I picked up (seemingly by chance) a new book by Alenka Zupančič – The Odd One In: On Comedy – and I have to say that I am very much enjoying it. Having only semi-read her book on Kant and Lacan, and honestly not remembering much from that reading, I was simply curious to see what she has to say about such an awkward topic as “comedy” – even though I’ve only gotten through Part I, it is amazingly erudite discussion of everything from more or less expected figures like Hegel and Lacan to less known examples of comedic behavior like Jesus dying on the cross: “Jesus Christ is the God that slipped on the banana peel. Incarnation is comedy, and comedy always involves incarnation.” (45) The book’s general direction is announced on the very first page:
It may come as little surprise to say that comedy is an extremely difficult subject of investigation – not only because if the multiplicity of various techniques and procedures involved in its process, but also because this process is in constant motion. Indeed, this irresistible motion is one of the key features of comedy, which is why it seems so difficult to pin down with concepts and definitions. Moreover, comedy lives in the same world as its definitions (in a much more emphatic sense than this could be said for other genres), and is quite capable of its own definitions as material to be submitted to further comic treatment, turned upside down, or inside out…
In this respect – and following Hegel on this point – the argument of this book is that comic subjectivity proper does not reside in the subject making the comedy, nor in the subjects or egos that appear in it, but in this very incessant and irresistible all-consuming movement. Comic subjectivity is the very movement of comedy. (3)
This comedic movement is the subject of the first part of the book which deals with Hegel’s discussion of comedy in the Phenomenology of Spirit – section “Religion in the Form of Art,” a section that I will have to read again to appreciate Zupančič’s discussion. However, in the introduction itself, Zupančič addresses an issue that I think throws some light on the issue of “celebrity cults” that I have been slightly fascinated with recently. While discussing a kind of incorporation of comedy into contemporary ideological structures – ideology works best when it incorporates “playful irony” and “ironic distance” thus reassuring those under the ideological influence that they are not “dogmatically oppressed” but free and autonomous in their actions – Zupančič describes what she labels “bio-morality” – an attitude “which promotes the following fundamental axiom: a person who feels good (and is happy) is a good person; a person who feels bad is a bad person. It is this short circuit between the immediate feelings/sensations and the moral value that gives its specific color to the contemporary ideological rhetoric of happiness.” (5)
Zupančič argues that this ideology of happiness results in a strange recasting of the traditional class roles: “success is becoming almost a biological notion, and thus the formation of a genuine racism of successfulness. The poorest and the most miserable are no longer perceived as a socioeconomic class, but almost as a race of their own, as a special form of life… If traditional racism tended to socialize biological features – that is, directly translate them into cultural and symbolic points of a given social order – contemporary racism works in the opposite direction. It tends to ‘naturalize’ the differences and features produced by the sociosymbolic order.” (6) This is why, Zupančič argues, we are so interested in the “private lives” of celebrities and other “successful” people – it is no longer their work but their life itself that defines success, that corresponds to their success. Thus the “compulsive entertainment” of Hollywood and its multitude of comedy and entertainment shows to insure “the imperative of happiness.” (7)
I saw a short review (unfortunately I no longer recall where) of the recent book Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy (Eric G. Wilson) – a review argued that Wilson’s book was nothing but an attempt to revive the old Romantic ideal of a melancholic thinker. It seems that such an approach would be, according to Zupančič, a simple reversal of the imperative of happiness” and not a real challenge to this ideological acceptance of irony, but only a “safe irony” as exemplified by things like Bush making fun of himself or eternal comedic potential of a dysfunctional family that never cross the invisible line of ideological limit.