In ‘Comedy and Finitude’, chapter 10 of Ethics— Politics— Subjectivity, Simon Critchley explains that, in the context of post-Kantian philosophy, art has taken the place that religion and metaphysics once had, of providing models and tools for grappling with existential concerns. In ‘Comedy and Finitude’, Critchley specifically discusses tragedy, and explains how it has represented an influence on the problem of death, of the possibility of our own impossibility, in many modern thinkers. Critchley criticizes tragedy as a model for resolving this tension, and instead presents comedy as a preferable solution. In this paper, I will try to expand Critchley’s by analogizing dramatic tragedy with Francis Bacon’s portraiture, and Pop art with Harpo Marx’s comedic performance.

I will first expand on the meaning of finitude in this context, then the meaning of tragedy, and finally the meaning of comedy. Then I will apply both concepts to Francis Bacon’s art, through Gilles Deleuze’s skillful analysis and do the same to Pop art by Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein.


Finitude itself is a very important concept, in Heideggerian, Hegelian, and Lacanian philosophy, all of which are deeply involved in Critchley’s argumentation. Moreover, it reflects a philosophically and psychologically resonant idea: that as (human) beings, we are at odds with the limitations inherent to our being distinct from the rest of the world we perceive. In The Phenomenology of Spirit, self-consciousness emerges when we encounter the first entity in the world that that frustrates us in our freedom to dispose of our environment as we will it. In the events that follow this encounter, we are forced to understand ourself as finite, as we eventually find our very life threatened by the other being. Obviously, this last part might not resonate as much with our autobiographical memories as the freedom to dispose part might, but the fact is that death exemplifies our status as physically limited beings, our understanding of the contingency of our own existence is deeply connected to our experiences of being limited in our agency while we are existent.

Heidegger’s involvement in this mirrors a more subtle lesson in Hegel’s Phenomenology, that an understanding of the limited nature of our own existence is necessary to live authentically. In Hegel, this is shown, rather than told, in the Being that first faces down the possibility of its own negation, who can then overthrow the other— ‘the truth of the independent consciousness is accordingly the servile consciousness’ (paragraph 193), because while the dominant consciousness relies on the dominated, the dominated consciousness is grounded in its own reality by recognition of its own finitude, something that the dominant consciousness yet lacks. (The reader should note, this is not work original to this paper. I performed a more detailed analysis, purely of the Hegel, along these lines a few years ago, for another paper.)

Critchley quotes Heidegger to prove this point: ‘only being-free for death brings Dasein into the simplicity of its fate.’ (Critchley quotes on page 221) However, an important difference between Heidegger and Hegel actually prefigures Critchley’s criticism. The term being-free is very different from the acknowledgement that Hegel makes mention of in paragraph 194, and this difference prefigures the criticism Critchley directs towards Heidegger and Lacan, which I will cover next.

What is Tragedy?

Critchley’s explanation of tragedy is based around Lacan’s Seminar VIII, wherein Lacan presents desire as the measure of action. Though we do not need to fully resolve the terminology here, we can think of desire as the measure that we can judge an action by, at least in the context of psychoanalysis. He asks his students: ‘have you acted in conformity with the desire that is in you?’ Critchley interprets Lacan as endorsing being true to one’s desire as the basic theme of tragedy, embodied in Heidegger’s freiheit-zum-tode, freedom towards death, a carefree attitude we can even represent as laughing in the face of death. If we stop a moment and consider my analysis of the Hegelian passage that has obviously inspired Heidegger’s reasoning, we can now see an even bigger difference between passionate (as Heidegger describes it) or manic (as Critchley describes it), and definitely anxious (as Heidegger admits it) disposition that Heidegger suggests we adopt towards finitude, and the one Hegel predicts in The Phenomenology of Spirit.

