Cookies disclaimer
Our site saves small pieces of text information (cookies) on your device in order to deliver better content and for statistical purposes. You can disable the usage of cookies by changing the settings of your browser. By browsing our website without changing the browser settings you grant us permission to store that information on your device. I agree


SUSTAINING ALTERNATIVE WORLDS: ON COMEDY AND THE POLITICS OF REPRESENTATION A roundtable discussion with Lauren Berlant, Sianne Ngai, and Alenka Zupančič, moderated by the editors

Aaron Long, „BoJack Horseman“, 2019, Filmstill

Aaron Long, „BoJack Horseman“, 2019, Filmstill

Lauren Berlant, the scholar and cultural theorist, died two days ago. On this sad occasion, we would like to publish a conversation we had here with Berlant, Sianne Ngai, and Alenka Zupančič for our March issue on the topic “Comedy.” While working on that issue, we considered what it means to take up comedy right now, amid a global pandemic and following a year of urgent, far-reaching social movements and political events. Constructive disagreements abound, the conversation explores comedy’s relationship to trauma, to representation, and to capitalism, and the productivity of political satire and in-jokes is questioned. Despite whatever relief it might bring us, comedy may actually be the genre least effective in helping us forget our troubles – though, as this discussion shows, it is anything but unproductive.

TEXTE ZUR KUNST: What does it mean to talk about comedy in 2020, a year that witnessed immense loss and turmoil?

LAUREN BERLANT: For one thing, I think we may not all have the same view about the relationship between comedy and trauma, seen either as form or as a synonym for history. In my work, and I think in Alenka’s too, we’re always saying that comedy and trauma have a formal resonance. It’s a lot about proceeding in brokenness, and the relation among different kinds of brokenness. I probably talk about the comedic more than comedy in my work – that is, the elements of the comedic rather than a kind of genre form. And among the particular comedic modes of the present is the centrality of self-inflating forms of distortion in the appearance of power and resistance to power as a tactic of the radical Right and a tactic of fascism and fascist aesthetics. Caricature is supposed to reveal moral smallness, but the Right justifies itself with literalized bigness. Another thing the embrace of cruelty and satire as realist political registers has achieved is the stripping away of national sentimentality, long an anchor of liberalism. The convergence of right-wing comedy and mass suffering in the wealthier states makes 2020 less a scene held in common than a bubbling cauldron.

ALENKA ZUPANČIČ: I would try to address the question as you formulated it – namely, what is comedy in the gloomiest possible times? The first thing that comes to my mind is Ernst Lubitsch; he made one of the best comedy films, To Be or Not to Be, in 1942, arguably the darkest moment of 20th-century European history. Comedy and crises or difficult times are not only compatible, they are often very strongly connected, particularly in the realm of comedy that also addresses the realm of politics. Power and the different figures of power have always been a prominent subject of comedy. But we should not forget that comedy itself also has an intrinsic power – and this is precisely what subjects it to all kinds of rules and restrictions of political correctness. We all know that this kind of overpowering of comedy doesn’t really work because comedy either wins, has the last word, or it isn’t comedy. Comedy’s relationship to power has its ambiguities, but power itself is an ambiguous notion: it cannot be simply dismissed as bad. Comedy can have a strong ethic of empowering, especially when it is related to some kind of collectivity. This was certainly the case with To Be or Not to Be; European audiences, already at war, immediately liked the movie. Audiences from further away, like in the United States, were very reluctant because the film supposedly makes fun of Nazis, who should be taken much more seriously. People in much more serious trouble liked and appreciated it, not as a divertissement, but as something that allowed them to emerge and exist as subjects in a dark moment.

