Academic Book Review

Alenka Zupančič, The Odd One In: On Comedy (Short Circuits), Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009, 230 pp., $21.95 (paperback).

Reviewed by Steven F. Rafferty University of Southern California

Like all of the books in the Short Circuits series, edited by Slavoj Žižek, Alenka Zupančič’s study of comedy seeks to cross two wires—one “a major classic (text, author, notion)” and the other a “’minor’ author, text, or conceptual apparatus”—to produce a reading that leads “to insights which completely shatter and undermine our common perceptions” (p. ix). Comedy, the object of Zupančič’s study, “is frequently used as a general name for (almost) everything that is funny, as a label that covers several different, more specific modes of comedy, such as jokes, irony, humor, and so on” (p. 9).

In the field of communication studies, the scope of the term comedy ranges from water-cooler humor in interpersonal and organizational studies to the ambiguous conceptions of an attitude toward history or frame of acceptance in rhetorical and critical approaches to discourse. Zupančič’s reading of comedy proceeds from the short circuit that is produced by crossing the wires of representation and difference. The conception of representation Zupančič employs is inherited from Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. The competing conceptions of difference found in the theoretical works of Jacques Lacan and Gilles Deleuze inform the consideration of the short circuit that occurs when these wires are crossed. By crossing these wires, the study draws together three important lines of thought within communication studies: (a) The ongoing consideration of psychoanalytic theory’s value and usefulness to the field; (b) critiques of the neo-Aristotelian and neo-Kantian influences on theories of comedy found in the works of Kenneth Burke and Suzanne K. Langer; and ultimately, (c) the conception of difference itself—a topic that has always been timely and vital to the study of communication, but becomes especially urgent in hyper-modern, globalizing communication ecologies.

The body of the book is divided into three main sections and an (essential) appendix. The three sections are devoted to reconsiderations of the “comical” and its representation, figuration, and conceptualization in comical expressions. The appendix returns the tracing of comedy presented in the body of the book to the map of the Real that we encounter in the three orders of the Lacanian structure of the psyche, ultimately advancing a rereading of castration in relation to Lacan’s broader project. Not only does the book introduce new depth and clarity to previous conceptions of comedy that are incorporated into communication studies from philosophy, psychology, sociology, and literary criticism, it also presents an argument bearing on the utility of Lacanian and Deleuzian frameworks in critical communication studies.

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Zupancic Review

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