further, we might say that the notion of “an anomaly within an anomaly” encourages us to interpret von Trier’s filmmaking as aiming to reorient the politics of community in a manner that does not reject everything communal, but instead suggests an alternative to the communitarian dogmas underpinning Danish national culture. The kernel of this alternative follows from the discussion of comic rule following, which conceptualizes the transformation of thought and action as a self-exhilarating process that contests the tendency to subsume all differences under one common identity. As already noted, the result of this process is a commitment to empowerment and singularity, which—as indicated by Kierkegaard’s often repeated motto, “let us be human beings”—informs Kierkegaard’s own philosophical orientation, setting it apart from Hegelian and other attempts to systematize our divergent experiences of the world writ large.33 Von Trier seems to have something similar in mind when it comes to the idea of a geopolitical map in which individuals belong to everywhere in general and nowhere in particular. Like Kierkegaard, von Trier wants his characters to become human in a manner that exceeds or defies the ways that mainstream society defines them in the present. What is more, although von Trier shares Kierkegaard’s critique of the national culture underpinning the welfare state, we still find in The Idiots a persistent concern for socio-political policies that enable singular modes of thought and action to be not only expressed but also heard by others. In sum, von Trier proposes a conception of community that aims to be communal without being communitarian. Informed by the ethos and rules of comic rule following, such a community stands out in two ways: it affirms the empowerment of singular modes of thought and action at the same time as it cares for the cultivation of a social bond organized around the tension between rule following and rule breaking.
The intricacies of this insight constitute an important theme in The Idiots, which explores the advantages and disadvantages of at least two alternative models of community—one patriarchal and another sororal. The patriarchal model is perhaps the most explicit one, and it culminates in the notorious sex orgy scene that Stoffer instigates as a test of his leadership position, leading to the disappointment and disintegration that we find in the second-to-last scene of the movie. Alongside this failed community, however, we also find another model, one that starts out as a rivalry between Susanne’s emotional investment and Karen’s curious aloofness, but—as I have indicated in the course of this essay—leads to a nonidentical alignment of the two characters, enabling both to begin the transition toward a higher degree of empowerment and singularity. The communal bond surrounding this transition is sororal, not simply because Karen and Susanne end up seeing each other as sisters who share the same faith, but also because their new-founded bond aims to affirm, even celebrate life itself.34 As Karen and Susanne leave Karen’s old apartment, we witness not only a transition that strengthens our attachment to the world; we also glimpse the possibility of another community, one that nourishes and supports the rules and ethos of comic rule following because it too is committed to empowerment and singularity rather than repression and homogeneity.
One way to further capture this political vision is to say that the relationship between, on the one hand, the new community inaugurated by Karen and Susanne and, on the other hand, the old one they contest is an agonistic relationship, but in a sense that is different from what we normally learn from agonistic theory.35 Whereas the latter tends to put agonism in a tragic key, emphasizing the fragility of the human condition in order to foreground the irreconcilable tension between the old and the new, the community that we find in The Idiots sees the relationship as both ecstatic and intertwined. What I mean by this is anticipated by the divergent personae of Kierkegaard and von Trier, both simultaneously more and less Danish than the “normal” Dane. Less Danish insofar as von Trier and Kierkegaard are both critics of Denmark’s national culture. More Danish in the sense that both seek to make the demands of Danish national culture more—not less—palpable to its inhabitants. This parasitic “spazzing” is what puts Kierkegaard’s and von Trier’s approach to political contestation in a comic key, and what allows us to understand the relationship between the old “Grundtvig” community and the new “Karen-Susanne” community as ecstatic and intertwined rather than suffocated and irreconcilable. Bouncing off the existing cultural demands, crisscrossing the limit between the inner and the outer, the known and the unknown, the new “Karen-Susanne” community accelerates the incongruities immanent to the old community in order to make it possible for individuals to share and coexist without adhering to the dogmas of one general identity. “Danish” but also “not-Danish” might be the best way to characterize this agonistic community.
