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From resistance to legitimation: The changing role of humour in politics
Alexander Spencer
The phenomenon of humour stands at the intersection of politics, culture and society. Humour practices are an essential aspect of culture which can be used as both a form of criticism of and resistance to politics as well as a form of legitimation of politics by the political elite in order to gain support from the public. The proposed special issue will be interested in how humour intertwines culture, politics and society and how the practices of humour are used as a means of resistance to and legitimation of political power in societies. The special issue will engage with the subject of humour from an interdisciplinary perspective and includes international scholars who explore questions regarding the politics of humour form various disciplines such as political science, philosophy, sociology and law studies to tease out the functions of humour practices as a tool for resistance and legitimation of power.

Social Sciences recently discovered the funny side of politics as a topic worthy of scientific attention and in the last years one can point to a growing interest in humour in a number of disciplines. The Special Issue “Humour and Global Politics” in Global Society by Brassett, Browning and Wedderburn (2021) can be seen as a starting point for research on the use of humour on a more international level of politics. Only recently, the Special Issue “The politics and aesthetics of humour in an age of comic controversy” by Nieuwenhuis and Zijp (2022) in the European Journal of Cultural Studies observed a “re-politicisation of humour” in the 21st century. Hence, our Special Issue builds on these ideas and focuses on (re-)politicization and the question of resistance to and legitimation of politics in society. It furthermore adds the interconnected and contradictory trends of absence of humour, as well its proliferation into new political environments like authoritarian contexts.

Humour has for a long time been associated with resistance and being a weapon of the weak (Fluri 2019) and therefore, predominantly positive characteristics are ascribed to it (Billig 2005). Following this tradition, humour has been seen as revolutionary and only in recent years has the focus shifted to an increasingly counter-revolutionary and conservative role of humour in parts due to its disincentivising (Brock 2018) and camouflaging effects (Beck and Spencer 2021; Brassett et al 2021). Especially in times of uncertainty, crisis and autocratization, shifts for the use of humour from entertaining to serious means and from censorship towards instrumentalized humour as style of politics become visible. In this current seemingly inverted world, a reassessment is needed. Therefore, this Special Issue is especially interested in cases where humour is used against all odds or when common expectations are not met. While one might expect funny late-night hosts, our volume shows serious entertainers and funny dictators instead. By looking on (un)funniness against all odds, the volume thereby contributes to the central tension between humour, critique and legitimacy.

Humour scholars have become increasingly interested in strategies involving satire and comedy which play a key role in the transformation of the public sphere and the self-representation of new authoritarian and populist leaders. In recent years, it could be observed how humour is in democratic contexts a strategy of the powerful. Politicians often behave like entertainers who use humour to distract attention away from their own mistakes. In times of crisis, the role of comedians and funny politicians becomes highly ambivalent. While some comedians are more serious, others become political actors themselves. Due to their professionality, they test and challenge the legal system, as political actors who have previously been comedians show. Here, the limits of humour and what the law can do against hate speech when humour is involved are of interest.

The shifts observed in this Special Issue are ambiguous. Specific practices and forms of humour are intrinsic to political power, even in regimes where they are not expected. While authoritarian regimes have a limited tolerance against jokes on their own cost, there seems to be the trend that even dictators use strategic humour for their means: Through blaming adversaries and spreading fake news. The value of humour for liberal public culture and an ethical and moralistic outlook are of philosophical interest. At the same time, the rise of illiberal use of humour provokes a moralist critique of such tasteless humour. The changing landscape of humour in politics also includes the necessity of reflecting about ethics/ethical questions. A further shift concerns the role of humour in debates about what constitutes a human subject and who gets dehumanized. The quality of being humorous is highly desired and only ascribed to independent human subjects. This tension is also visible in the scandalization of dehumanized subjects who are enjoying humour and who are usually not associated with being in the joke.

Overall, the Special Issue will contribute to this increased interest by bringing together papers from international scholars which examine the new role and function of humour in public culture and politics. The following questions are therefore of key-interest for the Special Issue:

  • How does humour contribute to uncertainty and the (de-)legitimation of (political) ideas?
  • How is humour used by the powerful in politics, society and various forms of organizations as a form of defence/insulation against criticism?
  • What is the role of moralism in times of abundant illiberal uses of humour? Who is allowed to laugh and enjoy humour?
  • How does humour work in times of crisis? Does political humour decrease or increase uncertainty and ontological security?
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