Obviously divergence from Hegel is not always a fatal flaw in philosophy, so I will continue to explain Critchley’s points. The very remarkable thing about Lacan’s account, per Critchley, is that it imagines the death drive is the root of desire. As Critchley says, this means that a pure, heroic, and tragic figure will be true to their desire for death. As unreasonable as this might sound, Lacan’s direct opposition between tragedy, and comedy, what he describes as ‘the flight of life’, and this phrase: ‘life doesn’t want to be healed… life is concerned solely with dying’ from seminar XVIII of book II, makes it clear this is a plausible stance of his.

Grasping Death, Suicidal Heroics

Critchley’s counterpoint is a little bit more elegant than the one that originally comes to mind ‘but isn’t dying pretty undesirable?’ Critchley rightly points out that that death is impossible from a phenomenological perspective, because death is only possible when a being is not. This means that instead of ‘grasping’ death, we should actually be grasping its impossibility. In a discussion of the same topic in Very Little… Almost Nothing, Critchley explains that despite the immense resolve required for, and power demonstrated by, suicide, choosing your own impossibility, is ultimately futile, because one can never actually be dead. Death is the ‘impossibility of possibilities’, Critchley argues from Levinas, and once death has passed over us, we cannot be dead as much as we cannot be anything else.

Thinking that I want to be dead, saying that I want to be dead, or die, making myself dead, is then actually inauthentic, self-deceptive. This might still seem very unreasonable, but we should keep in mind that Heidegger certainly chose phenomenology as his for a reason, and abandoning its logic when it deviates from conventional and conservative ontology is contrary to the whole ethos of Being and Time: ‘the question of Being does not achieve its true concreteness until we have carried through the process of destroying the ontological tradition.’ (Heidegger, h. 26)

If you imagine the manic laughter of the suicidally brave tragic hero, you might now that the object of the hero’s determination is unachievable, and that the tragic hero’s seeming acceptance of the ‘possibility of impossibility’, is inauthentic self-deception.

Comedy Instead

Though the reader might be justifiably dubious of this argumentation taken as ontological, psychological, or psychoanalytic truth, it sets us up for a strong aesthetic and narrative criticism of tragic heroism: manic and defiant heroism that embraces death centers around a future possibility that can never be phenomenologically realized. Whenever we might wish to consider the before and after in tragic sacrifice, we are denied the possibility of the first person perspective on the after.

What comedy has to offer us instead is a portrayal of the life that ‘slides away, steals away, flees, escapes all those barriers that oppose it’ (Critchley quotes Lacan, 227), the truth of our (the viewers’s) lives that have kept rumbling, tumbling, and bouncing forward, keeping intact in spite of all obstacles. However, Lacan and Critchley are both careful to remind us, it is not the thriving that laughter celebrates, but the cowardly slipping and sliding.

This is deviously elaborated on through the figure of Harpo Marx, a genius Fool and a mute comedian. His muteness, representative of the category of the Fool in drama, is able to ‘speak truth to power’ through its silence. Critchley parallels this muteness with an impenetrability of the face, an inability to be interpreted: he is simultaneously innocent and perverted, vulnerable and menacing, continually running out of our comprehension in his refusal to speak. To go a step further in analyzing Lacan than Critchley himself was inclined to go, consider the ‘Seminar on “The Purloined Letter”’, where a classic Poe detective fiction is deployed to explain three role reversals, all of which correspond to the changing relationship the characters have to a written letter (used for blackmail), that itself represents the Letter, what Lacan calls the symbolic order. Even if we take Lacan with a grain of salt with respect to psychological truth, we can nonetheless better understand the significance of a refusal to speak in Critchley’s argumentation.

Muteness refuses the symbolic order, and defies the viewer’s comprehension of the mute Fool Harpo. The Fool, Critchley seems to suggest, presents a similar relationship between viewer and narrative to the understanding understanding he wants us to find towards finitude itself. When Lacan says that life steals away, Critchley means that finitude itself steals out of our grasp, probably at the same time death itself does.

