The Order of Appearance
Materialism’s Comedy


A significant feature of materialism has been its laconic attitude towards philosophy. Materialism has always tried to be as philosophically succinct as possible, as is exemplified in Louis Althusser’s claim that ‘materialism’s arguments must be succinct enough so as to fit into the palm of your hand’. This laconic attitude, itself, exemplifies a materialist thesis about the enterprise of philosophy – an enterprise which is distinct from that of science. Whereas science achieves sharpness through refinement, philosophy aims at achieving sharpness through roughness – through being as rough as possible and still as sharp as possible. Incidentally, this renders the task of philosophy akin to the task of art, which could be described as endeavouring to be as intelligent as possible by being as naive as possible. I will present the materialist programme in a classical manner, by articulating it in terms of two theses; and to keep this sharp -which means: critical with regard to today’s ruling philosophical ideology-, I will take the help of an ally which materialism finds on the stage and in everyday life – comedy. Comedy is the representative of materialism on stage and on screen. Furthermore, comedy does not simply fulfil a philosophical programme; like a good trooper; it clarifies what this philosophical programme consists of, in the first place. Comedy does, after all, give a most precise account of philosophical materialism. The two related theses, exemplified and elaborated by comedy, can be termed as ‘The One World Argument’, and ‘The Appearance Counts Principle’.


“Bring on the Good Life!”

Philosophical Materialism is often summed up in statements claiming that things ‘out there’ exist independently of our consciousness; that objects are still there, even if we do not think of them. Thus presented, this thesis appears to be an epistemological one. Comedy, however, teaches us to give this argument a different thrust, and to see it as a primarily ethical thesis. As an ethical principle, the argument should be formulated to state that this is the only world that exists, making it the best world that we can ever have. Given this ethical formulation, the argument’s practical consequences become immediately clear. Those who believe that this world is the only and best world that they can have will behave very differently from those who speculate of a different, better world.

The statement ‘this world is the best one we can have’, of course, does not mean that everything is in order in this world – it does not claim that we are living in the best of all possible worlds. It only says that we have no other world; that, if there is a good life, this good life must be happening here and now. “Is there life before death?”: this question, asked in Wolf Biermann’s song is the question of materialism. Comedy answers this in the affirmative, advocating materialism by suggesting that everything that is wonderful is also a product of this world. For this reason, the predominant paradigm of comedy is that of success. The most unlikely of endeavours and the most daring swindlings come to success; the lovers come together, even triangular relationships and other polygamous relations which comedy finds as sympathetic – everything comes together in the end. The end, although estranged from what one might call ‘accepted standards’, is a happy one. Nothing can prevent the happy ending, since (as the last line in Billy Wilder’s “Some Like It Hot” puts it) ‘nobody’s perfect’.

In contrast, tragedy sees the paradigm of failure prevail. The superficial sadness of tragedy derives from the assumption that nothing truly great can be of this world, meaning that every great thing in this world is destined to fail. Tragedy thus alludes to the opposite consequence – namely, that everything that fails is thereby great. This sadness, however, transforms itself into a superficial one – after all, it is perfectly legitimate to persuade oneself that one has witnessed something great by watching something fail. This can explain why people choose to watch tragedies. (What Freud called “the libidinal-economic paradox” would thus be resolved.)

The fact that comedy revolves around the success of something great, whereas tragedy postulates its inevitable failure, can be traced back to the history of religion. The “spirit of comedy” corresponds to a pagan world view. It is, indeed, a pagan worldview which assumes that everything great will succeed. There, it is possible for the divine, the holy, the great to become visible – and not to appear once, or in a rare moment, but to appear again and again, and in many places; often laughing, as the pagan gods have a sense of humour. This worldview allows the divine to be depicted, making Olympic champions or notorious beauties suited to serving as models for their statues of Apollo or Aphrodite. The divine could appear, because appearing in this world would not be regarded as a stigma, a reduction, a loss. It is the pagan view of the world that teaches us to grasp the world as something great, to show our gratitude towards it, to assess it as the best thing that we can ever have. The pagan worldview is orientated towards the world – it is physical. It is this position that philosophical materialism has learned from.

