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Comedy and Critical Thought: Laughter as Resistance
 9781786604064, 9781786604071, 9781786604088

Table of contents :
Comedy and Critical Thought
1 Introduction: Setting the Agenda
Part I: Comedy, Critique and Resistance
2 Diagrams of Comic Estrangement
3 ‘Against the Assault of Laughter’: Differentiating Critical and Resistant Humour
4 Can We Learn the Truth from Lenny Bruce? A Careful Cognitivism about Satire
5 Laughter, Liturgy, Lacan and Resistance to Capitalist Logic
6 Humitas: Humour as Performative Resistance
Part II: Laughter as Resistance?
7 Conformist Comedians: Political Humour in the Eighteenth-Century Dutch Republic
8 First World War Cartoon Comedy as Criticism of British Politics and Society
9 A Suspended Pratfall: Mimesis and Slapstick in Contemporary Art
10 ‘Life’ in Struggle: The Indifferent Humour of Beckett’s Prose Heroes
11 ‘Holiday in Cambodia’: Punk’s Acerbic Comedy
12 ‘What Can’t Be Cured Must Be Endured’: The Postcolonial Humour of Salman Rushdie, Sami Shah and Hari Kondabolu
13 Political Jester: From Fool to King
14 Three Easy Steps to a New You? Or, Some Thoughts on the Politics of Humour in the Workplace . . .
About the Contributors

Citation preview

Comedy and Critical Thought

Experiments/On the Political Series Editors: Amanda Giorgio, University of Massachusetts Amherst, and Iain MacKenzie, University of Kent This series reflects on how interdisciplinary and/or practice-led thought can create the conditions for experimental thinking about politics and the political. What if the domain of the political is not what we usually think it is? Are there ways of thinking about the nature of politics and the political that can take us beyond frameworks of conflict and cooperation? These questions derive from a commitment to the idea that political thought has not yet exhausted its creative potential with regard to what constitutes the political domain. It is also motivated by the desire for political theory to become a genuinely creative discipline, open to collaborative interdisciplinary efforts in innovation. Moreover, if our understanding of the political world is to keep pace with political events then it is important that political theorists do not simply presume that they express one or other of these dominant models of the political; rather they should remain open to the possibility that experiments in politics may be happening ‘on the street’ in ways that require theorists to think differently about what is meant by ‘the political’. Titles in the Series The Political Space of Art: The Dardenne Brothers, Ai Weiwei, Burial and Arundhati Roy Benoît Dillet and Tara Puri

Comedy and Critical Thought Laughter as Resistance

Krista Bonello Rutter Giappone, Fred Francis and Iain MacKenzie

Published by Rowman & Littlefield International Ltd Unit A, Whitacre Mews, 26–34 Stannary Street, London SE11 4AB Rowman & Littlefield International Ltd. is an affiliate of Rowman & Littlefield 4501 Forbes Boulevard, Suite 200, Lanham, Maryland 20706, USA With additional offices in Boulder, New York, Toronto (Canada), and Plymouth (UK) Copyright © 2018 Krista Bonello Rutter Giappone, Fred Francis and Iain MacKenzie All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote passages in a review. British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library ISBN:

HB 978-1-7866-0406-4 PB  978-1-7866-0407-1

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data ISBN 978-1-78660-406-4 (cloth) ISBN 978-1-78660-407-1 (paper) ISBN 978-1-78660-408-8 (electronic) The paper used in this publication meets the minimum requirements of American National Standard for Information Sciences—Permanence of Paper for Printed Library Materials, ANSI/NISO Z39.48–1992. Printed in the United States of America


Acknowledgementsvii  1 Introduction: Setting the Agenda Krista Bonello Rutter Giappone, Fred Francis and Iain MacKenzie




 2 Diagrams of Comic Estrangement James Williams


 3 ‘Against the Assault of Laughter’: Differentiating Critical and Resistant Humour Nicholas Holm


 4 Can We Learn the Truth from Lenny Bruce? A Careful Cognitivism about Satire Dieter Declercq


 5 Laughter, Liturgy, Lacan and Resistance to Capitalist Logic Francis Stewart


 6 Humitas: Humour as Performative Resistance Kate Fox




 7 Conformist Comedians: Political Humour in the Eighteenth-Century Dutch Republic Ivo Nieuwenhuis





 8 First World War Cartoon Comedy as Criticism of British Politics and Society Pip Gregory


 9 A Suspended Pratfall: Mimesis and Slapstick in Contemporary Art Levi Hanes


10 ‘Life’ in Struggle: The Indifferent Humour of Beckett’s Prose Heroes Selvin Yaltir


11 ‘Holiday in Cambodia’: Punk’s Acerbic Comedy Russ Bestley 12 ‘What Can’t Be Cured Must Be Endured’: The Postcolonial Humour of Salman Rushdie, Sami Shah and Hari Kondabolu Christine Caruana 13 Political Jester: From Fool to King Constantino Pereira Martins 14 Three Easy Steps to a New You? Or, Some Thoughts on the Politics of Humour in the Workplace . . . Adrian Hickey, Giuliana Monteverde and Robert Porter


185 201


Index229 About the Contributors



We would like to thank everyone involved in this project, from its inception to publication. Dieter Declercq and Oliver Double deserve particular mention here, as co-organisers of the conference (Comedy and Critical Thought, University of Kent, 2016) that launched the dialogue presented here. Their tireless efforts were instrumental in getting this project off the ground. We would also like to thank the University of Kent, in particular the Centre for Critical Thought and the School of Arts, for supporting and hosting the event. None of this would have been possible without this concerted effort. Special thanks go out to all of our contributors, who have been with us all the way and have made this volume what it is.


Chapter 1

Introduction: Setting the Agenda Krista Bonello Rutter Giappone, Fred Francis and Iain MacKenzie

[Foucault laughs.] This particular textual insert is taken from Foucault’s famous discussion with Noam Chomsky, ‘Human Nature: Justice vs Power. A Debate between Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault’.1 It could, however, have been taken from many of Foucault’s interviews and discussions in which we see the same insert. Foucault saw the humour in these situations, but he also used humour to make critical interventions. This particular case, though, is a good example of both. Early in their discussion both thinkers gave lengthy responses when probed on their respective views on human nature. The moderator of the conversation, Fons Elders, gently reproaches them both for these lengthy responses when he says ‘may I first of all ask you not to make your answers so lengthy’.2 It is the first time in the discussion that we find the insert ‘[Foucault laughs.]’. As the discussion turns to the nature of justice and power, and the differences between their respective positions become rather more pointed, Chomsky gives a (lengthy) overview of how he understands the role of justice in the fight against oppressive forms of power, how this can be mobilised as popular struggle and how it can avoid the tendency of popular struggle to replace one oppressive regime with another. He concludes: ‘Give an argument that the social revolution that you’re trying to achieve is in the ends of justice, is in the ends of realizing fundamental human needs, not merely in the ends of putting some other group into power, because they want it’.3 Foucault’s response seems initially oblique: ‘Well, do I have time to answer?’ As Elders responds, ‘yes’ and Foucault asks ‘how much?’ he is met with the answer ‘two minutes’. At which point we find the particular insert we have in mind: ‘[Foucault laughs]’. As Foucault responds ‘But I would say that that is unjust’ we also get the insert ‘[Everybody laughs]’.4 At which point we become aware that Foucault was quite an accomplished sit-down comedian! Chomsky’s response ‘Absolutely, yes’ has no following 1


Chapter 1

insert, even though we plainly see on the video of the discussion, that Chomsky did, if not laugh, at least chuckle along with Foucault’s humour.5 The point is not that the textual version of this exchange is somehow unfair in painting Foucault the humourist against Chomsky the dry scholar. Rather, the point is that the text accurately represents the moment when humour was used by Foucault to effect a critical interjection, one that finds Chomsky simply laughing along with him. But what critical point is being made? What is crucial in these responses is that Foucault is already questioning the ways in which arguments are framed: the rules and regularities, in this case, of a televised discussion which sets limits on what can be said and what must therefore remain unsaid. It is telling because it immediately brings to the fore that all argument is set by such limits, that Foucault is (obliquely, for sure) calling into question Chomsky’s belief in the rational power of argument to guide us to social revolution by exposing the structures that exist which delimit argument itself: Foucault does not hold Chomsky’s rationalist belief in the power of argument to sway us one way or another in purely theoretical disputes. It is not possible, therefore, to separate the truths that our knowledge of the world can produce (Chomsky’s two ‘is’ claims about the ends of justice and the nature of human needs) from the production of relations of power that condition those forms of the knowledge in the first place. But if one cannot argue one’s way out of the idea that rational argument must have priority, for fear of performative contradiction, then what better way to highlight the uncritical nature of Chomsky’s position than by laughing; not at him but at the constraints themselves? Foucault’s humour elucidates the constraints, enjoins the audience to recognise these constraints and brings to the fore that the questions of justice that concern him are those in the here and now rather than ideal conceptions based on problematic universal notions of human need. Foucault laughs, and critical thought results. Thirty-four years later, Stewart Lee is performing his show, 90s Comedian, at Chapter Arts in Cardiff. About half way through the show, he brings up the case of Lynndie England, ‘a female American soldier’ who was ‘photographed pointing and laughing at the naked genitals of hooded, bound Iraqis’.6 He recalls that the judge in her trial intervened in proceedings in an unusual manner by saying, as Lee puts it, ‘that he [the judge] wasn’t convinced that Lynndie England knew what she was doing’.7 Lee continues: ‘Now, I don’t believe that ’cause in my experience, when a woman points and laughs at a man’s genitals, she’s normally fully aware of the effect that will have. In my experience. Especially if he’s hooded and bound. In my experience’.8 What follows in the show is Lee’s trademark dissection of the audience response to these jokes: some like it because it’s topical and politically charged, others because it’s ‘got cocks in it as well’. As he says, ‘that helps bring the whole room onside’.9 In the transcript of this show, Lee dissects his own comedic

Introduction 3

practice in a footnote: ‘Here I am having my cake and eating it. I set up the audience to laugh at a pathetic cock joke, and then berate them for doing so’.10 He concludes his subsequent ruminations on this routine by saying, ‘sometimes going back over these transcripts, I hate myself for my hypocrisy. Shame on you, shame on you, Stewart Lee’.11 Here we can see how another comedic performance is textualised, so to speak, but to different effect. Rather than draw out the critical potential of the humour as in the case of [Foucault laughs], we have a pointed self-critical reflection on how humour can be used to critical effect. Lee’s routine sets up the joke in terms that will divide the audience and then delivers the joke in a manner that unites those looking for political material and those looking for a cock-joke in an uncomfortable complicity: before reinstating critical distance. In doing so, the politically minded are reminded that they still like to laugh at cock-jokes, even if this is not very politically correct, whereas those looking for a cock-joke are reminded that there is always a politics implicit in these jokes, a gender politics that cannot be avoided. His subsequent sense of hypocrisy stems from his sense of how easily he has manipulated both parts of his audience, a form of manipulation that speaks of the politics that he is also calling to account in the joke itself. He has also subtly determined the way we read the joke, eliciting the desired political response against the intended target through a cock-joke. Moreover, to the extent that his feeling of ‘shame’ has a gently self-mocking character to it, it makes us laugh. We, the readers of the transcript, become embroiled in the complicities of the joke, many years later. Over the years, Lee increasingly consolidated a position where he can select his audiences and assume a shared ideological ground12 – he hasn’t abandoned his divisive tactics, however such manipulation is less geared towards persuasion, and is more readily accessible and appreciable as part of the laid-bare joke structure. This allows him to focus his attention all the more on the ‘inner’ workings of comedy itself, always considered in its political dimension. Lee the humourist continues to make us laugh and think critically about why we are laughing. This collection examines these, and many other, questions that arise when comedy and critique intersect. It does so by bringing together both critical theorists and comedy scholars with a view to exploring the nature of comedy, its potential role in critical theory and the forms it can take as a practice of resistance. Broadly speaking, there are two main themes: (a) comedy, critique and resistance and (b) laughter as resistance. The first theme speaks both to the way that critical theorists have analysed comedy – such as Bergson’s work on humour13 or, more recently, the work of Simon Critchley14 and Alenka Zupančič15 – and how critical theorists have mobilised comedy within the workings of their philosophical systems – such as Deleuze and Guattari’s use of humour in the two volumes of Capitalism and Schizophrenia.16 That said,


Chapter 1

it is also important to consider the possibility that there is no useful link to be found between comedy and critical thought, especially in post-critical times (see Holm’s chapter later), such that the tasks of critique and resistance need to be considered separately. The second theme focuses on how those that make us laugh are often also those that make us think. The fool, the comic and the satirist have a certain licence to interrogate the social and political realm that is not always available to the politician, commentator or theorist. Of course, for all that comedy and critical thought do appear to have a close connection, we also know that comedy is often used to reinforce the status quo, and sometimes functions as an exclusionary mechanism in the service of hierarchical power relations. Indeed, it is not always easy to know when comedy is conservative and when it is radical, and this collection does not shy away from these difficulties. Indeed, many of the following texts address it head on in their analyses of the complex intersection of comedic practice and practices of resistance in different contexts. The objective of this collection is to create an agenda-setting volume that carves out a new interdisciplinary domain. It is divided into two parts, ‘Comedy, Critique and Resistance’ and ‘Laughter as Resistance’. The first set of chapters begins with reflections on the nature of comedy and whether or not it should be thought to have critical potential, in itself. There are also chapters that focus on how comedy functions within the work of major critical theorists: for example, Deleuze, Kierkegaard, Bloch and Lacan. The second set of chapters examines whether or not making people laugh can be thought of as a practice of resistance. In particular, these chapters chart the difficult themes of social criticism, comedy and the possible recuperation of comedy by dominant cultural forms. The chapters in the second part are arranged in a loosely chronological order so that readers can appreciate the historical nature of these concerns. They have also been chosen to reflect different comedic media – from cartoons to TV satire to stand-up – to give a breadth of understanding of the complexities relating to different genre and practices. The volume begins with James Williams’s chapter, ‘Diagrams of Comic Estrangement’. In this chapter, Williams charts a course away from those theories of comedy that either identify its nature or that give it value in terms of the ends it purportedly achieves, towards a process philosophy understanding of the complex ways in which humour functions within the diagrams that give signs their meanings. No comedy is intrinsically funny (or not), and no form of comedy is essentially critical (or not). According to Williams, these effects can be evaluated only in relation to the ways in which the sign connects with other signs to form comedic diagrams. Moreover, these diagrams are more than simple semantic networks; they are networks of affect that condition what counts as funny (or not). This affective dimension is, in principle, always open to other diagrams and, as such, infinite. This sense of infinite

Introduction 5

connection is neatly stylised by Williams in the numbered paragraphs of his chapter; indicating, as they do, that one can always add to the structured but open connections that can be made between signs. As a result of this openness to other diagrams, that which makes us laugh always has the potential to make us cry; or, equally, the satirical assault on hegemonic power always has the potential to be complicit in the maintenance of that power. This process philosophy perspective therefore enables a richly textured set of remarks about the nature of comedy and also establishes nuanced engagements with a wide range of theorists. Williams criticises, among others, Critchley and Freud for failing to understand these complexities, but he also warns against the all-too-easy appeal to an affective philosophy of joyful passions that one finds in thinkers who employ Spinoza, including Deleuze. For all that Williams cautions us against fixing the critical nature of comedic signs, he does embrace the power they have to ‘ripple’ across the diagrams and thereby produce ‘social and material transformations’. We are reminded though that these ripples are never without other connection to other affects and that we should be wary of treating them ‘innocently’, as necessarily benevolent transformations of the social world. Whatever critical force comedy has, it must be evaluated in terms of pragmatic assessments about the process of the comedic sign within and through a whole series of diagrams that may lead to its estrangement. Laughter may launch an attack – but are there other ways to conceive of the critique it enables? The assumptions lurking beneath the frequent decontextualised quotation of Mark Twain’s line – ‘Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand’ – come up for scrutiny in Nick Holm’s chapter. In ‘ “Against the Assault of Laughter”: Differentiating Critical and Resistant Humour’, Holm restores the line to its original context and reminds us of its troubling undercurrents in Twain’s work. Drawing on Boltanski, Holm moreover suggests that the existing model for critique is too readily aligned with current neo-liberal trends, rather than being in a position to offer a real challenge to the dominant. He calls for a more careful rethinking of humour and examines the assumptions which underlie the widespread acceptance of its ‘radical’ critical role. Holm follows Latour and Rancière in questioning the destructive strategies of critique and proposes an alternative view of humour based on constructive resistance, as an approach that would do justice to the cultural complexities of humour and the variety of consequences it could entail. The complex and multifarious functions of humour in society have too often created a polarised debate over its critical worth. This is particularly true for varieties of humour that are explicitly critical or political, such as satire. In ‘Can We Learn the Truth from Lenny Bruce? A Careful Cognitivism about Satire’ Dieter Declercq aims to moderate both overly optimistic and pessimistic positions by arguing that satire has the power to teach important


Chapter 1

truths about our world, but that overstating the value of satire as a tool for resistance may in fact limit its critical power. Declercq’s chapter focuses on the ways in which satire and the related arts of caricature and cartooning selectively exaggerate and simplify their subject matter. Satire must be entertaining and make a digestible narrative of often complex political issues in order to be effective. Declercq argues that the necessary abstraction present in satire means we should be cautious in discussing satire’s ability to speak truth to power – to do so misunderstands satire as a tool for knowledge acquisition. Instead, the value of satire comes from its ability to present the essence of a subject quickly, and cue immediate responses. Declercq closes by pointing out that while satire often fails to live up to the optimistic position of being a tool of resistance in itself, a moderate position might provoke further investigation of how satire’s cognitive value equips a society to process the limits of critique. While several chapters in the book’s first section are rightly cautious about the power of humour as a form of critique, Francis Stewart’s chapter seeks to develop a new path for a critique of capitalism by recovering the humour present in Christian liturgy. In ‘Laughter, Liturgy, Lacan and Resistance to Capitalist Logic’, Stewart draws out connections between the tradition of risus paschalis and Lacan’s conception of ‘drive’, via Alenka Zupančič and Marcus Pound. Stewart begins by analysing the Bakhtinian interpretation of carnival to revive the association between laughter and Christian practice lost by authors who follow in Bakhtin’s footsteps. With the historical reality of the humour of liturgy established, he then considers the parallels between comedy and liturgy through a Lacanian tradition, focusing on drive and desire. In the final section of the chapter, the connections between the two are turned towards an emancipatory purpose, proposing the humour of liturgy as a method of disrupting the absent-present of capitalism’s social authority. Stewart argues that by turning our attention to what is absent from the symbolic order, a new resistant practice can be developed from the tradition of laughter in liturgy. Kate Fox’s ‘Humitas: Humour as Performative Resistance’ examines the role of humour in different contexts and discourses, focusing in particular on how it has been viewed in relation to ‘seriousness’. She questions the ‘magic circle’ model of humour and play, and suggests an alternative approach. Her chapter explores the relationship between politics and comedy that emerges when the ‘serious’ and ‘comic’ modes productively intertwine. The result is an avenue for activism and public performance/participation through a means of engagement she terms ‘humitas’. This term combines the ‘fluidity’ of humour with the weight of gravitas, recognising the resulting concoction as an active force which is both performative and rhetorical. Fox draws out the implications of this through a theorisation of the proposed term, before

Introduction 7

moving on to identify examples of how it has played out in practice. She analyses its particular effectiveness in engaging and mobilising audiences through Jeffrey Alexander’s theory of Cultural Pragmatics. Fox draws on other theorists, such as Foucault and Bakhtin, to illuminate other facets of the dynamic in question and contemplates the potential for wider application of this mode of engagement, noting its capacity to formulate a response suited to the ‘multiple nature’ of our contemporary context. Fox’s chapter links the two sections of the book, promoting a new model for comedy and critical thought, while examining several specific examples of laughter as resistance. In the second section, the practice of laughter as resistance is examined in more depth. In the first chapter of the second section, Ivo Nieuwenhuis considers political humour in the eighteenth-century Dutch Republic. As he explains, returning to the Enlightenment offers context for today’s political and rebellious satire: the historical moment where a renewed focus on reason produced a tradition of philosophical critique and a revolutionary fervour can be seen as the ancestor to many of the claims for the power of both satire and critical thought today. However, Nieuwenhuis’s argument focuses on the other side of the coin – the uses of humour as a disciplinary function. In Dutch rarekieks and satirical magazines from the age of Enlightenment, he uncovers a conformist conservatism that hides behind the appearance of a critical and satirical humour. Making the comparison between these traditions and examples from stand-up and satirical ‘infotainment’ today, he argues for a more nuanced view of the relationship between comedy and critical thought that attends to ‘what types of comedy or humor strategies do actually encourage critical, counterhegemonic thinking, not just in name, but also in practice’. While critical humour is often considered to be counterhegemonic, humour also has the power to unite. In her analysis of ‘First World War Cartoon Comedy as Criticism of British Politics and Society’, Pip Gregory argues that the unifying power of humour was of particular importance during a moment of national crisis. Gregory’s chapter is a detailed study of three political cartoonists working in Britain during the First World War – Will Dyson, Percy Fearon (Poy) and William Haselden. She uses examples from their work to argue for the persistence into the twentieth century of a Victorian idea of humour as a force that exaggerates faults in its subject in order to promote a unified moral outlook in its viewership. While much cartooning sought to unite Britain against its enemies, her chapter also highlights where the same techniques took on a critical purpose. In the hands of socialist artists, cartoons became a way of uniting public sentiment against war profiteering, making use of the acceptable wartime content of broad moral judgements to steer public discourse towards a critique of Britain’s internal political life. Ultimately, she argues, cartooning during war demonstrates the value of


Chapter 1

laughter’s relief function, particularly when it seeks to improve society by finding common morally unacceptable targets. In his chapter, ‘A Suspended Pratfall: Mimesis and Slapstick in Contemporary Art’, Levi Hanes discusses the use of slapstick devices in art. Slapstick has the capacity to draw attention to the process of construction of an artwork and installs a critical distance from the object in the moment of its reception by the viewer. As a self-critical artwork, the art object provokes both empathy through mimesis and distance through self-reflexivity. The ‘event’ Hanes posits occurs in tandem with a suspension or withholding of the expected pratfall. He argues that this triggers a disruption in our perception of contextual frameworks, generating the conditions for criticality vis-à-vis these very contexts of production and of reception. In his exploration of the potential for critique through art, Hanes draws upon theories of art and the sublime, derived in particular from Adorno and Lyotard’s engagement with Kant’s aesthetics. Hanes develops his argument with reference to two case studies that illustrate how this route towards critique might work in practice: Bruce Nauman’s Walking in an Exaggerated Manner around the Perimeter of a Square (1967–1968), and his own video production, Mirror in a Field (2015). Moving the analysis of slapstick and the absurd into prose, Selvin Yaltir’s ‘ “Life” In Struggle: The Indifferent Humour of Beckett’s Prose Heroes’ reads Samuel Beckett’s Molloy and his four novellas, ‘First Love’, ‘The Expelled’, ‘The Calmative’ and ‘The End’ for the resistant humour of his tramp figures. Yaltir follows Deleuze’s readings of the ‘schizophrenic’ nature of Beckett’s tramps to argue for a rambling, but ‘finely-tuned’, comic absurdity in their presentation. The ability of Beckett’s tramps to come to terms with their own ridiculousness, and that of life itself, is then seen to have liberating function as they become immune to both humour and horror in their lives. While this indifference at the heart of their characters is another source of comedy for the reader, this comic indifference can also be the site of a particular form of resistance where personal struggle against the impositions of life can be disruptive and can create new potentials. Russ Bestley’s chapter ‘ “Holiday in Cambodia” – Punk’s Acerbic Comedy’ details the uses of humour in punk performance, lyrics and visuals. The chapter provides an overview of punk humour, mapping the scene through a range of examples. Bestley considers the diversity of tones and attitudes communicated by punk humour, from the teasing to the ironic and mocking. He notes the potential functions of humour in punk, suggesting that it could be ‘ideological weapon’ or source of amusement. As punk tactics developed, punk humour sharpened its barbs, which were just as likely to strike targets within the subculture as outside it. This humour could be mobilised to reinforce the inclusion-exclusion boundaries of the subculture, but it could also be directed at perceived rivals. Bestley comments on the parodies of punk

Introduction 9

produced outside the punk subculture, and the ambiguity of parodies which straddled the boundary, as well as parodies coming more clearly from within punk itself. Bestley emphasises the complexity of punk’s relationship with humour. In its visibility, it emerged as a target for comedy; in its own use of humour, punk developed its own parodic tendency which complicated the assumption of any single implied attitude. Bestley explores this with reference to numerous examples, including punksploitation bands and more explicitly politicised bands such as Dead Kennedys. The activist and anti-war imagery of punk humour discussed by Bestley shares some features with the postcolonial focus of Christine Caruana’s chapter, which looks at the ways in which both literature and stand-up have attempted to ‘transform that which is crude, grotesque, and horrifying into something worth laughing at’. In ‘ “What Can’t Be Cured Must Be Endured’: The Postcolonial Humour of Salman Rushdie, Sami Shah and Hari Kondabolu’, Caruana focuses first on the subversive deployment of the grotesque in Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children as a response to British colonialism in India. In the second half of her chapter, she argues that the same spirit can now be seen in the storytelling style of two stand-up comedians. The ability of Sami Shah and Hari Kondabolu to confront personal questions of identity on stage, and present these in a way that draws out humour from tragedy, is used to make a case for stand-up as a developing channel for the message of resistance and resilience carried by Rushdie’s novels. In ‘Political Jester: From Fool to King’, Constantino Pereira Martins considers the political consequences of the dynamic between seriousness and humour. He analyses the relation between political rhetoric and humour’s appeal to the emotions, as the politician turns jester and the jester turns politician. Martins gives particular attention to the function and consequences of the use of humour in political campaigns, focusing specifically on how this relation was brought to bear in the striking case of Tiririca, a Brazilian professional clown elected to Congress in 2010. Martins charts the functions of humour in relation to strategies for persuasion and their effects upon reception. Humour, in his view, may be on the one hand a tactic for expressing disillusionment with politics, thereby exposing the limits of power, and on the other (and sometimes simultaneously), an exercise of ‘anarchic power’ – having the ability to dispense with rationality, and in the process nihilistically driving politics towards ‘nonsense’. Martins closely analyses three arguments used in Tiririca’s campaign in order to illustrate the ‘negative, exclusive and disjunctive logic’ that may be legitimised or advanced by humour. According to Martins, this signals that we are at an ‘ethical-political crossroad’ – a juncture where our very values could be called into question. When this project began, as a series of papers and discussions at the University of Kent in the spring of 2016, the idea of Donald Trump as president


Chapter 1

of the United States was laughable, in more ways than one. The idea of having reality TV’s corporate villain in charge of the homeland of capitalism seemed funny, as a vicious satire of American culture ( just as he is, indeed, in Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, as the focus for Patrick Bateman’s aspirations),17 but also seemed to be so far out of the realm of possibility that for many it was hardly worth taking seriously. Our discussions at the time located Trump’s unusual bid for political power within the context of the other political jesters discussed in this volume – Beppe Grillo, Jón Gnarr, Tiririca – and paid attention to the effect his race for the Republican nomination had on the resurgent popularity of political satire in the United States but, admittedly, paid little attention to the real possibility of his election to president. Today, as we finish the manuscript for this volume, the satire has become truth and the joke really is on us. In some ways, as Dieter Declercq points out in his chapter, the election of Donald Trump may lead supporters of the critical function of Western satire to wonder if they had overstated its power. Conversely, seeing Trump as the apex of the trend for the clownpolitician described by Constantino Pereira Martins re-inscribes the power of humour to radically change the terms of political discourse – although in this case towards the kinds of conservative functions of humour discussed by Nieuwenhuis and others in this volume. Given the strange and complex relationships between humour and critique revealed by the events of the last few years, the issues of what it means to be critical, and what it means to laugh alongside this, now seem to be more important than it did even a year ago. It should come as no surprise that laughter is still part of the global cry for alternatives. Throughout history, comedians and clowns have enjoyed a certain freedom to speak frankly often denied to others in hegemonic systems. Comedians have managed to play an important role in interrogating and mediating the processes of politics in contemporary society. These factors still maintain their importance, as across the world people engage with, and exploit, the political power of the license to clown. However, as it always has been in the past, these comic truth-speakers face the problem of co-option: are these comic voices genuinely effective in their critique, or does, perhaps, humour act as a mask for a platform deliberately antithetical to the philosophical project of critique? The answer is not now as clear as it once might have seemed. Furthermore, with the rise of comedy as a tool in the hands of real political power-brokers, what will happen to the comedy of everyday life – and the acts of everyday resistance it can provoke? We are aware of the seeming inappropriateness of discussing comedy so ‘seriously’. We hope the final chapter in this volume will provide a counterpoint in this respect, embracing the everyday practical comedy of living and casting an obliquely Deleuzian eye on the farcicality of existence. In ‘Three

Introduction 11

Easy Steps to a New You: Or, Some Thoughts on the Politics of Humour in the Workplace . . .’ Adrian Hickey, Giuliana Monteverde and Robert Porter embrace the situationist tactic of taking that which appears most humdrum and every day in order to make it the site of a radical intervention. In their case, it is the self-help manual. Mockingly and provocatively proclaiming in all seriousness that the self-help guru is the moral and political philosopher of our time, they provide us with three easy steps to transforming our relationship to work within the institutions of control society. What results is a way of dramatising the forces at work within control societies and techniques for undermining them, including experimental practices such as being excessively literal in one’s humour. There is a connection to the first chapter of this volume here. As the authors draw out the humour in the everyday we can see just how comedic each and every sign of our workplace existence really is; and there is a similar call for experimenting with these dynamics to the one we find in Williams’s chapter. To be clear, we do not intend to suggest that our final chapter lacks seriousness, nor that the wholly earnest approach to comedy taken in other chapters fails in some way to measure up to the particular demands of comedy. Rather, as Kate Fox convincingly argues, the serious-comic distinction may construct a false dichotomy, and blind us to the relationship between the two. Our endeavour here is therefore not a humourless dissection of humour, but bringing to the fore analyses that permit us to see humour differently. In analysing it, we share in a joke, we seek further means of engagement with humour, and with others – this volume admits a diversity of views and voices, not all in agreement, yet all springing from a place of deep connection with the comic. This connection is enhanced rather than tempered by critical distance. After all, a number of the chapters in this volume consider examples where critical distance is invited by humour, or is itself an integral part of the structure of the joke or comedy. We take our cue from this invitation, and this also gives us the means to turn our gaze back upon philosophy and theory itself – providing a platform from which to explore this important facet of being able to laugh at the philosophical language of comedy as a practice of resistance.

NOTES 1. Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault, ‘Human Nature: Justice vs Power. A Debate between Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault’, The Chomsky-Foucault Debate: On Human Nature (New York: The New Press, 2006), 1–67. 2. Chomsky and Foucault, ‘Human Nature: Justice vs Power’, 21. 3. Chomsky and Foucault, ‘Human Nature: Justice vs Power’, 57.


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4. Chomsky and Foucault, ‘Human Nature: Justice vs Power’, 57. 5. The video is available at Accessed 29 August 2017. See the exchange at 1.02.50, for the moment in discussion. 6. Stewart Lee, ’90’s Comedian: Transcript of the Show Recorded on 10 March 2006 at Chapter Arts, Canton, Cardiff’, How I Escaped My Certain Fate: The Life and Deaths of a Stand-Up Comedian (London: Faber and Faber, 2010), 159–221; 184. 7. Lee, ’90’s Comedian’, 184–85. 8. Lee, ’90’s Comedian’, 185. 9. Lee, ’90’s Comedian’, 185. 10. Lee, ’90’s Comedian’, 185. 11. Lee, ’90’s Comedian’, 185. 12. See Sophie Quirk, Why Stand-Up Matters: How Comedians Manipulate and Influence (London: Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2015), 72. 13. Henri Bergson, Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic (London: Macmillan, 1911). 14. Simon Critchley, On Humour (London: Routledge, 2002). 15. Alenka Zupančič, The Odd One In: On Humour (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008). 16. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (London: Bloomsbury, 2013) and A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Volume 2 (London: Bloomsbury, 2013). 17. Bret Easton Ellis, American Psycho (London: Pan Books, 1991).

Part I


Chapter 2

Diagrams of Comic Estrangement James Williams

To express his sense of the irrelevance of religious differences Voltaire resorted to estrangement (straniamento), a literary process which transformed something familiar – an object, a behaviour, an institution – into something strange, senseless, ridiculous. Victor Shklovskij, who was the first to identify and analyse this literary device, noted that the philosophes had used it frequently.1

  1. ‘To be sure, artistic or literary procedures are only instruments, which can be used for different or even opposed purposes’.2 This claim is made by Carlo Ginzburg in defence of Voltaire and the Enlightenment, against Erich Auerbach’s criticisms, from his Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature: ‘Quite different is the stylistic level of the realistic texts which serve the propaganda purposes of the Enlightenment. . . . The master of the game is Voltaire’.3   2. As applied to humour, I am interested in Ginzburg’s statement for two reasons. First, he insists on the instrumental or, better, technical modes of artistic creativity. Second, he underscores the ambiguity of all such techniques, counter to Auerbach’s single-track critique of Voltaire’s use of humour as propaganda. Technical processes do not have unique purposes; they call up opposed camps and aims.  3. In a passage discussed by Ginzburg, Voltaire makes fun of religious practices for their irrelevance to trade on the floor of the London stock exchange. When compared to the religious neutrality of open exchange, the special ceremonies and marks meant to guarantee different creeds become outlandish. Religious sectarianism in the home is laughable when compared to the rationality of markets and prices. 15


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  4. Auerbach describes how a joke can ease the way into the destruction of culture and value in favour of liberal free exchange. Voltaire’s humour throws a spotlight on religious practices by taking them out of context and putting them on the same plane as free trading. In this comic estrangement, capital comes to replace community. Worse, Voltaire’s love of trade and mockery is accompanied by an exploitative racism and anti-Semitism. As Ginzburg acknowledges in the middle sections of his argument, this violence is inherent to estrangement with its combination of ridicule and misrepresentation.  5. If we follow Auerbach, Voltaire’s humour is an instrument of propaganda for a coming power and a precursor to horrifying violence, like the catcalls of the mob before they set upon an outsider. In his concluding remarks, Ginzburg responds by rehabilitating Voltaire in appealing to an ideal thread for the Enlightenment. The comic process of estrangement always carries the risk of intolerance along with a promised tolerance in new enlightened communities. The ideal is in seeking to cancel the hateful mockery of the first with the shared laughter of the second.   6. Ginzburg’s claim about procedures and instruments leads me to suggest an addition to philosophical discussions of humour, but within a less literary and historical frame than Ginzburg or Auerbach. This broader frame is the comic sign as process across the full social field. In the latter stages of my argument I aim to show how an analysis of humour according to a dynamic and diagrammatic process model can be consistent with and yet go well beyond other ways of explaining how humour works technically as estrangement.  7. Ginzburg’s second claim, about opposed outcomes, sides and values, encourages me to make a blanket claim about the value, purpose and classification of humour. It is commonplace to accept humour as doubleedged – both edifying and destructive – due to its dependence on an ambiguous form. This ambiguity supports an explanation of the history of humour as an aggressive and yet also beneficial form of communication. Nonetheless, it is also common to try to delineate positive types of humour, avoiding this duality. My broad contention is that no humour escapes moral ambiguity, however hard we try to distinguish between good and bad comedy.   8. The claim about ambiguity extends to efforts to tack a redemptive line to humour. When Ginzburg argues for an ideal thread for the Enlightenment (‘a subdued utopian accent’),4 that thread cannot come from comedy alone. It depends on thought. Humour is neither sufficient nor necessary for the positive work of creative and critical thinking. That’s not to say comedy cannot come to its aid. It can and does. It is to say that humour is only one technique among many and, as technique, it endangers reason.

Diagrams of Comic Estrangement 17

 9. I’ll expand on the nature of ambiguity later. It is the mainstay of the incongruity thesis of humour as described by John Morreall (among many others, Freud above all): ‘Humorous amusement is the enjoyment of incongruity’.5 For now, it is sufficient to remark that humour works by introducing oddity through displacement (for instance, when things are funny when made unfamiliar by taking them out of context). The price of this comic ambiguity is uncertainty. 10. Uncertainty is a form of ignorance. When ignorance is allied to emotions, it gives rise to what Spinoza calls passions, such as mistrust and fear, but also joy. A passion arises out of lack of understanding; it is therefore an affect, a transformative emotion with an external and incompletely understood cause. For example, the enthusiastic hope of a group of sailors, working together in response to a sign that their ship might be saved after a storm, depends on not knowing the outcome of their efforts. 11. If sailors knew about either salvation or doom with certainty, there would be neither hope nor enthusiasm, but calm accommodation to the situation, or complete resignation. In opposition to common sense views of optimism, for Spinoza hope can never be good because it reinforces ignorance and because, when the outcome falls, hope is either followed by despair or by diminished understanding. The close association of hope to superstition comes from ignorance. We have hope because we do not know the outcome, but this lack of knowledge pushes us to believe in false explanations. Hope keeps us walking towards a mirage. 12. Spinoza’s contrast between passions and reason can be grasped by comparing a gambler to an engineer. Gamblers at a racetrack are caught in an ebb and flow of hope and despair; they are often vulnerable to superstitions, such as the idea that luck must change. An engineer finding and repairing a fault in a software program proceeds with equanimity, dependent on a rational plan. The hope of the one is close to addiction, whereas the understanding of the latter grows with learning and achievement. 13. Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch unfolds according to waves of hope and despair running through wounded gamblers and addicts: ‘The multiple outcomes could make you dizzy. “The money’s not important”, said my dad. “All money represents is the energy of the thing, you know. It’s how you track it. The flow of chance” ’.6 The novel’s strength comes from its depiction of the momentum of life and luck, going beyond Spinoza’s insights by adding past trauma, and the need to ease it, to the dynamics of addiction and understanding. In an analysis of the grip of sad passions, it is not enough to oppose reason to ignorance, since reason and the passions issue from an inescapable past of injuries and repair. Should we elude the past, we would no longer be ourselves at all.


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14. The opposition of engineer and gambler is a false one. Both figures are governed by inevitable passions formed by past events. The difference is a matter of degree and circumstance, not an essential opposition. This means that the succour of reason alone – the pure love of the latter parts of Ethics – is itself a mirage. It is not that Spinoza is mistaken about the passions, but rather that he is mistaken about the power and independence of understanding. When he professes ‘not to deride, bewail, or execrate human actions, but to understand them’,7 in a passage admired by Nietzsche, the problem is not in Spinoza’s study of the necessity of the passions, but in failing to trace the same causes to both passions and reason. 15. The idea of the preponderance of degree and circumstance over pure reason is one of the justifications for speaking of Spinoza when studying humour. A passion and its lasting effects are always conditioned by situation, degree and necessity. Situation describes the particular arrangement of causes and bodies. Degree captures the mixing of different passions and powers. Necessity rejects free will and decision in favour of necessary causes. 16. The mix of degrees of passion in any situation explains why humour is necessarily ambiguous. As Ginzburg shows in a discussion of Kracauer on photography, film and history, estrangement is never simply comical. It always prompts a degree of melancholy, because viewers are placed at a distance from events that nonetheless move them. Taken dynamically, estrangement is a stretch or transformation across emotional and spatial fields: laughter and melancholy. It touches the full field and therefore cannot act in one place, or on one affect, without changing all others in different degrees. 17. Sadness at the loss of affect, an awareness of detachment and the combination of a new desire to approach despite distances define melancholy. Estrangement imposes a type of impassibility – an inability to experience passions – not only in film but with any technique of sensory distancing. Feelings we have been accustomed to experience in direct contact with familiar situations are lost in the break with habitual environments. However, the detachment of impassibility is incomplete. It is not full imperviousness to feeling, but rather a shift in level, from familiar affects to strange new ones, from familiar pleasure and pain to melancholy and then intense and dangerous novelty. 18. Against Spinoza’s reason, Ginzburg remarks how understanding necessarily comes at the cost of melancholy: ‘Kracauer emphasized that the stranger, he who is marginalised, he who “does not belong in the house”, is in a position to understand more, and more deeply. The instant in which recognition fails opens to the estranged gaze of the spectator the

Diagrams of Comic Estrangement 19

way to cognitive awareness’.8 At the point where we understand more deeply we fail to belong, but still need to. 19. Within comic film this play of humour, melancholy, impassibility and the montage of estrangement has one of its most complex moments in Buster Keaton. His dispassionate yet manifold and upsetting expression bears witness to his displacement and the viewer’s, in an amplified cycle. Keaton cheats death and we laugh. He stares blankly deep into us, and we know we remain mortal. 20. In Underworld, Don DeLillo gives one of the great descriptions of the melancholy of the stand-up comedian in his portrayal of Lenny Bruce, struggling and failing to develop a humane line through his act: He didn’t give her a name. He couldn’t think of a name. Not a real name. He went back to old jokes instead. He told a mother-in-law joke and they laughed because in fact it was funny. He told a Jewish mother joke, even better, and they loved it, they laughed and he worked his way back to form, doing race, sex, religion, and it was funny and offensive Lenny and the night ended finally in booming waves of laughter and applause, in spirited shouts from the kids in the top tiers, and he stood on the great stage in his stupid white suit, small and remorseful, and then he turned and walked towards the wings.9

Ginzburg explains how melancholy comes from a revelation of the inevitability of death in the witnessing of estrangement, like a soul looking back at its cadaver.10 At the height of the Cuban missile crisis, DeLillo gives Bruce a terrible refrain, both funny and tragic, ‘We’re all gonna die!’ The audience laughs, but with dread and growing unease. DeLillo’s pessimistic novel forces Bruce back into violent mockery, in each of his attempts to testify to suffering communities – in the search for a real name for an impoverished girl preyed on by a money man. 21. Even if the passions are mixed, maybe it is possible to distinguish them and thereby trace a new utopian thread. Sometimes passions in Spinoza are given the added epithet of negative or sad; for example, in Deleuze’s reading: ‘Spinoza traces step by step the dreadful concatenation of sad passions; first, sadness itself, then hatred, aversion, mockery, fear, despair, morsus conscientiae, pity, indignation, envy, humility, repentance, self-abasement, shame, regret, anger, vengeance, cruelty’.11 The sad passions are then contrasted with joyful ones. There is danger in doing this, since it hides the multiple mixtures around any passion. The risk of false hope is strong in Deleuze’s reading of Spinoza on the passions and where Deleuze’s philosophy clings to pure affirmation (deep into the melancholy and exhaustion of his interpretations of Beckett and Melville).12


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22. Deleuze’s chain of negative passions displays many types and consequences of humour, from ridicule, to the humility of self-mockery and the hatred, fear, vengeance and cruelty of jokes aimed at others. Series such as Curb Your Enthusiasm and Seinfeld draw powerful comic scenes from this range of sad passions, perhaps no more so than in the character of George Costanza, a celebration of the sad passion. As backward looking shame, the regret of morsus conscientiae has become a staple of modern humour, such as the macho Yorkshire man ‘still haunted’ by an accidental purchase of a case of Rosé wine . . . 23. An avid comedy club fan has suggested to me that the recent success of regretful humour can be explained by the search for strength in vulnerability. The comedian creates a rapport with the audience through shared weaknesses, a backward look at common defects, exposing them to ridicule and hence redemption; for instance, in Jack Dee’s jokes about his alcoholism. 24. However, the comedian must also be able to repel hecklers and embody resilience for those whose laughter is also identification with the comical acceptance of imperfections. Flaws are turned to strengths by flipping the source of weakness and rejecting those who exploit it. ‘I think I am aware of my flaws and I have accepted them. And anyone who doesn’t . . . can fuck off . . .’ (Sarah Millican).13 25. Why would a sense of strong vulnerability be a sad passion, given its role in the overcoming of perceived and imposed flaws? Chaplin’s tramp makes us laugh in revenge against wealth and power, but also in resistance to poverty and misery. What is sad, understood as weakness through ignorance, in becoming aware of our capacity to fight back against sources of oppression while laughing at misery and illegitimate might? The answer is in the subservience of awareness to passion. In passion, a remainder of ignorance hinders the growth of understanding.14 26. For Spinoza, every passion is negative in some way, when compared to being led to action by understanding alone. This is because reason takes account of the whole, whereas passion is partial in both senses of the word. It takes too much interest in the part: ‘P60: A desire arising from either a joy or a sadness related to one, or several, but not all parts of the body, has no advantage for the whole man’.15 The duality of humour follows from its effects in the mix of affects and passions, leading to action dependent on an inhibition or insufficiency of understanding. 27. When defined as a passion caused by ambiguity, humour is necessarily harmful. Spinoza explains this in a scholium on joy following Proposition 60 of Ethics. The disadvantage of such passions is that they compel us to preserve part of a body, rather than the whole: ‘Therefore, since joy is generally related to one part of the body, for the most part we desire

Diagrams of Comic Estrangement 21

to preserve our being without regard to our health as a whole. To this we may add that the desires by which we are most bound have regard only to the present and not the future’.16 28. Chaplin’s tramp is good at showing the negative effects of passions focusing us on parts rather than the whole; for example, in delusion drawn from hunger (The Gold Rush) or the overwhelming effect of being love struck (The Immigrant) or, more subtly, in an obsessive desire to regiment everything separately, from eating to working (Modern Times). In these moments, Chaplin’s humour reveals passions as barriers to full understanding, while also hinting at the same weakness in comedy itself when compared to romantic humanism (The Great Dictator, Limelight). 29. Spinoza’s point about the partial aspect of the passions also explains why they are well suited to humour. Partiality is necessarily a form of estrangement, because the part is taken away from the whole. That’s why the passion of falling in love is such a frequent subject of humour; to be besotted is to be estranged. In this vein, David Sedaris’s humour frequently works on the clash between the partiality of two passions, pride and greed or love and cruelty: ‘Real love amounts to withholding the truth, even when you are offered the perfect opportunity to hurt someone’s feelings’.17 30. The focus on the part rather than the whole does not mean there is nothing good in a passion. Chaplin’s tramp is affirmative. We can struggle against oppression even when we appear weak. There is misery in poverty, but in laughing at it we can become aware that it is neither necessary nor our own fault. The problem is that this good is only relative and becomes negative when we consider the whole, when we pay attention to wider effects and specific processes. 31. From the point of view of collective action towards equality, the heroic aspect of the tramp’s comedy gives too much succour to individualism. The tramp hides material conditions for his own actions even when he reveals them for his condition. From the point of view of resistance to pathos, the romanticism of the tramp’s comedy gives too much power to love. In his search for romance and in the idea of human love as ultimate value, the tramp conceals desire in its violent and selfish forms. 32. For Spinoza, reason alone has regard to the whole. It will guard against an action that seems beneficial but with unforeseen or inadmissible bad consequences; when desires lead us to act without attention to later exhaustion, excess or obsession. The problem with laughter, with its ambiguous cause in humour as estrangement, is that the consequences are necessarily divisive with respect to the whole. Ambiguity is essentially divisive. As a consequence, humour replicates division despite helping to draw communities together.


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33. In a metaphysical version of his lesson, Spinoza draws attention to the splitting of time and concentration on the present in a passion. When moved by passions, we turn away from the whole of time and live for the present alone (Don’t let this moment ever stop) or we turn away from the breadth of time and seek to live a single narrow line through it (We shall be together forever despite the others). 34. The pace of a stand-up routine and audience reaction to it are good ways of understanding Spinoza’s ideas about time and passion. Comedy creates an isolated space to allow for incongruity; for instance, in the way a sketch presents outlandish behaviour but doesn’t fall foul of outright disbelief. Within the comic space, a routine builds up, from initial mirth to great laughter. At its zenith, the audience wills to be frozen in time. The power of the affect is that you do not want it to stop. That is also its weakness, in the comedown as the routine closes. 35. What’s the problem with isolation, division and narrowing of time? It is that the advantages of separation and seclusion become weakness when viewed from the whole. You can see this when you move from one performer at a comedy club to a group. It is in the pressure felt by those who have to follow a great routine and who catch the audience on a downer. It is in the difficulty of opening the show, when the isolation effect is not fully working yet – hence the importance of a good crowd warmer for live shows. It is in the struggle to draw the audience to a new line of comedy when they have been primed to follow another. Where the passions are concerned the stronger the part the weaker the whole. 36. The risk is not only for performers. Passion is also damaging for the members of the audience, since their joy depends on three divisions across time and space. First, there is the technique of isolation, the spatial enclosure: night out, basement club, the rhythm of the comedian’s routine, the moment of a shared event and, perhaps, some form of enabling intoxication. Second, there is the unresolved ambiguity of the humour itself, the clashing contrasts which create funny images at a distance from the everyday. Third, there is a lock into the present and fragmentation of lived time in the short-term addictive quality of laughter. 37. The three divisions imposed by techniques of comic estrangement explain why the critical power of comedy is limited and flawed. Latenight deconstructions of politicians have little lasting effect because they take place in a space detached from effective social interaction, because they depend on passions as illusory power – as if laughter were a kind of proof or retraction – and because their appeal is instantaneous and prone to fading when compared to reasoned argument and organised resistance. 38. The moral problem for comedy as estrangement is duality caused by ambiguity. Sad passions haunt joyful ones. In Magritte’s numerous

Diagrams of Comic Estrangement 23

versions of the painting Empire of Light (1950–1954), the play on contrasts of simultaneous night and day, natural and artificial light, nocturnal and diurnal scenery, lived-in buildings and absence of inhabitants and urban and country atmosphere make the paintings subjects of both amused delight and deep unease. Fun is offset by dread; reverie by nightmares. The same is true for humour. Jokes lead to joy but also to an unease falling rapidly into mistrust, fear and disdain. There is truth in effective mockery. It can lead to the joy of self- understanding. It is also at the service of cruelty and fear, two of the most powerful sad passions of populist and violent politics, but also personal despair. 39. Once ambiguity has been granted, humour is often rehabilitated through distinctions between different types. This return to favour is justified by the critical and formative purposes of humour. It has critical power, and it can be edifying. Humour is then redeemed according to categories allowing for the separation of positive and negative practices; for example, the ‘laughing with’ of empathetic comedy, against the ‘laughing at’ of racist jokes; or the learning of self-deprecatory insight, against the spread of mistrust in the mockery of a minority.18 40. The redemption of humour as purely positive takes different forms. With Morreall, it is idealist: ‘The ideal political humour would emerge as playful moments in honest discussion between people who care about one another, like the humour in conversation between friends’.19 Humour would be at its most positive when shared honestly and for nurture within a group. 41. Real situations rarely have the purity required by Morreall. That’s the fate of idealists. Morreall’s thin fiction about humour between friends would not survive even the most cursory study of memories of such conversations, or as rendered in film, drama and literature, where jokes are a conduit for unsayable desires and intentions, or moves in a competitive environment. Humour is part of the libidinal jousting of conversation, even among close friends. 42. Critchley avoids the teleology and pure aims of Morreall’s idealism. His study of humour considers a series of candidates for positive humour. For each one, Critchley reveals the risks of taking it as simply positive. His analysis of the celebration of the power of jesters as critical comedy is instructive, not only historically, but also for our current situation where too much hope is given to comic dissent. Jesters criticise within carefully defined boundaries. They act as support for power and as a conduit for the safe release of revolutionary desire. We laugh but the king stays on the throne. 43. For Critchley, when compared to the power of bankers, generals and cardinals, the faint influence of the jester is a safe distraction, closer to the


Chapter 2

circus than the Privy Council. The fool and the jester can be hindrances to genuine change at the ballot box or through insurrection. Following Shaftesbury, Critchley connects the illusory critical power of the jester to the conservative roles of Carnival and Lent: ‘Rather than placing in question the dominant order, such acts of comic subversion simply reinstate it by offering transitory comic relief’.20 44. Despite his scepticism about positive roles for humour, Critchley considers a minor redemptive and messianic function: ‘Jokes return us to a common, familiar world of shared practices [sensus communis]. . . . Humour both reveals the situation, and indicates how that situation might be changed’.21 This could never be enough, though, since these shared practices can be exclusive and involve violent rejections of others. Racist humour reveals a situation and indicates how it might be changed, but in ways destructive of cosmopolitan values. Anti-racist humour can also fail as community healing; for instance, in the way it plays on violent revenge in the films of Tarantino. 45. To lend humour an inclusive and progressive line, Critchley combines the critical power of humour with its capacity to unite in new ways. Safe jokes of shared recognition do not elevate humour. Its redemption must come from undermining social bonds and leading us to search for better ones: ‘The anti-rite of the joke shows the sheer contingency or arbitrariness of the social rites in which we engage. By producing a consciousness of contingency, humour can change the situation in which we find ourselves, and can even have a critical function with respect to society’.22 However, even this messianic consciousness must fail, if it draws on the melancholy and nihilist sides of sad passions. We laugh at ourselves and seek to change, but the search is tainted by ridicule and discouragement. 46. In answer to the threat of nihilism within messianic critique, there is a possibility that comes close to Spinoza’s appeal to reason, but only when it is misread as a consoling withdrawal from suffering, rather than as a commitment to growth through understanding. Critchley finally settles on humour as relief and support. The ‘essence of humour’ is in the ‘lucidity of consolation’ where we deride ‘the sublimity and suffering of the human situation’.23 Why, though, would consolation in humour about our condition be more positive than any other laughter? Like telling someone jokes to cheer them up, laughter at the human condition does little to remedy the condition. Humour rings like an effective consolation only to those who do not really need it. 47. The weakness with humour as consolation is that it has no direction and no stability, because of its division of time and space. As such, it cannot resist the recurrence of destructive forces, since it lacks constructive alternatives. Consolation is to endure, rather than change. It is not only fragile, but doomed to rapid self-destruction, like a belief that the next day will be

Diagrams of Comic Estrangement 25

warmer in the midst of winter, or that the next leaders will be less ridiculous, because the jokes made about their predecessors have been so good. 48. The mix of passions in humour and their cause in estrangement explain why the search for a redemptive line to humour is always doomed. To show this, I move from an account dependent on logical ambiguity to a dynamic model. Ambiguity follows from static oppositions between different linguistic senses, images or locations, whereas a dynamic model maps the transformations that create estrangement and changes in degrees of passions. Humour is not a state of passion and displacement. It is an ongoing process changing relations of affects and signs. It therefore needs dynamic models rather than fixed representations. 49. The contrast between types of model for humour can be explained through Freud. His theories are partly static and partly dynamic. The description of the energy behind laughter depends on dynamic processes of inhibition, expenditure, discharge and cathexis: Comic pleasure and the effect by which it is known – laughter – can only come about if [the difference between two expenditures] is unutilizable and capable of discharge. We obtain no pleasurable effect but at most a transient sense of pleasure in which the characteristic of being comic does not emerge, if the difference is put to another use as soon as it is recognised.24

This is an economy of build-ups and releases, where laughter lets out pent-up energy. It is triggered by an object or scene connected to different conceptual formations; one in clear view and the other inadmissible. Given this dependence on visibility and inadmissibility, racist jokes and jokes about sex provide many of the examples of this cathexis, or energetic build-up and release around a comic scene. However, Freud’s theory is meant to apply to all humour; for example, in collective laughter when a plan goes wrong in ways we should have foreseen, but couldn’t allow ourselves to acknowledge. 50. Despite dynamism at the level of physical and psychic effects, Freud’s theory depends on static description when he turns to the conceptual trigger for laughter. This stasis is a tension and opposition between two conceptual formations that are brought together but without fitting; for instance, Chaplin’s tramp combines cunning with foolishness, to comic effect. These oppositions lead to ambiguity and estrangement by drawing together irreconcilable ‘ideational methods’, such as a search for common humanity that runs up against a clown’s mask: It is a necessary condition for generating the comic that we should be obliged, simultaneously or in rapid succession, to apply to one and the same act of ideation two different ideational methods, between which


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the ‘comparison’ is then made and the comic difference emerges. . . . In the case of jokes, the difference between two simultaneous methods of viewing things, which operate with a different expenditure, applies to the process in the person who hears the joke.25

This description of the cause of the release of laughter is static because it depends on a difference between states taken simultaneously. There is no economy or dynamic process between them but rather a logical opposition. However, the tension of opposition in this static representation is transferred to the dynamic circulation of energy in the person. Static tension triggers a release in the economy of desire, when the build-up of energy between two conceptual formations flows out as laughter, like the deflation of an angry meeting when a joke brings conflicts to the fore in a comic image. 51. In contrast to a full process model, Freud’s account of humour is mistaken in three ways. First, his description of the economy of libidinal energy is restricted and functions like a closed economy ‘in the person who hears the joke’. Second, his static account of oppositions between different modes of ideation, or formation of concepts, misses their multiple and dynamic interactions. Third, the distinction between libidinal economy and static oppositions separates fields which should be taken together. 52. Against a closed economy of energy storage and release, we should think of passions and affects as distributed throughout all existing fields in ever-changing mixtures. Freud situates the economy in individual bodies and minds, but passions occupy broad social and material fields such that we can speak of shifting and complex moods for populations, spaces and systems of ideas. A joke and resulting laughter can be identified with a particular body and type of estrangement. Yet its causes and effects are distributed much more widely, as shown by the spread of melancholy or the interaction between series of jokes and ideas over time. 53. The destructive pain of ridicule should therefore not be understood as limited to closed circuits: for instance, among those directly sneered at and those sniggering. It should be traced over long periods, in the way a racist stereotype takes hold over centuries, or in the way ridicule serves to entrench repressive norms and standards across a society; each sexist joke reinforces habits in multiple and often hidden ways. Humour depends upon and shapes behaviour. It shouldn’t be viewed as part of restricted economies and tensions between fixed structures, but rather as an intervention within dynamic and interconnected fields. 54. We think of fear in an extended and dynamic way, speaking of increases of fear and instability in societies when they come under threat. We should do the same for laughter and explain it according to changeable

Diagrams of Comic Estrangement 27

mixtures of passions, bodies, spaces, times and thoughts. The flaw in Freud’s static account of an opposition between two ideations is that it does not take account of the multiple connections between signs, systems, objects and passions. If we focus on static oppositions between two conceptual formations – the clown and the sage – we miss broader and less stable series of transformations and distant relations – the clown face in Fellini’s La Strada, or Zero Mostel in The Front. 55. A joke is not triggered by an opposition between two conceptual formations but rather by a complicated shift within all of them. This change is accompanied by changes within a similarly extended mixture of passions. The meaning of estrangement is at stake here. Is it to be a contrast between two structures, where strangeness is a tension between opposites? Or is it to be a process of transformation across all of them, where strangeness is a change across fields? 56. Auerbach gives a metaphor for estrangement as dynamic process when he describes Voltaire’s technique as a spotlight. The joke throws a bright light on a few features and draws them out, thereby distancing them from a familiar environment and allowing them to be put into unfamiliar configurations. When we think of ambiguity as an opposition between two states we miss the way the spotlight throws light and shade across all objects – it partially isolates some in order to recombine relations to others. A joke throws many shadows. 57. Estrangement is not about static oppositions presented as ambiguity, but about transformations across fields of affects, ideas and things. We therefore need a different kind of model for the way jokes function. This dynamic model is the diagram. It suggests maps for the effects of humour. On diagrams, shifts in passions must be given alongside changes in relations of neighbourhoods and objects, like the map of the spread of a disease and its effects on economies, habitats and behaviour. 58. A joke is a sign defined as limitless process. The sign selects a new way to combine elements drawn from any aspect of experience. It does so as estrangement, as a stretch or as a jump that breaks with habitual patterns and settled neighbourhoods, accompanied by degrees of laughter and other passions. The selection forces different degrees of change, ultimately, on everything – like Kundera’s misplaced joke and its disruption of lives among the collapse of political systems, borders and ways of life.26 A joke is a material effect strengthened by passions. Its diagram traces those effects, suggesting a legacy of sadness and joy. 59. Diagrams of comic estrangement are experimental models for the effects and causes of humour. They map the way affects, understood as extended through the social field, spread alongside transformations of relations between peoples, places, races, sexes, polities, nature, animals, ideas,


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languages and materials. The ambiguity of a joke is never a simple tension between two ideas. It is a ripple of feelings, with social and material transformations, where the affect of laughter dominates, but never alone or innocently. NOTES 1. Carlo Ginzburg, Threads and Traces: True, False, Fictive, Trans. Anne C. Tedeschi and John Tedeschi (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), p. 99. 2. Ibid.,  101. 3. Eric Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, Trans. Willard R. Trask (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003), p. 401. 4. Ginzburg, Threads and Traces: True, False, Fictive, p. 192. 5. John Morreall, ‘Humour and the Conduct of Politics’, in Michael Pickering and Sharon Lockyer (Eds), Beyond and Joke: The Limits of Humour (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), pp. 63–78, esp. 67. 6. Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch (London: Little, Brown, 2013), p. 341. 7. Benedict de Spinoza, Political Treatise (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2005), p. 43. 8. Ginzburg, Threads and Traces, p. 185. 9. Don DeLillo, Underworld (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1977), p. 633. 10. For a study of death and dread in comedy see Shaun May, A Philosophy of Comedy on Stage and Screen: You Have to Be There (London: Bloomsbury, 2016). May’s discussion of Heidegger and Beckett is particularly good at rendering the ambiguity of comedy around the inevitability death: ‘I will suggest that the entropic nature of one’s physical body – that is, the inevitability of its breakdown – grounds Dasein as “thrown projection” and its being-towards-death. I will suggest that, because of this, physical impairment has the potential to induce an existential anxiety, using the bodily impairments that one encounters in Beckett’s Endgame to illustrate this idea’. 11. Gilles Deleuze, Spinoza: Practical Philosophy, Trans. R. Hurley (San Francisco, CA: City Lights Books, 1988), p. 26. 12. Samuel Beckett and Gilles Deleuze, Quad, suivi de L’épuisé de Gilles Deleuze (Paris: Minuit, 1992). Gilles Deleuze, Essays Critical and Clinical, Trans. Daniel W. Smith and Michael A. Greco (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997). 13. See, http://britishcomediansandcomedieslindsnourakatmegan.blogs. Accessed 28 August 2017. 14. Against my reading of Chaplin and the meaning of laughter around the tramp, see Lisa Trahair, The Comedy of Philosophy: Sense and Nonsense in Early Cinematic Slapstick (New York: SUNY, 2007): ‘This book has been written with the aim of keeping a fundamental absurdity in view. This absurdity is that the anxiety over the meaning of the comic almost inevitably leads to a reduction of the comic object to its significance. What is intrinsically comic about the object is lost in the rational articulation of what the comic means’, p. 7. 15. Benedict de Spinoza, The Ethics and Other Works, Edwin Curley (Translator and Editor) (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), p. 232.

