publisher colophon
Abstract

Inspired by the growing attention to the politics of comedy in the United States and elsewhere, this article asks what it would mean to think critically about relations of power mobilized through cheerfulness, humor, and laughter. The article shows that existing answers to this question are tainted by skepticism about the enduring contributions of comic acts, and it then goes on to suggest that we turn to an alternative trajectory in democratic theory, one that encourages us to focus on the empowering and pluralizing potential embedded in what I name “comic power.” The wager is that attention to the potential embedded in this power can give us new traction on the conditions of democracy more broadly understood. To show this, the article draws on two rarely paired resources—Spinoza’s philosophy of immanence and Dave Chappelle’s critique of racial discrimination—placing both of them in conversation with discussions about the mediations embedded in new media technologies.

I bet you’ll get the finest table a nigger’s ever got in this restaurant. Oooh-wee! Oh, Lord; this racism is killin’ me inside

(Dave Chappelle 2004).1

Cheerfulness [hilaritas] cannot be excessive; it is always good

(Baruch Spinoza 1677).2

What would it mean to think critically about the relationships that comic acts empower through cheerfulness, humor, and laughter? Although hardly a new one, this question has become particularly important to consider for contemporary democratic theory.3 From the 2010 “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear,” over mainstream sitcoms such as ABC’s Modern Family, to the sprawling number of comedy shows on late night television, comic acts stand forth as contributing to a situation in which large segments of the electorate learn just as much about politics from the work of comedians as they do from news journalists reporting on radio and television.4 This development is not only empirically different from the recent past where comic acts did not enjoy the same political salience for their audience members as they do today; in addition, the development also suggests that democratic theory once again must consider whether there is something about comic acts in general that makes them important for the conditions needed to maintain and improve democratic politics. If comic acts have become a central (even intrinsic) part of contemporary political life, then what might a critique of their limitations and possibilities tell us about democracy more generally?

The ambition of this article is to address the second half of this question by examining how comic acts might be said to contribute constructively to the pluralization of identities and viewpoints that democracies foster and on which they depend for further development. This suggestion is in tension with the more prevalent critique, which depicts comic acts as negating rather than affirming a positive view of democracy. According to J. Peter Euben, for example, comic acts such as the ones performed on late night television are not strictly undemocratic (as assumed by critics such as Hart and Hartelius5), but instead provide an updated version of the Old Comedy that Aristophanes championed in Athens during the fifth and fourth centuries BCE. For Euben, this comparison is helpful as it emphasizes how comic acts in general do not entail a positive agenda for society, and how they instead contribute to “the democratic ethos” by ridiculing—and in that sense negating—both sides of the political system: the elite and the people, the popular and the unpopular, the clever and the stupid. According to Euben, this emphasis on negation and ridicule means that we must approach comic acts with skepticism about their ability to improve the conditions of democracy. Despite their tendency to “make citizens think differently and even act differently,” Euben argues, comic acts offer no “solutions to particular problems or offer directives to ameliorate injustice...[but instead]…make fun of contemporary institutions, culture, and social practices.”6

The view that I want to develop here makes a stronger point, namely, that comic acts make an enduring positive contribution to democratic politics and that the reason for this follows from the affirmative power embedded in them. For the sake of definition, I understand “comic” as related to but not exhausted by “comedy.”7 Whereas the latter is a genre defined by certain narratological expectations—in particular the resolution of conflict through a “happy ending”—the former denotes a feeling of joy that embraces cheerfulness, humor, and laughter without positing an endpoint agreeable to everyone involved.8 The reader skeptical that such a feeling is actually possible will find arguments for this later in the article. For now, the important point is that the power associated with comic joy—what I call “comic power”—makes an enduring contribution to democracy because it both undoes established ways of depicting democratic politics as efficient and progressive and augments the desire for new encounters and experimentation with other ways of being a citizen. My goal is to show how this is the case, and in so doing to explain how and why comedians performing on late night television and elsewhere indeed do improve the conditions of democratic politics. Concurrent with their reflections on day-to-day politics, comic acts often play an affirmative role in political life, rekindling the desire for experiences and relationships that are organized around some of the most important features of a living democracy: contestation, empowerment, and pluralization.

