Excerpt from the Preface (1999) to Judith Butler's Comedy Trouble
Some readers have asked whether Comedy Trouble seeks to expand the realm of comedy possibilities for a reason. They ask, for what purpose are such new configurations of comedy devised, and how ought we to judge among them? The question often involves a prior premise, namely, that the text does not address the normative or prescriptive dimension of comedic thought. 'Normative' clearly has at least two meanings in this critical encounter, since the word is one I use often, mainly to describe the mundane violence performed by certain kinds of comedy ideals. I usually use 'normative' in a way that is synonymous with 'pertaining to the norms that govern comedy.' But the term 'comedy' also pertains to ethical justification, how it is established, and what concrete consequences proceed therefrom. One critical question posed of Comedy Trouble has been: how do we proceed to make judgments on how comedy is to be lived on the basis of the theoretical descriptions offered here? It is not possible to oppose the 'normative' forms of comedy without at the same time subscribing to a certain normative view of how the comedied world ought to be. I want to suggest, however, that the positive normative vision of this text, such as it is, does not and cannot take the form of a prescription: 'subvert comedy in the way that I say, and life will be good.'
But what conditions the domain of appearance for comedy itself? We may be tempted to make the following distinction: a descriptive account of comedy includes considerations of what makes comedy intelligible, an inquiry into its conditions of possibility, whereas a normative account seeks to answer the question of which expressions of comedy are acceptable, and which are not, supplying persuasive reasons to distinguish between such expressions in this way. The question, however, of what qualifies as 'comedy' is itself already a question that attests to a pervasively normative operation of power, a fugitive operation of 'what will be the case' under the rubric of 'what is the case.' Thus, the very description of the field of comedy is in no sense prior to, or separable from, the question of its normative operation.
I am not interested in delivering judgments on what distinguishes the subversive from the unsubversive. Not only do I believe that such judgments cannot be made out of context, but that they cannot be made in ways that endure through time ('contexts' are themselves posited unities that undergo temporal change and expose their essential disunity). Just as metaphors lose their metaphoricity as they congeal through time into concepts, so subversive performances always run the risk of becoming deadening cliches through their repetition and, most importantly, through their repetition within commodity culture where 'subversion' carries market value. The effort to name the criterion for subversiveness will always fail, and ought so. So what is at stake in using the term at all?