This, then, is one way of characterizing the politics of community in a movie like The Idiots: setting out from a critique of the national culture that underpins the Danish welfare state, The Idiots is built around a map of the world that does not limit itself to the global-local coordinates, but instead seeks to empower a non-communitarian community organized around the ethos and rules of comic rule following. Some may worry that the social bonds nurtured by such a community fail to be as stable and predictable as the ones offered by the traditional welfare state. This may be true, but it does not follow that they are without political direction or ethical value. Quite the contrary, in fact: encouraging us to acknowledge our own incongruities, the social bonds empowered by comic rule following exceed the existing ones by inaugurating a politics that makes our capacity for emancipation shine forth. Might this not be reason enough to see comic rule following as a valuable resource for agonistic democratic theory and practice?
The aim of the present essay has been to answer this question in the affirmative. Approached by way of the comic, von Trier’s The Idiots as well as the Dogma 95 Manifesto more broadly become available for new political readings. This may become even more evident if we briefly look to some of the other contributions to the Dogma 95 project, in particular Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration (1998) and Lone Scherfig’s Italian for Beginners (2000). Unique in their own right, these movies may not be as cinematically self-reflective as The Idiots, but they nonetheless share many of its themes, especially when it comes to the critique of the Danish national culture and the associated quest for an alternative community organized around an ethos of empowerment and singularity. The combination of these two aspects is indeed so pronounced that it would be a mistake to see the similarities across the three Dogma 95 movies as merely accidental. From von Trier’s collective of “spazzers,” to Scherfig’s loosely organized group of language-learners, to Vinterberg’s dysfunctional family reunion, what we find are not only three distinct depictions of Danish national culture, but also an interest in and affirmation of comic rule following as it is expressed in the Dogma 95 Manifesto.36 All three movies propose a comically inflected engagement with pressing social issues in order to dislodge our current way of mapping the world as divided between the local and the global. In other words, what we find in the three Dogma 95 movies is not “a small nation’s response to globalization” (which is Hjort’s way of putting it); rather, it is more accurate to say that the three movies together propose a more radical approach to filmmaking, one that sets forth a new and empowering way of relating to the demands of rule following.
My own suspicion is that something similar can be said about the way in which von Trier’s own approach to filmmaking has developed more generally over the course of the last thirty years. To be sure, von Trier’s contribution to the Dogma 95 Manifesto stands out as a particularly effective way of announcing a challenge to filmmaking, thereby changing the rules for how movies are made and watched in a world beset with political conflict and social incongruity. But the singularity of the Dogma 95 Manifesto should not make us overlook the fact that von Trier both before and after the Dogma 95 years has drawn up other manifestos in order to recreate his approach to filmmaking.37 Indeed, what the Dogma 95 Manifesto seems to achieve on its own—a mode of rule following that oscillates between rule following and rule breaking—is not so much a new invention as it is the amplification of a theme that has been present throughout most of von Trier’s career as a filmmaker. Evidence of the comical dimension of this theme thus persists throughout most of von Trier’s many movies. Whether it is the church bells in the closing scene of Breaking the Waves, or (as Rosalind Galt puts it) the trolling of the audience in Nymphomaniac (not to mention the depiction of the Swedish doctor in TV series The Kingdom!), it would seem that von Trier always has aimed at deploying comic rule following at a greater scale than called for by the Dogma 95 Manifesto. Whereas some audiences have seen this aspect of von Trier as a reason to reject his political vision, others have tried to displace it in order to make room for a more “serious” engagement with his movies. Both reactions, I have argued, do not capture the deeper potential of the comic itself, a point von Trier himself seems to recognize. Exploiting the incongruity between two opposites that preclude reconciliation, von Trier sees the comic the same way that Kierkegaard does: as the sine qua non of political contestation and social transformation, one that accelerates rather than interrupts our ability to think and to act, thereby putting into motion new ways of exploring the human condition in all its richness and depth.