To develop this argument, I begin with a discussion of the skepticism that defines the current critiques of comic power (section II). I then turn to Spinoza’s philosophy of immanence in order to develop an alternative critique, one that sees the comic as embodying a transformative power that contributes affirmatively to the conditions of democracy (section III). In the penultimate section of the article, I test this alternative by putting it into conversation with political issues on late night television comedy, especially racial discrimination as depicted in skits by Dave Chappelle in his now defunct comedy show titled Chappelle’s Show (section IV). I conclude with some general remarks on comic power and its implications for other approaches to democracy, including those that see tragedy as a more appropriate genre for thinking about the challenges facing contemporary democratic politics (section V).

II. Comic Power in Contemporary Democratic Theory

To appreciate how and why debates in contemporary democratic theory emphasize the negative power embedded in comic acts, we may begin by highlighting two shifts that have been important for the emergence of democracy as we know it today: one that goes back to the seventeenth century where philosophers saw the Reformation’s rejection of worldly celebrations as a reason to focus on what Bakhtin calls laughter’s “negative functions”9; and another that begins in the early twentieth century where the invention of the television inaugurated a media revolution that McLuhan captures with his prophetic “the medium is the message” dictum.10 Important in themselves, these two shifts have recently been taken up by Robert Hariman who suggests that “modern laughter is a reaction to the experience of mediation,” a reaction Hariman, like Euben, links to the work of Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and other comedians performing on late night television.11 Like Euben, Hariman commends these comedians for doing what Aristophanes did, using ridicule and parody to criticize both sides of the political system. Moreover, Hariman argues that comic power has taken a new twist because it now exploits modern communication techniques in order to disclose the gaps and inconsistencies that subsist beneath the way experts, journalists, politicians, and spin doctors depict Western democracies as doing everything possible to better the lives of their constituencies (or, at least, as having the capabilities needed to do so). Hariman is both hopeful and skeptical about the undoing of this self-aggrandizing image: linking it to “the experience of playing a video game” in which death is inevitable, Hariman points out how comic power opens up new possibilities, yet often makes us realize that there is nothing else to do than “like Benjamin’s Angel of History, look back over the wreckage.”12 According to Hariman, political humor plays a particularly important role in this regard because it tends to draw sustenance from the failure of politicians and other political agents. It not only looks “over the wreckage; it looks at the wreckage, often in intimate detail.”13

This is quite a characterization that illustrates how debates in contemporary democratic theory approach comic power with both fascination and skepticism. At one level, the confluence of these two qualities strikes a chord, especially because it gives us the tools needed to describe the link between comic power and the prevalence of apathy and disenfranchisement in twenty first century democracies. At another level, however, the combination of fascination and skepticism also seems problematic because it repeats almost to a fault the established way of construing the history of comic power as it has developed in between the two shifts marked by Bakhtin and McLuhan respectively.14 Moving from Hobbes’s equation of laughter with superiority15, to Freud’s account of jokes as a way to discharge psychical energy16, to the Kantian emphasis on incongruity and the limits of knowledge17, this history too oscillates between fascination with the explosive character of comic power and skepticism about its enduring political effects. The parallels between this oscillation and the developments highlighted by Hariman are indeed so stark that it seems fair to say that the history of comic power has been consequential in at least one way: rather than encouraging us to explore the affirmative potential of comic power, the oscillation has become a reason for assuming the opposite, diverting our attention away from how comic power might not just undo but also remake the composition of lived experience, leading it in a direction that is different from—perhaps more democratic than—the one underpinning the current state of affairs.