SIANNE NGAI: The question I would throw on top of this, which is one Lauren and I were mulling over in “Comedy Has Issues,” is simply that what comedy acts on is an open question. This question takes up comedy as it operates on the tragic. But one of the things we were trying to explore is the idea that comedy has become radically diffused into general culture. Or, the idea of comedy as a genre with the capacity to absorb an unusually large range of moods, or infiltrate other genres, with an ease that other genres lack. Comedy can mesh with pornography, melodrama, and horror while always remaining itself. The fact that it can do this explains the startling vividness of moments where it stands out in relief against these other frames. But the question of whether the tragic or traumatic is the antithesis of comedy – the question of what comedy is positioned against – seems unclear in a moment where comedy has become part of the daily management of social life, at work, at home, or online, as a way of managing the stresses of those interactions. This situation makes the question of what comedy’s material is, what the thing that it’s working against or on is, newly alive. Comedy does not only act on the tragic, or the traumatic, whether as an antagonist or just an operator on those other modes. Comedy can also act on forms of comedy. Alenka mentioned failed comedy, and this raises an interesting question about whether failed comedy is or isn’t still comedy, in spite of its failure. I think there’s actually a whole spectrum of forms of comedy that specifically act on other forms of comedy that don’t work.

BERLANT: I really want to support that. If I tell a joke and it doesn’t land, it’s still a joke. If I create a comedic disturbance and it’s recognizable as such, it cannot be said to have failed. In Lubitsch, when Jack Benny’s character says, “Heil myself,” the comedic is located in confusion about where the comedy is. And also, just to clarify, I don’t think trauma and tragedy are the same, because tragedy is about finitude and trauma about living on.

ZUPANČIČ: I absolutely agree with what Sianne said, that we should not simply take comedy as something that needs a traumatic event as its starting point. This creates an image of comedy as something that we need in order to deal with something else, or to make the burden of this pressure easier to sustain. I think we have some disagreement, though, because for me it seems useful to define comedy precisely by its success, which is always also unexpected; nevertheless comedy works in the medium of success rather than failure, even if it exposes one failure after another. If it works, there is this moment of what I call, here in shorthand, success. If it falls into a void, the joke did not work. If it is incorporated into something that wants to make an aesthetic effect out of the fact that the joke failed, this then is already another thing. But the joke that fails just fails. I mean, something else gets done or undone there. Usually, when the joke fails, it means that a kind of consensus or presupposed consensus did not take place, and people simply refuse to endorse the point of the joke or to participate in it.

NGAI: To stay with this question about whether failed comedy is still comedy, it might be helpful to think of a counterexample. Othello is a classic example of a tragedy whose success has been disputed from the beginning, including in a famous essay by the 17th-century critic Thomas Rymer in which he witheringly refers to the play as “The Tragedy of the Handkerchief.” Whether or not one agrees that Othello is a successful tragedy, we don’t feel inclined to argue that it’s not a tragedy, because it’s enough for us that it fits in that cultural convention. The fact that people consider it a tragedy seems to be enough. So, what is it about comedy that allows it to slide into this more intense and inevitably polemical genre of aesthetic judgments, in which we are compelled to demand universal agreement from others? There seems to be a portal that connects comedy to this philosophical crux in a way that doesn’t happen with other genres. Another counterexample is related to Lauren’s point about comedy creating its own context. One of us tells a joke that’s so stupid that it’s actually irritating and not funny. And the other person meanly says, “I didn’t understand your joke, can you explain it to me?” And then the first person, recognizing what the other is trying to do, returns the jab by saying, “Okay, well, the joke was that I said this, and then you said this, and then because of this, it’s actually that.” This is essentially the joke by Stewart Lee that Lauren and I write about, where he deliberately protracts the excruciating effort to explain a joke that did not work. And by protracting this excruciation, he protracts the excruciation of the original joke in a way that somehow flips it.

ZUPANČIČ: But I would say that this is not a joke. This is a comic act; it’s a stand-up act, in that the joke fails, and this analysis of the joke and of its functioning is part of a comic act. I wouldn’t refer to this act as a joke because it has a really different temporality. It is something done with the possibility that the joke fails. What are the social tensions, the interactions involved in these circumstances? One can surely make a comedy out of this, but this is not a failed joke. It’s a successful comedy sketch.