Comedy and laughter, Critchley suggests, return our attention to the meager and shabby state of our own being, precisely without a frame of reference to put itself in (that is, lacking comprehension of our beginning and end), a moment of humility that is also a huge release. I find it a relief to acknowledge this Socratic truth long obscured by a dogmatic metaphysics/heroism: ‘I am wiser than this man; it is likely that neither of us knows anything worthwhile, but he thinks he knows something when he does not, whereas when I do not know, neither do I think I know; so I am likely to be wiser than he to this small extent, that I do not think I know what I do not know.’ (Plato trans. G.M.A. Grube, Apology, 21d) This is a deeply comedic passage itself, because it combines a noble humility with comical humiliation.

Tragic-Heroic Art

Let us proceed to tragic-heroic visual art. Please consider Francis Bacon’s portrait of Pope Innocent Ⅹ (a study after Diego Velázquez). Bacon’s portraiture is animal, violent, powerful, and entrancing, and this is certainly a part of why Gilles Deleuze chose to write an entire book on him. Of particular interest to us from Francis Bacon: the logic of sensation are the chapters ‘Body, Meat, and Spirit, Becoming-Animal’, and ‘Painting Forces.’

Deleuze says that Bacon’s objective is to ‘dismantle the face, to rediscover the head or make it emerge from beneath the face’. This objective is precisely making the physical body visible from under the existential face, revealing the meat itself that lies beneath the Being that we recognize in front of us. Meat manifests the tragic and terrible physicality of a still living being, the tension between life and function, and death and entropy. ‘The spinal cord is nothing but a sword slipped into the body of an innocent sleeper by an executioner.’ (Deleuze, 23)

The flesh is finite, and the person inhabiting us is left in the piteous state of attempting to grapple with this fact. Bacon is like an older teenager looking at an automobile: armed with the knowledge a bit of sugar in the wrong place can wreck it, but now more disturbed than when he learned this, because he now (knows that he) also has a car, and that there are a bunch of hooligans that seem to enjoy putting sugar in gas tanks.

However, there is something heroic in Bacon’s artwork: the forces that it brings to life. Deleuze titled the eighth chapter of Francis Bacon ‘Painting Forces’ for good reason: Bacon makes forces, energy, and movement visible in his work. Bacon and Deleuze both choose Bacon’s phrase ‘paint the scream’ to represent the force-revealing ethos in his art. The place where the scream makes force visible is the mouth, the meat of the body that emerges from under the face, at the point of contact between being and finitude, the problem-point of being-towards-death. While this is not immediately reminiscent of Heidegger’s freiheit-zum-tode, freedom towards death, they are closely related because they both represent grasping death as a) possible, and b) a source of power.

Deleuze moves right upon the same heroic tension that Critchley explains in Very Little… Almost Nothing: ‘life screams at death, but death is no longer the all-too-visible thing that makes us faint; it is this invisible force that life detects, flushes out, and makes visible through the scream.’ The harmony continues even beyond this: ‘Bacon, no less than Beckett, is one of the artists, who in the name of a very intense life, can call for an even more intense life.’ ‘The same homage should be paid to Bacon as can be paid to Beckett or Kafka… They have given life a new and extremely direct power of laughter.’ This laughter is exactly the manic-heroic-solitary laughter that Critchley points out in tragic heroism.

Pop Art

To summarize, Deleuze’s Bacon tries to make a grotesque sort of heroism visible in portraiture, and this heroism parallels the relation to finitude that Critchley criticizes in to drama and philosophy. Given the flaws of dramatic tragedy that we have already investigated, If Bacon’s portraits are not suitable as visual depictions and models for our existential condition, what is? Pop art.

The fortuitous thing about pop art is that we already know it is comedic, that really isn’t the issue. Rather, the issue is to more directly reveal a model relation to finitude in Pop art, because just being funny is not enough to explain how any art movement could be superior to the Francis Bacon’s fantastic work in any respect. I will try to do for Pop art Critchley did for Harpo Marx.

