Hegel and the chicken suit
John Lippitt on a Lacanian analysis of comedy that trips up on a few Real and Symbolic banana skins
This book, by one of the three Slovenian philosophers central to the Lacan-inspired Ljubljana school of psychoanalysis, appears in a series called "Short Circuits". The other two - Slavoj Zizek and Mladen Dolar - are liberally cited, and the former contributes a foreword to the series in which he explains its name. A short circuit "occurs when there is a faulty connection in the network - faulty ... from the standpoint of the network's smooth functioning". This makes short-circuiting "one of the best metaphors for a critical reading".
By approaching various areas of inquiry from a Lacanian standpoint, we are told, we make them readable in a "totally new" and "disturbing" way. But the other, unmentioned, possibility is that a short circuit might plunge the reader into darkness, making it difficult to find one's way around. Such is the case, I fear, in several parts of this book. The reader relatively unfamiliar with concepts such as the Real and the Symbolic in their Lacanian-Zizekian modes isn't given much of a torch.
In line with the Ljubljana school's aim of synthesising Lacanian psychoanalysis and German idealism, the main inspiration for the book other than Lacan seems to be Hegel. Alenka Zupancic initially shows the deadpan stand-up's knack - Steven Wright and Michael Redmond spring to mind - of delivering an extraordinary one-liner with a straight face, such as the claim that of all "classical" philosophers Hegel was "the one who valued comedy and the comic spirit most highly".
But once the initial surprise has worn off one realises that there is at least something in this, given Hegel's discussion of epic, tragedy and comedy in The Phenomenology of Spirit and the significance of comedy in his story of Spirit's progress through various manifestations of religion. This is where Zupancic starts, and the only chapter I've ever read that discusses both Hegel and chicken costumes ends with a very Hegelian question: "What is the singular Moment of the Spirit that is at work in comedy?"
But why the non-believer in the Hegelian project should consider this the most productive question to ask is left unanswered. This is symptomatic of what strikes me as the main problem with the book: many of the explanations do not seem to require the particular theoretical perspective that Zupancic brings to bear, so one never quite loses the whiff of arbitrariness.
In the second part, where we move from Hegel to psychoanalysis, some genuinely worthwhile insights slip on the banana skin of this theoretical apparatus. I found the book most interesting when Zupancic switches from the abstract to the specific, and there are some insightful analyses of a variety of individual examples of comedy, from Shakespeare to Borat and Moliere to mobile phone ads. (The range of reference is wide: the name "Marx" is as likely to refer to Groucho or Chico as to Karl.)
In the third part, a valuable chapter on Bergson and a discussion of the contrast between tragedy and comedy sits alongside the most obscure chapter, a rather baffling discussion of repetition as a theme in (Karl) Marx, Kierkegaard, Deleuze and Lacan that is connected back to comedy only with a bit of force. (This is where the torch is most needed.)
Nevertheless, there is value to be found here even to the reader sceptical of Zupancic's project. For instance, the "(Essential) Appendix" - a discussion of the (Lacanian) phallus and castration - does not emasculate an interesting discussion of Aristophanes' speech in Plato's Symposium. And early on there is an interesting criticism of the view that comedy is necessarily about accepting our finitude. But having effectively disposed of one great overgeneralisation, Zupancic does not escape replacing it with another, such as the assertion that comedy is exempted from "all forms of spiritualism" and is "counter-religious".
While the book was worth reading for a number of insights, I was ultimately unclear who its primary audience might be and remain unconvinced that Zupancic's privileged figures give us a greater insight into comedy than many other thinkers with whom the book does not engage.
The Odd One In: On Comedy
By Alenka Zupancic The MIT Press, 240pp, £12.95
Published 31 March 2008
John Lippitt is professor of ethics and philosophy of religion, University of Hertfordshire.