The Contingent Dynamics of Political Humor
The Contingent Dynamics of Political Humor
Political humor has long been implicated in both the juridical settings of government and its policymaking and the everyday lived possibilities constrained by social institutions and expectations. This is perhaps especially true today. In contemporary societies around the world, political humor abounds in a great diversity of media. Politicians and parties use humor to advance their interests and agendas. Individuals and social movements use humor to express their needs and causes.
For our purposes, ‘political humor’ involves substantial political action conducted through amusing means, rather than the use of political subjects for amusement. It is political communication that partakes in humor, proffering cognitive and affective pleasures typically resulting in laughter in order to better inform and solicit sympathetic political participation in a particular ideological or distributional agenda in lieu of the agenda of rivals. As such, the rich and growing scholarship on political humor tends to diverge along two lines: the conservative ways in which humor relies upon and redoubles existing shared expectations at the expense of errant targets, or the radical ways in which it can achieve cognitive shifts and thereby liberate human energies.
Assessing the social functions and practical impact of political humor is complicated by the ways in which it turns on the nature of the political status quo including especially the distribution of authority and membership. In a democratic polity, ‘conservative’ humor (together with apolitical merely entertaining humor) literally presumes or shores up existing hegemonic democratic institutions, values, and participation. Whereas on one side reactionary humor undermines democracy in favor of some nostalgic and less inclusive form and on the other liberal humor presses for further inclusion. Conversely, in an authoritarian political system conservative humor defends the sanctity of established and exclusionary hierarchies against transgressors, who in turn lob radical jokes that they hope will produce laughter that shakes those hierarchies to their core.
As a communicative strategy of political action, the prospects of political humor are further complicated by variations in audience reception. Jokes cast into the (increasingly global) public sphere are rarely uniformly received and are typically vulnerable to unintended consequences. Moreover, even those who appear to share in a laugh may be laughing at different dimensions of the joke. Political humor, then, may well work with some audiences, amusing yet angering them to seek the prospective pleasures of having the last laugh, or it may prove cathartic and consoling thereby dissipating activist enthusiasm. The humor may prove divisive, prompting defensive or aggressive reactions by targets and their allies, or perhaps more benignly, counter-joke cycles. On the whole there are good reasons to prefer trading punch-lines to trading punches. However, political humor that mocks targets may also rally the enactment of humiliating violence against those targets. The wide dispersal of political humor may politicize and mobilize viewers into action. Alternately, it may have the unintended effect of trivializing issues, undermining the media, fostering cynicism and even nihilism, discrediting political institutions, office-holders and politicians, and lowering political trust more generally.
This CFP for a special issue of EJHR seeks original interdisciplinary scholarly work that allows for both the repressive and irrepressible dynamics of humor by locating the actual practices and instances of political humor succeeding, falling flat, or backfiring within their relevant historical, institutional and cultural contexts. Though the campaign and election of President Trump in the US has provoked fresh reflections on political humor this CFP welcomes papers that also address modern and contemporary non-US and non-Western examples. It also welcomes the views of political humor practitioners either in the form of a reflective essay or interview.
All authors should strive to address two sorts of questions:
First, can we count on humor, comedy, satire and so on to serve salutary and saving roles for democracy and democratization, and if so, under what conditions? Does political humor always level the pretensions of overreaching democratic politicians in favor of the public? Might it instead be adopted by the powerful to pre-emptively goad divisions in their favor within the electorate? When is it an effective foreign relations strategy for advancing democratic regimes? Contextual considerations include but are not limited to: who is venturing the political humor, within what type of polity, in what sorts of venues, and in the presence of whom? Similarly, the public receptivity to and impacts of humorous provocation may well vary with culturally constructed conceptions of honor and face.
Second, do one’s political commitments place limits on what sorts of humorous pleasure can be sought, and at the expense of whom? Given the variable and contextual dynamics of the efficacy of political humor what if any ethical duties or social responsibilities might be placed on democratically-minded practitioners of political humor? Similarly, are ordinary citizens in democratic or democratizing polities under any civic obligations to try to appreciate humor, even when doing so may amount to self-deprecation?
For a fuller version of the CFP (with citations), please visit: <https://mla.hcommons.org/deposits/download/hc:20916/CONTENT/the-contingent-dynamics-of-political-humor.docx/>
Please submit your proposals of no more than 500 words by Dec 1, 2018 to <email@example.com>. Authors will receive notification of their proposals’ acceptance by Jan 1, 2019 and will be invited to submit their full papers not later than Jun 1, 2019. The issue will be published in 2020.
Professor Sammy Basu, Willamette University
Massih Zekavat, Yazd University