In contrast, the fear of and contempt for the baseness of this world, the sense of living in a “vale of tears”, the yearning for a better and more truly ideal world behind the semblance of this world, are all features of a transcendental metaphysical worldview. Inevitably, the conclusions drawn from this perspective could be but tragic. Religions like Christianity assume that the world is imperfect, meaning that the divine cannot appear, or can appear only in exceptional circumstances. What’s more, the divine cannot be adequately depicted in its divinity. The baseness of this world means that the very good or great in this world can only fail; as such, the god of this world is not a venerated diva or an Olympic champion, but a tragic loser with little humour, whose first great appearance on the scene is not as a victor, but as a man sentenced to death.

Sadness for Fighters?

An interesting question arises against this backdrop. Which of the two worldviews would be more suitable as a means to motivate its believers to struggle? Who is willing to fight with greater commitment – the materialists of comedy or the idealists of tragedy? The physicians or the metaphysicians? Those who are life-affirming, or those who negate the world? In antiquity, the heathens are said -according to the Christian writer Tertullian- to have been bewildered by the courageous contempt with which Christians clung to their religious conviction. Only those who did not put everything at stake for this world and for this life could so fearlessly confront suffering in the face of death. The same thought resurfaces in contemporary ideology. To give the most obvious instance, the advocates of Islamic fundamentalism attack the West for its alleged decadence and impotence by stating “you love life – we love death”. However, the metaphysicians are not the only ones capable of militancy, even of contempt of death. The idea that those who love life are incapable of putting it at risk is misleading. One does not need to expect something beyond this life in order to risk losing it. It can, indeed, suffice that this life, which, according to materialists is the best one we can have, appears unbearable in its present form. This is reflected in Bertolt Brecht’s poem, “Resolution of the Communards”:

“Considering that you are now
threatening us with guns and cannons
we have now decided to fear
bad life more than death”

Mit Gewehren und Kanonen droht
Haben wir beschlossen, nunmehr
schlechtes Leben
Mehr zu fürchten als den Tod.”

(Brecht 1984: 653)

The strongest and most reliable impetus behind the materialist’s readiness to struggle consists in the fear of a bad life in this, best of all available worlds. This fear makes even the fear of death appear vain by comparison.

The materialists do not lag behind the metaphysicians in their contempt of death; they are, in fact, ahead of them in many respects. Most notably, the materialists have an idea as to what they want to achieve. This seems to be something lacking in the transcendental-minded metaphysicians. They can hardly say what would constitute success, they do not have a clue what the world is supposed to look like after their victory, nor do they know what their place in it would be. The usual failure of their hopes thus reveals a hope for failure. Their contempt for death is, in truth, a contempt for life. Accordingly, the militant and tragic spirits who can fight, but cannot picture a desirable state of the world, are the reflection of those politically abstinent post-modernists who believe that nothing in this world is seriously worth fighting for. There is a fundamental complicity between metaphysical asceticism and the culture of entertainment – the so-called Spasskultur. The cultural theorist Johann Huizinga has already pointed this out, emphasizing that the supposedly hedonist idea that there is no truth and that the entire world is merely a game, theatre or, indeed, literature, is a shared assumption of the darkest ascetic Christian metaphysicians.

The basic metaphysical operation we find in both ideas is the placement of truth and freedom somewhere outside this world and its happiness. All variants of metaphysics -that is, of philosophical idealism- are based on the assumption of such a rift. They differ among each other only in their preference for one side or another (for example, for freedom as opposed to happiness, for happiness as opposed to truth et cetera). The post-modern culture of amusement which seeks to reduce everything to something ridiculous, deconstructive or uncertain is, by no means, an idea of comedy, as it would sometimes like to present itself. On the contrary, this entertainment-oriented culture is deeply metaphysical. It is thus entirely anticipated that an epoch which took up the cause of fun -as post-modernism did- produced so few good comedies in comparison to the epoch of the ‘60s and ‘70s, which considered itself much more serious.

For political theory, one could come to the conclusion that Christianity as militant asceticism cannot act as a remedy to post-modern arbitrariness and hedonism. Instead of serving as its opposite, Christian asceticism is only its reflection, its epistemological double, in Gaston Bachelard’s sense. Breaking with post-modern culture requires breaking with the tragic paradigm of the Christian worldview.