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16. Ibid. 17. David Sedaris, ‘The End of the Affair’, in Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim (New York: Little Brown and Company, 2004), p. 140. 18. For an analysis of the extent of damage caused by racist humour, see Dennis Howitt and Kwame Owusu-Bempah, ‘Race and Ethnicity in Popular Humour’, in Michael Pickering and Sharon Lockyer (Eds), Beyond a Joke: The Limits of Humour (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), pp. 45–62: ‘Not only do racist jokes provide ready opportunities to give expression to ideas of “racial” superiority of one group to another, but they continually reinforce the use of race categories in our thinking. . . . In many ways, the ethnic jokes reduce cultures to the trivial, to be laughed at and not something to be valued. Given this, it is extremely difficult to see how ethnic jokes contribute positively to the development of understanding relevant to multicultural society or globalisation’, p. 62. 19. Morreall, ‘Humour and the Conduct of Politics’, p. 78. 20. Simon Critchley, On Humour (London: Routledge, 2002), p. 82. 21. Critchley, On Humour, 16. 22. Critchley, On Humour, 10. 23. Critchley, On Humour, 111. 24. Sigmund Freud, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, Trans. James Strachey (London: Routledge Kegan Paul, 1969), p. 218. 25. Freud, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, p. 234. 26. Milan Kundera, The Joke, Trans. Michael Heim (New York: Faber and Faber, 1992).

Chapter 3

‘Against the Assault of Laughter’: Differentiating Critical and Resistant Humour Nicholas Holm

This chapter draws its title from a Mark Twain quotation – ‘Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand’1 – that should be familiar to many who study humour, and especially the relation of humour and politics. Encapsulating a specific attitude towards humour, and in particular the political possibilities of humour, this line is frequently evoked in the context of arguments for the position that humour is a form of transgressive or even radical politics that resists, subverts and critiques existing structures of power. What is often overlooked in these citations, though, is that in its original context – Twain’s unfinished novel The Mysterious Stranger – the line is spoken by the highly morally ambiguous character of Satan, who then goes on to declare that humanity has only a ‘mongrel perception of humor [sic], nothing more’2 and ‘lack[s] the sense and the courage’ to use humour as a ‘really effective weapon’.3 Thus, even as the critical power of humour is celebrated in the abstract, it is also declared out of reach of most if not all human comedians. Eager to celebrate the political work of humour, such caveats are often overlooked by theorists and commentators who instead take up Twain’s quotation almost as a form of argument by proverb that demonstrates the radical, critical potential of humour.4 A more attentive reading of Twain’s Mysterious Stranger as a form of humour theory draws our attention to the ethical and political complexities of any critical power we might assign to humour, and calls on us to think more carefully about how that critique might operate. More broadly, returning to the repressed details of the original context of the quotation also provides an opening and a context in which to reexamine the assumptions and oversights that inform those positions that straightforwardly ascribe critical potential to humour. Interrogating the supposed political work of critical humour requires us to disentangle the assumed correspondence between humour as a form of 31


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critique and humour as a form of resistance: a distinction that is necessary if we are to accurately characterise the political potential of humour in our current liberal and neo-liberal context where the oppositional function of critique can no longer be presumed. Returning to The Mysterious Stranger thus furnishes us with a means by which to rethink wider assumptions about the politics of humour and how they operate. Working through recent reflections on the cultural and social role of critique in the work of Luc Boltanski, Bruno Latour and Jacques Rancière, I thus consider what it might mean to heed the words of Twain’s Satan and thereby theorise how humour might enact a resistant politics in ways that go beyond critique. Even those not familiar with the particular quotation that gives this chapter its title are most likely familiar with that attitude towards humour which it encapsulates: humour imagined as a disruptive force, which laughs at the powerful, upsets convention and stands in opposition to dogma and rigmarole, to starched shirts, formality, pompous politicians, over-serious authority and general prejudice. This is the humour of sharp wits and progress, which speaks truth to power and lampoons ignorance; the same idea of humour, I might add, that informs the nebulous concept of satire which would promise to make of every comedy – from Mrs. Brown’s Boys to The Big Bang Theory – an anarchic attack on one thing or another: even if the target of the jest is not always particularly clearly defined. This is humour as a weapon, as an epiphany, as a critique and it is the promise, or at the very least the possibility, of this politics of humour that informs that continued circulation of Twain’s words in both popular and scholarly descriptions. In scholarly contexts, such accounts of humour as critique pop up in the work of thinkers as varied as Simon Critchley, Umberto Eco, Peter Sloterdijk and John Morreall,5 where, when humour is thought to carry out political work, and particularly positive political work, it is thought to do so through subversion and transgression (these theorists do not directly quote Twain themselves: rather they propose models of humour that are compatible with the wider model of humour as critique). Even a theorist as illustrious as Michel Foucault endorses the liberation of humour in the opening sentence of The Order of Things where his ‘laughter that shattered’, in response to the oft and over-quoted account of the Chinese encyclopaedia by Borges, sets in motion that volume’s critical project.6 Whereas classical and early modern apologists stressed humour’s potential to aid in controlling a population or reinforcing social norms,7 its contemporary advocates instead imagine humour to exist as an entirely liberatory force that stands in opposition to oppression or domination. Reimagined in this manner, humourists become the comic doubles of critical philosophers, challenging the established norms of culture through comedy rather than argumentation, and humour comes to replace ‘reason’ as that human capacity that promises political, cultural and

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social transformation.8 Indeed, this idea has been repeated so many times, in so many different contexts, that the idea that humour enacts a transgressive or subversive form of politics – what Alenka Zupančič refers to as ‘the humanist-romantic presentation of comedy as intellectual resistance’9 – would almost appear to have become a truism. However, what such a model of humour loses sight of is any distinction between critique and resistance as ways of accounting for the cultural politics of humour. While the concepts of critique and resistance have a long history of co-habitation and entanglement in discussions of cultural politics, in the case of critical humour studies at the very least, the interchangeable nature of the two concepts has led to acute problems when seeking to account for the politics of humour. SATAN AS UNRELIABLE THEORIST One way to tease out this distinction in more depth is through a return to the original context of the assertion that ‘against the assault of laughter nothing can stand’. Twain’s The Mysterious Stranger is a posthumously published and infuriatingly incomplete work that exists largely in fragments and multiple inconsistent editions. Nonetheless, despite its fragmentary nature, this novella serves as a useful guide for thinking how the critical and the resistant may operate at cross-purposes. To be clear, this is not because of any heuristic wisdom that lurks in Twain’s original words, but because the often overlooked or excised elements of the original source are incredibly telling in terms of some of the key limitations of the critical model of humour. The most pertinent fact that can be drawn from the original context is that whereas the quote is most often attributed directly to Twain, in the context of the story, the line is not attributed to the author Twain, but rather to a character: the character of Satan. This is not the Satan – the archetypal villain and corruptor of the Abrahamic tradition – but rather his nephew. As the nephew Satan explains to the novella’s protagonists, in contrast to his more famous uncle, he has not fallen from heaven and therefore remains an angel. Yet despite his assurances, Satan’s behaviour in the novel is far from what might be imagined as conventionally angelic: in his first appearance, he builds a world-inminiature for the teenage protagonists, but when its tiny inhabitants begin to annoy him, he smashes them with a wooden board in a shower of blood that is described by the novel’s narrator as an ‘awful deed’.10 Satan, as he frequently reminds other characters, exists beyond the feeble morality of humanity. Indeed, throughout the book, Satan consistently mocks the human race as stupid and weak, obsessed with killing, and – worst of all – ruined by what he refers to as its Moral Sense: the faculty by which humanity gains the ability to distinguish between good and evil, and then almost always chooses evil. This,


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then, is the character who tells us that ‘against the assault of laughter nothing can stand’: a character who by his own admission would hate humanity if he cared enough about them, a character who manipulates and deceives for his own amusement, a character who is – at very best – morally ambiguous. Moreover, the other complication provided by the original context is that while Satan does indeed praise humour, he is rather sceptical about humanity’s ability to make use of it. In the full quote, Satan declares that the human race has: a mongrel perception of humor [sic], nothing more; a multitude of you possess that. This multitude see the comic side of a thousand low-grade and trivial things – broad incongruities, mainly; grotesqueries, absurdities, evokers of the horse-laugh. The ten thousand high-grade comicalities which exist in the world are sealed from their dull vision. . . . [Y]our race, in its poverty, has unquestionably one really effective weapon – laughter. Power, money, persuasion, supplication, persecution – these can lift at a colossal humbug – push it a little – weaken it a little, century by century; but only laughter can blow it to rags and atoms at a blast. Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand. . . . [But] As a race, do you ever use it at all? No; you lack sense and the courage.11

An examination of the full context of this recurrent Twain quotation therefore somewhat complicates its ability to function as the easy epigram of a critical model of humour. In the first instance, the straightforward acceptance of the assault of laughter as the basis for a politically engaged model of humour is upset by the character of Satan. While laughter is celebrated in the novel, it is done so by a character who kills and renders people insane without remorse: a biblical trickster figure who, despite or maybe because of his angelic nature, openly advocates for the end of all morality. While it makes sense that such a fictional figure would advocate for an unstoppable force against which nothing can stand, leaving chaos and mayhem in its wake, the widespread celebration and reproduction of Satan’s model in contemporary humour theory – even as a casual epigram – would seem troubling in a world of real people bound by and, one might hope, driven by actually existing ethical, moral and political circumstances. The second complication arises from Satan’s caveats regarding laughter: for even if we are to trust and take up his position despite his character, or if we read him as Twain’s mouthpiece, it is quite clear that the potential for critical assault is not meant to apply to all instances of laughter. Twain’s Satan is clearly not declaring that all laughter has critical potential; indeed if we take him at his word, it is doubtful that any human laughter fits the conditions laid down in the novel. Thus, far from advocating for a widely applicable model of humour as a critical socio-political force, what we have is a situation where critique is

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the extreme exception to the rule of widespread banality. This would not, therefore, seem to be the most stable basis for any aspiring universal theory of critical humour. Rather what Satan offers is an account of the critical power of the smallest fraction of actual humour: an observation that sits extremely uneasily with humour studies’ tendency to locate this rare critical humour almost everywhere it looks: especially in that class of comic texts which suit the aesthetic preferences of scholars for both personal and structural reasons.12 Considered in its fullness, then, the quotation therefore offers two important complications to a model of critical humour: first, the critical assault of laughter is maybe not always as benign as is expected, and second that not all instances of humour are necessarily critical in an effective or meaningful way. SITUATING CRITICAL HUMOUR Returning to the original context of The Mysterious Stranger therefore illuminates some important complications for any critical model of humour, in particular pertaining to the desirability of critique. Such a caveat is especially relevant in our current conjuncture, defined by the fluid logics of late capitalism and a liberal structure of feeling, where we are called upon to act as innovative individuals and free-thinking entrepreneurs, rather than as obedient subjects. Deleuze famously identifies this as a transition from a Foucauldian disciplinary society to what he refers to as a Society of Control: a situation that means that privileged subjects at least are not forced into categories and coerced to behave, but rather encouraged to roam widely and think freely as flexible and dispersed power structures adapt to our every move.13 In such a context, critique is almost never denounced but is instead openly welcomed by the powers that be. Indeed, as noted by cultural critics from Thomas Frank to Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello to Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, dissent, change and freedom are frequently celebrated in our contemporary moment, where there is a marked preference for the dynamic over the static, the new over the old and the spontaneous over the planned.14 Concurrently, critical thinking is hailed as one of the most valuable attributes of a humanities education, resistance to received thinking is no longer the sole purview of culture jammers and carnivalesque activists ‘whose antics and messages’ in the words of Jeremy Gilbert ‘are often simply indistinguishable to the wider public from the activities of viral marketers and cutting-edge corporate publicists’.15 What follows, then, is that contemporary capitalism and contemporary society more generally are not necessarily troubled by critique, especially in the more abstract or metaphorical sense that informs the critical model of humour.


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A re-examination of The Mysterious Stranger reminds us how critique is not necessarily in itself a radical or even desirable political act: critique can just as easily arise for amoral and even immoral purposes and therefore needs to be situated in terms of a model of power if we are to have any means by which to assess the orientation and consequences of the assault of laughter. Interpreted from this perspective, Twain’s Satan is not simply proffering a universal model of liberating humour, but one in which critical laughter explicitly operates within an amoral context that is unconcerned with human life and flourishing. In a similar manner, when considering the continued adoption and circulation of the assault of laughter in our neo-liberal context, we need to be concerned with the assumptions that underpin a society where it can no longer be taken as a given that critique, especially the general form of critique offered by humour, is a particularly radical act: instead it seems just as likely to be another contribution to the constant cultural frothing that underlies much of our contemporary aesthetic and social environment. Thus, even if we take it as given that humour is critical, it does not follow that it is resistant. Rather humour’s ability to unsettle accepted truths and conventions is easily aligned with the priorities of our liberal capitalist system, because capitalism loves critique: especially critique in the abstract, ungrounded and ambiguous form often assigned to humour.16 When considered in such a light, the limitation of the critical model of humour is that it presumes an older more regulated and inflexible model – the Fordist model of capitalism – where maybe a few well-placed blasts of popular dissent could potentially unsettle the social and cultural foundations of the political order. However, the rigidity of the Fordist model has long since given way to the distributed and deregulated flows of the Port-Fordist era which is less wedded to hierarchy and conformity as key aspects of social control.17 When located in this paradigm, the study of humour thus seems to be doomed to replay the errors assigned to a certain caricature of 1990s media and cultural studies, where everyday actions of cultural consumption constitute political assaults on the powers that be. The main problem with such a model is not then that it overstates the critical power of humour – although that might well be the case – but rather that it fails to identify a fundamental shift in the political logic of contemporary capitalist society and, as a consequence, incorrectly overestimates the oppositional clout of comic critique in the current conjuncture. Critique, especially in the more abstract and indirect cultural forms that it assumes in the context of humour, is not automatically resistant in relation to the dominant structures of power in our current moment, where irreverence and anarchy are absolutely fine, especially if they can be used to turn a profit. To be clear, though, I am not therefore advocating for the ‘safety valve’ model of humour,18 where comedy serves to relieve metaphorical social pressure that builds up in opposition to prevailing norms. Rather, I am arguing

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that humour as critique is the very expression of the dominant structure of feeling and as such is permitted and encouraged by the dominant structures of our society. Humour is thus both critical and functions in the service of current relations of power, because those two functions are not mutually exclusive. Not so much a safety valve, then, this position is more reminiscent of what Jacques Rancière denounces as the state of left-wing melancholia, where all desires for subversion are seen to obey the law of the market and all capacity for resistance is reintegrated back into the system.19 Hamstrung by their own bleak prognosis, Rancière laments that the critical left has abandoned the historical project of emancipation and taken up residence in that beautiful old structure: the Grand Hotel Abyss. However, while I share their concern with critical ineffectiveness, in contrast to Rancière’s melancholics, my subject here is much narrower – not all critique, nor even all humour – but simply those accounts of humour as a form of critique. I am not despairing that all critique is impotent, but simply that the too easy and quick assumption that humour is critical now prevents us from properly understanding and appreciating the politics of humour. When all and any humour is celebrated as potentially critical, in the influential words of Simon Critchley, ‘a breakage in the bond connecting the human being to its unreflective, everyday existence’,20 then we have begun to operate with an assumption of critical humour so broad and flabby as to be able to encompass almost all potential examples, and to say almost nothing concrete about them. It is the ascendancy of such a critical orthodoxy in the study of humour that prevents us from properly accounting for its rarer, more complex and more meaningful resistant aspects. SATANIC LESSONS FOR THE STUDY OF HUMOUR My argument is not that humour, laughter and comedy cannot be resistant: indeed, I firmly believe that the popular understanding of humour as a site of resistance not only reflects but actually creates the possibility that humour can act as a form of effective cultural politics. However, if we are to understand and appreciate the resistant politics of humour as such, then we need to move beyond the model of humour as abstract critique that dominates the contemporary theorisation of humour: to engage meaningfully with the resistant politics of humour we need to formulate an approach that retains an appreciation of humour as an important aspect of cultural politics, but which does not reduce that political function to simply aggressive critique. Such a suggestion brings us back, full circle, to the variation on the quotation for which this chapter is named: what might it mean to stand ‘Against the Assault of Laughter’? By this I do not mean being opposed to any critical work that humour might do, nor do I mean adopting a stance opposed to


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humour as ethically suspect: a position notably and somewhat infamously taken by Michael Billig.21 Rather, when I suggest we might stand against the assault of laughter, I am proposing the need for an alternative to that analytic framework which always seeks to characterise the politics of humour in terms of critique. Such an approach would seek to avoid that entrenched opposition between liberatory critique and discipline in which a critic like Billig finds himself stuck; the logic of which seems to compel him to reject any possibility of a positive, progressive politics of humour. Rather, instead of that endless impasse, we might instead consider what we can learn from Satan (a sentence I never thought I’d write) in order to think more carefully about the resistant, rather than critical, politics of humour. I would like, then, to propose three satanic lessons for the study of humour. The first lesson is that critique is not in itself inherently politically progressive or desirable and therefore while humour may certainly be critical, it does not necessarily follow that it is resistant in any meaningful political way. While Twain’s Satan cheerfully advocates for critical humour as an ‘assault’ and an implicit explosion that blasts everything to ‘rags and atoms’, the character’s lack of concern for the mundanities of human morality might give us pause if we stop to assess the desirability of such actions. Satan shows us that even if laughter is an effective weapon, this does not mean that it always achieves desirable ends: his actions thereby alert us to the need to understand critique in context. In order to evaluate the political work of critical humour, we must therefore consider how such forms of comic critique operate in terms of wider social systems and contexts and how the political function of critique might change over time. As an example of such thinking, Luc Boltanski distinguishes between older modes of ‘simple domination’ that he associates with totalitarian societies, and new modes of ‘complex or managerial domination’ that he argues are present in democratic-capitalist societies.22 Simple models of domination are predicated on the control of how the world is understood: they therefore seek to confirm official accounts, deny change and crush critique. Under such conditions, critique can serve a powerful political function through the revelation of the inaccuracies, inconsistencies and contradictions of the official, sanctioned world view: under such conditions, critique, and thus critical humour, can appear as heroic acts of political subversion and resistance. Indeed, the rich literature arguing the efficacy of humour in Nazi Germany and the Stalinist Soviet Union is testament to the possible power of humour under conditions of simple domination.23 The case of complex domination is more complicated, however. One of the key ways in which Boltanski characterises such systems is through ‘the incorporation of critique into the routines of social life’.24 This is possible because complex domination does not depend upon the maintenance of a single, official account of how the world works: what we might think of as dominant

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ideology in an Althusserian framework.25 Instead, Boltanski argues, complex domination is enacted through the official embrace of change which dominant groups are better placed to weather and exploit through the mobilisation of pre-existing advantages such as access to property and increased mobility.26 In a complex system, domination is perpetuated not through the maintenance of a particular system, but through the maintenance of asymmetric access to different forms of capital. Critique is therefore permitted and frequently officially acknowledged – the ‘revelation’ that the social arrangement does not work equally well for all is met with either consternation or apathy – but nothing changes as a result because such inequalities and asymmetries are not the result of official policy, but rather encountered as ostensibly unfortunate artefacts. This situation thus provides ‘less purchase to critique than a regime of repression’,27 because domination arises out of the management of change to the benefit of certain parties, rather than attempts to uphold a particular order. It is of little surprise, then, that concepts such as innovation, and indeed critique, become celebrated values in a society that does not reject, but rather thrives on, change. In doing so, ‘domination through change itself identifies with the critique of which it deprives those who would like to oppose it’.28 The allegiance of critique with contemporary systems of domination and social power explains the success of popular humour texts understood to be critical. In the twenty-first century, that humour which has found the most institutional support and celebration has consistently been that which has been understood as critical. The Simpsons, for example, has been the subject of both sustained critical acclaim and popular success, particularly in its early seasons, in large part due to what are identified as its satirical aspects.29 Nor is it only The Simpsons that has successfully translated critical comedy into cultural cachet: Chappelle’s Show, Saturday Night Live, The Daily Show, The Thick of It, both versions of The Office, The Onion all are examples of critical humour that have received the tacit blessings of establishment culture from industry awards to sustained scholarly attention. Following Boltanski then, we can understand the success and sanction of such humour texts as a function of their criticality, rather than despite it: the satirical aspects are no longer indicative of some secret subversion and transgression that speaks to the repressed will of the popular classes, but instead are aligned directly with the priorities of managerial dominance in democratic capitalist societies. While less politically thrilling, such an interpretation is much easier to square with the production and consumption of such examples: after all, it is somewhat counterintuitive to assume that texts that are not only produced and distributed by major media companies, but also celebrated by institutionally powerful taste-makers and gate-keepers are somehow representative of an authentic and profound opposition to the status quo in any straightforward way. We should be suspicious of claims that a broad swathe of establishment


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figures would be staunch supporters of meaningfully resistant cultural forms.30 If humour, and specifically critical humour, does any resistant political work, then we need to think how it might do so in ways that move beyond the aggressive criticism that informs the ‘assault of laughter’. Given the depressed effectiveness of disruptive forms of critique under complex systems of domination, the second satanic lesson for the study of humour is the need to move beyond a limited model of critique as a form of assault. Even if humour did have the power to blow all institutions and assumptions to pieces, Satan shows us that we should be hesitant to employ it to these ends: the destruction of everything is a fairly extreme and crude political goal for anyone. In our efforts to think beyond this destructive paradigm of critique, Bruno Latour provides one model for how critique might be thought differently. Latour characterises critique as the transformation of matters of fact – objects that just exist in the world as they are – into matters of concern: things that are understood to be caught up in webs of human meaning and history.31 Critique accomplishes this transformation through a process of revelation of hidden truth: unveiling the deep structures that account for the encountered shape of reality and thus revealing the human entanglements and power struggles that lurk behind apparently uncomplicated everyday truths. The explanations offered by critique thus act as evaluations – or perhaps even more aptly eviscerations – that leave those objects unlucky enough to be caught in their path exposed as fantasies, fetishes or frauds.32 Critique thus reveals the truth of others to be lies and, in doing so, reinforces the power of the critic. Such a description could also be applied to humour understood in its critical mode: blasting through ignorance with wit, hilariously tearing down shibboleths, the assault of laughter repeats the moves of Latour’s critique by puncturing the veil of lies and unthought habits that settle over conventional thinking. Through the mobilisation of critical incongruity, the humourist here emerges as the superior of those who were previously content to regard the world in serious and sober terms. Latour describes this critical practice – of seizing upon the beloved objects and concepts of others and intellectually shaking them until they fall apart – as ‘critical barbarity’: the use of critique as a form of destruction.33 Such critique is never turned upon the things that the critics themselves love, in particular the ideas that inform critique, but wielded as an especially brutish club against the cherished ideas of others. This is exactly that same function that is proudly claimed for humour by those who follow the satanic model of comic assault: the delighted account of humour as an intellectual weapon. And as with ‘critical barbarity’, this ‘comic barbarity’ only very rarely seeks to understand itself and its own status. Content to have asserted its power, advocates of the assault of laughter are then satisfied to breathlessly document those instances where humour achieves its destructive ends – basking in the reflected glory of righteous and true understanding of the world – rather

‘Against the Assault of Laughter’ 41

than reflect upon either the mechanism by which that might occur or the desirability of such occurrences. However, barbarity is not the only form of critique: Latour argues that the transformation of matters of fact into matters of concern can also, indeed should, function to explain and deploy ideas, rather than to undermine them.34 To understand the human engagements and struggles that inform the apparently ahistorical and universal texts, forms and assumptions that surround us, does not automatically mean whipping the rug out from underneath them: it can also serve as a way to get closer to those ideas, and to recognise how we might engage with them on human terms as products of productive human gathering and mutual encounter. So understood, critique appears as a process of thickening up knowledge, by situating an object in wider webs of meaning and agency, as well as tearing down structures of assumption and convention. This vision of critique is strikingly similar to Boltanski’s suggestion that critique can work to realise the uncertainty, fragility and disparity of the world so that we might think about how we can change it: grasping the less-than-ontological status of culture and society as an invitation to engage, rather than as crowing of victory over false belief.35 To apprehend humour in this way would mean to move beyond an emphasis on its critical function in terms of unsettling, upsetting and subverting: through the realisation that humour does more than just poke holes, it also assumes particular stances and assumptions from which to tear those holes. Humour therefore is never just anarchic negation, but rather also assumes a set of beliefs and structures against which incongruity can be perceived and ridicule mobilised. Rejecting satanic laughter (and all its temptations!) would thus mean a critical theory of humour that focuses less on humour’s targets and more on its shared communities and formal mechanisms. This would be a more pragmatic and humble model of humour as a participant in complex cultural entanglements, rather than as a violent victor over others’ ignorance. The third and final satanic lesson for humour is the need to consider the purpose of the assault of laugher. In the earlier manuscripts of The Mysterious Stranger, Satan rejoices in an extended account of the comicality of religion but stops short when the narrator explains that he cannot laugh at the failings of the church: ‘our stay, our solace and our hope . . . the most precious thing we [have]’.36Although excised from the later published version, this episode is indicative of the consequences that critical laughter might have and speaks to how revelation in itself does not necessarily lead to any improvement in the experience of its audience and can even produce misery and suffering. Jacques Rancière raises a similar point regarding critique, which he argues has lost any sense of its guiding purpose. In the state which he refers to as ‘post-critical critique’,37 he asserts that critique now functions as a revelation of the fundamental unreality of our world ‘and it only remains to laugh at ideologues who still believe in the reality of reality, misery and wars’.38 In


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order to escape the potentially nihilistic pathways of the critique of critique, Rancière advocates for a change of assumptions regarding critique reconfigured as a project of emancipation rather than revelation: rather than seeking to expose the beastly system that lurks behind, he suggests instead that critique should make its first priority the reconfiguration of the field of the possible. Instead of a process of unmasking, critique would thus prioritise how it might change the world: this is a thorny challenge because it requires a normative decision about the desired outcome. The consideration of purpose means that it is no longer sufficient to celebrate the tearing down of systems and structures as a political goal in itself, but rather to think about how critique might lead to a better state of the world. In terms of the study of humour, such an orientation from critique to constructive resistance would also involve the introduction of a more normative dimension than has previously been the case, and which might therefore lead to conflict and friction as we question whether the politics of humour are in themselves always desirable. What such a programme would ask us to consider then is how we might conceive of humour beyond assault, and thereby understand the possible political work of humour in broader terms. This is no longer therefore simply a question of ‘blow[ing the world] to rags and atoms at a blast’, but instead of working out how humour might oppose those aspects of the current political order deemed to be undesirable, and thereby build a better world. Conceived in this manner, we would not be looking to humour to unsettle, rattle and problematise the existing arrangements of the world, but as one affective and accessible way by which alternatives might be raised in resistance. This would not simply mean finding different humour texts to do this work, but instead changing how we apprehend and interrogate the political work of humour to account for political aesthetics beyond the role of critique. In its inescapably normative aspects such an approach would, no doubt, provoke messy and fraught conversations. However, despite the potential difficulty of such work, it would nonetheless seem necessary if we are to move from a critical to a resistant politics of humour: one that acknowledges the politics and critical consequences of how humour, for good or ill, can build, reinforce, dodge, affirm, confirm, nudge, persuade and sometimes do very little, as well as assault. NOTES 1. Mark Twain, The Mysterious Stranger: A Romance (New York and London: Harper and Brothers, 1916), 142, twain-the-mysterious-stranger.pdf. Accessed 1 February 2017. 2. Twain, The Mysterious Stranger, 141. 3. Twain, The Mysterious Stranger, 141.

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4. The most prominent examples of such adoption are Arthur P. Dudden, ed., The Assault of Laughter (New York: Thomas Yoseloff, 1962) and Judith Yaross Lee’s editorial article in Studies in American Humour 1.1, ‘Assaults of Laughter’, both of which take Twain’s line for their title. A selection of direct evocation of Twain’s line can be found in Victor Navasky, Art of Controversy (New York: Knopf, 2013), 50; Sean Zwagerman, Wit’s End (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010), 5; Peter M. Robinson’s The Dance of the Comedians (Amherst and Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2010), 103; Alison Dagnes, A Conservative Walks into a Bar (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2012), 9; Wil Kaufman, ‘What’s so Funny about Richard Nixon? Vonnegut’s Jailbird and the Limits of Comedy’, Journal of American Studies 41.3 (2007): 623; Alan Gribben, ‘English Departments: Salvaging What Remains’, Academic Questions 2.4 (1989): 96; and Michael P. Branch, ‘Are You Serious: A Modest Proposal for Environmental Humour’, in The Oxford Handbook of Ecocriticism, ed. Greg Garrad (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 385. The quote even appears uncited, as if simply now a proverb, in David Halberstam’s introduction to the collection of Hunter Thompson’s letters: Fear and Loathing in America (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000), xxii. Beyond these scholarly usages, the term is also common in the more informal spaces and platforms of the Internet, such as quotation dictionaries, social media groups and web log posts. 5. The humour scholars listed do not, however, assign such power to all humour, but rather share a tendency to distinguish between variations on what Critchley refers to as true and false humour. Thus, with Sloterdijk we have cynical versus kynical laughter, and Eco distinguishes between the conservative function of the comic and the transgressive function of humour. Morreall, in contrast, does not seem to conceive of anything other a subversive, transgressive comedy. Simon Critchley, On Humour (London: Routledge, 2002),11; Umberto Eco, ‘The Comic and the Rule’, in Faith in Fakes, trans. William Weaver (London: Vintage, 1998), 277; John Morreall, Taking Laughter Seriously (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1983); Peter Sloterdijk, Critique of Cynical Reason, trans. Michael Eldred (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 144–45. 6. Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (London: Routledge, 2005), xvi. 7. See Michael Billig, Laughter and Ridicule (London: Sage, 2005), 46–53. 8. For further discussion of the relationship between humour and reason, see Nicholas Holm, Humour as Politics (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017). 9. Alenka Zupančič, The Odd One In: On Comedy (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008), 4. 10. Twain, The Mysterious Stranger, 16. 11. Twain, The Mysterious Stranger, 141–42. 12. In an earlier version of the text, The Chronicle of Young Satan, Satan actually provides an example of the sort of ‘hero’ who arises once every two centuries and is capable of harnessing the critical power of laughter: the Scottish poet Robert Burns who uses humour to ‘break the back of the Presbyterian Church’ (166). References to Burns and the book’s extended scathing indictment of organised religion were removed in the published version. Mark Twain, Mark Twain’s Mysterious Stranger Manuscripts, ed. William M. Gibson (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969), 166. 13. Gilles Deleuze, ‘Postscript on the Societies of Control’, October 59 (1992): 3–7.


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14. While there are important differences between the ways these theorists conceptualise the cultural manifestations of neo-liberal capitalism, for the purposes of the current argument those differences are less important than the broad diagnosis that they hold in common. Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism (London: Verso, 2006); Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000); Thomas Frank, The Conquest of Cool (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1997). 15. Jeremy Gilbert, Anticapitalism and Culture: Radical Theory and Popular Politics (Oxford: Berg, 2008), 102. 16. See Holm, Humour as Politics, 21–40. 17. Gilbert, Anticapitalism and Culture, 30–33; Luc Boltanski, On Critique: A Sociology of Emancipation, trans. Gregory Elliot (Cambridge: Polity, 2011), 129–43. 18. Giselinde Kuipers, ‘The Sociology of Humour’, in The Primer of Humor Research, ed. Victor Raskin (Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 2008), 362. 19. Jacques Rancière, ‘The Misadventures of Critical Thought’, in The Emancipated Spectator, trans. Gregory Elliott (London and New York: Verso, 2009), 40–41. 20. Critchley, On Humour, 41. 21. Billig, Laughter and Ridicule, 241–42. 22. Boltanski, On Critique, 123–29. 23. Rudolph Herzog, Dead Funny: Telling Jokes in Hitler’s Germany, trans. Jefferson Chase (New York: Melville House, 2011); Ben Lewis, Hammer and Tickle: The History of Communism Told through Communist Jokes (London: Phoenix, 2011). 24. Boltanski, On Critique, 127. 25. Louis Althusser, On the Reproduction of Capitalism, trans. Ben Brewster (London: Verso, 2014), 51. 26. Boltanski, On Critique, 127–28. 27. Boltanski, On Critique, 128. 28. Boltanski, On Critique, 137–38. 29. Chris Turner, Planet Simpson (Toronto: Random House Canada, 2004), 4–5. 30. Indeed, if any form of contemporary humour reflects the resistant potential of popular rather than elite sentiments, then it would be highly successful but critically denounced works such as Mrs Brown’s Boys or The Big Bang Theory. This is not to argue that such works are obviously or easily resistant – they are far too entangled in the political economic priorities of the cultural industries for such a claim to be anything but naive – but a consideration of the political valence of such examples is certainly one way to move beyond the conceptual limitations of the critical model. 31. Bruno Latour, ‘Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?’ Critical Inquiry 30.2 (2004): 231–36. 32. Bruno Latour, ‘Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?’ 237–42. 33. Bruno Latour, ‘Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?’ 240. 34. Bruno Latour, ‘Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?’ 245–48. 35. Boltanski, On Critique, 155–57. 36. Twain, Mark Twain’s Mysterious Stranger Manuscripts, 167. 37. Rancière, ‘The Misadventures of Critical Thought’, 40. 38. Rancière, ‘The Misadventures of Critical Thought’, 31.

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Can We Learn the Truth from Lenny Bruce? A Careful Cognitivism about Satire Dieter Declercq

‘I learned the truth from Lenny Bruce’ claims Paul Simon’s protagonist in the song ‘A Simple Desultory Philippic (Or How I Was Robert McNamara’d into Submission)’. However, he doesn’t really mean it.1 Simon’s song playfully mocks popular conceptions in the Sixties, among them that satire, like Lenny Bruce’s, teaches you the truth. Perhaps Simon’s ironic mockery signals that claims about the cognitive function of satire – its ability to teach us the truth – should be taken with a pinch of salt. That, I think, would be valuable advice. Still, as far as the song itself has satirical qualities, it does function as a valuable stepping-stone towards developing an insight about the appropriate expectations concerning the truthfulness of satire. Similarly, the position I defend admits that good satire can teach non-trivial truths but highlights that satirical truth is best understood as an introduction to an issue which requires further investigation or a particular take which needs to be nuanced. Such a cognitive function can be valuable but should not be overestimated. At the same time, I also caution that satire can deceive. The same techniques which sometimes generate cognitive value in satire are also the ones responsible for cognitive flaws on other occasions. I call this position a careful cognitivism about satire.2 My careful cognitivism outlines a moderate position between supporters and detractors of satire’s cognitive value. On one hand, in early twentiethcentury Germany, Kurt Tucholsky enthusiastically argued that ‘[t]he satirist is an offended idealist’ who employs ‘merciless truth’ in an attack on ‘malice’.3 Similarly, Stephen E. Kercher argues that Lenny Bruce and others were driven by a commitment to ‘brutal truth’ or ‘terrible honesty’.4 More recently, Jon Stewart’s satire in The Daily Show (1999–2015) has been praised for revealing ‘a truth the mainstream media were largely refusing to consider’.5 In particular, during the presidency of George W. Bush, satire was praised 45


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as an enlightened response to postmodern media manipulation, now better known as post-truth politics.6 On the other hand, detractors like Julie Webber have retorted that Jon Stewart’s satire ‘den[ies] objectivity’ and instead offers audiences ‘a construction of accuracy that they can believe in’.7 In other words, Webber dismisses that satire has cognitive value as critique because it does not stimulate real learning but panders to preconceptions. For this reason, Webber argues that ‘Stewart’s comedy is an ersatz form of progressive democratic praxis’.8 My careful cognitivism aims to develop a moderate position in this polarised debate. My moderate position aims to alleviate overly pessimistic concerns about the cognitive value of satire, but also to mitigate excessive praise. In this respect, during the 2016 Republican Party presidential primaries, John Oliver was commonly praised for ‘destroy[ing]’9 or ‘annihilat[ing]’10 Donald Trump on Last Week Tonight. While the course of the 2016 American presidential election should be reason enough to abandon such hyperbolic appraisals, similar endorsements of John Oliver11 or Samantha Bee12 remained popular after Trump took office. Unsurprisingly, facing such unrealistic expectations, satirists like Oliver have pragmatically downplayed ‘any larger sense of mission’.13 However, in doing so, Oliver has also disavowed the genuinely critical intent of his show by contending it is ‘weird . . . when people ask about the show’s relationship to journalism. It’s so clearly comedy’.14 This dismissal may be pragmatic, but it is insincere. Last Week Tonight does not simply set out to entertain, but also to critique. Hyperbolic praise of satire’s cognitive function and political impact are therefore pernicious because they set the genre up for failure by introducing expectations it cannot uphold. In turn, satirists are forced to mitigate these expectations, pragmatically, but often misconstrue the critical nature of satire in the process. Ultimately, these unrealistic expectations and pragmatic mitigations only corroborate suspicions about the value of satire outlined by detractors. In order to redress these misunderstandings, my moderate position aims to determine realistic expectations about the cognitive function of satire in order to assess better the significance it may claim as critique. Importantly, my evaluation of satire’s cognitive function is to be separated from an assessment of its political impact. Whereas I will be concerned with whether satire can teach non-trivial truths, many supporters have instead focused on questions like Is Satire Saving Our Nation?.15 The most likely answer to the latter is no. Surveying over a decade’s worth of research, R. Lance Holbert has concluded that ‘[a]t best, the persuasive effects of political satire appear to be minimal’.16 Satire may be one practice among others that can incrementally contribute to emancipation, but it is unlikely to claim extraordinary efficacy compared to more directly activist strategies such as protest marches or hunger strikes. Yet, even such a moderate position on

Can We Learn the Truth from Lenny Bruce? 47

satire’s political impact presupposes that satire can teach what is wrong with the world, which, I shall argue, is far from evident. For the record, I do not dispute that we can learn what is wrong with the world from representations. Without entering into meta-ethical debates, I do think it is often (perhaps not always) possible to arbitrate with a fair degree of objectivity whether some discourse or practice is justifiable in light of the common good.17 What is at stake is therefore not whether critique and critical representations are able to generate truths, but whether we can learn such truths from satire. My investigation will similarly consider representations related to satire, specifically cartoons and caricatures. THE PARADOX OF SATIRE’S TRUTHFULNESS The idea that we can learn the truth from satirists like Lenny Bruce is enduring. Oliver Double explains that Bruce and others made truth central to stand-up comedy by introducing the ‘idea that it is about authentic selfexpression’.18 Dismissing the stylised routines of Borscht Belt comedians as contrived, Bruce contended that ‘[a] comedian of the older generation did an act, and he told the audience, “This is my act”. Today’s comic is not doing an act. The audience assumes he’s telling the truth’.19 This idea that truthfulness contributes to the aesthetic success of comedy has remained influential. John Oliver has claimed that ‘[w]e’re obsessed about making sure that all the things that we say are accurate [on Last Week Tonight], but that’s only because those things are the structural foundation upon which the jokes are based’.20 Nevertheless, this concern for truthfulness, especially in satire, is also ethically motivated. Ethan Thompson has explained that Bruce’s audiences expected ‘not just any truth’, but ‘a nasty truth about the supposedly normal mainstream’.21 In this respect, Bruce was lauded as ‘social critic and secular moralist’ who wielded ‘truth and reason as weapons’.22 Similarly, despite the pragmatic disavowals of satirists like Oliver, contemporary American satire has been praised as ‘a hard-knuckled critique of power’.23 Truthfulness in satire is not simply valued for aesthetic reasons but also for ethical reasons. Interestingly, the ethical evaluation of truthfulness in satire has stimulated comparisons to philosophy on the grounds of a purportedly shared critical function. Wondering ‘what do philosophers and satirists have in common?’, Robert Bracht Branham responds, ‘Evidently, the willingness to offend, provoke, and outrage, all in the name of calling a spade a bloody shovel, of telling the awful truth’.24 Although Nicholas Diehl has problematised the claim that there are currently satires which also are philosophy, he nonetheless also allows ‘satire an honored place in the process of moral and philosophical


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education’.25 However, even such a moderate claim about the contributions of satire to philosophy is far from accepted. Robert Phiddian has highlighted that ‘the satirical is visceral and reductive in its appeal, so it has no necessary logical link with ethics or truth’.26 According to Phiddian, satire ‘simplifies. It is impatient. It apportions blame and caricatures issues with arbitrariness’.27 Similarly, even though he has enthusiastically defended the cognitive function of satire, Tucholsky acknowledged that ‘[s]atire must exaggerate and is, in its deepest nature, unjust. It inflates the truth to make it clearer, and it can do nothing more than work according to the bible verse: the just will suffer with the unjust’.28 On closer inspection, common appraisals of satire’s truthfulness are in fact paradoxical. Matthew Kieran explains that ‘[t]he point of satire is to ridicule’.29 Accordingly, in satire, ‘[a] character may be exaggerated by concentrating wholly on her faults without recognition of her virtues or rendered absurd by concentrating on irrelevant yet easy to lampoon mannerisms’.30 Kieran argues that ‘to achieve its aims, satire, caricature and ridicule are often unfair, morally distorted and vicious’.31 At the same time, he also acknowledges ‘how important and effective it [satire] can be’ and highlights the paradox that ‘such morally dubious distortions enable their works to debunk authority and challenge the unquestioning acceptance of attitudes, activities, institutions and cultures’.32 These intuitions about the paradox of satire’s truthfulness outlined by Kieran point in the right direction, but require further development. LENNY BRUCE ON INSTITUTIONALISED CHRISTIANITY The paradox that satirical representation has cognitive and ethical value despite (or perhaps exactly because of ) its distortions can be further developed through a routine by Lenny Bruce about institutionalised Christianity. In this satirical routine, Bruce explains how Christ and Moses come to the earth and attend a Mass in New York City: Christ and Moses [are] standing in the back of St. Pat’s, [listening and] looking around. [Cardinal Spellman would be relating love and giving and forgiveness to the people.] Confused, Christ is, at the grandeur of the interior, the rococo baroque interior. Because his route took him through Spanish Harlem, and he was wondering what the hell fifty Puerto Ricans were doing living in one room when that stained glass window is worth ten G’s a square foot? And this guy [Cardinal Spellman] had a ring worth eight grand. And he would wonder at the grandeur. Why weren’t the Puerto Ricans living here? That was the purpose of the Church – for the people.33

Can We Learn the Truth from Lenny Bruce? 49

The point is that Bruce’s satirical critique of institutionalised Christianity is exaggerated, simplified, selective and emotive. No doubt, the routine is aesthetically successful, but is it also truthful? In this respect, much like a historian, Bruce sets out to say true things about the history of institutionalised Christianity. He argues that the founders of the church intended the institution to provide for the poor, but, throughout history, its leaders have all too often ended up providing for themselves, at the expense of the poor. This assertion is subject to the standards of truth-telling developed in historiography. Not only does Bruce need to get the facts right, but his selection and connection of those facts into a narrative must also adhere to standards of objectivity.34 However, there is a risk that Bruce’s satirical argument falls short of these historiographic standards. For one, he exaggerates the value of Cardinal Spellman’s ring and the number of Puerto Rican immigrants housing together in a New York bedroom. He also simplifies the complexity of the church’s history by reducing it to its material excesses. Moreover, rather than relying on dispassionate reasoning, Bruce exploits emotive representations of the suffering Puerto Ricans and the vain clergy. Finally, even if Bruce reveals an important truth about institutionalised Christianity, the just do suffer with the unjust in his routine. Concretely, while some leaders of the church have ignored the needs of the poor in favour of their own profit, Bruce’s satirical critique also ignores the sincere charity of many in the clergy. COGNITIVE VALUE AND THE RISK OF AESTHETIC SEDUCTION Perhaps imposing the standards of historiography on Bruce’s satire seems inappropriate. After all, his satirical routine describes a fictional event. Still, even historians often employ fictional techniques.35 Similarly, through fiction, Bruce indirectly makes assertions about the actual history of institutionalised Christianity. Moreover, insofar as Bruce passes moral judgement, his claims are also subject to the rules of philosophical critique, which impose similar standards of rigour and objectivity as historiography. My point is that for satire to have cognitive value, it must adhere to current best practice in domains like history and philosophy. Yet, while the classification of history and philosophy as non-fiction introduces stringent stipulations in the service of safeguarding truth, satire thrives on fictional techniques which are cognitively risky. In particular, the cognitive risks of satire are linked to its extreme degree of manipulative control in representation. In this respect, Eileen John has explained that representation is controlled by imaginative techniques which manipulate information, including ‘selection, foregrounding and making salient, simplification, amplification, exaggeration


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and juxtaposition; we can imaginatively configure the elements of reality in many ways’.36 According to John, ‘Specific genres and modes of art, such as satire and cartoons, highlight particular kinds of “excessive” configurative control’.37 Crucially, she nuances that ‘though these functions are cognitively risky, they are also extremely basic and indispensable to inquiry’.38 The point is that representations which showcase extreme configurative control, like satire, are particularly cognitively risky. At the same time, they may perhaps also claim particular cognitive virtues, albeit caution is required. Still, even when exercising caution, it is intuitive that good satire can have cognitive value in a moral project of critique. In this respect, the aesthetic success of satire can fruitfully interact with its cognitive and ethical success as critique. In this respect, Berys Gaut explains how Lenny Henry critiqued the anti-immigration policy of a British prime minister by quipping, ‘Enoch Powell wants to give black people a thousand pounds to go back home, which suits me fine – it only costs me 20p on the bus’.39 I agree with Gaut that ‘the [aesthetic] effectiveness and resonance of the joke centrally depend on its subversion of racist attitudes and assumptions’.40 In other words, the ethical and cognitive merit of satire as critique can increase its aesthetic success. Likewise, satire can also be cognitively and ethically better because it is aesthetically successful. Robert Stecker rightfully highlights that ‘to satirize a questionable aspect of society . . . [audiences] must be able to feel by way of vividly imaging . . . the folly of the satirized aspect of society or the bad consequences of the practice in need of reform’.41 Summing up, the aesthetic function of satire can fruitfully inform its cognitive and ethical function as critique. Yet, we must be careful not to assume too easily that when satire makes us laugh, it also teaches us morally relevant truths. While Bruce and others introduced authenticity as an ethical and aesthetic value of modern stand-up comedy, Double explains that comedians often make a mockery of truth in their pursuit of laughs.42 Satirists are no exception. Double discusses a standup routine by British satirist Stewart Lee who seeks to critique the bullying humour of BBC’s Top Gear by misleading his audience to believe initially a fake story about one of its presenters.43 He concludes that as Lee ‘play[s] pranks on the audience’, it leaves them with a lot of doubt ‘about exactly what the truth is’.44 In particular, Double highlights a ‘kind of ambiguous interweaving of truth and fiction’ in Stewart Lee’s satire.45 A related issue with learning from fiction is highlighted by Peter Lamarque and Gregory Currie in their analysis of the film Blade Runner, of which ‘it is sometimes claimed that [its] visual aesthetic overwhelms, or perhaps compensates for failings in the cognitive content’.46 The additional problem highlighted by Currie and Lamarque is that fiction, which is commonly designed to be aesthetically successful, may seduce us to overestimate its cognitive value.

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Similarly, I suspect that hyperbolic praise of contemporary American satire is facilitated because its aesthetic success mars the assessment of its cognitive (or political) value. Such aesthetic seduction is particularly risky because satire’s cognitive function is tied to fictional techniques of exaggeration, simplification, selectiveness and emotiveness which may as easily deceive as convey truth. Crucially, the right response to such ambiguity is not to dismiss outright the cognitive function of satire, but to proceed with caution. In this regard, while Gregory Currie and Jerrold Levinson acknowledge that fictions can stimulate ‘doxastic improvement’,47 they also warn that ‘fictions are rather perilous epistemic environments . . . where the overlap between what is fictional and what is true must often be guessed at’.48 Similarly, I develop a careful cognitivism which accommodates that imaginative techniques in satire may sometimes be cognitively meritorious, but also flawed. SATIRE AS NARRATIVE THINKING Satire is a form of representation characterised by an extreme degree of manipulative control. Yet, such an extreme degree of manipulative control is not unique. John49 and Kieran50 have referred to cartoons and caricatures as kindred representations. I similarly include aphorisms in that list. In what follows, I will investigate the cognitive function of satire by comparing it to these kindred representations. More specifically, I propose that satire, cartoons, caricatures and aphorisms exploit a similar process of narrative thinking.51 Narrative thinking is the mental process behind the creation of stories. Crucial to narrative thinking is emplotment, a process which first involves authors shaping a story by selecting (and leaving out) descriptions, in various degrees of richness.52 They then organise that story material into a coherent whole by creating meaningful connections and commonly take an evaluative perspective which bestows the story with emotional import. My proposal is that satire, cartoons, caricatures and aphorisms are characterised by a particular kind of emplotment and narrative thinking, which produces simplified, exaggerated, selective and emotive representations. In this respect, George A. Test has referred to satire as a mental ‘faculty’53 or ‘spirit’.54 This proposal is valuable insofar as satire is characterised by a specific narrative thinking, albeit this mental process is not unique to satire. The point is exactly that satire shares the cognitive virtues and risks of kindred representations which exploit similar mental processes. An important kindred representation of satire is cartooning. For this reason, the two have often gone hand in hand historically. Cartooning is a drawing style which produces abstracted representations. Scott McCloud explains that ‘[w]hen we abstract an image through cartooning, we’re not so much


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eliminating details as we are focusing on specific details’.55 McCloud argues that cartooning produces visual representations which amplify the interpretative significance of certain features at the expense of others. Accordingly, McCloud identifies cartooning as ‘a form of amplification through simplification’.56 Although cartooning is a way of drawing, McCloud has suggested that ‘[s]implifying characters and images toward a purpose [i.e. cartooning] can be an effective tool for storytelling in any medium’.57 He specifies that ‘[f]ilm critics will sometimes describe a live-action film as a “cartoon” to acknowledge the stripped-down intensity of a simple story or visual style’.58 McCloud is right that cartooning may correspond to a transmedial process of representation, but it is not unique as a form of amplification through simplification. Much earlier than McCloud, Ernst Gombrich argued that ‘simplification and emphasis’ are ‘the means of all art’.59 Nonetheless, McCloud rightly signals that cartooning differs from other forms of representation in the extreme degree of simplification and emphasis. Similarly, satire, like Lenny Bruce’s routine about institutionalised Christianity, is typically so succinct because it puts the spotlight on only a few aspects of an otherwise very complex issue. Likewise, Gombrich highlighted caricaturing as ‘the ultimate resource of the cartoonist’s armoury’.60 Whereas cartooning is a highly selective representational process, caricaturing is ‘a process of “overloading” or adding to an image’ which exploits so-called physiognomic representation.61 Physiognomy is the pseudo-Aristotelian idea that character can be derived from similarities between a person’s face and the head of an animal. This idea was crucial in the historical development of portrait caricature. Although scientifically disproven, physiognomic representation has remained a staple of contemporary cartooning. Take Mr Burns from The Simpsons, whose appearance clearly evokes that of a bird of prey to signify his ruthless nature as a capitalist. Gombrich argues that the exploitation of metaphorical associations which characterise physiognomic perception does not strictly apply to animal likeness and human character, but more broadly to expressive features of art like ‘sounds, colours or shapes’.62 This idea that metaphorical associations guide the cognitive processing of abstract concepts ‘in terms of embodied image schemata, related to concrete sensorial associations of hearing, seeing, and tasting’ was later vindicated by the conceptual metaphor theory.63 Gombrich and Ernst Kris are therefore justified in arguing that ‘caricature is a psychological mechanism rather than a form of art’.64 Similarly, the mental processes which inform caricaturing also characterise satire, including Bruce’s critique of the church, which exploits exaggerations to identify the clergy as greedy and the Puerto Rican immigrants as oppressed. The mental process identified by Gombrich as physiognomic thinking anticipates what contemporary cognitive psychology would call a dual

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process theory of human perception. Describing how human beings process their environment, Jenefer Robinson explains that [o]n the one hand there is a ‘quick and dirty processing system’, which responds very fast, warns the organism that something dangerous may be around without identifying it very carefully, and gets the organism to respond appropriately to whatever it is. And on the other hand, there is a slower, more discriminating processing system which operates through the cortex and figures out whether the thalamo-amygdala ‘affective appraisal’ is appropriate or not.65

Similarly, Gombrich traces the origins of physiognomic perception in the way humans constantly scrutinise their environment to distinguish what is threatening from what is not.66 According to Gombrich, we cognitively process a gloomy shape, colour or sound in the same way as a gloomy face and a gloomy sky. When the sky looks gloomy, we automatically understand there is danger afoot and run for shelter. Only on further reflection, we realise a thunderstorm is on its way and decide not to hide under a tree. Similarly, someone’s face may strike us as gloomy, and our gut reaction is to avoid that person. However, our gut reaction might be wrong. The person’s considerate actions and friendly words may disprove our initial hypothesis. Somebody with a gloomy-looking face is not always gloomy, at least, in the real world. However, in a cartoon, somebody with a gloomy face is bound to have a gloomy personality, as exemplified by Disney villains like Jafar and Cruella De Vil.

COGNITIVE RISKS AND FLAWS IN SATIRE Importantly, worries about the deceitful impact of the quick and dirty mental processes driving cartooning and caricaturing can be transposed to satire. McCloud acknowledges that ‘the cartoon may seem to omit much of the ambiguity and complex characterization which are the hallmarks of modern literature, leaving them suitable only for children’.67 Similarly, Gombrich introduces the worry that ‘[p]erhaps we are like children who are easily fobbed off with an answer’.68 In particular, Gombrich links the danger of quick and dirty perception to aesthetic seduction. According to Gombrich, cartoons and caricatures may paint a picture ‘so satisfying that you have the illusion of an explanation while really the analogy is rather incomplete’.69 He adds that ‘the neatness of the formulation may even effectively block our reflection whether or not it contains the truth’.70 Gombrich considers such aesthetic seduction in cartoons and caricatures as particularly risky because ‘[w]hen perplexed and frustrated, we all like to fall back on a primitive, physiognomic picture of events’.71 Moreover, Gombrich warns that such


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quick and dirty thinking ‘carries strong and immediate conviction’72 and is ‘so convincing to the emotional mind’73 that it is like a ‘myth-making faculty’ which risks Disneyfying the world.74 In other words, the risk is that Lenny Bruce’s satire about institutionalised Christianity is a frustrated response which misconstrues a very complex situation but is too seductively funny for us to notice the deception. The quick and dirty process of perception which characterises cartoons, caricatures and satire is prone to the kind of distortions that characterise unconscious biases and ideological deception. For instance, the same mechanisms of exaggeration, simplification, selectiveness and emotiveness which characterise Bruce’s satire of institutionalised Christianity were also exploited in anti-Japanese propaganda during the Second World War. Take Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips (directed by Fritz Freling in 1944), an infamously racist anti-Japanese war cartoon, which relies on the exaggerations and simplifications of caricaturing, as well as their direct emotive impact, to represent the enemy as weaselly and menacing. Similarly, Saam Trivedi highlights that Aristophanes’s ‘far from truthful satire of Socrates [in The Clouds] contributed to poisoning the climate in Athens against Socrates, leading to his trial and death’.75 Trivedi stresses that ‘here, then, we have an example of satire that not only deceives and misleads . . . but also has bad ethical consequences, even if they may not have been intended or foreseen by the artist’. Cognitive deception in cartoons, caricatures and satire is not merely an academic issue but has been responsible for actual epistemic malice. For this reason, caution about the cognitive function of these kindred representations is warranted. COGNITIVE VIRTUES IN CARTOONS Despite the risks, the particular narrative thinking which satire shares with cartooning and caricaturing also has cognitive virtues. In particular, critics and scholars are in agreement that cartooning ‘can summarize a vast body of data in a succinct symbol’.76 Accordingly, cartooning is often praised for its ‘ability to reduce an intricate and bewildering aspect of the social or the political scene . . . to its basic ingredients’.77 In this respect, McCloud argues that exactly ‘[b]y stripping down an image to its essential “meaning”, an artist can amplify that meaning in a way that realistic art can’t’.78 A striking example is Michael Goodwin and Dan E. Burr’s Economix, a cartoon introduction and critical overview of economics.79 Reviewers praised Economix by explaining that ‘[y]ou could read ten books on the subject and not glean as much information’.80 Adapting to the cartoon medium, Goodwin also acknowledges that ‘it forced me to write the story in a different way’ because ‘working in comics made me think things through differently. Writing for comics forces you

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to boil everything down to the essence’.81 Crucially, this process of narrative thinking allows Economix to get to the heart of complex issues at a minimum of cognitive cost. As exemplified by Economix, succinctness can be a significant cognitive merit of the narrative thinking which characterises cartoons, caricatures and satire. In this respect, James O. Young has developed a toolkit of imaginative techniques which permits to highlight how representations with extreme configurative control, like Economix, can succinctly deliver both descriptive and evaluative information about complex situations, such as the impact of neo-liberal policies (see figure 4.1).82 For one, since Economix’s emplotment of recent economic policies is extremely selective, it accentuates the most important events. Similarly, Economix succinctly communicates the economic effect of tax cuts for the rich by simplifying it to an image of people rushing out of the US Treasury with big bags of cash. Moreover, by juxtaposing story events like the deregularisation of Wall Street with the demise of education, Economix concisely highlights causal relationships that may otherwise not be evident. Importantly, these imaginative techniques not only provide descriptive information about the impact of neo-liberal policies but also cue moral evaluation through emotive means. The dirty smoke coming from the factory pipes exemplifies the pollution of big business and further correlates to its moral uncleanliness. Likewise, the amplification of the fat cat endorsing tax cuts for the rich, with his bulging cheeks and double chin, symbolises that he has claimed more than his fair share, while his dirty cigar and complacent countenance embody social indifference. Finally, the amplified sadness of teachers and pupils, correlating to the destitute school building, emotionally cues moral allegiance, especially juxtaposed with Wall Street’s crazy and blind greed depicted earlier. Economix has cognitive value not only because its extreme degree of manipulative control in emplotting the impact of neo-liberal policies succinctly communicates the most crucial information. I also argue it viscerally cues appropriate moral allegiance with ordinary citizens and schoolchildren against complacent academics and politicians, indifferent tycoons and moneycrazed stockholders. Economix capitalises on techniques of what Noël Carroll has called ‘criterial pre-focusing’ and accordingly ‘depicts narrative events in a way that is pre-filtered or emotively pre-digested in its details so as to promote and then sustain certain emotional responses rather than others’.83 These emotional responses, which ‘size up circumstances automatically’, cue moral evaluation by ‘draw[ing] our attention quickly and sharply to the pertinent moral variables involved, weighing them differentially and subtly, thereby enabling us to assess and to understand the situation rapidly and clearly’.84 However, problem cases like Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips highlight that such criterial pre-focusing can be epistemically malicious. For this reason, criterial

Figure 4.1.  Copyright (C) 2014 by Michael Goodwin. All rights reserved. Illustrations by Dan E. Burr.

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pre-focusing may ‘start the emotional ball moving’ but needs to be supplemented with careful moral deliberation and further investigation.85 Crucially, the cognitive respectability of Economix is substantiated because it does not exclusively rely on emotive persuasion but also develops more reflective arguments supported by peer-reviewed sources or empirically verifiable facts. The comic is carefully researched and rooted in the scholarship of historians and economists. Still, the real test of Economix’s cognitive merit is further investigation. As Goodwin acknowledges at the end of Economix, ‘We’ve covered a lot. . . . But we’ve also barely scratched the surface. I hope you use this book as a foundation for further reading, observation, and thinking’.86 In this respect, Young rightfully warns that ‘[a]ny form or representation can be misleading . . . [and] needs to be tested’.87 Similarly, as Carroll argues, all knowledge acquisition should be supported by ‘broader experience’.88 Crucially, while knowledge acquisition should always be a process of checks and balances, extra alertness is warranted for the narrative thinking which characterises cartoons, caricatures and satire. Although it is a significant cognitive virtue of Economix to let us see the bigger picture about complex issues such as the impact of neo-liberalism, its aesthetically pleasing succinctness should not seduce us into dismissing more detailed investigation. This insight that representations like Economix have real cognitive value when they are complemented by further investigation is key to an appropriate evaluation of the cognitive value of satire as critique. THE COGNITIVE VALUE OF SATIRE AS CRITIQUE In line with Goodwin’s characterisation of Economix, my careful cognitivism identifies the cognitive value of satire to critique as a foundation which needs to be complemented with further investigation. This cognitive value of satire to critique is similar to that of aphorisms to philosophy. In this respect, an aphorism is ‘a short statement which encapsulates a truth’.89 Highlighting similar imaginative techniques as discussed earlier, Ben Grant refers to Freud’s theory of condensation in dreams and jokes to clarify ‘the brevity of the aphorism as so compressing thoughts, ideas, images, or words together as to bring about a change in the relationships between them, or in the logic that connects them’.90 Similarly applying Freud’s ideas to cartooning and caricaturing, Gombrich also argued that ‘condensation, the telescoping of a whole chain of ideas into one pregnant image, is indeed the essence of wit’.91 The cognitive value of such aphoristic narrative thinking, which can offer an insightful perspective on complex issues, has been used to good advantage in philosophy. Take Simon Blackburn’s introduction to philosophical debates about truth, in which he utilises a ‘sublime thumbnail sketch’ developed by


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Nietzsche, which succinctly summarises ‘the entire progress of metaphysics since the time of Plato’.92 This sublime thumbnail sketch is a short paragraph in aphoristic style, which Blackburn uses in his philosophical investigation of truth because it makes insightful connections between key aspects of an issue that could easily dazzle specialists with its complexity. At the same time, Nietzsche’s aphoristic paragraph obviously does not exhaust all there is to know about the history of metaphysics, which is why Blackburn introduces it as a stepping-stone to more detailed philosophical investigation. Similarly, my careful cognitivism endorses appraisals of satire’s cognitive value by supporters like Jeffrey P. Jones, who claims that good satirists ‘strip [an] encounter bare and offer up the essence of [a] situation’.93 After all, Lenny Bruce’s satire of institutionalised Christianity does get to the heart of an important moral contradiction which deeply problematises the ethos of the church. Crucially, Bruce’s satire has such cognitive value because it is an exaggerated, simplified, selective and emotive representation. Bruce reduces the complexity of institutionalised Christianity to a simplified contradiction between the exaggerated opulence of contemporaneous clergy and the humble charity of Christ and Moses. Similarly, by contrasting the amplified poverty endured by Puerto Rican immigrants to the grandeur of St Patrick’s Cathedral his satire viscerally cues appropriate sympathy for the hardship of Puerto Rican immigrants in the United States. Still, while Bruce offers a perspective from which true knowledge can be derived, his representation must not be mistaken as exhaustive. Further investigation is required not only to complement Bruce’s satire with the appropriate nuance that does justice to the sincere charity of many in the clergy but also to establish whether his argument holds water when tested against information gathered from verified domains like history and philosophy. In conclusion, my careful cognitivism stipulates that satire can have significant cognitive value, as long as the knowledge it provides is complemented and tested by further inquiry. In other words, we can learn some truths from Lenny Bruce, but not the exhaustive truth. CONCLUSION In this chapter, I have developed a careful cognitivism about satire which substantiates its cognitive value in a philosophical project of critique. Concretely, I have argued that satire results from a mental process of narrative thinking which utilises imaginative techniques that generate extremely manipulated representations. This narrative thinking can have significant cognitive value by succinctly highlighting key information about complex issues, as well as viscerally cueing appropriate moral allegiance. At the same time, the quick and dirty processes exploited by such narrative thinking can also deceive.