In an interview with Nils Thorsen, von Trier comes close to affirming what I here have called comic rule following. Or, as he puts it in the quote I used as the first epigraph of this essay, the aim of filmmaking is to take viewers beyond their comfort zone in order to empower their attachment to the world as inclusive singularities who seek to liberate themselves from the confinements of mainstream culture: “A realization or recognition placed outside the possible. It moves at the fringes of one’s consciousness where one normally does not come.”38
Lars Tønder is Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Copenhagen. He is the author of Tolerance: A Sensorial Orientation to Politics (Oxford University Press, 2013), and his articles on tolerance, free speech, and comic power have appeared in journals such as Political Theory, Contemporary Political Theory, Theory & Event, and Theoria. The working title of his new project is Comic Politics: Culture, Media, and Democratic Agency. Lars can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
1. In Nils Thorsen, Geniet: Lars von Trier’s Liv, Film, og Fobier (København: Politikens Forlag, 2010), p. 58 (my translation).
2. Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Crumps, trans. Alastair Hannay (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), pp. 387–388.
3. A. O. Scott’s review, published in The New York Times on the occasion of the movie’s US premiere two years after it was shown at the Cannes Festival, summarizes these reactions and sentiments poignantly: “The Idiots, shot in smeary, hand-held digital video, has nothing on its mind besides the squirming discomfort of its audience, the achievement of which it holds up as a brave political accomplishment.” A. O. Scott, “‘The Idiots’ (1998). Film Review: Colloquies of the Finer Points of Drooling,” New York Times, April 28, 2000.
4. Angelos Koutsourakis, Politics as Form in Lars von Trier: A Post-Brechtian Reading (New York: Bloomsbury, 2013), p. 112. See also Caroline Bainbridge, The Cinema of Lars von Trier: Authenticity and Artifice (London: Wallflower Press, 2007) p. 93; Mette Hjort, “Dogma 95: A Small Nation’s Response to Globalisation,” pp. 32 – 37, in Purity and Provocation: Dogma 95 (London: British Film Institute, 2003), edited by Mette Hjort and Scott MacKenzie.
5. Apart from movies such as Breaking the Waves (1996) and Melancholia (2011), one also find examples of von Trier’s recurrent interest in irony and the comic in The Kingdom (1994–1997), The Five Obstructions (2003), and The Boss of It All (2006). For further discussion, see also Rosalind Galt’s contribution to this issue.
6. For a controversial but helpful account of the history behind the Dogma 95 Manifesto, see De Lutrede (The Purified), directed by Jesper Jargil (Copenhagen: Jesper Jargil Film, 2002).
7. The link between incongruity and the comic owes its philosophical heritage to a variety of philosophers, including Kant, Kierkegaard, and Bergson. For a general account of this historical heritage, see John Morreall, Comic Relief: A Comprehensive Philosophy of Humor (Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), esp. pp. 9–15. For an account that draws on recent developments in neuroscience, see Scott Weems, Ha! The Science of When We Laugh and Why (New York: Basic Books, 2014).
8. The Dogma 95 Manifesto is reprinted in Koutsourakis, Politics as Form in Lars von Trier, pp. 211–212.
9. On Brecht’s discussion of Charlie Chapman in his diary, and how it influenced his view of Marxist politics, see Paul Flaig, “Brecht, Chaplin, and the Comic Inheritance of Marxism,” in The Brecht Yearbook, vol. 35, edited by Freidemann Weidauer and Dorothee Ostmeier (Storrs, CT: The International Brecht Society, 2010). Koutsourakis briefly discusses the role of Chaplin for Brecht’s theory of film and theater, but he does not elaborate any further on its implications for political contestation and social transformation. See Koutsourakis, Politics as Form in Lars von Trier, pp. 3–4.