The Awful Truth?

Comedy’s materialist thesis that this world is the best one we can have and that everything great in the world can only be great in this world, also produces an epistemological position. Like any real materialism, comedy has an unproblematic relation to truth. Comedy shows us that it is possible for one to recognize truth. This is seen in the simplest forms of comedy of mistaken identity, where, because of, for example, a costume, somebody believes somebody else to be a third person. Parenthetically, this reveals precisely the elementary principle of theatre. Comedy is full of such self-reflexive moments and (Brechtian) “estranging effects”, moments of truth and pleasure at the same time. The ability to see the truth in the fun and to avoid perceiving fun as just fun is a deeply materialist attitude.

Truth is also subject to the principle of success in comedy. For comedy, truth is not typified in the tragic hero who must succumb to the bad world. In keeping with its materialist militancy, comedy contradicts a number of positions on this issue. To begin with, it does not accept that truth is something exceptionally rare, something too precious for this world, exemplified in the typical anxious interrogatory gestures of the deconstructivists, such as “do we even know what it means to speak?”. Likewise, the hedonist yuppie variant of this position, according to which it would be better to enjoy ourselves than to invest our energy into something serious -since we will never experience the truth-, is combated by comedy’s love of truth. Finally, comedy renounces the principle of ‘sad, but true’. Truth is by no means always sad for comedy, and, even less so does it accept the thesis that sadness is the final truth. Not everything that is true is sad, and, certainly, not everything that is sad is, thus, also true.

Comedy is, therefore, opposed to those dark seekers of truth who, by the glum face they make, claim to have discovered something significant about the world. This polemic stance of various fronts takes the credit for comedy. For what comedy makes visible is the profound complicity between three apparently different post-modern figures – first, those who hold truth in such high esteem that it is impossible for them to attain it; second, those who hope never to have to encounter truth, because they see their pleasures as endangered by truth; and, finally, those who claim for themselves a truth beyond pleasure and, therefore, beyond the world. Comedy, thus, reveals the three seemingly so different figures – the obsessively sceptical deconstructivists, the desperately cheerful hedonist relativists, and the driven, humourless, ascetic seekers of truth – to be accomplices, belonging to one and the same tragic paradigm that is hostile to comedy’s concept of the cheerful and worldly nature of truth.


“Don’t tell yourself any stories!”

Philosophical materialism has traditionally been formulated under the concept of atomism, as is found in the theses of Democritus and Epicurus. It would be correct to underline the ethical dimension of this atomism which is not, primarily, a cosmological theory, but is, as is the case with all materialism, an ethical position first and foremost. Althusser, in his later writings, has given atomism a new emphasis by summing it up in the principle that one should not tell oneself stories. The meaning of this imperative is exemplified in comedy, in its use of mistaken identity.

Of course, mistaken identity also occurs in tragedy. Oedipus, for example, takes his father for an unknown aggressive cart-driver and he confuses his mother for an unknown queen. The decisive difference separating comedy and tragedy is thus not the mistaken identity but, rather, the direction in which mistaken identity takes place.

Comedy always takes someone who happens to come along for someone specific in its cases of mistaken identity. It shows: regardless of who he is, he can be seen as the person whose place he assumes. Tragedy, by contrast, proceeds the opposite way. It lets a specific character suffer the fate of being taken for anyone. The whole appeal of tragedy is based on its basic position, namely that the truth is on the side of the characters and not on the side of a fate that is completely indifferent to them.

Comedy always reduces the character to the effect of a structure – everyone is taken to be the one whose place he assumes. It says: you are much more mistakable than you would like to think. This is the “aleatoric” atomism of comedy. In this sense it is materialist and structuralist. It agrees with the objectivity of semblance and of symbolic structure, of the order of places in society as opposed to the imaginary self-image of individuals. Tragedy, by contrast, says: in reality you are all more than everyone believes. Thus tragedy clearly propagates an imaginary self-image, an ideal-ego.