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Supporters of satire’s cognitive value are therefore advised to heed Gombrich’s warning that ‘[t]he weapons [this psychological mechanism] contains can be used in good causes and sinister ones’.94 Therefore, knowledge acquisition from satire should always be complemented by further investigation to verify correctness. Moreover, the cognitive value of satire is best understood as a foundation to more in-depth inquiry. Satire may offer a valuable perspective on an issue which highlights the importance of previously unnoticed aspects or connections, but it does so at the cost of eliminating some level of detail and nuance. Similar to Economix, while the satire of John Oliver and Samantha Bee is certainly well researched and balanced, it would be a mistake to assume it offers exhaustive representations which need not be complemented by more substantial and in-depth inquiries. My careful cognitivism about satire may be disappointing to supporters who had hoped for more extraordinary cognitive contributions of satire to critique. To be clear, my position does not dismiss these contributions as negligible. The problems approached by good satire are typically so overwhelming that a perspective which succinctly gets to the heart of the matter and viscerally steers our moral allegiance in the right direction has significant value. Still, my careful cognitivism does argue that the information delivered by good satire is not as exhaustive or nuanced as good journalistic or scholarly sources. Moreover, although I have not developed this issue in depth, my moderate position also extends to the political impact of satire. The demand that satire has an extraordinary cognitive and political value in addressing such a pressing issue like post-truth politics is not only asking too much but is also doing satire disfavour. Concretely, if the value of satire was exclusively determined by its success in safeguarding journalistic standards or keeping Donald Trump out of the White House, detractors might rightly argue that we can do without it. Not only has contemporary satire failed to accomplish these objectives, but other media can inform us better about these issues, while again other practices have more substantial political impact. For this reason, future research would do well to abandon a narrow focus on the value of satire as critique and instead consider its significance in dealing with the limits of critique. The true significance of satire may not be changing the world, but outlining emotional and aesthetic strategies to cope with the difficulties of trying to change it.

NOTES 1. Thanks to audiences at Transitions 6 and The Ethics and Aesthetics of StandUp Comedy for comments on earlier versions of this paper, in particular Saam Trivedi for a thoughtful and stimulating response. Thanks also to my supervisors, Aylish


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Wood and Hans Maes, as well as my postgraduate colleagues in Film Studies at Kent for valuable feedback, especially David Brown for thoughts and references about caricature and cognitive psychology. Special thanks to Mike Goodwin for accommodating my request to use an image from his Economix website and sharing valuable insights into his creative process. Finally, I want to thank my colleagues, and editors of this collection, for co-organising a stimulating conference and, especially, for shouldering the hard work of editorial duties. I much appreciated their thoughts and comments on this chapter. 2. In analytic philosophy of art, those who defend that art is a source of knowledge are commonly identified as ‘cognitivists’. 3. Kurt Tucholsky, ‘Was darf die Satire?’ Berliner Tageblatt. 36. 27 January 1919,, wiki/Was_darf_die_Satire%3F_(Tucholsky). My translation. 4. Stephen E. Kercher, Revel with a Cause: Liberal Satire in Postwar America (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 78. 5. Geoffrey Baym, From Cronkite to Colbert. The Evolution of Broadcast News (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 167. 6. Jeffrey Jones, Entertaining Politics: Satiric Television and Political Engagement, 2nd ed. (Lanham, MD: Rowan and Littlefield, 2010), 168. 7. Julie Webber, The Cultural Set Up of Comedy: Affective Politics in the United States (London: Intellect, 2013), 117–18. 8. Webber, Cultural Set Up, 133. 9. Ryan Barrel, ‘John Oliver Destroys Donald Trump on “Last Week Tonight” ’. The Huffington Post, 1 March 2016. john-oliver-destroys-donald-trump-on-last-week-tonight_n_9346004.html. 10. Ryan Reed, ‘Watch John Oliver Annihilate Donald Trump, Re-Brand “Drumpf” ’. Rolling Stone, 29 February 2016. watch-john-oliver-annihilate-donald-trump-re-brand-drumpf-20160229. 11. Matthew Dessem, ‘John Oliver Eviscerates Donald Trump’s Ties to Vladimir Putin’. Slate, 20 February 2017. john_oliver_eviscerates_donald_trump_s_ties_to_putin.html. 12. Kelsey Juntwait, ‘30 Times Samantha Bee Destroyed Donald Trump’. Last Night On, n.d. March 2017. 13. David Marchese, ‘In Conversation: John Oliver’. Vulture, 22 February 2016. 14. Marchese, ‘In Conversation’. 15. McClennen Sophia and Remy Maisel, Is Satire Saving Our Nation? Mockery and American Politics (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014). 16. R. Lance Holbert, ‘Developing a Normative Approach to Political Satire: An Empirical Perspective’, International Journal of Communication 7 (2013): 310. 17. See Simon Blackburn, Ruling Passions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998) and Truth: A Guide for the Perplexed (London: Penguin, 2005). 18. Oliver Double, Getting the Joke: The Inner Workings of Stand-Up Comedy, 2nd ed. (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), 160.

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19. Cited in Ethan Thompson, Parody and Taste in Postwar American Television Culture (New York and London: Routledge, 2011), 26. 20. Marchese, ‘In Conversation’. 21. Thompson, Parody and Taste, 26. 22. Frank Kofsky, Lenny Bruce: The Comedian as Social Critic and Secular Moralist (New York: Monad Press, 1974), 21. 23. Jones, Entertaining Politics, 83. 24. Robert Bracht Branham, ‘Satire’, in The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Literature, ed. Richard Eldridge (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 141. 25. Nicholas Diehl, ‘Satire, Analogy, and Moral Philosophy’, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 74 (2013): 319. 26. Robert Phiddian, ‘Satire and the Limits of Literary Theories’, Critical Quarterly 55 (2013): 54. 27. Phiddian, ‘Satire’, 52. 28. Tucholsky, ‘Was darf die Satire?’, my translation. 29. Matthew Kieran, Revealing Art (Routledge: London, 2005), 180. 30. Kieran, Revealing Art, 180. 31. Kieran, Revealing Art, 181. 32. Kieran, Revealing Art, 181. 33. John Cohen, ed., The Essential Lenny Bruce (St Albans: Panther Books, 1975), 18. With annotations from other live performances. 34. Noël Carroll, Beyond Aesthetics: Philosophical Essays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 155–56. 35. Stacie Friend, ‘Fictive Utterance and Imagining II’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 85 (2011): 171. 36. Eileen John, ‘Art and Knowledge’, in The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics, ed. Berys Gaut and Dominic M. Lopes, 3rd ed. (London: Routledge, 2013), 387. 37. John, ‘Art and Knowledge’, 387. 38. John, ‘Art and Knowledge’, 387. 39. Berys Gaut, ‘Just Joking: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Humor’, Philosophy and Literature 22 (1998): 66. 40. Gaut, ‘Just Joking’, 66. 41. Robert Stecker, Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art: An Introduction (Lanham, MD: Rowan and Littlefield, 2010), 210–11. 42. Double, Getting the Joke, 157–86. 43. Double, Getting the Joke, 174–82. 44. Double, Getting the Joke, 175. 45. Double, Getting the Joke, 179. 46. Peter Lamarque and Gregory Currie, ‘The Aesthetic and Cognitive Dimensions of Cultural Artefacts’, 2014. AHRC Report. 47. Gregory Currie and Jerrold Levinson, ‘An Error Concerning Noses’, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 75 (2017): 11. 48. Currie and Levinson, ‘Error’, 13. 49. John, ‘Art and Knowledge’, 387.


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50. Kieran, Revealing Art, 181. 51. Peter Goldie, The Mess Inside. Narrative, Emotion, and the Mind (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012). 52. Goldie, Mess Inside, 9ff. 53. George A. Test, Satire: Spirit and Art (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1991), 12. 54. Test, Satire, 5. 55. Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (Northampton, MA: Kitchen Sink Press for HarperPerennial, 1993), 30. 56. McCloud, Understanding Comics, 30. 57. McCloud, Understanding Comics, 31. 58. McCloud, Understanding Comics, 31. 59. Ernst Gombrich, ‘Portrait Painting and Portrait Photography’, in Apropos Portrait Painting, ed. P. Wengraf (London: Lund Humphries, 1945), 3. 60. Ernst Gombrich, Meditations on a Hobby Horse, and Other Essays on the Theory of Art (London: Phaidon, 1963), 137. 61. Ernst Gombrich and Ernst Kris, Caricature (Middlesex: King Penguin, 1940), 3. 62. Gombrich, Meditations, 48. 63. Kathrin Fahlenbrach, ‘Metaphoric Narratives. Paradigm Scenarios and Metaphors of Shame in Narrative Films’, Image & Narrative 15 (2014): 58. 64. Gombrich and Kris, Caricature, 3. 65. Jenefer Robinson, Deeper Than Reason: Emotion and Its Role in Literature, Music, and Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 50. 66. Gombrich, Meditations, 47. 67. McCloud, Understanding Comics, 45. 68. Gombrich, Meditations, 132. 69. Gombrich, Meditations, 132. 70. Gombrich, Meditations, 131. 71. Gombrich, Meditations, 140. 72. Gombrich, Meditations, 47. 73. Gombrich, Meditations, 139. 74. Gombrich, Meditations, 140. 75. Personal communication. 76. Randall Harrison, The Cartoon, Communication to the Quick (Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications, 1981), 69. 77. John Geipel, The Cartoon: A Short History of Graphic Comedy and Satire (Newton Abbot: David & Charles, 1972), 33. 78. McCloud, Understanding Comics, 30. 79. Michael Goodwin and Dan E. Burr, Economix: How Our Economy Works (and Doesn’t Work), in Words and Pictures (New York: Abrams, 2012). 80. Goodwin and Burr, Economix, 4. 81. Personal communication. 82. James O. Young, Art and Knowledge (London and New York: Routledge, 2001), 80–93. 83. Noël Carroll, 2012. Art in Three Dimensions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 378. Original emphasis.

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84. Carroll, Art in Three Dimensions, 380. 85. Carroll, Art in Three Dimensions, 380. 86. Goodwin and Burr, Economix, 291. Original emphasis. 87. Young, Art and Knowledge, 91. 88. Carroll, Art in Three Dimensions, 381. 89. Ben Grant, The Aphorism and Other Short Forms (London: Routledge, 2016), 2. 90. Grant, Aphorism, 48. 91. Gombrich, Meditations, 130. 92. Blackburn, Truth, 79–80. 93. Jones, Entertaining Politics, 4. 94. Gombrich, Meditations, 142.

Chapter 5

Laughter, Liturgy, Lacan and Resistance to Capitalist Logic Francis Stewart

Risus paschalis, the Easter laughter, was a late medieval tradition of including a joke in the Easter liturgy.1 The earliest report of the tradition is found in a 1518 letter from the Basel reformer Johannes Oecolampadius to Wolfgang Capito, which criticises the practice. Oecolampadius describes various activities associated with the ‘unwholesome custom’: the imitation of animals, priests making cuckoo noises and ‘[ j]okes about St. Peter tricking guests out of their money and food’.2 Ironically, Oecolampadius cannot condemn the custom without indulging in a joke of his own. He was tempted to write a treatise on the risus paschalis, dedicated to Wolfgang Capito, but he quips that it would be ‘more worthy of Vulcan than Wolfgang’.3 Vulcan being the ancient Roman god of fire, his suggestion is that any such treatise should be cast into the flames. In this chapter, I will attempt to recover a lost association between liturgy and laughter.4 Rather than dwelling on the historical and theological debates about risus paschalis, I will offer a more focused proposal for how this association can reframe the understanding of liturgy. I intend to draw out the role of the psychoanalytic category of drive in Alenka Zupančič’s insights on laughter, to make a link with Marcus Pound’s vision of the Christian Eucharist and its repetitive joy. Via comparison with the Lacanian revision of Freud’s category of drive, Pound frames liturgical repetition in terms of transgressive joy rather than mastery of mysteries.5 My contention is that rooting this view of liturgy in the more familiar practice of laughter prompts a reconsideration of the Christian liturgical imagination as an overlooked mode of ‘Laughter as Resistance’. The chapter will then turn to the question of how the ‘comic object’6 of the Eucharist could resist capitalism’s grip on our subjectivity. 65


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Although the association between laughter and Christianity is unconventional, the theologian, like the comedian, is called to maintain fidelity to the overlooked: retrieving what is precluded from discourse. For René Girard, this retrieval takes the form of unmasking the innocence of the scapegoat7 which reaches its peak in the Gospel: God’s identification with the victim who is sacrificed for the sake of social cohesion. Fidelity to Christ involves fidelity to the systematically overlooked: that which, by its exclusion, constitutes the social fabric. This chapter will begin by drawing attention to a blind spot in the scholarly understanding of the risus paschalis, revealing the rationale for the overall argument. The crux of the blind spot is the assumption that laughter is necessarily antithetical to theology. This discussion will also establish what is to be avoided in a recovery of liturgical laughter and clarify that it is the mere association – the imaginative capacity to laugh liturgically and worship ­comically – which should be recovered. OVERCOMING BAKHTIN’S PARADIGM In the work of Russian philosopher and literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, risus paschalis is analysed as part of his account of the medieval carnivalesque.8 Bakhtin analyses medieval laughter and carnival as remnants of Roman Saturnalia. The carnivalesque ‘folk humour’9 was present in the Middle Ages, despite the ‘seriousness’ of the time, because the feudal, ecclesiastical culture of the seventh, eighth and ninth centuries was weak enough that remnants of legalised Roman folk humour remained. He writes, ‘The Church adapted the time of Christian feasts to local pagan celebrations (in view of Christianisation) and these celebrations were linked to cults of laughter’.10 So, on the one hand, medieval folk humour was a stage in the evolution of ‘a new, free and historical consciousness’:11 the renaissance as exemplified by Rabelais’s writing. On the other hand, this evolution was antithetical to the canonical view of ‘the true, the good, and all that was essential and meaningful’:12 that is, medieval Christianity. Michael O’Connell offers a challenge to Bakhtin.13 He provides an alternative account of medieval laughter and attempts to illuminate farcical aspects of the York Mystery Plays by means of a comparison with the Baroque tradition of the risus paschalis. By situating the two cases of religious laughter in the same theological tradition, against Bakhtin’s genealogy of Renaissance consciousness, O’Connell calls for an analysis which is less dependent upon early twentieth-century anthropological assumptions than Bakhtin’s.14 He thus entertains the possibility that the laughter was more theological than has been assumed:

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I want to suggest that if we understand the farcical elements of the York pageant as examples of risus paschalis, its laughter begins to come into focus. Moreover, the farce of the pageant may in turn function even to vindicate the practice.15

In the York Mystery Plays, each mystery (craft-guild) performed a scene in the biblical narrative on the feast of Corpus Christi.16 Most significantly for O‘Connell, the dramatisation of Christ before Herod (based on Luke 23: 6–12) involved ‘a farcical comedy in which the figure of Jesus is forced to play silent straightman to attempts of Herod and his court to tease a response from him’.17 Jesus’s silence in Luke’s account is dramatised as dead-pan unflappability to the antics of Herod and his courtiers, and the scene culminates in the white garment placed on Jesus, which is not only associated with royalty but is also the garment of a fool. When Herod’s son suggests, ‘Command your Knights to clothe him in white’, Herod is confused: ‘What in white garments to go/ Thus gaily gird in a gown?’ The Duke assures him: ‘Nay Lord, but as a fool forced him fro [as a fool out of his wits]’.18 Note the juxtaposition between the kingly garment and the fool’s garment: there is a small comic triumph over Herod, who ends the scene uncertain as to why Jesus should be flogged.19 The directions of the script indicate to the players that the scene should be funny, referring to Jesus being ‘aghast of Herod’s gay gear’.20 The crux of O’Connell’s point is the theological ‘self-consciousness’21 of these farcical traditions. The risus paschalis can be situated in a broader theological context by reference to the hymns of Pierre Abelard: The phrase risum paschalis gratiae, the ‘laughter of Easter grace’ [one of Abelard’s hymns], in the final stanza is surprising; we would expect consolatio, laetitia, or gaudium rather than risus. W. G. East suggests that risum reflects a typological reference to Isaac, whose name in Hebrew, Yitschak, means ‘he laughs’.22

A younger contemporary of Abelard’s, Adam of St Victor, also wrote an Easter hymn, Zyma vetus expurgator.23 The last stanza of the hymn refers to Isaac, ‘The boy, the pattern of our laughter’.24 The association of laughter with Easter thus has scriptural precedence, since it is the name given to the son miraculously born of Sarah and Abraham in their old age: ‘God has made me laugh; everyone who hears will laugh with me’.25 There is a level of sophistication here that even surpasses some theological analyses of the laughter of Isaac’s name. M. A. Screech points out that the name serves as a reminder to Isaac’s mother, Sarah, who laughed with scorn at the idea of herself and Abraham, the shrivelled old couple, procreating.26 Yet, Screech is silent about the allegorical significance of Genesis 22: 2–8, in which Abraham walks up Mount Moriah in preparation to sacrifice Isaac, only to be spared of


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the terrible act at the last moment and receive back his son. A sophisticated theological appreciation of Isaac as a prefiguring of the crucified and resurrected Christ is required to relate Isaac to the risus paschalis gratiae.27 The substantial theological basis for the risus paschalis thus seems to be a blind spot of Bakhtin’s perspective. Kirstina Simeonova’s Bakhtinian reading of the Corpus Christi mystery plays similarly divorces their religious content from their comic incongruities, explaining the latter in terms of a cultural move away from language directed towards God.28 Yet O’Connell’s counterargument reveals that the juxtaposition of Christ the fool and Christ the victorious king, for example, was a self-conscious and biblically rooted aspect of a broader tradition of liturgical laughter. Rather than revealing the schism between the ‘religious content’ of the plays and ‘carnival culture’,29 these comic incongruities can be understood as consistent with the theological task. Furthermore, Bakhtin’s blind spot regarding the liturgical associations of laughter seems inconsistent with his view that carnival is characterised by active participation. For Bakhtin, the ‘folk humour’ immanent in medieval counter-culture only enters official culture in the Renaissance, anticipated by Francois Rabelais’s novels. According to his genealogy, ‘[I]n order to achieve growth and flowering, laughter had to enter the world of great literature’.30 For example, the unknown author of ‘Christian Satires on the Papal Kitchen’ was written in 1560 and suggests we adorn the truth with ‘gay stories’.31 It serves to support the view that humour became more theologically acceptable through literature, despite its suppression by religion. Yet this genealogy jettisons a whole dimension of the carnivalesque that Bakhtin himself viewed as a central to its ‘architectonics’.32 In carnival, there are no ‘footlights’33 – no boundaries between spectator and actor: full participation. Perhaps, by overlooking liturgy, the focal point of Bakhtin’s theory of carnival is literature rather than laughter: by ignoring the paschalis, he loses the risus. Ironically, Bakhtin’s account is similar to M. A. Screech’s more theological reading of carnival. Screech also champions Rabelais, but reads him, along with Erasmus, as part of the renaissance humanist satirical tradition.34 The humour of the renaissance thus presents an alternative to the ‘excessive guffawing’35 of the medieval carnival, which Screech also sees as a survival of Roman ritual.36 In contrast to Bakhtin, we find a moralistic distrust of carnival. As Hammond puts it in a review of Screech’s book, romanticising the carnival seems to forget that ‘for any outsider in that society – a Jew, for instance – peasant laughter soon turned to peasant slaughter’.37 This seems to spell doom for any proposal to recuperate the carnivalesque for the purposes of emancipation: rather than loss of footlights between spectator and actor, carnival now seems entangled with violence perpetrated by insiders upon outsiders. Nevertheless, I want to suggest that Screech’s worry should instead indicate how the link between liturgy and laughter should not be understood.

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Screech’s preference for renaissance sobriety perhaps testifies to the fact that his own theory of theological laughter is framed in terms of the taunting of the crucified Christ – the title of his book is Laughter at the Foot of the Cross. Again, Hammond’s words are apt – Screech’s distrust for carnival is distrust for ‘the mindless guffaw which stretched all the way back from pogrom-raising medieval peasants to those who, at the foot of the Cross, taunted Jesus’.38 In the effort to avoid this mindless guffaw at all costs, the place of laughter in religion is restricted to a simple reversal of the mockery directed at God. Renaissance satirical humour is still mocking, but directed towards ‘enemies of piety and corruptors of the people’.39 Yet, the theological sophistication of the risus paschalis tradition indicates that there is an element of medieval carnival that is not necessarily bound to the logic of the mockery of those ‘outside’ by those ‘inside’ which at its worst may have stirred-up pogroms. Rather than designating it as off-limits, Screech’s point serves to indicate the kind of medieval laughter which should not be revived: namely, that which fails to escape the Aristotelian superiority theory of comedy, whereby a butt is derided to consolidate the existing order.40 A link with Girard and his understanding of Gospel is apparent: risus paschalis must not recuperate the logic of the laughter which mocks the scapegoat, the outsider, whose sacrifice serves to consolidate the social order.41 Despite having identified, amid medieval carnival, a lost association between laughter and liturgy, we are left with Screech’s worries as a reminder that it is not inevitable that all carnival truly is ‘without footlights’. Consideration of some of the perspectives on carnival has, however, shown the rationale for retrieving the risus paschalis understood as an overlooked formal association between laughter and liturgy. A liturgical mode of ‘laughter as resistance’ might be rediscovered but only in this strictly formal sense, rather than in any uncritical, generic celebration of carnival. The next section will propose a way in which liturgy could be understood as laughter which is ‘without footlights’ through Lacanian psychoanalysis, focusing on the category of drive. To echo Girard, true comedy repeats what is, in Lacanian terms, precluded upon entrance into the symbolic order, and it is in this sense that it shares affinity with what is celebrated in liturgy: the ‘stone that the builders rejected’ becomes ‘the cornerstone’, the foundation of the community of believers (as we hear in Psalm 118:22). COMEDY AND LITURGY AS ‘DRIVE’ In this part of the chapter, I want to draw on a well-known contribution to both comic theory and Lacanian theory – Alenka Zupančič’s The Odd One In: On Comedy.42 By drawing out the significance of the Lacanian understanding


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of ‘drive’ to her understanding of the comic, a link can be made between Zupančič and Marcus Pound’s framing of Christian liturgy in terms of drive. There are two main reasons for the choice of Pound’s and Zupančič’s ideas for the purposes of this section. Firstly, Zupančič situates the comic on the side of infinity and indestructible life, breaking with various other comic theories, both secular and theological, which associate laughter with re-attending to finitude.43 Thus, her work is promising with regard to the task of thinking of liturgy (which seeks to draw attention to infinite matters) as in some sense comic. Yet, in crucial ways her book perpetuates Bakhtin’s paradigm insofar as it overlooks liturgy as a place of laughter. She observes comedy to be at work in theatre,44 film,45 graffiti,46 everyday jokes,47 and even ‘a piece of comic dialogue which was circulating the Internet a few years ago’ (seemingly unbeknownst to Zupančič, inspired by an Abbott and Costello sketch).48 So many forms of life are touched upon by the work of comedy, yet the religious forms are excluded. In this sense, Zupančič seems to be pushed into a similar corner to Bakhtin by precluding religion from radical comic theory: she implicitly takes the entry of laughter’s truth-effect and radical dimension into popular consciousness to be via literary means, and paradoxically, at the expense of the participatory dimension. Pound’s reading of drive – one of Lacan’s four ‘fundamental concepts’ of psychoanalysis49 – into the Christian liturgy might address this gap in Zupančič’s account. Secondly, in liturgy and comedy, the Lacanian understanding of desire, whereby the object we pursue is always deferred and the cause of desire is fundamentally a lack,50 meets an impasse. Both phenomena seem to profess a positive and sustained arrival of some sort (now I am laughing, or now God is present) that seemingly violates the unsatisfactory and partial character of our desire. The Lacanian understanding of desire is worth explaining to underline this point. This understanding forms the backdrop to the shift of focus towards drive in Lacan’s later work. In ‘The Signification of the Phallus’, Lacan writes: [D]esire is neither the appetite for satisfaction, nor the demand for love, but the difference that results from the subtraction of the first from the second, the phenomenon of their splitting (Spaltung).51

In other words, desire emerges through the articulation of needs in the form of demands addressed to the Other – the discrepancy between a need and its articulation in speech. As Adrian Johnson explains, we are born ‘saddled with a variety of different organically determined requirements for living’, and we rely on others for the satisfaction of these requirements, so these needs must be articulated as demands.52 By this process of signification, desire emerges as that surplus not reducible to biological need. Desire is the ‘appetite for

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satisfaction’ (or, need) subtracted from the ‘demand for love’. Therefore, it is inherently dissatisfied – it is the very discrepancy between a need and its articulation as a demand. For Lacan, this unsatisfactory nature of desire defines the subject, who: [c]annot aim at being whole (the ‘total personality’ is another of the deviant premises of modern psychotherapy), while ever the play of displacement and condensation to which he is doomed in the exercise of his functions marks his relation as a subject to the signifier.53

As Rowan Williams puts it, self-knowledge, for Lacan, ‘teaches us not what we must do to be true to our “nature” but simply to be endlessly iconoclastic about the claims of the ego’.54 The subject is characterised by negativity. Given that desire is inherently marked by negativity, failure and dissatisfaction for Lacan, the sense of positive presence which accompanies experiences of laughter and liturgy poses an interesting challenge to his view of desire. Zupančič takes up this challenge in her discussion of the relation of comedy to desire in contrast with tragedy.55 In doing so, I contend that she gestures in the direction of drive and thus to Pound’s ideas about the liturgy. Drive takes on greater significance in Lacan’s later work, particularly Book XI of his seminars. At this stage of his career, as Phillip Dravers notes,56 the concept of the ‘object little a’ is introduced: the lost object which inaugurates desire, eluding representation but present as a lack.57 It might be said that, at this point, Lacan’s concern shifts away from the insight that the object of our desire is lacking and towards theorising this lack as an object. It is this shift that, for Pound, reframes the Eucharist as an encounter with what is left out of symbolic representation.58 Zupančič’s remarks about comedy, read in the light of drive, might express Pound’s insights in a more everyday idiom. Perhaps Christians’ address to God in the Eucharist is like Tommy Cooper’s experience of a cold-caller (as quoted by Simon Critchley): ‘I came home the other day and the phone was ringing, so I picked it up and said, “who’s speaking please?” and the voice at the other end said, “you are!” ’59 Zupančič compares tragedy (which tends to seriousness) and comedy (which tends to laughter) in terms of their position on the configuration of desire. She contends that the genres of tragedy and comedy are both made possible by a fundamental discrepancy between demand and satisfaction, intention and outcome, act and effects. Desire for Lacan is ‘the very name’ of the discrepancy between a demand, articulated by a signifier, and its satisfaction.60 Zupančič does not suggest that tragedy simply looks upon the incongruity of this human condition with sadness and comedy looks upon it with optimism. Rather, the more fundamental structural position on this


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configuration defines the comic and tragic perspectives.61 ‘Tragedy’, she writes, ‘stands at the point [on this configuration of desire] of the demand, addressed to the Other’.62 Thus, the discrepancy is articulated as an irredeemable nonsatisfaction of desire. ‘Comedy, on the other hand, stands at the point of the satisfaction’,63 so the discrepancy manifests as surplus enjoyment. Comedy is characterised neither by optimism nor by the happy ending denied to us by tragedy. This distinction between tragedy and comedy is illustrated in a dramatic way in Charlie Kaufman’s film Being John Malkovich.64 The film begins with an archetypally tragic character: Craig the skilful but frustrated and unsuccessful street puppeteer whose ‘cup often remains empty’.65 Yet, Craig’s dream to be appreciated like the famous puppeteer ‘the great martini’ and his desire to be someone else (channelled into his puppetry) materialises in a comical but disturbing way when he finds a portal to the self of John Malkovich behind a filing cabinet. Unable to resist being dragged further and further down the wormhole, Craig takes control of Malkovich’s self and becomes a famous puppeteer through Malkovich, now the marionette for Craig’s fantasy-become-actuality. In this film, comedy sails close to horror: the twisted ‘success’ of Craig disrupts the trajectory of failure at the beginning of the film. The comic position produces something new, and is not necessarily welcome: ‘Not only do we (or the comic characters) not get what we asked for; on top of it (and not instead of it) we get something we haven’t asked for at all’.66 This crucial formulation is something to which we will return. For Zupančič, comedy’s capacity to generate surplus enjoyment – laughter – from the negativity of desire gives it an indestructible persistence, constructing continuity out of discontinuity.67 Take, for example, the Two Ronnies’ ‘Mastermind’ sketch: Q: Your chosen subject was answering questions before you are asked. This time, you’ve chosen to answer the question before last, each time, is that correct? A: Charlie Smithers. Q: And your time starts now. What is palaeontology? A: Yes, absolutely correct. Q: What is the name of the directory that lists members of the peerage? A: A study of old fossils. Q: Correct. Who are Len Murray and Sir Geoffrey Howe? A: Burkes. Q: Correct. What is the difference between a donkey and an ass? A: One is a Trade Union leader, the other one is a member of the cabinet.

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Q: Correct. Complete the quotation ‘To be or not to be . . .’ A: They are both the same. Q: Correct. What is Bernard Manning famous for? A: That is the question. Q: Correct. Who is the current Archbishop of Canterbury? A: He is a fat man who tells blue jokes.68

The discrepancy opened up by the contestant’s chosen subject (answering the previous question) allows for a whole other set of more tendentious answers to the questions (e.g. the Archbishop is a fat man who tells blue jokes). According to the rules of the game set by his chosen subject, the contestant must answer the ‘wrong’ question (i.e. the previous question) to be right. Yet there is a surplus continuity which transgresses the rules of the game – his answers also make (comical) sense as answers to the question being asked. The sketch seems as if it could go on forever – it is only the Mastermind buzzer which stops the unstoppable comic sequence, and even at that point, it has the last word: ‘I’ve started so I’ll finish’. The persistence of comedy through (not despite) failure and discontinuity leads Zupančič to deem repetition as ‘constitutive of the comic genre as such’.69 Zupančič’s insights into repetition are formulated – most aptly for the purpose of this chapter – in her critique of Bergson’s notion that the quintessentially comic is ‘something mechanical encrusted upon the living’.70 Because, for Bergson, ‘really living life should never repeat itself’,71 mechanical repetition is laughable: life has stumbled over the non-living. Yet Zupančič challenges Bergson’s assumption that this ‘life’ is anterior to the mechanical repetition which seems to encrust itself onto life.72 The departure Zupančič makes from Bergson here regarding ‘life’ (Bergson’s elan vital) seems analogous to how Lacan re-interprets Freud regarding drive. The two categories relate similarly to the ‘dead letter’ of mechanical repetition, both seeming to precede the latter – frustrated by repetition – while actually proceeding from it. Hence Zupančič’s claim that ‘the comic can be a very good introduction to the psychoanalytic notion of drive’.73 Freud employs the speculative category of drive (Trieb) to explain psychoanalytic experience of the ‘perpetual recurrence of the same thing’74 in symptoms and dreams. This compulsion to repeat and its opposition to the pleasure principle gave the ‘appearance of some “daemonic” force at work’.75 Freud’s speculated explanation for this is the death drive. The ultimate aim of life is not straightforwardly death, but mastery over the return to the inorganic state: to die on its own terms.76 Yet, in Lacan’s modification of Freud’s drive, the


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emphasis is not on mastery. Nor does he explain the compulsion to repeat – to keep bumping into the mechanical, like Bergson’s elan vital – by speculating that we desire death. As Zupančič points out in relation to comedy, ‘for Lacan, all drive (defined by him as “indestructible life”) is ultimately a death drive – not because it aims at death, or “wants it”, but because it is life as driven by a dead letter’.77 Lacan interprets death drive not as that which drives the subject to want death but as the life which arises from the dead letter of repetition. As Pound explains, drive is an existential concept.78 In this reading, it is no longer a merely transcendental category accounting for ‘leftovers’ of biological determinism, as in the discrepancy between sexuality as attested to in the psychoanalytic clinic and sexuality as understood as a biological function.79 The ‘death’ of ‘death drive’ now refers to the ‘dead letter’ of the repetition compulsion, rather than a retreat out of life. Zupančič’s critique of Bergson makes a similar modification regarding the ‘life’ that is juxtaposed in comedy: by objectifying this dead-letter-drive life itself, by producing it as an object (as comedy does), we do not mortify it even further, or glorify in this mortification. Instead, we get a chance to break out of the mortifying spell of the latter. Yet this chance always passes by the letter itself.80

For Lacan, the objectification of life that drive brings is not ‘some manifestation of inertia in the organic life’.81 It is better understood by comparison with comedy and its capacity to produce the discrepancy which defines the subject (desire), as a surplus – a positive ‘comic object’.82 These shifts revise the psychoanalytic status of repetitive childhood games – like the well-known fort-da case study.83 Repetition is no longer understood primarily as an attempt to gain mastery. Instead, it pursues the profound novelty which is eluded by variation. The adults and older children who vary and adapt their games miss ‘the true secret of the ludic, namely, the most radical diversity constituted by repetition itself’.84 This ‘radical diversity’ is, like the comic object, not the always-already lost object of desire, but the cause of desire (a lack) as an object. Given Zupančič’s idea that repetition is central to the production of the comic object, perhaps Lacan’s advance on Freud is made possible by the greater comic imagination of the former. Freud’s assertion that fort-da is about mastery is followed by this passage: If a joke is heard a second time it produces almost no effect; a theatrical production never creates so great an impression the second time as the first; indeed, it is hardly possible to persuade an adult who has very much enjoyed reading a book to re-read it immediately. . . . But children will never tire of asking an

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adult to repeat a game that he has shown them or played with them, till he is too exhausted to go on.85

As Zupančič reveals, contrary to Freud, it is precisely this capacity to ‘carry on’ that marks out comedy as a genre. How can the psychoanalytic reinterpretation of clinical experiences of repetition, which I have attempted to link to comedy, reframe the repetition of liturgy? Pound provides an indication by means of a quote from G. K. Chesterton. It serves well as a theological response to Freud: Now, to put the matter in a popular phrase, it might be true that the sun rises regularly because he never gets tired of rising. His routine might be due, not to a lifelessness, but to a rush of life. The thing I mean can be seen, for instance, in children, when they find some game or joke that they specially enjoy. A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. . . . They always say, ‘Do it again’; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, ‘Do it again’ to the sun; and every evening, ‘Do it again’ to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.86

Pound articulates Chesterton’s point in a Lacanian vein: ‘Creation is God’s fort-da’.87 The repetition of nature does not testify to God’s mastery over it, but God’s delight in its novelty. Similarly, in light of Lacan, the liturgical repetition does not aim to master mysteries but to encounter the radical diversity which eludes mastery. The Eucharist, when understood as drive, does not offer a pedagogy which teaches us to resign ourselves to the perpetual sliding of desire onto the next unsatisfactory object. It is an endless circling around desire’s cause: the object little a.88 Comedy offers a language with which to capture the Eucharistic disruption of desire’s perpetual deferral. To return to Zupančič’s formulation: ‘Not only do we . . . not get what we asked for, on top of it (and not instead of it) we get something we haven’t asked for at all’.89 Not only is the Eucharistic object unsatisfying in terms of desire (in high church liturgy it is a bland wafer), but it is also on top of this (and not instead of it) God. Perhaps the celebrants of the Eucharist approach this lack as the women of the Gospel approach the lack of Jesus’s empty tomb on the third day.90 Not only do they not find what they want (Jesus’s body, which they intend to anoint with spices for its preservation), but they get something they have not asked for: a sign of


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his resurrection. The liturgy does not seek to resign Christians to the lack of Jesus’s death, but to ‘constitute lack in a way which affords the primacy of life’:91 traverse the mystery of Christ’s death to arrive at the resurrected Christ among them. LITURGY WITHOUT FOOTLIGHTS? The question posed at the end of the first section of this chapter asked how a retrieval of the lost risus paschalis could be truly emancipatory – ‘without footlights’, to use Bakhtin’s phrase. The prevalence of the neo-liberal view that capitalism is the only feasible economic system poses a challenge to forms of subversive laughter insofar as capitalism makes the bearer of authority elusive. The ‘footlights’ being less visible, hegemony is less threatened by the dethroning of authority figures or by carnivalesque enjoyment.92 I will conclude by arguing that the sense in which Zupančič’s ‘comic object’ disrupts the contemporary capitalist mythology is as an objectification of negativity – failure and discontinuity – to produce continuity. By gathering the faithful around the comic object in worship, a liturgy re-acquainted with risus paschalis invites Christians to identify with the negative excess of the symbolic structure.93 Lacan mentions the laughter of ‘the saint’ in Television when considering how we might exit the capitalist discourse.94 He insists that the task of the psychoanalytic saint must not be the socially binding virtue of caritas, but ‘trashitas’: ‘allowing the subject, the subject of the unconscious, to take him as the cause of the subject’s own desire’.95 It is through the ‘abjection of this cause’ – its status as Dèche (‘trash’ or ‘waste’) – that ‘the subject in question has a chance to be aware of his position, at least within the structure’.96 The subject’s encounter with their position in the structure is like that of Tommy Cooper and the cold-caller – ‘Who’s speaking?’ ‘You Are!’ – and entertains the possibility of structural change. In light of the psychoanalytic attempt to elaborate the significance of the risus paschalis, Christian liturgy can be understood as not merely another form of caritas, holding-off despair in the face of the capitalist tragedy. In the body of Christ, the liturgy invites identification with the cause of the church’s desire that was laid to waste – a fundamentally ‘comic’ object – and thus offers a response to Saint Paul’s remark that Christians are ‘like the rubbish of the world, the dregs of all things’.97 However, whereas Lacan’s saint does not ‘[give] a damn for distributive justice’,98 the liturgy situates the moment of ‘trashitas’ in a context that already enshrines fraternal bonds not reducible to narcissism or contract. There is thus a chance for a new form of caritas, one that does not re-inscribe capitalist social bonds. The visitation of the holy spirit to the Apostles at

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Pentecost was followed by a regime of social discipline, whereby ‘all who believed were together and had all things in common, they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need’.99 However, more elaboration is needed to specify precisely how laughter and liturgy offer resistance to capitalism as such. Mere transgression of norms is no longer a sufficient form of political resistance: tendentious laughter is not necessarily subversive laughter. Samo Tomšič has even linked capitalism’s dynamism to the capacity of jokes to circumvent the demands of repression.100 He has also applied – in a Marxist vein – the category of drive, by which I linked laughter with liturgy, to the capitalist pursuit of ‘value as object’ in the money-form.101 The drive might just as readily be associated with the bubble of market euphoria among asset traders in the US subprime mortgage market before the 2008 financial crisis, described by Alan Greenspan as ‘irrational exuberance’.102 Perhaps, in this disastrous repetitive circling round ‘value as object’, the capitalist joke became a capitalist liturgy. Yet what capitalism forecloses, according to Tomšič’s Lacanian development of Marx, is negativity: the social antagonisms that make it possible. Neo-liberal political economy represents the relations of production as ‘without any trace of negative production, such as indebted subjects, surplus populations and so on’.103 This foreclosure of negativity works to ‘sustain the illusion that everything works just fine in this best of all possible political worlds, and continue making exploitation acceptable for the majority of its subjects’.104 By contrast, true comedy, as defined by Zupančič, neither stages the negativity of desire in the endless deferral onto ‘the next thing’ (tragedy), nor forecloses it, but produces it as an object. Herein lies the ‘comic’ core of a Marxist critique of political economy: in the category of ‘surplus value’ – as distinct from its dissimulation as ‘profit’ – a fundamental negativity is taken seriously as an indispensable element of the analysis of capitalism.105 Truly emancipatory laughter exposes, at the subjective level, the negativity foreclosed by neo-liberal economics. Therefore,  risus paschalis, by contrast to the capitalist liturgy, has as its centrepiece an embodiment of surplus negativity which capitalism systematically disavows. The crucial difference that keeps capitalism unimpeded by its antagonistic forces is exemplified by finance economist John C. Hull, with reference to the 2006–2008 US mortgage bubble. The reselling of pooled mortgage assets as collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), a complex form of asset-backed security (ABS), was a way of transferring the risks of speculative trading from financial institutions to borrowers, but the practice was not only unsustainable for the poor: Imagine you are an employee of a financial institution investing in ABS CDOs in 2006. Almost certainly you would have recognised that there was a bubble


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in the US housing market and would expect that bubble to burst sooner or later. However, it is possible that you would decide to continue with your ABS CDO investments. If the bubble did not burst until after December 31, 2006, you would still get a nice bonus at the end of 2006!106

Despite its excesses, the capitalist liturgy is still kept in check by the deferral of desire: the promise of the future bonus functions to legitimise the risk and foreclose its negative consequences (for some). What the Christian liturgy shares with true comedy, though, is an arrival which disrupts this movement of deferral. What in Lacanian terms is the negative excess of the subject is, for Christians, God’s arrival. Christians do not merely receive instructions to attend charitably to those who are laid-waste by capitalism, but encounter God in that which is precluded from the symbolic order: the dispossessed, the homeless, the astronomical waste and all that which embodies the hidden negativity. It could be asked: why extend this vision of laughter as resistance to the context of liturgy other than out of fidelity to an eccentric medieval tradition? A revelation of the limits of critique of capitalism without an ethic of distinctively Christian love is admittedly rooted in the theological inclination of this chapter. Theology is obliged to do justice to the commission (at the end of the Roman Catholic liturgy) to ‘go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life’. However, my proposal is to situate the exposing of capitalism in a context which already has a code of fraternity and can consistently resist a capitalist logic. This is something that can be appreciated from a Lacanian perspective, which, despite its pessimism, seeks an exit from the capitalist discourse for all, not merely ‘for some’.107 Therefore, might liturgy be a place where transgressive laughter has a chance to lead to a regime of social discipline against capitalism? In order to do so, liturgy must first be re-acquainted with its own comic core as exemplified by the York mystery play’s depiction of Christ before Herod. The garment of the fool, mockingly placed on Jesus, is confused for a moment with the garment of the king:108 in the misrecognition, we glimpse the secret glory of the loser.

NOTES 1. Michael O’Connell, ‘Mockery, Farce, and Risus Paschalis in the York Christ before Herod’, Ludus: Medieval and Early Renaissance Theatre and Drama 6.1 (2002): 49. 2. O’Connell, ‘Mockery, Farce, and Risus Paschalis’, 51–52. 3. O’Connell, ‘Mockery, Farce, and Risus Paschalis’, 52. 4. Although the phenomenon of laughter is the main interest, I use the terms ‘comedy’ and ‘the comic’ to refer to the movement of subjectivity analysed by Alenka Zupančič, to whom much of the chapter is indebted.

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5. Marcus Pound, ‘The Eucharist Is Drive’, The Poverty of Radical Orthodoxy: Postmodern Ethics 3 (2012): 222, Accessed 7 July 2016. 6. Alenka Zupančič, The Odd One In: On Comedy (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2008), 99–100. 7. René Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, trans James G. Williams (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2001), xviii–xix. 8. Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans Hélène Iswolsky (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), 83, 287. 9. Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, 76. 10. Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, 76. 11. Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, 76. 12. Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, 73. 13. O’Connell, ‘Mockery, Farce, and Risus Paschalis’. 14. O’Connell, ‘Mockery, Farce, and Risus Paschalis’, 49–50. 15. O’Connell, ‘Mockery, Farce, and Risus Paschalis’, 55. 16. Richard Beadle, et al., eds, York Mystery Plays: A Selection in Modern Spelling (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1984), xxii. 17. O’Connell, ‘Mockery, Farce, and Risus Paschalis’, 45. 18. Beadle et al., York Mystery Plays, 188. 19. O’Connell, ‘Mockery, Farce, and Risus Paschalis’, 49. 20. O’Connell, ‘Mockery, Farce, and Risus Paschalis’, 48. 21. O’Connell, ‘Mockery, Farce, and Risus Paschalis’, 49. 22. O’Connell, ‘Mockery, Farce, and Risus Paschalis’, 50. 23. O’Connell, ‘Mockery, Farce, and Risus Paschalis’, 50. 24. O’Connell, ‘Mockery, Farce, and Risus Paschalis’, 50. 25. Genesis 21:6. 26. Michael Andrew Screech, Laughter at the Foot of the Cross (London: Allen Lane, Penguin Press, 1997), xx–xxi. 27. O’Connell, ‘Mockery, Farce, and Risus Paschalis’, 51. 28. Kristina Simeonova, ‘The Aesthetic Function of the Carnivalesque in Medieval English Drama’, in Bakhtin: Carnival and Other Subjects: Selected Papers from the Fifth International Bakhtin Conference, University of Manchester, July 1991, 3: 2, ed. David Shepherd (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1993), 71. 29. Simeonova, ‘The Aesthetic Function of the Carnivalesque’, 70. 30. Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, 96. 31. Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, 100. 32. Robert Cunliffe, ‘Charmed Snakes and Little Oedipuses: The Architectonics of Carnival and Drama in Bakhtin, Artaud and Brecht’, in Bakhtin: Carnival and Other Subjects: Selected Papers from the Fifth International Bakhtin Conference University of Manchester, July 1991, 3: 2, ed. David Shepherd (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1993), 49. 33. Cunliffe, ‘Charmed Snakes and Little Oedipuses’, 49. 34. Screech, Laughter at the Foot of the Cross, 291. 35. Gerald Hammond, ‘Excessive Guffawing: Review of Laughter at the Foot of the Cross by M. A. Screech’, London Review of Books 20.14 (1998), http://www.lrb. Accessed 6 February 2016, 30.


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36. Screech, Laughter at the Foot of the Cross, 214–15. 37. Hammond, ‘Excessive Guffawing’, 30. 38. Hammond, ‘Excessive Guffawing’, 30. 39. Screech, Laughter at the Foot of the Cross, 40. 40. Marcus Pound, ‘Comic Subjectivity in Žižek and Zupančič’s Spiritual Work of Art’, International Journal of Žižek Studies 4.4 (2010), // content/rodopi/ludus/2002/00000006/00000001/art00003. Accessed 21 July 2015, 4–5. 41. Pound, ‘Comic Subjectivity’, 5. 42. Zupančič, The Odd One In: On Comedy. 43. Simon Critchley’s On Humour (2002) might be seen as an example of such a perspective, although it is not explicitly discussed by Zupančič. Critchley’s favoured manifestation of humour as a characteristically human form of expression is the smile: ‘For me, it is the smile that is powerfully emblematic of the human, the quiet acknowledgment of one’s limitedness’ (109). The Christian author, Nathan Scott sees comedy as similarly linked with the acknowledgement of limits and finitude, and is discussed by Zupančič in her book (2008, pp. 43–47). 44. Zupančič, The Odd One In: On Comedy, 73–107. 45. Zupančič, The Odd One In: On Comedy, 19. 46. Zupančič, The Odd One In: On Comedy, 59–60. 47. Zupančič, The Odd One In: On Comedy, 133, 218. 48. Zupančič, The Odd One In: On Comedy, 137–39. 49. Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, translated by Alan Sheridan, edited by Jacques-Alain Miller (New York and London: W. W. Norton and Company, 1981), 12. 50. Dylan Evans, An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis (London: Routledge, 1996), 39. 51. Jacques Lacan, Ecrits: A Selection, trans Alan Sheridan (London and New York: Routledge, 1977), 318. 52. Adrian Johnson, ‘NOTHING IS NOT ALWAYS NO-ONE: (a)VOIDING LOVE’, Filozofski vestnik 26: 2 (2005): 77. 53. Lacan, Ecrits, 318. 54. Rowan Williams, ‘ “Know Thyself”: What Kind of an Injunction?’ Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement 32 (1992). doi: 6100005749. Accessed 13 April 2015, 213. 55. Zupančič, The Odd One In: On Comedy, 129–33. 56. Phillip Dravers, ‘The Drive as a Fundamental Concept of Psychoanalysis’, Extended version of a short paper presented at NLS Congress on the theme of ‘How Psychoanalysis Works’, London, April 2011, 2, raryLS/Texts-from-the-the-PN/Philip-Dravers-Drive.pdf. Accessed 12 May 2017. 57. Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, 62–63. 58. Pound, ‘The Eucharist Is Drive’, 217–18. 59. Simon Critchley, On Humour (London and New York: Routledge, 2002), 107. 60. Zupančič, The Odd One In: On Comedy, 129. 61. Zupančič, The Odd One In: On Comedy, 130–31. 62. Zupančič, The Odd One In: On Comedy, 131.

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63. Zupančič, The Odd One In: On Comedy, 131. 64. Charlie Kaufmann, Being John Malkovich. Directed by Spike Jonze (New York: USA Films, 1999). DVD. 65. Lissa Weinstein and Banu Seckin, ‘The Perverse Cosmos of Being John Malkovich: Forms and Transformations of Narcissism in a Celebrity Culture’, Projections 2: 1(2008): 29. doi:10:3167/proj.2008.020103. Accessed 12 April 2016. 66. Zupančič, The Odd One In: On Comedy, 132. 67. Zupančič, The Odd One In: On Comedy, 147. 68. See 69. Zupančič, The Odd One In: On Comedy, 149. 70. Zupančič, The Odd One In: On Comedy, 111. 71. Henri Bergson, Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, translated by Cloudesley Bereton and Fred Rothwell (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications Inc, 2005), 26. 72. Zupančič, The Odd One In: On Comedy, 125. 73. Zupančič, The Odd One In: On Comedy, 126. 74. Sigmund Freud, On Metapsychology: The Theory of Psychoanalysis. Beyond the Pleasure Principle, The Ego and the Id and Other Works, translated by James Strachey, edited by Angela Richards (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books Ltd, 1984), 292. 75. Freud, On Metapsychology, 307. 76. Freud, On Metapsychology, 311. 77. Zupančič, The Odd One In: On Comedy, 126. 78. Pound, ‘The Eucharist Is Drive’, 217. 79. Pound, ‘The Eucharist Is Drive’, 216. 80. Zupančič, The Odd One In: On Comedy, 126. 81. Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, 162. 82. Zupančič, The Odd One In: On Comedy, 100. 83. Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, 62, 239. In the fort-da case study, a child plays with a cotton reel, uttering noises similar to the German fort (gone) and da (there) as he throws and retrieves it. Freud analysed this as the child’s attempt to gain an illusory mastery over the traumatic coming and going of his mother. An account can be found in Freud’s essay ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’: Freud, On Metapsychology, 284–86. 84. Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, 61. 85. Freud, On Metapsychology, 307. 86. Gilbert Keith Chesterton, Orthodoxy: The Fundamentalist Argument (Walnut, CA: MSAC Philosophy Group, 2008), 47–48. 87. Pound, ‘The Eucharist Is Drive’, 222. 88. Pound, ‘The Eucharist Is Drive’, 219. 89. Zupančič, The Odd One In: On Comedy, 132. 90. Luke 24: 1–3. 91. Pound, ‘The Eucharist Is Drive’, 221. 92. I owe Richard Pettifer thanks for his e-mailed comments on the challenges of neo-liberalism to comedy with regard to the invisibility of authority and ideology.


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93. Pound, ‘The Eucharist Is Drive’, 218. 94. Jacques Lacan, Television: A Challenge to the Psychoanalytic Establishment, translated by Dennis Hollier et al., edited by Joan Copjec (London and New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1990), 16. 95. Lacan, Television, 15. 96. Lacan, Television, 15. 97. 1Corinthians 4:13. 98. Lacan, Television, 16. 99. Acts 2: 44–45. 100. Samo Tomšič, ‘Laughter and Capitalism’, S: Journal of the Jan Van Eyck Circle for Lacanian Ideology Critique 8: (2015), 34, php/S/article/download/65/84. Accessed 20 May 2017. 101. Samo Tomšič, The Capitalist Unconscious: Marx and Lacan (London: Verso Books, 2015), 123. 102. John C. Hull, Risk Management and Financial Institutions: Third Edition (New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2012), 131. 103. Tomšič, The Capitalist Unconscious, 224. 104. Tomšič, ‘Laughter and Capitalism’, 38. Such an illusion perhaps underlies the promise of Conservative Party leader Theresa May of a ‘government of certainty’ in the wake of the 2017 UK election and Tory alliance with the Democratic Unionist Party: see 105. By ‘negative’ I  draw on Tomšič here to refer to the fact that, in capitalism, value represents the labour power that abides in an object but not naturally or inherently – only insofar as it is exchanged as a commodity, as abstract labour (Tomšič, The Capitalist Unconscious, 54). Therein lies the crux of Marx’s insistence that a commodity seems like a straightforward thing but is revealed by the analysis to be ‘abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties’ (Karl Marx, Capital: A Critical Analysis of Capitalist Production Volume 1, translated by Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling, edited by Frederick Engels (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1958), 71). Marxism understands the negative and abstract power of the commodity rather than just ‘debunking’ commodity fetishism as if it were a subjective illusion. Yet the negativity that capitalism forecloses also corresponds to the straightforwardly ‘negative’ consequences of its ravages. 106. Hull, Risk Management and Financial Institutions, 133. 107. Lacan, Television, 17. 108. Beadle et al., York Mystery Plays, 188.

Chapter 6

Humitas: Humour as Performative Resistance Kate Fox

Humour is performative. It gets things done. But in much contemporary discourse, not least the discourse of humour studies and comedy studies, it is treated as if it is unable to function outside the frame of play. It is ‘only joking’. Not only does humour get things done, but the fragmented and complex nature of contemporary society means it is sometimes able to accomplish more in the public sphere than serious discourse alone. In this chapter, I will explore examples from politics, activism and comedy in order to highlight how the ambiguity which results from blending the comic and serious modes can help connect audiences to public speakers. In a rhetorical move of my own, I call this ‘humitas’. I will start by outlining the theory of cultural pragmatics developed by cultural sociologist Jeffrey Alexander, which provides a framework for explaining how and why this blend of comic and serious modes engages audiences. This theory can be applied both to politicians and activists using humour and to comedians engaging in activism and politics. Alexander says that ‘actions are performative in so far as they can be understood as communicating meaning to an audience’.1 This determines the success of an action. The audience for this action must experience it as ontologically real. The more authentic an actor feels, the more these two parties will fuse, despite the artificiality of the script and props needed to achieve this. By ‘actor’ Alexander means a speaker in the public sphere. He uses the terminology of actor, script, props and scene in order to make his theatrical metaphor more explicit. According to Alexander, the theatrical work for successful communication must be invisible – though it can be analysed through his blend of sociology and performance studies. He argues that the crucial fusion between actors and audiences is easier to achieve in simpler, less stratified societies which cohere around shared rituals and cultural reference points. The more distant from centres of power 83


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audiences become, the more ‘doubting, more alienated, more fragmented by class, and other such qualities as region, ethnicity, gender, race and religion. No wonder that counter-publics develop and oppose the performances of centres’.2 He argues that Western society has reached such a critical point of distance between political actors and audiences. I am going to argue that the reason we see so many politicians using humour in their performances of power is that they are attempting to ‘refuse’ with their increasingly alienated audiences, and to present themselves as authentic and relatable. We likewise see an increasing use of humour by activists in the public sphere such as protest groups, because it is a powerful tool in fusing audiences with the actors of counter-publics3 who do not accept the discursive priorities of other public-address modes. These are primarily marginalised people but could include those who privilege other discursive modes, such as comics and poets. It can directly address and expose the distance and alienation audiences feel from those in power, while dramatising counter-actors to act with more authenticity. This is a risky tactic, both for actors with power and for those forming counter-publics. Humour can, of course, fail. But so can any political performance. As Alexander notes: ‘If power cannot be simply coercive it needs to be performative. If power is to be effective, performing power must be a success’.4 Therefore it is necessary to examine situated performances by public actors whose performances are contingent on their perceived authenticity in a particular moment and setting, and I will do this in this chapter. In his sociological survey of humour, Taking Humour Seriously (1994), Jerry Palmer underlines the situated and relational nature of humour. He observes that occasions for humour could generally be divided into prescriptive (where humour is expected, for example, at a comedy club) and permissive (where humour is acceptable, though not obligatory). He notes that in practice, most occasions are permissive with prescriptive elements. Even professional comedians like Michael McIntyre are not expected to be funny all the time. He concludes: ‘It is clear that any activity or utterance may be either humorous or non-humorous depending on the nature of the occasion’.5 Palmer doesn’t attempt a definition of humour which, as he says, ‘exists in many dimensions’, but indicates how occasions for humour are both negotiated and based on recognised performative structures. An attempt at humour should be recognised (though not necessarily by all and probably not by the butt of a joke) and permitted (though again, not necessarily unanimously). Humour can fail due to a lack of relevant cultural knowledge on the part of the recipient, performance ineptitude or being judged too offensive (in other words, where there is no permission). Palmer’s insights on the performativity and situatedness of humour connect well with Alexander’s cultural pragmatics approach to performative utterances, though they highlight a risky

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element of using humour when publics are so diffuse. Humour which might work well for a politician’s immediate live audience, for example, may play very differently when disseminated over the Internet. Despite the difficulties of defining humour, and of distinguishing it from comedy, it is valuable to examine what characteristics it has which might cause it to be a useful performative strategy for fusing with diverse audiences. A relevant perspective can be found in the work of social psychologist and discourse analyst Michael Mulkay, who made what is still an unusually strong statement for seeing humour as an equal, rather than secondary, discourse to seriousness in his book On Humour. Mulkay makes it clear that he sees the comic vision as more accurate a reflection of the fragmented nature of a de-fused world, to use Alexander’s terminology: The interpretative openness of humour seems more accurately to reflect or reproduce or allow for the multiple realities of the social world. In this respect humour seems superior to ordinary, serious discourse which is premised on an implicit denial of the fact that we live in a world of multiple meanings and multiple realities. It seems therefore, that the serious mode is seriously defective.6

In his final chapter, Mulkay initiates a thought experiment in which the modes of humour and seriousness are reversed and concludes by suggesting that the monologic unitary mode of serious discourse is inadequate. Following Alexander’s terms this would be because it is increasingly distrusted by audiences and recognised for the partial script it is.

HUMITAS Before proceeding to give examples of how humour functions as a force for fusing actors and audiences, I am going to make a performative move of my own. I propose a new word that can add metaphorical weight to the performative use of humour and reflect the way humour can be used to effect change. Humitas is a conflation of humour, which has its etymological origin in the word ‘fluid’, as in the humours which physicians used to think circulated in the body, and ‘gravitas’, which has an origin in words meaning serious or weighty.7 Fluid is an appropriate term for the protean, paradoxical, ambiguous form of humour, or the comic mode in Mulkay’s terms, which can render meaning multiple. Gravitas helps ground it with the solidity and weight to undertake action. Humitas is performative. It is rhetorical. It can be a speech act and illocutionary.8 It can accomplish change at a level which cannot easily be pinned down to that of either ‘mere’ representation or ‘actual’ reality, but rather


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it breaks the ‘magic circle’ of play in which humour is presumed to make nothing happen.9 This is the common trope in which humour use, either on stage or in discourse, is bracketed off as play, separated from what is ‘real’ and ‘serious’. The neologism humitas aims to highlight that performative humour can be used both outside and in cultural performances. It is also a rhetorical move to combat the way humour is not taken seriously as an efficacious discursive strategy. It does this partly by enacting the change in framing that it wishes to foreground. Clunky phrases that separate ideas of seriousness and humour such as serious play,10 non-/seriousness11 and parodic-seriousness12 can actually be rendered thinkable in the same frame by the adoption of one word. This move might help resist the subjection of humour to what Foucault called the ‘dividing practices’ of omission and dismissal as a source of knowledge and power.13 For instance, Rod Martin notes: Surprisingly, despite its obvious importance in human behaviour, humour and related topics like laughter, irony and mirth are hardly ever mentioned in psychology texts and other scholarly books.14

However, Martin then reproduces the conflation of playful with non-­performative in a way which contributes to the dismissal of humour: ‘Although it is playful and nonserious and often seen as unimportant, humor can be used for a number of “serious” functions, extending into every aspect of human behaviour’.15 Here is the implicit dichotomy between playfulness and seriousness which underpins much of the devaluing of humour. This is really the binary opposition between work and play which anthropologist Victor Turner has demonstrated informs the way that cultural (as distinct from social) performances are delineated as leisure pursuits. He says that ‘in the liminal phases and states of pre-agrarian cultures – in myth, ritual and legal processes – work and play are hardly distinguishable in many cases’.16 In industrial cultures there is a sharp separation between the two. Play has been discursively put into what Huizinga called a ‘magic circle’, where its effects are separate from the serious world of work and productivity.17 Raskin’s suggestion that humour and joke-telling are not ‘Bona fide’ communication according to Grice’s conversational maxims is an example of ‘magic circle’ thinking in humour studies,18 which suggests that humorous utterances are always received as playful and that playful utterance is not capable of being transmitted or received as performative utterance.19 However, this does not take into account the fact that actual situated human communication operates within fuzzier frames, as Palmer recognises when he identifies both permissive and prescriptive elements to humour use (see above).

