On the Apocalyptic Tone of Comedy – Take 2

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Slovoj Zizek and Milan Kundera come from the same part of Europe, both experienced communism, and both have a penchant for comedy.  But they differ on two things: their readings of comedy and their identification with Communism.

As I pointed out in my last blog entry, what makes Milan Kundera’s view of the comic so interesting is that he feigns an Apocalyptic tone, brings us to the brink of cynicism, and then confesses his commitment to the tradition of the fool.  He, like Walter Benjamin (and perhaps Franz Kafka), plays the Sancho Panza to Don Quixote.  He, like Benjamin, believes that the “fool can help.”  But what we might forget is that, given this tradition, he becomes Don Quixote and we become Sancho Panza.   His message parallels Benjamin’s; namely, in a world where man is dwarfed by the mass media, technology, speed, and politics, it is through the tradition of the fool that we can be free.

But to come to this conclusion, Kundera realized that Don Quixote was nearly killed by Totalitarianism. And by this he means Communism, which he experienced first hand and has written on in nearly half of his novels.  In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Kundera contrasts the circle of Communism and its joy to the solitude that comes with his suspicion of this circle.  To be sure, his accounts of Communist joy are tainted.  And, reading them, one can certainly hear an Apocalyptic tone. To be sure, in the midst of all this joy, he finds something duplicitous and deadly.  The “lightness” of the Communist circle which dances above the ground has something frightening about it.  And he knows what this is; he lived through it.  And it seems he never wants to go back to it again.

Rather, Kundera opts for movement of a lonestar, Don Quixote.  But his decision to follow him is in the wake of the Apocalyptic.   As I noted, it begins with the passing of God and then with it returns with the purges of Communism.  But on both occasions, disaster is displaced by the arrival of Don Quixote.  To be sure, Kundera concludes that one can always count on the arrival of Don Quixote. He is like the gift that doesn’t stop giving.   In the end, Kundera says that, despite it all, his commitment to the fool is “ridiculous” and “sincere.” Don Quixote rides away from the disaster; he doesn’t ride into it.

In contrast, Slavoj Zizek maintains an Apocalyptic Tone of comedy from the beginning to the very end of his book First as Tragedy, Then as Farce.   The reason for this has a lot to do with the fact that, even though he takes on the legacy of comedy, it is really the legacy of a comedy that is associated with Marx’s bearing witness to the demise of capitalism and liberal democracy.  To be sure, this comic element which is associated with witnessing the demise of liberal democracy and capitalism is gleeful.

But, as Zizek notes, this is not by any means a passive affair.  Comedy is not, by any means, an end-in-itself.  It should encourage “us” to act.  But this isn’t any ordinary kind of action.  No. It is an act which doesn’t simply go against history; it looks to bring it to a grinding stop.  And, for Zizek, this act of cessation (this “pure act”) is the partisan act of committing oneself to Communism.  And, since it is partisan it leaves Quixote’s form of comedy for the political tones of ridicule and mockery that takes not just the ruling power into account but the left that has affirmed liberal democracy.  In his partisan affirmation of Communism, he accuses them of “blackmailing” the left.  At that point, Zizek leaves the legacy of Cervantes behind for the legacy of radical Communism.  There is nothing funny about this at all.

I would like to touch on a few of these elements in this blog entry and return to them in the near future.

Zizek introduces his book by citing a passage from Karl Marx’s “A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of the Right.”   What Zizek cites has to do with coming to an awareness that history doesn’t simply repeat itself.  It first occurs as a tragedy, and then it returns, in yet another manifestation, as a farce.  Marx teaches us the lesson:

It is instructive for [the modern nations] to see the ancien regime, which in the countries has experienced its tragedy, play its comic role as a German phantom.  Its history was tragic as long as it was the pre-existing power in the world and freedom a personal whim – in a word, as long as it believed, and had to believe, in its own privileges.