BERLANT: Right. But this was my point about the joke creating its own world in a way that the distinction you’re wanting to make doesn’t really support. The question is always what happens in the wake of it? Sianne’s anecdote is about how you can keep the event open by producing more language in it. What is often the case with any form of comedic action is people thinking of it as speeding up time because the actor has broken something and now you have to figure out what just happened. But it also slows down time because you can keep the event open by asking more questions of it. So, Alenka, your resistance in a way is like the point you’re making about how what looks like the end of something is really just a moment in its extension.

TZK: It’s clear that the three of you have different, or even contradictory, understandings of comedy’s relationship to representation. Sianne and Lauren, you wrote in “Comedy Has Issues” about “supremacist pleasure,” which captures the effect of humor grounded in dominant white culture. Alenka, you argue that comedic artworks do away with representation. If comedy is the universal at work, what is comedy’s relationship to representation or, more precisely, how should we understand art that addresses or criticizes social norms and forms of discrimination?

ZUPANČIČ: This question of representation is very interesting, and in my book The Odd One In, I developed my argument directly from Hegel’s presentation of it in the Phenomenology of Spirit: comedy is not about representation. We could unpack this claim with the help of how Hegel talks about humor in his Vorlesungen – not comedy exactly, but humor – as the very peak of subjective art, but also as a kind of end of art. The idea is that humor is not about the subject making jokes about various things. Whatever the material being treated with humor or in humor is, this material is not its subject matter. What is on display in humorous art is the humor, the wittiness, the cleverness itself – that is to say, the subject. Hegel actually says the subject does not simply joke about things, the subject is the joke. Comedy is about movement, an all-consuming movement, which, for Hegel, is the subject and makes all substances and gods disappear, as he puts it.

BERLANT: In a way I agree with Alenka, but I think we’re not agreeing about the autonomy or dynamics. The question of the movement of form, which I think is crucial to everything – how do you make an object move? – is central to the comedic embeddedness in stuckness. When there’s no out, how does your response generate the kind of mood we’re talking about? I assume always in my work that the comedic is about form and movement, and not about representation. It’s about the logic of the situation. And situations arise as a disturbance of a logic without a governing logic to hand. Many forms of comedy emerge from the place where the consequentiality of class antagonism, misogyny, racial antagonism, national exceptionalism, xenophobia is confronted and revealed not to possess logical causality despite making claims on higher truth. In the comedy of reason and interest, forms of explanation that have made the world seem to make sense look risible, which is why comedy is so tied up with anxiety and the fear of feeling small. In my work, that’s the place of fantasy; people have a fantasy that the world is continuous and makes sense, and the comedic is always just disturbing that fantasy, which is why it’s both a pleasure and a space of suffering for people. Alenka’s work has a particular view of that; it’s not entirely my view, but it’s totally powerful in its representation of the affective experience of your world becoming so specific that you don’t have a world anymore.

NGAI: Alenka, I understand your argument against representation as pitted against an approach to comedy that overemphasizes its synchronic aspects – you know, the caricature, the stereotype. I agree that the diachronicity or temporality of comedy is what’s most important. But I’m just wondering if there has to be this choice between representation and movement. I think it’s really hard to think about comedy without representation.

ZUPANČIČ: No, but, as Lauren said, representation is a huge word and it means many different things to many people. There is a very interesting passage, again in the Vorlesungen, when Hegel strangely introduces the notion of the possibility of an objective humor, which is an interesting, paradoxical notion coming from Hegel. For him, humor is the very quintessence of subjectivity. What would “objective humor” mean? It is not about an objective description of something; it is rather about creating an object, a new object, out of the purely subjective movement. Today we would probably call it a partial object, but Hegel already suggests as much. The idea is that some kind of substantiality, albeit partial, has to emerge out of this subjective movement, or else we can be stuck in it indefinitely, forever.