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While many cultural forms are capable of maintaining these separations between, on the one hand, play, leisure and the non-serious and on the other work, business and seriousness, some can’t. Computer games theorists such as Rodriguez and Stenros describe game designers’ use of types of play that transgress the meta-communicative frame which, as Gregory Bateson said, signals ‘This is play’.20 Games using what are known as ‘Brink’ and ‘Dark’ or ‘Deep’ play navigate and blur the boundaries and disrupt the lines between play and not-play. These games work because of not in spite of this ­ambiguity – and ambiguity is a key feature of humitas. BLURRING THE BOUNDARIES In Bakhtin’s classic Rabelais and His World, he described Rabelais, Cervantes and Shakespeare as representative of the Renaissance view of laughter, with this having just as much validity as seriousness in representing the world. This was partly because of their reliance on classical writers who took humour seriously, such as Aristotle and Hippocrates. He describes a heady fifty- or sixty-year Renaissance period when ‘a millennium of folk humour broke into Renaissance literature’.21 Although there was still separation between highly serious official church culture and what Bakhtin calls the ‘second life’ of laughter and folk culture, this made the elements of laughter all the more important to the masses. It was associated with ‘their’ culture. Bakhtin says that in medieval times, particularly prior to the twelfth century, parodists had prioritised one mode over another: ‘Laughter was as universal as seriousness’.22 Distrusted by the people, seriousness was at the negative end of a polarity created by a violently repressive ideology. Once the universalising energy of laughter burst forth into a Renaissance which took humour seriously, particularly in the mid-sixteenth century when Shakespeare and Cervantes deployed folk humour as the successors of Rabelais, there was a rare shift in the hierarchy of genres. Humour and seriousness were interwoven. Humitas reigned. I am suggesting that Bakhtin reminds us that the comic and serious modes are not always inevitably separated in public discourse and that now is another time of inter-breaching. We are now what French sociologist Bernard Lahire calls ‘Homo Pluralis’.23 He points out that since the 1970s, there has been more mixing of genres by cultural producers and consumers. Culturally legitimate and illegitimate forms are now less differentiated. Partly because of the free availability of radio and TV, people engage in more private cultural consumption and, in increasingly busy lives, increasingly use culture for psychological release and relaxation (rather than for, say, self-improvement). He says the growth of a science culture in education and an entertainment


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culture which is promoted by commercial forces fosters this relative ‘dumbing down’, leading to ‘a genuine cultural disposition or habit which calls into question those separations, compartmentalisations and boundaries that were previously firmly established’.24 This fluidity is highlighted by some poststructuralist philosophers who have used ‘laughter’ as an unsituated practice in order to counterpoint it to the post-enlightenment values and hierarchies of rationality, productivity, mind above body, not allowing it to speak in these terms. It remains separate and is unable to perform within these spheres. For example, the ‘shattering’ laughter in response to Borges’s taxonomy, which Foucault describes in the preface to The Order of Things,25 remains a much-analysed bout of laughter that he experienced possibly alone – he does not say – as if it was some pure bodily eruption, rather than an act of social communication, or at least the act of a socialised body. Feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray asks, ‘Isn’t laughter the first resistance to a secular oppression?’, but then connects this to a pleasure and desire which is ‘unrepresentable, untranslatable’ in opposition to the ‘univocity of a discourse that claims to state its meaning’.26 Her statement contrasts with Mulkay’s characterisation of the humorous mode as encouraging multiplicity of meaning, and with Alexander’s point that actions are performative because they communicate meaning to an audience. While not denying that laughter can be a powerful bodily resistance to webs of power and discourse, these interventions could be seen to reinforce the idea that humour can operate only outside of ‘serious’ discourse. It also suggests the naturalisation of the hierarchy in which seriousness always precedes humour as a means for producing value, knowledge and social action. I would suggest this new, fluid ‘Homo Pluralis’ is inscribed inside people and becomes incorporated into their everyday practices. I would suggest that work which analyses the situated nature of humour practices can highlight this. Dutch sociologist Cas Wouters does not specifically mention humour, but his informalisation theory also suggests that humans are responding to an increasingly complicated and fragmented world with significant shifts in their bodily and discursive practices.27 Wouters’ work builds on that of sociologist Norbert Elias and his study of the changes in manners and etiquette connected to courtly society which started long-term ‘civilising processes’.28 Wouters focuses on changes in people’s social etiquette after Western society’s moves towards greater equality in the 1960s and 1970s. For example, he notes that it became less acceptable for those who felt themselves to be at the top of the pecking order to refer overtly to their feelings of superiority. Wouters has coined the term ‘third nature’ to describe the way that a stronger self-regulating ego is currently more in control of emotional impulses than the authoritative super-ego of a more religious society. Self-regulation

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is more flexible and fluid than ‘second nature’ prescriptions of how to behave and feel, which were experienced as an internal conscience, and has led to an ‘emancipation of the emotions’ since the ‘expressive revolutions’ of the 1960s. This involves the conscious, public expression of feelings which might previously have been suppressed – for example, shame, or fear, as feelings and actions are no longer believed to be so closely interconnected. So, whereas Second World War pilots might not have admitted to feeling fear in case it might be suspected that they would also act fearfully, in television interviews in the 1990s/2000s Gulf War pilots openly admitted to feeling afraid before missions. Wouters says: As ‘third nature’– this more ego-dominated pattern of self-regulation-spread, there was a significant spread of more and more unconcealed expressions of insubordination, sex and violence, particularly in the realms of imagination and amusement.29

Although Wouters does not specifically mention them (unsurprisingly, in the light of the ongoing omission and dismissal of the importance of laughter), I would suggest that laughter and humour are also affective expressions which become more acceptable in the public sphere, in the wake of this freeing up of emotions.

SOMETHING FUNNY IS HAPPENING TO POLITICS My suggestion that Wouters’s informalisation theory can be seen in more affective expressions of humour in the public sphere is borne out by the change which political anthropologist Dominic Boyer has summed up as ‘something funny is happening to politics’.30 He points out there has been a huge rise in the number of satirical and parodic political movements in the past ten years, giving the examples of Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Party in Italy and Stephen Colbert’s Super PAC in the United States, before launching a more in-depth analysis of Jon Gnarr’s Best Party in Iceland. Boyer says there is a strongly performative element to the ambiguity in the boundary between parody and sincerity that these movements exploit. Boyer has explored two ways of understanding this rise in satire. One compares the homogenised, style-over-substance discourses of Western twenty-four-hour news media and the political spin cycle which feeds it, to late Soviet-era public discourse in which the performance of political orthodoxy was more important than anything that the discourse might say. He calls these modes of public communication ‘Hypernormalisation’. ‘Stiob’ was a Russian form which parodied this insubstantial political communication in a


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way which rendered it nearly indistinguishable from the orthodox discourse it satirised. Boyer sees this as re-emerging today in examples such as The Colbert Report and The Daily Show. The second way, more relevant for the concept of humitas, is informed by Foucault and the philosopher Peter Sloterdijk who both wrote in the late 1980s about classical performances of public cynicism. Both suggested cynicism could act as a corrective to overly earnest public discourses. Foucault lauded the radical truth-tellers of ancient Greece: The one who uses parrhesia, the parrhesiastes, is someone who says everything he has in mind: he does not hide anything, but opens his heart and mind completely to other people through his discourse. In parrhesia, the speaker is supposed to give a complete and exact account of what he has in mind so that the audience is able to comprehend exactly what the speaker thinks.31

We can note the similarity here to Alexander’s state of fusion between actor and audience. Plato, and Foucault here, opposed this to rhetoric in which what one really thought was veiled. Parrhesiastes give the appearance of sharing their direct and unfiltered thoughts, not necessarily in the form of humour. Arguably one of the reasons for the success of US president Donald Trump’s rhetoric is that he has appeared to be uttering direct and unfiltered truths, as political theorist Elizabeth Markovits has noted in a 2016 Washington Post article. She calls his style ‘hyper-sincerity’ and observes ‘frank speech can become just another form of cynical pandering’.32 One type of parrhesiast who can create fusion with an audience is, therefore, the straight-talker who may, or may not, be telling what they believe to be the truth. I would identify another type of parrhesiast, who can skilfully use humour to express an audience’s feelings that the world is fractured, multiple and ambiguous – most commonly seen in the stand-up comedian, although other public speakers can learn and use these skills. This also links to Foucault’s idea of ‘counter-conduct’, opening up a way of looking at the activity of the humorous parrhesiast. Political economist Carl Death links the parrhesiastes and counter-conduct in a paper on African protest movements, which notes that Foucault’s ideas of resistance are not used as much as they might be in studies of social movements.33 These studies tend to be dominated by quantitative approaches which employ rational-actor theories and Marxist-Gramscian counter-hegemonic approaches which lock power and resistance into a binary. Foucault’s concept of counter-conduct troubles this. Gay counter-culture, masturbation, suicide, ascetic practices of monks are all presented by Foucault as counter-conduct, and a form of self-care. Not the comfortable self-care of rational reflection and massages – but a self-care that challenges imposed governmentality from within and is agonistic and doubting. This consideration of counter-conduct in resistance

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movements also casts their humour strategies in new light. I would suggest that the speech and gestures of politicians who use humour can become a visible counter-conduct which rejects prevailing modes of political discourse. Foucault says that counter-conduct is guided by the questions: ‘How not to be governed like that, by that, in the name of those principles, with such and such an objective in mind and by means of such procedures, not like that, not for that, not by them’.34 For Death, this approach which stresses practices and mentalities and the embodied performance of critique allows questions about resistance which ‘significantly complicate a binary view of politics as either radical or reformist, emancipatory or conservative’.35 The ambiguous and dynamic nature of performative humour in practice does this, as we will see in the following examples. I would suggest that, in a Foucauldian way, humour can trouble existing discourses of truth, power and knowledge (though it can reinforce them). It can deliver a strong performative impact. I will explore this in relation to selected demonstrative examples of comedy in politics and activism, and of activism and politics in comedy. HUMITAS IN ACTION There are many examples of humour being used performatively in counterpublic movements. Bogad has described ‘tactical carnival’ which draws on the Bakhtinian notion of carnival as being ‘without footlights’ and inverting the usual power relationships to celebrate a ‘world turned upside down’.36 Through playful and improvised interactions, activists attempt to reconfigure relations between police and protestors and refuse being labelled and dismissed as violent. For example, the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army’s (CIRCA) playful clowning included kissing police riot shields during the ‘Carnival of Full Enjoyment’ protest in 2005, when global leaders met for the G8 summit in Gleneagles. Bogad notes how these ‘carnival against capitalism’ movements also draw upon the notion of Brazilian theatre practitioner Augusto Boal (in which people resist their identities as passive consumers by becoming active ‘spect-actors’), as well as the situationist philosophies of Guy Debord which came to prominence during the student protests in Paris in 1968. Bogad sees them as opening up spaces for people to imagine a different world. The celebratory, participatory, experimentally playful, joyous and embodied elements of ‘tactical carnival’ which Bogad identifies can also be seen in the ‘Occupy’ movement which occupied city spaces after the banking crisis of 2008 and in the four-woman punk band Pussy Riot’s performative protests against the repressive regime of Russian president Vladimir Putin.


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Studies of carnivalesque protest are valuable for highlighting a purposeful and performative playfulness. Majken Sorensen’s research into the Serbian resistance movement Otpor, which helped bring down Slobodan Milosevic in 2000, illustrates how humour fused the organisation with its audience and mobilised followers – this too demonstrates humitas.37 I contend that humitas is a tactic which can be used more sustainably in the public sphere than carnivalesque protest whose ‘liberatory spaces’, as Bogad points out, ‘can be quickly dispersed either by the force of the state or by the inevitable need of the participants to eventually get back to work’.38 When employed by professional politicians or comedians, it can become the work. Sorensen looked at Otpor’s use of humour as a ‘serious strategy of nonviolent resistance to oppression’. He presented the use of humorous tactics as unusual for activist organisations but defended researching them as an ‘extreme or deviant’ case which addressed a lacuna in both peace studies and humour studies.39 He uses Mulkay’s work and the distinction between the humorous mode and the serious mode to give him a framework for examining Otpor’s activism. In a rhetorical move which is a familiar one in most work which asserts the effectiveness of humour, he cites the words of a ‘magic circle’ scholar in order to defend himself from anticipated criticism. Historian Gregor Benton who has studied humour in the Soviet Union said: The political joke will change nothing. It is the relentless enemy of greed, injustice, cruelty and oppression – but it could never do without them. It is not a form of active resistance. It reflects no political programme. It will mobilise no one.40

Otpor nonetheless played a major role in bringing half a million people onto the streets of Serbia in October 2000. They had started as a network of mainly student activists in 1996–1997. Their activism included cartoons, posters and graffiti which highlighted the absurdity of life under the oppressive Milosevic regime through playful actions. For example, they went to a hospital and offered to donate blood when Milosevic’s wife Mira said they would not leave power without blood. Otpor placed barrels beneath pictures of Slobodan Milosevic after Milosevic had put boxes throughout Serbia asking people to donate one dinar to plant crops. In the Otpor version, for one dinar they would be given a stick with which to hit the photo.41 Irony, absurdity and playfulness were the main humorous devices used. Sorensen found that these had three main effects. They facilitated ‘outreach and mobilisation’.42 The use of humour contributed to the ‘branding’ of Otpor as cool and credible and helped them recruit members. In ‘facilitating a culture of resistance’, one of Sorensen’s interviewees said it helped the functioning of the organisation: ‘We had better relations inside Otpor, we felt like a

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family’. It also facilitated ‘turning oppression upside down’– mocking and ridiculing the oppressor in ways which provoke them to respond, or which make it harder for them to answer with violence – while also maintaining activists’ morale. In Otpor’s literature and in its real-world actions, Sorensen clearly found that humour was used to fuse the counter-public activists with their audience. In this example, the ambiguity of humour and a particular set of serious purposes worked together in a way which troubled any assumption of the serious or the comic mode being more efficacious, and proved Benton’s claim that political jokes change nothing, to be ill-founded. COMEDIAN AS ACTIVIST I will now move from examples of collective activism which uses comedy to examples of individuals using humour to mobilise others to act. Examples of comedians as activists are proliferating. This is connected to, but not analogous to, a perceived increase in their public role. For example, an Atlantic piece noted American news comedian Stephen Colbert’s inclusion in Foreign Policy’s top twenty public intellectuals.43 In 2015, British comedian Russell Brand was included at number 5 in political magazine Prospect’s World Thinkers list, which otherwise consisted mainly of economic and political thinkers like Paul Krugman and Naomi Klein. Political economist James Brassett notes Brand’s form of leftist resistance as a performative ethicopolitical practice enacted through comedy shows, broadcasts, interviews, books and social media productions such as his podcast ‘The Trews’ (a contraction of the ‘True News’).44 Brassett notes, however, that this resistance takes place within market subjectivities and suggests a complex ethical position: ‘It is as dependent on the contingencies it mocks as it is critical of them’.45 However, he finds that Brand, along with the other comedians he profiles, Charlie Brooker and Stewart Lee, makes powerful use of the mainstream and social media channels they access in order to subvert them. He concludes too that the prominence of white, privileged men like them may suggest some of the limits of this vernacular, comedic resistance. It is partly for this reason that I will focus on one example of a female comedian-activist stepping outside the ‘magic circle’ of play on comedy stages, in a way which performatively links her comedy to her activism: Irish stand-up comedian Grainne Maguire. She started a Twitter campaign in November which became part of the wider campaign protesting the Irish government’s eighth amendment which grants equal rights to mother and foetus and effectively bans abortion in Ireland. She said the premise of her campaign was that if Taoiseach Enda Kelly was so interested in women’s reproductive


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systems, then women should tweet him details of their periods. She unfolded the idea in a series of ironic and humorous tweets which set the tone for further contributions, and were also widely reported in the press: I think it’s only fair that the women of Ireland let our leader @EndaKennyTD know details of our menstrual cycle #Repealthe8th/Hey @EndaKennyTD just so you know, I got my period 2 days ago. Pretty heavy at first but now just occasional spotting.46

She here sets up the hashtag, then moves to performatively addressing the leader directly in her tweet. She doesn’t explicitly ask participants to ‘make the Tweets funny’, but I would suggest her own style, with the joking comparison of her womb to ‘Ireland’s littlest embassy’, the absurdity of breaching the usual conventions about sharing menstrual information by public broadcasting of it to a political leader (even more so a male political leader), the frank bodily detail and Grainne’s own status as a comedian, combine to make this a move which sets up a serious campaign with the specific intent of getting a particular piece of legislation repealed, via a humorous mechanism. The campaign was widely reported internationally, going viral. The resultant tweets were addressed to Enda Kenny and ended with the ‘Repeal the 8th’ hashtag, making the humour and the activism inextricable. The informality of Twitter and the ease of joining in with both the humour (almost inherent in the incongruity of sending private information about periods to a politician) allowed people to participate. They became a counter-public who were fused and mobilised by the figure of Grainne Maguire, whose persona as a stand-up comedian I would suggest set the tone for the type of responses that people sent, inspiring them to perform as humitastic activists too. They parodied the invasion that they saw the government making into their bodily rights, by sending ‘too much’ information. It was counter-conduct which, while not involving overt rebellion, questioned the basis of governance over their reproductive rights by humorously and publicly exaggerating the amount of control the Irish government appeared to be claiming. It echoed Foucault’s question of ‘how not to be governed like that, in the name of those principles’.47

POLITICIAN AS COMEDIAN Recent examples, such as that of the Best Party in Iceland and Beppe Grillo’s Five Star party in Italy, show that it is not exclusively and inevitably the case that politics and political acts are conducted exclusively in the serious mode. I will focus on the example of Icelandic comedian Jon Gnarr, whose

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anarcho-surrealist statements during his campaign and time in office as mayor of Reykjavik were a stiob-like parody of political discourse. These captured both the allegiance of those who felt alienated from the false promises of politicians and their yearning for a discourse which acknowledged its own impossible task in an increasingly complex and fragmented world. It suggested that a way for politicians to fuse a fragmented audience is to make humour out of the alienation people feel from politicians, thus paradoxically closing that distance. Icelandic comedian Jon Gnarr set up ‘the Best Party’ in Iceland in 2009 initially to protest against what he said was a corrupt political system. He said that he would not meet any of his election promises, just like other politicians. Party literature parodied the tone and language of political manifestos, but promised to build a Disneyland at Reykjavik airport, install a polar bear display at the zoo and refuse a coalition with any politician who had not watched all five seasons of the American political/cop drama The Wire. His party achieved over 30 per cent of the vote in the Reykjavik city council elections, and he was mayor of the city until stepping down in 2013. Much press attempted to maintain the binary opposition of humour and ­seriousness – saying the party was set up as a ‘joke’ and ‘became serious’ once it actually got power. However, Gnarr’s comments about the origins of the party suggest not so much a joke as a desire to reflect the absurdity he experienced as a result of Iceland’s political situation after the collapse of their banking system in 2009 and the country leaders’ decision to pay the bank’s debt. He began writing surreal articles and realised, from the positive response, that this skewed perspective was welcomed as a ‘breath of fresh air’. Gnarr and his supporters maintained an often ironic and parodic stance to traditional politics. In his mayoral acceptance speech, he uttered what is the essence of humitas: ‘Just because something is funny, doesn’t mean it isn’t serious’. Ambiguity about what he was and wasn’t joking about was an important part of his campaign, and Icelandic social anthropologist Hulda Proppe has said that this confusion over whether he was playing the game or not allowed him to be in control of events as a ‘slippery trickster’.48 Reflecting on the backgrounds of the Best Party leaders who took up office, mainly musicians and artists from the country’s punk scene, Proppe says that ‘these are not politicians in the traditional sense but people engaging in highly politicised acts’.49 As elected politicians, however, they are politicians – reconfiguring the sense of what (and how funny) a politician can be. Proppe recounts the way that Gnarr and his supporters continued to enact an ‘anarcho-surrealistic socialism’ throughout the party’s five years in office and says that existing categories of political anthropology are unable to reflect the complexity of the party. She suggests that studies focusing on performance and performativity may be more apt. This chimes again with


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Death’s characterisation of Foucauldian views of embodied resistance which moves beyond simple binary political categories. It also provides an alternative to totalitarian populism. Boyer points out that it operates in a different key altogether, albeit one that also mobilises people who are disengaged from traditional politics: ‘Rather than playing to anger or fear, Gnarrism expresses an affective ideology of hope, laughter and play’.50 The importance of this example of a political system which is able to accommodate absurdity, irony and parody may perhaps be minimised or exceptionalised because of Iceland’s perceived marginality in the world political system and its small size (a population of only 329, 000). However, I’d suggest that it is an example which demands further research, for what it can teach us about how the humorous and serious modes can work together outside the ‘magic circle’ in order to destabilise established ways of doing politics. CONCLUSION I have undertaken what is, in itself, a rhetorical move in naming a form of rhetoric, performative utterance and frame which is too often omitted and dismissed by scholarship and commentary. Humour and seriousness performatively enacted in the same frame at the same time can break down the binary oppositions between work and play, leisure and work and play and seriousness, to become a generative means for politicians and comedians to enact visions which change the world. The work of Bakhtin, Foucault, Lahire, Boyer, Wouters and others shows us that we are, once again, at a point in history in which the traditional hierarchies of genres are shifting. The comic and serious modes can work together to make a more complex, multiple discourse which counters the univocal nature of much media and political discourse. It could be argued that the fusion of these modes, humitas, can act as a positive flip-side to the ‘dumbing down’ of the fusion of politics and entertainment which has been dubbed ‘politainment’. Those who are skilled in their use of the comic and serious modes together, whether politicians, activists or comedians, can speak to the public’s alienation from traditional politics and put humour to work in expressing the ambiguity and multiplicity of a diverse and agonistic public sphere. When humour is used as more than mere cloak or distraction or disguise, its potential to really shift the terms of the homogenised and monological discourse of politics, culture and academia is huge, interesting and risky. Will more public performers other than anarcho-surrealists, comedians and adept politicians step outside the magic circle and take up this mode as something they intentionally wield to bring change? It is time for those who are skilled at using humour to step outside the magic circle of play, and be recognised

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as wielding a dynamic affective force which can both reflect the ambiguous, messy, complicated, multiple nature of our shifting realities and help to shape it for the better. NOTES 1. Jeffrey Alexander, ‘Performance and Power’, Culture 20.1 (2005): 1–5, 2. 2. Alexander, ‘Performance and Power’, 3. 3. Michael Warner, ‘Publics and Counter Publics’, Quarterly Journal of Speech 88.4 (2002): 413–25. 4. Alexander, ‘Performance and Power’, 4. 5. Jerry Palmer, Taking Humour Seriously (London and New York: Routledge, 1994), 51. 6. Michael Mulkay, On Humour: Its Nature and Place in Modern Society (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1988), 219. 7. Chambers 21st Century Online Dictionary, s.v. ‘Humour’ and ‘Gravitas’, 8. J. L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words, 2nd ed. (Boston: Harvard University Press, 1975). 9. Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture, trans. R.F.C. Hull (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul Limited, 1949). Originally published in 1938. 10. Pierre Bourdieu, Pascalian Meditations (London: Routledge, 1996). 11. Maddie Breeze, Seriousness and Women’s Roller Derby: Gender, Organization, and Ambivalence (Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). 12. Guy Debord, Detournement as Negation and Prelude (Internationale Situationniste #3, 1959). 13. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Random House Inc., 1978), 8. 14. Rod Martin, The Psychology of Humour: An Integrative Approach (Burlington, MA: Elsevier, 2010), xv. 15. Martin, The Psychology of Humour, 150. 16. Victor Turner, Liminal to Liminoid in Play, Flow and Ritual (Houston, TX: Rice University Press, 1974), 66. 17. Huizinga, Homo Ludens. 18. Victor Raskin, Semantic Mechanisms of Humor (Dordrecht: D. Reidel Publishing, 1985), 100–101. 19. Austin, How to Do Things with Words. 20. Hector Rodriguez, ‘The Playful and the Serious: An Approximation to Huizinga’s Homo Ludens’, Game Studies Journal 6. 1 (2006); Jaakko Stenros, ‘In Defence of a Magic Circle: The Social, Mental and Cultural Boundaries of Play’, Digra 1. 2 (2014); Gregory Bateson, ‘A Theory of Play and Fantasy’, in Play: Its Role in Development and Evolution, ed. Jerome S. Bruner, Alison Jolly and Kathy Sylva (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1976), 119–29.


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21. Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans. Hélène Iswolsky (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1984), 72. Originally published in 1965. 22. Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, 84. 23. Bernard Lahire, ‘The Individual and the Mixing of Genres: Cultural Dissonance and Self-Distinction’, Poetics 36 (2008): 166–88. 24. Lahire, ‘The Individual and the Mixing of Genres’, 179. 25. Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (London: Routledge Classics, 2002), xvi. Originally published in 1970. 26. Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One, trans. Catherine Porter and Carolyn Burke (New York: Cornell University Press, 1985), 163. 27. Cas Wouters, Informalization: Manners and Emotions since 1890 (London: Sage Publications, 2007). 28. Norbert Elias, The Civilizing Process: Sociogenetic and Psychogenetic Investigations, trans. Eric Dunning, Stephen Mennell and Johan Goudsblom (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2000). Originally published in 1939. 29. Wouters, Informalization, 215. 30. Dominic Boyer, ‘Simply the Best: Parody and Political Sincerity in Iceland’, American Ethnologist 40.2 (2013): 276–87. 31. Michel Foucault, ‘The Meaning and Evolution of the Word Parrhesia’, in Discourse and Truth: The Problematization of Parrhesia, ed. Joseph Pearson (1999) Digital Archive:, foucault-dt1-wordparrhesia-en-html. Accessed 6 February 2017. 32. Elizabeth Markovits, ‘Trump Tells It Like It Is: That’s Not Necessarily a Good Thing for Democracy’, Washington Post, 4 March 2016, https://www.washington sarily-a-good-thing-for-democracy/?utm_term=.eb3356e6981b. Accessed 6 February 2017. 33. Carl Death, ‘Counter-Conducts as a Mode of Resistance: Ways of “Not Being Like That” in South Africa’, Global Society 30.2 (2016): 201–17. 34. Michel Foucault, The Politics of Truth, ed. Sylvie Lotringer (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2007), 44. 35. Death, ‘Counter-Conducts as a Mode of Resistance’, 211. 36. L. M. Bogad, ‘Carnivals against Capital: Radical Clowning and the Global Justice Movement’, Social Identities: Journal for the Study of Race, Nation and Culture 16.4 (2010): 537–57 (547). 37. Majken Sorenson, ‘Humour as Serious Strategy of Nonviolent Resistance to Oppression’, Peace and Change 33.2 (2008): 167–90. 38. Bogad, ‘Carnivals against Capital’, 555; original emphasis. 39. Sorenson, ‘Humour as Serious Strategy’, 169. 40. Cited in Sorenson, ‘Humour as Serious Strategy’, 168. 41. Sorenson, ‘Humour as Serious Strategy’, 181–82. 42. Sorenson, ‘Humour as Serious Strategy’, 175. 43. Megan Garber, ‘How Comedians Became Public Intellectuals’, The Atlantic, 28 May 2015, Accessed 6 February 2017.

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44. James Brassett, ‘British Comedy, Global Resistance: Russell Brand, Charlie Brooker and Stewart Lee’, European Journal of International Relations 22.1 (2016): 168–91. 45. Brassett, ‘British Comedy, Global Resistance’, 187. 46. Claire Phipps, ‘#Repealthe8th: Irish Women Tweet Their Periods to Prime Minister Enda Kenny’, Guardian, 6 November 2015, world/2015/nov/06/irish-women-live-tweet-periods-enda-kenny-repeal-the-eighth. Accessed 6 February 2017. 47. Foucault, The Politics of Truth, 44. 48. Hulda Proppe, ‘Welcome to the Revolution!: Voting in the Anarcho-surrealists’, in Gambling Debt: Iceland’s Rise and Fall in the Global Economy, ed. E. Paul Durrenburger and G. Palsson (Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2015), 83. 49. Proppe, ‘Welcome to the Revolution!’, 83. 50. Boyer, ‘Simply the Best’, 81.

Part II


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Conformist Comedians: Political Humour in the Eighteenth-Century Dutch Republic Ivo Nieuwenhuis

Comedians are critical, or at least we like to see them as such. We appreciate comedy for its rebellious attitude towards the social and political mainstream, whether it is Louis C.K.’s black humour and cynicism countering the ostentatiously optimistic and positive spirit of late capitalism, or the questioning of gender stereotypes implied by Amy Schumer’s sex jokes. This is also true for comedy from earlier periods, and in particular for comedians living and working in the Age of Enlightenment (c. 1680–1800). Voltaire, because of his humorous story Candide, ou l’optimisme (1759), is praised as a sharp critic of the excessive optimism of his age. James Gillray owes his fame to bawdy cartoons that express an irreverent attitude towards authority. The Dutch satirist Jacob Campo Weyerman (1677–1747) has even had his own fan club since the 1970s, who honour him for the fact that he was a ‘thorn in the side of the Enlightenment’.1 The image of the comedian as critical towards the powers that be fits well within our overall understanding of humour in the modern Western world. Political comedy in particular is often thought to be primarily about questioning authorities and challenging the status quo.2 As a result, the relationship between comedy and critical thought is usually presented as self-evident. Humour scholars tend to assume that comedy is subversive almost by its nature, and that it should therefore be considered as an important weapon against hegemonic discourses. Their main concern is how comedy can support the performance of social and political critique, not if it does so in the first place.3 There is, however, ample reason to doubt their premise. Comedy can be used to defend the status quo and to silence subversive voices as well. In recent years, there seems to be a growing awareness of this conformist potential of humour.4 103


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Following up on this trend I present in this chapter an alternative image of the comedian, in which not rebelliousness and subversion but conformism takes centre stage. By doing so, I attempt to rethink the relationship between comedy and critical thought. According to my analysis, the relationship is complex, ambivalent and thus not self-evident. I do not want to suggest that critical comedy does not exist at all. Rather, I want to shift attention to the much less discussed conformist effects of political comedy and so enlarge our understanding of comedy in general – how can it add to the silencing of critical voices, and what humour strategies and other rhetorical means do comedians deploy to reach this end? I use the term critique here in its neo-Marxist meaning of a contestation of hegemonic social, political and cultural practices, meant to emancipate oppressed groups in terms of gender, race or class. This is the way the term is usually understood when we talk about the critical potential of art.5 ‘Critical’ thereby almost automatically implies critical towards the powers that be or towards dominant social groups. It is, of course, perfectly possible to be critical towards subjected groups and opposition movements as well, but this is, after all, not the type of critique we tend to think of when we call an instance of political comedy critical. The Age of Enlightenment – roughly spanning the eighteenth century – is a crucial period in the history of this kind of counterhegemonic critique. Enlightenment philosophy is known for its critical attitude towards political and religious authorities.6 Immanuel Kant’s 1784 slogan of the Enlightenment Sapere aude, ‘have the courage to use your own understanding’, sums up an attitude, which had been developing over a long period.7 In the long run, using ‘its own understanding’ enabled society at large to fundamentally rethink its power structures.8 The French Revolution is perhaps the most telling concrete example of this rethinking, but even long before that the intensified use of reason and methodic doubt – the preference of scepticism over belief in the process of establishing truths – led to substantive social and political critique.9 The emergence of this critical, anti-authoritarian spirit seems to have gone hand in hand with the practice of comedy. Fredric Bogel, in his study on eighteenth-century British satire, claims that it is the Enlightenment genre par excellence. Using, among others, Jonathan Swift, John Gay and Alexander Pope as his examples, Bogel shows that satire of the day is full of ambivalences and open endings that force the reader to make his own judgement about the topics at stake and thus stimulate the use of reason.10 Following Bogel’s argument, we could consider critical comedy as a typical manifestation of the Enlightenment. The large amount of comedy produced in the years preceding and during the French Revolution substantiates this idea.11 But in line with the doubts regarding humour’s critical nature presented earlier, we

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should also ask to what extent the tendency towards conformism manifested itself in the comedy of this period. This question forms the main focus of my chapter. To answer this question, I will use the Dutch Republic as my case study. This country had a strong tradition of political comedy in the eighteenth century, which I will introduce in more detail here. The Dutch Republic was also an early adopter of Enlightenment thought. The famous radical philosopher Baruch Spinoza lived in Holland and had many Dutch followers.12 Furthermore, the Dutch Republic of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is known for its culture of public debate. Censorship was relatively weak, and there was a flourishing book trade, making the exchange of information and opinion in this country among the most advanced in the world.13 My findings regarding the critical versus conformist implications of eighteenth-century Dutch comedy can thus be transposed to the present-day situation relatively easily, and potentially have a much wider application across other periods and areas. COMEDY AND CONFORMISM The ties between comedy and critical thought have not always been so close as they appear today. This fact is suggested by the oldest theory of humour, the superiority theory, which sees comedy as a confirmation of the superiority of one person over another.14 Thus understood, comedy is an attribute of power, rather than of those contesting it. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the use of comedy was often motivated by its capacity to make people conform to the given social norms. The idea was that a work of comedy, for example a farce or a comic painting, ridiculed those who deviated too much from the accepted standards of social behaviour: the wife dominating her husband, the old man who wanted to marry a young girl. By making these violators of the social code look foolish, the audience was stimulated not to violate this code itself and leave social hierarchies as they were.15 In this way, comedy worked to support these hierarchies and to protect traditional power relations – between husband and wife, master and servant, king and subjects. In his provocative study Laughter and Ridicule (2005), sociologist Michael Billig claims that comedy has never lost this disciplinary function. He argues that, in today’s world, we like to see comedy as a purely positive force, something that primarily causes joy and happiness, whether this is in public spaces, personal relationships or work environments. Billig considers this view as one-sided and confronts it with the practice of ridicule, which is obviously not joyful for everyone, as it makes specific persons, ideas or institutions laughable. This practice also has important conservative implications.


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It stimulates people to conform to the mainstream ideas of their peer group: if they deviate too much from these ideas, they run the risk of being marked as ridiculous.16 Theatre scholar Dick Zijp has shown that this is indeed how contemporary comedy can work. In his master’s thesis, he discusses various examples of Dutch stand-up comedy from the last decades in which ridicule is used to confirm mainstream political and social viewpoints, rather than to attack them.17 Further evidence of the conformist tendencies of present-day comedy is presented by the case of the 2006 Mohammed cartoons. As Giselinde Kuipers has convincingly argued, comedy in this crisis mainly functioned as a means to silence the voice of Muslims within the transnational public sphere. The cartoons had the effect of excluding them from this sphere; they were used to prove that Muslims have no sense of humour and are not able to take a joke. Kuipers shows how the cartoon crisis was strongly intertwined with existing geopolitical and cultural power relations between the Arab world and the West, making it almost impossible for Muslims to respond in a socially acceptable way. The cartoons themselves only confirmed these relations and thus were conformist rather than subversive, despite their overall reception as forms of critique.18 The case of the Mohammed cartoons, then, warns us against confusing a reputation of rebelliousness and subversion, which seems to dominate the present-day reception of comedy, with an actually critical impact, which seems to be much rarer. A possible explanation for this lack of actual critique is the fact that comedy is usually primarily aimed at amusing the audience. In this situation, it is risky to bring to the fore ideas and opinions that are too unconventional. Doing so could easily backfire on the comedian; it could provoke an angry response and turn what was supposed to be a joyful occasion into a disturbing one. On the other hand, the audience also expects the comedian to play with conventions and to perform some form of boundary crossing at least. A comedian can solve this paradox by picking the ‘right’ borders to cross, the proper conventions to rebel against, usually those that do not concern the majority of the audience, but only a small portion of it, or an external adversary.19 A good example of this method is the 2005 comedy routine of Dutch comedian Theo Maassen, in which he licks a crucifix on stage and is explicitly aroused by this, after which he exclaims: ‘Isn’t it great that we have a prophet that you can ridicule!’20 Here Maassen appears to cross the social boundary of treating religious symbols only with respect. But in the context of Maassen’s performance, this is only a seeming boundary crossing. Maassen’s audience mostly consists of non-religious people, who are probably not offended by his licking of the crucifix at all. The sneer directed at Muslims – ‘we’ have a prophet that you can ridicule, ‘you’ don’t – is also rather safe, as Maassen’s audience is mostly non-Muslim. This kind of conformist rebelliousness thus

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provides a comedian like Maassen with a critical reputation while maintaining a steady fan base on which he can count. EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY INFOTAINMENT The same mechanism can also be seen in older forms of comedy. When Dutch authors from the eighteenth century use comedy, they try to find a careful balance between provocation and pleasure. This makes sense when we realise that the majority of them were professional scribes who depended on their audiences for their living.21 These circumstances also influenced their choice of genres. Dutch comedy of the eighteenth century mainly takes the form of infotainment: media that combine the presentation and discussion of the news with considerable doses of amusement. Nowadays, this phenomenon is primarily associated with television and the Internet.22 In the eighteenth century, pamphlets and journals were the preferred vehicles for infotainment. Pamphlets were introduced in Europe during the Reformation in the early sixteenth century and had played a pivotal role in the formation of public opinion from that point onwards, not least in the Dutch Republic.23 The journal was a relatively new medium in the eighteenth century, which had its roots in the periodical press of the 1610s, and became a serious player in the fields of science and the arts in the second half of the seventeenth century.24 Both media were used by the growing class of hacks as a distribution channel for their writings. The flourishing book trade in the Dutch Republic gave rise to several popular infotainment genres. One was the genre of satirical weeklies, providing the audience with humorous anecdotes regarding recent affairs on a weekly basis, using a style full of wit and irony.25 The aforementioned Jacob Campo Weyerman was without doubt the greatest master in this genre.26 Of yet another kind were the so-called rarekieks, ‘raree shows’ or peepshows. These were pamphlets imitating the performance of a peepshow, a well-known form of street entertainment consisting of a travelling showman who carried a large wooden box with him in which a successive series of images could be watched through a looking-hole. In return for money, the showman would offer access to these images and an explanation of what could be seen.27 The pamphlets that called themselves rarekieks re-enacted such a performance in the form of a printed dialogue, thereby exploiting the comic possibilities of this type of entertainment, including misunderstandings between the showman and his audience about what there was to see in the peepshow, and a parody of the French-Dutch hotchpotch spoken by the showman. Over a hundred of these ‘fake’ peepshows were published in the Dutch Republic throughout the eighteenth century.28


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Both satirical weeklies and rarekieks discussed the news in a comical way, which is why they can be considered as infotainment media. Their combining of news and amusement also makes them the ancestors of present-day topical comedy as it can be found on television (Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee) and the Internet (The Onion). Like these popular instances of contemporary comedy, Dutch eighteenth-century infotainment was an active participant in public debate, adding to this debate through the discussion of significant political and social events, such as ongoing wars and revolutions. The treatment of the War of the Spanish Succession (1702–1715), in a series of rarekieks from the 1710s, for example, can be compared to the comical reflections on the Trump administration by Jon Stewart and Trevor Noah today. It is especially this type of topical comedy that we expect and hope to be critical. Jeffrey P. Jones in his 2010 study Entertaining Politics celebrates TV shows like The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report precisely because they are ‘a powerful means for challenging and questioning the sources of power’.29 Following his argument, satiric television in the United States today is anti-authoritarian: it criticises persons and institutions with large political, social or economic power; scrutinises their behaviour and their policies; and, through this, challenges the political status quo. It is tempting to formulate a comparable hypothesis for eighteenth-century Dutch comedy, not least because it was produced in a period that is traditionally known for its critical spirit. But, as said before, the subversive attitude of comedy often seems more a matter of reputation than a lived reality. This also becomes clear when we dig a little deeper into two examples of Dutch political comedy from the eighteenth century. FRENCH PEOPLE ARE STUPID In the autumn of 1708, the Amsterdam hack Jan Pook published a series of three rarekiek pamphlets.30 This series was reprinted several times in the following years and was also included in an anthology of texts written by this author that was published next year.31 Pook’s rarekieks were highly esteemed by his fellow hacks, as can be inferred by the positive references they made to these rarekieks in their own work and the existence of a large body of imitations.32 Thus, we can consider Pook’s rarekieks as influential representatives of this infotainment genre. The three rarekieks are closely linked to each other. They actually present three variations on the same story. The protagonist of this story is Harlequin, the French owner of the peepshow, who is showing and explicating the images in his wooden box to Jaap, a farmer from Nieuwersluis, a fortified

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village in the province of Holland. The Harlequin figure originally stems from the Italian commedia dell’arte tradition but should be seen here first and foremost as a representation of France. He speaks Dutch, but with a heavy French accent and the interpolation of many French terms and phrases. Contemporary readers recognised him as a stock character from the then popular French theatre genre of opéra comique.33 They probably also drew a connection to the actual practice of peepshow entertainment, as the travelling showmen responsible for these performances usually came from southern France.34 Following these associations, they expected him to be a funny French bloke that was not all that smart. Jaap, on the other hand, represents the typical Dutchman. The Dutch Republic was known as a country of farmers, of dairy producers in particular. Furthermore, Jaap uses the characteristic blunt style of communicating that even today is often ascribed to Dutch people.35 The relation between Harlequin and Jaap is thus one of contrasting national stereotypes from the outset. The main topic discussed by these two gentlemen is the Siege of Lille that took place from August through December 1708, as part of the War of the Spanish Succession. Lille belonged to the French territories at the time. Together with Spain, France was at war with almost all other European countries. The main adversary of the French army was the Grand Alliance, formed by England, the Dutch Republic and Austria.36 The allied forces laid siege to Lille during the 1708 campaign season and were eventually able to win it back from France, although this took a lot of effort.37 Harlequin and Jaap discuss several battles fought as part of the Siege of Lille, based on the images of these battles presented by Harlequin in his peepshow. By doing so, they offer a comical response to the news comparable to that of televised comedy shows today. Like in televised comedy, this response includes the creative reuse of news footage, albeit that here, the footage is not actually visible to the audience and thus only virtually present. The humour in Pook’s rarekieks mainly takes the form of comical exaggeration. This technique is primarily applied to Harlequin, who is completely living up to the stereotype that he represents. The text foregrounds Harlequin’s bad command of the Dutch language, and his lack of linguistic skills is explicitly presented as a sign of stupidity. On several occasions, Jaap ridicules Harlequin for his inability to produce intelligible speech. When Harlequin is talking about a certain French general, Jaap thinks he is referring to a shrimp (the Dutch word for shrimp being garnaal). Harlequin becomes frustrated about the seeming unwillingness of Jaap to understand his words, to which Jaap responds by saying: ‘Well then speak more clearly, you crazy fool’.38 The stupidity of Harlequin is further emphasised by the fact that Jaap fools him three times in a row. A recurring element in all rarekieks is that Jaap pretends, at first, to be a supporter of the French troops. Thus, he tricks Harlequin


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into thinking that he is talking to an ally and that he can safely discuss the recent Siege of Lille with Jaap, as he can be sure that they are on the same side. But once Harlequin has started to share his pro-French thoughts with him, Jaap slowly drops his mask, becoming more and more critical of the French troops, up to the point that Harlequin realises that he has been fooled and is not talking to an ally at all. This forms a moment of triumph for Jaap, who subsequently derides Harlequin for his gullibility. By repeating this joke at the expense of Harlequin three times, the author exaggerates the reputation for foolishness the French showman already had in the eyes of the reader. The caricature of French stupidity is completed by Harlequin’s apparent inability to see things how they really are. Following the basic pattern of the fake peepshow genre, Harlequin and Jaap discuss a series of images throughout each instalment. It turns out that Harlequin and Jaap strongly differ in their interpretation of these images. In the first rarekiek, for example, they discuss a scene from the Battle of Wijnendale. In reality, the French lost this battle, but Harlequin makes it seem as if the French won. What Jaap sees contradicts this explanation. He notes that the French are depicted running away. Harlequin responds: ‘No Sir, it is just a little shrinking’.39 It becomes quickly clear to the reader that Harlequin, as a true advocate of the French cause, tries to deny the inconvenient truth of a lost French battle and is frustrated by the sharp-eyed Dutchman Jaap, who does not buy his fairy tales. The obvious incongruity between how Jaap and Harlequin interpret the image has a humorous effect: it makes Harlequin look ridiculous once again. The discussion Jaap and Harlequin have over the interpretation of news images shows striking resemblances to current debates on ‘alternative facts’ and the role of the media in covering political events, such as the inauguration of Donald Trump as president of the United States on 20 January 2017. Like the War of the Spanish Succession, this recent event gave rise to various comical responses that mocked the claims to truth made by Trump and his supporters regarding the inauguration ceremony.40 Then and now we see comedians play with the ever-disputed reliability of news sources.41 Can Jan Pook’s rarekieks be considered as instances of political or social critique? The juxtaposition of opposing interpretations of one image can make the reader aware of the manipulative character that the press coverage of politics often adopts, thus stimulating their media literacy. In this sense, the rarekieks could be viewed as subversive. In the end, however, what prevails is the image of the stupid Frenchman, ridiculed through the figure of Harlequin, whose linguistic competence is poor, who lets himself be fooled three times in a row by Jaap and who fails to acknowledge the evident truth of a lost French battle. Within the context of contemporary politics, this image is highly conformist, from a Dutch perspective at least. It depicts the enemy of the day, France, in a negative way, and thus fits neatly within the

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propagandistic scheme of the Grand Alliance to which the Dutch Republic belonged. No wonder, then, that Pook could freely publish his political comedy and that it was even reprinted several times. Had his rarekieks been more critical towards his own government, like the Trump satire today, this would not have been the case.42 A CONSERVATIVE REBEL About ninety years later, the situation regarding free speech had completely changed. These were the years of the French Revolution, which quickly spread its wings over large parts of Europe, including the Dutch Republic. In 1795, the Dutch experienced their own revolutionary moment. The old oligarchic government, in which political power was shared between the stadholder, a nobleman from the House of Orange, and a small elite of rich merchant families, was overthrown and replaced by a democratic regime, consisting of a national assembly chosen through general elections.43 There was a strong belief in the necessity of a free press that had to monitor the now principally public business of politics. As a result, newspapers and journals were blossoming as never before.44 Among the many periodicals that were published in these years were also quite a few satirical weeklies. They offered their humorous response to ongoing political debates and to the inevitable growing pains of the young democratic republic.45 One of the leading comical voices in this revolutionary era was Pieter van Woensel.46 A medical professional, Van Woensel worked for many years as a physician for the Dutch navy, accompanying them during their travels abroad. Today, he is mainly remembered as the author of a series of satirical booklets that were published between 1792 and 1801 under the title De Lantaarn (‘The Lantern’). These booklets presented themselves as almanacs, each devoted to a specific year and also containing the calendar of that year. In their content, however, they looked more like satirical weeklies. They consisted mostly of essays that offered ironic reflections on contemporary society and the recent revolution. The five instalments of De Lantaarn also included about forty cartoons, most probably drawn by Van Woensel himself. The series enjoyed a modest fame in the circles of politically active citizens.47 This fame cannot be separated from the person Van Woensel, who had the reputation of being an oddball, an independent voice, and liked to follow his own path. Van Woensel actively contributed to this eccentric image, in particular through his satirical writings. For De Lantaarn, he used a pen name that referred to his professional career as a physician and his lifelong fascination with the Ottoman Empire, where he spent several years of his life.48 This pen name, Amurath-Effendi Hekim-Bachi (translated from Turkish as Mr.


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Amurath, chief of medicine), not only hinted at his intention to cure society from its moral diseases through his essays and cartoons, but also confirmed his position as an outsider in his own country. Like the two Persian noblemen in Montesquieu’s Lettres Persanes (1721), Van Woensel fancied to pose as the voice from abroad that sees the problems and fallacies of a society more clearly than those that are part of that society themselves. This idea of being an outsider is also brought forth several times in the essays in De Lantaarn.49 Because of his eccentric reputation, Van Woensel seems the ideal candidate for producing critical comedy. And in a way, he does so. Van Woensel published his Lantaarn at a time when Dutch public opinion generally favoured the revolution. He goes against this positive frame by ridiculing the revolutionaries. He mocks their habit of unconditionally praising everything that is new and rejecting everything that is old. He sees this as a typical sign of the revolutionary craze, more aimed at demolishing the old system than at building up a new one.50 He also openly questions whether the revolution has led to any actual social and political progress. One of his cartoons depicts a group of monkeys, of which one is holding a book that reads ‘and we are still monkeys’.51 Examples like these make Van Woensel into a rebel, because they show him countering the mainstream opinions of the day. This rebellious attitude in turn made Van Woensel a popular satirist among later generations of authors, who generally looked back on the revolution of 1795 with feelings of regret or even contempt. According to them, Van Woensel, with his scepticism towards revolutionary politics, was the one who got it right all along.52 But this is not the whole story. Certainly, Van Woensel’s comedy is critical in its treatment of the Dutch revolution. But this revolution was itself a form of fundamental social and political critique, as it questioned the very nature of how state and society had been previously organised. The revolutionaries of the late eighteenth century saw freedom and equality as the central assets of political culture. They attempted to break down the old, closed system of government and to replace it with an open, democratic system, in which ordinary citizens would also have a say. To reach these goals, they introduced, among other things, the separation of state and church and the concept of civil rights.53 Someone who criticises these fundamental changes can be called a rebel, but at the same time he represents the status quo that the revolutionaries were challenging, which sounds more like a conformist attitude. When we look more closely at what Van Woensel says about the new ideas of democracy and civil rights, we find out that his rebellious humour is of a downright conservative nature. In an essay from 1798 he rhetorically asks, ‘Is my nation fit for democracy?’ The answer is no. The Dutch population is too large and too divided to make democracy work, Van Woensel states. This will only lead to conflict and chaos.54 In those days, this was an oftenused argument against democracy.55 In the same volume, Van Woensel also

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included a cartoon of a common woman yelling through a megaphone: ‘Vox populi, vox Dei’ (the voice of the people is the voice of God). Various men surround her with bellows that try to whisper bad thoughts in her ear, thus pushing her in the direction they prefer.56 This cartoon tries to make the point that ordinary citizens, once they are allowed to participate in politics, could easily fall prey to demagogues, who tell them what to think: a warning against democracy. Examples like these undermine Van Woensel’s reputation as an independent critic of the powers that be. Although he was independent from the new revolutionary movement, in that he felt free to openly criticise it, he himself was at the same time ideologically embedded. The ideological message he propagates is known among historians as enlightened conservatism. This ideology favoured enlightened ideas like the use of reason and religious tolerance but argued strongly against the more radical democratic consequences that were given to those ideas from 1780s onwards by revolutionary spirits all across Europe.57 It is not so surprising that Van Woensel is an adherent of this ideology, as his social network consisted mostly of people belonging to the old, pre-revolutionary elite.58 His independence was, in this sense, rather limited. All in all, the situation regarding Van Woensel is more complex than that of Pook. Pook’s comedy is evidently conformist, as it exactly follows the mainstream public opinion of his day. It attacks the French, who were the main political enemy of the Dutch Republic at the time. Van Woensel at least is critical in that his comedy conveys a message that counters the contemporary political mainstream. Where most other authors, including satirists, do not question the importance and necessity of the revolution in itself, Van Woensel is openly sceptical about its merits. But following the idea of critique as a means to emancipate oppressed groups, thus working towards a more equal and liberal society, Van Woensel definitely stands on the wrong side of history. His scepticism towards democracy and other revolutionary ideas makes him into a conservative. By questioning those who question the political status quo, his behaviour as a comedian is more conformist than critical, especially from the point of view of his own social environment. CONCLUSION The analysis presented in this chapter addressed the ambivalent relationship between comedy and critical thought. The naturalness of this relationship seems to be a typical product of our modern understanding of humour, in which we like to stress its positive impact on both personal life and society. But today, as well as in the past, we see comedy perform not only subversive


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but also conformist functions. In particular, it does so by ridiculing those persons and ideas that deviate too much from the social and political mainstream, thus enforcing the status quo rather than challenging it. Through a clever use of rhetoric, a comedian can make his audience believe that it is engaging in a critical, counterhegemonic practice, when it is actually following a rather conformist, pro-establishment line of thought. This is shown in the two examples of Dutch eighteenth-century comedy discussed earlier. Jan Pook’s rarekieks seem to foster a critical attitude regarding political news by showing the manipulative character that news media can have. But in the end, this critical message is overshadowed by the strong anti-French sentiment that is present throughout the text, which does little more than enforcing the geopolitical status quo of the moment. Within that context, France was the main political enemy of the Dutch Republic, and being antiFrench was henceforth a conformist point of view, at least within the Dutch context in which the rarekieks were published and read. Pieter van Woensel, in this regard, seems better suited for the role of critic and challenger of the powers that be. With his satirical almanac De Lantaarn, he goes against the political mainstream of the day. Where public opinion at the time was generally favourable regarding revolutionary politics, Van Woensel chooses to be sceptical. But here, matters are complicated by the implicit ideological message that Van Woensel conveys through his scepticism, which is conservative in that it defends the old, pre-revolutionary political status quo in which civil rights and democratic government were still considered as anathema. This makes him a conservative critic at best, and certainly not the kind of progressive anti-establishment figure we usually have in mind when thinking about critical comedians. Examples like these prompt us to revise our understanding of the relationship between comedy and critical thought. Although it is not impossible for comedy to fulfil a critical role in society, this is definitely not the standard practice. We should be more aware of the other, non-critical functions that comedy can also have, for example, the promotion of conservative politics, the stimulation of conventional social behaviour and the preservation of existing social hierarchies. This is just as true for eighteenth-century infotainment as it is for contemporary televised satire or stand-up comedy. In the case of recent comedy, the warning might even be more pressing, as the considerable space comedians have today to offend both politicians and social groups is often defended on the grounds of their undisputed status as challengers of the political status quo. Only when we realise that comedy can be used to reach conformist ends as well, we will become able to understand what types of comedy or humour strategies do actually encourage critical, counterhegemonic thinking, not just in name, but also in practice. After all, it takes more than just a rebellious reputation for a comedian to be capable of offering a valuable contribution to the practice of critique.

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NOTES 1. See and http://www.weyerman. nl/english/jacob-campo-weyerman-foundation/. Accessed 6 December 2017. 2. Cf. Jeffrey P. Jones, Entertaining Politics: Satiric Television and Political Engagement (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2010). 3. Cf. Peter L. Berger, Redeeming Laughter: The Comic Dimension of Human Experience (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1997); Simon Critchley, On Humour (London: Routledge, 2002); John Morreall, The Philosophy of Laughter and Humor (Albany: State University of New York, 1987). 4. Cf. Helga Kotthoff, ‘Gender and Joking: On the Complexities of Women’s Image Politics in Humorous Narratives’, Journal of Pragmatics 32 (2000): 55–80; Janet Holmes, ‘Sharing a Laugh: Pragmatic Aspects of Humor and Gender in the Workplace’, Journal of Pragmatics 38 (2006): 26–50; Dick Zijp, ‘Re-Thinking Dutch Cabaret: The Conservative Implications of Humour in the Dutch Cabaret Tradition’ (MA Thesis, University of Amsterdam, 2014); Giselinde Kuipers, Good Humor, Bad Taste: A Sociology of the Joke (Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 2015). A much older study already making this point is George Kitchin, A Survey of Burlesque and Parody in English (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1931). 5. Cf. Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci, ed. and trans. Quintin Hoare and Nowell Smith (London: Electric Book Co, 2001 [1971]); Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Gregory Elliott (London: Verso, 2005 [1999]); Bruno Latour, ‘Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern’, Critical Inquiry 30.2 (2004): 225–48; Jacques Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator (London: Verso, 2009). 6. For a general introduction to the Enlightenment and its various manifestations see Dorinda Outram, The Enlightenment, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005). 7. The original source of this quote is Immanuel Kant, ‘Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist Aufklärung?’, Berlinische Monatsschrift, December 1784, 481. English translation by Mary C. Smith, taken from etscc/kant.html. Accessed 6 December 2017. 8. Cf. Jonathan Israel, Radical Enlightenment. Philosophy and the Making of Modernity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001); idem, Enlightenment Contested. Philosophy, Modernity and the Emancipation of Man (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006). It should be noted here that the Enlightenment has also been connected to the exact opposite of social and political critique, namely to the emergence of totalitarianism, most notably by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno in their Dialectic of the Enlightenment (1947). 9. For example on the issue of slavery and the business of government (Outram, The Enlightenment, chapters 3 and 5). 10. Fredric V. Bogel, The Difference Satire Makes: Rhetoric and Reading from Jonson to Byron (Ithaca, NY and London: Cornell University Press, 2001), 82. 11. Cf. Robert Darnton, The Devil in the Holy Water, or the Art of Slander from Louis XIV to Napoleon (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010); Antoine De Baecque, La caricature révolutionnaire (Paris: CNRS, 1988).


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12. Wiep van Bunge, From Stevin to Spinoza: An Essay on Philosophy in the Seventeenth-Century Dutch Republic (Leiden: Brill, 2001). 13. Willem Frijhoff and Marijke Spies, 1650: Hard-Won Unity (Assen: Van Gorcum, 2004); Lotte Hellinga et al., eds., The Bookshop of the World: The Role of the Low Countries in the Book-Trade, 1473–1941 (‘t Goy-Houten: Hes & De Graaf Publishers, 2001). 14. Critchley, On Humour, 2–3. 15. Cf. Mariët Westermann, The Amusements of Jan Steen: Comic Painting in the Seventeenth Century (Zwolle: Waanders, 1996); Maria-Theresia Leuker, ‘De last van ‘t huys, de wil des mans. . . ’: Frauenbilder und Ehekonzepte im niederländischen Lustspiel des 17. Jahrhunderts (Münster: Regensberg, 1992). 16. Michael Billig, Laughter and Ridicule: Towards a Social Critique of Humour (London: Sage Publications, 2005). 17. Dick Zijp, ‘Re-Thinking Dutch Cabaret’, scriptie/575513. Accessed 6 December 2017. 18. Giselinde Kuipers, ‘The Politics of Humour in the Public Sphere: Cartoons, Power and Modernity in the First Transnational Humour Scandal’, European Journal of Cultural Studies 14 (2011): 63–80. 19. Cf. Zijp, ‘Re-Thinking Dutch Cabaret’, 57–58. 20. This example is discussed in more detail in ibidem, 29–30. 21. A connection could be drawn here to the long and ambivalent relationship between commerce and art. More often than not, the possibilities for art to freely experiment and attack authorities are limited by the fact that art producers also try to make a living out of their work and are cautious to bite the hand that feeds them. This problem is discussed for example in David J. Baker, On Demand. Writing for the Market in Early Modern England (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010); Kathryn Temple, Scandal Nation. Law and Authorship in Britain, 1750–1832 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003). 22. Cf. Daya Kishan Thussu, News as Entertainment: The Rise of Global Infotainment (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2007); Liesbet van Zoonen, Entertaining the Citizen: When Politics and Popular Culture Converge (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005). 23. Femke Deen, David Onnekink and Michel Reinders, eds., Pamphlets and Politics in the Dutch Republic (Leiden: Brill, 2011). 24. Andrew Pettegree, The Invention of News: How the World Came to Know about Itself (New Haven, NY and London: Yale University Press, 2014), chapter 13. 25. More on this genre in A. J. Hanou, ‘Dutch Periodicals from 1697 to 1721: In Imitation of the English?’, Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century 199 (1981): 187–204. 26. On Weyerman as a producer of satirical weeklies: Marleen de Vries, ‘Literature of the Enlightenment, 1700–1800’, in A Literary History of the Low Countries, ed. Theo Hermans (Rochester: Camden House, 2009), 308–10. 27. More on this type of street entertainment in Richard Balzer, Peepshows: A Visual History (New York: Abrams, 1998). 28. Specifically on this tradition: Ivo Nieuwenhuis, ‘Politiek op de kermis: Het genre van de gefingeerde rarekiekvertoning’, Mededelingen van de St. Jacob Campo Weyerman 39 (2016): 1–16.