10. Hjort, “Dogma 95: A Small Nation’s Response to Globalisation,” p. 35.
11. Bainbridge, The Cinema of Lars von Trier, p. 93.
12. I discuss a contemporary version of this trend in the context of the publication of the Jyllands-Posten cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in “Freedom of Expression in an Age of Cartoon Wars,” Contemporary Political Theory, vol. 10, no. 2 (2010), esp. pp. 257–259.
13. For a helpful discussion of this shift in camera movement, see Bainbridge, The Cinema of Lars von Trier, p. 95.
14. For further discussion of the power embedded in the comic, see also my discussion in “Comic Power: Another Road Not Taken?” Theory & Event, vol. 17, no. 4 (2014).
15. For an overview of von Trier’s many sources of inspiration, see Bainbridge, The Cinema of Lars von Trier, pp. 1–24. For a self-referential and rather humorous invocation of Nietzsche, see “De unge år: Erik Nietzsche sagaen del 1” (Copenhagen: Zentropa, 2007). The movie, which is directed by Jacob Thuesen and written by von Trier, depicts the life of von Trier’s alter ego, Erik Nietzsche, as a young and ambitious (if not arrogant) student at the Danish Film School in the 1970s.
16. For Grundtvig’s philosophy and influence on Danish politics, see Ove Korsgaard, N.S.F. Grundtvig (Copenhagen: Jurist- og Økonomiforbundets Forlag, 2012).
17. For a more detailed account of this point, see my discussion in “Indirect Communication and Søren Kierkegaard’s Veiled Contribution to Contemporary Democratic Theory,” in The Oxford Handbook on Rhetoric and Political Theory, edited by Dilip Gaonkar and Keith Topper (Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming).
18. Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Crumps, p. 38 (my emphasis). An approximation object is an object that stands in for something truer, more spiritual. According to Kierkegaard, it is common for many interpretations of Christianity to mistake an approximation object for the real truth.
19. The triad is first introduction in Either/Or and then further developed in Fear and Trembling. For a general introduction of its three constitutive elements, see Clare Carlisle, Kierkegaard: A Guide for the Perplexed (London: Continuum, 2006).
20. For a discussion of humor and irony in Kierkegaard, and how they relate to the Kierkegaard’s three stages, see John Lippitt, Humour and Irony in Kierkegaard’s Thought (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000), especially Chapter 5. Lippitt is careful to emphasize the role of not only humor and irony but also of the comic. Still, Lippitt’s analysis seems limited insofar as it sees the comic as the sum of humor and irony, something that prevents us from appreciating how the comic works as an independent force integral to the response Kierkegaard develops vis-à-vis the tragic and the many gaps subsisting in all modes of lived experience.
21. A good example of this is Richard Rorty’s discussion of Kierkegaard, which enlists Kierkegaard’s account of irony for the purposes of a postmodern pragmatism but makes no reference whatsoever to how Kierkegaard himself turns to the comic for an account of what ethical and religious self-reflection might look like. See Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, Solidarity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. xiv and passim.
22. As is well known, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Crumps was signed, not by Kierkegaard himself, but by “Johannes Climacus,” one of Kierkegaard’s many pseudonyms. (Kierkegaard instead is listed as the publisher of the book.) Although the use of pseudonym is an important technique, I do not think there is any reason to believe that what the Climacus states diverges from Kierkegaard’s own views on the comic and its role in the empowerment of thought and action. In the following, I will therefore continue to refer to Kierkegaard as the author of the Concluding Unscientific Postscript.
23. Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, pp. 235, 236, 387–388 (translation modified).
24. For a similar critique of the cover-up, see Derrida’s discussion of autoimmunity in “Autoimmunity: Real and Symbolic Suicides: A Dialogue with Jacques Derrida,” in Giovanna Borradori, Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with Jurgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida, trans Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004).
25. See G. W. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A. V. Miller (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976), pp. 450 – 453. For the most systematic discussion of Kierkegaard’s alleged Hegelianism, see Jon Stewart, Kierkegaard’s Relation to Hegel Reconsidered (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).