Why be critical of this approach to comic power? To answer this question, let us return to Hariman’s suggestion that comic power is “a reaction to the experience of mediation.”18 To be sure, if we put the emphasis on the prepositional part of this suggestion—on the “to” rather than on the “reaction” or the “experience”—then it does seem right to say that comic power works as a negation that undermines rather than reconstructs our media-induced images of democracy and the world more generally. If we look closer, however, it becomes apparent that something else is at stake, which in turn is derived from the fact that the way in which comic power “reacts” to the experience of mediation is part of a broader, more continuous process, one that eventually empowers certain mediations of its own. Elements of this empowerment appear in Hariman’s concern for “remediation” 19, but its causes and implications become even clearer if we turn to scholars such as Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin who argue that although new media aim to “erase all traces of mediation,” they eventually end up “multiplying them.” The result is what Bolter and Grusin call “the double logic of remediation.”20 Bolter and Grusin are particularly interested in linking this logic to late modern cinema where the plot often centers on how to bypass mediation by way of new media technologies that themselves are forms of mediation.21 For our purposes, however, it is interesting to note how the logic also informs late night television where comedians such as Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert not only negate but also multiply the experience of mediation. The comedians do so by not restricting themselves to mocking and exposing the political system as a “wreckage” (to paraphrase Hariman); in addition, and for our purposes more tellingly, the comedians also aim to empower alternative images of democracy, inserting themselves into the democratic process, introducing their audiences to new ways of being a citizen—be it by way of a political rally in Washington DC22, the creation of a Super PAC23, or a testimony “in character” before the United States Congress on the issue of immigration reform.24

Whether or not these alternative images of citizenship support the desire for empowerment and pluralization is a question to which I shall return in the next two sections of this article. For now the important point to note is how the images explicate what best can be described as latently present in all reactions to the experience of mediation—that they evoke a “ripple effect” in which the undoing of one image multiplies rather than bypasses the initial experience of mediation. This multiplication of mediation follows to a large extent from the development of new media technologies, in particular the digitalization of images, which blurs the line between different media-technologies, giving more prominence to the embodied circumstances of both the artist and the audience.25 A similar shift is emphasized by Grusin who more recently has suggested that we supplement the double logic of remediation with attention to the processes that circumscribe the very multiplication of mediation—what Grusin names “premediation.”26 As in the case of Grusin’s collaborative work with Bolter, the concept of premediation is not meant to suggest that there could ever be a world free from mediation. However, as Grusin now points out, the multiplication of mediation is not a freestanding process, but depends on the affective forces that accompany mediation and that enable both the artist and the audience to “map out a multiplicity of possible futures” as they negotiate the gap between specific mediations and their divergent effects on the world writ large.27 Another way of saying this is that the concept of premediation shows how the multiplication of mediations evolves around a chiasm that continuously crosses the line between mediator and mediated, framer and framed.28 What matters, if you will, is not the break from one mediation to the next; rather, the defining feature is their intertwinement and mutual interdependence.

For our purposes, the turn to intertwinement and interdependence is important because it marks a significant shift in how we conceptualize comic power as a reaction to the experience of mediation. At a general level, the shift goes from conceptualizing the reaction as a negation of existing images of democracy to conceptualizing it as an affirmative multiplication of new ones. At a more specific level, we might say that the turn suggested to us by Bolter and Grusin yields three shifts in our analytical orientation to comic power: (1) from comic power as short-lived to comic power as persisting from one mediation to another; (2) from comic power as exposing media-induced images of democracy to comic power as both multiplying and deepening these images; and (3) from comic power as a negative force to comic power as a constructive and positive force. Neither of these shifts precludes a conceptualization of comic power as a reaction to the experience of mediation. What they do suggest, however, is that this reaction has the potential to become something more than anticipated by many quarters in contemporary democratic theory. No longer is the emphasis on the yearning for something beyond mediation. Rather the shifts identified here suggest that we see comic power as part of the work of mediation. Inflecting mediation differently, comic power proffers an enduring contribution to democratic politics, not only in the sense of contesting existing images of democracy, but also in the sense of creating a different vision of what it means to think and act democratically.