Frans Hals, „Merrymakers at Shrovetide“, 1616–17

Frans Hals, „Merrymakers at Shrovetide“, 1616–17

BERLANT: This is what I was referring to when I was talking about how you make a disturbance in the object and then have to move on with it anyway. It’s not a new object, but it’s the loosening of an object. But I feel like we have lost the political weight of the question in the way we moved with it. I want to just return to that and say there is a drive toward creating an inside public for an inside narrative that a community has bracketed off from people not in that community. The whole idea of an in-joke, and the kind of public circulation of in-jokes as something which could be collectively held, is a really important part of the concern with comedy and politics. The in-joke is a really good example of the generativity of worlds by the comedic because of its power to create disruptions at a political, affective, central level, which doesn’t mean that all individuals can receive its mix of anxiety, aggression, and pleasure in a confirming way.

TZK: With that in mind, does the pandemic as a large-scale collective affective experience serve comedy by establishing broad relatability that comedy can build from and use for its own ends? Or do any of the widely resonant events of this year, for that matter, operate in this way? All of them were compounded by sitting at home, locked-down, scrolling the internet – comedy was (and is being) produced out of that and capitalizing on it.

BERLANT: Doom-scrolling is the comic genre of ongoing crisis – crisis ordinariness. People had immediately to find a genre where people could make fun of themselves for the impossibility of interrupting their own sense of powerlessness, as though knowledge makes you powerful.

NGAI: This is banal, but I think the pandemic gave people permission to enjoy disclosing how dependent we collectively are on entertainment. I just binge-watched every episode of Pen15, and I feel a huge hole in my life now that it’s over. But there’s something to your question about 2020 which gets to the heart of comedy, and that is comedy’s presentism. This is something Ágnes Heller brings up and that, Alenka, you also talk about in your book. Heller says that comedy has a unique relationship to the present. By contrast, tragedy is always looking backward at something in the past that was not processed, or that is returning. Heller notes that there is no such thing as tragedia dell’arte. There is only commedia dell’arte, because only comedy involves improvisation, which involves figuring out, while trying to adjust to, whatever situation you’re currently in.

ZUPANČIČ: We should not simply dismiss politics and then go looking either in comedy or tragedy or whatever for some kind of real political subversiveness, which will make it possible for us to not do the political work. Of course, there are strong political implications in different kinds of comedies. This is why I insist on their division, which elicited a lot of skepticism of this kind of good and bad, true or untrue comedy. When I was writing The Odd One In, I was very aware of the problem of this divide, but I was still trying to pin down some distinction that is not simply normative or a question of taste or aesthetic judgment. Going back to what Lauren said about in-jokes and something that does not function in this way: in-jokes are a good example of failed comedy simply because there is no real movement there. You take some already consolidated audience and the only thing that you do is consolidate them even further. We witnessed a lot of this in the many anti-Trump comedies that proliferated throughout his term. The shows where the audience of mostly Democratic voters were allowed to get some pleasure out of making fun of Trump, and to be united in that. This was the perfect example of the in-joke. We all know where we stand and nothing changes. Of course, it can be funny, very intelligent, interesting, but nothing here really moves. I think this is one way of doing bad comedy, even if it is for good purposes.

Ernst Lubitsch, „To Be or Not to Be“, 1942, Filmstill

Ernst Lubitsch, „To Be or Not to Be“, 1942, Filmstill

BERLANT: I really disagree with you about in-jokes, if you mean that preaching to the converted is a non-activity. I have a different view of that. One of the things a comedic response does is slow down the operation of the event. We can use comedy to walk around what just happened, we can transform the shape of the event, we can transform the question of what the consensual present is. There’s a difference between the formal present of comedy and the historical present of a shared sensorium. The comedic produces moments, aesthetics produces moments; it produces situations that arise. But that doesn’t mean it’s the historical moment. Yet the in-joke isn’t just a performance of the known but a refreshing of the feeling that there are insides and outsides of the collective response. The right wing has known this – the radical Right of the present has said politics is upstream from culture, and so the first thing they do is rattle the sensorium and call that freedom. And then they try to produce a political world from that. That’s not my theory of community. But it’s just the fact that people are trying to win the battle of consensus around causality, which is why the insider affect of the comedic can make a movement.

