Monday, May 17, 2010

Zizek, Slavoj. “The Christian-Hegelian Comedy.” The Artist’s Joke. Ed. Jennifer Higgie. London: Whitechapel, 2007. 216-220.

More than any other writer on humour/joking, Zizek parses an understanding of comedy and joking (in the case of this essay) within the terrain of Continental philosophy and critical theory. In this essay, he describes the character of what he calls the Hegelian joke, further offering an analysis of Christianity as based on a comic structure. This annotation will focus on the former, though the latter is also interesting, and typically mind-boggling, in Zizekian fashion. Zizek describes a tripartite joke structure that fits within the typical Hegelian dialectic. Thus, the "Hegelian" joke for Zizek is that which the butt's subjective position is undermined, in which he/she finds him/herself part of the group he/she is ridiculing (216). The negation of this joke, or its antithesis, is a joke in which the punchline involves the exclusion or othering of the subject outside of the group. Finally, the third term Zizek describes is the joke correlative of "infinite judgement," or tautological "supreme contradiction" (216—all of these terms are explained with great jokes in the text, which I won't quote here).


Going on to further parse the comic in Hegelian terms, Zizek describes the difference between a tragic and comic hero in terms of the actor's distance from the role: where the tragic hero is representative of a universal character and is separated from him/herself, the comic character "is never fully identified with his role; he always retains the ability to observe himself from outside: 'making fun of himself'" (217). That is: this self-reflexivity is built into the character him/herself. Linking this analysis with Hegel's notions of comedy, Zizek notes that "what happens in comedy is that the Universal appears directly" (218).


Seeming to offer a direct rebuttal to analyses such as that offered by Paul Lewis of killing jokes as our response to a fallen world, Zizek writes,

Comedy does not rely on the undermining of our dignity with reminders of the ridiculous contingencies of our terrestrial existence. On the contrary, comedy is the full assertion of universality, the immediate coincidence of universality with the character's/actor's singularity. Or to put it another way, what effectively happens when all universal features of dignity are mocked and subverted? The negative force that undermines them is that of the individual, of the hero with his attitude of disrespect towards all elevated universal values, and this negativity itself is the only true remaining universal force. (218)

This quote also offers a counterpoint to the view that negation through comedy (perhaps also cynicism) need only lead to a universalized negativity. Instead, Zizek positions individuality and/or subjective experience and the ability to harness negativity through comedy as a counterforce to a kind of blasé nihilism. Perhaps nihilism only becomes such when we treat it as hopeless—we reify it in naming and lamenting it as such.


Zizek goes on to write "the comic effect proper occurs when, after the act of unveiling, one confronts the ridicule and nullity of the unveiled content—in contrast to encountering behind the veil the terrifying Thing too traumatic for our gaze. Which is why the ultimate comical effect occurs when, after removing the mask , we confront exactly the same face as that of the mask" (219). This quote links Zizek's discussion of comedy here with his analysis of ideology in Sublime Object of Ideology, where he describes our relationship to ideology in very similar terms.

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