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29. Jones, Entertaining Politics, 20. 30. Original titles: Harlequin met de rarekiek van Wynendael en Ryssel na de Amsterdamsche kermis. Voorgevallen op den 28. September 1708 (Amsterdam: ‘bij C.A’, 1708); Harlequin met de rarekiek van de Amsterdamse kermis; vertonende de gezigten in Vlaand’ren van den 15 October tot den 15 November, 1708 (Amsterdam: ‘bij C.A.’, 1708); and Harlequin met de rarekiek van de Amsterdamse kermis; vertonende de gezigten in Vlaend’ren en Brabant, van den 15 November tot den 15 December, 1708 (Amsterdam: ‘bij P.K.’ [1708]). 31. Jan Pook, Rommel-zoodjen bestaande in verscheiden ernstige en boertige helden-zangen (Amsterdam: Timotheus ten Hoorn, 1709). 32. Discussed in Nieuwenhuis, ‘Politiek op de kermis’, 10. 33. More on this genre, which grew out of the Théâtres de la Foire or fair theatres, in James R. Anthony, ‘Théâtres de la Foire’, Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online (Oxford: Oxford University Press), scriber/article/grove/music/27779. Accessed 6 December 2017. 34. They originated more in particular from the Duchy of Savoy and were therefore also known as Savoyards. Cf. Vicky van Ruysseveldt, ‘Tussen niche en overlevingsstrategie? Rondtrekkende artiesten in het hertogdom Brabant in de tweede helft van de achttiende eeuw’, Volkskunde 115 (2014): 130–31. 35. Ellen Krol, ‘Dutch’, in Imagology: The Cultural Construction and Literary Representation of National Characters, eds. Manfred Beller and Joep Leerssen (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2007), 143. 36. For a recent overview of this major European conflict see James Falkner, The War of the Spanish Succession 1701–1714 (Barnsley: Pen & Sword Military, 2015). 37. Geoffrey Treasure, The Making of Modern Europe, 1648–1780 (London: Methuen, 1985), 279. 38. All translations of Dutch source material are mine. Original text: ‘Wel, spreek dan klaarder, malle gek’ (Pook, Rommel-zoodjen, 21). 39. Original text: ‘Niet men Heere: ’t Is maar ien beekje retirere’ (Ibidem, 26). 40. The sharpest satire on Trump’s relationship to truth was probably made by John Oliver in his show Last Week Tonight on 12 February 2017. Online available via Accessed 6 December 2017. 41. Cf. Pettegree, The Invention of News, introduction. 42. Cf. Simon Groenveld, ‘The Mecca of Authors? States Assemblies and Censorship in the Seventeenth-Century Dutch Republic’, in Too Mighty to Be Free: Censorship and the Press in Britain and the Netherlands, eds. A. C. Duke and C. A. Tamse (Zutphen: De Walburg Pers, 1988), 63–86. 43. On this Batavian Revolution: Annie Jourdan, La Révolution batave: Entre la France et l’Amérique (1795–1806) (Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2008); Simon Schama, Patriots and Liberators: Revolution in the Netherlands, 1780–1813 (London: Collins, 1977). 44. A. H. Huussen, ‘Freedom of the Press and Censorship in the Netherlands 1780– 1810’, in Too Mighty to Be Free: Censorship and the Press in Britain and the Netherlands, eds. A. C. Duke and C. A. Tamse (Zutphen: De Walburg Pers, 1988), 107–26. 45. Specifically on satire in the late eighteenth-century Netherlands: Ivo Nieuwenhuis, Onder het mom van satire: Laster, spot en ironie in Nederland, 1780–1800 (Hilversum: Verloren, 2014).


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46. See on him also Ivo Nieuwenhuis, ‘Outsiders on the Inside: The Eccentric Enlightenment of Pieter van Woensel’, De Achttiende Eeuw 44 (2012): 177–91; Ivo Nieuwenhuis, ‘Satiric Self-Fashioning, or the Illusion of Independent Criticism: A “Greenblattian” Analysis of Eighteenth-Century Satire’, De Achttiende Eeuw 47 (2015): 49–63. 47. De Lantaarn is online available via Accessed 6 December 2017. See specifically on Van Woensel and his Lantaarn also Nieuwenhuis, Onder het mom, chapter 2. 48. Based on his travels through the Ottoman Empire and Russia, Van Woensel published a two-volume travelogue, which was recently translated into English: Pieter van Woensel, Remarks, Made on a Journey through Turkey, Natolia the Crimea and Russia, in the Years 1784–89, trans. Laban Kaptein (Asch: Laban Kaptein, 2015). 49. For example, De Lantaarn voor 1792, 144; De Lantaarn voor 1796, v–vi; De Lantaarn voor 1798, 173. On Van Woensel as an outsider see also Nieuwenhuis, ‘Outsiders on the Inside’. 50. Cf. De Lantaarn voor 1798, 74–79, 155–70. 51. Original text: ‘En wy zyn aapen gebleeven’. Cartoon at the back cover of De Lantaarn voor 1796. 52. On Van Woensel’s reception in later times: Nieuwenhuis, Onder het mom, chapter 5. 53. More on the political ideas of the Dutch revolutionaries in Mart Rutjes, Door gelijkheid gegrepen: Democratie, burgerschap en staat in Nederland (Nijmegen: Vantilt, 2012). 54. De Lantaarn voor 1798, 87–94. 55. Cf. Rutjes, Door gelijkheid gegrepen, 69–120. 56. De Lantaarn voor 1798, front cover. 57. On enlightened conservatism: Wyger Velema, Enlightenment and Conservatism in the Dutch Republic: The Political Thought of Elie Luzac (1721–1796) (Assen: Van Gorcum, 1993). 58. Nieuwenhuis, ‘Satiric Self-Fashioning’, 58–60.

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First World War Cartoon Comedy as Criticism of British Politics and Society Pip Gregory

For most people, the cartoons in newspapers are a form of light entertainment that relieve the more serious comment and tone in the publication. Freud suggests that entertainment or laughter comes as a form of relief.1 When cartoons depict political content, this can be more effective: cartoons serve as a relief from the struggles of everyday life or a particular period of crisis but also challenge the status quo and give voice to critical impulses. In this chapter, cartoons that represented aspects of society and politics during the First World War will be analysed to illustrate how artists took different approaches to balancing criticism and entertainment in their uses of humour. The study will discuss and compare the socialist illustrator Will Dyson for the Herald, more conservative quick reads such as Percy Fearon (Poy) working for the Daily Mail and Evening News and the more centrist cartoonist William Haselden working in the Daily Mirror. Each of these artists relied on humour to create criticism in a process that resembles what Donald Grey terms ‘exaggeration for correction’.2 In this process, features are exaggerated to excess to make the fault of that person or item abundantly clear, which in turn casts it as foolish. This chapter will consider the legacy of this typically Victorian idea as a form of contemporary critical resistance during a moment of national crisis. In its early stages, the war abroad was represented as a positive event in British discourse. Cartoons reinforced that national mindset with images of strong young men going off to fight, often sent away by Britannia as the universal or national mother to all.3 However, in cartoons oriented towards domestic affairs, the criticism of political and social life remained prevalent. For instance, issues of class and wealth were addressed comically, and gender became a developing issue in cartoons as men went away to fight and women took their places in particular jobs. Politicians and the policies that guided 119


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society were common targets for cartoon criticism, and there were many opportunities to maintain a critical stance towards domestic affairs. Sometimes, artists and publications represented objectionable policies humorously; alternatively, politicians themselves were depicted. In this chapter, the midwar change in leadership between Henry Herbert Asquith and David Lloyd George offers a powerful example of the phenomenon of exaggeration for correction, as the two leaders face changing representations in line with their political fortunes. Despite the generally positive representations at the time, since the 1960s much analysis of the First World War in Britain has focused on the senselessness of war.4 Futility was not a prominent theme during the fighting itself. Rather, sacrifice was emphasised far more regularly. The sacrifices made by all citizens drew society together under a shared moral compass of sorts, and a discourse of sacrifice was consistently reinforced by the press in articles and advertisements.5 Where articles praised the moralistic theme of sacrifice for citizens, cartoons provided a humorous outlet for challenges or less-positive reactions to this theme. Many cartoons were reflections that gently prodded and poked at the way things were going, criticising a lack of sacrifice by making situations farcical.6 Domestic newspaper cartooning portrayed elements of the war, including wounded soldiers in recovery being cared for by civilians, in order to relieve the worries that the war presented but the images balance the humour of well-meaning work with criticism of those failing to do their part. Similarly, cartoons had license to critique on the lines of class or gender, as long as this was done gently enough to prioritise the humour of the situation, rather than offend. Often, the technique of exaggeration meant that criticism was made visually available to the audience, rather than verbally, as a form of protection.7 Navigating a complex field of public discourse during a moment of ostensible national unity, cartooning of the First World War provided a balance to the rhetoric of sacrifice, one where laughter rather than overt criticism took precedence for most cartoonists. With a focus on political and social cartooning throughout the First World War, in this chapter the critical and resistant qualities of cartooning will be shown to come as a secondary feature to humour and entertainment for the period. Analysis of the way humour was created in these cartoons will reach the conclusion that the majority of artists did criticise often-intertwined political and social issues, despite seeking primarily to entertain. Among the cartoonists discussed in this chapter, the types of characters they used, from the obese profiteer through to the demure but somewhat irreverent flapper, will be analysed to highlight differences of style and approach in balancing these two goals. The nature of the humour they presented, whether comical observation, satirical farce or vicious criticism, will also be explored. Through this discussion, it will become clear that cartoons served as a form of visual

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critique against societal and political issues relating to the war. In a society controlled by the censor and the strong rhetoric of togetherness and sacrifice, a necessary relief was something the cartoonist could provide. As such, this chapter outlines how resistant and critical humour was deployed in cartoons throughout the Great War, while maintaining that humour itself was the primary intention and mode of relief. HUMOUR USING SOCIAL AND POLITICAL INSIGHTS During the period of war, many cartoonists continued to illustrate life and society as they had before the war began. Cartoons focusing on domestic issues, for example, continue to be common in many local and national, daily and weekly publications throughout the war. Often, these images still criticise British society and politics in the way they had before, sometimes adding in ideas of conflict or specific characters to make them relevant to the contemporary context. Will Dyson is a particularly good example of this sustained critical outlook. His socialist political criticisms are visible through all of his illustrations in the Herald during the war, as they were in the Daily Herald before it. Indeed, it was his socialist attitudes that drew him to the publication that gave him carte blanche in his illustrative topics in the first place.8 In 1914, for example, Dyson produced an image of Horatio Kitchener springing out of a box, like a jack, sword in hand. This image comes with comments attached to it about ‘the Conscription-mongers [being] on the war-path again. If only Kitchener won’t rudely shove it back again into its little box’.9 Although this cartoon pre-dates the war by a few months, there is already a sense of criticism towards the actions of political and military leaders, such as Kitchener, that would remain apparent across the more critical British press. Once the war begins, the direction of Dyson’s criticism becomes more refined and specific. Rather than censuring the military leaders in Britain, he becomes more critical of the British people themselves, commenting on particular elements of society instead of its leaders. Specifically, Dyson focused on the newly wealthy who were profiting from the war. Worries about profiteering become more intense as the war progresses, in the light of rationing and cutbacks. Jean-Louis Robert highlights how cartoon art during the war depicted the profiteer in comparison to the tradition of sacrifice that developed as the war progressed.10 The soldier was seen as a positive exemplar in the context of war, a sign of patriotism and a belief in conflict for the right reasons. Contrastingly, the profiteer gained from the conflict to the detriment of others, with some scholars describing their impact on society as ‘emotional[ly] corrosive’.11 There is a sense through Robert’s work that many of the men seen profiteering in cartoons were an easy target. Their mercantile


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and profit-motivated actions inspired fears of a capitalism unsuited to the newly developing welfare state.12 Visual critique of these characters could both relieve and correct in equal measure. Dyson’s cartoons present open criticism of the wealthy public and upper classes that he believed were not sacrificing to the conflict in the same way as their compatriots. However, developing out of earlier nineteenth-century caricature, cartoons just as easily promoted positive behaviour as criticised negative. The exaggeration of characters’ behaviours both fuels public anger and acts as a moral corrective, discouraging similar actions.13 When Dyson’s rotund ‘food speculator’ takes bread from an emaciated woman and her child, the public is both united by a common enemy and warned that this is not the correct thing to do.14 Poy, who worked for publications with a less socialist outlook than the Herald, was just as fond of producing political imagery, but without the same vicious edge. His work gently challenged political representation and made a mockery of many politicians and their policies throughout the war. Poy worked for the Daily Mail, among other publications, which was described by many as a ‘busy man’s paper’.15 Poy’s quick, easy-to-read and understand style suited the publication. In particular, his drawings of politicians made the image of certain characters recognisable for the public, just as these politicians were becoming familiar faces due to the development of photographic journalism.16 Poy repeats recurring images or icons for politicians in his cartoons, giving them a familiarity that can become an integral part of his visual criticism. Many politicians consistently feature the same facial makeup, which can then be moved onto different bodies, be that of different social characters, or allegorical animal representations. Indeed, visual alteration is a particularly prominent feature of Poy’s art. In 1914–1915, Lloyd George becomes a recurring character in Poy’s cartoons. More often than not, he appears somewhat dishevelled and scruffy, even when depicted in a suit doing formal work. He features in an overzealous ‘fortissimo’ mode, playing the organ and conducting with tousled hair, or is seated with a factory in replacement of his hat. His unkempt appearance is exaggerated to the point where he is shown as a circus strongman holding ‘holiday postponement’, the ‘Irish settlement’ and ‘munitions’ aloft for Asquith.17 As minister for munitions, he turns the factories on their sides so they become guns. As chancellor of the exchequer, he is transmuted into a British bulldog, guarding the finances of the war.18 In each of these examples, his obvious importance is at odds with a lack of the refinement traditionally associated with British politicians and the ‘recognisable icons’ of status available to the reading public.19 Rolled-up sleeves show someone getting his or her hands dirty, factories in a time of war become synonymous with munitions and the position of exchequer becomes a position in service to the British public identified by money. Reinforcing the idea of sacrifice, there is

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an almost socialist spirit to these images; Lloyd George is represented as a man of the people, someone who visibly works hard for everyone else, breaking away from ideas of detachment or self-interest given to many politicians in cartoons.20 William Haselden takes a different approach to his illustrations in the marginally socialist, predominantly centrist and female-oriented Daily Mirror.21 For this artist, social commentary was far more common than direct representation of party politics. Indeed, observers have noted Haselden depicting the minor foibles of society in his work.22 This does not mean, however, that he was unable to comment on and criticise political events as well. There is far less explicit denigration of political ideas in his work, but the war could not be completely obscured either and was incorporated within the domestic spheres that Haselden depicted daily. His traditional style of cartooning was in six parts, which tell sequential aspects of the same story, although this is often adjusted to two or three images together. As the war developed, diptych images presenting ‘before and after’ were particularly common among cartoonists, and Haselden was no exception. A prime example is ‘Our Gardens in War and Peace’. In the first part, a young woman is reading peacefully to herself, and then in the second part she is presented pushing a wheelbarrow in the process of harvesting food in the same garden.23 In this image, there is a complimentary and corrective message: the woman is example of what should be done in wartime. Similar examples look at farm workers during the war. In the first image, the farmer criticises his female workers, and then in the second, the image is reversed and the workers criticise the farmer from the other side of the field.24 The cartoon’s reflection on social approaches towards women during the war reverses a common attitude. The simplicity of the images amplifies their effect and follows the Victorian tradition of correction through exaggeration. The audience is first presented with the farmer’s sentiments that ‘[t] hey’ll never be any use as workers – the time they waste talk, talk, talking!’ In the second part of the diptych, the viewer is encouraged to reconsider their views when the same women are actually talking about that farmer. They comment on how ‘the way these men waste time . . .’, naught gets finished because he is ‘leaning over a wall doing absolutely nothing!’ In images such as this, the drive to encourage women to work for the war is balanced by the acknowledgement of social attitudes to that work. In terms of criticism, the exaggeration of a common social situation is used as a corrective scheme, making it clear that women were a necessary part of the war effort and indeed were further needed. Critical appraisal within cartoons can be both positive and negative, and as such can reinforce and promote, or deflate and undermine political manoeuvres. However, the war presented specific limitations to the level of possible


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critique in the case of images tried in relation to the Defence of the Realm Act of 1914.25 Second Lieutenant Charles Bernard’s ‘Reported Missing’, from January 1916, was called up for its apparent infringement of, and disruption to, the process of war.26 The image is of a soldier resting and drinking rum, which by itself is hardly inflammatory. However, the cartoon was published soon after events at Gallipoli and the setting for the image present a derelict landscape similar to contemporary photographs of the battle. In these circumstances, it was seen to imply a negligence on the part of allied troops which the government could not allow. ‘Reported Missing’ is a notable exception to the typical cartoon, where the critical impulse is tolerated or given value by the tacit reinforcement of moral behaviour. Most images discussed in this section are critical of elements of society through their humour and illustration, but also positively reinforce forms of political administration or correct moral outlooks. ‘Reported Missing’, on the other hand, reveals a firm hand of the state in the legislation drawn against it, and the limits imposed upon humorous critique. It is the only notable case of cartoon libel during the war and did not set a precedent thereafter.27 CHARACTERS PRESENTED As was the case with Poy’s representations of politicians, several cartoonists of the era use recurring characters to criticise wartime politics more directly and to unite their audiences in a common front. Poy frequently illustrates political activity on the home front, and the repetitive use of politicians as characters in his art helps to make criticisms of specific war policies apparent. Often, characters used were stereotypes of the political and social figures in the public consciousness at the time, such as Haselden’s Colonel Dugout, the Willies and Joy Flapperton. Additionally, the presence and repetition for Dyson’s characters, although most remain unidentified by name, serve to mark them as allegorical representations of society struggling because of political ineptitude resulting from the war. His characters include the impoverished woman and child, and the grotesque profiteers that become symptoms of a wider divide between the oppressed and oppressors in wartime society. For domestic newspaper cartoonists, often the most striking criticism was reserved for British politicians. During the mid-war change of prime minister, Poy reflects public attitudes in his depictions of both men. As prime minister at the start of the war, Asquith is a formally dressed man, more so than Lloyd George, although even he can be seen rolling his sleeves up to make an effort for the war.28 However, following the change in leadership in December 1916, Lloyd George is prime minister, and his appearance in cartoons became more refined. When first in the position of minister of munitions, Poy

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presents Lloyd George preening in a mirror, and this image is reused following his promotion to prime minister when he can only see himself as the better candidate.29 The narcissism of looking at oneself in the mirror aside, there is a clear change in Lloyd George’s representation in these images compared to earlier cartoons as the ‘fortissimo’ or weightlifter, Lloyd George is now a politician in a formal sense. His attire is far more respectable and polished, and there is a sense of his having taken on a more prominent position in society through this formal dress.30 Before the change of prime minister, Asquith was already losing popularity and, in the light of the war, is represented by Poy as a diminutive figure holding onto the hand of a full-size soldier who is quite literally running away with him in January 1916.31 The implication of this image is that Asquith has lost control of the war, and he and the soldier, who is considerably larger than him, are running over a floor labelled ‘organisation’, ‘energy’, ‘efficiency’ and ‘effort’, implying all of the things that are lacking in Asquith’s administration. Hereafter Asquith continues to shrink in his presentation by Poy until in early 1918 Asquith is represented as a dwarf dressed as a poorly theatrical Cromwell. In this form, he stands beneath Lloyd George who looks down upon a stuttering Asquith with an expression of boredom and disdain. The diminutive stature, humorous costume and failure to speak clearly for himself reflect the changing outlook of the country towards Asquith, reinforced by Poy’s sustained criticism. More often than not, the critique was on these personal terms: there is rarely the identification of particular policies beyond the campaign slogans ‘Will to Win’ for Lloyd George and ‘Wait and See’ for Asquith. Even then, the passivity of Asquith’s slogan, in combination with his diminutive form, served to reinforce perceptions of inability towards the former premier in policies as well as personality. Asquith has become the butt of jokes, a figure of fun that could unite audiences beneath a common social issue to be criticised or mocked. In Haselden’s work, the same technique uses social stereotypes, rather than politicians, as easy targets that can provide a humorous balance to a critical impulse. Colonel Dugout is an older soldier based at home who is aided by a child that guides his activities and organises his day. The series of images are direct criticisms of the military policy of reinstating retired officers to work for the army in domestic roles. Particularly by 1917, when this character is used the most, there was a sense that officers were incompetent, particularly those of long standing who had retired and had been brought back into service.32 The criticism aimed at the policy by Haselden is gentle, since Dugout appears to be attempting to aid the war effort. However, the fact that a child is able to organise his life, and a female child at that, presents the army’s continued reliance on his service as a misjudged policy.33 While Dugout’s child secretary is the foil that makes the aging military the butt of the joke,


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Haselden also used female characters to stereotype feckless upper-class failures to contribute. Typically scathing attitudes to the wealthy in cartoons are given a new relevance by Haselden in the characters of Joy Flapperton in 1915 and Miss Gladeyes in 1917. Both are flighty females notable for their contentious efforts towards war work, balanced by a humorous tendency to misjudge their actions entirely. Gladeyes in particular searches for war work in a series of cartoons in October 1917, and in less than a month she goes from refusing to work, to seeking a job, finding one, doing it badly and ultimately resigning. Gladeyes’s relationship with other characters in the cartoons creates the humour of Haselden’s criticism. Visually, she is a beautiful woman, but she is so incompetent and vacuous that others around her have a better measure of her than she has of herself. Gladeyes bursts into tears in order to get her job. She has been denied a role by the matronly character in charge of the office before a smaller man, who turns out to be the director, supersedes the matron’s authority. Re-establishing the gendered relationship of power, the situation is undermined by the small, effeminate nature of the director and the contrastingly strong appearance of the matron. Through the juxtaposition of the characters, Haselden uses incongruity to criticise the maintenance of traditional gender roles in the face of the new circumstances.34 Gladeyes’s successful manipulation of the situation reinforces traditional assessments of beautiful women. While the other characters around her are working for the war effort, despite traditional biases that they work both within and against, Gladeyes is simply pretty but useless. Haselden’s critique targets both the gender stereotypes of working women and reinforces a negative stereotype aimed at a particular class of women. Overall, his humorous criticism tries to relieve social tensions while maintaining a social unity derived from stereotypes. Joy Flapperton appears to have been more of a favourite for Haselden, appearing in her own series in 1915 as well as in the ‘Trials of a Wounded Tommy’ in 1916.35 Flapperton’s visual depiction is less obviously critical. She appears just as useless and manipulative as Gladeyes in her own series in 1915, but Flapperton’s character is changed somewhat when she appears alongside the Tommys in 1916. In that series, she is still mostly hopeless, but the tradition of rich, useless female exemplified by her earlier appearances and by Gladeyes is diminished. Criticism of society and misplaced attempts to help are apparent in both, even though Flapperton demonstrates her value in the war effort when she is of service to the wounded soldiers in her care. Here there is a more resigned acceptance of the beautiful woman as entertainment for wounded soldiers. For both characters, the audience is given opportunity to be forgiving, as they mean well, but ultimately fail humorously. The more strongly socialist cartoonist Dyson similarly collocates gender and wealth in his criticisms of social status during wartime. He presents

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well-dressed women in salons drinking tea in 1914 who comment on how they plan to feed their servants the same as their dogs to aid the war effort.36 The failure of the rich, and particularly rich women, to appreciate the sacrifices of the war effort serves a broader goal of inciting anger against the disparity of wealth. The immediate joke of the piece is a lack of clarity as to what the servants or dogs had previously been eating. Feeding the servants the same food as the dogs might mean that they are actually fed better than normal. However, the sustained critique is found in the presentation of a class that sees the servants and animals on the same level. Similar attitudes appear throughout the war. In 1918, Lewis Baumer presents two more women drinking tea in a salon and discussing their war efforts. The basic elements of the image are much the same, although what the women are now discussing has become more personal. These women have been challenged directly, and the ‘indignant war worker’ is outraged that a friend has criticised her efforts when she has attended every fund-raising matinee since the war began.37 The physical appearance and clothing reinforces their social status, and the idea that attending matinees for charity is sufficient plays to an audience happy to ridicule the rich for not making the sacrifices required by a nation at war. Many of the female characters used in cartoons stood in for other aspects of the population, such as the wealthy. However, broader allegorical categories and representations also had the same function. In Poy’s 1917 image ‘The Foundlings’, one of Poy’s characters, Cuthbert the rabbit, is seen dropping off several younger rabbits at the recruiting office while he sneaks away back to the forest where others congratulate him.38 ‘The Foundlings’ presents a marginally uncertain Cuthbert looking back over his shoulders, which are hunched, as he leaves the ‘children’ behind. His uncertainty mirrors the feelings of many parents in British society who were similarly encouraged to support their children at war. Earlier in the war, there had been praise for ‘patriotic motherhood’ as parents courageously sent their children away making the ultimate sacrifice for the nation.39 By 1917, there was less patriotic glory represented in leaving to fight the war, particularly as reports came home of the dead and dying. Sacrifice continued to be an expected societal activity but held less valour in response to the vast death tolls. Therefore, the audience was encouraged to feel sympathy, or rather empathy, for those being sent away to fight as youngsters. As war progressed, Poy’s targeting of the moral value of sacrifice contains a deeper critique of the outcomes of war. A cynical humour is created by the choice to depict the parent as a rabbit. The rabbit, of course, is always able to produce more offspring. As much as the ‘The Foundlings’ might appear to be critical of the actions of Cuthbert as a parent, caught in the process of recognising the horrors of ‘sacrifice’, there is deeper recognition of the cycle of breeding and death that had become routine as the war progressed.


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Although the rich, and rich women especially, bore the brunt of the joke in domestic cartooning, representations of the enemy were often the most humorous and targeted. Many artists depicted the Kaiser and his son as children, or as petulant, juvenile and incompetent leaders.40 For Haselden, these characters rapidly became ‘Big and Little Willie’, the unmistakably phallic connotation of their names designed to inspire humour and relief for Daily Mirror audiences. Representing enemy soldiers as overweight incompetents alongside their petulant leaders reinforced the ideas of ‘good sacrifice’ performed in Britain in contrast to German extravagance. Big and Little Willie featured in cartoons from 1914 to 1916 participating in ever more impossible schemes to win the war. The consistent mockery of the two men fed the audience ideas of their ongoing failures as gentle and consistent emasculation, which in turn reinforced the strength of British fighters by comparison. Other German soldiers, for Haselden and Poy alike, often appeared as older men, who were far beyond their best years as soldiers. The expansion of the waists of German soldiers fits into Poy’s traditional humorous style of exaggeration, much of which can be seen in his illustrations of domestic politicians. Whether politicians, figures of fun such as the well-meaning rich woman or the more obvious common enemy of the German soldier, the recurring characters in cartoons served to relieve social anxieties and keep a gentle humour at the forefront of a cartoonist’s message, even when a subtler anger or insidious stereotyping began to manifest itself in the long duration of the war. CONCLUSION This chapter has made comparisons between several cartoonists by looking at how they used humour to challenge public discourses and political ideas, along with the forms of humour and political ideology they identified with. Each demonstrates elements of traditional theories of humour in their artwork.41 Politicians are depicted out of place or with alternative bodies – Lloyd George’s depiction as a bulldog is humorous simply by its incongruity. A moral and social superiority is also a constant source of humour, such as when Haselden’s Gladeyes fails at her war work, or Dyson’s profiteers abuse the trust of the public. Most obviously, relief seems to have been the predominant purpose of humorous cartoons during wartime, offering a comical take on a difficult situation and serving to unite audiences in their response to a figure of fun or a tragic situation. However, since blatant criticism could not be tolerated in a time of war, often the cartoons complement their comedic impulses with what Gray speaks of as ‘humour to correct’.42 In the cartoons, a social issue is challenged through its visual and connotative exaggeration. This exaggeration seeks to negate the problem depicted. Once the viewer can

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identify the ridiculousness of the situation, it acts as a corrective and they will not replicate it. For Dyson, this form of criticism is most prevalent as a method of directly targeting the wealthy and warmongers in government. His approach is far more vicious than the other artists considered here. At no point does he pull his punches, and he is openly critical of the members of society he feels are in the wrong, particularly the wealthy, and especially those making money at the expense of others through the war. Dyson’s style leans heavily on exaggeration for moral as well humorous ends. The profiteers are obese because they have taken from society, while the position and design of the gaunt women they take from also promotes a society starved by greed. However, there remains a positive end to Dyson’s efforts. His illustrations take such a blatant (and relatively uncontroversial) moral position that a message of unity through correct moral behaviour is reinforced. The humour of these images is certainly not an unrestrained hilarity, but for a viewing audience that can identify with the irony of the situations that Dyson presents, there may be a sense of righteous indignation tempered with a wry smile, even if there is no accompanying chuckle. Artists used comedy in cartoons to criticise, with different emphases dependent on their chosen purpose, their personal politics, and the politics of their publication and readership. Cartoonists like Haselden and Poy sought to highlight faults in society to subtly unite audiences through laughter, and perhaps inspire reflective consideration. However, their work tended to use stereotypes that maintained and perhaps even reinforced divisions of class and gender in pursuit of a broad audience. Later in the war, a more critical and pedagogic function develops as the artists begin to question the moral value of sacrifice, or change their focus. Haselden’s shift from mocking the hopeless flapper to giving her a necessary role in supporting the troops marks a changing moral outlook in the Daily Mirror. By contrast, artists like Dyson sought to use uniting moral attitudes to promote a more radical political vision. In both, correct behaviour is promoted by a focus on the bad. The good can be made better, and the bad can have their flaws exaggerated as a lesson to all. While it is inarguable that the primary purpose in each image by all of these artists is the entertainment provided by humour, a variety of subtle differences in the deployment of this humour offer a case study in the responses of political cartooning to a moment of national crisis. Ultimately, while cartoons served as regular criticism of various aspects of social and political matters relating to the war, humour remained the primary intention, and justly so. At no point during the war are there any reports of cartooning having a specific effect on policies, but in a time of unparalleled social and political change, the wide range of light relief offered by a healthy culture of newspaper cartooning is perhaps its own greatest benefit.


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NOTES 1. See Sigmund Freud, ‘Humour’, International Journal of Psychoanalysis 9 (1928), 1–6; Sigmund Freud, The Joke and Its Relation to the Unconscious (1905), trans. J. Strachey (London: Penguin, 2002). 2. Donald Gray, ‘The Uses of Victorian Laughter’, Victorian Studies 10.2 (1966): 145–76. 3. See Louis Raermaekers, ‘My Son, Go and Fight for Your Motherland’, The Great War: A Neutral’s Indictment One Hundred Cartoons by Louis Raemaekers (London: Fine Arts Society, 1916), fig. 28. 4. See Eric Leed, No Man’s Land: Combat Identity in World War I (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 105–9; Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory (London and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975); Adrian Gregory, The Silence of Memory: Armistice Day 1919–1946 (Oxford: Berg, 1994). 5. Jean-Louis Robert, ‘The Image of the Profiteer’, in Capital Cities at War: Paris, London, Berlin, 1914–1919, eds. Jay Winter and Jean-Louis Robert, vol. 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 104; James Aulich, ‘Advertising and the Public in Britain during the First World War’, in Justifying War: Propaganda, Politics and the Modern Age, eds. David Welch and Jo Fox (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 109–28. 6. Gray, ‘The Uses of Victorian Laughter’, Victorian Studies 10.2 (1966): 145–76. 7. See Jan Rüger, ‘Laughter and War in Berlin’, History Workshop Journal 67 (2009), 29. 8. Vane Lindesay, ‘Dyson, William Henry (Will) (1880–1938)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography 8 (1981). 9. Will Dyson, ‘Here We Are Again’, Daily Herald, 3 April 1914. 10. Robert, ‘Image of the Profiteer’, 104. 11. Jonathan Boswell and Bruce Johns, ‘Patriots or Profiteers? British Businessmen and the First World War’, Journal of European Economic History 11.2 (1982): 423–45. 12. Terrance Ball, The Cambridge History of Twentieth Century Political Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 614. 13. Gray, ‘The Uses of Victorian Laughter’, Victorian Studies 10:2 (1966), 145– 76; William Feaver, Masters of Caricature: From Hogarth and Gillray to Scarf and Levine (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1981), 21–23. 14. Will Dyson, ‘The Food Speculator Must Be Squashed’, Daily Herald, 11 August 1914. 15. Dennis Griffiths, Fleet Street: Five Hundred Years of the Press (London: British Library, 2006), 145. 16. Stefan Goebel, ‘ “Intimate Pictures”: British War Photography from the Western Front’, in The Great War in 3D, eds. Jakob Volker and Stephan Sagurna (Münster: LWL-Medienzentrum für Westfalen, 2014), 42–55. 17. See Poy, ‘Organ-isation’, Evening News, 14 June 1915; Poy, ‘Thinking Imperially’, Daily Mail, June 1915; Poy, ‘The Weight Lifter’, Evening News, May 1916. 18. Poy, ‘ “Turned” to Good Use’, Evening News, 11 March 1915; Poy, ‘The Watch on the “Rhino” ’, Evening News, May 1915.

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19. Ernst Gombrich, ‘The Cartoonist’s Armoury’, in Meditations on a Hobby Horse and Other Essays on the Theory of Art, 2nd ed. (London: Phaidon, 1971), 127–42. 20. See, for example, the works of James Gillray and Thomas Rowlandson from the century before. Feaver, Masters of Caricature; John Geipel, The Cartoon: A Short History of Graphic Comedy and Satire (London: David & Charles, 1972); Charles Press, The Political Cartoon (London and Toronto: Associate University Press, 1981); Roger Sabin, Comics, Comix and Graphic Novels (London: Phaidon, 1996). 21. Hugh Cudlipp, Publish and Be Damned!: The Astonishing Story of the Daily Mirror (London: A. Dakers, 1953). 22. Nicholas Hiley, ‘ “A New and Vital Moral Factor”: Cartoon Book Publishing in Britain during the First World War’, in Mary Hammond and Shafquat Towheed (eds.), Publishing in the First World War: Essays in Book History (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 148. 23. Haselden, ‘Our Gardens in War and Peace’, Daily Mirror, 11 May 1916, 7. 24. Haselden, ‘A Different Point of View’, Daily Mirror, 1 October 1917, 7. 25. Most cartoons that went to court during the war went because of copyright issues, which was a minor infringement usually resolved with a fine. 26. C.E.B. Bernard, ‘Reported Missing’, Bystander, 25 January 1916; also see newspaper reports concerning the trial. ‘Costly Bit of Humour: Officer’s Cartoon Leads to Fines of £200’, Manchester Guardian, 19 February 1916, 8; ‘Reported Missing: Cartoon Prejudicial to Recruiting’, Aberdeen Journal, 19 February 1916, 6. 27. Philippa Gregory, ‘The Funny Side of War: British Cartoons, Visual Humour and the Great War’, PhD thesis, University of Kent, Canterbury, 2012, 93–95. 28. See Poy, ‘Share the Burden’, Evening News, May 1915. 29. Poy, ‘The Push and Go Man’, Evening News, 1915; Poy, ‘Found Him at Last’, Evening News, 8 December 1916. 30. See Christopher Breward, ‘Clothing the Middle-Class Male’, in The Victorian Studies Reader, eds. Kelly Boyd and Rohan McWilliam (London: Routledge, 2007), 110–25. 31. Poy, ‘So Hard to Keep Up with Him’, Daily Mail, January 1916. 32. Much of this is reflected in Alan Clark, The Donkeys (London: Hutchinson, 1961). 33. See, for example, Haselden, ‘Well! What Next?!’, Daily Mirror, 26 July 1917. 34. Haselden, ‘Miss Gladeyes Takes Up War Work I’, Daily Mirror, 20 October 1917; Haselden, ‘Miss Gladeyes Takes Up War Work 2’, Daily Mirror, 22 October 1917. 35. Haselden, ‘Trials of a Wounded Tommy’ series, Daily Mirror, November 1916. 36. Dyson, ‘Sacrifice’, Herald, 31 October 1914. 37. Lewis Baumer, ‘Indignant War Worker’, Punch, 13 February 1918. 38. Poy, ‘The Foundlings’, Daily Mail, February 1917. 39. Nicoletta Gullace, The Blood of Our Sons: Men, Women and the Renegotiation of British Citizenship during the Great War (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), 196. 40. See S. Lupton and G.A. Stevens, An English A B C for Little Willie and Others (London: Daily News, 1914); Haselden, The Sad Adventures of Big and Little Willie during the First 6 Months of the Great War (London: Fine Arts Society, 1915). 41. See Billig, Laughter and Ridicule, 37–110; Critchley, On Humour, 2–3. 42. Gray, ‘Uses of Victorian Laughter’, 145–76.

Chapter 9

A Suspended Pratfall: Mimesis and Slapstick in Contemporary Art Levi Hanes

This chapter considers a specific trend in contemporary art that draws upon a critical perspective of art’s history and relationship with social praxis. Although the contextual elements that inform the content of the artworks are inextricable from social context, the critical artworks seek to question the frameworks that the social contexts normalise. Much like the historic avant-garde of the early twentieth century, some contemporary artists engage with humorous tactics to pose critical inquiry towards art’s material and contextual frameworks to simultaneously challenge and reinforce art’s position as an autonomous cultural device. I propose that in order for humorous artwork to launch a critical inquiry it must make apparent to the viewer the physical and contextual material construction of the artwork. Slapstick, I will argue, is a route towards this reflexive material criticality. As a comedic event predicated on visual disruption, slapstick incorporates its narrative framework through its set-up and disruptive act, installing an ironic distance in the viewer from the object of consideration, or artwork, and its context. This distancing is not necessarily an alienating effect, rather it is a seemingly paradoxical event informed by an empathy elicited in the viewer towards the art object, derived through a series of expositions and disruptions deployed by the artist and documented in the artwork. Drawing on theories concerning art as a method of mimicking the sublime derived from Theodor W. Adorno and Jean-François Lyotard’s considerations of Immanuel Kant’s aesthetics, I suggest that critically engaged slapstick artwork does not resolve in a distinct meaning or content or declarative statement other than a consideration of the process of making and the reception of the object by the viewer. Through cognition of the distanciated reflexive process, the viewer avoids anthropomorphising the object of consideration, 133


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and thus the artwork retains its status as Other. The artwork that is concerned with its formal and contextual construction can thus engage with slapstick techniques but does not necessarily rely on the conclusive punch line often employed in comedy to signify resolution. Bruce Nauman’s Walking in an Exaggerated Manner around the Perimeter of a Square (1967–1968) illustrates the potential use of slapstick in contemporary art. Art critic Jörg Heiser describes Nauman’s oeuvre as a series of events that touches on the ‘conditions of the artistic production: The narcissistic drama of the individual trying to make something – an idea – out of the supposed nothing of confusion and desperation’.1 Heiser, without elaboration, suggests that Nauman’s choreographed films associate visual and physical antics of slapstick film actors with an existentialist practice ‘depriving slapstick of comic relief’.2 Heiser suggests a minimalist reductive practice that seemingly engages with physical comedy yet suspends the expected outcome or pratfall. Rather than direct and literal visual gags in the manner of an obvious pratfall moment, Nauman’s Walking suggests a more subtle approach, translating vaudeville slapstick into art practice. By analysing this nuance in relation to Nauman’s influential film, this chapter will set out a critical framework for the consideration of artworks that engage with slapstick, and thence present a method for practical application. Drawing on this framework, I will consider a video of my own making, which synthesises some of the slapstick methods drawn from Nauman to test the parameters at play in a critically reflexive artwork. SLAPSTICK My argument considers slapstick as a form of comedy that utilises visual gags that imply an absurd or violent disruption to an event. It follows that for the absurd or violent act in a slapstick comedy or artwork to be humorous the act must convey artifice or somehow indicate that the effect of the disruptive action is not an existential threat to the viewer. The viewer is then able to conceptualise the event at a knowing distance from the action. The viewer’s contextualisation of the event follows the distinguishing elements of slapstick. As film theorist and historian Donald Crafton concludes: One way to look at narrative is to see it as a system for providing the spectator with sufficient knowledge to make causal links between represented events. According to this view, the gag’s status as an irreconcilable difference becomes clear. Rather than providing knowledge, slapstick misdirects the viewer’s attention, and obfuscates the linearity of cause-effect relations. Gags provide the

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opposite of epistemological comprehension by the spectator. They are atemporal bursts of violence and hedonism that are as ephemeral and as gratifying as the sight of someone’ s pie-smitten face.3

As Crafton establishes, the gag in a slapstick narrative can draw attention to the narrative set-up that led to the gag’s reveal through a punch line. Similarly, Heiser suggests that slapstick artworks engage with a semiotic gag that can become the catalyst of a conceptual distancing from the narrative or contextual framework that surrounds the artwork.4 The narrative set-up suggested by Crafton is further elaborated in Noël Carroll’s description of incongruity theory as a comparative notion that ‘presupposes that something is discordant with something else’, therefore ‘comic amusement emerges against a backdrop of presumed congruities or norms’.5 Of particular interest to us here are the comic narratives and meta-jokes that are dependent on non-sequiturs. Carroll describes a frequent theme of comic narrative as the misperception by a character of his or her circumstances and uses the example of a character’s mistaking a master of the house for a gardener. In the joke, the audience is aware of both the misperception by the protagonist and the actual event – a simultaneity suggesting contradictory alternative interpretations: the ‘limited perspective of the character and the omniscient perspective of the narrator’.6 Slapstick, through the use of visual and physical set-ups and incongruous disruption of expectation, can function without an actual pratfall. In the artworks considered here, the pratfall may exist as a potential event but does not necessarily materialise in the artwork. Instead, incongruity is sustained throughout the moving image or art object as an ongoing non-sequitur through implied or actual visual clues of disruption to the established frameworks. The sustained incongruity in these artworks acts as agitation to narrative structures associated with the media or format. Crafton suggests that slapstick is a ‘fundamental’ opposition to narrative structure as it ruptures the structure of film storytelling.7 He deems slapstick a short circuit to the closure implicit in film’s narrative durational conclusion, considering slapstick ‘the division between narrative and spectacle [that] is balanced, but not resolved’.8 Crafton’s view of slapstick as a narrative disruptor runs parallel with Heiser’s definition of the role of contemporary art. When Heiser considers (presumably slapstick) film’s affinity with art, he notes that film tells funny little stories as a guise through which to render storytelling itself absurd, by repetition of motifs (running gags), chaotic montage, and overindulgence in certain medium-specific effects. . . . For a good gag, slapstick will gladly dispense with narrative logic, plot, and characterization.9


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Slapstick therefore lends itself to an affinity with a type of contemporary art practice that sends up the normative structures and frameworks associated with the field. THE COMEDIC AESTHETIC AND ART Adorno in his Aesthetic Theory finds in the concept of the autonomy of art from the social sphere a liberating, if illusory, possibility of freedom from determinism and the ‘epistemological division of sensuality and intellect’ imposed by objective reason.10 Through the artificial distinction from other spheres, its knowing mimicry and its failure in exact objective representation of its subject, art could expose the reifying process the culture industry seeks to disguise as objective representation. This process of mimetic resistance is dependent on a concept of art as distinct from other cultural concepts. The distinction between art and various forms of the culture industry in mass entertainment has been blurred by the incorporation of film, video, theatre and more recently, web-based platforms into the contemporary art lexicon. The use of mass-produced objects was a distinguishing feature of the avant-garde at the turn of the twentieth century. The process of incorporating the objects and production techniques of the late industrial epoch was seen by the literary theorist Peter Bürger as a method of eliminating the artificial barriers between art and social praxis imposed by bourgeois institutions.11 Film historian Tom Gunning, comedy theorist Ian Wilkie and art critic Hal Foster discuss the influence on the historic avant-garde, especially Dada, of early film and its connection with vaudeville and variety theatre and its melange of media, visual and physical disruption and audience involvement.12 Ultimately Bürger and Adorno found Dada and its antecedent’s attempts to (re)integrate with the social praxis to be a failure, as the artist’s actions and objects were dependent on the separate terms associated with the art sphere to articulate their argument. However, Adorno found that the avant-garde did provide a critical formal and materialist method of evaluating elements of social praxis. By making its failed removal from social praxis evident, an artwork could show the shortcomings of society. As theorist Nathan Ross writes concerning Walter Benjamin and Adorno’s concept of mimesis, artworks’ illusory autonomy and mimicry of social structures work through an ‘imitation of rationality’ (emphasis in original): ‘Art imitates the social and historical form that rationality takes; in so doing, it makes us aware of what is irrational in the rational’.13 The following analysis of contemporary art practice considers art as a distinct activity both within and about culture, with a particular focus on how objects are fabricated to suggest content or meaning. This line of

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reasoning follows Lyotard’s assessment of the postmodern as a continuation of the modernist project of interrogating the contextual frameworks that surround art practice. Postmodern art in Lyotard’s distinction carries forward modernism’s avant-garde disruptive nature, seen as a continuous process of experimentation through a disruptive force that upsets established rules for the reception of meaning.14 Critical art interrogates the language of art, examining the integrity of the structures associated with meaning-making. While interrogating its own structures for communication, Lyotard’s postmodern art maintains the modernist attempt at the logical paradox to present the unpresentable. The presentation of the unpresentable suggests Kant’s formalisation of the dynamic sublime that Kant likens in his Critique of Judgement to forces of nature: forces that through their power and changing aspects threaten to overwhelm the observer.15 The sublime for Lyotard is an ‘agitation’ – an experience (rather than event) he relates to Kant’s agitation in reference to the mind exercising judgement. The agitation is possible only when ‘something remains to be determined’.16 The act of making an art object, the ‘determination’ of the picture, is as a witness to the indeterminable, an object that provides an indication of what it is not.17 Thus, the material is constructed to present an ongoing query into its construction and the context in which it is received. As the historic avant-garde demonstrated, a method of social criticism is to hold up a mirror, particularly a distorting one, to social norms in the form of an object constructed using the materials of mass entertainment in order to show the irrationality of the rational behind the constructs. Yet, as the incorporation of the tools and material of mass entertainment is normalised in the art sphere and the institutional settings of galleries and museums lose their former dominance as locations of art, it becomes difficult to distinguish between mass entertainment and art. To assist in distinguishing between the two spheres and to clarify how slapstick can be implemented in art in a more concrete form, I look to Heiser’s distinction between entertainment and art as differing in their adherence to narrative structures. Heiser considers mass entertainment as beholden to narrative and resolution. He does not dismiss narrative structures in art in the form of biography, historical context or allegorical reference. Rather, Heiser distinguishes between art and entertainment based on a ‘quality’ in art distinguished by the enquiry proposed by the artwork. Here quality may be substituted with Adorno’s notion of integrity in artwork.18 The artwork’s quality therefore lies in how well the work of art interrogates its own construction; how its content, meaning and physical material is configured to communicate with an audience. Heiser proposes that ‘[w]ith works of art, it’s less about what than about how. Not about the story itself, but about what set the story in motion, what interrupts it, what


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gives it rhythm’.19 Therefore, contemporary art that is concerned with critical engagement with culture is defined by its interrogation of the structures that set the narrative in motion. I suggest that the following artworks pose these questions through a series of humorous disruptions to the ‘rhythm’ of narrative structure. The humour is derived through the paradoxical inclusion of the viewer through his or her recognition of the process of fabrication and simultaneous distancing through the observer’s own mimetic process of comprehension, a tertiary mimesis of the artwork’s mimicry of its subject. As Heiser notes, the materials that are drawn from mass-produced objects or popular film and theatre retain their narrative implications from their commercial context. The paradoxical tension between the narrative implications of the material of the artwork and the subsequent anti-narrative disruption in the construction lends these forms of artwork an agitation that can enhance its critical reflexivity. The interaction between these narrative and anti-narrative elements can lead to humorously incongruous manifestations. The artist can articulate these to further the critical inquiry of the artwork towards its material (location, physical material and apparent content). MIMESIS AND IRONY In his essay on mime in Dada performance, Foster describes how Cologne and Zurich Dada in particular facilitated the dismantling of the distinction between the art sphere and life praxis, through a mimetic process of personifying the ‘traumatic mime’ or ‘traumatist’, which embodies the social disruptions of the epoch. Foster comments that ‘a key strategy of this traumatist is mimetic adaptation, whereby the Dadaist assumes the dire conditions of his time . . . and inflates them through hyperbole. . . . Such buffoonery is a form of parody that Dada made its own’.20 Foster considers the Dada traumatist as a figure that took the day-to-day subjugation to mass culture as subject and material for art practice. I wish to extrapolate from this a form of buffoonery that focuses on the irony associated with imitation, without the implied superiority of the imitating agent over the subjects depicted. Mimesis and its derivatives mimicry and mime are broad terms used in this chapter for a process of relating the fabricated world to the ‘real’/natural or imagined world. Mimesis as imitation and art has its roots in Plato. For Plato, mimesis (and thus art) is a production of appearances, and a tertiary o­ utcome – thrice removed from the source of truth in abstract forms. Therefore, art, for Plato, is an unreliable source of truth.21 Mimicry, imitation and mimesis are inverted in their relation to verity in Adorno’s aesthetics, where art’s imitation of contexts and rational systems exposes the flaws inherent in the systems. Furthermore, as Lyotard indicates in his assessment of the sublime and the

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avant-garde, art’s mimicry of the sublime affects the viewer/subject, and his or her judgement, through the senses and the resulting feelings.22 Adorno considers communication as a reaffirmation of societal nexuses, a process of using language established within the framework of a society.23 This communication is anathema to critique as the communication requires normalised criteria. Therefore, Adorno surmises, critique can only exist through a process of noncommunication.24 Through a process of forming itself around a subject through mimesis, an artwork has an integrity aligned with the subject/thing that it is based on. Through self-reflexivity, the artwork is aware of its failure to replicate the subjective other indexically. This awareness distinguishes art from the ‘standard of empirical reason’ that Kant’s subject employs when confronted with the sublime, a process of dominating the experience through cognitive reason.25 Adorno considers art’s mimesis as a form of representing the sublime that counters Kant’s distanciating and dominating observer with an experience that sustains the overwhelming experience of annihilation of the ‘I’ in confrontation with the infinite. In attempting to mimic the other, the unrepresentable or the sublime, art simultaneously mimics the cognitive processing of the sublime described by Kant and exposes art’s limitation in representing the experience. Due to (modern) art’s illusory autonomous status from empirical cognition, art offers an opportunity to point towards the unknown, while simultaneously indicating its ridiculousness in its attempts and failure to dominate the unknown other. In a self-reflexive artwork, there is contained ‘a memento of the liquidation of the I, which, shaken, perceives its own limitedness and finitude’.26 This recognition of a primal opponent results in a sustained shudder for the observer and offers a glimpse outside the constraints of normative realms.27 The sustained experience of the un-representable parallels Lyotard’s consideration of the sublime in relation to art as a temporal experience in the ‘here and now’. Like Adorno, Lyotard posits the question of whether art can represent the sublime as a paradox concerning the representation of ‘something which can’t be shown, or presented’.28 The ‘now’ to be represented in the object is a ‘stranger to consciousness and cannot be constituted by it’.29 Instead the art object, representing the unknowable ‘now’ or sublime, ‘dismantles consciousness’.30 Through the process of dismantling, a series of questions arise through the perception of the artwork, rather than summations of the event or the ‘now’. The questions posed are ‘is it happening, is this it, is it possible?’31 Thus the art object challenges not only the object’s existential self but also what it attempts to represent and indeed the viewer’s perception of either the object or the sublime event. If artworks are to convey information (communicate) about a world outside the confines of the social nexus, it must do so through some form of communication, recognisable actions, words and images, but their construction crucially alludes to the


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failure to encapsulate the otherness to which the artwork refers. The resulting mimicry is a knowing failure, resulting in a form of buffoonery manifested to the viewer. What I am analysing here are the implications alluded to by an art object, sensed by the viewer, but not fully codified in the cognitive process. Should an artwork represent its (potential) existential denial and in effect suggest the overwhelming presence of the sublime through Adorno’s concept of the shudder with an amusing air, the entire project suggests an even greater incongruity from the initial self-reflexive (serious) enterprise set forward by Adorno’s aesthetics, suggesting that the project itself is at risk of failure. MIMESIS IN ACTION In John MacKay’s introduction to Adorno’s essay on Chaplin, MacKay notes that in the actor Adorno found an alternative to the laughter he and Max Horkheimer associated with the culture industry, where ‘to laugh at something is always to deride it’.32 MacKay notes that in Chaplin, Adorno saw a possibility for an alternate laughter, ‘a critical laughter soberly aware of its own affinities to domination’.33 This empathetic response to the otherness presented in the artwork or performer that employs vaudevillian slapstick maintains the otherness of the circumstances and subjects caught up in the reification process of mass production and entertainment. Shea Coulson, in his survey of Adorno’s analysis of comedy, suggests irony as a technique for counteracting the dominating nature of the subject over the object, citing Chaplin’s mimetic irony in Modern Times (1936) as exemplary. Coulson presents Chaplin’s character as mimetic of his fellow workers yet maintaining a certain aloofness, and ultimately being critical of their situation (not them). This is achieved through mimicry, and he thus acts as an agent resistant to reification, resisting too the reification of his subjects.34 The industrialisation of the workplace and daily life, the topic of Dada’s buffoonery, was exemplified in Modern Times as an absurdity of mechanical logic imposed on organic life, a focus of Henri Bergson’s theory of the role of laughter in society. Although Bergson’s theory attributes a corrective function to humour in society, pointing out the absurdity of the adherence to inelastic logic, and thus encouraging a more liberal progressive society, it does offer an understanding of the mechanisms for creating an absurdly logical construction, one that in the case of art need not come to resolution, and which therefore need not result in a corrective element to social norms. Of interest here is Bergson’s concept of the compulsive incongruous figure as absentminded, in the manner of Don Quixote: a comical mechanical agent whose actions and decisions are derived from a form of reasoning based on an exaggerated ideal. Bergson posits that it is this confrontation of the internal

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logic of the literal-minded undertaking of an ideal with the ‘inexorable logic’ of reality that produces the comic.35 Using a form of mime suggested by Foster with regard to Dada, yet employing an irony without superiority to its subject, the artists considered in this chapter extend the role of mime to the artist’s performance made manifest in their artwork and transmitted to an internalised performance by the viewer.36 LEVITY AND CRITICAL ENQUIRY There remains a contradiction between theories of laughter and amusement and theories seeking critical engagement. The problem arises from the reception of comedy and the potential outcome of levity. Carroll’s assessment of incongruity counters my argument for an empathetic mimetic process of appreciating incongruity. Carroll suggests that a necessary element in comic amusement is non-empathetic distance from the event. This form of distance ensures an unmitigated enjoyment of the event, therefore clearly distinguishing humour derived from incongruity from other responses to incongruous events. Connected to this comfort through distance – as a requirement for audience enjoyment of humour – is a sense of levity and, by implication, a sense of triviality. Carroll’s view aligns with Kant’s assessment of jokes’ reliance on the relief from conflict: the idea that once the incongruity of the project has been explained and normalised by the punch line, the consequences of the incongruity are reduced to nothing.37 This would suggest frivolity, or that the critical engagement is subservient to the gag. I suggest that a solution to this problem lies in Heiser’s anti-narrative distinction of art, Adorno’s autonomous sphere and Lyotard’s association between art and the sublime: although artworks may employ the material and structures of mass entertainment, it is not incumbent that art fulfils the expectations of these materials and structures. In addition to the possibility of suspending the punch line or gag, there is a further solution to the problem of levity found in the recognition of incongruity. Theorist Michael Clark equates incongruity with an ‘incongruous subsumption under a concept’ of one or more objects to the ‘the standard instances of the concept’.38 Clark contends that in this manner of appreciation, the incongruity is not so much resolved, or rationalised, in the mind of the viewer, but left to remain incongruous and appreciated as such.39 The enjoyment of incongruity is enhanced by the recognition of the absurdity of the process leading up to the incongruity and of the process of recognising and enjoying the incongruity. Therefore, to derive amusement from incongruity requires an appreciation of its contextual circumstances. The audience of incongruity must have some distance from the event, either actual, in the


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sense of a viewer of a slapstick film, or intellectually, as one might laugh at oneself for tripping over nothing, but a cognitive empathetic engagement remains possible. I argue that an artwork uses a slapstick method to provoke the question of how an artwork and/or culture it references derives content or meaning. The query is posed through some form of amusing disruption specific to the media structures used. Nevertheless, considering that deriving a story or direct analogy from an artwork is secondary to a branch of contemporary artwork’s primary objective – questioning its own internal logic – likewise deriving a joke or punch line from a slapstick technique in art practice is secondary to its primary concern of interrogating the methods of production. The slapstick technique can remain what Heiser considers a ‘central triggering mechanism’40 to the fabrication of the art object; in contrast to mass entertainment where laughter or amusement forms the resolution of the narrative constructs, amusement in art is secondary to establishing the incongruity as an open query. That is not to say that the use of slapstick can ensure critical integrity in an artwork. Rather than chasing an essential element, the following analysis will explore how the following artworks employ various slapstick approaches, and to what material purpose. This examination will offer a method of making a critical judgement on the artwork. BRUCE NAUMAN AND SUSPENDED SLAPSTICK In the 1960s, Bruce Nauman produced his signature artwork Walking in an Exaggerated Manner around the Perimeter of a Square. Nauman worked in collaboration with composer/choreographer Meredith Monk to create a series of performances to 16mm camera incorporating a square taped on a studio floor, reminiscent of theatre and dance preparatory stage markings, along which the artist moves in regulated form. In Walking, Nauman enacts the exercise described in the title. Through a rigid prescribed choreography and minimal gestures aside from the exaggerated gyration of his hips, Nauman circumscribes a taped square on the floor, seen in figure 9.1, situated in a cluttered industrial-looking room. Repeating his actions in reverse, Nauman completes four circuits of the square ending where he started in the lower right corner of the screen, and the film ends. The object of consideration in the film is the artist performing the act of creating artwork in his studio. The artwork is formed by three parts: the choreography, the artist enacting the choreography and the documentation of the choreography by the camera. The viewer’s experience of the artwork is mediated through the film executed in a casual manner, suggesting the camera as a purely functional device for recording the production. These three forms

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Figure 9.1.  Bruce Nauman, Walking in an Exaggerated Manner around the Perimeter of a Square, 1967–8. 16 mm film, black and white, duration 10 minutes. © ARS, NY/IVARO Dublin, 2017. Courtesy Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York.

of objects, the choreography summarised in the title, the performing artist and the film, suggest the slapstick set-up: a deadpan sequence of an absurdly banal and regulated action. The choreography of the film is made explicit in the declarative title that is reinforced through the programmatic repetition and reversals of the mannered walk by the artist. The film offers itself to our contemplation in two ways. One is the material’s explicitly indexical nature; it is a recording of events before the lens: the film starts just before the actor’s action and finishes moments after, without editing or special effects. The film’s documentary feel is reinforced by the positioning of the camera to best enable the recording of the event without cinematic embellishment. The awkward placement of the camera at a slight angle from the bottom right corner of the square marking on the floor adds to the sense of authenticity: the camera appears to be constricted by available space and positioned to take in as much as possible within the studio. These formal and aesthetic decisions suggest that the purpose of the performance and the accompanying camera is to serve a functional completion of the task at hand: to record an absurdly banal action as if it were an event of momentous occasion. Despite the informality of the filming process, film as an object suggests certain elements to the viewer. The film designates a linear and finite period in which the action will take place. The title and the documentary nature of the filming suggests that what is being observed is something of interest, something to be held up for study and something that will unfold over the finite duration of the film reel. In the film format, the object of contemplation becomes a part of the set-up or framework for the slapstick scenario. The film in Walking functions as a method of cognitive and implied physical engagement for the viewer. The repetitive motion, the mannered walking, the casual setting established by the mise-en-scène and the amateur media used in the film suggest a facility in producing the artwork, something that could be replicated by the viewer. The ten-minute duration of the film and the slow pace of the protagonist’s walk provide a period for the viewer to consider the elements. The process of considering the protagonist’s actions


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suggests a mental mimetic process of engagement between the viewer and the artist. The viewer thereby enters a state of complicity with the experience. This occurs alongside the observer’s engagement with the film, as the viewer sits through the real-time experience of the actor. The repetition of the actions, the bracketing of the experience in the title of the artwork and the literalisation of the execution leave little for the viewer to do but to contemplate the actions documented. This contemplation on the physical routine and the internal, cognitive processing of the logical play-through of the actor’s actions runs parallel with the viewer’s experience of slapstick comedy as a durational experience of a logical play-through of exaggerated physical and visual disruptive events. Through a series of prescribed banal actions, Nauman presents a prolonged incongruous circumstance that establishes an unexpected yet rationally applied, physical situation that serves as a rupture to the expected outcome or narrative. Namaun’s slapstick incorporates Bergson’s contention that laughter in slapstick arises from the action of the mechanical man. The slapstick situation lies in the tension between the intent and the actual event: the ‘absentminded’ protagonist logically – if absurdly – plays out an ideal, which conflicts with the reality; it is this that provokes laughter.41 It is within this framework of the logical playing out of a concept that Nauman’s Walking evokes slapstick. His actions are exactly those set out in the title, yet the anticipation is for another outcome: an event, a disruption or a slapstick moment. The denial of the potential event is, in part, the event, yet the whole of this actuality – the potential and denied slapstick pratfall and the execution of the act – is contained within the performance. The performance is then a form of internal critique on the making of the performance, and it calls into question the rationale behind the artwork. In this way, the material of the film – not only the actual film stock, but also the tools (i.e. camera, ‘studio’, actor and choreography) – is incorporated into the form and content of the final artwork. Nauman’s captured action alludes simultaneously to the exclusivity of the artist as designator of the artwork, in the ready-made genre, and to the commonality of the event: a simple gesture of walking is presented, albeit one made exceptional in its exaggeration, mediation and logical application and documentation. Walking simultaneously questions the illusory aspect of art’s autonomy and reinforces it, through comedic incongruity. Physical humour, either directed at the artist for creating the work, or indeed turned back on the viewer for tolerating this experience, emerges as an integral part of the critical reflection of the artwork. Indeed, the viewer is further implicated in the physical humour through his or her internally embodying the action and potentially anticipating something other than what has been set out, contrary

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to the prescriptive title. The humour is part of the distancing associated with an artwork concerned with its own sustainability. A PRACTICAL APPLICATION OF SLAPSTICK AND MIMESIS The structure and critical inquiry of the role of artist as fabricator of artworks in Nauman’s film inspired my video Mirror in a Field. This was conceived as a literal interpretation of a video that contained the materials of the production’s construction, namely the location, the video-maker and the camera. The concept was informed on one hand by an earnest attempt to record a bucolic scene and on the other by a visual gag created by the process. By incorporating a mirror into the screen to reveal the filmmaking process, it additionally obscured the objects of observation – the protagonist and the landscape. The set-up for Mirror in a Field is defined by three elements, as can be seen in figure 9.2. The three elements are the setting, the medium used and the mirror/selfie-stick/smartphone recording device. The location was chosen to evoke a bucolic setting so as to situate the protagonist, myself, as an artist performing the act of conveying nature through his medium. The filming process and video format established a durational element and framed the setup for the incongruous event. I bracketed the video by starting the film when I started the recording, and ending the video at the point where I stopped recording. In order to situate the process of filming within the filmed event, I fabricated a device that could simultaneously record a scene and make visible the recording device in the process, so that the whole of the production was presented to the viewer as it was documented.42 The mirror creates an effect of dividing the screen into two sections: the foreground subject of the mirror that shows the camera and the background – also covering the central area occupied by the camera operator. This technique of filming exposes the materials and the formal processes employed by the artist. Thus, the material of the landscape setting, the durational filming, the armature and mirror, the camera and the performer conflate in the technique

Figure 9.2.  Levi Hanes, Mirror in a Field, 2015, digital video, colour, duration 4 minutes 41 seconds. Courtesy: the author.