For a perfect example, let’s look at Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Diptych, a painting that portrays finitude from an third-person perspective. Stokstad and Cothren observe that this piece is a subtly religious memorial to the recently (at the time of production) deceased actress Marilyn Monroe. They rightly assert that this silk-screened diptych does not represent the real person, Norma Jeane, but the Hollywood sex symbol, her stage persona, Marilyn Monroe. The left half, colored in, can be seen as an representation of her alive and vibrant, while the right, monochromatic and faded, can be seen as representing her after her death, falling into obscurity. However, the object plays the Fool, and speaks truth to power: recall once again that the unreal phenomenon of Marilyn Monroe is shown on both halves. This is reaffirmed by the mass-produced character of the screen-printed medium: the faces on the left are also weak and dead in their own way, despite representing a supposedly living person. The question that this raises about Marilyn Monroe is whether she ever had any life to begin with. The right hand faces have a greater force and vitality to them than the left do, because despite representing the ostensibly infinite sameness of non-being, they also represent her image and self falling out of reality and culture, and this motion and trajectory give her a certain kind of organic feeling absent in the vibrant, yet static images on the left.

Marilyn Diptych displays the sex symbol’s ‘life’ on the left in the perfect comedic (in the sense of black comedy) way that puts all of its paleness, sameness, and ordinariness on display. In pornography and other forms of sexually titillating media, the sexual availability of the woman involved is the most common foundation, her sexual openness and ‘active participation’ in the sex act complement each other in the patriarchical sexuality on display, but under the Fool’s technique objectification is ‘followed through’ on, and we see the violent desire of patriarchy underneath such depictions that makes Marilyn’s body and disturbing smile the repeated element across film and media. Marilyn Diptych suggests that ‘Marilyn Monroe’ was an objectified commodity, put in films as a sexual prop rather than a person or character to be represented and considered.

This kind of reflection on sexual media and art itself invites the viewer to consider the cruel fact also behind Critchley’s argument for comedy, that it is possible to make sexually exploitative and objectifying images of Beings, that life is simultaneously all we have, yet at the same time reducible in image and description, just a warm body. Life slips out, runs away, and keeps going, but it doesn’t seem heroic or sacred: this realization brings the Socratic humility mentioned earlier.

Warhol’s pop art piece again perfectly plays the Fool here in its muteness: is this a memorial to Monroe, lamenting the death of the sex symbol, her image on the right pitifully draining away, is it a criticism of the undifferentiated reproduction of her headless face (in the sense that Deleuze uses the term, the face being the concealment, and the head being the flesh under it) during her life? The same features that make the piece so provocative and wonderful are the ones that leave it out of a committed position, mimicking the penetrating silence of Critchley’s presentation of Harpo Marx.

Roy Lichtenstein’s parody art of comic books are also excellent examples of Foolish Pop art. They naively reproduce the formal parameters of comic book panels, blown up at massive scale. They innocently ‘repeat’ the image seen in the comic book, yet at a substantially larger scale, and divorced from its narrative context. These images are so interesting because they, in many cases, were obviously intended to represent a dramatic and emotional moment. A girl drowning, and a plane being blown up, are both larger than life, and totally emotionally deflated, inviting a comparison that is ridiculous, funny, and very sad. If you realize the contradiction between the dull and undifferentiated features of the characters and the melodramatic content they are supposed to deliver, sorrowful laughter is irresistible. This is what our own problems and anguishes look out of context and emotional investment, aren’t they side-splittingly hilarious?


Pop art is incredibly valuable in that it reflects the forms of modernity and mass media back on themselves, in a mute Foolishness reminiscent of Harpo Marx, and reflects a relationship of humility to life, achievement, and society, rather than the conventional paradigm of unrealizable and inauthentic, death-seeking heroism. If I had to put it in a sentence: Pop art manifests humility.


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	author = {Simon Critchley},
	title = {Ethics--- Politics--- Subjectivity},
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	booktitle = {Complete Works},
	publisher = {Hackett},
	editor = {D. S. Hutchinson},
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