The in-joke has other kinds of circulating effects relevant here too. The rejection of collective humorlessness in comedy is so much a part of people producing what Stanley Cavell would call recognition. Political struggle involves the reorganization of humorlessness. And that is a really important part of sustaining alternative worlds in relation to the dominant world. The circulation of in-joke comedy in a more general audience has been a really important part of the counter-normative pedagogy of populations from below. And PC – the whole question of the politics of political correctness as a form of humorlessness that takes away the right of people to play with their object – has come up in the same spaces as all of the current catastrophes, and I don’t think that’s accidental. Because it’s about whose pleasure in disturbance is privileged.

Finally, what’s the relationship between everybody being in relation to the pandemic and anything like a collective subjective “we”? This is another scene in which the investigation of comedic insiderness might be generative. One of the things we work out in contemporary arguments about aesthetics, and popular aesthetics especially, is that question. You can’t presume the “we” and you can’t presume the world. Those are two conditions under which the comedic rises. I want to stick up for thinking about the centrality of the comedic as a version of the question, Is there a “we”? And what’s the relation between living through a time and being a “we”? When people say, “we’re all in it together,” it makes me feel brutal. Not so much about what’s “we” but what’s “it.” And this has to do with the desire for comedy as repair, which I think is what Alenka was arguing against, too. But I’m less angry about it because I think it’s a time of flailing around for the “we” and the “it.”

ZUPANČIČ: The question of “we” reemerges now in a different form; it is no longer the question of a universal “we” or its absence, but we see emerging basically two kinds of “we,” as if there were two worlds. I think the US is the most obvious case. It is more than a figure of speech to say that the supporters of Trump “live in their own world.” As do we, ipso facto, who are bewildered by them. And I think this is something that we would do better to resist. Resist not in the romantic sense of remaining open also to other worlds, but by striving for a different kind of “we,” not accepting this particular “we” too quickly. This is why I said, regarding in-jokes, that when one simply takes one’s world and tries to defend it against the other one, this is not enough. Comedy cannot change the political and economic circumstances, but it can help us see that sticking to our world doesn’t help in the present, because these two worlds are two sides of the same political and economic configuration: devastation.

BERLANT: I think that’s why Trump is post-sentimental. Trump is about how there isn’t a universal subject that is in the same pacing of empathy, or recognition, or anything. It’s all about how there is no universal, it’s de-universalized political culture, in the way that you just described.

ZUPANČIČ: Trump is interesting precisely because of the way he embodies the very contradiction of the American society. He is not just one side or element of the contradiction he also is the very embodiment, the “representation” of the contradiction of neoliberal capitalist society in its American version. And the sad fact is that just removing him won’t remove this contradiction. Covid is a new factor, but there is also the environmental crisis and a very, very deep social crisis, with escalating social differences, insecurity, and devastation. I very much agree with Lauren that we are not in the same boat at all; on the contrary, these last universal issues just emphasize the differences that were already there and made them even worse.

TZK: We’ve established that comedy does not simply merge into entertainment. There is a dialectical understanding of comedy: On the one hand, comedy and its formats offer a release or relief from the demands of work under neoliberalism, and they also reaffirm these demands in entertainment and the conditions of its production. On the other hand, comedy is, as Alenka writes in The Odd One In, “a refusal to stop as soon as things no longer serve any immediate purpose,” that comedy breaks with the capitalist logic of reproduction and expediency. Is this dialectic unique to comedy?