26. Slavoj Žižek, The Parallax View (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2006), p. 107; Alenka Zupančič, The Odd One In: On Comedy (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2008), pp. 34, 32.
27. For Žižek’s account of the politics of von Trier’s filmmaking, see his discussion in “Afterword: Lenin’s Choice,” in Revolution at the Gates: The 1917 Writings, second edition, edited by Slavoj Žižek (London: Verso, 2011). According to Žižek, The Idiots should be seen in conjunction with two of von Trier’s other movies, Breaking the Waves (1996) and Dancer in the Dark (2000), which “put us in the position of the sadistic observer secretly enjoying what he officially condemns: this sadistic pleasure is the observe, the hidden, of compassion” (p. 222).
28. On Kierkegaard’s discussion of Antigone, see Either/Or, Part I, trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna V. Hong (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1987), pp. 137–165. On Kierkegaard’s discussion of the sensuous (and the sensorium) more generally, see Either/Or, Part I, pp. 61–64. For a discussion of these parts of Kierkegaard’s oeuvre, and how they might inform our discussion of von Trier’s films, see also Miriam Leonard’s contribution to this issue.
29. Although Kierkegaard states that the “tragic and the comic are the same in so far as both are contractions; but the tragic is the suffering contradiction, the comic the painless contradiction” (Concluding Unscientific Postscripts, p. 431; emphasis in original), this does not imply that the latter simply transcends pain (such as it is). Rather, it is more correct to say that the comic shifts the emphasis from negation to affirmation, and thus changes how we might orient ourselves toward the pain and suffering provoked by incongruity and the gaps in lived experience. For a helpful clarification of this point, see Lippitt, Humour and Irony in Kierkegaard’s Thought, pp. 130 – 133.
30. Hjort elaborates on her argument by suggesting that we read The Idiots (and the Dogma 95 Manifesto more generally) as gesturing toward “a national moment in the logic of globalism/localism,” insisting “on national participation in the art world and the renewal of international art traditions.” Hjort, “Dogma 95: A Small Nation’s Response to Globalisation,” pp. 38, 41 (emphasis in the original). For further discussion of the Dogma 95 Manifesto and the politics of counter-publics, see also Hjort, “The Globalisation of Dogma: The Dynamics of Metaculture and Counter-Publicity,” in Purity and Provocation: Dogma 95, especially pp. 148–149.
31. Antonio Negri, The Savage Anomaly: The Power of Spinoza’s Metaphysics and Politics, trans. Michael Hardt (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), Chapter 1.
32. For reasons of space, I cannot discuss it in more detail, but I would suggest that we see this understanding of place and belonging as resonating with the Cynical tradition, in particular as expressed by Diogenes and discussed by Foucault in his last lectures at Collège de France. See Michael Foucault, The Courage of the Truth, trans. Graham Burchell (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).
33. See, inter alia, Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Crumps, p. 97.
34. For a fascinating account of such a politics of natal sorority, see Bonnie Honig’s discussion of Antigone’s relationship with her sister Ismene in Antigone, Interrupted (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), especially Chapter 6.
35. For a survey and discussion of the relationship between tragedy and agonistic political theory, see Mark Wenman, Agonistic Democracy: Constituent Power in the Era of Globalization (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), pp. 28–58.
36. The comic elements of this project may be particularly evident in Scherfig’s Italian for Beginners, a movie that explicitly presents itself as a road-trip comedy in which the death of an evening schoolteacher becomes the beginning of a new community. A similar set of the comic elements can also be found in other Dogma 95 movies, including The Celebration, a movie in which the incongruity of a loud silence becomes the catalyst of not only contestation but also empowerment and singularity.
37. For an overview of the other manifestos written by von Trier, see the appendix to Koutsourakis, Politics as Form in Lars von Trier.
38. In Thorsen, Geniet, p. 58 (my translation).