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  • Ontological Laughter: Comedy as Experimental Possibility Space
  • Timothy Morton (bio)

Before you can have something, there needs to be a “space” for you to have it in. That’s a really crude paraphrase of some of martin heidegger. Naturally we now need to tread carefully through some of the terms here, such as “have,” “in” and “before.” What this means is that comedy is the ground state of innovation, to borrow a term from quantum theory. Comedy is the possibility of novelty, vibrating and not-vibrating at the same time, the possibilities superposed.

If you could sum up my thinking on ecology, you would find yourself encountering an understanding of literary genre, of all things. Literary scholars and poets and dramatists (and so on) have a habit of telling us which genre is on top. In the eighteenth century it was satire, closely followed by didacticism. In the Romantic period it was some kind of blend of elegy and lyric, a format that persists today. But in my view, comedy is the top level, the umbrella under which everything else resides, from tragedy to pastoral. And it wouldn’t be difficult to use what I’ve thought about ecology and ontology to demonstrate that idea.

Let’s begin with this proposition: a thing is exactly what it is, yet never exactly as it appears. At first glance this doesn’t sound too troubling, let alone too funny. But when we begin to [End Page 323] investigate it, all kinds of paradoxes appear. First of all, a thing manifests what Jacques Lacan says about pretense: “What constitutes pretense is that, in the end, you don’t know whether it’s pretense or not.”1 Since things are never quite as they appear, things are always pretending. But we can never check in advance how much they are pretending. A raindrop splashing on one’s head will give one raindrop’s worth of data: it’s wet and cold, it’s so and so large, it has such and such velocity. . . . This is an example found in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Elsewhere in that book, Kant takes some of these things (the measurable things) to be more “real” than the other things. But this is (1) inconsistent with his general view that the transcendental subject co-constitutes reality (a phenomenon now often called “correlationism”), and (2) nothing like what he says in the passage concerning the raindrops. There he goes so far as to say that even mathematizable data (such as extension) are appearances, not the thing in itself.

But children’s rhymes aside, raindrops are not gumdrops. They manifest raindrop data, not gumdrop data. So there is a gap between what they are and how they appear—but I can’t point to this gap; it isn’t a little dotted line on the surface of the drop with a little drawing of scissors saying, “Cut Here.” Western philosophy has in very large part been about trying to find the dotted line and cut what is more real from what is less real. But this is a distinction we can’t make in an age during which we think, like it or not, in the lineage of Kant.

(This is why science actually covers the realm of appearances, not of “reality” as such. STEM ideology—by which science, technology, engineering and math are the most important subjects—incorrectly identifies science as the pursuit of things in themselves, their “stems” as it were, as opposed to their leaves or flowers. But this is inaccurate, and ironically inept from the standpoint of evolutionary biology. If anyone is doing reality, it’s the humanities, insofar as [End Page 324] humanistic scholars pursue the elusive, perhaps never fully graspable, aspects of a thing such as a poem.)

A modern thing—a post-Kantian thing—bears an uncanny resemblance to the Trickster of indigenous cultures, which is ironic and perhaps in itself funny. The attempt to transcend our indigeneity and our physical constraints has looped us humans right back around to where we started, but now with scientific footnotes. Lacan accurately observed that this Trickster-like quality applies to the (human) subject: his formula...


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pp. 323-336
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