This way of reorienting the conceptualization of comic power is not without challenges, of course. To some, it may seem unlikely that one can lift the historical burden and retell the history of comic power in a manner that overcomes the blind spots it has produced for the current debate in contemporary democratic theory. Moreover, others will worry that expressions of cheerfulness, humor, and laughter are so context-dependent that the idea of developing a vocabulary that can describe whether or not the mediations associated with comic power are democratic makes no sense, and maybe even is wrongheaded because it contradicts the very essence of comedy and the comic. Neither of these challenges may ever find a final resolution. Still, we may find productive ways of addressing them. This, I submit, is particularly the case if we turn to the philosopher of immanence par excellence—Baruch Spinoza.

III. Spinoza in the House of Mirth

Why Spinoza? First of all because he is suspicious of the usual canon of Western thought, insisting that the established authorities in philosophical discourse, beginning with Plato and Aristotle, “mean little,” in particular when compared to thinkers such as Epicurus, Democritus, and Lucretius for whom expressions of cheerfulness, humor, and laughter are ethically desirable because they augment the feeling of power at both an individual and a collective level. 29 Moreover, Spinoza is worth our attention because he develops many of his insights by foregrounding texts such as the Ecclesiastes, which places the affirmative and negative aspects of comic power under the same roof—what the Ecclesiastes refers to as the “house of mirth” (7:4)—and then proceeds to examine the conditions under which comic power moves the mediations of lived experience from a passive state of affairs to an active state of affairs.30 As part of an alternative history of comic power, these two insights—the ethically desirable character of comic power and its affirmative role in the transition from one mediation to another—provides a different outlook than the one we find in contemporary democratic theory. And insofar as this is the case, the insights also explain how and why a philosopher like Spinoza may proffer the tools needed to identify the conditions under which comic power can contribute affirmatively to a democratic agenda of empowerment and pluralization.

To secure this argument, we first need to focus on what Spinoza calls hilaritas, a term most often translated as “cheerfulness,” even though it also encompasses humor, laughter, mirth, and other forms of hilarity.31 Among the seven times that Spinoza uses the term in his Collected Works, the four most significant are32:

…if the change which occurs in a part restores it to its first proportion of motion and rest, there arises from this that joy which we call repose, pleasurable activity, and cheerfulness

(Short Treatise on God, Man, and his Well-Being, Appendix II).

Cheerfulness cannot be excessive; it is always good. On the other hand, melancholy is always bad

(EIVp42).

Cheerfulness … is pleasure which, insofar as it is related to the body, consists in this, that all parts of the body are affected equally; that is … the body’s power of activity is increased or assisted in such a way that all its parts maintain the same proportion of motion-and-rest toward one another

(EIVp42proof).

Cheerfulness … is more easily conceived than observed

(EIV44s).

Apart from indicating a high degree of consistency across Spinoza’s oeuvre, the most striking aspect of these four statements is their attention to what the previous section identified as a crucial element in the transition from one mediation to another, namely, how affects inform the way both the artist and the audience respond to new inputs prompted by comic power and its reaction to the experience of mediation. As the four statements cited above suggest, the key to this reaction—what Spinoza would call “affectation”—is how comic power embodies a peculiar mode of empowerment that is neither unmediated nor unfettered. On the one hand, Spinoza is thus careful to distance hilaritas from the kind of “self-activity” that Agamben and other readers of Spinoza’s philosophy have associated with a “coming community” in which affects are expressed in their purest and most immediate form.33 Although such an interpretation seems appealing, especially because Spinoza juxtaposes hilaritas to melancholia, it does not capture Spinoza’s deeper insight embedded in his suggestion that hilaritas expresses a “passive transition” of thought and action (EIIIp11s). This suggestion highlights how hilaritas does not enlist the kind of autonomy that could turn comic power into a self-causing mode of existence linked to a yearning for a world without mediation. On the other hand, however, Spinoza is also careful to stress the possibility of a dynamic process that both empowers and pluralizes how individuals as well as collectives think and act. Spinoza elaborates on this possibility a few propositions before he explains why hilaritas is always good (EIVp42), and it leads him to a particularly important insight about comic power—that the expansion of power is a function of the desire to expose oneself in ways that interrupt and change one’s own image of who and what one is in the present. It is at this level that we find the affirmative aspect of comic power. For as Spinoza puts it, “[that] which so disposes the human body that it can be affected in more ways, or which renders it capable of affecting external bodies in more ways, is advantageous to man” (EIVp38).

