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Who’s Laughing Now? Humour, Anxiety and Crisis in global politics
Recent years have seen a growth of interest in the role of humour and joking in global politics. While there is a venerable tradition of critical inquiry on the resistant and subversive potential of humour (Hart 2007, Sorensen 2008), less research has been conducted on the questions of how jokes are playing an increasingly regrettable role in ‘normal politics’. Politicians joke, comedians ‘become’ politicians, and public messaging on issues as diverse as military recruitment, Covid lockdowns and Brexit are relayed in humorous terms. Due to the mediatised nature of modern political campaigning where domestic and international politics is increasingly subject to the demands of the 24hrs news and social media cycle, humorous memes and Instagram posts have been one avenue by which politicians can promote their message. Indeed, the theory and practice of new diplomacy and nation branding has embraced the everyday capacity of jokes to cut through the traditional silos of modern politics to generate a sense of authenticity, approachability and relevance. Yet, insofar as such jokes promote the laughter of identification for those who share a political message, the ambiguity of humour - both its meaning and reception - can also raise important questions about inclusion and exclusion Who gets to joke, about what and whom? From the use of memes by populist politicians in the US and UK, to the (in)direct use of irony and pranks in the hybrid warfare of Russia, the ‘comed-ification’ of global politics can present some serious diplomatic challenges. More reflexively, insofar as certain forms of humour like satire are associated with liberal ideals of democracy and free speech, events like the Danish Cartoons crisis and Charlie Hebdo point to further dilemmas of how jokes circulate within and beyond borders. Humour is a widely used and resonant form of everyday political communication that can both construct emergent forms of political identity and community, while excluding, ridiculing, or otherwise humiliating subjects and groups it performs as ‘other’.
The aim of this project is to draw together and define the contours of this emerging set of research questions on humour and global politics. The focus will however NOT be on humour as a form of resistance and critique of the state and those in power (which already is fairly well established), but as a form of legitimation and means of establishing ontological security in situations of crisis and anxiety by (authoritarian) governments and populist movements. Here the research questions the project will be concerned with are:
  • How is humour used by states and those in political power and how does this differ from humour used by those challenging the status quo?
  • What methodological framework is suited for the analysis of humour in politics?
  • What role does humour play in situations of political anxiety and crisis?
  • What does the use of humour by authoritarian regimes and populist do politically? How does is contribute to ontological security, anxiety and crisis?
  • How can humour by authoritarian governments and populist movements be addressed by democratic governments and civil society actors?
  • What role are the various societal and immediate contexts playing for the success of humour?

Building on the previous research on humour and ontological security, political legitimation, and everyday geo-politics, the research group will make a timely and significant contribution to the study of humour in global politics. This project will therefore provide a twofold contribution that defines and elaborates the terms of inquiry. First, the applicant and co-applicants will refine and consolidate the theoretical and methodological framework for analysing the everyday geopolitics of humour. This will ultimately yield to a series of case studies that will serve as the basis of papers and publications. Second, the applicant and co-applicants will use the project workshops (UK and Germany) and related conference panels (EISA and ISA) to generate innovative research results as well as disseminate these research findings to a broader public where humour us still seen as "inherently good” (Billig 2005). This process will also help to bring together an emerging network of researchers concerned with humour and global politics We elaborate on these points below:
Theoretical and Methodological Framework: Humour cuts across established perceptual divides of the private/political, the individual/societal, the domestic/international, and especially, the everyday/geopolitical. To capture humour’s interaction and movement across these divides the project will utilise and further refine emerging work synthesising theories of humour with theories of ontological security management (Brassett et al. 2021; Croft 2012; Steele 2021) and research on political communication by authoritarian states and populist movements (Gil and Brea 2021)
While theories of humour emphasise how jokes can function as a form of (i) stress relief, (ii) community building/bordering, and (iii) resistance to (or reassertion of) power relations, these all speak directly to ontological security theorising’s concern with the ability of agents to manage extant anxieties, not least through the maintenance and cultivation of coherent and satisfying biographical narratives of self-identity. Rendered as an everyday practice of ontological (in)security management an empirical focus on humour can help to animate the contemporary (geo)politics of anxiety. In some cases, jokes will assure and affirm established notions of identity (e.g. when populists joke about nationality or ‘woke’ intersectionality), yet also, and especially where such humour tries to be ‘edgy’ or transgressive, jokes can work to activate anxieties in others especially in situations of crisis. For example, when President Trump deployed Game of Thrones memes, he not only utilised an everyday reference from popular culture, but did so precisely to frame emerging anxieties about a an emerging trade war with China. Equally, China has mobilised well-circulated western jokes about both Trump’s incoherent bombast and Biden’s old age to position its own geopolitical imaginary of Chinese power and influence.
The originality of this approach is to think of humour as a productive component of world politics. Very often, the humour of authoritarian leaders and populists or the right is dismissed as ‘offense comedy’ or ‘merely unfunny’. On one hand, this could risk overlooking the vast empirical archive of jokes, memes, and humorous aesthetics such as comic book allusions (e.g. Boris Johnson as ‘the Hulk’) that now form part of the everyday stuff of global politics. How populists mobilise irony and humour to both spread their message and disarm potential criticism is a crucial ethical and political question. On the other hand, we argue, by rendering certain case studies of humour in global politics as active (if uncertain) practices of ontological security management our project can discern important dynamics in everyday geo-politics. For example, the use of irony can be a way for certain states to affirm their reflexive or postmodern status as post-national polities. Conversely, the Russian Embassy in London sent a series satirical tweets about the Salisbury poisoning which arguably fell flat in the UK and Europe, but which affirmed a vision of Russia-phobia that circulated well with Putin’s base. In this regard, NATO has argued that the strategic use of humour is now a central part of Russian strategies of ‘hybrid warfare’, in which humour also manifests as a form of ‘anxiety geopolitics’ (Eberle and Daniel 2021); cultivating Western anxieties about Russian efforts to undermine social cohesion, democratic legitimacy and public support for Western foreign policy.
Consolidated International Network and Outreach: This is an intellectually driven research project cutting across cultural studies (humour), sociology and IR (ontological security), political science (legitimation dynamics) and communication/media studies (nation branding a public diplomacy). It is focused on addressing the (geo)political implications of everyday contemporary practices of humour with a particular emphasis on exploring the relationship between humour and the politics of anxiety, while in turn considering what humour does to practices of ontological security management. This will be achieved via a related set of case studies focused on comedy in the intersections between (new) public diplomacy, nation branding, and popular geopolitics. These will be organised around a more specific focus on humour as a form of (populist and authoritarian) (de)legitimation and where populism is seen to be creating a mood and set of dynamics particularly attuned to the deployment of humour as a mechanism and manifestation of the new ‘anxiety (geo)politics’.
In concrete terms, the project brings together two established teams of researchers that each are about to established an important early ‘proof of concept’ for the study of humour in global politics. The interdisciplinary project aims to culminate in a research monograph on the topic aimed at the scientific community as well as a set of pod-casts in the form of interviews and discussion, aimed at a general public, with some of the leading comedians in the UK and Germany on the results of the project on the dark side of the relationship between humour and politics. f. Moreover, the project will further consolidate the emerging network of scholars working on humour and global politics in Germany, the UK, the US, Sweden and Denmark. Crucially, this network will be the basis for organising and disseminating research progress and findings via the 2 workshops and 6 conference panels proposed in this project.

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