Martin Donougho: “Comedic System – Or why ‘the philosopher’ seems ridiculous”

“It is equally fatal…to have a system and to have none: one must therefore embrace both.” (Fr. Schlegel)

I propose a paper on how comedic art distinguishes itself from—hence relates to—its matter (comic events, situations, characters).  I draw on three sources: Hegel, Bergson, and Niklas Luhmann.

An earlier paper on “Hegelian Comedy” presented the paradox whereby Hegel says next to nothing on what is for his theory the ultimate art—an art moreover ending in self-dissolution (it emerges from only to merge with reality).  Here I expand on the paradox, comparing it with epic implicature.  Late in his study titled Laughter (1900) Bergson turns from the comic element to its artistic treatment: unlike other arts, comedy lives between art and life; while author/spectator distance themselves from the ridiculed “type” it is to restore social order (for Bergson, not conformism but elastic individuality).  The sociologist Luhmann contends that the art system 1) employs a mechanism of self-distinction to establish both itself and the autonomous artwork, 2) initiates a modern “autopoiesis” (self-observation) in a continual effort to take account of the blind spot constitutive of any social position.  Luhmann (1995/2000) has occasional remarks on Romantic “humor,” “irony” and “wit,” if not on comedy proper.  But comedy exemplifies this double logic of artistic distinction/relation—just what my paper aims to track.

The Menandrine tradition of assumed social superiority, hegemonic in practice and theory from Aristotle to Frye (Hokenson 2006), was challenged by an inclusive 18C “humor,” the Romantics’ return to Aristophanes, and Bakhtin’s late populist reaction.  I agree with John Bruns (Loopholes 2009) that “comedy is sovereign,”—if it’s anything.  Comedy takes a non-exclusionary approach to the world, willing ultimately to forgo knowledge even of its own blind spots (Bergson’s “distraction”).

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