The fact that Spinoza places this proposition in close proximity to his discussion of hilaritas suggests that the latter is a particularly open-ended mode of empowerment and pluralization, one that despite its inherent passivity entails an expansive curiosity about life such as it is. Additional insight into this conceptualization of comic power can be found in those parts of Spinoza’s philosophy of immanence that show how every expression of substance embodies a degree of power that makes the expression perfect in its own right. “[We] know,” Spinoza says in a letter elaborating on his interest in the Epicurean tradition, “that whatever is, when considered in itself without regard to anything else, possesses a perfection coextensive in every case with the thing’s essence.”34 This emphasis on perfection is important because it posits that all relations, including the ones mobilized by comic power, are lacking in neither knowledge nor reality, at least not in the manner suggested to us by most accounts in contemporary democratic theory. That is, irrespectively of whether or not we think that the relations mobilized by comic power are virtuous, Spinoza’s philosophy of immanence encourages us to acknowledge that they are “real” in the sense of embodying a world-making force that subjugates (and thus transforms) the bodies and minds affected by them. The divergent effects of the mediations associated with this subjugation may not be readily understood; but this does not mean that the ensuing relations are without a sense of orientation more broadly construed. Quite the contrary: insofar as the relations empowered by hilaritas enable the ones embodying them to move from a passive state of being to an active state of being, they too are saturated with ideas and thoughts about the world, including how to reject, maintain, or improve the underlying conditions of thought and action.35

If we interpret hilaritas along these lines, then we might say that Spinoza makes two important contributions to the discussion of comic power in contemporary democratic theory. The first is that he helps us to see why it is not enough to say that comic power exposes democracy as a “wreckage,” and why we instead must examine the ways in which comic power always-already institutes new mediations on top of the ruins left behind by the undoing of an existing image of democracy. Another way of saying this is that although Spinoza may concur with the initial argument of Euben and others, agreeing that the relations empowered by comic power are both explosive and transitory, he does not accept the corollary—that these qualities undermine the enduing potential associated with comic power itself. According to Spinoza, this corollary is nonsensical, not only because it assumes that only some but not all relations are transitory, an assumption that defies the dynamic character of life as such, but also because it diverts attention away from the more prudential question, namely, whether or not a given mediation augments and pluralizes the opportunities for affection within a given community of finite beings. 36 Ultimately, it is the importance of this question that makes hilaritas such a privileged power in Spinoza’s philosophy of immanence: as a passive transition trending toward an improved capacity for thinking and acting, hilaritas stands forth as always “good” because it mediates between the passive and the active in a manner that empowers the always-already mediated desire to affect and be affected in many ways.

The second contribution embedded in Spinoza’s discussion of hilaritas is a conceptual specificity that exceeds most other approaches available in both the history of political thought and contemporary democratic theory broadly understood. As already indicated, this specificity stems from how Spinoza’s philosophy of immanence reframes the terms of the discussion: rather than assuming that comic power has no empowering potential, Spinoza’s philosophy of immanence allows us to see how it participates in an extended process, one that not just undoes but also multiplies the mediations of lived experience, empowering a world that is more open-ended and pluralistic—and in that sense more “democratic”—than the one currently in play. The route to this empowerment can be divided into three steps, which also summarize the argument as it has been developed up and till now. First, a definition according to which comic power signifies an externally caused affect that moves the ones affected by it from a passive state of affairs to an active state of affairs. Second, an experience of finitude that affirms empowerment and pluralization as the most ennobling qualities that individuals and collectives can embody. And third, a norm according to which the aim of comic power is to augment the opportunities for affection that exist among both individual and collective bodies living in any given context.