What happens, in effect, is that there is a difference between one belief and another.  The first crisis in belief is real, it is tragic because the ancien regime really was a “pre-existing power in the world” and “it believed, and had to believe in its own privileges.”  But what happens to Germany in the 19th century – at the moment of Marx’s writing this passage – is a failure of such belief since, as Marx argued, it had no historical reason to believe.  Rather, it made-believe that it was like an ancien regime.  In other words, it acted “as if” it was based on a long history and believed in its principles. And this is the farce:

The present German regime, on the other hand – an anachronism, a flagrant contradiction of universally accepted axioms, the futility of the ancien regime displayed for all the world to see – only imagines that it still believes in itself and asks the world to share in its fantasy.

What one may not notice is that Marx is, in effect, mocking the regime and accusing it of “imagining” itself to “still believe in itself.”  Marx sees this delusion; they do not.  He, so to speak, laughs at it.  And this is the legacy which, I would argue, Zizek must address.  Will he, like Marx, laugh at the delusion of the ruling power?  Does Zizek’s laughter take on an Apocalyptic tone when it mocks liberal democracy and capitalism?

Commenting on this fantasy of belief, Zizek speculates that “during the same period, Kierkegaard deployed the idea that we humans cannot ever be sure that we believe: ultimately, we only ‘believe that we believe’. The formula of a regime which only ‘imagines that it believes in itself’ nicely captures the cancellation of the performative power…of the ruling ideology: it no longer effectively functions as the fundamental structure of the social bond.”

In other words, for Zizek there is a crisis in belief.  He notices this in terms of the economic and social crisis that has been ensuing over the last decade.  But he inverts his reading of this crisis.  Instead of reading it like Marx, he shows that today differs from the 19th century because we know we don’t believe and yet we act as if we do anyway.  This is the same formula Zizek used back in 1989 (in his book The Sublime Object of Ideology) to describe cynicism.  In a blog from earlier in the week, I described Zizek’s challenge to Marx by way of his description of cynicism (gleaned from Peter Sloterdijk).  Here it is in yet another form:

It would be more appropriate to describe contemporary cynicism as representing an exact inversion of Marx’s formula: today, we only imagine that we don’t “really believe” in our ideology – in spite of this imaginary distance, we continue to practice it.

In other words, we know we don’t believe in liberal democracy, yet we believe in it anyway.   And this, for Zizek, is ridiculous. What Zizek looks to do is to show how capitalism has created a world in which wealthy people praise liberal ideals while, at the same time, have noting in common with poor people.  The fact that we know this and yet “go on believing” (or act “as if” we still believe in a system which is corrupt) is, for Zizek, the new farce.

Although the new farce that Zizek notes differs from the old one that Marx describes, the situation is parallel: both Marx and Zizek are watching the farce from a partisan vantage point.  For Marx, they have no idea about their delusion; while for Zizek they do but they sill go on believing.  For both, it’s a comedy that is ultimately tragic and Apocalyptic.

But this is not simply about watching and laughing at the liberal world as it destroys itself.  No.  Zizek, as I pointed out in an earlier blog entry, is kynical.  He not only watches the destruction, he gleefully engages in it by refusing to play the games of the Enlightenment.  As I pointed out earlier, he notes, explicitly, that he takes the road of the ad hominem.  In other words, Zizek, in being kynical, insists on being a partial and partisan.  He spells it out in the introduction to his book:

What the book offers is not a neutral analysis but an engaged and extremely “partial” one – for truth is partial, accessible only when one takes sides, and is no less universal for this reason.  The side taken here is, of course, communism.

As a partisan, Zizek takes sides with Communism against the liberal left.  He mocks deconstruction and liberal ideals because they didn’t go far enough:

Among the contemporary names for ever-so-slightly smearing those in power, we could list ‘deconstruction’, or the ‘protection of individual freedoms’.

He sees both names as indications of failure.  He mocks both by way of a dirty joke told by dissidents in which a peasant’s wife is raped by a “Mongol Warrior.” As a part of the raping, the Mongol Warrior asks the peasant to lift his testicles from the ground while he rapes the peasant’s wife. Since the ground is dusty, the Mongol Warrior doesn’t want to get his testicles dirty while he rapes the peasant.  Strangely enough, the peasant leaps in joy after the Mogol Warrior leaves the rape scene because, in his deluded mind, he has one a victory: “But I got him! His balls are covered with dust!”

