How should we understand Karl Marx’s formulation: “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce”?
Zizek gives the example of the brutal working conditions of 19th century factories, followed by “capitalism with a human face” of today. Largely thanks to Roderick Tweady's book The God of the Left Hemisphere, I see what Marx and Zizek are saying now, and the insight is worth the time invested in seeing it.
One of the many insights I’ve gotten from Tweady's book is that Reason is dialectically opposed to Energy (rather than to emotion as has been assumed since Romanticism up to pop psychology today. Emotion is better conceived as the gateway for bodily energy to the mind, but it is still up in the head.) Interestingly, William Blake identified this opposition in his work The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1793) when energy was still primarily a religious concept, over a decade before Thomas Young formulated it as scientific concept in 1802. (“Force” an “vis viva” were the scientific terms used to describe an object’s potential for motion at this time.)
I think the dialectical opposition between Reason and Energy is an important one, perhaps the driving force within human culture. The primary thesis of Tweady's book is that beginning 8,000 years ago, human tools and social institutions have favored the left-hemisphere of the brain, effectively handicapping the right-hemisphere’s rightful place as an equal partner in mental activity. Harvard neuroscientist Jill Bolte-Taylor provides an account of this handicapping in her TED talk where she describes a stroke that temporarily shut down her left-hemisphere, allowing her, for the first time, to see the world through the right hemisphere’s perspective.
Reason is the marshalling of real existing energies. When these energies are left unidentified, reason becomes rationalization, most often used to justify unspoken ego drives.
Marx’s formula “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce” I think is a profound example of the relationship between reason and energy.
Psychoanalyst Wolfgang Giegerich, begins his book “The Soul’s Logical Life” with an analogy for the relationship between logic and energy:
There is an Old Icelandic saga about a young man who was a stay-at-home. His mother could not stand this and tried to rouse him with biting remarks. Finally she was successful. The young man got up from behind the stove where he had been sitting and, taking his spear, left the house. Outside, he threw his spear as far as he could and then ran up to the place where it had landed in order to retrieve it. At this new point, he again threw the spear as far ahead as possible and then followed it, and so on. In this way, with these literal "projections" that he then had to catch up with, he made a way for himself from the comfort of home into the outside world.(
Logic, like a spear thrown into the Arctic snow, is the creation of “projections” which it is then up to our life energies to catch up to. I think this process is what “First as Tragedy, then as Farce” is describing. When a new projection is “thrown out” into culture, its potential brilliance and beauty is never fully realized. Then, within market cultures, the original visionary potential will necessarily be capitalized on in superficial ways. Andy Warhol is a farce of Van Gogh's mode of existence, in the same way that neoliberalism is a farce of communism.
The point is: always be aware of the energies being marshalled by various rational systems!
Tweady's book also insightfully explores the significance of all of this for science, especially in the context of the careerist political maneuverings that scientists today must make to thrive within the university system.