Thus characterised, we can see that idealist philosophies – which, from Kant to Judith Butler, keep telling people that they are much more free than they believe – are to be identified with tragedy. Idealists encourage people to believe in themselves, and they seek human bondage only in the fact that people do not sufficiently see themselves as free subjects. This leads to the assumption that the individuals themselves are to be blamed for their bondage, because of not sufficiently recognizing themselves as subjects. In contrast, comedy, and philosophical materialism -such as Spinoza’s philosophy- tell the opposite story, namely that people are not free precisely where they feel themselves to be free (i.e. where they believe in themselves). People insert the idea of their freedom precisely where knowledge of the true cause is missing. Breaking with such misrecognition and producing the knowledge of the true causes is a scientific component of materialism.

The two levels of materialist struggle: knowledge of the true causes of action and ideology of alterity

But the opposition between materialism and idealism does not only concern the relationship of misrecognition and truth or knowledge. The struggle is not only the struggle between ideology and science. On the contrary, we should take very seriously Spinoza’s point, that something can only be limited by another thing of the same nature and, thus, oppose idealist ideology by materialist ideology. Materialism -especially when reinforced by its ally, comedy- also pronounces a materialist ideology. This ideology is a crucial arm against the ruling neo-liberal ideology which wants people to be subjects. “Appropriate your subjectivity” – this injunction is, in a way, the categorical imperative of the ruling neo-liberal ideology, totally in agreement with the idealist philosophies of Kant or Butler.

Materialist philosophy, and the materialist programmes of ideology reside on the principle that appearance counts. Comedy always insists on this point. Which explains, for example, characters in a comedy who, for some reason, have to pretend they love each other, and, of course, they end up truly loving each other, even if they are the last ones to realize it. In Hitchcock’s “39 Steps”, for example, you have a couple who hate each other throughout the film, but the fact that they always stand so close to each other and appear to love each other make it obvious that there is something more to their relationship – and, in the end, their apparent love becomes real.

When we claim that comedy provides a different culture of the imaginary, what we are claiming is that comedy provides a way to deal with illusions in a different manner than the one formulated in the imperative ‘be a subject’. This has been pointed out by Karl Marx. Marx made use of the notion of comedy when he declared that “the German regime, as opposed to the French one, only imagines that it believes in itself, and it asks the world to imagine this also” (Marx 1844: 134). He maintained that the German regime of his time is a comedian, whereas the French regime was a tragic hero. France had reasons to believe in itself – Germany only needed to make the world believe in believing in itself.

What is interesting here is the level at which Marx situates the distinction between comedy and tragedy. Marx’s theory is different from the classical theory of, for example, Aristotle, who situates the difference between comedy and tragedy at the sociological level of its heroes. Aristotle’s definition states that comedy seeks to imitate an inferior individual, whereas tragedy aims at painting an individual who is superior to those who exist in life, making, thus, the difference between the genres a sociological one. Marx, on the contrary, locates this difference on the level of the imaginary of the heroes. Tragedy deals, as Marx shows, with belief in oneself. Comedy, on the contrary, is about what other people are supposed to believe.

The Two Forms of the Imaginary

This distinction coincides with the crucial distinction made by the French psychoanalyst Octave Mannoni between two forms of illusion: faith and belief. Faith concerns an illusion which we proudly claim for ourselves. By contrast, belief concerns illusions which are never claimed for ourselves, illusions which must, therefore, appear as illusions held by other people.

A carefully reflected political conviction, for instance, will constitute part of our self-respect as “faith“. A favourable horoscope that we happen to read in a daily paper will by contrast reinforce our alacrity in our daily endeavours and prompt us -perhaps in the awareness that we do not believe in such a thing- to smile. Faith produces pride; beliefs, on the contrary, provide us with pleasure. In the terms of Sigmund Freud, this can be formulated as follows: faith accumulates ego-libido; beliefs decathect object-libido.

Reinforcing the side of object-libido is the most basic task of materialist ideology – a program which is clearly formulated, for example, in many poems of Bertolt Brecht. This materialist program fights against idealist attempts to seduce the individuals by the lures of ego-libido, as can be seen, for example, in the reactionary imperative “Be yourself!” that resonates in every second Hip Hop song. How much times have changed in this respect can be seen by the fact that three decades ago pop music still formulated claims which were much more progressive and less modest – from time to time even highly idealist bands like the Doors provided a thoroughly materialist line, for example when they sung “We want the world, and we want it now!”

