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- Author: Alister Wedderburn x
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This book offers a theoretically and empirically rich analysis of humour’s relevance to world politics. Drawing on literature from a range of disciplines including International Relations (IR), literary theory, cultural studies and sociology, its central claim is that humour plays an underappreciated role in the making and unmaking of political subjectivities. As such, humour not only provides an illuminating way into debates about identity and the everyday production and reproduction of order, but also opens up hitherto under- or even unstudied sites where this production and reproduction takes place. With reference to the ancient comic figure of the parasite, the book suggests that humour has historically been understood in relation to anxieties about subjectivity, estrangement and the circumscription and protection of the political sphere. It identifies three distinct spaces where humour has informed, enabled or defined ‘parasitic’ engagements with world politics. In the body of artwork produced by detainees in concentration camps, in lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and others (LGBTQ+) responses to the HIV/AIDS pandemic, and in carnivalesque tactics of contemporary mass protest, one can observe actors engaging through humour in the interrogation, negotiation and contestation of social, political and international relations. Through these detailed studies, the book demonstrates how everyday practices like humour can draw from, feed into, interrupt and potentially transform world politics.
Chapter 4 looks at ‘physical parasitism’ in the context of LGBTQ+ organisation against the AIDS crisis. It focuses on how people with AIDS engaged with and organised against the biomedical and biopolitical governance of their condition prior to the development of effective antiretroviral treatment in 1996, paying particular attention to the international AIDS activist group AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP). The importance of humour to the group’s tactical approach has been largely overlooked by existing literature on the subject – a fact that several of its members have lamented. Building on these accounts, the chapter argues that humour played an underappreciated role in ACT UP’s attempts to resignify what it meant to live with (and die from) AIDS, a goal the group pursued by physically occupying particular spaces associated with their marginalisation. ‘Physical parasitism’ thus refers to an intervention into an exclusionary discourse or system of power relations through the physical relocation and recontextualisation of bodies into spaces that produce or symbolise those bodies’ abjection.
Chapter 3 outlines and evaluates an aesthetic approach to parasitism as demonstrated by three comic strips drawn by Horst Rosenthal, a German Jew detained at Gurs in Vichy France between 1940 and 1942 and later killed at Auschwitz-Birkenau. It reads Rosenthal’s three extant comic strips as examples of parasitic practice that seek to intervene into the extremities of the social context in which they were created on an aesthetic level. The three strips function by introducing dissonant aesthetic subjects into their representations of concentration: holidaymakers, and even in one case Mickey Mouse. In these ambiguous ‘aesthetic interruptions’, Rosenthal sets up intersubjective encounters that enable him to engage with the desubjectifying and depoliticising effects of detainment with a latitude unavailable within the physical world of the camp. ‘Aesthetic parasitism’ thus refers to a performative claim to subjectivity made within an aesthetic sphere that stands as the cipher or avatar of a corresponding physical space.
Chapter 1 develops a conceptual framework through which to understand humour’s relevance to world politics, putting forward an account of humour as a vehicle for the performative articulation and negotiation of political subjectivity. It argues that humour plays an active and constitutive role (though also an ambiguous and indeterminate one) in the creation and maintenance of subjective identity – in which capacity it also helps to shape and reshape intersubjective relations, both within and between political communities. Drawing on the laugh that underpins Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things and Michel de Certeau’s theory of everyday life, the chapter theorises humour as a ‘way of operating’: as a field of everyday practice that is both irreducible to and inextricable from the broad network of relations that comprise its social and political terrain. In so doing, it positions humour at the liminal boundary-zones of social order, revealing and sometimes contesting the exclusionary terms of belonging that underpin all individual and group identities. This understanding of humour provides the foundation for the book’s enquiry.
This chapter examines historical theories of humour. Beginning with the very earliest theory of comic practice that exists – a brief digression within Aristotle’s discussion of tragedy in his Poetics – it argues that humour has historically been understood as a way of speaking when properly political speech is impossible. Its function in this context is as a way of making a performative claim to political subjectivity in a context where political subjectivity is otherwise denied. In ancient Greek comic drama, this function is embodied by the ambiguous figure of the parasite. The chapter maps this account onto the theoretical framework established in Chapter 1, arguing that the parasite’s appeals to humour can be understood as a ‘way of operating’ on political terrain from which s/he is by rights excluded. An analytic focus on ‘parasitic’ appeals to humour, the chapter suggests, can thereby open up insights into the everyday politics of exclusion, struggle and resistance that underpin existing concerns within IR. This ‘parasitic’ understanding of comic-political subjectivity informs the book’s empirical analysis in its second part.
Chapter 5 interrogates the use of parody by global social movements. Drawing on Michel Foucault’s concept of ‘grotesque’ or ‘Ubu-esque’ power, in addition to Judith Butler’s writing on parody, it focuses on the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army (CIRCA), a group who played a prominent role in several large actions in the mid-2000s. The chapter makes the case that the carnivalesque parody characteristic of CIRCA and the so-called ‘global justice movement’ more widely intervenes into the prescriptive and established ‘reality’ of global capitalism by representing it in unfamiliar terms as something strange and ‘grotesque’. In particular, the chapter argues that the parodic militarism of the Clown Army served this function by highlighting the violent practices that enable global capitalism to operate on a day-to-day basis. CIRCA’s ‘parodic parasitism’ draws on a long tradition of comic performance whose lineage can be traced back to ancient comic drama – and indeed, to the parasite. Questions arise, however, about the political meaning of parody – and indeed of humour more generally – in an age where various political figures, including the President of the United States, openly embrace the grotesque as a mode of governance.
humour within IR. It builds on the discipline’s burgeoning concerns with emotions, cultural practice and the everyday in order to argue that seemingly unremarkable practices like humour can draw attention to important sites of social production and reproduction. Drawing on anthropological studies of ‘joking relationships’ and international political sociological studies of humour, the introduction observes that humour is a politically significant field of everyday practice, and plays an active and frequently important role in the delimitation, organisation, negotiation and transformation of its social field. It is therefore of interest to scholars thinking about the production, reproduction and contestation of order, and about the ways in which subjects seek to position themselves in relation to larger social and political structures. In this capacity, it not only provides an unusual perspective on world politics but also offers a way of tracing the mutually constitutive relationship between the social and the global. The introduction concludes by mapping out the structure of the book as a whole.
The book’s conclusion reviews the implications of its study of humour and the performance of subjectivity for the study of world politics. It emphasises three conclusions in particular. The first is the importance of everyday intersubjective interactions to the relational systems and networks that constitute international relations. A focus on humour provides one way of tracing the symbiotic, transversal relationship between apparently mundane social practices and issues of global political concern. The second conclusion concerns the potential importance of humour to the making and unmaking of political subjectivities. Humour plays an active and sometimes important political role insofar as it is involved in the performance of political subjectivity and the (re)making of intersubjective social and political relations. Thirdly and finally, the conclusion emphasises the way in which a ‘parasitic’ understanding of comic-political subjectivity focuses analytic attention towards the political margins: towards the creation, reproduction, maintenance and contestation of political discourses, boundaries and orders.