In Only A Joke Can Save Us, Todd McGowan defines comedy as a coincidence of a lack and an excess:
Comedy occurs when we are surprised by a conjunction of lack and excess. An excessive response to lack or the emergence of lack occasioned by excess reveals how every lack is excessive and every excess is lacking. When the coincidence of lack and excess surprises us, this is the comic event.
This looks like a great insight but one should ask what is this “lack” and “excess”? McGowan associates lack with “working” and excess with “enjoying”:
We suffer lack when we work eight hours a day at a monotonous job, and then we enjoy excess on the weekend when we watch football for hours or participate in drunken orgies. (ibid)
This conception reflects the masculine way of organizing enjoyment that opposes the Universal Exigency of work to the enjoyment of “free time” as its constitutive exception:
A worker is employed for the duration of the working hours when his/her particular enjoyment serves The Exigency of work; (s)he enjoys his/her “free time” as an exception that enables the universal rule and obligation of work. (Exigency and Enjoyment, IBF)
This means that McGowan’s lack and excess correspond to Exigency and Enjoyment, respectively. Remember that “Exigency” is another name for symbolic castration. Would McGowan recognize this correspondence? In his book, he too quickly associates lack with the finite and excess with the infinite:
Comedy in one’s philosophy is not only a matter of the philosopher’s personality but is primarily a result of the role that lack and excess (or the finite and the infinite) play in the philosophy. (Only A Joke Can Save Us)
Could we say the same for exigency (castration) and enjoyment? Are they the finite and the infinite, respectively? I don’t think this association holds, although Žižek seems to support it by associating symbolic castration with finitude:
Finitude (symbolic castration) and immortality (death drive) are thus the two sides of the same operation (Sex and the Failed Absolute)
I think symbolic castration (exigency) is as infinite as death drive (enjoyment). Where do we find the infinity of castration? In McGowan’s book the same duality can be found in the opposition of duty and life: in tragedy, duty is more important than life, whereas in modern world life is more important than duty:
Tragedy disappears almost completely from the modern world as life becomes more important than duty. Tragedy depends not so much on nobility as on a conception of duty that gives it more importance than life itself. (Only A Joke Can Save Us)
Duty and life corresponds to the duality of exigency (symbolic castration, lack) and enjoyment (death drive, excess). The transcendent duty of the tragic hero is simply an Exigency that universalizes a special portion of enjoyment (death drive) in the masculine way of enjoyment. For example “the lady” functions as this special portion of universalized enjoyment in courtly love. In the modern world, the transcendent duty is replaced with an earthly duty to earn money, but the masculine structure is the same.
When modernity destroys this transcendence and creates an immanent world, duty loses its clear support, and survival eclipses duty in importance. Though it is possible to sustain the idea that duty counts more than life itself, such a position becomes less tenable in the modern world. (ibid)
This means that duty (exigency, castration, lack) becomes “finite” only with the modern world. It is not correct to eternally associate lack with the finite, because lack becomes finite only with modernity. Before modernity, excess of life is the finite term, and the infinite transcendence of duty that emanates from lack and castration is the infinite term.
Işık Barış Fidaner is a computer scientist with a PhD. Admin of Yersiz Şeyler (Placeless Things) blog, Admin/Editor/Curator of Žižekian Analysis, and one of the admins of “Žižek and the Slovenian School” group on Facebook. Twitter: @BarisFidaner