The paralysis of discourse

1. Bergson identifies laughter as the repetition of the past, i.e., as an interruption in the novelty of life. Moreover, as a social institution, comedy “lies midway between art and life. … By organizing laughter, comedy accepts social life as a natural environment … And in this respect it turns its back upon art, which is a breaking away from society and a return to pure nature”. On the one hand, comic laughter inhibits the movement of vital forces by the sublimation of desire into the affirmation of the present as the presence of what is missing. Life itself, as pure difference (that which differs from itself), never appears. But, on the other hand, laughter condenses into a single, unstable moment two tendencies, which are by nature opposed—(simple) negation and the reflexivity of a subject present-to-itself—resulting in the confusion of life and enjoyment.

Yet, as a relaxation or pause in the impetus of life, laughter finds itself neither on the side of language nor action. There can be, of course, no real hiatus in life, yet this illusion of laughter, Bergson says, is akin to the illusion of dreams: “the behavior of the intellect in a dream [is this:] … the mind, enamored of itself, now seeks in the outer world nothing more than a pretext for realizing its imaginations”. It is for this reason that laughter is the expression of irony par excellence (see “Irony and Criticism”) and, further, why laughter can serve no critical function. Because laughter is neither language—we can laugh at false reasoning or bad logic, which serves as the staples of comedy—nor action, laughter is simply a refusal of criticism.

Comedy, therefore, like camp, is not only incapable of criticism but actively serves to neutralize criticism. If, as Ross claims, camp consists in the recovery of cultural productions whose sense is no longer dominated by the demands of capital, camp threatens quickly to collapse into parody or imitation and thereby acquires a sort of “zombie life”. For both camp and irony, the price paid for enjoyment is simply the loss of the objective world: anything can be enjoyed by the perfect solipsist for whom there is no ethical demand to recognize anything as genuinely demeaning, offensive, violent, or banal. There is only the subject-for-itself, baptized in enjoyment.

We see the same phenomenon in the parody of children’s play. The child who mimics adult telephone conversations engages in precisely the same parodic act as the laughter of those uninitiated into various forms of discourse (for example, mocking a foreign language or the derision of jargon) or in caricature (for example, the “seventh meditation”), both of which mark the death of criticism.

2. On the other hand, the failure of criticism has been the assumption that the mode appropriate to it is that of discourse or, alternatively, that the choice facing politics is that between theory and action. Those impatient for action who want to “cut through the bullshit” of theory refuse the entreaties of discourse to see the intolerance in tolerance or the reactionary in the revolutionary. The call for theory is therefore not simply to remind us of our history but, as Zizek has called it, a search for “lost causes” as neither a mode of historical inquiry nor one of hermeneutics (Ricoeur, for example, uses the text as a model for action whereas we might say Zizek proclaims the inverse). Ricoeur’s “critical hermeneutics” requires a dialectic between inclusion and distantiation, which brings into discourse what is initially simply given as structure. But Ricoeur never escapes the vicious circle of subject and world: if we are to know the world to which a text refers, we must rely upon “imaginative variations” of the subject that only occur in a world constituted by discourse.

We are left, however, in a precarious position. The search for “lost causes” threatens not to dissolve the sense of discourse (as, for example, in parody) but to substitute meaning for intention: it is sufficient for discourse to appear as such in its illocutionary force (as a “call to action”, for example). The intention of discourse, it turns out, is irrelevant: as long as discourse retains consistency—even the consistency that obtains across parody as a derivative sense—it remains meaningful. At this zero-point, discourse is both sufficient and unnecessary: as Sartre said, intentions vanish and it no longer matters that we all agree on why we are storming the Bastille just as long as we’re doing it. Zizek tarries at this point where the pleasure of discourse is seduced on the one hand by the laughter of enjoyment and by the force of sovereignty on the other.