Here I am, listening to a Zizek audio lecture, on Leslie’s laptop. Very different from the read.
Zizek— the sputtering, slobbering, sweating human hurricane of theory— is leaping between Lacanianisms and cutting anecdotes from his youth on the Eastern Bloc, occasionally interrupted by gails of laughter from the audience. Zizek is as much a comedian— a stand-up Lacanian— as a theorist, critic, or philosopher alone. He mentions this, in the recent eponymous documentary on this Slovenian thinker, when he admits his misgivings about being taken simply as a kooky character or a philosophical clown…
And certainly some listerners are there for the yucks and philosophical slapstick, missing or maybe only grazing the crux of his real ideas and exposition. And this sucks— for them. Naturally, he should be a little wary of, as Nate Davis put it, “theory as entertainment.” But, regardless, I still want a tighter rapport between comedy and philosophy. More philosophers like Zizek and Rorty on the first count, and more comedians like Lenny Bruce, Stephen Colbert, Chris Morris, and Sascha Baron Cohen, on the second. I think philosophy and comedy should be next-door neighbors in the Dewey Decimal system, despite standard conceptions of the comedic and the philosophical.
Comedy shouldn’t be used to sugarcoat, to make bitter truths digestible, either in philosophy or on its own. It should do the very opposite— and true comedy always does. The comedian— and the comedic philosopher— should disturb and overturn and always leave the stinger in. What comedy is best at is manifesting buried introspective truths, the inwardly acknowledgable, the subconsciously known and followed. As Henri Bergson notes, laughter is a form of revenge upon the automatism of human behaviour. And in most cases, this is how I loosely define the subconscious— as the automatism of movement and impulse.
In this way, it’s fine and fitting that someone like Zizek— a probing and psychoanalytic cultural critic— should employ the comedic in his routine. Comedy is never just release. It’s revelatory in nature, a form of awareness. Jokes are the strongest example of what we would call the concrete universal. They have the same double-sidedness as the psyche and language— perhaps because of the double-sidedness of the psyche and language. The comedic is always something that is “half-hidden, half-revealed,” as a Platonic dialogue worded it. The comedic moment is a moment of double-awareness. Unfortunately, comedians are usually content to let things stay buried; the laughs are enough. The philosopher, or the psychoanalysing cultural critic, or the caustic and thoughtful comedian, can use the comedic as a kind of metal-detector, to unearth introspective truths and incongruencies. Once he hits something really jagged— a buried, subconscious, automatic principle— he knows he’s onto something. He tugs at its hidden side, and brings it a little more into the light. That hidden agenda, slight, anxiety, incongruency, delusion, presumption, or desire— he forces it to the surface. Then we laugh and are forced to acknowledge something, however uncomfortable that something may be.
Comedy should only compose half the routine, though. Comedy is best at what we call “negative dialectics”— being slippery, critical and uncooperative. Unwilling to align. The tearing away, the analysis, the suspicion of principle. So our routine gets a little insubstantial if it’s purely comedic from beginning to end. Pure negativity. Even worse— and even more embarassing— is if the speaker tries to be always and only funny, to please the audience. Yucks-for-yucks-sake. I like the comedians who disavow their profession a bit, like Andy Kaufman and Lenny Bruce, who justifiably feel limited by “comedy” and freely drift into other, unrecognizable forms of disturbance… Other gadfly professions, such as the great Socratic tradition of discomforting philosophy.