It is at this precise point that we see the importance of Althusser’s formulation of materialism in the principle ‘do not tell yourself stories’. ‘Do not tell yourself stories’ means, in the first place, do not only strive for those stories with which you fully identify. This is, of course, opposed to the post-modern principle of tolerance, which states that everybody should be allowed to tell his or her story. We see this realised in TV talk shows where everybody is able to tell his or her story – the more bizarre, the better. Materialism would counter this with a different principle, which could be formulated as follows – ‘everybody should be able to sympathize with a story that is not his own’, or: ‘everybody should be given the necessary means in order not to be restricted just to his or her story’, or, better: ‘everybody should be enabled to sympathise with a story which is, maybe, nobody’s own story’. In other words, with an illusion which is not a subjective illusion, which is not the faith of anybody, but an illusion which is in the nature of what Mannoni calls a belief; that is to say, an objective illusion, an illusion without owners. So, instead of saying ‘believe in yourself! Tell your story!’, materialism would say – ‘tell something others may believe in’. Against the imaginary self-image of individuals -the self-respect based on ego-libido- comedy takes the side of appearance. In comedy, what counts is not what you believe of yourself, but what others could have believed.

Comedy -which exemplifies not only the objectivity of truth, but also the objectivity as appearance- is the most important materialist instrument of our times, the most critical position against contemporary ideology. As Richard Sennett has remarked, “Western societies since the ‘60s have changed from being outside-governed to being inside-governed” (Sennett [1974]). Therefore, the crucial question to which any individual or social process is submitted to is the question ‘what does this mean to me?’. People, for example, do not ask: ‘am I getting enough money for this job?’. They ask: ‘what does this work mean to me? Can I really identify with this job?’. In asking these questions, they are ready to undergo short-cuts in terms of payment to remarkable extents.

The subjectivization corresponding to the post-modern imperative ‘be yourself’ makes possible a total retreat of individuals from the public sphere – a retreat most welcome to neo-liberal capitalist interests. Post-modern individuals spontaneously renounce any dimension of public life because they mistake the stake of the struggle for the enemy. The goods which are at stake in the struggle are condemned, as they now pertain to the enemy in the struggle. But, in renouncing them, one only ensures that this will continue to be the case – that they will continue to pertain to the enemy. Renouncing any public dimension of life, renouncing public appearance -as neo-liberal ideology encourages us to do- means that we renounce happiness. Because, as Octave Mannoni has demonstrated, happiness is precisely linked to public appearance, to the sphere of what other people could have believed. The French philosopher Alain has shown this nicely in his studies on happiness, where he claimed that you create happiness by acting as if you are happy.

Appearing in public, making other people believe that you are happy seems to be the most reliable source of true happiness – everything that provides pleasure depends on the dimension of what other people could, potentially, believe. This is the dimension of comedy. Insisting on this dimension of everyday life, comedy, public appearance, is therefore the contemporary mode of the materialist’s most basic claim: the claim for happiness in this only world that we have.


[1989] On Happiness. Chicago: Northwestern Univ. Press

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[1975] Is it Simple to be a Marxist in Philosophy?, in: id., Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists & Other Essays, Ed. with an introduction by G. Elliott, London/New York: Verso, 1990: 203-240.
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Critchley, Simon
[1999]Comedy and Finitude: Displacing the Tragic-Heroic Paradigm in Philosophy and Psychoanalysis, in: id., Ethics-Politics-Subjectivity. Essays on Derrida, Levinas and Contemporary French Thought, London/ New York: Verso, 1999: 217-238

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Pfaller, Robert (ed.)
[2005] Stop That Comedy! On the Subtle Hegemony of the Tragic in Our Culture, (In English and German), Vienna: Sonderzahl

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  • About

    Robert Pfaller is Professor of Philosophy and Cultural Studies at the University of Art and Industrial Design, Linz and at the Technical University of Vienna.

    His essay 'The Order of Appearance' appears in Bedeutung Magazine Issue 1/ Nature & Culture, available here for purchase.