NGAI: In my work on the gimmick as a capitalist form (and also as an ambivalent aesthetic evaluation), I argue that it has an intimate relationship to comedy. Gimmicks are “labor-saving” devices. They are therefore treated suspiciously – if also, at times, admiringly – in an economy that paradoxically expels labor in the process of reducing it. So, there is a refusal built into this affective judgment. Yet the comedic gimmick doesn’t transgress – it is rather a synecdoche of the system that gives rise to it. It names our repeated experience of “value” not being where it is promised to be. The sublime is the category most theorists reach for when they want to talk about late capitalism – massive financial disasters, climate change, staggering inequality, the rise of fascism. But there are different scales of aesthetic response to what it means to be a subject living in this society. The gimmick is a more ordinary one in which comedy and capitalism intersect.

BERLANT: Well, “a refusal to stop as soon as things no longer serve any immediate purpose” – that’s a great representation of one of the things that the gimmick does. It reproduces itself beyond the situation in which it arises. And it starts to look autonomous and dissociated from the conditions of its production. The gimmick of the toilet, the gimmick of capital in Sianne’s piece in the Critical Inquiry issue is very related to Alenka’s model for the form of comedy as a kind of repetition beyond its sense, except that Sianne is interested in creation of value in two different domains: the aesthetic judgment and capitalist value. I feel like their convergence is formal. Minor episodes of relief, like watching TikTok videos, little spaces of absorption that are comedic – people do them for fun. To go back to our earlier response in a more Cavellian way, the question is the comedy of acknowledgement; you have all these moments where people are showing a kind of expertise they just made up. Look, I can do this dance move seventy times. I got good at being a gimmick. I got good at repetition. I got good at being not surprising. And people take pleasure in it.

Robert Sikoryak, „The Impeachable Trump“, 2020

Robert Sikoryak, „The Impeachable Trump“, 2020

TZK: There’s also a whole genre of purely absurd TikTok videos. There’s no making sense of them and that, itself, is hilarious. But they also elicit relief.

BERLANT: It’s a slowing down of the ordinary, an amplification of gesture. It’s got a lot of comedic elements to it. And also, just the funniness of people saying, like, my concreteness is hilarious and entertaining. And I love that about it. But for some people it’s also about, there’s no work. Is it possible to sustain life from the banal? from the ordinary? To go back to Sianne’s work, it’s like all the labor I have right now is the labor of self-reproduction. And so, I’m going to give you an episode of it, and then maybe you’ll follow me, and then I’ll try to convince you that my ordinariness is entertaining. But I also think there are a lot of people whose repetitions aren’t just absurd; it’s also that they got good at something. This might be the opposite of Alenka’s argument, because rather than the universal becoming the concrete, it’s the concrete amplifying itself in some way. It’s not exactly a dialectic here, but it’s entering into some comedic public.

ZUPANČIČ: I would return to a word that kept coming up during this discussion: resistance. This is just a hypothesis, but I would say that the inaugural gesture of comedy is not that of resistance but rather that of going with the flow. But comedy really begins to take off when its characters go too far, or carry on with the flow for too long, or take too much time. But something interesting can happen in this kind of repetition, in this kind of stupid, skillful performing of something which has very powerful moments that do resist something but are not calibrated directly for resistance. Comic characters often don’t have any kind of distancing – they’re not ironic to the general or broader context. And this is something that is definitely anti- or un-capitalist because, at least until now, capitalism as a world order, also as its own political culture, is based on some sort of ironic distance.

As for the entertainment value, there is not only, or even primarily, comedy but also serious drama. We use all kinds of things, also in Covid times, to entertain us or to help us get through it, and most of it is not comedy, I guess: crime stories, family dramas, science fiction. I would say that comedy is the least effective in making us forget about our troubles and sorrows, less efficient than, for example, seeing other people in serious trouble and dramatic circumstances. We could say that comedy never lets us leave our present and our circumstances completely, but it could help invent a new “we.”

Referenced works:

  • Lauren Berlant and Sianne Ngai, “Comedy Has Issues: An Introduction,” Critical Inquiry 43 (Winter 2017): 233–239.
  • Sianne Ngai, Theory of the Gimmick: Aesthetic Judgment and Capitalist Form (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2020).
  • Alenka Zupančič, The Odd One In: On Comedy (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008).