Sunday, February 19, 2017
Jokes and politics. posted by Richard SeymourPurely by accident, I posted a satirical linkbait article to my Facebook feed, claiming that vegetarians are unhealthy and 'mentally disturbed'. (Obviously, my unconscious thought it was an important subject that I should raise). In the ensuing cackles, and amid the odd groan and some very angry responses, there emerged an interesting argument, not so much about vegetarianism as about the way in which this sort of joke works, starting with the (correct) assumption that jokes are never 'just' jokes, and that they usually define a group who is included, as opposed to those who are being made fun of. The political valences of this are worth arguing about, so I thought I'd post a few thoughts here.
If you read the linked piece, it seems to me that there is a sense in which the author of the piece might feel a certain moral inferiority in relation to vegetarians and vegans, against which the joke is a defence. There is also a sense in which, though the allegation that vegetarians are 'mad' is not meant literally, it does have a psychological meaning. Maybe there's a lingering idea that people who do things differently are mad, and maybe there's a stereotype (founded in some degree of reality) that vegetarians are fanatical about their subject, such that it monopolises all the attention and conversation whenever they're around. And yet, the joke also depends on the understanding that vegetarians are not really 'mad' -- although the sub-header, 'I knew it,' shows that it's a belief that the author would really passionately like to entertain. There may also be a sense of melancholia in the joke, centred on a feeling of helplessness, both in the face of a problem seemingly too huge to solve and yet consequential, and in the face of one's own consumption habits -- one's addictions. This would indicate that there's another belief the author would passionately like to entertain, which is that we could somehow stop the organised industrial cruelty toward animals by willing it.
This is just an elaborate way of illustrating the claim that the joke is a compromise formation, negotiating between different levels of knowledge, belief and desire. I suspect that many of the jokes which target leftists or activists of various kinds, people who are seemingly able to confront problems that most people feel intimidated by, are organised like this. Even the stale old 'Monty Python' jokes about the sectarian left have a whiff of repressed desire, and sadness.
And what I'm suggesting is that, rather than be dominated by indignation or irritation regarding this kind of reactionary humour (and most humour, let's face it, does tend in reactionary directions), we could tactically respond to them 'as if' they were in fact something else. As if they were acknowledgements of our concerns, a tacit admission of the power of our argument, an expression of the ambivalence that they arouse (since the changes we propose sometimes threaten the tiny little pittances of enjoyment that people get in life), an opportunity to open up the conversation, and unravel the guilt and intimidation surrounding it, and a way to make an emotional connection with people's ambivalence. The point is not so much to pander, to find funny things which one doesn't, but to move things on beyond the deadlock of indignation.
That is to say, while not every tiresome Richard Littlejohn jibe needs to be taken at that level, there are times at which a reactionary joke can be an opportunity, a way to engage with the deflected, or repressed desire coded in it.