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of constructing the artwork. The viewer is therefore privy throughout to the makings of the object, and any illusionary effect derived from the experience also points to the experience. The humorous disruption lies in part with the mirror device, as in the process of revealing the filmmaking it partially obstructs or conflates with the subject of the video. The observed object in the film switches between the protagonist holding the camera device and the device itself. The static setting of the landscape also becomes an active part of the visual experience as the camera movement articulates two separate landscapes – the background behind the figure and the reflected background behind the camera – at opposite lateral movements. The slapstick element is partly due to the incongruity between the two images the viewer attempts to perceive in order to understand the scene presented, alternating between the foreground presented in the mirror, and the background of the figure in the border landscape. The mirror device disrupts the distinctions between subject and background in the video, in part through the obstruction of the figure, and in part by its activation of the inset screen of the mirror, which presents, in reflection, the camera and its background as an additional focal point. The mimetic process for the viewer of mimicking the protagonist is less pronounced in Mirror than in Walking, partly due to the obstruction. The split screen caused by the mirror creates a visual representation of the camera operator’s experience of having the scenery obstructed by the square mirror. The mimetic experience takes a more allegorical form than does the mental participation in the same activities seen in Nauman’s Walking. In Mirror, the viewer’s experience is one of visual disruption and alternation between the background and the figure on the one hand, and the foreground image of the camera and the landscape behind it, as reflected in the mirror, on the other. In effect, the very device that mediates the setting and experience also disrupts the mediation of Mirror’s visual information concerning a figure in a bucolic setting. Parallels to the alternate narrative tracks simultaneously perceived in an object of contemplation can be found in Nauman’s Walking. As spectator, the viewer has expectations of an event worthy of filming; instead the observer is presented with what is stated in the title: a man walking in an exaggerated manner. The expectation is disrupted by its own absurd rationality, delivering a non-sequitur after the fashion of jokes of the ‘why did the chicken cross the road’ variety. Similarly, in Mirror the framework for the event is set out at the beginning, with the recording device and the setting established through the mechanics of the video. The formal references remain as a conceptual framework of the artwork in the audience’s mind, while the act of recording the scenery presents the object (the scenery, the protagonist and the recording device), and the subject (the process of recording the scenery) as various elements of the video simultaneously makes available and obstructs the objects and subjects of the film.

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Following on from this consideration of slapstick as not just a jolt or disruption through a pratfall, I posit that a suspended or prolonged form of absurd disruptive action suggests that slapstick offers a means to form an empathetic communication with the viewer through a process of mimesis. This mimesis allows the viewer to take part in a process similar to that undertaken by the artist, involving the simultaneous perception of two narrative strands or potential outcomes from a selection of material. From this empathetic-yet-distanced position, the viewer can appreciate an absurdist rationale and maintain the integrity of the individual elements – the concept, context and object – maintaining the otherness of the observed materials and circumstances through a mimetic experience: the viewer is put in the position of the maker and the materials yet maintains distinction as viewer. Slapstick accentuates this process through its disruption of the circumstances of viewing the object, through implied or actual action. I posit that through humour arising from incongruity, an artist can utilise many of the techniques of the avant-garde to interrogate the methods and materials used to convey meaning in art objects and mass media. The process of avoiding reification is brought about through the ironic distancing associated with set-ups found in early slapstick cinema. Just as with a joke without a punch line, there is no conclusive outcome of the cognitive process within these artworks. This suspension follows a similar criterion put forward in Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory – the suggestion that the meaning of an artwork can be explored through a process of sensual and cognitive resonance, while left partly ambiguous, or at least, non-declarative. Although the focus of this chapter has been on film and video that are oriented towards art venues and audiences, the implications of humorous, self-reflective and resistant acts extend beyond the traditional grounds of art, beyond the museums and galleries. The implication of creating objects of consideration that simultaneously attempt to mimic the unrestricted aspects of the sublime, and expose their failure to do so, defines critically engaged artworks, yet the form these artworks take and where they take place is open to any circumstance where the fabrication of an object or event occurs. The potential for resistance to the reifying nature of capital and the search for possibilities outside normative structures may occur at points where we as fabricators and observers are privileged, facing acts that are not existentially threatening. Indeed, the process of fabricating incongruous and disruptive objects may even prove amusing.

NOTES 1. Jörg Heiser, All of a Sudden: Things That Matter in Contemporary Art (New York: Sternberg Press, 2008), 46.


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2. Heiser, All of a Sudden, 47. 3. Donald Crafton, ‘The Pie and the Chase: Gag, Spectacle and Narrative in Slapstick’, in Classical Hollywood Comedy, ed. Kristine Brunovska Karnick and Henry Jenkins (New York: Routledge, 1995), 119. 4. Heiser, All of a Sudden, 40. 5. Noël Carroll, Humour: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 18. See also John Morreall, ‘Funny Ha-Ha, Funny Strange, and Other Reactions to Incongruity’, in The Philosophy of Laughter and Humor, ed. John Morreall (Albany: State University of New York, 1987), 188–207, on the humorous effect of incongruity. 6. Carroll, Humour, 24. 7. Crafton, ‘The Pie and the Chase’, 111. 8. Crafton, ‘The Pie and the Chase’, 360. 9. Heiser, All of a Sudden, 17. 10. Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, eds. Gretel Adorno and Rolf Tiedemann, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (London: Athlone Press, 1997), 174. 11. Peter Bürger, Theory of the Avant-Garde. Vol. 4, trans. Michael Shaw (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994). 12. Tom Gunning, ‘The Cinema of Attraction: Early Film, Its Spectator, and the Avant-Garde’, Wide Angle 8 (1986): 229–35; Ian Wilkie, ‘Vaudeville Comedy and Art’, Comedy Studies, 4. 2 (2013): 215–29; and Hal Foster, ‘Dada Mime’, October 1.105 (2003): 166–76. Accessed 11 November 2014, doi: 10.1162/016228703769684263. 13. Nathan Ross, ‘The Polarity Informing Mimesis: The Social Import of Mimesis in Benjamin and Adorno’, in The Aesthetic Ground of Critical Theory: New Readings of Benjamin and Adorno, ed. Nathan Ross (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2015), 78. 14. Jean-François Lyotard, ‘The Sublime and the Avant-Garde’, Paragraph 6 (1985), Accessed 15 May 2017. 15. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement, trans. James Creed Meredith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 81–87. 16. Lyotard, ‘The Sublime and the Avant-Garde’, 2. 17. Ibid., 4. 18. A critical integrity based on how well the object engages with its contextual elements, simultaneously acknowledges its potential, if not inevitable, failure in the process. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, 30–33. 19. Heiser, All of a Sudden, 16. 20. Foster, ‘Dada Mime’, 169. 21. Stephen Davies, ‘Theories of Art’, in Encyclopedia of Aesthetics Oxford Art Online (Oxford: Oxford University Press), scriber/article/opr/t234/e0505. Accessed 18 May 2017. 22. Lyotard, ‘The Sublime and the Avant-Garde’, 9. 23. Georg W. Bertram, ‘Benjamin and Adorno on Art as Critical Practice’, in The Aesthetic Ground of Critical Theory: New Readings of Benjamin and Adorno, ed. Nathan Ross (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2015), 9. 24. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, 5.

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25. Ibid., 117–18. 26. Ibid., 245. 27. Ibid. 28. Lyotard, ‘The Sublime and the Avant-Garde’, 1. 29. Ibid. 30. Ibid., 1–2. 31. Ibid., 2. 32. Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. John Cumming (New York: Continuum, 1971), 141. 33. John MacKay, translator’s introduction to ‘Chaplin Times Two’, by Theodor W. Adorno, The Yale Journal of Criticism 9. 1 (1996): 57. Accessed 17 May 2016, Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/yale.1996.0001. 34. Shea Coulson, ‘Funnier Than Unhappiness: Adorno and the Art of Laughter’, New German Critique 100 (2007): 162, Accessed 31 October 2014. 35. Henri Bergson, Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, trans. Cloudesley Brereton and Fred Rothwell (New York: Macmillan, 1911), 5, http://www.guten Accessed 26 February 2015. 36. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, 38. 37. Carroll, Humour, 41. 38. Michael Clark, ‘Humor and Incongruity’, in The Philosophy of Laughter and Humor, ed. John Morreall (Albany: State University of New York, 1987), 149. 39. Ibid.,150. 40. Heiser, All of a Sudden, 17. 41. Bergson, Laughter, 6. 42. Post-production in the video was limited to minor tweaks in the audio to prevent peaks that may disrupt the playback process.

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‘Life’ in Struggle: The Indifferent Humour of Beckett’s Prose Heroes Selvin Yaltir

This chapter looks into the configuration of comic subjectivity in Samuel Beckett’s Molloy and his four novellas, ‘First Love’, ‘The Expelled’, ‘The Calmative’ and ‘The End’ in order to delineate an idea of ‘humour as resistance’ in his prose from the 1940s and 1950s. It explores the ways in which these texts convey a sense of humour through creating simultaneously contradictory modes. The uniqueness of Beckett’s comic figures lies in their capacity to be equally indifferent and communicative to the degree that these come to refer to the same condition. I will argue that the co-existence in Beckett’s subjects of the indifferent and sardonic, miserable and benevolent, witty and naïve point to intersections between Beckett’s conceptions of life and humour. This analysis will shed light upon the connection between a ‘Beckettian’ contemplation of indifference and the political exercise it may invoke for a model of resistance. Regarding the discussions on the political and apolitical aspects of Beckett’s work, Peter Boxall argues: An interpretive orthodoxy that insists upon the indifference of Beckett’s writing is hard pressed to account for its violence, for its strangely bloody-minded determination, and for its sheer stamina in the face of repeated failure. . . . The silence, indifference or neutrality that is taken to be Beckett’s goal is removed from the contradictory and agonistic textual environment that determines the conditions of its possibility, and is read as a kind of truth that leaks or springs or emerges from the text as if by magic.1

Building on this perspective, I will argue that this conflicting textual environment is also determined by an affective perspective through which it is able to communicate with itself so that this affective/textual environment consistently produces its emotive norms, narrative mood and textual patterns. 151


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The texts engage in a concern for indifference and neutrality which creates the characters and their modes of speech. Particularly during the 1940s and 1950s, Beckett develops a specific idea of how his characters live, and this determines the trajectory of his writing. In this respect, indifference is not merely an artistic goal, or a textual requirement, but an effect of the way in which Beckett conceives of the so-called lives of his characters. Despite Beckett’s preliminary despondency, indifference becomes a way of being able to create the scene of an independent, free world separate from the imposed social reality. Beckett’s heroes in his prose work from the 1940s and 1950s stage a persistent unaffectedness, manifested in their idleness, indiscriminate talk and forgetfulness. They are nameless characters rambling on the streets, characterised by their encounters with random things and people. This peculiarly detached mode is projected onto the first-person narration, making it dry and aloof along with the narrator’s attitude of indifference to his predicaments: ‘I have changed refuge so often, in the course of my rout, that now I can’t tell between dens and ruins’.2 Continually on their way with no determinate destination, Beckett’s idlers grow impervious to the external conditions that challenge them. The narrators of these texts are also the heroes of these so-called adventures. They demonstrate an impression of utter indifference even for the stories they tell: ‘I don’t know why I told this story. I could just as well have told another’.3 And yet, they paradoxically arouse empathy when suspending the order of resemblance and familiarity. When the narrator of ‘The Expelled’ throws himself to the ground in order to ‘avoid crushing a child’, he reflects: ‘I would have crushed him gladly, I loathe children, and it would have been doing him a service, but I was afraid of reprisals’.4 Beckett’s heroes are thus equally compelled by audacity and reserve, trying to retrieve an entire story from the fragments of what they can remember. Their timid antagonism to the whole social body generates humour out of the characters’ disconnected, random manner of forming relations and giving responses. Anthony Uhlmann argues that in the novellas ‘the form is now one which includes a first-person narrator, who, while once learned, now remembers ill and offers relations of events which fail to offer adequate connections and clearly expressed intentions’.5 Beckett’s stories of street bums allow him to create a series of disconnections, or rather, new connections of events, unaffected by general habits and perhaps common-sense reasoning. This is achieved in a new configuration of life unhindered by purposefulness and teleology, in which the hero repeatedly re-learns and ‘remembers ill’ what he has forgotten. Such a ‘Beckettian’ mode of living as idling hinges upon an effect of humour when it presents disconnections in a new light. In order to sketch out a frame for a resistant act of humour, I will try to show how Beckett’s tramps, despite all their gloom and subtle frustrations, ‘learn

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to live’, escape their own so-called tragedies and resist imposed descriptions. The Beckettian hero’s – at least apparent – apathy, I argue, is founded upon three premises that make up the idea of life figured in these texts: life as a virtual field in the Deleuzean sense, which resembles a receptacle comprising past and present, the impersonal and personal, forgetful and vigilant; an internalisation of an act of indifference; and a subtle urgency which ties the act of indifference to a sense of struggle. The coming together of these three characteristics makes Beckett’s humour from this period highly complex. DISEQUILIBRIUM: BECKETT’S RAMBLING Beckett’s heroes from this period embody some form of the ‘schizophrenic’ that Deleuze and Guattari envisage in Anti-Oedipus. I do not intend to make an analogy between Beckett’s characters and schizophrenics, but I would like to claim that Deleuze and Guattari’s use of the term is useful in understanding Beckett’s development of a certain subjectivity seen in his prose work from Watt until How It Is. This subjectivity depends on fragmented consciousness, multiplicity of voices, linguistic errancy and perhaps most importantly a specific form of physical rambling, called ‘the schizophrenic’s stroll’.6 When Deleuze and Guattari speculate on what happens when Beckett characters ‘decide to venture outdoors’, they conclude: ‘[The characters’] various gaits and methods of self-locomotion constitute, in and of themselves, a finely tuned machine’.7 Beckett’s characters in the novellas entertain a similar idea of empowerment when they stroll purposelessly, exploring each episode with which they are confronted on their way. In ‘The Expelled’, an old man who is expelled from a nursing home discovers his incapacity to correct the awkwardness of his gait while wandering on the streets of an unknown city: I set off. What a gait. Stiffness of the lower limbs, as if nature had denied me knees, extraordinary splaying of the feet to right and left of the line of march. The trunk, on the contrary, as if by the effect of a compensatory mechanism, was as flabby as an old ragbag, tossing wildly to the unpredictable jolts of the pelvis. I have often tried to correct these defects, to stiffen my bust, flex my knees and walk with my feet in front of one another, for I had at least five or six, but it always ended in the same way, I mean with a loss of equilibrium, followed by a fall . . . when I walked without paying attention to what I was doing, I walked in the way I have just described, and when I began to pay attention I managed a few steps of creditable execution and then fell. I decided therefore to be myself.8

In what could be defined as impotence and incapacity of movement, the Beckett character, perhaps unwittingly, discerns a sign of liberation. Physical freedom enables mental freedom. By ‘deciding to be himself’ he frees himself


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from a certain obligation to ‘walk properly’. Even though it does not correspond to any determined and/or determinable personality, the covertly symbolic ‘myself’ expresses the interval where all potentials and possibilities of movement collide in Beckett. The Beckett hero’s gait is stiff and flabby, too rigid and too flexible at the same time, and seems only to function in this way. This infinitely flexible and infinitely rigid body, without the one aspect being superior to the other, constitutes the physical comicality of many a Beckettian character. This, then, is the ‘finely tuned machine’ of Beckett’s comic hero. Certainly, the awkward movement described in this passage incites laughter because it produces a grotesque image through the character’s unusual manner of walking. But this machine is, nonetheless, ‘finely tuned’ because its movement does not terminate in a crisis; nor does it seem to disturb the overall functioning of the body. It is as if the character is only reluctantly concerned with the inappropriateness of his gait. His concern is immediately dismissed when he decides to be ‘himself’. Beckett’s comic gesture in this way embraces antitheses without prioritising one over the other, by which an impossible bodily behaviour is achieved. The rigid and flexible parts are in perpetual indifference to each other, which constitutes the possibility of carrying on. Rather than culminating in a halt, the Beckett hero’s gait renews the perplexity of the body in further movements, hence naturalising disequilibrium. In Beckett, ‘myself’ and ‘I’ continually produce further deviation: ‘Where did I get this access of vigour? From my weakness perhaps’.9 From this physical indifference, the heroes are able to form a compelling idea of an indifferent life going in the direction of several deviations at once. ‘ALL THAT COMPOSED A RATHER LIQUID WORLD’: BECKETTIAN ‘LIFE’ AND VIRTUAL SMILE For Beckett’s heroes, life resonates in a series of tones, voices, modes, movements from which the characters gain their sense of freedom, despite the overt atmosphere of desolation. In his neutral projection of various potentials and possibilities, the Beckett hero expresses freedom from the domination of one form over the other. It is emphasised on many occasions that the speaking voices are never attached to a single form of an ego: And the words I uttered myself, . . . were often to me as the buzzing of an insect. And this is perhaps one of the reasons I was so untalkative, I mean this trouble I had in understanding not only what others said to me but also what I said to them.10

The Beckett hero is able to escape himself because of this apparent lack of understanding, or perhaps more precisely, an indifference to the act of

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understanding. Molloy and the narrators of the four novellas express themselves in a fluid existence which suits their continual journey towards an indefinite destination. They are in perpetual becoming, moving from life to death and pain to joy, involving stasis and flux at the same time. ‘The Calmative’ opens with a dead man’s oblivious remark about his death: ‘I don’t know when I died’.11 In the same consciousness, the inside and outside are flipped: ‘Was it a song in my head or did it merely come from without?’12 These infamously gullible characters, as often as they ‘hear voices’, also occupy domains consisting of various sounds, voices and forms which rather than clashing give way to a sequence of discordant utterances and realities that create the worlds of these characters. In the end it does not matter whether the noises are coming from the inside or the outside, hence Beckett’s famous ‘no matter’. Molloy’s life becomes whatever he passes through: ‘And there was another noise, that of my life become the life of this garden as it rode the earth of deeps and wildernesses. Yes, there were times when I forgot not only who I was, but that I was, forgot to be’.13 All such examples come to indicate broadly what Deleuze named ‘the virtual’, and that which he referred to as ‘becoming-imperceptible’ with regard to Beckett’s work.14 Beckett’s characters invade impersonal lives without a departing and an ending point; they persist beyond the simple opposition of life and death. In Audrone Žukauskaitė’s words: Deleuze and Beckett confront all premises of modern philosophy with the philosophy of life as an impersonal and non-organic force. . . . Deleuze and Guattari point out that becoming-imperceptible leads not to nothingness or to the total dissolution of the subject but to the virtual state of the body, which proceeds by the production of intensities, in the medium of becoming and transformation.15

Such a conception of life is most obvious in Molloy’s recollection of an amorphous image of life while retrieving the remainders of a vague memory: that of his first sexual experience, possibly with his grandmother. The passage is worth quoting at length: And all I could see was her taut yellow nape which every now and then I set my teeth in, forgetting I had none, such is the power of instinct. We met in a rubbish dump, unlike any other, and yet they are all alike, rubbish dumps. I don’t know what she was doing there. I was limply poking about in the garbage saying probably, for at that age I must still have been capable of general ideas. This is life. She had no time to lose, I had nothing to lose, I would have made love with a goat to know what love was.16

Amid this typically Beckettian frame of dark comedy, the references to the ‘power of instinct’ and ‘life’ point to more than a simple trope of comic


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subversion. The image here is that of a sensation that attains immediate joy in its access to a non-predefined idea. Beckett suggests a notion of life, which is sensed in the passage from privation to the joy of being alive. Being completely indifferent to the contradictory associations brought about by the pair ‘rubbish’ and ‘life’ – life can be rubbish, yes, but only metaphorically – Beckett asserts within rubbish a form of life anticipated in a sphere of independence from subjective and objective reality. Beckett’s virtual is figured in a domain which is neither merely Molloy’s memory/mind nor merely the external events which happen to him. Beckett conceives of an intriguing notion of reality which cannot be verified by the subject’s actions, since they are by nature dubious: ‘I said nothing at all, but I heard a murmur, something gone wrong with the silence’.17 A little further down, Molloy declares: ‘I quote from memory’.18 The so-called reality of Beckett’s characters is expressed by such an indefinite quality; at once memory and oblivion, nothing and everything. Žukauskaitė reminds us that Deleuze describes the virtual either as ‘a gigantic memory in which all layers of memory coexist together, placed on different levels, or as the chain of evolution in which all different life forms coexist together’.19 Beckett’s heroes generate such neutral zones where incompatible images do not clash but form ‘indifferent opposites’. It is not absolutely verifiable whether the exclamatory remark ‘This is life’ is Molloy’s response to his state of happiness in the rubbish, or a feeling of vitality stirred by his vague memory. The notion of life Molloy associates with his image from the past as well as his image from the present suggests a perceptual sphere which assumes the different forms of life and layers of memory as co-existing. Beyond its incongruous comicality, ‘This is life’ can be prefigured in the framework of Beckett’s humour as a specimen of his comprehensive idea of a life: the synchronicity of an unrelenting comicality with life within a perceptual domain where ‘different life forms coexist together’. The Beckett hero’s indifference to all stipulations, definitions and judgements generates a liberated life outside the moral sphere. This articulation of life is accompanied by an imaginary smile that sweeps away archetypal associations and names novel statuses and conditions: ‘And perhaps I understood it all wrong, but I understood it and that was the novelty’.20 This new status of ‘life’ appears as a novelty when binary universals are merged within a singular effect, in which understanding and misunderstanding, weakness and rigour, ability and inability are not simply treated as presuppositions and consequences of one another, but two terms of an effect of indifference that permeates Beckett’s texts. Molloy accommodates at least two convictions concerning life and its relation to hope, both of which seem to amount to the same: in me there have always been two fools, among others, one asking nothing better than to stay where he is and the other imagining that life might be slightly less

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horrible a little further on. So that I was never disappointed, so to speak, whatever I did, in this domain. And these inseparable fools I indulged turn about, that they might understand their foolishness [emphases added].21

Life is, then, not a matter of making a choice between one attitude and the other, but their penetration into one another. The irony, of course, is that these two opposite views, the two fools, are never able to understand their foolishness. The lack of understanding does not refer to a complete inability to distinguish between what is necessary and what is foolish, but eventually to a lack of urgency of such a distinction for Molloy’s life. In this respect, it is a practical redundancy rather than a lack. What is also interesting in this passage is the suggestion that the reversal, after all, serves a purpose: an implication of the Beckett hero’s strategic flexibility as the ground for a resistant living.22 Deleuze, in ‘Immanence: A Life’, remarks that in Charles Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend, what he names ‘a life’ is described through the main character, ‘a rogue held in contempt for everyone’, yet as he lies dying, suddenly everyone manifests sympathy with him for his slightest ‘sign of life’.23 Deleuze discerns in Dickens’s rogue an ‘only human’ without the presumed encumbrances of being human in existential and moral terms. More specifically, what Deleuze calls ‘Homo Tantum’ creates a ‘sign of life’ when humanness is no longer an attribute attached to the individual but is found in a sphere of indivisibility: at the moment where life cannot be divided from death. At the moment where the individual becomes everybody, Molloy’s counter-bathos from rubbish to life allows for such an indivisibility. Life, for Beckett, is not abstract; on the contrary, it is a dynamic area of encounters that inform evernew possibilities. Rather than taking life as a higher ideal and reducing it to rubbish, Beckett chooses to depart from the very rubbish in front of Molloy in order to conceive of a new life out of it. An equation of life with rubbish does not devalue life; on the contrary, it provokes the life in the rubbish. ‘This is life’ is marked as no one’s life, and hence pursued by no action, choice or decision – in other words, a suspension of judgement in which rambling with a smile on one’s face is the only so-called decisive gesture. So, the relationship between life as a virtual, which in Beckett accompanies a virtual smile, and an idea of resistance is captured in the form of the ‘rubbish-life’. Completely outside the social and moral life, Molloy finds a creative force in both his ignorance and incapacity. This force allows him to make curious connections that incite laughter. The initial comic passivity, refusal to remember and denial of what is conventionally called life give way to a contemplation of life, where rubbish and life, misery and joy, submission and empowerment can exist side by side in a newfound form of life. Despite Beckett’s dependence on an idea of misery, this new life affronts (self )commiseration. Hence Beckett’s heroes from this period acquire a status that


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indicates the potential of life to go in two equally distinct directions: rubbish and life, weakness and rigour: ‘I can’t go on. I’ll go on’.24 Beckett’s subjects possess these bewildering statuses, which suspend all possibilities of preferring one action over the other, and where ability and inability become two aspects of their power. In their world, the idea of redemption is not absent or lacking, but redundant, something that inevitably becomes a joke: ‘To contrive a little kingdom, in the midst of the universal muck, then shit on it, ah that was me all over’.25 There is something funny and utterly dysfunctional in Beckett’s heroes’ pessimism and their incapacity for pathos. Beckett’s vision of home indicates malfunctioning as the decisive gesture in life, a certain resistance to operation and improvement turns out to be the ultimate comical state, where kingdom and muck are interchangeable. However, such a mode of interchangeability also makes possible a certain sense of freedom towards verbal idling. These heroes’ physical and verbal idling register the co-presence of misery and life, living and dying, weakness and strength and submission and resistance in a dream-like, liquid state. Despite the general assumption that Beckett is a specifically pessimist writer, his particular contemplation of life in this period as indifference, ignorance and incapacity – the equal distance from which his subjects see life and ­rubbish – reveals an aspect of his writing which renders possible an implication of resistance against prescriptions. Molloy is nonetheless resilient. One could even argue that he is happy, and at least ‘never disappointed’.26 BENEVOLENT INDIFFERENCE AND HUMOUR In certain occasions indifference turns out to be functional for the Beckett hero. In Beckett, if there is any overcoming, it results from a process of naturalising atrocity. As horrific as this may sound at first, it offers unprecedented results. The Beckett hero comes across as benevolent and more importantly, unresentful towards life: ‘I had the great good fortune, more than once, not to be run over. My appearance still made people laugh, with that hearty, jovial laugh so good for the health’.27 Naturalising a gesture of imperviousness to events that come from the outside and inflict pain upon him, Beckett hero’s equanimity is emblematic of a Stoic ideal. It indicates a process of learning to live, even with a ridiculous self, without assigning any ill to external events, nor resenting them: ‘I decided to be myself’. The hero’s unrelenting goodwill to those who mistreat him does not come from his sympathy towards others. On the contrary, it comes from his apathy. The implication is that the hero’s goodwill is an awkward one: ‘I have only to be told what good behaviour is and I am well-behaved, within the limits of my physical abilities. . . . And as far as good-will is concerned, I had it to overflowing, the exasperated

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good-will of the overanxious’.28 This, then, is a goodwill in reserve, but in superfluous form, which the hero cannot get rid of. Beckett’s Stoicism is a mis-simulated one, expressing a miscalculated goodwill to a disproportionate degree. Where the Stoic ideal declares that one should live according to nature and in conformity to one’s ‘daemon’, the Beckett hero exemplifies this only excessively.29 It is this aberrant amount of virtue that makes the socially floundering characters capable of being indifferent to blows from outside. His measureless goodwill enables the hero to avoid being stuck; it lets the ‘schizophrenic’s stroll’ continue. In this precise comicality of an irresponsible goodwill the Beckett hero sustains his indifference to comedy and tragedy and hence abstains from both being disappointed and ecstatic: ‘Tears and laughter, they are so much Gaelic to me’.30 A life apprehended as immune to comedy and tragedy liberates Beckett’s humour from a fixed starting point, relation, connection and strategy. Within a humour of indifference, the Beckett hero conceives of a portion of life independent of the social machine and its regulations. There is an undertone in the hero’s benevolence, which reveals that such benevolence is not in vain after all. The unresentful smile of the Beckett hero allows him to forget proper social decorum and act atypically; it is true, but it also allows him to learn to reorder that regime of social relations, particularly when it comes to relationships of hierarchy. The narrator of ‘The End’, as he is stranded by the side of the road, tries begging for help only to find out that his countenance is not befitting to the gesture of pleading. As ‘the humble, ingenuous smile would no longer come, nor the expression of candid misery’, he asks ‘What would I crawl with in future’?31 However, while trying to remember the old way, under the pressure of conforming to the so-called social regime in which there are those who groan and those who pity them, a disconnection blurts out. The Beckett hero can only groan in a polite manner: ‘I tried to groan, Help! Help! But the tone that came out was that of polite conversation. . . . What was to become of me? I said to myself, “I’ll learn again’ ”.32 How to beg has become another Beckettian oxymoron: a means of sustaining the hero’s impetus for learning anew in his ignorance of how to act and do. The funny spectacle in Beckett, then, is not just merely ridiculous, but it presents a new potential, and what is more, several potentials all at once in the life conceived by the hero’s awkward perception of time and self, his inclination to be led by an impulse of survival and a freedom to be withdrawn from all. Even if it seems to do nothing other than make the character laughable as an object of ridicule, the hero’s persistence to continue in this particular state allows him to create constantly digressive pathways in his rambling. There is no clear, definite or even a valid reason for the Beckett hero to continue and yet he does. If he is compelled by impotence, he is equally compelled by potency. When the narrator of ‘The Calmative’ finally loses strength and falls


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to the ground, he is once again caught up between the two wills to go on and stay where he is: ‘[The passers-by] paid no heed to me, though careful not to walk on me, a courtesy that must have touched me, it was what I had come out for . . . I said, Stay where you are, down on the friendly stone, or at least indifferent, don’t open your eyes, wait for morning. But up with me again and back on the way that was not mine’.33 One of the very few tragic occurrences in the hero’s journey, this passage suggests that the hero is not after all completely impervious to ‘tears and laughter’. However, the impulse to go on, whose source is unknown, pinpoints an almost instinctive desire to create impertinence within the social order, if we take this very impertinence to belong to Beckett’s heroes’ manner of physical and verbal drifting. The impulse to go on comes with the conviction that this activity of rambling should be once again claimed by the hero, specifically when nobody ‘pays heed’ to him. The Beckett hero, then, acquires potency on account of his unfavourable situation just when he is indifferent to the heedlessness of others. The tragic picture in which the disenfranchised is left to his fate on account of people’s sheer unresponsiveness is transfigured through his active determination to go on, specifically in regard to people’s passivity. He acts out his ‘odd scenes’ in this type of extremely passive social atmosphere and chooses to ‘look away’ and ‘go on’. When Molloy is taken to the police station, he is able to distract himself from the pressure of the situation: It was I and my bicycle. I began to play, gesticulating, waving my hat, moving my bicycle to and fro before me, blowing the horn, watching the horn. They [the police officers] were watching me through the bars, I felt their eyes upon me. The policeman on guard at the door told me to go away. He needn’t have, I was calm again. The shadow in the end is no better than the substance. I asked the man to help me, to have pity on me. He didn’t understand. I thought of the food I had refused. . . . The man came towards me, angered by my slowness. Him too they were watching, through the windows. Somewhere someone laughed. Inside me too someone was laughing.34

The narrator’s quirky gestures while waiting to be freed at the police station are funny indeed, but perhaps more subtly, beyond this incongruity is an impression of freedom from the gravity of the situation, a freedom from reacting in a certain way, that encompasses Beckett’s heroes’ worlds. While begging and pleading for pity, the narrator in fact evokes apathy. The final laughter implies complete disregard for the meaning of the previous action. The hero imitates human inclinations, making the effort to address others’ feeling of pity, but consistently fails. Rather than acting according to intention and instruction, the Beckett hero rambles. This physical freedom also allows liberation from social conduct and even proper conversation. His impulse to ‘ramble on’ is so overwhelming that he is not interested in the meaning of pity even when he is pleading for it. Improper behaviour becomes

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an escape for the Beckett character when abused by authority or dismissed by society. But such sense of escape, rather than resulting from a determined act of resistance on the part of the hero, results from an apparently inactive, indifferent mode of rambling in which the Beckett hero actualises himself. He is not particularly indifferent to being someone; rather, his whole being is indifferent as it roams in a field of irresponsibility, not bound by anything, not even his name and origin. This comprehensive indifference seems at first to suggest a politics of withdrawal, of reducing all that happens to a simple joke in which differences, and hence the active outcomes of differences, are eliminated. In fact there seems to be no substantial action that makes any difference in the heroes’ living condition. Humour tends to displace the significance of several affairs and actions to offer an evening-out of importances, privileges, rankings. When the narrator of ‘The End’ recounts his encounter with a policeman and a priest, he combines an implied act of sympathy with a sense of insensitivity towards both the kindness and the abuse he receives: One day I had a visit from a policeman. He said I had to be watched, without explaining why. Suspicious, that was it, he told me I was suspicious. I let him talk. He didn’t dare arrest me. Or perhaps he had a kind heart. A priest, too, one day I had a visit from a priest. . . . He told me to let him know if I needed a helping hand. A helping hand! He gave me his name and explained where I could reach him. I should have made a note of it.35

Beckett’s heroes somehow register and affirm abuses and kindnesses, but they never ‘make a note of it’. Such an assumed act of withdrawal maps out the limits of the hero’s capacities and provokes mobility by allowing him to change his position. Beckett’s humour, rather than emptying the hero’s life of the significance of actions, dismantles the schema of expectations and the paradigm of normative socialisation so as to create disconnections, digressions, meanderings, to constantly re-create life in new images and actions. This complex network of non-ideal and non-hierarchical activities constitutes a liberating model. CONCLUSION: FROM IMPERSONAL ‘LIFE’ TO PERSONAL STRUGGLE The positive aspect of such indifference is that Beckett’s heroes, despite their blatant naiveté, give the impression that they subsist as ‘all-knowing’ figures on another level. Like Baudelaire’s ‘sage’, they manifest a ‘contemplative innocence’ as if through this sage-like aspect, they are able to conceive an inconceivable naiveté.36 Hence, the pragmatic as well as problematic aspect of Beckett’s humour originates in the heroes’ concurrent state of childishness


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and wisdom. This particular parallel divergence in Beckett constitutes the final premise of the comic subjectivity of his characters, which, besides giving the hero a sense of freedom from purposiveness, also strategically helps position him against obtrusive attacks. By way of such ignorance, the Beckett hero is able to maintain ambiguous relationships to figures of authority. Every so often, the hero assumes the role of the social critic, expressing veiled caustic remarks where possible. His verbal responses born out of childish credulity are, from another perspective, jabs aimed at those who ‘pay no heed’. Against the destructive tendencies of those who ignore the Beckett hero, the hero’s own indifference/ignorance expresses a creative breakout. When Molloy is warned by a police officer because his way of resting on his bicycle ‘was a violation of I don’t know what, public order, public decency’, he immediately concludes: ‘But there are not two laws, . . . one for the healthy, another for the sick, but one only to which all must bow, rich and poor, young and old, happy and sad’.37 Neither ignorance nor knowledge is anticipated or assumed in Beckett; rather, they are constantly produced by the characters in ways which enable them to disconnect from the constraining imperatives that social and moral life requires. The degree of sophistication thus varies perpetually from oblivion to absolute knowledge, from the pure joy of life to sinister sneers. If Beckett’s heroes are able to conceive of a ‘virtual smile’ in their loitering, their ambiguously ignorant status situates or actualises this smile within an ingenious form of defiance. This serves to foreshadow in the hero an urgency to offend, which is completely paradoxical to the so-called indifference he conveys. However, such complication lays bare in the hero’s journey the dimension of the personal struggle, obscured within the impersonal conception of life: A struggle resulting from a muted insurgence against a much more concrete, social form of indifference coming from society, different from the hero’s mode of being. By creating a textual space that allows for digressions, disconnections and ambiguities, Beckett ties an expression of impersonal, indifferent complacence to that of personal struggle within a contentious atmosphere. The hero’s multilayered expression of indifference criss-crosses a field of various states and forms, and remains capable of flipping positions. Life thus becomes empowering by conforming to the neutrality of a sense of humour, which allows all potentials to be equally prevalent. NOTES 1. Peter Boxall, ‘Samuel Beckett: Towards a Political Reading’, Irish Studies Review 10 (2002): 159–60. 2. Samuel Beckett, The Complete Short Prose of Samuel Beckett, 1929–1989. Ed. S. E. Gontarski (New York: Grove Press, 1995), 61–62.

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3. Ibid., 60. 4. Ibid., 51. 5. Anthony Uhlmann, Samuel Beckett and the Philosophical Image (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 61. 6. For a detailed analysis of the historicity of Beckett’s use of the ‘schizoid voice’ see Weller, ‘ “Some Experience of the Schizoid Voice”: Samuel Beckett and the Language of Derangement’ in Forum for Modern Language Studies 45 (2008): 32–50. 7. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem and Helen R. Lane (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), 9. 8. Beckett, The Complete Short Prose, 50. 9. Samuel Beckett, Three Novels: Molloy; Malone Dies; The Unnamable (New York: Grove Press, 1958), 84. 10. Ibid., 50. 11. Beckett, The Complete Short Prose, 61. 12. Ibid., 85. 13. Beckett, Three Novels, 49. 14. See ‘The Greatest Irish Film (Beckett’s “Film”)’ and ‘The Exhausted’ in Gilles Deleuze’s Essays Critical and Clinical, trans. Daniel W. Smith and Michael A. Greco (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997). Deleuze claims that there is no end/death in Beckett but always a ‘becoming-imperceptible’. His characters are expressed in virtual domains in which they exhaust possibilities and continually escape realisation. 15. Audrone Žukauskaitė, ‘Deleuze and Beckett Towards Becoming Imperceptible’, in Deleuze and Beckett, eds. S. E. Wilmer and Audrone Žukauskaitė (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 63–6. 16. Beckett, Three Novels, 57. 17. Ibid., 88. 18. Ibid. 19. Žukauskaitė, ‘Deleuze and Beckett’, 69. 20. Beckett, Three Novels, 58. 21. Ibid., 48. 22. In certain other texts by Beckett, an emphatic idea of indifference is overarticulated. A bizarre formulation is made by the character Wylie in Murphy, when he speaks of life thus: ‘Humanity is a well with two buckets . . . one going down to be filled, the other coming up to be emptied’. Samuel Beckett, Murphy (New York: Grove Press, 1957), 36. 23. Gilles Deleuze, Pure Immanence: Essays on a Life, trans. Anne Boyman (New York: Zone Books, 2001), 28. 24. Beckett, Three Novels, 414. 25. Beckett, The Complete Short Prose, 98. 26. Beckett, Three Novels, 48. 27. Beckett, The Complete Short Prose, 81. 28. Beckett, Three Novels, 24–25. 29. The relevance of Stoic philosophy to Beckett’s contemplation of life and to the development of his characters, particularly in his later plays, is analysed in Uhlmann’s


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essay ‘Withholding Assent: Beckett in the Light of Stoic Ethics’, in Beckett and Ethics, ed. Russell Smith (London and New York: Continuum International, 2008), 57–68. 30. Ibid., 37. 31. Beckett, The Complete Short Prose, 91. 32. Ibid., 91. 33. Ibid., 76. 34. Beckett, Three Novels, 25–26. 35. Beckett, The Complete Short Prose, 85. 36. Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life, trans. P. E. Charvet (London: Penguin Classics, 2010), 154. 37. Beckett, Three Novels, 20.

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‘Holiday in Cambodia’: Punk’s Acerbic Comedy Russ Bestley

Definitions of punk inevitably revolve around stereotypes and generalisations, many stemming from received conventions reflecting the provocative, political or subversive positions taken by some of punk’s leading figures. The use of humour in punk, in performance, lyrics and visual communication, is often overlooked. The ability to mock, to question and to undermine through satire, wit and innuendo helped to develop new forms of punk critique and dialogue, with a lasting impact both within and outside the subculture – in the cathartic release brought about by breaking taboos, and in the use of irony and invective as strategies to question positions of authority and power. Focusing on a range of key examples of acerbic punk performance, this chapter explores the ways in which punk employed humour as an ideological weapon, as well as a source of amusement and entertainment. As punk matured and evolved, an internal dialogue developed that embraced humour as one weapon within a sophisticated armoury that could be drawn upon to tease, mock, question or insult rival groups and individuals within the subculture as well as wider, external targets. A later generation of punk and post-punk performers, artists and designers, however, went further, employing a particularly dark and disruptive humour as a central aspect of their communication and practice. Dead Kennedys, Crass and Killing Joke took punk’s natural predisposition towards breaking taboos and channelled its energy into a malicious attack not only on external and remote figures of authority but also on their punk peers and associates. Their attack was not limited to conventional targets and encompassed a much wider range of cultural agents – including some purporting to act in opposition to the mainstream and regarded as natural allies by many within the subculture. While earlier punk groups had been ambivalent, or at least uncritical, towards ‘progressive’ political movements or the wider Left, this later generation saw all sides as fair game for critique, or confrontation. 165


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In his study of English humour, A National Joke, Andy Medhurst discusses the power struggles at the heart of comedy: ‘Comic practice is always on some level or in some measure an assertion of group against group, an effect and an event of struggle, a form of symbolic violence’.1 Punk humour is no different: symbolic (or even, at times, actual) violence may be targeted at those outside of punk, as a strategy for inclusion and exclusion, or employed in the internecine rivalry between different punk sub-genres. The struggle of ‘group against group’ is, then, not only between those self-identifying as punks and their perceived opponents within mainstream (or ‘straight’) culture but also at times an assertion of authenticity among factions of the same subculture.2 Medhurst goes on to explore the long-standing tradition of English comedy, from the Crazy Gang, Frank Randle and George Formby to contemporary comics such as Roy ‘Chubby’ Brown, positing them as potentially subversive through ‘an assault on taboos, a stress on the body, a mockery of authority figures, a relishing of mayhem and a disregard for boundaries’.3 Medhurst locates the early comic pioneers in a direct confrontational relationship with the contemporary conservatism of ‘respectable mid-century Britishness’.4 Punk’s cultural onslaught merits direct comparison – particularly in its attack on late twentieth-century national and cultural values – and it should come as no surprise that the weapon of satirical and subversive humour might be adopted in the process. The relationship between punk and comedy is doubleedged: the initial punk boom was employed as a target of ridicule by contemporary comedians, while at the same time many of its participants embraced humour as a strategy for resistance. These two poles, and the complex boundary between them, suggest a more subtle and nuanced interpretation of punk’s comedic value, from both outside and inside the subculture. The ‘punk explosion’ in the UK between 1976 and 1977 provoked a great many critical responses from the established media and entertainment industries, a number of them rooted in humour or comedy. From cartoons in the national papers to mockery by comedians and television commentators, punk’s shock provocations provided an easily recognisable scapegoat for ridicule and parody, much of it rather clumsy and poorly targeted. At the same time, comic performers were keen to cash in on the public attention engendered by this new music phenomenon – not least because its perceived lack of virtuosity allowed for simple impersonation. This led to a nationwide boom in punk parodies, from television comedians and variety performers, including Larry Grayson and the Barron Knights, to records by ageing British comedians including Charlie Drake’s ‘Super Punk’ (Sol-Doon 1976) and Andy Cameron’s ‘I Want to Be a Punk Rocker’ (Klub Records 1977). Popular British comedy trio The Goodies (Tim Brooke-Taylor, Graeme Garden and Bill Oddie) dedicated an entire episode of their hit television series to a punk parody entitled Punky Business, first broadcast in November 1977. Meanwhile,

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the Two Ronnies performed sketches dressed as ‘punks’ on their mainstream comedy show, and Kenny Everett’s Gizzard Puke character became a regular feature in his self-titled television series from 1978 onwards. The satirical effect of these attacks on the burgeoning punk movement was complicated, however, by the presence of comic punk records by a number of mystery groups including the Water Pistols – ‘Gimme That Punk Junk’ (State Records 1976), Matt Black & the Doodlebugs – ‘Punky Xmas’ (B&C Records 1976), Norman & the Hooligans – ‘I’m A Punk’ (President Records 1977), the Punkettes – ‘Going Out Wiv A Punk’ (Response Records 1977), Kevin Short & His Privates – ‘Punk Strut’ (EMI International 1978) and the Duggie Briggs Band – ‘Punk-Rockin’ Granny’ (It Records 1978, see figure 11.1). These punk parodies (later, even afforded their own genre terminology, ‘punksploitation’) existed in a sort of hinterland between an ‘external’ establishment assault and ‘internal’ subcultural participation, closely reflecting traditions of exploitation records in pop music going back to the 1950s. One of the most successful UK bands in this field, Alberto Y Lost Trios Paranoias, had originally started out parodying a range of contemporary rock

Figure 11.1.  Duggie Briggs Band, ‘Punk-Rockin’ Granny’ (It Records 1978).


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acts including Lou Reed and Status Quo, and supported Hawkwind on their 1974 UK tour.5 The group turned their gaze towards punk in 1977, recording the Snuff Rock EP for the fledgling Stiff Records.6 Since Stiff had been established in 1976 to tap into the booming pub rock scene and the new punk rock phenomenon,7 issuing the first UK punk single, the Damned’s ‘New Rose’, in October 1976, and album, Damned Damned Damned in February 1977, the label carried a degree of cultural cachet within the subculture, and the Albertos were to set the scene for a number of punk parody and comedy acts to follow. Snuff Rock kicks off in style with ‘Kill’: I don’t give a damn I don’t fucking care I’m gonna kill me mum and then pull out me hair I’m fed up with the dole and the human race Gonna cut me liver out and shove it in your face Kill! Kill!8

While such ridiculous hyperbole was obviously conceived for comedic effect, the record sounded pretty close to ‘punk’ in style and energy, and the lyrics were not a million miles away from the tracks ‘Born to Kill’ and ‘Stab Yor Back’ on the Damned’s debut album, or a host of copycat acts that followed.9 Since the record was released on the same label as the Damned, the Adverts, Elvis Costello and other leading UK punk pioneers, and shared some graphic similarities with other early punk records, it was perhaps too subtle to have a significant impact as an obvious parody and was broadly well received by punk listeners. A form of comedic resistance against punk was, then, co-opted by punks, though it is hard to tell how much of this was deliberate or accidental, since the subculture’s self-effacing wit embraced many of the same strategies. PUNK HUMOURISTS Some punk groups made attempts at overt humour or comedy (often as a result of being comedians first and punks second, if at all), adopting a lighthearted approach to lyrics and performance, which they then carried through in all their work (the Ramones and the Dickies in the United States, Notsensibles and Toy Dolls in the UK).10 However, these examples are perhaps the more obvious in terms of an outward-facing form of punk humour – others embraced a sometimes bitingly sarcastic attitude towards their ‘punk’ peers, often as a corrective gesture targeting the subculture’s perceived loss of authenticity (Television Personalities, the Adverts, Alternative TV and later, in the early 1980s, the Anti Nowhere League, Chaotic Dischord and Action Pact, among many others).11 The use of parody, satire and casually offensive

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lyrical phrasing is implicit to a wide range of punk records, though they can be ‘read’ on a number of levels. Parodic intentions may not be obvious to those outside the intended audience, but their offensiveness remains explicit as a defining element. Comedy within musical performance was nothing new, of course. With its roots going back to Music Hall and beyond – Medhurst notes that ‘Music hall is the mother lode of English popular comedy’12 – to traditions of folk and street entertainment, the burgeoning music industry in the twentieth century had embraced comedy in most popular genres. Novelty records were often big hits, usually reflecting contemporary trends in popular culture or news stories of the day. Hugely popular in the 1920s and 1930s, in part due to the impact of the wider commercial reach of new, high-powered radio networks across the United States, novelty records enjoyed something of a resurgence in the 1950s and 1960s, with country music, rock ’n’ roll and skiffle providing a perfect conduit for comedy songs. Johnny Cash, Chuck Berry and Lonnie Donegan all had hits with novelty records (‘A Boy Named Sue’, ‘My Ding-A-Ling’, ‘Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavour [On the Bedpost Overnight]?’) while one-off recordings by lesser-known artists reflecting contemporary themes including the space race, cars, television, monster movies, dance trends and fashion hit the charts. Iain Ellis’s Brit Wits: A History of British Rock Humor acknowledges the debt paid by punk humourists to their forebears: from the court jesters of old to the rock wits of today, British humorists – across the arts – have been the pioneers of rebellion, chastising society’s hypocrites, exploiters, and phonies, while simultaneously slighting the very institutions that maintain them. The best of the British wits are (to steal a coinage from The Clash) ‘bullshit detectors’ with subversion on their minds and the jugulars of their enemies in their sights. Such subversive humor is held dear in British hearts and minds, and it runs deep in their history.13

Ellis does acknowledge that an area of highbrow influence within later Glam Rock acted as a precedent for (some) punk performers, citing a range of twentieth-century avant-garde art movements including Futurism, Dada, Surrealism, Pop Art and the Situationist International on the ‘sophisticated art school wit’ of the Kinks, the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band and Roxy Music,14 which subsequently helped shape and inform punk. For Ellis, these themes were exemplified in punk by the likes of Ian Dury and the Sex Pistols, but he fails to dig deeper into punk’s wider embrace of darker themes and a more caustic, or politicised, model of humour through the late 1970s, into the 1980s and beyond. Punk went one step further. While some early proponents similarly drew inspiration from avant-garde art – notably pop art and the Situationists – punk’s ‘expressions of sarcasm and irony that amounted


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to vitriolic mockery’15 were unprecedented in popular music, drawing as much on the insurrectionary traditions of bawdy Music Hall performers as the highbrow satirical styles of those embracing more ‘sophisticated’ forms of wit. Many other groups picked up on the satirical opportunities offered by punk, as Jello Biafra, lead singer of US hardcore punk group Dead Kennedys, noted: ‘We have a sense of humour and we’re not afraid to use it in a vicious way if we have to. In some ways, we’re cultural terrorists, using music instead of guns’.16 Even a focus on the Sex Pistols opens up a great deal more complexity: while lead vocalist Johnny Rotten would be widely seen as the spokesperson for the group, with his withering sarcasm interpreted as some kind of collective manifesto, other band members took a more direct approach. Guitarist Steve Jones was central to the media response of shock and outrage following the Bill Grundy television interview on 1 December 1976. While Rotten’s obtuse response to a question about Beethoven, Mozart, Bach and Brahms, ‘They’re heroes of ours, ain’t they? . . . They’re wonderful people’ dripped with sarcasm, Jones’s more down-to-earth assault on the presenter – ‘You dirty sod. You dirty old man’ – drew more directly from the Carry On movies and Steptoe & Son. Faced with Grundy’s provocation to ‘keep going chief, keep going’, Jones adopted a more directly offensive tone: ‘You dirty bastard. You dirty fucker’. Goaded by Grundy once again – ‘What a clever boy!’ – Jones gets the last word: ‘What a fucking rotter!’17 It’s a hilarious interview in retrospect, owing more to bawdy traditions of working-class humour than to insurrection and anti-establishment ideologies. As the Sex Pistols, and British punk more widely, descended into a chaotic media frenzy of banned tours and shock horror exposés in the national newspapers, the band members began to resort to type. Rotten became more publicly acerbic and controversial, building a public persona that he would critically reflect upon in his subsequent group Public Image Ltd, while bassist Glen Matlock was ejected from the band and replaced by Sid Vicious, who took the mantle of stereotypical ‘punk’ caricature to its natural conclusion. A long-term friend of Sex Pistols singer Johnny Rotten, Vicious (John Simon Ritchie) projected a deliberately nihilistic persona, swearing, spitting and starting fights with a mixture of provocative aggression and calculated stupidity. In response, Jones went further down the Music Hall route: So I started wearing the knotted white handkerchief on my head like Gumby from Monty Python. . . . The cartoon element would not have come to the fore so much if Glen had still been in the band, but I figured if the end of the pier was the direction we were heading in, I might as well get there first.18

Steve Jones also provided the title for the band’s debut album, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, released in October 1977, with Jamie

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Figure 11.2.  The Pork Dukes, ‘Bend and Flush’ (Wood Records 1977).

Reid’s accompanying cover design eliciting outrage and widespread bans.19 The Sex Pistols’ critical arsenal of weapons based on humour ranged from the deeply satirical to the bluntly offensive: punk’s adoption of strategies of humour was, similarly, diverse and wide-ranging. From the catharsis offered by the puerile bawdiness of the Pork Dukes (figure 11.2), Wayne County & the Electric Chairs or the Macc Lads, to the satirical response offered by the Stranglers to their critics or the savage wit of Dead Kennedys and Killing Joke, punk offers a multitude of resources for further analysis. ‘BLATANTLY OFFENZIVE’ Traditions of vulgar and offensive comedy go back centuries, through Bahktin’s notion of the carnivalesque,20 and in relatively ‘liberal’ post-1960s Britain there were numerous antecedents and parallels to punk’s ribald language. Contemporaneous similarities might be made with the spoken-word recordings of British comedians Peter Cook and Dudley Moore under the


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pseudonym Derek & Clive – the albums Come Again (1977) and Ad Nauseam (1978) featured dialogues between the characters that sought to be as deeply offensive and puerile as possible in the name of entertainment. Many of these themes can be traced further back, to the compilation albums of rugby songs made popular in the 1960s, the Carry On series of British comedy films (1958 to 1978), Donald McGill’s saucy seaside postcards and traditions of workingclass end-of-pier and Music Hall entertainment. The Stranglers, a group who had been gigging regularly since 1974 and came into the early UK punk scene via pub rock (alongside Joe Strummer of The Clash, Ian Dury and others), fell foul of cultural gatekeepers in the scene, particularly music journalists Jon Savage, Caroline Coon and Julie Burchill, in part due to their refusal to ‘play the game’ and their confrontational attitude towards critics. The band was subsequently lambasted for what were seen as directly sexist connotations in some of their songs. One side of the band’s debut single, London Lady, featured the memorable line: Making love to The Mersey Tunnel With a sausage, have you ever been to Liverpool?21

while hit single ‘Peaches’ (United Artists, May 1977) narrated the story of a voyeur ogling women on the beach. Songwriter Hugh Cornwell subsequently justified the song’s lyrics in the context of traditional rock ’n’ roll songwriting around the theme of sex, together with then-contemporary themes of ‘saucy’ humour: it’s funny, because the lyrics are so tongue-in-cheek, I don’t know how anyone could take them any other way . . . the lyrics are full of sexual innuendo, which I love . . . I think Ian Gomm from Brinsley Schwarz had brought out an album and to promote it he’d used a saucy postcard like those you find at the seaside. I thought that was very funny.22

The group would go much further in subsequent recordings (notably ‘Bring on the Nubiles’ on their second album, No More Heroes) and in press interviews, where they would make deliberately provocative statements: ‘If you’ve got the freedom to make outrageous comments, you’re going to use it. A lot of the time we were saying and writing things just to see how far we could take it, finding the boundaries’.23 Questions followed in regard to their attitude to racism with the song ‘I Feel Like a Wog’ – though the shocking term was employed to relate to wider forms of injustice and oppression, a strategy that utilised offense as a form of resistance. The group’s lyrics were often barbed and witty, but some of their subtlety could be lost on a ‘punk’ audience more used to a level of bluntness in communication and a more straightforwardly literal interpretation of ostensibly generic sloganeering.