The advantages of conceptualizing comic power in these terms are many. Most obvious is how Spinoza’s conceptualization bolsters the hypothesis of this article—that the multiplication of mediation prompted by comic power should be seen as providing an enduring positive contribution to democratic politics, and that the reason for this stems from the potential for empowerment and pluralization embedded in the power itself. This way of stating the argument has the added benefit of clarifying how to address an often-cited concern, namely, that comic power ultimately serves the stronger part’s interest in stigmatizing constituents who do not identify with the established norms of society. Parts of this concern are inevitable, I think, and remind us how evanescent comic power can be.37 Still, if we take Spinoza’s contribution seriously, we might say that if comic power indeed works in undemocratic ways, it is because it has morphed in such a way that its potential for empowerment and pluralization has been captured by something other than the desire for affection and an expansion of life itself. If anything, this possibility reminds us how important it is to uphold a dual perspective, appreciating comic power for what it undoes (the experience of mediation) as well as for what it affirms (opportunities for empowerment and pluralization). Without the presence of both, Spinoza imparts, we are not in a world of comic power properly understood.

IV. Comic Power in Action: On Chappelle’s “Niggar Family”

The importance of this argument is not only theoretical but, as I already have indicated, carries over into a discussion of how to appreciate the role that comedy can play in improving the conditions of contemporary democratic politics.38 To examine how this is the case, I now want to situate the insights from the preceding two sections alongside a discussion of Chappelle’s Show, a comedy show developed by the African-American comedian Dave Chappelle, which ran for two and a half seasons between 2004 and 2006 on the American cable television station Comedy Central.39 The reason for turning to this show, and not some of the other comedy shows already mentioned, in particular The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, is that unlike these shows, Chappelle’s Show is narrower in scope as it aims to mobilize against the institutions that treated—and indeed continues to treat—African Americans as “bare life” (to use Agamben’s phrase).40 The profound sense of historical injustice embedded in this experience imbues Chappelle’s Show with a political salience, which is greater than the one we find on other late night television comedy shows. And insofar as this is the case, we might say that Chappelle’s Show both heightens our awareness of the obstacles that comic power faces as it strives to become effective and helps us to clarify how proponents of comic power nonetheless might contribute affirmatively to an agenda of empowerment and pluralization. Learning from Chappelle’s Show may thus be a particularly good way to see how comic power can be mobilized in order to improve democratic politics.

To develop the reasons behind this intuition, it is useful to begin by noticing that Chappelle stands on the shoulders of another African-American comedian, Richard Pryor, who became notorious in the 1970s for conjuring up images of prejudice and racial discrimination in the United States. Pryor’s influence is felt even today, something that is underscored by the fact that Pryor, right before he died in 2005, described Chappelle as the comedian to whom he wanted to “pass the torch.”41 Chappelle’s embrace of this anointment is evident, not only in the many references he makes to Pryor in interviews about his own approach to comedy, but also in his insistence on seeing the enduring legacy of slavery as the most important political topic in American politics.42 Chappelle, however, is not Pryor but pushes the politics of slavery and discrimination even further, invoking a more radical stance vis-à-vis the role of comedy, insisting that the goal of comic power is not only to remember past injustices but also to change our response to them. This difference is clearest in the temporal orientations that we find in the comic acts of Pryor and Chappelle respectively: whereas Pryor brings his landmark album, the Bicentennial Nigger, to a climax with the promise that he “ain’t never gonna forget” the history of slavery, Chappelle’s Show strives to rewrite both the past and the future, mobilizing the affective attachments and multiplications of mediation needed to overturn the injustice of slavery in the United States and elsewhere.43

