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Thinking Through Tragedy and Comedy A Symposium on Performance Philosophy and the Future of Genre

Anna Kawalec

Comic agents. Alfred Gell’s new paradigm of comedy

Aristotle’s distinction between tragedy and comedy, and his unambiguous preference of the former, consistently shaped the Mediterranean culture as a relatively stable cultural construct. Fortunately, many of features attributed to tragedy equally applied to the comedy, including: its philosophical nature, generality, probability, necessity, priority of the construction of the comic plot with regard to the identification of the characters (1451b), and, above all, their attribution to the category of “ the rest” (“Rest and wit are something essential in life,” Nicomachean Ethics 1128b). Henceforth, there have been periods and settings in our culture, in which comedy celebrated its triumphs over tragedy, while the latter underwent a ‘fossilization’ of the genre.

In my presentation I intend to expand the limits of the genre of comedy. I follow Henri Bergson, who – in the now classic study – highlighted the role of laughter as a ‘battering ram’ disrupting the inertia of thinking and manners, constituting a form of defense of humans and culture against the determinations of matter. Alfred Gell, a remarkable contemporary anthropologist, stemming from B. Malinowski’s school, self-attributed with a special ‘comic’ disposition, which – as he admitted – significantly influenced his research attitude and teaching activities, likewise explicitly affirmed the subversive function of laughter. For him, however, the background was not, as in the case of Bergson, constituted by matter opposing human spirit, but rather by the context of social communication. Laughter was conceived by Gell to function as a medium of interpersonal culture, it constituted “the spirit of comedy,” which turned out to revolutionize thinking, field anthropology and contributed to the formulation of the standards of modernity. The focus of my analysis is Gell’s concept of comedy (transgressing the dichotomies: suffering vs. laughter, violence vs. ethics, universal vs. particular) and the specific identity of agents in comedy against the context of the classical (mainly Aristotelian) paradigm.

Anna Kawalec is an adjunct professor at the Chair of Theory of Culture and Art, John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin (Poland). Received her M.A. in Polish philology, specializing in the history and theory of theatre, and her Ph.D. in philosophy (the dissertation – in Polish – titled Theatre as a personal sign of human being was written at the seminar on philosophy of God and religion). She was a high school teacher, managed authorial youth theatre „Dziung’s Theatre”, developing a version of Michail Checkhov’s method. She contributed to research on anthropological and ethical personalism in the Institute of John Paul II (Lublin). Was a visiting fellow in The Theatre Faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts (DAMU in Prague). Her papers and organized conferences focus on philosophy of art, theatre and performance; she edited On the notion of art in contemporary culture (in Polish; Lublin 2010) and Between authenticity and pretending. Creative attitudes in contemporary culture (in Polish; Lublin 2013). A member of the European Society for Aesthetics and Polish Aesthetics Society, and member of the editorial board of “Annals of Culture Studies” (Lublin).