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Meanwhile, other early punk bands played up to the ‘rude and offensive’ caricature ascribed to the new youth culture – being ‘Blatantly Offenzive’, in the words of Wayne County.24 The Pork Dukes formed in 1977 in response to a parody advert in the music press for a record entitled ‘Bend and Flush’ that didn’t actually exist, writing and recording a song of the same title on their own Wood Records label in order to cash in on the publicity. They went on to release a number of further records, including the singles ‘Making Bacon’ and ‘Telephone Masturbator’ and the album Pink Pork, which included songs such as ‘Dirty Boys (You Dirty Cunts)’ and ‘(I Like Your) Big Tits (Let’s See If It Fits)’. Liverpool’s Neville Wanker and the Punters released the single ‘Boys on the Dole’ on the Lightning Records label in 1978 – the ‘shock tactic’ simply residing in the name of the group (the record was subsequently reissued under the name Neville and the Punters), with a broadly similar approach taken by journalist Giovanni Dadomo’s group the Snivelling Shits for their ‘Terminal Stupid’/‘I Can’t Come’ single (Ghetto Rockers 1977). The first pressing (about 1,500 copies) sold out quickly, and the record was hurriedly re-pressed in October 1977 in France, after the UK pressing plant workers complained about the band name and refused to handle more copies. It was made single of the week on 6 August 1977 by Monty Smith in the New Musical Express. First wave UK punk band the Boys also seized the opportunity to embrace ribald humour, releasing novelty Christmas singles each year between 1977 and 1981 under the pseudonym the Yobs. Each single featured a cover version of a Christmas song and a parody sleeve image on the theme of Hitler and the Nazi Party.25 As punk evolved over the following years, such shock tactic approaches became a prominent feature of the subculture. Transgender performer Wayne (later Jayne) County had built a notorious reputation at Max’s Kansas City nightclub, New York, in the early 1970s before relocating to London in 1976 to form the Electric Chairs. The group’s debut single, ‘Fuck Off’ (Sweet F.A. 1977), featured the memorable chorus ‘if you don’t want to fuck me baby, baby fuck off!’ Alberto Y Lost Trios Paranoias also got in on the act once again, with the song ‘Fuck You’ – initially released on the ‘Heads Down, No Nonsense, Mindless Boogie’ double single (Logo Records 1978) in two separate guises (‘Fuck You’ and a cleaned-up version, ‘Thank You’) and separately packaged as a single in its own right, ‘**** You’/‘Dead Meat (Part II)’ (Logo Records 1978). Meanwhile, glam rock/punk outfit Raped released their debut Pretty Paedophiles EP at the end of 1977 on the Parole Records label – provocatively stating on the back of the sleeve that the record was ‘not available at W.H. Smiths, Boots or Woolies’. It wasn’t available in Rough Trade and other punk-sympathetic independent record shops either, as the group’s name fell foul of the progressive ideology of many of the business owners and managers who dominated the scene. Follow-up ‘Cheap Night Out’/‘Foreplay Playground’ didn’t exactly endear them to their critics


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either, and the group renamed themselves Cuddly Toys, going on to achieve a level of commercial success in the 1980s. The incongruous humour in the name-change should also not be underestimated here: a dramatic shift to an ostensibly childlike group nomenclature completely (and deliberately) at odds with their former incarnation. The early 1980s saw something of a resurgence of punk activity in the UK and United States, in part as a rejection of the commodification and recuperation of the original punk spirit of rebellion, enthused by a new generation of younger participants. New punk sub-genres, including Hardcore and Anarcho-Punk, eschewed commerciality in favour of a return to a more politicised ‘authentic’ punk ideology, while Oi! and New Punk emphasised the subculture’s working-class roots. The first wave of punk was widely seen as not just an inspiration for this new generation of punk participants and performers, but as something of a failed project that needed to be critiqued, with lessons learned about recuperation and new strategies adopted to avoid a similar fate. Punk music, lyrics and graphics became harsher, harder and more visceral as a result,26 with punk humour following suit into more extreme territory. In the United States, hardcore punk groups including Fear, whose 1981 appearance on Saturday Night Live as special guests of comedian John Belushi resulted in $20,000 damage to the set, the Meatmen (who released the notorious Crippled Children Suck EP in 1982) and the Angry Samoans (who masqueraded as the Queer Pills for their The Depraved EP in 1981, which included the controversial track ‘They Saved Hitler’s Cock’) led the charge in the establishment of a hardcore pop-punk comedy genre. Los Angeles punk group the Rotters had pre-dated many such tactics with their debut single ‘Sit on My Face Stevie Nicks’ on their own Rotten Records label in 1978, and follow-up ‘Sink the Whales, Buy Japanese Goods’ in 1979. The US West Coast was something of a centre for the evolution of comic punk performers, from the Dickies in the 1970s through to NOFX and Me First and the Gimme Gimmes in the 1990s and beyond. In the UK, meanwhile, the Anti Nowhere League, from Tunbridge Wells, Kent, established a reputation for vulgar comedy with their debut single, a crude reworking of the Ralph McTell’s 1971 hit ‘Streets of London’, backed by the band’s own composition, ‘So What’ (WXYZ Records 1981): I’ve been to Hastings I’ve been to Brighton I’ve been to Eastbourne too So what . . . So what . . . So what . . . So what . . . You boring little cunt27

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Both the single and their debut album, We Are the League (WXYZ Records 1982), were seized by police under the Obscene Publications Act, with around 10,000 copies of the single destroyed. Their second and third singles ‘I Hate . . . People’ and ‘Woman’ both charted, passing the censors (surprisingly, particularly in the case of the latter song), though the album had to be re-recorded with modified lyrics, thus ensuring a long-lasting notoriety for the group.28 Around the same time, Chaotic Dischord, a hardcore punk parody group from Bristol, formed as an incognito offshoot of high-profile local group Vice Squad in a rather unsubtle but commercially successful parody of the developing ‘thrash’ movement. Their record releases were created to be as juvenile and offensive as possible, including the debut Fuck the World EP (1982) and album Fuck Religion, Fuck Politics, Fuck the Lot of You! (1983), and despite (or possibly because of ) their obviously over-the-top and tongue-in-cheek offensiveness they went on to be successful in the independent record charts. The band’s second album, Live in New York (Riot City 1984) ignored the fact that the group never actually played a gig, let alone in New York, and their ambition to be the most offensive punk group in the world was played out via songs such as ‘Loud, Tuneless and Thick’, ‘We’re So Fuckin’ Deep and Meaningful’, ‘Get Off My Fuckin’ Allotment’ and ‘Your Crutch Fuckin’ Stinks’. The third album attributed to the band, Fuck Off You Cunt! . . . What a Load of Bollocks!!! (Syndicate Records 1984) included ‘I Fucked the Pope’, ‘Gender Bender Wanker’ and ‘Abort the Royal Family’, though it later materialised that this recording had been put together illicitly under the Chaotic Dischord name by former Vice Squad vocalist Beki Bondage and original bassist Igor, who had recently been sacked by the band. ‘I TRIED TO MAKE HIM LAUGH, HE DIDN’T GET THE JOKE . . .’ Beyond punk’s carnivalesque ribaldry, there was also another emerging aspect of punk humour. Ken Willis, in ‘Merry Hell: Humour Competence and Social Incompetence’,29 outlines the ways in which humour is based on group cohesion and acceptance, and on ‘reference groups’ (social groups in which other people place individuals) and ‘identification groups’ (social groups in which people place themselves). Willis draws on Hay’s model of recognition, understanding and appreciation of humour: he notes the gap between understanding and appreciation, suggesting that while a ‘joke’ may be recognised and understood, its appreciation is determined by social factors related to the reader’s ‘humour competence’. Humorous exchanges based on power relationships usually revolve around a teller, a hearer and a ‘butt’ of the joke, with


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the teller and hearer sharing a common bond in relation to a mutual enemy (the butt). However, as the author goes on to explain, these relationships are fluid in themselves, and humour may be experienced by audiences (or hearers) with very different world views. Willis cites 1960s British sitcom Till Death Us Do Part, where the reactionary central character Alf Garnett was conceived as the butt of the ‘joke’ by writer Johnny Speight, but elicited outrage from ‘progressive’ campaigners. At the same time, the irony of the script was lost on sections of the viewing audience, some of whom even professed sympathy with Garnett’s extreme views. This duality also affects the reception and understanding of humour within the punk subculture. Humour may have acted as a bonding strategy to bring punk communities together and exclude outsiders, but the subtlety and sophistication of some models of irony and satire did lead to confusion. In the words of the Stranglers: ‘I Tried to Make Him Laugh, He Didn’t Get the Joke’.30 There is a danger of misunderstanding in lyrics to songs that utilise strongly ironic positions, such as ‘White Noise’ by Stiff Little Fingers (Rough Trade 1978). The song uses racist terms such as ‘niggers’, ‘golly wogs’, ‘piccaninnies’ and ‘pakis’, suggesting they should all be ‘sent home’. The ironic punchline comes in the final verse: Paddy is a moron. Spud thick Mick. Breeds like a rabbit. Thinks with his prick. Anything floors him if he can’t fight or drink it. Round them up in Ulster. Tow it out and sink it. Green wogs. Green wogs. Face don’t fit. Green wogs. Green wogs. Ain’t no Brit.31

The fact that the group was Irish, from Belfast, and as such were sending themselves up as the stereotypical ‘green wogs’ was lost on some sections of their audience, and the lyrics were taken by some at face value as an attack on racial minorities. The song was intended to be a tirade against all forms of racism: lead singer and lyricist Jake Burns reasoned that their audience, through their affiliation with the group, would see the problem of racial stereotyping for what it was, but noted on reflection that it was perhaps too subtle for the arena he was working within: basically the lyric was just every sort of filthy racist comment that we could think of . . . all put into this one lyric. The twist on it was that we finished it with an attack on the Irish and, of course, being Irish ourselves, that was supposed to highlight the irony within the song. We’ve come a cropper with irony more than once.32

The group was subsequently banned from playing in North East England due to their supposed ‘racism’, with further irony in the fact that the local

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newspaper report included a photograph of the group playing live at a Rock against Racism concert. Humour and political rhetoric were a difficult mix, and punk groups needed to be careful in pitching their critique in a manner that could avoid misinterpretation. However, others thrived on confrontation and ambiguity. When Killing Joke headlined a gig in support of a Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament rally in Trafalgar Square, London, on 26 October 1980, vocalist Jaz Coleman introduced the band in front of a crowd of up to 80,000 protesters with the memorable line: ‘We are the Killing Joke. This is the only honesty here today. Ha ha ha ha ha’.33 The group took a deliberately incendiary stance within their performances, embracing wordplay and double meanings – even their name, Killing Joke, was deliberately ambiguous, as Coleman explained to a fanzine interviewer in 1979: It’s like a soldier in the first world war. He’s in the trench, he knows his life is gone and that within the next ten minutes he’s gonna be dead . . . and then suddenly he realises that some cunt back in Westminster’s got him sussed – ‘What am I doing this for? I don’t want to kill anyone, I’m just being controlled’.34

These dualities were also played out in the images on the group’s records and posters. Graphic designer Mike Coles was drafted in to develop a visual aesthetic for the Malicious Damage record label, utilising a mixture of drawing and collage to create witty, inflammatory images that reflected the provocative nature of the bands on the label – Killing Joke, Red Beat and Ski Patrol.35 Killing Joke’s debut EP, Turn to Red, included a set of four printed inserts designed by Coles: one with lyrics of the title song, a typographic play on 45RPM, a fake advertisement for ‘SHADPHOS Brain Sparklers – The Mighty Tonic for Brain and Nerves’, and a calling card featuring a wreath and the words ‘Chortle Chortle’ in a delicate script. Stickers and badges extended the play on words of the group’s name: ‘Laugh at Your Peril’ and ‘Killing Joke Confirm Your Worst Fears’. The band’s second release, the single ‘Wardance’/’Pssyche’, featured an image of Fred Astaire nimbly springing over bodies strewn around First World War trenches, set against a blood red sky. It’s typical of Coles’s work – disturbing, amusing, witty and shocking in equal measure, employing visual puns and the juxtaposition of discordant images to dramatic effect. Other graphic work featured a similarly ironic use of found imagery. A notorious early promotional poster for the group reproduced a photograph of Benedictine monk Alban Schachleiter saluting a parade of Nazi brownshirts in early 1930s’ Germany: the simple headline ‘Killing Joke’ providing barbed commentary as well as the deliberate visual ambiguity that was to be the group’s trademark. For Killing Joke’s eponymous debut album in August 1980, Coles distressed a photograph by renowned British war photographer Don McCullin showing Irish youths running away from British troops in Derry, Northern Ireland, originally


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published in the Sunday Times magazine, 16 December 1971 – just six weeks prior to the Bloody Sunday massacre. Again, the only additional contextual information was the title ‘Killing Joke’, applied to a wall in the centre of the image (figure 11.3). These themes were not unique to the UK. In the United States, San Francisco hardcore punks Dead Kennedys took on board both the satirical and political themes of their British counterparts, but also an open embrace of profanity and a desire to shock using language (through the lyrics and public pronouncements of front man Jello Biafra) and images (through the work of Biafra and design collaborator Winston Smith). Singles such as ‘California Über Alles’ (Alternative Tentacles 1979), ‘Holiday in Cambodia’ (Cherry Red 1980), ‘Kill the Poor’ (Cherry Red 1980) and ‘Too Drunk to Fuck’ (Alternative Tentacles 1981), and albums Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables (Cherry Red 1980), In God We Trust, Inc. (Alternative Tentacles 1981) and Plastic Surgery Disasters (Alternative Tentacles 1982) set the scene, with bitingly satirical and sarcastic lyrics. ‘Holiday in Cambodia’, for instance, was

Figure 11.3.  Killing Joke, ‘Wardance’ (Malicious Damage 1980). Design by Mike Coles.

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a withering satire on ‘progressive’ politics and the attitudes of young, middle class liberals, with Biafra sneering: So you been to school For a year or two And you know you’ve seen it all In daddy’s car Thinkin’ you’ll go far Back east your type don’t crawl Play ethnicky jazz To parade your snazz On your five grand stereo Braggin’ that you know How the niggers feel cold And the slums got so much soul36

At this point, the group’s barbed satire was as much centred on social commentary as it was an overt form of political rhetoric. As Dead Kennedys guitarist East Bay Ray reflected, in Alex Ogg’s Dead Kennedys: Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables: ‘All music doesn’t have to be political. And all punk music doesn’t have to be political. And it doesn’t have to be serious. That’s one of the joys of Dead Kennedys. There’s a lot of tongue-in-cheek stuff. We really weren’t advocating killing the poor – that was satire’.37 Dead Kennedys songs such as ‘Let’s Lynch the Landlord’, ‘Stealing Peoples’ Mail’ and ‘I Kill Children’ were darkly humorous commentaries on modern life in the United States, with the group developing a more openly politicised polemic over subsequent albums, matched by some notoriously hard-hitting graphics. The balance between satirical humour and direct political commentary shifted more towards the latter as the band, and the wider hardcore punk movement, responded to an increasingly authoritarian Republican presidency under Ronald Reagan – exemplified in their reworking of their debut single, ‘California Über Alles’, as ‘We’ve Got a Bigger Problem Now’ on the In God We Trust, Inc. mini album in 1981. The first recording had been a lyrically witty swipe at the Democratic Party governor of California, Jerry Brown: Zen fascists will control you 100% natural You will jog for the master race And always wear the happy face38

With Reagan in power and the Republican Party exercising hardline control across the country, Biafra’s lyrics for the updated song took a darker tone.


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Figure 11.4.  Dead Kennedys ‘Kill the Poor’ (Cherry Red 1981). Design by Winston Smith.

Introducing his subject in the first person: ‘I am Emperor Ronald Reagan, Born again with fascist cravings, Still, you made me president’, the song continues along a similar narrative to ‘California Über Alles’, though it shifts its key target away from complacent post-hippie liberals to the authoritarians of the new political Right: Ku Klux Klan will control you Still you think it’s natural Nigger knockin’ for the master race Still you wear the happy face39

As hardcore punk continued to evolve, a deeper split was to emerge between some self-styled ‘political’ punk participants and fans of the musicbased subculture who continued to enjoy ‘punk’ as a form of entertainment, fashion and community. In the United States two major ‘underground’ magazines, Maximumrocknroll and Profane Existence helped to shape a liberal/left-wing orthodoxy of conduct and belief within broad sections of

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the hardcore punk community as it evolved through the 1980s and 1990s, particularly in its various global guises, from South America to Indonesia, and some of the subtlety and wit of earlier performers has been replaced by a rather po-faced literalism. CONCLUSION Punk embraced humour from the outset – whether in the form of the cathartic release brought about by breaking taboos or the use of irony and invective as a means to provoke and question positions of authority and power. It provided one key strategy within a highly sophisticated armoury, allowing punk performers to project messages that would stick in the minds of potential listeners and viewers. Humour also embraced punk – in the way that establishment forms of comedy took punk’s media storm as a catalyst for commentary and a supposedly ‘easy’ target for ridicule – though many were to discover that, given punk’s internal predisposition for self-mockery and irony, the subculture was a difficult target to hit. The ability to mock, to question and to undermine through satire, wit and innuendo also helped to develop new forms of punk critique and dialogue. Beyond punk’s embrace of comedy for entertainment and amusement, a darker, more acerbic form of humour evolved to highlight the cracks in the utopian dream and disrupt widely accepted beliefs and conventions. This particular use of humour is designed to shock, to disturb and to satirise – to ‘speak truth to power’, not so much through a precision strike by a trained marksman as a clumsy, full-frontal assault by a drunken mob with a dirty bomb. NOTES 1. Andy Medhurst, A National Joke: Popular Comedy and English Cultural Identities (Abingdon: Routledge, 2007), 14. 2. Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor, Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music (London: Faber & Faber, 2007); Russ Bestley, ‘ “I Tried to Make Him Laugh, He Didn’t Get the Joke” – Taking Punk Humour Seriously’, Punk & Post-Punk 2:2 (2013): 119–45; Alex Ogg, Dead Kennedys: Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables – The Early Years (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2014). 3. Medhurst, A National Joke, 14. 4. Medhurst, A National Joke, 14. 5. C. P. Lee, When We Were Thin: Music, Madness and Manchester (Manchester: Hotunpress, 2007). 6. Snuff Rock was actually developed from a stage comedy written by C. P. Lee, Razor Blades and Roundshot (later retitled Sleak – The Snuff Rock Musical), a story


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of a washed-up band who recruit a new singer whom they plan to kill on stage as a publicity stunt. 7. Stiff were no strangers to self-deprecating humour. The term ‘stiff’ is music industry shorthand for a record that fails to sell. 8. Alberto Y. Lost Trios Paranoias, ‘Kill’ (Snuff Rock EP, Stiff Records 1977). 9. Dave Laing, One Chord Wonders: Power and Meaning in Punk Rock (Milton Keynes: Open University, 1985); Russ Bestley, ‘I Tried to Make Him Laugh’. 10. The Ramones famously drew influences from garage rock, 1960s pop and television cartoon band the Archies. Their songs often embraced humour and cartoon violence – ‘Beat on the Brat’, ‘Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue’, ‘Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment’, ‘Cretin Hop’, ‘Teenage Lobotomy’. The Dickies – ‘Doggy Do’, ‘You Drive Me Ape (You Big Gorilla)’ and numerous high-octane cover versions of pop and rock classics including ‘Paranoid’, ‘The Sound of Silence’, ‘Eve of Destruction’; Notsensibles – ‘(I’m in Love with) Margaret Thatcher’, ‘I Thought You Were Dead’; Toy Dolls – ‘Spiders in the Dressing Room’, ‘Glenda and the Test Tube Baby’, ‘Nellie the Elephant’, ‘I’ve Got Asthma’ and so on. 11. Television Personalities – ‘Part Time Punks’, ‘Posing at the Roundhouse’; the Adverts – ‘Safety in Numbers’; Alternative TV – ‘How Much Longer?’. 12. Medhurst, A National Joke, 63. 13. Iain Ellis, Brit Wits: A History of British Rock Humor (Bristol: Intellect, 2012), 3. 14. Ellis, Brit Wits, 65. 15. Ellis, Brit Wits, 73. 16. Jello Biafra, quoted in Forced Exposure 4 (cited in Ogg, Dead Kennedys, 203). 17. Sex Pistols interview with Bill Grundy, the Today show, Thames Television, 1 December 1976. 18. Steve Jones, Lonely Boy: Tales from a Sex Pistol (London: William Heinemann, 2017), 196. 19. Jamie Reid and Jon Savage, Up They Rise – The Incomplete Works of Jamie Reid (London: Faber & Faber, 1987). 20. Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans. Hélène Iswolsky (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1984). 21. The Stranglers, ‘London Lady’ (United Artists 1977). 22. Hugh Cornwell and Jim Drury, The Stranglers: Song by Song (London: Sanctuary, 2001), 30. 23. Hugh Cornwell and Jim Drury, The Stranglers, 31. 24. Wayne County & the Electric Chairs, Blatantly Offenzive EP (Safari Records 1978). 25. ‘Run Rudolph Run’ (NEMS 1977) featured a cover image of former Nazi Party leader Rudolph Hess (with a comedy red nose) in front of Spandau Prison, where he was incarcerated from 1947 through his death in 1987, ‘Silent Night’/‘Stille Nacht’ (NEMS 1978) featured a cartoon of Adolf Hitler in a red Santa Claus suit, and ‘Rub-A-Dum-Dum’ featured an SS uniform with a dummy on the front, and Hitler with a dummy in his mouth on the reverse. 26. Russ Bestley and Alex Ogg, The Art of Punk (London: Omnibus, 2012). 27. Anti Nowhere League, ‘So What’ (WXYZ Records 1981).

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28. The re-release has some words changed on the track ‘Animal’. The line in the song ‘I’m a child molester’ was changed to ‘I’m your next door neighbour’. 29. In Sharon Lockyer and Michael Pickering, eds., Beyond a Joke: The Limits of Humour (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 126–45. 30. The Stranglers, ‘I Feel Like a Wog’ (No More Heroes, United Artists 1977). 31. Stiff Little Fingers, ‘White Noise’ (Inflammable Material, Rough Trade 1979). 32. Jake Burns and Alan Parker, Stiff Little Fingers: Song by Song (London: Sanctuary, 2003), 51. 33. Killing Joke, CND Rally, Trafalgar Square, London 26/10/80. https://www. Accessed 24 April 2017. 34. Allied Propaganda fanzine #3, May 1979. 35. Russ Bestley, ‘Art Attacks and Killing Jokes: The Graphic Language of Punk Humour’, Punk & Post-Punk 2:3 (2013b): 231–67; Mike Coles, Forty Years in the Wilderness: A Graphic Voyage of Art, Design & Stubborn Independence (London: Malicious Damage, 2016). 36. Dead Kennedys, ‘Holiday in Cambodia’ (Cherry Red 1980). 37. In Alex Ogg, Dead Kennedys, 134. 38. Dead Kennedys, ‘California Über Alles’ (Alternative Tentacles 1979). 39. Dead Kennedys, ‘We’ve Got a Bigger Problem Now’ (In God We Trust, Inc., Alternative Tentacles 1981).

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‘What Can’t Be Cured Must Be Endured’: The Postcolonial Humour of Salman Rushdie, Sami Shah and Hari Kondabolu Christine Caruana I don’t want to tell it! – But I swore to tell it all. – No, I renounce, not that, surely some things are better left . . .? – That won’t wash; what can’t be cured, must be endured! – . . . – But how can I, look at me, I’m tearing myself apart, can’t even agree with myself, talking arguing like a wild fellow, cracking up, memory going, yes, memory plunging into chasms and being swallowed by the dark, only fragments remain, none of it makes sense any more! – But I mustn’t presume to judge; must simply continue (having once begun) until the end; sense-and-nonsense is no longer (perhaps never was) for me to evaluate. – But the horror of it, I can’t won’t mustn’t won’t can’t no! – Stop this; begin. – No! – Yes. —Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children1

Storytelling, although often lauded as therapeutic, may sometimes prove to be a rather unpleasant ordeal. It demands commitment and, particularly when it is autobiographical, it forces one to come face-to-face with oneself. A problem emerges, of course, upon the realisation that one’s self is fragmented, contradictory and founded on a hotchpotch of truths and fabrications. The cards, therefore, are already stacked resolutely against Saleem Sinai – Salman Rushdie’s long-suffering narrator in Midnight’s Children – when he sets out to ‘tell it all’ (MC 589). Born on the stroke of midnight, on the night of India’s independence from British rule, he is burdened with the responsibility of his country’s future. As he explains, ‘Thanks to the occult tyrannies of those blandly saluting clocks I had been mysteriously handcuffed to history, my destinies indissolubly chained to those of my country’ (MC 3). Not only must he work through his own personal inadequacies, but he must also feel responsible for the millions of other citizens who inhabit his country. It is a funny, grotesque irony then that – as luck would have it – he is a sickly, 185


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forgetful, sterile and elephant-nosed man with a seeming inability to finish (or even start) a story. This chapter seeks to explore how, against all odds, Saleem narrates an epic tale that intertwines two coming-of-age stories: India’s and his own. As these two strands are woven together, Saleem’s often crude, grotesque and comic world view provides a unique perspective on a time of tumultuous historic struggle. It is a perspective that intermingles what, in Jungian terms, might be referred to as the personal and the collective unconscious. This reading of events is, crucially, only made possible through humour and a topsy-turvy psychology that gravitates towards satire and the carnivalesque. In my argument, Mikhail Bakhtin’s theories of the carnivalesque provide the springboard for a discussion of the role which the carnivalesque plays in contemporary society (particularly as presented in highbrow literature of this kind). To develop the argument, I will draw comparison between Saleem and two emerging stand-up comedians: Hari Kondabolu and Sami Shah. Like Saleem, they have the ability to transform grotesque horror into comic grotesqueness – but, contrastingly, they approach the carnivalesque through an entirely different medium. I will highlight, here, the rich dialogic interactivity in the output of Shah and Kondabolu. To conclude, I will frame this work within the old tradition of audacious humour that does not flinch at the task of delving into pain and suffering in order to find a place, even there, for the laughter of resistance. SUBVERSIVE RESISTANCE THROUGH STYLE AND STORY IN MIDNIGHT’S CHILDREN In Midnight’s Children, Rushdie creates a work with a subversive spirit turned against the English colonisers of India and the self-serving ruling class that replaced it. Through Saleem’s perspective, the reader is tricked into seeing magic and colour where, historically, there was very little. To explore how this feat is executed, it is worth observing first how the character of Saleem is portrayed by Rushdie in the novel and also how Saleem himself narrates certain episodes which carry a particularly strong message of subversion. From the outset, Saleem forebodingly presents himself as a fragile and weak underdog. ‘Time’, he says, ‘is running out. . . . I will soon be thirtyone years old. Perhaps, if my crumbling over-used body permits’ (MC 3). Later: ‘my own hand, I confess, has begun to wobble; not entirely because of its theme, but because I have noticed a thin crack, like a hair, appearing in my wrist, beneath the skin’ (MC 42). Soon enough, however, this same imminent destruction of his whole being is linked to his forgetful nature and, ingeniously, his necessity to write:

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In short, I am literally disintegrating, slowly for the moment, although there are signs of acceleration. I ask you only to accept (as I have accepted) that I shall eventually crumble into (approximately) six hundred and thirty million particles of anonymous, and necessarily oblivious dust. This is why I have resolved to confide in paper, before I forget. (We are a nation of forgetters.) (MC 43)

There is something about this idea which is intellectually appealing and satisfying. With this neat little trick, Rushdie manages to set an elaborate mechanism into motion. His story – the writing of which is now swiftly and simply enough justified – straddles the microcosmic and the macrocosmic as the faltering individual body becomes a representative of an entire universal consciousness. Because of its association with shadows and intermediary worlds, the figure of the trickster is particularly adept at blurring the distinction between the microcosmic and the macrocosmic. By bringing in-betweenness of this kind to the fore, Rushdie creates a topsy-turvy mindset that provides fertile ground for mischief and precociousness to grow. This middle ground is the natural home of trickster figures, described by Carl Jung as the space where ‘a higher level of consciousness has covered up a lower one’.2 In the India of Midnight’s Children, the presence of an overlap between different paradigms – between the colonial past and the independent future – is strongly felt, creating a space in which Saleem can operate. Saleem exploits a certain mobility attached to trickery which endows it with a comedic streak. As Andrew Scott writes, this mobility may provide ‘a means of bringing about reconciliation through the interpenetration of apparently irreconcilable realms of existence. By having a foot in both . . . worlds and embodying a moral ambiguity, [the trickster] acts as a signifier in which opposites can come together’.3 Saleem’s (and Rushdie’s) desire to narrate a story and create a record draws out the subversive power of the trickster figure. As Edward Said demonstrates in Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism, literature plays a subtle (yet important) role in re-enforcing imperialist attitudes.4 This, in turn, enables the abusive behaviour of the coloniser and normalises it. By writing his unusual tale of trickery, magic and humour, Rushdie re-shapes a domain hitherto suffused with the discourse of imperialism: Rushdie writes, and Saleem narrates, because the empire which they resist plays a similar game. The hyperrealist style of Midnight’s Children is drawn, in part, from a heritage of Western postmodernism; however, its defamiliarising effect is also associated with magic and this, in turn, is linked to absurd anarchy. The magicians’ slum is the land where Parvati-the-witch had grown up, ‘amid . . . fire-eaters who exhaled flames from their arseholes and tragic clowns who could extract glass tears from the corners of their eyes’ (MC 276). Simultaneously vulgar and poignant descriptions like this immerse the reader in the


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realm of ‘anarchy and confusion’ whose contingency was considered a threat to the very foundations of ‘wholesome’ English culture.5 The locus of the slum is not only grotesque in the general sense; its chthonic qualities are a reminder of carnality. As Bakhtin explains, to concern one’s narrative with the ‘lower stratum’ of society like that of the slum dwellers is also to concern oneself with ‘the life of the belly and the reproductive organs; it therefore relates to acts of copulation, conception, pregnancy, and birth’.6 This does not only imply ‘natality’ but also grotesqueness: ‘[g] rotesque realism knows no other lower level; it is the fruitful earth and the womb. It is always conceiving’.7 The main birth events in the novel – Saleem’s and India’s – must be understood in this context: a bizarre mixture of grotesqueness and fertility. In Midnight’s Children the idea of grotesqueness is brought to life through the significance of noses and the implied relationship they have with the reproductive organs alluded to above. Saleem, for instance, introduces himself as ‘Snotface’ (MC 3). Subverting the reader’s expectations, this facial grotesqueness ironically becomes Saleem’s greatest asset because it transforms into the medium whereby he can communicate with the other children of midnight to scheme against tyranny – paradoxically ‘giving birth’ to polyphony while literally rendering him impotent. In the novel, the humour derived from grotesqueness becomes a facilitator of political resistance. The connections between the grotesque and the political increase the sense of optimism and openness to possibility signalled by the two central ‘births’ in the novel – Saleem’s and India’s. As already indicated, this sense of anticipation for the future may be associated with the novel’s atmosphere of the Bakhtinian carnivalesque. John Clement Ball notes that ‘Bakhtin’s privileging of discovery over certitude, participation over detachment, unstable “becoming” and transformation over official authority’s stasis and negation are echoed by Rushdie’s own preferences’.8 While the Bakhtinian carnivalesque is inherently celebratory, it is also coupled with a steady dose of Menippean satire in the novel which consists of ‘a more negative, attack-oriented satire’.9 In fact, one could argue the Menippean element shapes the politicisation of the grotesque.10 Very much like Saleem (the shape-shifting trickster), Menippean satire is known for its ‘tendency to combine with other forms’.11 Through this shadowy hybridity, the echoes of this earlier form allow Rushdie to create a text which is stylistically and thematically heterogeneous, filled with grotesque iconography and encyclopaedic in vision.12 The seeming confusion this presents (and the madness and eccentricity of the narrator) builds a sustained attack on the impossibility of understanding post-independence India through the single, univocal outlook of the coloniser which had hitherto sufficed.

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The episode introducing William Methwold challenges these boundaries in the name of resistance to colonial narratives. The individual and the macrocosmic politics no longer remain distinct within the context of colonisation, and neither can one voice stand for many. The William Methwold of the novel is the direct descendent of the eponymous historical figure credited with identifying the city of Bombay (now Mumbai) as a strategic port. The revisiting of names is important, and the novel’s Methwold uses those of the ‘palaces of Europe’ for his ‘houses with verandahs’ and with ‘servants’ quarters’: ‘Versailles Villa’, ‘Buckingham Villa’, ‘Escorial Villa’ (MC 125). Moreover, Methwold sets up some bizarre rules to go with these buildings. He sells his houses to the local Indian people before he departs, under the condition that they are ‘bought complete with every last thing in them, that the entire contents be retained by the new owners, and that the actual transfer should not take place until midnight on August 15th’ (i.e. the day of India’s independence in 1947) (MC 126). Methwold’s demands are initially met with incredulity: ‘Everything?’ Amina Sinai asked. ‘I can’t even throw away a spoon? Allah, that lampshade . . . I can’t get rid of one comb?’ (MC 126) However, Methwold downplays the significance of this, by attempting to pass his demands off as harmless fancies: ‘Lock, stock and barrel’, Methwold said, ‘Those are my terms. A whim, Mr Sinai . . . you’ll permit a departing colonial his little game? We don’t have much left to do, we British, except to play our games’. (MC 126). It is significant that Amina Sinai immediately vocalises her instinctive reaction of exasperation when she hears Methwold’s request. Little moments of resistance like these are empowering, and they carry even more weight when they are delivered by Amina Sinai: a dark-skinned Kashmiri woman who is also a long-suffering wife. Even so, these words are not necessarily as straightforwardly transgressive in effect. Indeed, like Saleem’s shadowy trickery, Amina’s reaction – immediately cancelled by Methwold’s glib re-wording – exudes ambiguity. It may even be interpreted as reinforcing the status quo. When Stephen Greenblatt highlights the prevalence of similar situations in Shakespearean drama, he notes that there are times when ‘authority is subjected to open, sustained and radical questioning before it is reaffirmed, with ironic reservations at the close’.13 Greenblatt’s comment – coming from a scholar with a keen interest in the Bakhtinian14 – could easily be applied to Midnight’s Children because attempts at resistance often result in an impasse there too. In the Methwold story, Rushdie presents his readers with an absurd parable of colonisation which is very comfortable with this lack of revolutionary energy. It is an effective portrayal, however; by establishing a direct connection between the fictional Methwold and the real one – and then proceeding to make the former act in this manner – Rushdie


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adopts his version of what, perhaps, T. S. Eliot might identify as the ‘mythical method’ – that is, a Joycean tradition which, in Eliot’s words, is used as a way of ‘controlling . . . the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history’.15 The English Methwold shares similarities with some of the main Indian characters in the novel – not least through his nose which, like Saleem’s, is described as ‘prominent’ (MC 126). However, this little episode of the selling of the villas highlights the many contrasts between the two cultures. As Methwold’s houses are sold to those who, upon his birth, would become Saleem’s neighbours, they start getting justifiably annoyed at the amount of rubbish in their dwelling that is totally irrelevant to their lives. They begin to complain about the relics of Methwold: all the photos of his ‘fat’ and ‘pink’ relatives (MC 131), and ‘half-empty pots of Bovril’ (MC 130). Slowly, subtly, the new inhabitants do seem to become more accepting of the rules and, crucially, the additional (undeclared and unwritten) rituals and nuances that go along with them. As Saleem puts it: Things are settling down, the sharp edges of things are getting blurred, so they have all failed to notice what is happening: the Estate, Methwold’s Estate, is changing them. Every evening at six they are out in their gardens, celebrating the cocktail hour, and when William Methwold comes to call they slip effortlessly into their imitation Oxford drawls . . . and Methwold, supervising their transformation, is mumbling under his breath. Listen carefully: what’s he saying? Yes, that’s it. ‘Sabkuch ticktock hai’, mumbles William Methwold. All is well. (MC 131)

But what Saleem refers to as a transformation, here, is also not quite the real thing. There is an artifice to it as well, given away perhaps in the imitation of the Oxford drawl. Certainly the unconscious development of it is worrying – a justified worry too, if only going by Methwold’s ominous pleasure at the fact. Maybe it is this pretence – this game of Let’s Pretend – which the new owners of the villas collectively engage in, that gets Amina Sinai thinking. ‘Even if we’re sitting in the middle of all this English garbage’, she reflects, ‘this is still India’ (MC 133). Ironically, although Amina’s observation is an obvious one at face value, it is also empowering. It suggests that Amina is gifted with a prevailing sense of self-awareness amid confusion – to misquote Rudyard Kipling, she can keep her head while all about her are losing theirs. Furthermore, contrast is drawn between England and India, as the former is associated with the spectre of a negative presence maintained even after a physical absence. India, on the other hand, emerges (at least briefly) as a place that is fresh and natural. It may, in fact, be argued that Amina’s retaining of this firm distinction between

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England and India is an act of psychological endurance. It is a self-asserting act, in fact, that is not dissimilar from Gandhi’s definition of satyagraha: Satyagraha or soul-force is called passive resistance in English. That word is applicable to a method by which men, enduring pain [my emphasis], secure their rights. Its purpose is the opposite of the purpose of using force of arms (labaidal). When something is not acceptable to me I do not do that work. In so acting I use satyagraha or soul-force.16

It is curious that Gandhi, like so many characters in Midnight’s Children, refers to ‘enduring pain’ in his definition. Out of Amina’s ‘soul-force’, her character acquires a transgressive streak; however, she is not willing to endure the discomfort of living without a comfortable home acquired at a discount. She has not mastered control over desire and is distracted by wealth – even at the expense of a truth which she acknowledges to herself. As the novel makes clear, ‘what can’t be cured, must be endured’ (MC, 589). Naseem Sinai (a.k.a. Reverend Mother)’s sprinkling of ‘whatsitsname’ in every other sentence is another phrase that unveils the blend of resistance, resignation and comic absurdity in the novel. As Saleem himself narrates (MC 49): I don’t know how my grandmother came to adopt the term whatsitsname as her leitmotif, but as the years passed it invaded her sentences more and more often. I like to think of it as an unconscious cry for help . . . as a seriously-meant question. Reverend Mother was giving us a hint that, for all her presence and bulk, she was adrift in the universe. She didn’t know, you see, what it was called.

This is yet another example of Saleem’s over-powering voice throughout the narrative – peppering it with comments, observations and judgements on the other characters. However, with a bit of imagination, it may be posited that the ambiguity in that interesting melange of a word – whatsitsname – is emblematic of the nothingness (the ‘perforations’ or holes) which, alongside absurdity, forms an essential part of the novel (MC, 383). This emptiness is problematic because though Rushdie’s mythical method engages directly with history (in a way that has already been explored), this very ‘emptiness’ seems to resist politicisation and partially explains Amina’s reluctance to engage more with her soul-force. Although this analysis of Methwold’s story might suggest that Rushdie’s comic and multi-faceted style is a tool for political suasion, it is not exclusively the case. Perhaps, rather than the overtly didactic story of Methwold, Mary Pereira’s role in the novel is better suited to illustrate this flexibility in the writing. When Mary (the hospital nurse) deliberately and secretly


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switches the babies’ name-tags – Saleem’s with Shiva’s – the spirit of the Bakhtinian carnivalesque rules. With this act, the child who was actually born into a lower-class family (i.e. Saleem) gets to enjoy life as a middle-class boy. Vice versa, the child of a middle-class couple – Shiva – must consequently live in poverty. In a world of infinite contingency, ‘the least expected eventuality’ – and hence the most absurd one – is the one performed, ‘out of a bewitched idealism that wants to see change, no matter the cost’.17 Mary Pereira does this out of love for Joseph D’Costa who, being a socialist, she reasons, would be attracted to her for acting on this ‘whim’ of hers. This seems to encapsulate Rushdie’s stylistic paradox. While politics may be at the root of his work, the soil within which this is planted is as ineffably grotesque and absurd as Mary Pereira’s love. Certainly, however, the importance of Midnight’s Children is not only derived from these literary qualities; it also plays a key role in relation to the age of post-Empire and representations of it. It has been well received by Western intelligentsia, and it famously won the Man Booker Prize in 1981 (even going on to secure the Booker of Bookers twice: in 1993 and again in 2008). Yet, how paradigm-shifting is it really to the average person in the street – in London and New Delhi – who, perhaps contrary to what we are led to believe (fully immersed in our field of study as we tend to be), has not read Midnight’s Children? Or when they do pick it up, its challenge proves insurmountable. To quote Mark Corrigan from Peep Show: ‘Good luck with Midnight’s Children. Remember, no-one’s actually finished it’.18 SUBVERSIVE RESISTANCE THROUGH STAND-UP COMEDY Although Midnight’s Children does not feature in today’s best seller lists, the same debates it brings to the fore are being kept alive in popular culture through a very particular type of recently emerging stand-up comedy. This section of this chapter will focus on two comedians – Sami Shah and Hari Kondabolu – whom I have selected as representatives of this brand of comedy. It will be suggested, here, that these stand-up comedians share particular characteristics with Rushdie’s Saleem Sinai and that they also incorporate elements of his storytelling in their creative output. This places them within a tradition of artists – including Rushdie – who demonstrate a plucky sense of resilience when confronted by a reality of horror and grotesqueness. Sami Shah is from Pakistan and started out as a journalist for Dawn News in Karachi during a time of upheaval in the city, which saw the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in 2007. When the attack happened, he went on site to report and the bloody scenes of carnage he witnessed affected him

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profoundly. In his memoir – I, Migrant – he gives a shocking, blow-by-blow account of how the events unfolded, remarking: ‘ “I’m walking on people”, I remember thinking as every step squelched underfoot’.19 Nevertheless, despite being caught in the midst of all this horror – or rather, because of being in that unenviable position – Shah was forced to rediscover why the pursuit of comedy is important: ‘I remember looking across at the grisly vista, my clothes soaked in blood, and thinking, “I need to do comedy. The world can’t be like this. I need to do comedy” ’.20 Rather enigmatically, this is the sentence on which ‘I, Journalist’ – the first section of Shah’s book – ends. Although the subsequent chapter deals with how his comedy career has panned out so far, no further insight as to the why and the wherefore of that instinctive reaction of resistance is provided. The sentence indicates, however, that the reason lies in the juxtaposition of comedy with destruction. The promise of laughter seemed so far-removed from the context Shah found himself in – so pertaining to an entirely different world that, ironically, he brought himself closer to it through desire. Even using this tentative explanation, however, Shah’s decision still retains an element of the inexplicable. There might even be something, in fact, of the grotesqueness in the logic of Midnight’s Children at play there – an echo, perhaps, of the magic which dictates that the timing of Saleem’s birth must therefore make him the nation’s spokesperson. Like Shah, Hari Kondabolu is familiar with the realities of human tragedy. Before Kondabolu obtained his MA in human rights from the London School of Economics, he had worked for an immigrant rights organisation as part of an AmeriCorps programme. He found this type of work fulfilling: ‘I loved organizing, and, you know, I was working with victims of hate crimes, I was doing some work in detention centers and meeting families whose – you know, who had family members who were going to be deported, and, you know, it was really powerful, workplace discrimination cases’.21 It is significant that Kondabolu should view himself in terms of his liminality when describing this role he had: ‘I was the in-between often, like the advocate, you know, to lawyers and to other people, and, you know, that was incredible, but it was incredibly hard’.22 Although this is not the inbetweenness of Saleem’s trickery – it clearly originates out of an altruistic desire to improve the lives of others – Kondabolu’s in-betweenness prompted him to develop a linguistic mobility, made manifest through his dexterity of thought and quick wit. As part of his act, for instance, Kondabolu used to read the US citizenship application onstage. The use of such a stage prop hints again at the desire for journalistic authenticity which Kondabolu shares with Shah – and, in a different way, also with Saleem (who is so invested in including every single detail within his narrative). About this aspect of his performance, Kondabolu cheekily admits: ‘I think that’s part of just being


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overeducated and wanting to do document analysis, but I’d actually bring it onstage and read questions’.23 There is an echo in Kondabolu’s act of Rushdie’s proclivity for displays of intellectualism, and also of the contrived type of Western postmodernism with which Rushdie is sometimes associated. In a text like Midnight’s ­Children – which has unabashedly (and wonderfully) high aspirations in terms of its scope – incorporation of historical realities can work in its favour. However, when a stand-up comedian who is just starting out puts on this kind of performance, there is possibly a far greater risk of coming across as a snobbish intellectual. Indeed, Kondabolu admits that ‘sometimes that was hard on a Friday night, and it’s 10 o’clock, and everyone’s drunk, and there’s a dude on stage reading, you know, a form. It’s a strange thing to read a government form in front of a bunch of drunk people’.24 The move – or trick – which the comedian must then make is of clinching the attention of the viewers through likeability: he says that ‘I feel like if I was able to connect with enough people, it was worth doing’.25 Likeability, in fact, is crucial for comedians to achieve success. Often deeply desired by comedians, who (broadly speaking) tend to be peoplepleasers, Sami Shah explains: ‘There is something terribly addictive about eliciting laughter intentionally – at least, if you have the correct alchemical mix of insecurities, hunger for validation and inflated egotism that marks most comedians. All of which, coincidentally, are qualities I possess’.26 This need to be liked and feel validated by others may also be felt in Midnight’s Children, as Saleem – in a similar way to the comedian – constantly seeks attention from both his reader and his Padma. Shah posits a possible explanation for it: I think, if you have to analyse it, it stems from narcissism. Being a narcissist means believing the whole world is thinking about you. The problem is that when you couple it with a deep-rooted insecurity like mine you end up a paranoid narcissist. I believe the whole world is talking about me – and no /one is saying anything nice. Now, you would think that I would therefore resist going on stage in front of large crowds and opening myself up to more scrutiny. But, in my head, I’m thinking the whole world hates me, but at least they’re thinking about me.27

It is significant that Kondabolu identifies a particular aspect of this application which propelled him to come up with this routine: its absurdity. He comments that ‘for people who don’t know, it’s like this is what immigrants have to go through to gain status in this country, and it’s absurd and something we take for granted as American citizens’.28 Though absurdity characterises Midnight’s Children as a novel (largely due to its magic realism), it is significant that Saleem presents it as the thing which he fears most: ‘I admit it: above

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all things, I fear absurdity’ (MC 4). Saleem’s narrative, as the epigraph to this chapter demonstrates, does in fact become frightening at times – both to him and to his readers. Kondabolu, however, approaches it differently. He is aware that the piece of reality which he carries with him on stage is an object which can elicit fear – but it is immediately clear that he sets out to ridicule it. As may be observed, these comedians deal with the same issues of identity that Rushdie had to confront in order to lend credibility to his resistance. Because of the nature of stand-up as a career, self-doubt is present more intensely in this regard. It is striking to note that – like Rushdie’s narrator – these comics turn to self-referentiality and self-reflexiveness as a way of working through that insecurity. In a particular routine called ‘My English Relationship’, Kondabolu describes a (clearly made-up) relationship which he had with an English woman. At the start, everything was great; however, as the relationship developed over the course of a few months, aspects of this woman’s behaviour raised his suspicions: ‘And then, four months in, she was over at my place four nights a week and I noticed she was telling me what to do, like when to wake up and when to sleep and what to eat’.29 Echoes of William Methwold’s story – whether intentional or not – are unmissable at this point. The same theme recurs as the quotidian life of an Indian is once again disrupted by English imposition. In case the leap to this metaphor is not immediately apparent, the story reaches its denouement when Kondabolu realises ‘that’s when I knew, this wasn’t love. This English woman was trying to colonise me . . . and I of course did what I was trained to do in such situations. Nothing’.30 After some time, this woman left, and Kondabolu explains that she took lots of things with her (‘food, art, self-esteem’), and then also left some things behind (‘some clothes and some books . . . and of course, an extensive railway system!’).31 Here, there is a noticeable shift in the tone of Kondabolu’s voice and the way in which he interacts with his audience. The rhythmical flow of the narrative is interrupted in the same way Saleem injects his narrative with moments of self-reflexiveness. ‘So, uh . . . for the non-South-Asians in the audience who didn’t understand why there was applause. The British built a really extensive railway system throughout India before they left – and it wasn’t so much for transportation for the Indian people . . . It was because it’s really hard, of course, to plunder on foot’.32 As the laughter builds, it is evident that the audience is particularly amused by this brief clarification; however, it is worth questioning the reasons for its inclusion. Kondabolu does say in his routine that he needs to explain the joke for people who are not aware of this piece of history. Certainly, it would be unrealistic to assume full understanding by everyone and in any given location. Therefore, there is a practical reason for Kondabolu’s explanation: this is ‘high-end colonialism material’ after all which, like Rushdie’s


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intellectualism, is not easily digestible for everyone.33 Yet, this is not all there is to it because, as Kondabolu admits, explaining the joke has even become part of his style: to him, he says ‘that is the joke’: I like explaining the references. I feel like, I don’t know, maybe again it’s me being over-educated, but I do like that. I feel like I’m a cool professor. Maybe I’m not because I just called myself that, but like there’s something about OK, maybe I can – you know, because I find these things funny, and I have to find a way for you to think they’re funny, and if I have to explain it so you get what I’m talking about and then laugh at the thing I think is funny, then so be it. It might take an extra minute, it might mean that our attention spans have to go back to 1987, but I think it’s possible for us to get through a minute setup to get to something else.34

CONCLUSION This chapter has demonstrated the ways in which new trends in stand-up comedy extend the humorous resistance of post-colonial literature into a new form. The change in the form produces new ways in which the message of resistance can be delivered. The distance between reader and author that allows for critical reflection is not present in stand-up: comedians must always ride on the response they elicit from the audience in front of them. Sami Shah writes that ‘stand-up comedy is the purest of the performance arts. For a stand-up comedian, there is just a microphone and the audience. Musicians have their songs and it doesn’t matter if there is one person listening or five hundred, the song remains the same’.35 In stand-up comedy, however, one cannot: shift the blame, or thin the pain by spreading it around, or just continue on to the next tune, regardless of how the audience feels about it. Stand-up comedians have none of those luxuries. If a joke fails, it’s still just you up there and all you have is the fervent hope that the next one will work. . . . The audience reaction is instant, for better or worse; and if they don’t like what you’re saying, it means, in a very direct way, that they don’t like you.36

Although, therefore, stand-up comedy and Rushdie’s text may use the same devices – the same type of parable delivered with equal amounts of narcissism and self-reflexivity – it appears that a different effect is achieved in the two instances. The politics of book awards, academia and a public discourse given voice by Peep Show add layers which, regrettably, have the potential to distance and alienate readers. Thus, stand-up comedy emerges as a welcome additional channel through which the message of resistance

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may be delivered and consumed. This is done by daring to broach political subjects even when – at the risk of ‘dying’ on stage and suffering a blow to one’s narcissistic ego – not everyone present in the audience is necessarily looking for conversations of this kind on their night out. The informal nature of such contexts (as opposed to the possibly intimidating dimensions of the epic novel) also helps to create an agora-like atmosphere that is conducive to healthy debate (which may, of course, include heckling). In a sense, therefore, stand-up comedy offers a richer type of dialogic interaction. In this brief overview of how stand-up comedy may be viewed in relation to literature, it is worth noting how both partake in a long tradition that attempts to transform that which is crude, grotesque and horrifying into something worth laughing at. Such laughter challenges the prescribed roles of the victim and oppressor by placing the victim in the role of the objective outsider. This is a radical move, and it is not difficult to see how fervently it could be taken up as an idea. It is unsurprising, therefore, that historical movements of resistance have both implemented this and prescribed it to their followers. The Italian Futurist Aldo Palazzeschi makes no excuses for this approach and encapsulates it particularly well in his spirited words. As the laughter of resistance keeps being generated through books, stand-up comedy and a myriad of other ways, therefore, Palazzeschi’s cheeky dictum aptly provides less of a conclusion and more of an invitation: Look death right in the eye, and it will supply you with enough to laugh about for the rest of your life. I say that the greatest sources of human joy are the crying man, and the dying man. We have to teach our children to laugh, to laugh the most unrestrained insolent laughter. . . . Flood a ballroom with the smell of roses and you cradle it with a brief, vain smile; flood it with the deeper smell of shit (a stupidly unrecognised human profundity) and you will energise it with hilarity and joy. . . . Set up recreational clubs in mortuaries, dictate epitaphs based on tongue-twisters, puns, and double meanings. Develop that useful and healthy instinct that makes us laugh at a man who falls down, and let him get back up by himself, sharing our happiness with him.37

NOTES 1. Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children (London: Vintage, [1981] 2006), 589. Further references to this novel are given in parentheses following the abbreviation MC. 2. Carl G. Jung, ‘On the Psychology of the Trickster Figure’, in The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious: The Collected Works of C.J. Jung, ed. Herbert Read, Michael Fordham and General Adler, vol. 9, pt. 1 (New York: Pantheon, 1959), 255–72. 3. Andrew Scott, Comedy: New Critical Idiom (Routledge: New York, 2005), 55. 4. Edward W. Said, Orientalism (London: Penguin, [1978] 2003), 2–3.


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5. Sara Suleri, The Rhetoric of English India (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 89–90. 6. Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans. Hélène Iswolsky (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, [1965] 1984), 21. 7. Ibid. 8. John Clement Ball, ‘Pessoptimism: Satire and the Menippean Grotesque in Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children’, in Salman Rushdie: New Critical Insights – Volume 1, eds. Rajeshwar Mittapalli and Joel Kuortti (New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers and Distributors, 2003), 93–94. 9. Ibid., 95. 10. Ibid. 11. David Musgrave, Grotesque Anatomies: Menippean Satire since the Renaissance (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014), 16. 12. Ibid., 22–3. 13. Stephen Greenblatt, ‘Invisible Bullets: Renaissance Authority and Its Subversion, Henry IV and Henry V’, in Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism, ed. Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985), 29. 14. See, for example, Stephen Greenblatt, Learning to Curse: Essays in Early Modern Culture (New York: Routledge, [1990] 2007). 15. T. S. Eliot, ‘Ulysses, Order, and Myth’, in Modernism: An Anthology, ed. Lawrence Rainey (London: Blackwell, [1923] 2005), 167. 16. Mahatma Karamchand Gandhi, ‘Hind Swaraj’, in ‘Hind Swaraj’ and Other Writings, ed. Anthony J. Parel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, [1909] 2010), 90. 17. David K. Danow, The Spirit of Carnival: Magical Realism and the Grotesque (Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky, 1995), 14. 18. Peep Show, ‘Handyman’. Directed by Becky Martin. Written by Andrew O’Connor et al. 19. Sami Shah, I, Migrant: A Comedian’s Journey from Karachi to the Outback (New South Wales: Allen & Unwin, 2014), 67. 20. Ibid., 75. 21. ‘For Comic Hari Kondabolu, Explaining the Joke IS the Joke’, last modified 31 December 2014, bolu-explaining-the-joke-is-the-joke. 22. Ibid. 23. Ibid. 24. Ibid. 25. Ibid. 26. Shah, I, Migrant, 99. 27. Ibid.,100. 28. ‘For Comic Hari Kondabolu, Explaining the Joke IS the Joke’. 29. Hari Kondabolu, Hari Kondabolu – My English Relationship. YouTube video, 2:14. Posted December 2011. 30. Ibid. 31. Ibid.

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32. Ibid. 33. ‘For Comic Hari Kondabolu, Explaining the Joke IS the Joke’. 34. Ibid. 35. Shah, I, Migrant,106. 36. Ibid. 37. Aldo Palazzeschi, ‘Il Controdolore (1914)’, in On Ugliness, Umberto Eco trans. Alastair McEwan (New York: Rizzoli, 2007), 372.

Chapter 13

Political Jester: From Fool to King Constantino Pereira Martins

Humour and politics are old friends. I will begin by clarifying this initial claim, placing it in context, and focusing on a particular, yet paradigmatic, case study: that of Tiririca the clown (a true story). Tiririca, a famous clown and performer in Brazil, was elected to Congress in 2010. Of course, this mere enunciation provokes a sort of perplexity at all the implications involved. First of all, the seeming contrast between perceptions of clowning and politics is no laughing matter. The relation of clowning to both monarchies and democracies is interesting to chart in its historical development. The fool, or the clown, reveals the immanent and latent problem of the power dynamic between the sovereign and the people, and reveals a paradoxical (if not demoniac) laughter that is also a democratic paradox, as we shall see. Of course, none of this is absolutely new and history tends to repeat itself, as we just witnessed in the 2016 US elections, where the Trump campaign exemplified the risks of populism and the dangers of transforming a political campaign into a circus. The gap between political promises and the delivery of policies reveals a desert of ideas that is to a degree determined by the tone (boring vs appealing) and the trend of treating politics as part of the entertainment business, as well as showing the fragility of political correctness. Of course, one could always treat this as an example of the ‘Inversion of the Fool’ paradox: the fool is the inverted mirror image provoking laughter, or the fool speaks the truth so that everything stays the same, as in Luchino Visconti’s film The Leopard.1 Besides the meta-political questions, and those pertaining to communication and campaign strategies, Tiririca’s case also addresses the question of ethnic humour. For those not from Brazil, this case invokes questions of cultural difference; involving a different language, different codes and reference points. It may invoke an exotic peculiarity, and one may laugh at it 201


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from a comfortable distance. The philosophical anthropology of humour is not the angle of our approach, but it is there in the form of Brazil’s historical and political context (the main issue being corruption as a system of action). Historically the figure of the jester, or fool, represents and reenacts a form of counter-power. In this sense, humour reflects laughter as an exercise of critique towards the established powers and their norms. The jester represents the anti-king, thus occupying a subversive and excessive position, but in the present it is the clown that inherits this role. In Tiririca’s case, we will analyse three of the arguments presented to the voters during the campaign, focusing our attention on the relation between emotions and decisions in the political process, but, more importantly, trying to show the complexity and interrelation of the concepts involved in this case study. This effort will entail the general problem of considering the relation between humour and argumentation that could be read as part of an historical and philosophical tradition that goes beyond the problem of language in its ontological frame re-founding the problem ethically and politically. Originally, rhetoric oscillated between building a téchne for the public space as an art, and the understanding that this study of argumentative discourse resided only in ornamentation, involving deception and manipulation of an audience through artifice. If the definition of rhetoric is connected to persuasion and convincing, then auditorium strategies of adhesion go from logos-pathos-ethos2 to docere-movere-delectare,3 and historically to the political-performative,4 always in relation to a democratic public space. However, this space from a theoretical point of view was marked by Platonic negativity, in its understanding of sophistry as the misuse, convenience and manipulation of contextuality, which confined to doxa prevented the establishment of an episteme. While it is beyond the scope of this chapter to discuss this issue in great depth in terms of its extension to the dichotomy truth/validity, it is useful here in helping us to understand a particular paradox relating to our specific problem: laughter as rhetorical figure. Thus, parallel to the Socratic contempt for the sophists, enclosed in utilitarian terms in the commerce and education of an apparent knowledge, we paradoxically see throughout the Platonic dialogues a structuring irony and laughter, as a dialogic strategy in building a dialectic of the ridiculous. This logic of deconstruction, identity itself as the phenomenon of humour and laughter, departs from the understanding of humour in what is commonly known as ‘superiority theory’. Aristotle also follows this approach to humour and ridicule, in the proclamation of a dual specificity of humans: the political animal and the laughing animal. This combination of characteristics strengthens the practical matrix of humour in rhetoric – there is an evident pragmatism, for example, in laughter as a tactic available to the speaker for the destruction of the serious. In this regard, from Cicero to Quintilian, the

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perception of humour and comedy fits into a more or less consistent frame, a space neither too horrible nor too merciful, comprising both the mocking and the witty, attaching to both words and things, and always in the light of an Aristotelian logic of comedy and the laughable. Here we will also try to see how the construction of the functionalist perspective may constitute a valid starting point for our analysis, in thinking the question of rhetoric in its connection to politics, and in seeking to question more specifically the relation between argumentation and humour as a strategy of political discourse. We will proceed deductively from here, moving from the general to the particular, starting with the relation between rhetoric and humour regarding function and emotion. My main goal is to show that the use of humour as a political weapon takes advantage of its plastic constitution in order to transform positions, affections and, ultimately, perceptions in political debate. This plasticity involves confrontation with and contradiction to common sense, stereotypes and the political correctness that plays such an important role in our democratic world. A possible stabilisation of a humour programme analysis regarding the political phenomena would have to deal with a battery of hard questions: What constitutes the versatility of humour in the political arena? Can one transform, through humour, a weak argument into a strong one? Is humour a possible strategy of defence or just a paradigm for attack? Is political humour based solely on an effect of anticipation and the deconstruction of an argument? Is its main use to avoid critical thinking or to promote it? Is humour totally subversive, or can it be tamed and incorporated into a game plan? Is a sense of humour a virtue or quality of a political candidate’s charisma, or might it be managed? I will try to answer some of these questions through the analysis of the extreme performance of our limit case study. FUNCTION AND EMOTION: JUGGLING THE POLITICAL COMEDY IN YOUR FAVOUR Regarding function in general, and excluding specific disciplinary determinations, we could outline three general founding theories regarding the interpretation of humour:5 1. Relief theory and the understanding of humour as reducing psychological stress; 2. Superiority theory and its relation to the notion of ridicule; 3. Incongruity theory and its relation to perplexity and the absurd. From our more specific point of view, concerned with rhetoric and political communication, these theories have to be correlated with structures that


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imply different typologies, forms and effects, so that we can rationalise the question of humour as a rhetorical strategy in political discourse. Thus, taking as reference point a classification of humour according to variations in subject, target and audience,6 we could outline three different strategic functions of rhetorical humour: 1. dispositional strategies (attention, positivity and identification); 2. strategies by topic (opposite argument, introduction, divergence of attention); 3. personal strategies (adhesion, deviation, attack). It is, however, Meyer who gives us a more complete picture of the functional relation between strategy and general typologies.7 This taxonomy of the rhetorical functions of humour is structured as follows: 1. identification (from the communicator to the audience; increase of credibility); 2. clarification (synthesis of points of view and positions); 3. application (combination of critic and degrees of adhesion by the audience); 4. differentiation (by inclusive or exclusive contrast). This typology, schematically enunciated, does not exclude the possibility of the confluence and coexistence of different discursive regimes and movements. In this way, we would have to conclude that, from the functionalist point of view, the transversal yet strategic use of humour tends to create hybridism, which can only be understood according to the variability and applicability of the cases. This construction of figurational singularities is not immune to a certain degree of paradox, which is perhaps the heart of humour, but the main target here is emotion. In general, within the history of Western thought, the role of emotions emerges in the rift between reason and passion or is interpreted in terms of the history of the political passions. Within a general theory of emotions, the initial problem is synthesised by a reductive interpretation of humour as pure emotion. We will here indicate the limits of this view. In the first instance, it is important to understand that in relation to argumentation and emotionality, the questions of empathy and adhesion were always present in rhetorical reflections. At the level of strategy and the rhetorical construction of emotions, in the dialectic docere-movere-delectare, the problem of emotion as movere already implied a movement towards action, in tandem with the mobilisation of passions. Thus, the strategic theory directed towards the passions of the audience had practical application in the manipulation of emotions. In this sense, the general understanding of humour in relation to emotions is also already ab initio a means towards action, escaping the narrow perspective of a simple psychology of emotions. We must note that laughter, as an expression of humour, is also complex, and understanding it

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entails addressing this complexity. Far from the traditional polarity, contemporary reflections on emotion require a wider field of analysis, as in the case of the investigations of Damásio regarding the concept of somatic marker.8 It is starting to become clear that the role of emotions in the formation of judgements, decisions and cognitive processes,9 as well as its impact, in a general sense, on rationality itself, is a complex one. It is not my intention here to set down an exhaustive list of emotions and their corresponding functions in argumentative strategies – although I could highlight contempt and superiority, but only to emphasise their cognitive consequences. What is the fundamental reason for this complexity with regard to the role of emotion? It is a question of the response that follows upon the comprehension of humour, and which is triggered by its effects. In this sense, Frijda reinforces the role of emotion towards action while maintaining its motivational structure, that is, that the motivations potentiate but do not activate actions. However, understanding emotions within this motivational framework involves a strengthening of the social question (probably also political), in the sense that the paradox for Frijda lies in the fact that the connection between action and emotion is simultaneously intimate and weak: it is a free connection. Understanding emotions as underlying the process of rationality entails cognitive and strategic consequences.10 That is, we cannot ignore, from the teleological point of view, the impact of laughter as pleasure, alongside the role of emotion in the cognitive process, converging on the end of asserting an influence on decision making. The process might be too complex to permit an accurate assessment of the degree of influence that emotion has on the argumentative political processes. Ultimately, we could consider humour as a gesture of reason, and thus, radically jump out of the sphere of emotional analysis, verifying humour as thought. Humour as emotion has a wide variety of tonalities at its disposal. For example, we can see this when we consider humour as exaggeration or amplification, which is capable of promoting two distinct types of effects: 1. contempt, through exaggeration and ridicule, which can ultimately lead to emotions of anger and disgust (negative sense); 2. pity, which follows exaggeration and ridicule to simultaneously produce an emotion of stress relief, installing a sensation of lightness (positive sense). We could here refer to the problematic structure of contexts of humour as emotion, which involves: 1. decision making and motivation (a subsumed relation regarding the role of emotions in decisions and choices, in the passage from emotion to action);11


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2. processes of cognition and perception (regarding judgements and social constructions). However, the consideration of these two movements tends to reinforce the central problem of connecting emotion to action in the process of rational decision making, information processing12 and the creation of value judgements; in short, the complex relation between emotion and persuasion. Concerning information processing, there are still two influential factors to emphasise: 1. the demiurgic factor, or emission. This consists of considering, from the emission perspective, its activity as the creation of a world, in a closed logic of trying to make the receptor adhere, maximising the likelihood of convincing and persuasion. This relates directly to the general consideration of humour as play (game). The figure of play has been central to the understanding of learning in its functionalist sense, but also to the understanding of the phenomenon of humour. However, the specific play/game that corresponds to humour can be read as a strategy of smoothing, anticipation and management of the effects, allowing, in the game of attack and defense, a quick exit in case of emergency if the desired effect is not achieved; 2. the heuristic factor, or reception. This concerns the role of humour and its influence on the structures of information processing upon reception.13 We talk about ‘heuristic’ as opposed to ‘systematic’ in contemplating that the free game that humour inhabits does not bear intrinsic systemacity, that is, that this game does not yield itself to deep rational analysis, involving the consideration and verification of assumptions and arguments, with verifiability of its validity and sustainability. Rather, humour as play and argumentative strategy allows one to free oneself from the logical connections of the understanding, turning instead to the counsels of imagination and its labour, thus allowing the construction of images to perform the information processing in a dissonant form and with an impression of minimum effort, as seen previously. Such minimalism enables the establishing of an immediate heuristic device, in the sense that emotions can effectively block the critical and systematic thinking in a strategic way. This peripheral focus, which constrains the spectrum of reasonableness, is reflected in the manipulation of mixed motivational space, looking to play with the space of attractiveness, effectiveness and comfort that humour involves.