The lesson is obvious.  The left, for Zizek, merely criticizes and leaves dust on the testicles of the ruling power that “rapes” the people.  Zizek argues that the “real point is to castrate them.”  Nothing short of totally depriving those in power of power is Zizek’s goal.  This is certainly not a joke.

Zizek teaches us that the first step in doing this is to divide oneself from liberals by openly declaring that which is not permitted. In the wake of Stalin, Mao, the fall of the Berlin wall, and millions of people who were murdered by Stalin, Mao, and others he affirms communism.

Today, our message should be the same: it is permitted to know and to fully engage in communism, to again act in full fidelity to the communist Idea.

Knowing full well that someone could read this and say that Zizek just wants to be obscene and “get off” on being a rebel, Zizek comments that “the very fascination with the obscenity we are allowed to observe prevents us from knowing what it is that we see.”  In other words, he asks us to look past the obscenity to something deeper.  And that something is Zizek’s commitment to Communism is unrepentant. It is proud and demands the other side, that is, the liberals to repent: “our side no longer has to go on apologizing; while the other side had better start soon.”

As a part of his public conversion, Zizek turns on those he had, for years, aligned himself with and literally accuses them of “blackmailing” him.  He demands their apology for taking him hostage to their false belief that they were really challenging the powers-that-be.  How dare they expect him to believe that he was doing something by, so to speak, lightly dusting the testicles of the ruling-elite-rapist!?

To be sure, this is not funny. Zizek is angry and he is engaging in ridicule.   Zizek is, so to speak, manning up in the name of Communism.  He is calling for a fight and insisting that he must castrate power and ridicule “liberal-democratic-moralists.”

Unlike Milan Kundera who aligns himself sincerely and in a ridiculous manner with Don Quixote, Zizek moves from self-ridicule to ridicule. Kundera’s apprehension with regard to Communism must be dismissed and, by way of implication, we would have to say that Zizek would accuse Kundera of blackmailing him.  Kundera is not simply a dupe he is a hostage taker.   The legacy of Don Quixote is not of interest to Zizek; the legacy of Marx and radical communism is.  Humor has one use only: to ridicule those who don’t stand on the side of Communism.

And this is where the Apocoplytic tone can be heard.  Zizek, in effect, is sounding the death knoll by demanding an apology.  He is saying that “we” are taking over.  Let me paraphrase a bit (and please note that I don’t include myself in this ‘we’; I’m just describing it): We are not cynical like you liberal democrats because we know that progress and history are a sham while Communism is the truth (of a variety that is not based on history but goes against history, as I will show in the next blog). We are not cynical; we are kynical.

As I will show in the next blog, the kynical communist is one who rages against history and insists that it stops.  It looks to make an Apocalyptic cessation.  And the first step in that direction is to become a partisan who rejects the farce and embraces what he will call “pure action.”

Here, the Apocalyptic tone of comedy is exchanged for the Apocalyptic tone of the partisan.  The way of kynicsm is the way of the insult and the demand.  As the title of the first chapter of his book rudely exclaims: “Its Ideology, Stupid!”

Here, the tradition is resumed, a tradition which failed.  But this is not by any means the tradition of the fool; it is the tradition of communist partisanship.  And, as such, it is a tradition which is based on ridicule not humility.  It is a tradition that Kundera does not want to uphold.  Kunera’s legacy is that of Don Quixote while Zizek’s legacy is that of Karl Marx.   The difference between them, I would argue, concerns the meaning and tone of comedy.  For Zizek, comedy must serve Communism not vice versa.  To have us believe – or rather go-along-with – that comedy simply challenges power, as deconstruction claims, is to lightly dust the testicle of a rapist.  This belief in comedy is, from the partisan perspective of Communism, a farce.

Hence, for Zizek, Kundera or anyone who believes in the power of comedy to go against the grain, is truly a fool. Zizek, on the contrary is not a fool, comedy, for him, shouldn’t challenge power; rather, it should separate believers in Communism from non-believers and should destroy power not challenge it.

For Zizek, if comedy is to be meaningful in a communist sense, it must take on an Apocalyptic tone.  It must herald the end in which believers will be separated from non-believers.

 

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