In conclusion, the role of humour, as an argumentative strategy related to emotion, involves multiple layers of meaning. Considering that the field of political argumentation is underpinned by a democratic system with regular electoral procedures, humour may be a powerful means of manipulation in this arena. From this methodological assumption, it remains to be seen more specifically, in a concrete and casuistic form, how humour can be used in the political arena, with its variations and amplitude. The role and function

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of humour, as an argumentative strategy related to emotion, is to help build an image. We will see, too, how humour can be used in politics as a weapon of attack or defence, in order to build or destroy an image of someone or a political idea. The key here is the association of an image with an emotion. Of course, humour is a powerful tool to do just that. CASE STUDY: TIRIRICA, A TRUE STORY The case of Tiririca offers a concrete example for the purposes of my study into the relation between politics and humour. This example takes the analysis into a more extreme context of performance and, by reductio ad absurdum, presents the passage from eccentricity to the exotic as a limit-case. The enormous attraction that the exotic exercises on people is clear, especially in contemporary media-oriented societies. We could almost, by a move of retrospection, re-interpret recent political events (not only in Brazil), through the lens of this symptomatic prevision that Tiririca embodies. In his use of humour as a political argumentative strategy, he is an example of an antipolitical correctness approach, which uses a humour strategy both of attack and of defence. But who is Tiririca? Tiririca is a well-known clown, comedian and singer in Brazil. He ran for Federal Congress, and in the 2010 election managed to achieve the unthinkable, voted in by a massive 6.35 per cent of the electorate. This result was the embodiment and realisation of the absurd. Political analysts accord this Brazilian electoral victory a case study importance, considering his election more as the result of a protest vote, and therefore as constituting a counter-power. This kind of candidate, with nihilistic credentials, emerges as a case study in using humour as an argumentative strategy targeting not only politicians in general but also politics itself. It is nihilistic, in the full sense of the term, because analysis of the arguments in his campaign shows the affirmation of nothingness. The root of this grotesque performance lies partly in disillusionment with politics, generating an infernal circle of self-realising nonsense. If the starting point is disillusionment (this disappointment promises nothing), therefore his election is for nothing, and nothing is achieved by the exercise of boredom. At the end of his term, ironically, he complained about the complexity of politics and that he didn’t achieve much. The clown as a figuration approaches the visible surface of the body and emotions (in the sense of a pure emotion), approaching absurdity and total nonsense in achieving a surreal trajectory. This accomplishment should perhaps not be surprising given the figure of the clown, which could be understood in its political role in the light of anarchical power. Thus, if the clown problematises the standard rules, as humour often does, by showing up the


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traps of the norm and by deconstructing the body and its everyday gestures, Tiririca proves the nature of the clown to be ‘amoral, innocent . . . anarchic and minority’,14 and accordingly, exempt from the burden of demonstrative and argumentative accountability, thorough reasoning and sound evidence. The uniqueness of the Brazilian case is that it displays the maximum power of anarchic nonsense. In addition to this, he was actually elected. From its obvious figural construction of the comical, we are confronted with the political figurations and manifestations of the nihilism and immobilism or apathy that seems to haunt our political era. This means that we are confronted with the dangerous limits of the grotesque and demoniac laughter that fuels the Kierkegaardian prediction on the end of the world in the Diapsalmata.15 The passage from ridicule to the grotesque, with the implications of shifting degree and scale, allows for the consideration of the last figurative stage. In this sense, the grotesque is a double fold of the ridiculous as scandalous, which paradoxically installs sadness: the bitter laugh; the tragic laughter; the dramatic irony that Burke spoke of16 – these restore the game of the rich and the poor clown, who is now transfigured into the sad clown, the nightmare and terror of childhood, deconstructing himself painfully in front of the television mirror. He is the faithful mirror of decadence. In the game of humour, between the explicit and the inexplicit, the grotesque is the place of revelation and nudity, where everything – even that which was previously only implied – is exposed with maximum clarity. It’s a movement of becominganimal, a construction of the beast (abestado candidate), where the most illiterate, far from modesty, shame or shyness, exhibits this dark humour – a macabre exercise of necrophagia on disorientation and collective disbelief. In a sense, it is the test of the radical question of boundaries. On the one hand, it provokes, according to the proper nature of humour, the limit and its overcoming, but on the other it shows in stark relief the dark consequences of this overturning. Is there a limit? Can you draw the line? What is the limit? Is it the limit-of-limits? Let us now look at some examples of slogans used by the candidate in his television campaign videos. Example 1: ‘Vote no Tiririca, pior do que tá não fica’ [Vote for Tiririca, it can’t get any worse than this]

This example clarifies the process we’ve been alluding to. On one hand, it oscillates between following and breaking the rule, and on the other it oscillates between the construction and destruction of humour as emotion. In relation to the notion of rule, its absolute excess effects disruption, and this is combined with the strategic use of humour to destroy the authority image

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of politicians. In its place, it constructs an image which provokes contempt through ridiculous exposure. The construction of laughter through illogical shock arises from reducing the expectation to nothingness (as Kant would probably agree).17 This slogan campaign presents the candidate in his entire splendour, in humour and the grotesque affirmation of disbelief in political activity. This appeals to a general sensation and perception, one which could be translated into a disbelief in politics and politicians in general. If it’s all bad, if it can’t get any worse, why not vote for me? This example perfectly shows the scales of the absurd and the unthinkable delivered by a nihilistic logic, where the exotic laughter comes as confirmation of the obvious impossibility of political change, complicit with the pre-conceptions of political activity as a force which maintains the status quo. Is this view of the dangers and decadence of the political system a mere reflection of the tragic relation between elected and voters? Or is it merely an exercise in disbelief in the political process? Confusion installs danger and marks the transition from eccentricity to the exotic. It becomes more complex when we see the paradoxical conjunction (contradiction) with all the other election slogans and arguments. The ­political-candidate-clown represents and re-enacts the hypocrisy of politicians themselves in their quest for votes, asserting his closeness to people (I am one of you), drawing on a logic of they-us. This logic continuously stresses the insolubility of the problem and, as Perelman noted, adopts the structure of quasi-logical arguments which trap the question and immobilise argument.18 Thus, schematically, the immobilist argument, apolitical by capture, could be broken down into an Up/Down power representative logic. This entails the danger of generalisations via the colloquial “Them”: a) ‘We do not believe Them because they do not care about us’ (People/ Voters); a1) We (the people) blame Them (politicians) (accountability): along an ascending hierarchical structure. b) They do not believe in us because we are also a They for Them (Politician/Elected). b1) Among Themselves (politicians) are also a We; b2) We (politicians) cannot do better, because they (People) are not interested (non-accountability): descending hierarchical structure. c) ‘They/Them’ become general (no specific place), non-accountable (ascending or descending): Paradox and Aporia. That is the logic of imprisonment, which is prisoner to immobilism and its circularity: WE < > THEM.


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It is more than bi-conditional. Beyond the We/They dialectics, we come to a prejudiced logic of ‘They’, the realm of affirmation of appearances, judgements and hidden assumptions. In dismantling the argument structure, the ad hominem argument becomes general and diffuse, faceless, or bears multiple faces: the political system, this hidden enemy (‘politicians do nothing for the people’) is the real hidden premise, the dialectics of ‘them’ and the positioning of the dialogic target as good as vanishes. We are at an ethical-political crossroad, chaired by nihilistic values and general solipsistic disengagement. Here is the supposedly irrefutable and grotesque argument, which goes well beyond the pessimistic or optimistic view. It is an argument that signals a danger to civilisation. And it is both a tragedy and a comedy at the same time. On the other hand, it also exhibits a negative, exclusive and disjunctive logic. Here is the argument decomposed: a) me (Tiririca) or the others (politicians, the corrupt, the do-nothings); b) the Others, we already know what they are (Non-People, those who don’t care about the people); c) (conclusion), the only possibility is me (I, Tiririca). This “I” is not a narcissistic exaggeration, but rather the megalomaniac affirmation of complicity and sharing, an I that is part of the people, that is, ‘I am like you’. The unaccountability comes about by identification and osmosis, political and populist symbiosis. Example 2: ‘Oi gente, estou aqui para pedir seu voto porque eu quero ser deputado federal, para ajudar os mais ‘necessitado’, inclusive a minha família. Portanto meu número é 2222. Se vocês não votarem, eu vou morreeer!’ [Hi guys, I’m here to ask for your vote because I want to be a federal congressman, to help the ‘needy’, including my own family. So my number is 2222. If you do not vote, I will dieeee]

In this example, it is easy to observe the movement from the establishment of the argument ad hominem, diffused and general (the system, politicians), to an argument structure ad misericordiam, where we can clearly see the transition to emotional values. The argumentum ad misericordiam already shows an absolute appeal to pure emotion, and this emotion is present in the informal fallacy (sorry, poor thing). It is also, however, ironic towards the very fallacy itself (‘since you have to vote, vote for me, I also have family to feed’). It is curious that even in this campaign slogan the same circular and nihilistic structure persists, presenting humour as pure emotion, playing with the serious, not aware of the consequences of his contempt for the electoral

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process. This is the strongest example of this inconsequential world of emptiness that implies nothing. It is ‘as if’ it is not even an election. As if, were he elected, there would be no effects (maximum fictionality), and the election results wouldn’t have occurred. The candidate ‘forgets’ that he is no longer on the circus stage, and that in this new circus, this political arena, the results are not merely the cheers from the public. It is as if we were children at play, and as if everything were a joke and an invented game. But the clown, unlike the child, knows he must take off his mask. The postponement of this consciousness can be tragic. Example 3: ‘Oi, eu sou o Tiririca da televisão. Sou candidato a deputado federal. O que é que faz um deputado federal? Na realidade eu não sei, mas vote em mim, depois eu te conto’. [Hi, I’m Tiririca from the television. I am a candidate for federal congressman. What does a federal congressman do? I do not in fact know, but vote for me and I’ll tell you later]

As a last example, we have the election spot. This is certainly the most difficult to classify in terms of the use of humour as a political strategy. Although the alleged honesty, in contrast to the idea of corruption in politics, can help to contextualise this call to vote, it does not eliminate confusion as to what is at stake. The difficulty of analysis is related to the consideration of humour in the ‘game’, and the question of limits. The grotesque is here the clear maximum expression of the ridiculous and nonsensical. Paradoxically, this example contains an innovative double: 1. an argument ad hominem, close to ad misericordiam, which seeks victimisation and irresponsibility, and ultimately aims to stand out among the other candidates by maximising the effects of the identification function; 2. an argument ad populum which, following example 1, reinforces the populist and popularity driven strategy by playing the top-down hierarchical dialectics (elected/power – voters/subjugated) and filtering them through a humorous nihilism, resulting from one’s strategically locating oneself as a ‘spy’. This is subsumed in the argument: ‘I do not know how it works, like you; I’ll try to understand for you, but I will not lie to you (as other politicians do)’.

What this dazzling appeal to voters achieves is an absolute blending of defence and attack, mixing ad misericordiam, ad hominem and ad populum into a total absurd and grotesque form. Maybe it constitutes the major paradox of the simultaneity of comedy and tragedy in politics. In conclusion, we’ve tried to show how humour can be deployed in political arguments, and in particular how it could be used as part of the discursive


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practice within a campaign. We have shown how this adopts the magical taxonomy of an acrobatics of jokes, having a real effect in this specific electoral campaign. Regardless of the absurdity of the situation in terms of its emotional humour and complicity with political discourse, the central thesis is that humour can turn a weak argument into an effective argument (by its persuasive force), causing us to rethink the relationship between emotion and reason. Humour can become a dialectic strategy of attack and defence, hiding the weak arguments in its various argumentative figurations: ad hominem, ad misericordiam and ad populum. However, this relation between humour and politics seems to be symptomatic of a deeper discomfort in the present, at this particular historical and political crossroads, which could be seen as a dead-end. It is therefore a symptom of a core problem that is waiting to reify. Perhaps humour can continue to be a good strategy of delay – let us hope this is the case. NOTES 1. Luchino Visconti, director. The Leopard. Titanus, 1963. 2. Aristotle, On Rhetoric, trans. George A. Kennedy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007). 3. Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria, trans. H. E. Butler (Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1996). 4. Roland Barthes, S/Z (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990), p. 22. 5. John C. Meyer, ‘Humor as a Double-Edged Sword: Four Functions of Humor’, Communication Theory 10 (August 2000): 310–31. doi: 10.1111/j.1468–2885.2000. tb00194.x. 6. Michael Phillips-Anderson, ‘A Theory of Rhetorical Humor in American Political Discourse’ (PhD Diss., University of Maryland, 2007), 65. 7. Meyer, ‘Humor as a Double-Edged Sword’. 8. Damásio, Descartes´s Error (New York: Avon Books, 1994). 9. Nico H. Frijda et al., eds., Emotions and Beliefs: How Feelings Influence Thoughts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 13. 10. Amélie Rorty, ed., Explaining Emotions (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980), 141, 148. 11. Robert C. Solomon, ed., What Is an Emotion? (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 131. 12. Chris Smith and Ben Voth, ‘The Role of Humor in Political Argument: How “Strategery” and “Lockboxes” Changed a Political Campaign’, Argumentation and Advocacy 39.2 (2002): 110–29. 13. Alexander Todorov et al., ‘The Heuristic-Systematic Model of Social Information Processing’, in The Persuasion Handbook: Developments in Theory and Practice, ed. James Price Dillard and Michael Pfau (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2002), 195–212.

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14. Kátia Maria Kasper, ‘O jogo dos Clowns: entre metamorfoses e improvisos’, Revista Nada 17 (Lisboa, 2013): 63. 15. Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or, trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987). 16. Kenneth Burke, Attitudes toward History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984). 17. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement, ed. Nicholas Walker, trans. James Creed Meredith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 161. 18. Chaïm Perelman, El império Retórico (Santafé de Bogotá: Norma, 1997), 81.

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Three Easy Steps to a New You? Or, Some Thoughts on the Politics of Humour in the Workplace . . . Adrian Hickey, Giuliana Monteverde and Robert Porter A fire broke out backstage in a theatre. The clown came out to warn the public; they thought it was a joke and applauded. He repeated it; the acclaim was even greater. I think that’s just how the world will come to an end: to general applause from wits who believe it’s a joke.1 It’s a crap gag from Spit the Dog2

What if we said to you that self-help gurus are the moral and political philosophers of the contemporary world? What if we said that self-help philosophy is the purest contemporary expression of classical moral and political philosophy, purest in terms of its unselfconscious claims to possess the knowledge and practical wisdom needed to live a better and happier life? Would you think we were joking? We are utterly serious when we say it makes perfect sense to refer to selfhelp philosophy as our contemporary moral and political philosophy, particularly if we think about its banal and everyday predominance as a cultural and consumer phenomenon.3 Next time you go into a high street bookshop, have a look at how many self-help books are on the shelves, quantitatively comparing these to works of critical theory, politics and philosophy. In our own local high street chain in Belfast, the ‘self-help’ books and books categorised as ‘smart thinking’, ‘religion’, ‘philosophy’ and ‘politics’ have, historically, sat in close proximity to one another. Fortunately, this has allowed us, over the years, to do a nice little longitudinal study of the significant growth of self-help manuals on those very shelves that previously housed works of critical theory, politics and philosophy. The joke here might well be the rather crap, heavyhanded, crude, contemporary lefty or situationist one, where we smugly recognise the seemingly inexhaustible recuperative power of consumer capitalism to domesticate, commodify and sell us back the promises of classical moral 215


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and political philosophy: that is to say, the promises of a practical wisdom which helps us live a better, happier life.4 So joke done then? Well, not quite. For there is another kind of situationist humour, one that is less contemporary, one less motivated by a desire for smug self-congratulation, one less concerned with haughtily dismissing and belittling the idea of self-help philosophy as the commodification of knowledge. Rather, this (dare we say more classically twentieth century) form of situationist mirth tends to be primarily concerned to understand in good humour, and by that we mean take seriously, the banal or quotidian reproduction of political life in generic, popular cultural forms. To be sure, self-help philosophy often trades in questionable, even ridiculous, claims, and, of course, there are all sorts of vacuous ideologies of ‘wellness’, empty promises of ‘self-transformation’, ‘success’ and a ‘new you’ to be found when flicking through the pages of the latest ‘must-have’ self-help manual.5 But this should not stop us from taking such promises seriously. In their early writings on the politics of urban forms, the situationists were fond of arguing that if urbanism promises us happiness, then it should be critiqued and judged accordingly.6 Similarly, we could suggest that if classical moral and political philosophy promised enlightenment, self-reflexivity, heightened critical sensitivity, even the pleasure and happiness of a better life, and if contemporary critical theory is in danger of being rendered irrelevant by assertive self-help gurus who, free from any serious criticism and restraint, unselfconsciously practice their questionable brands of moral and political philosophy, then let us analyse and judge this situation accordingly, with good humour.7 In other words, let us take seriously the idea that everyday popular and generic cultural forms, such as self-help manuals, ought to be understood, or even critically evaluated and utilised, against the backcloth of broader political questions. Or, to go even further: could we even say that the generic form and expressions associated with the self-help manual may, in certain circumstances, be a force for good, or if not good, then at least a force of resistance to be reckoned with in contemporary political life? What we want to present here is the beginnings of a self-help guide to the politics of humour in three easy steps, but with a particular emphasis on the workplace. Simply put, we want to suggest that the politics of humour can come alive in everyday organisational life when used as a tool or a weapon to face the things that we encounter and experience as intolerable and absurd. This chapter builds on some previous attempts to think about the politics of humour, but, more importantly, it is oriented towards a new body of work that aims to think about humour against a broader historical backcloth, taking it seriously as a key political concept for our contemporary or ‘neo-liberal’ cultural and political imaginary.8 Now, we should say at the outset here, there is no ironic intent at all in our advocacy of a self-help political philosophy in three easy steps – so you can piss off with the Alanis Morrisette jokes.9 This is because irony is not something we want to recognise here as particularly

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productive, as everyday experience teaches us that it is usually prosecuted by smart arses who claim to know better, but never take what they know to heart, or indeed anywhere else interesting. Of course, this is not to say irony is devoid of meaning and significance, nor is it to downplay its many possible political uses. We have indeed pointed to such things in the past, particularly when writing under the influence of Kierkegaard.10 But, like Kierkegaard, we think humour runs deeper than irony or is more an exalted form than irony.11 Actually, it is both deeper and more exalted at the same time. What does that mean? Where irony, for us, tends to presuppose distance, a certain abstraction and alienation from the web or social and political life, and a rather lofty and disinterested gaze concerning how the world has gone to hell in a handcart, humour, as we see it, burrows itself deeper into the muck and shit of everyday life, but it can do so for exalted purposes, namely, to bring the intolerable and the absurd into the critical light and life of the everyday. STEP ONE: TRY A KIERKEGAARDIAN LEAP OUT OF BED IN THE MORNING, REMEMBERING THAT YOU ARE MORE THAN JUST A BODY THAT SLEEPS FOR THE BOSS . . . So, what might it mean to try a Kierkegaardian leap out of bed in the morning, or to resist the notion that you are nothing more than a body that sleeps for the boss? Let us begin to respond to this question, no doubt at first rather obliquely, by imagining the following scenario or fiction: the rise and fall of Professor Challenger in a regional UK University. Let us imagine that Professor Challenger as an amiable, polite, consensual and accommodating company man who rises through the organisational ranks in a steady and orderly fashion, a middle-ranking conservative technocrat very much at home in a management culture and class governed by technocratic rationality, albeit softened, and fudged, by the conceited thought of its own self-professed Burkean wisdom. In other words, technocratic rationality first, and, if that fails, the carefully calibrated ‘fudge’ that is justified by the wisdom of tradition, that priceless commodity that is ‘institutional memory’, the memory that cautions against haste, risk, trying something unduly ambitious. Of course, the challenge for Professor Challenger is organisational change, when the senior management that he served so well, and which served him so well, changes, when the organisational culture changes, when technocratic and Burkean middle managers won’t cut it anymore, when the institution needs a new style of leadership, when ‘procedures’ give way to ‘business intelligence’, when the ‘consensual fudge’ gives way to the more explicit confrontations and antagonisms associated with ‘performance management’, when the ‘wisdom of tradition’ is left behind in an organisation that increasingly


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obsesses about the ‘step-change’. All of sudden, Professor Challenger finds himself out of step with things. What is to be done? Can Challenger avoid his seemingly inevitable fall, or at least soften the landing in this new organisational environment? Can he pretend that he was a frustrated visionary step-changer all along: that he only showed his consensual and Burkean side in the past because that was what his superiors demanded? This, he decides, is a not an option, for, like it or not, he cannot pretend to be anything other than the institutional persona he has become without inviting scepticism and potentially getting pigeonholed as a purely cynical operator. This is a sombre and sad day, and not a day for sound bites at all, but we think it is fair to say that the foot of history is hovering over Challenger’s neck. Challenger is to be commended for at least having the presence of mind not to expose himself as a cynical company man (even though he and his superiors are nothing but cynical in all sorts of ways), but what are his other options here? He sees only one option: play the loyalty card! He suspects that this is barely any better than bare-faced cynicism, that the new senior executive class will not recognise this loyalty as they have not directly benefited from it, that it may well be in the interest of his superiors to be seen to be dispensing with the functionaries of the previous regime. His suspicions are well founded, and it is with eyes wide open that a passionless, inert and lethargic Challenger is left to contemplate his own fall. Challenger’s passive nihilism and acceptance of his fate is reflected in his realisation he has made his bed and that lying in it is all he can do. He now realises his mistake was to confuse his institutional persona and his existential person, to think that he was the institution and the institution was him, that there was a reciprocal relationship of care between him and it, that if he served the regime, the regime would have his back. He now realises that genuinely believing in the efficacy of ‘sleeping for the boss’ – by which we mean investing almost every fibre of your emotional and subjective being in an institutional persona – implies forgetting the persona and simply being the persona. To recall the old situationist slogan: for it is ‘remember, you are sleeping for the boss’. Institutional memory is all fine and well, but don’t forget that history teaches us that institutions continually claim for themselves a clean slate, that the discourse of ‘year zero’ is part and parcel of the banal reproduction and evolution of its bureaucratic rationality. STEP TWO: REMEMBER THE GAMIFICATION OF YOUR WORKPLACE IS MORE COMPLICATED THAN YOU THINK . . . Did Challenger fail to understand the institutional game he was playing? Nothing could be further from the truth, if truth is the right word to use

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in this purely fictional story. For there is no game to play: that is, if we understand games as normative forms of rule-bound behaviour.12 Rather than talk about the cynical institutional operator who knows how to ‘play the game’, we think it is better to speak about the gamification of everyday organisational life, whereby the rules of the game are continually deferred, and the act of knowing ‘how to play the game’ is always a precarious and risky one, a leap of faith. This is something intuitively understood by one of Challenger’s younger colleagues, Dr Sweetlove. Dr Sweetlove, some twenty years Challenger’s junior, understands that institutional loyalty and the wisdom of tradition are nineteenth-century ideas that retain a half-life of sorts in the contemporary university, but they do not have the importance invested in them by her senior colleague. Sweetlove’s recently awarded PhD, a rhizomatic philosophy of digital marketing, was a product of her pre-academic work-life and experience in marketing and corporate communications in a small regional tech start-up, as well as her subsequent philosophical conversion to the Deleuzian faith when she entered the academy to do her PhD (let’s say she is a marketing guru first, and a Deleuzian philosopher last).13 Now, if Sweetlove were indeed a real person, rather than a figment of our mind, then she would often be seen sauntering around campus in the Deleuze and Guattari T-shirt she ‘co-created’ with her friends at Zazzle.14 The slogan on this imaginary T-shirt reads: ‘If the stupidest TV game shows are so successful, it’s because they’re a perfect reflection of the way businesses are run’. Those who know Sweetlove, or know their Deleuze, instantly get the joke, or at least they understand that the slogan is one of the most often quoted lines in Deleuze’s famous late essay on, what he calls, ‘control societies’. What Sweetlove takes from Deleuze, rightly or wrongly, is the idea that there is something funny about the way that contemporary organisational life mimics the game show, and that the best way to appreciate it is through its emergent and ever-changing technological-cum-bureaucratic form. By this we mean that Sweetlove understands the contingencies of technological developments within any given organisation, and how the purposeful application of a particular technological or business rationality governs a workplace precisely by absurdly intensifying and scaling up internalised feelings of precarity among rank-and-file workers.15 So, when Deleuze says that the contemporary workplace in ‘control societies’ is defined by the continual emergence of ever more ‘ludicrous challenges’, by a ‘modulating’ movement that incessantly tracks and keeps workers on their toes, Sweetlove takes him seriously. This enables Sweetlove to reconcile herself to the contingent shifts in institutional and management culture in her university and to recognise the televisual form and grammar of the everyday organisational life that she experiences daily: say, for instance, in ‘performance enhancement’ meetings with senior management (‘gosh, that Dr Smooth knows how to impress his superiors in meetings, he is auditioning


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and selling himself like one of those bolshie characters in the TV show Dragon’s Den’). That is to say, Sweetlove comes to understand that the televisual or technological grammar of the reality TV game show (whether we think of Dragon’s Den, The Apprentice, Shark Tank, Beyond the Tank, Undercover Boss or whatever . . .) impacts us directly in the everyday rough and tumble of our lived actions and associations in the workplace. The everyday drama of workplace politics (concerns about modulation and differences in pay, who is getting paid more, who is in line for promotion, and why, who is positioning themselves to take over our section or department in the organisation, who is being moved against and why) is captured and lived in small, banal moments, in seemingly innocent gestures, remarks, unconscious tics, non-verbal movements, sideways glances, upward glances, indelicate flattery, delicate flattery, delicate censure, indelicate abuse, bullying, indifference, feigned indifference, feigned concern for others or the future of our department in the organisation, genuine concern for such things and many other things besides. These are gestures and actions that have a televisual grammar to them (for instance, the sideways glance as cross-cutting and montage, or the indelicate censure or abuse of the close-up that dwells interminably on the subject being attacked or undermined). Simply put, Sweetlove has learned the Deleuzian lesson that her organisational or work life is a pretty crude TV game show. STEP THREE: EXPERIMENT WITH EXCESSIVELY LITERAL HUMOUR IN THE FACE OF WHAT YOU CONSIDER INTOLERABLE AND ABSURD . . . Now, when Sweetlove dwells on Deleuze’s serious injunction to understand her everyday work life as a ‘perfect reflection’ of a TV game show, then ‘perfect reflection’ needs to be thought not just as the faithful mirroring of a situation at one remove (say, where her experience of those sideways glances, delicate forms of flattery, feigned indifference, subtle moments of bullying and coercion witnessed in today’s meeting are reflected back at her as she settles down on her sofa that evening to enjoy the silly antics of the contestants in Dragon’s Den or The Apprentice), but also as a mode of expression that can capture and then play into a lived experience, and play into it time and again (say, that more general, nagging, persistently expressed feeling of uneasiness and forced rivalry that intensifies at next week’s meeting, and the one after that, and the one after that). As we have said, Sweetlove finds this funny in a way Challenger never could, and this perhaps allows her to roll with the organisational punches a bit better. But isn’t this still a passive nihilism? Or, to put in it the form of a more direct question: what of that risky, precarious, leap of faith that we spoke of earlier? Is this Kierkegaardian option open to Sweetlove?

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Let us come back in more detail to that pretend ‘performance enhancement’ meeting with senior management that we mentioned briefly in passing earlier. For there is a moment when Sweetlove’s ironic disdain for Dr Smooth (‘oh here we go again with the not so subtle ass kissing, Christ I feel sorry for Smooth, this is pathetic’) shades into anger, or if not anger, certainly irritation (‘this whole meeting is ridiculous, it is not about what’s on the agenda, it is simply a cringe-ridden audition for those seeking institutional advancement’). It is here that a private or subjective irony (the jokes going on in Sweetlove’s head as she sits passively and quietly in the meeting) can give way to more inter-subjectively resonant humour, a particular kind of public humour, one of excessive literalism in the face of the absurdly intolerable. Let’s say that, half way through the meeting, Sweetlove breaks her silence and calls a halt to proceedings with a provocative intervention (‘this is just fucking ridiculous . . .’). She continues by way of the following rant: I’m sorry, but I’ll say it again: this is fucking ridiculous . . . I mean, what are we doing here? Really? What are we doing? This is supposed to be a meeting about enhancing our performance across the university, enabling staff to participate in a supportive institutional culture that values their work, but all we have witnessed here today is a bunch of ambitious lower and middle ranking company men and women [Sweetlove points to her colleagues around her] auditioning for you [and then points to the senior management at the top of the room], telling you how great they are, passing off their colleagues ‘successes’ as their own, and hiding, where they can, their ‘failures’. When did we become so obsessed with looking good, rather than being good?

Before Sweetlove can amp up the drama anymore, before her self-­righteous indignation reaches a fever pitch, one of the senior executive team tries to cut her off, employing a gentle comic put-down (but a put-down nonetheless) that aims to dissipate the tension in the room and get the meeting back on track. This senior manager, Professor Torty, is a seasoned campaigner, one of the few from the old guard to maintain his status through the recent regime change in the university (‘Thank you Dr Sweetlove for your robust intervention, and I confess to often having all sorts of strange thoughts run through my head during meetings such as these. But, best to keep such distracting thoughts to yourself for now, we can discuss them privately offline after the meeting if you feel the need’. . .). Torty’s gift is in the way he punctuates his remarks with little comic gestures, a humorous audio-visual metacommentary that leaves everyone in the room in no doubt of the ‘silliness’ of Sweetlove’s remarks. Whether it is the exaggeratedly slow raising of his eyebrows and gentle shaking of his head (‘Thank you Dr Sweetlove for your robust intervention’), or the well-placed titter or guffaw (‘all sorts of strange thoughts run through my head during meetings such as these’), or indeed the


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gentle, but firm condescension, inter-subjectively buttressed by Torty’s ability to draw others into his line of vision to reinforce the perceived impetuousness of Sweetlove’s outburst (‘we can discuss them privately offline after the meeting if you feel the need’. . .), we are left in no doubt about the pragmatic function of his intervention. Torty titters, he looks at others and they titter! Torty guffaws, he receives inter-subjective reinforcement in the simultaneous guffaws of his colleagues. Torty raises his eyebrows, shakes his head, and he finds those sitting around him doing the same . . . What Sweetlove finds in these stylised dramatisations of workplace behaviour (in the learned helplessness that is choreographed into the gestures of those mimicking their superior Torty, the fake, shrill, hollow work laugh of company men and women who have laughed that laugh a thousand times and more, laughed the laugh so much that it is now almost an unconscious tic or part of the muscle memory of their face) is the comic itself. In a split second, Sweetlove remembers those conversations she had with her PhD supervisor about Deleuze’s relation to Bergson (let’s pretend her supervisor is a Bergson specialist), her reading of Bergson’s Laughter, and particularly Bergson’s key idea of the comic as something ‘mechanical encrusted on the living’.16 Immediately, she imagines her colleagues as marionettes, puppets on a string, in accordance with the technology of Bergson’s time. But she is not happy with that thought, there is something not quite right about it, and as Torty speaks and gestures in this way and that, her mind moves away from Bergson and towards the J. G. Ballard novel she is reading presently, High Rise. One of the things Sweetlove finds irritatingly provocative about High Rise is the way Ballard describes people in the sparsest of terms, characters seem to lack any psychological depth and are continually defined by their job and the distinction of rank (‘a senior academic on the sixth floor dances with one of the air stewardesses from the second floor’).17 Then the penny drops: the surface-effect of stylised performance masks nothing in particular, nothing deeper in general. They laugh because their boss wants them to laugh! They laugh in an unselfconsciously non-naturalistic way, because they don’t necessarily want to seduce or flatter with delicacy. To flatter delicately takes real work. No, they simply laugh because it is an easy, ready-to-hand, way to preserve the distinction of rank, and their place in the hierarchy. In these moments, Sweetlove thinks to herself, we are less mechanism encrusted on the living organism, as we know Bergson might say, and more the abstract and stylised gesture drained of any embodied vitality and life, a smile without cat, or a chortle without any bodily investment or libidinal tendency. She speaks up again, amps up the drama again: You may well think this is funny, but I fancy the joke is on you sir! Here’s what is genuinely funny, tragically funny: I look around this room and I see

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your colleagues laughing along with you, seemingly enjoying your condescending retort, but they don’t give a shit about what you say or think. It is not even so much that they are cynical (though they are!), but that they show no desire to even pretend that you have anything valuable to contribute here. As you were telling me off, I couldn’t help but notice that you were constantly looking around for interpersonal reinforcement, and they [Sweetlove points at a number of people in the room] obliged by laughing when you laughed, raising their eyebrows when you did, shaking their head disapprovingly at your urging. But there was absolutely no life in those gestures! At first it made me think of Henri Bergson’s idea of the comic, whereby the mechanical is encrusted onto a living organism. What he has in mind, of course, is the puppet on the string, and I couldn’t help but think of what was happening in this meeting as a kind of choreographed puppetry. But it is worse than that, funnier than that, more tragic than that! For they are not even puppets, they are, and you are, mere traces of stylized gesture, emptied of any life whatsoever. You should read Ballard! Your future is going to be dreadfully boring. It is as if your face creases, your eyebrows go up and down and your organs oscillate without you even being conscious of it, without you even taking the trouble to feel it. Such lifeless institutionalization would be intolerable to anyone who had the wisdom and desire to see it for what it is. You’re all dead, don’t you know, you just haven’t had the wit to stiffen yet!

Sweetlove is shit scared to hear these words come out of her mouth, but is exhilarated nonetheless, an exhilaration which, she realises, is less about some self-righteous indignation and the desire to ‘speak truth to power’, but more formally about the crudeness, the literalness, the public-ness of her remarks as such. This is not the crudely literal humour of Stan Laurel, which is a kind of linguistic working to rule (you know, Ollie issues a demand and Stan observes it consistently to the letter, even when, especially when, the pragmatic circumstances of the utterance or demand actually demand its contravention). It is more like a shot at a crude and literal form of intersubjective comic seduction. Don’t be fooled by the haughty intellectualism of Sweetlove’s remarks (name-checking Bergson, Ballard, the coded references to Deleuze’s Logic of Sense which seem to be deliberately delivered over the heads of her audience), for she primarily wants to seduce her colleagues! Where Torty garners inter-subjective approval from his colleagues through his humorous and rather superior audio-visual meta-commentary on Sweetlove’s silliness, Sweetlove is gambling on engendering inter-subjective empathy by attempting as clever and as funny a form of masochistic self-­flagellation as she can muster. How could such a thing work? Well, everything rides on the possibility of reading Sweetlove’s remarks as a masochistically strident and very public acceptance of Torty’s rebuke, but one that has the potential to connect to hitherto alienated colleagues, garnering a sympathy that is expressed into a new form of political solidarity (a new


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‘us’ against the senior management). Let’s say that it is the final line (You’re all dead, don’t you know, you just haven’t had the wit to stiffen yet . . .) that sends a ripple of impromptu laughter around the room, an involuntary and uncomfortable laugh for some, the kind of laugh perfected in the improvised dramatisations we may well associate with the British filmmaker Mike Leigh, that is, improvised and potentially explosive comic devices.18 To be sure, humour can explode in our faces, and the ecology of emotional and subjective relationships it then plays into can change in all sorts of unpredictable ways as a consequence. Let us imagine that this ripple of laughter is, for many if not all in the room, an acceptance of Sweetlove’s invitation to join her as fellow, comradely, worker-masochists in this rather painful organisational theatre of the absurd. The laughter is tacit consent, or inter-subjective empathy, precisely because they are moved by the anxiety, the anger, even pain, they hear coming from Sweetlove’s voice, and as it reverberates around the room, they begin to recognise in it their own anxiety, their own anger, their own pain, their own experience and their own life in the organisation. The key here is that the absurdity becomes all too palpable, all too real, all too pressing, something that simply cannot be tolerated any longer precisely because it can no longer be ignored: it is felt empathetically, inter-subjectively, in solidarity . . . POSTSCRIPT: OR, STEPS TO . . . However useful we may find it to separate out, categorise and define the three steps above in isolation (the Kierkegaardian leap away from your boss, appreciating the complications of workplace gamification or the possibility of using excessively literal and crude humour to build solidarity with coworkers) they really only make sense in the connections they create, in the meandering movements across and between them. Earlier we raised the possibility of thinking about humour as a force for good. Can it be? Well, who knows? Perhaps it would be more helpful and hopeful to say that, at its best, we see the kind of excessively literal humour talked about above as something that can crystallise, or at least bring into sharper relief and focus, the things that we might otherwise only experience from an alienating distance as intolerable and absurd. There is a spectacle of the intolerable and the absurd (the ‘performance enhancement’ meeting is clearly a rather dreary spectacle) that we can take some kind of perverse pleasure in, and our perfunctory participation in it can dull the pain (for example, the pleasure Sweetlove takes in quietly and ironically mocking Dr Smooth in her own head), at least initially. However, and like the audience in the Kierkegaardian theatre foregrounded in the epigraph with which we began the chapter, we may well think we are

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being funny and clever, but we will burn for it in the end. No doubt humour can act as pain relief, novocaine for the soul, but rather than get hooked on that, we think it better to use humour in the way Sweetlove does in the end: to try to build solidarity, to create something publicly and collectively felt as intolerable, absurd, something more directly and inter-subjectively experienced, and therefore something that can no longer be ignored. Again, and while recognising that it is far from unproblematic to do so, it is important to reiterate that we are being utterly serious in playing around with the idea of connecting this kind of political humour to the notion of the self-help philosophy. Of course, there are a number of reasons to be sceptical of such a move. But we think there is a crucial difference between adopting a smug and haughty intellectual dismissal of self-help philosophy, one that sees it as nothing more than a bad joke, and sees its more self-promoting and self-aggrandising exponents as nothing more than sophists or clowns, and a real critical appreciation or historical consciousness of how much the ethos of self-help has succeeded in becoming part of the very technics of the contemporary cultural and political imaginary of our time: that thing that is often called ‘neo-liberalism’.19 This is something interestingly at play in the recent televisual development of the Coen Brothers cinematic work from the early 1990s, Fargo. The reimagining of Fargo as a TV comedy of sorts in the last few years (and we are thinking particularly of the second series, set in 1979 and against the backcloth of Ronald Reagan’s emergence as a national political figure in the United States) is an arresting, provocative, if rather tragi-comic, dramatisation of the connections between ‘neo-liberalism’ and what Charles Taylor famously diagnoses as a dangerously atomistic, hyperindividualised and instrumentalising ‘ethics of authenticity’.20 To be sure, the discourse, or rhetorical form, of the self-help manual may well still seem a rather odd one to evoke here, particularly if our concern has been to think about the formation of an inter-subjective, collective, sense experience of the intolerable and absurd. But, if we are justified in suggesting that the ethos of self-help, with its attending ideologies of possessive individualism and the singular, anomic, ‘self-actualizing’ subject, has indeed become part of the technics of our cultural and political imaginary (a big claim, no doubt, and one that needs further development in subsequent work), then it is a ready-made and useful way of beginning to talk about, and critically analyse, its significance, within and beyond the academy. To evoke the situationist critique of urbanism we mentioned in passing at the beginning of the chapter, we could stress the critical importance of taking seriously the normative promises and claims buried deep in the ‘self-actualizing’ subject, and the critical significance of calling these to account. For us, this requires something more than a mere haughty intellectual dismissal of the idea. Of course, we could make fun, question, ridicule the questionable philosophical


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anthropology of the ‘ethics of authenticity’, think about it as passé 1970s anarcho-individualism, a fad or fashion as out of date as the flares worn by the characters in Fargo. But the joke would be on us because the idea still has such currency, power and influence in the quotidian and banal reproduction of our everyday life (think about the self-regarding individualism of those lackeys of Professor Torty, ‘self-actualizers’ one and all). Kierkegaard’s clown reappears, but we laugh at him and ignore him at our peril . . . NOTES 1. Soren Kierkegaard, Either/Or: A Fragment of Life, London: Penguin, 2004, p. 29. 2. This is a line from the Sleaford Mods song Tiswas. See com/watch?v=bjCHNEtudR0. 3. The growth of philosophy and its rebranding outside the academy or in the broader cultural-consumer life of the overdeveloped global north has undoubtedly accelerated in recent times. We see this in the rise of celebrated and celebrity philosophers, freelancing and competing in the knowledge economy without the support of a traditional academic or institutional wage. The reasons for the rise of the philosopher as a kind of creature of the knowledge economy are no doubt many, but it is significantly due to an increasing shrinkage of space for philosophy in the academies of the overdeveloped world (the recent marketisation of UK universities and, before that, the Australian academy are particularly striking examples of this). Yet we would say it does not necessarily pay to be too economically determinist and culturally historically particular about this, as philosophy within the academy has been living on borrowed time for quite a while. If we think in broader historical terms, it is clear that philosophy predates the academies and institutional powers (law, religion, science . . .) it itself helped to build, and it will no doubt continue to have a sort of post-institutional half-life for as long as freelance figures in the contemporary knowledge and consumer economy ply their trade as ‘philosophers’ as such. 4. One of the most brilliantly seductive exponents of this kind of contemporary situationist humour is the philosopher Simon Critchley. See, for example, The Faith of the Faithless (London: Verso, 2012). 5. On this point, see, for instance, William Davies, The Happiness Industry (London: Verso, 2015). 6. For a good survey of Situationist writings on urbanism, see, for example, Tom McDonough, ed. The Situationists and the City (London, Verso, 2010). 7. This reduction of classical moral and political philosophy to the activities of the contemporary self-help guru is undoubtedly provocative and could be clearly seen as nothing short of ridiculous or trivial, an unjustified and unjustifiable shift in and across vastly different registers. To be sure, the danger here is that we too quickly and carelessly shift registers and cut across every day and political phenomena in a way that renders the concepts under discussion rather fuzzy. Yet, we perhaps face a more

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significant problem precisely when we fail to live with the fuzziness and messiness of the concepts we use in social and political life. Perhaps it is the shifting across registers (moving from formal concepts to everyday talk, to popular culture, to the banalities of organisational life, to. . .) that better enables us to gesture towards the broader political totality in which these very things can be seen to connect up. This, at least, is the wager of this chapter. 8. We will again pick up on this theme at the end of the chapter. 9. Of course, this crap joke hints at the irony of not being conscious of the ironic. This is something picked up by the Irish comedian Ed Byrne in his routine on Alanis Morrisette’s song Ironic. See 10. See, for example Iain Mackenzie and Robert Porter, ‘The Drama of Schizoanalysis: On Deleuze and Guattari’s Method’, in Deleuze and the Schizoanalysis of Literature, eds. I. Buchanan et al. (London: Bloomsbury, 2015), pp. 54–56. 11. On this point, see Soren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Irony (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1968). 12. For the classical statement of this enduring and influential idea, see Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens (London: Routledge, 1949). 13. We should say that rhizomatic marketing is a real thing, which just goes to show that you can’t even make this shit up. See hubs-c/focusing-the-rhizome-5-guidelines-when-designing-for-user-experience/. 14. To do something we often tell our students never to do, namely quote Wikipedia, ‘Zazzle is an American online marketplace that allows designers and customers to create their own products with independent manufacturers (clothing, posters, etc.)’. 15. On this point, see Gilles Deleuze, ‘Postscript on Societies of Control’, Negotiations (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), p. 179. 16. Henri Bergson, Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic (London: Wildside Press, 2008), p. 54. 17. J. G. Ballard, High Rise (London: Harper, 2005). 18. On the importance of humour in Mike Leigh’s films, see Tony Whitehead, Mike Leigh (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007). 19. Though we do not develop it here, we draw our periodisation and critical approach to ‘neo-liberalism’ broadly from Harvey. See David Harvey, A Brief History of Neo-Liberalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005). 20. See Charles Taylor, The Ethics of Authenticity (London: Harvard University Press, 1991). One of the key things for Taylor, and in this he has our agreement, is to see the notion of ‘authenticity’ as a normative ideal that is debased, as representing what he calls a ‘slide into subjectivism’ and a detachment for broader intersubjectively moral concerns. This is something that plays nicely into one of the key characters in season two of Fargo, Peggy Blumquist (played by Kirsten Dunst) and works in conjunction with the Reaganite background to the series, whereby the supposed revitalisation of an ‘American Spirit’ gets defined by a singularly obsessional and insistent desire for what becomes morally questionable, anomic and hyperindividualised forms of ‘self-actualization’.


absurd, 8, 28n14, 34, 48, 92 – 96, 134 – 47, 187 – 95, 203, 207 – 12, 216 – 19, 220 – 25 activism, 6, 9, 35, 46, 83, 84, 91 – 94, 96 Adorno, Theodor W., 8, 115n8, 133, 136 – 41, 147, 148 aesthetics, 8, 42, 47 – 51, 53, 57, 59, 133, 138 – 40 Alberto Y Lost Trios Paranoias, 167, 168, 173 Alexander, Jeffrey, 7, 83 – 85, 88, 90 ambiguity, 9, 15 – 18, 20 – 27, 28n10, 34, 36, 50 – 53, 83 – 97, 147, 162, 177, 187, 189, 191 anti-establishment. See establishment aphorism, 51, 57 – 58 Aristotle, 87, 202 art, 6 – 8, 15, 50, 52, 54, 60n2, 104, 116n21, 119 – 29, 133 – 47, 165, 169, 195, 202; avant-garde, 133, 136 – 37, 139, 147, 169 Asquith, Herbert Henry, 120, 122, 124 – 25 authority. See establishment Bakhtin, Mikhail, 6, 7, 66, 68, 70, 76, 87, 91, 96, 186, 188, 189, 192 Baudelaire, Charles, 161

Beckett, Samuel, 8, 19, 28n10, 151 – 62 Bee, Samantha, 46, 59, 108 Bergson, Henri, 3, 73, 74, 140, 144, 222, 223 Billig, Michael, 38, 105 Boltanski, Luc, 5, 32, 35, 38, 39, 41, 44n14 Boyer, Dominic, 89, 90, 96 Bruce, Lenny, 19, 45, 47 – 50, 52, 54, 58 Bush, George W., 45 capitalism, 6, 10, 16, 35 – 39, 52, 55 – 57, 65, 76 – 78, 103, 122, 147, 215 caricature, 6, 47 – 48, 51 – 57, 122, 170, 173. See also cartoons Carry On films, 170, 172 cartoons, 6, 7, 47, 50 – 57, 92, 103, 106, 111 – 13, 119 – 29, 166, 170, 182n10, 182n25 Chaplin, Charlie, 20, 21, 25, 28n14, 140 Chomsky, Noam, 1, 2 Christianity, 6, 48 – 49, 54, 58, 65 – 78; Jesus Christ, 58, 76, 78 conservatism, 91, 111 – 14, 217; and humour, 4, 10, 105. See also establishment: politics of Critchley, Simon, 5, 23, 24, 32, 37, 43n5, 71, 80n43, 226n4




Dead Kennedys, 9, 165, 171 – 72, 179 – 80 Deleuze, Gilles, 3 – 5, 8, 19, 20, 35, 153, 155 – 57, 163n14, 219, 220, 222, 223 Derek & Clive, 172 desire, 6, 18, 20 – 24, 26, 37, 70 – 78, 88, 95, 160, 191, 193, 194, 223 drive, 6, 65, 69 – 77 Dyson, Will, 119, 121 – 22, 124, 126, 129 Easter, 24, 65, 67 emotion, 9, 17, 18, 51, 54, 55, 57, 59, 88, 89, 121, 202 – 8, 210, 212 Enlightenment, 7, 15 – 16, 103 – 5; postenlightenment, 88 establishment: anti-establishment comedy, 202; anti-establishment ideologies, 170; culture of, 39, 166 – 67, 181; language of, 139; politics of, 96, 114 exaggeration, 6, 7, 48 – 54, 58, 94, 109 – 10, 119 – 23, 128 – 29, 134, 140, 142 – 46, 205, 210, 221 Fearon, Percy (Poy), 119, 122, 124 – 28 film, 18, 19, 23, 52, 70, 135 – 38, 144 Foucault, Michel, 1, 2, 7, 32, 86, 88, 90, 91, 94, 96 Freud, Sigmund, 5, 17, 25 – 27, 57, 65, 73 – 75, 81, 119 Gilbert, Jeremy, 35 Girard, René, 66, 69 Gnarr, Jon, 10, 89, 94 – 96 graphic design, 177, 178 – 79. See also cartoons Grotesque, 9, 34, 124, 154, 186, 188, 192 – 94, 197, 207 – 11 Guattari, Felix. See Deleuze, Gilles Haselden, William, 119, 123 – 28 horror, 8, 72, 127, 170, 186, 192 – 93. See also Grotesque humour: incongruity theory of, 17, 22, 40, 71, 135, 140, 141, 147, 203;

relief theory of, 8, 24, 119, 121, 128, 129, 134, 141, 203, 205, 225; superiority theory of, 29n18, 69, 105, 128, 138, 202, 203, 205 indifference, 8, 55, 151 – 62, 220 informalisation theory, 88, 89 infotainment, 7, 107 – 8. See also Oliver, John; Stewart, Jon; television irony, 8, 45, 86, 92, 94 – 96, 107, 111, 129, 133, 138, 140, 141, 147, 157, 165, 169, 176, 177, 181, 185, 189, 202, 208, 210, 216, 217, 221, 224, 227n9 Kant, Immanuel, 8, 104, 115n7, 133, 137, 139, 141, 209 Kierkegaard, Søren, 4, 208, 217, 220, 224, 226 Killing Joke, 165, 171, 177 – 78 Kondabolu, Hari, 9, 186, 192 – 96 Kuipers, Giselinde, 106 Lacan, Jacques, 6, 65, 69 – 76 Latour, Bruno, 5, 32, 40, 41 Lee, Stewart, 2, 3, 50, 93 liturgy, 6, 65 – 78. See also Christianity Lloyd George, David, 120, 122, 124 – 25 Lyotard, Jean-François, 8, 133, 137 – 39, 141 Maguire, Grainne, 93, 94 Marxism, 77, 90, 104 Medhurst, Andy, 166, 169 Meyer, John C., 204 mimesis, 8, 133, 136, 138 – 40, 147 modernism, 137. See also art music hall, 169, 170, 172 Nauman, Bruce, 8, 134, 142 – 46 O’Connell, Michael, 66 – 68 offence, 170 – 71, 172 – 75 Oliver, John, 46, 47, 59, 108 Otpor, 92, 93

Index 231

parody, 89, 95, 96, 107, 115, 138, 166 – 68, 173, 175 philosophy, 47 – 48, 49, 57 – 58, 215 – 19, 225; enlightenment, 104; process, 15 – 28 physiognomy. See caricature Plato, 58, 90, 138, 202 play and playfulness, 6, 19, 23, 45, 50, 71, 75, 81n83, 83, 86, 87, 91 – 96, 106, 134, 160, 173, 177, 187, 189, 206, 210, 211, 218, 219, 225. See also theatre politicians, 4, 23, 32, 55, 119 – 20, 122; as comedians, 4, 9, 10, 83 – 85, 91 – 96, 201 – 12 Pook, Jan, 108 – 14 postmodernism, 46, 137, 187, 194 Pound, Marcus, 6, 65, 70 – 75 punk, 8, 9, 91, 95, 165 – 81

self-help, 11, 215, 216, 225, 226 Sex Pistols, 169 – 71 Shah, Sami, 192 – 96 The Simpsons, 39, 52. See also cartoons; television situationism, 11, 91, 169, 215, 216, 218, 225, 226n4 slapstick comedy, 8, 133 – 37, 140, 142 – 47 Spinoza, Baruch, 5, 17 – 22, 24, 105 stand-up comedy, 2, 4, 7, 9, 19, 22, 47, 50, 90, 93 – 94, 106, 114, 186, 192 – 97 Stewart, Jon, 45 – 46, 108 Sublime, 8, 57, 58, 133, 137 – 41, 147 subversion, 9, 24, 31 – 33, 37, 38, 41, 43n5, 50, 76, 77, 93, 103, 104, 106, 108, 110, 113, 156, 165 – 66, 169, 186

Rancière, Jacques, 32, 37, 39, 42 Randle, Frank, 166 Reagan, Ronald, 179 – 80, 225 repetition, 65, 73 – 77, 124, 135, 143 – 44 rhetoric, 6, 9, 83 – 86, 90, 92, 96, 104, 114, 120, 121 risus paschalis, 6, 65 – 69, 76 – 77. See also Easter Rushdie, Salman, 185 – 97

television, 2, 4, 10, 76, 87, 107 – 9, 114, 166 – 67, 169, 208, 211, 219 – 20, 225 theatre, 66 – 68, 70, 74, 83, 91, 109, 136, 138, 142, 215, 224 Tiririca, 9 – 10, 201, 202, 207 – 11 Tomšič, Samo, 77 Trump, Donald, 9, 10, 46, 59, 90, 108, 110, 111, 117n40, 201 Twain, Mark, 5, 31 – 38, 43n12

Satan, 31 – 38, 40, 41, 43. See also Christianity satire, 4 – 7, 10, 32, 39, 45 – 59, 68 – 69, 89, 104, 107 – 8, 111, 114, 117n40, 120, 165 – 68, 170 – 71, 176, 178 – 81, 186 – 88

Weyerman, Jacob Campo, 103, 107 Woensel, Pieter van, 111 – 14 Zupančič, Alenka, 3, 6, 33, 65, 69 – 78, 80n43

About the Contributors

Russ Bestley is reader in Graphic Design at the London College of Communication. His interests include graphic design, punk, English cultural identity and humour. He has co-authored and designed a number of books, including Experimental Layout (2001), Up against the Wall (2002), Visual Research (2004, 2011, 2015), The Art of Punk (2012) and Action Time Vision: Punk & Post Punk 7” Record Sleeves (2016). He has contributed articles to Punk & Post Punk, Cadernos de Arte e Antropologia (Brazil), The National Grid (New Zealand) and Design 360° (China), and acted as consultant for the Design Museum, Channel Four television and Radio France. He has also written for a range of graphic design and music publications, including Eye, Zed, Emigré, Street Sounds and Vive Le Rock. Russ is editor of the journal Punk & Post Punk, and a member of the Punk Scholars Network. Krista Bonello Rutter Giappone lectures in the English Department at the University of Malta, and is a member of the Centre for Critical Thought at the University of Kent, Canterbury (UKC). She obtained her PhD from the UKC, researching punk and alternative comedy under the supervision of Oliver Double. She is a member of the Punk Scholars Network, and the Game Philosophy Network. She has published articles on comedy, including an article on videogames (in Game Studies), and she has co-written a book chapter on comedy in comics (Deadpool and Philosophy). She is currently writing a monograph on punk and stand-up comedy, which will be published by Palgrave Macmillan. Her research interests include comedy, Shakespeare, punk, horror film, videogames and comics. Christine Caruana graduated from the University of Malta with a BA in English (Hons.) in 2013. She then obtained a First-Class Honours in her MA 233


About the Contributors

in modern and contemporary literature and criticism from the same university in 2015. Her dissertation was titled ‘On Silliness: An Exploration of Its Hamletic and Falstaffian Strands’. Currently, she is an editorial board member of the peer-reviewed, postgraduate journal antae. Her research interests include style, literariness and stand-up comedy more broadly. Dieter Declercq has recently completed his PhD thesis at the University of Kent, entitled A Philosophy of Satire. Critique, Entertainment, Therapy. He has a specific interest in comedy, satire, comics and irony, alongside a broad interest in general issues in philosophy, especially philosophy of art, as well as film, television and media studies. He has published on visual irony in comics in The Postgraduate Journal of Aesthetics (2016), the satire of The Simpsons in Ethical Perspectives (2013) and the moral responsibilities of film, television and media studies in the edited collection Cinema, Television and History: New Approaches (CSP, 2014).​ Kate Fox is a final year PhD student, researching class, gender and Northern English regional identity in the Performance and Cultural Industries Department at the University of Leeds. Her work on ‘Humitas’ won her a graduate student award from the International Society of Humor Studies in 2016. She has been a full-time stand-up poet since 2006, has been Poet in Residence for the Glastonbury Festival and Great North Run and has made two comedy series for Radio 4 (one of which was a performance auto/ethnography in disguise). Fred Francis is assistant lecturer in English at the University of Kent. He is co-organiser of the UK comics research forum Comics Crossroads, and in 2016 he curated the exhibition There Is an Alternative!: Critical Comics and Cartoons. He has recently published on Anglo-American identity in comics in Comparative American Studies (14:3–4) and contributed a chapter to the collection Visions of the Future in Comics: International Perspectives (McFarland 2017). His research interests are in comics, cartoons, radical politics and gothic studies. Pip Gregory started university in 2002 at Bristol. Since then, she has completed a few degrees, and went on to teach at secondary school, before returning to university in Kent to continue learning and complete her PhD. Her interests expand widely across disciplines and time periods having started her career in religion and theology, diverted through the Middle Ages and come out in the twentieth century. Additionally, she has worked collaboratively with comedians and drama students along the way. Currently her work looks at visual humour in cartoon works from the Great War, but also analyses

About the Contributors 235

satire and comedic illustrations from the early 1800s through to contemporary newspaper material considering the replication of icons, and memories instilled within them along the way. Levi Hanes is a practising artist. He is currently an Irish Research Council Scholar at the Huston School of Film & Digital Media, National University Ireland, Galway, researching slapstick in contemporary art for a practicebased PhD. He holds an MFA from the Glasgow School of Art and received a BA in fine art (painting), English Literature Minor from the Robert D. Clark Honors College, University of Oregon. Adrian Hickey is course director of the Interactive Media Course at Ulster University, UK. Hickey is an early career researcher with mostly creative practice-based outputs, including HistorySpace ( (CoInvestigator), Generation Animation (, and Project Social ( Hickey’s practice research engages with users who don’t have easy access to, or perhaps an understanding of, how contemporary media can be used to better the society in which it is situated. Nicholas Holm is a lecturer in media studies at Massey University, New Zealand, where he teaches courses in advertising, popular culture and introductory media studies. His research addresses the politics of everyday life and popular culture. He has written extensively on the political potential of humour which is the subject of his monograph, Humour as Politics (Palgrave, 2017) as well as articles in journals including Comedy Studies, Transformations and the Journal of American Studies, and collections such as Satire and Politics (Palgrave, 2017). He is also the author of Advertising and Consumer Society (Palgrave, 2017) and the co-editor of Ecological Entanglement in the Anthropocene (Lexington, 2017). Iain MacKenzie is a co-director of the Centre for Critical Thought and senior lecturer in politics at the University of Kent. Publications include The Edinburgh Companion to Poststructuralism (EUP, 2013) co-edited with B. Dillet and R. Porter; Dramatizing the Political (Palgrave, 2011) co-authored with R. Porter; Politics: Key Concepts in Philosophy (Continuum, 2009); The Idea of Pure Critique (Continuum, 2004). His book Resistance and the Politics of Truth: Foucault, Deleuze, Badiou is forthcoming with Transcript Press. Giuliana Monteverde has just completed her PhD on Complicity in Contemporary Feminist Discourse at Ulster University, UK. Giuliana contributed a book chapter to Exploring Complicity: Concepts, Cases and Critique


About the Contributors

(Rowman and Littlefield, 2016), and is co-editing HBO’s New and Original Voices:  Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality and Power with Victoria McCollum (Routledge, 2017). Giuliana was shortlisted in the 2014 Feminist and Women Studies Association essay competition and has published articles in the Journal of International Women’s Studies (2014), and Critical Studies in Fashion and Beauty (2016). In 2013 Giuliana co-organised an international conference on gender in the twenty-first century, and in 2016 she won Best Paper Published at the Ulster Postgraduate Awards. Giuliana teaches media studies, film studies and English literature, and her research interests include complicity, pop-culture and celebrity, intersectional feminism and postfeminist neo-liberalism. Ivo Nieuwenhuis works as a lecturer and researcher at Radboud University Nijmegen, Department of Dutch Language and Culture. His main topics of interest are eighteenth-century literature and culture, humour, satire and irony. He completed his PhD on the political and social impact of satire during the Dutch Revolutionary Era (1780–1800). This research resulted in the monograph Onder het mom van satire. Laster, spot en ironie in Nederland, 1780–1800 (Hilversum: Verloren, 2014). He also contributed to the volume The Power of Satire (Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2015), edited by Marijke Meijer Drees and Sonja de Leeuw, and to HUMOR: International Journal of Humor Research. Constantino Pereira Martins’s academic interests cover an area of research at the intersection of theology, political philosophy, cinema and aesthetics. He has a master’s degree in philosophy, and is currently a PhD student at Nova University of Lisbon, where his research is funded by the FCT Foundation. His present investigation is focused on humour and comedy. The research builds upon a relation between cinema and philosophy, aiming at both a theoretical and a pragmatic approach. His analysis of humour seeks to understand its profligacy and its propensity for founding disruption. Regarding the aesthetic movement, his aim is to build a general theory of genre in the subversive loop that animates the search for the radicalism and impurity of humour. He is interested in the dilemma of identity between subjectivity and the collective, and is studying the relevant cinematic effects through analysis of the cinema of Chaplin and Woody Allen. Robert Porter is director of the Centre for Media Research, Ulster University, UK. Publications include The Edinburgh Companion to Poststructuralism (EUP, 2013) co-edited with B. Dillet and I. Mackenzie; Dramatizing the Political (Palgrave, 2011) co-authored with I. Mackenzie; Deleuze and Guattari: Aesthetics and Politics (University of Wales Press, 2009); Ideology:

About the Contributors 237

Contemporary Social, Political and Cultural Theory (University of Wales Press, 2009). His more recent book, Meanderings through the Politics of Everyday Life, will be published by Rowan and Littlefield. Francis Stewart graduated from Durham University in 2016, having studied philosophy and theology in a combined honours degree. He wrote his dissertation about comedy and liturgy under the supervision of Dr Marcus Pound, who suggested that he apply for the Kent conference in Comedy and Critical Thought, from which sprang this publication. Stewart is currently finishing an MA in theology at Durham, funded by the Centre for Catholic Studies and is writing about theological engagement with Marx’s critique of political economy. In his spare time, he enjoys appropriating surplus spare time from fellow losers. James Williams is honorary professor of philosophy at Deakin University. He has published widely on contemporary French philosophy (most recently Gilles Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition, 2nd edition, Edinburgh University Press, 2013; Gilles Deleuze’s Philosophy of Time, Edinburgh University Press, 2011). His latest book was A Process Philosophy of Signs (Edinburgh University Press, 2016), and he has also co-edited a new volume on Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus, with Henry Somers-Hall and Jeffrey A. Bell (A Thousand Plateaus and Philosophy, Edinburgh University Press, 2018). James’s next monograph defends an egalitarian concept of the sublime. It will be published by Edinburgh University Press in 2019. Selvin Yaltır is a PhD candidate in English literature at Boğaziçi University, Istanbul, Turkey. She holds a BA degree in Western languages and literatures from Boğaziçi University and an MA degree in literary studies from Utrecht University. She also studied at the University of Kent as a visiting student. She has published articles and reviews in Turkish. Her research interests include Samuel Beckett, modernism, aesthetics, and contemporary thought. She is currently writing her dissertation on Samuel Beckett.