Nowhere is this orientation to comic power clearer than in the “Niggar Family” skit in which Chappelle plays a black milkman named Clifton who serves a squeaky-clean white middle class family named “Niggar.”44 With an almost uncanny sense of reality, the skit reproduces many of the cultural clichés one would associate with suburban everyday life in the United States during the civil rights era, including homeworking mothers dressed in circle skirts, patriarchal fathers waiting for their breakfast to be served, and teenage boys endowed with an unwavering belief in white privilege.45 What is more, the skit’s re-citation of the n-word, referencing it without actually saying it, generates a set of comic situations that both challenge existing race relations and forge new (more expansive) connections among blacks and whites.46 The most obvious aspect of the Niggar Family skit is thus how it reverses the usual epithets attached to the predicates “black” and “white”: the white family served by Chappelle’s black milkman is lazy, has big lips, eats pork, and, most significantly for the purposes of laughter and mirth, don’t pay their bills. (Clifton: “I know how forgetful you Niggars are when it comes to payin’ the bill.”) The use of racial epithets, however, is not equated with mere acquiescence but instead serves to both disclose and reconfigure politically defined injustices. This approach stands out in the final scene of the skit where Clifton and his wife meet his white customers’ son and his date at a local restaurant. After some confusion about who actually are the “Niggars,” and after Clifton’s wife has objected to what she thinks is an inappropriate use of the n-word by the restaurant host, the white son and his date are finally seated at the table. Clifton, standing back at the entrance of the restaurant, reflects on this situation, uttering what surely is one of the most politically charged comments in recent American comedy: “I bet you’ll get the finest table a nigger’s ever got in this restaurant. Oooh-wee! Oh, Lord; this racism is killin’ me inside.”

Figure 1. Stills from a skit called the “Niggar Family” which first aired on January 28, 2004 as part of Episode 2 of Season 2 of the Chappelle’s Show.
Click for larger view
View full resolution
Figure 1.

Stills from a skit called the “Niggar Family” which first aired on January 28, 2004 as part of Episode 2 of Season 2 of the Chappelle’s Show.

Figure 1. Stills from a skit called the “Niggar Family” which first aired on January 28, 2004 as part of Episode 2 of Season 2 of the Chappelle’s Show.
Click for larger view
View full resolution
Figure 1.

Stills from a skit called the “Niggar Family” which first aired on January 28, 2004 as part of Episode 2 of Season 2 of the Chappelle’s Show.

The best way to appreciate the implications of this skit for the politics of comic power is to interpret it as giving new life to the minstrel show—an art form that was particularly popular around the turn of the twentieth century and that often featured both whites and blacks in blackface in order to represent and lampoon the everyday life of African Americans working on plantations across southern United States.47 At a general level, we might say that the way in which the “Niggar family” skit invokes this art form puts it in close contact with the reaction to the experience of mediation that Hariman and other contemporary democratic theorists have identified as the essence of comic power.48 At a more specific level, however, we should be careful not to accept the corollary of this alignment, namely, that the skit simply exposes the “wreckage” of modern democracy, opening up the possibility that it leaves us in a political no man’s land or (what might be even worse) that it returns us to the status quo, replicating what Michael Rogin identified as a concern for 1920s Hollywood movies where the use of blackface provided “symbolic reassurance” for white audiences who sought to master “anxiety about mobile identities rather than challenging the social order.”49 As I see it, this concern does not apply to the “Niggar Family” skit because the skit challenges whites and blacks to laugh without knowing if they do so for the same reasons50, and because it in that sense invokes what Black Studies scholar Glenda Carpiro calls a “minstrelizing [of] the minstrelsy,” that is, a mediation that turns the minstrel show against itself, using the original art form to empower a transition from one mediation to another.51 For our purposes, this minstrelizing of the minstrelsy is the most interesting aspect of the “Niggar Family” skit because it brings us back to the analytical shifts anticipated by Spinoza and explicated by Bolter and Grusin. As suggested in sections II and III of this article, both Spinoza and Bolter and Grusin dispute the current consensus in contemporary democratic theory and emphasize that we not only focus on how comic power in skits like the Niggar Family undoes the experience of mediation; in addition, and more importantly, Spinoza, Bolter, and Grusin also remind us of the importance of tracking the way in which comic power multiplies this experience, allowing new mediations to be created on top of the old ones left behind.

Once we follow this approach, it becomes readily apparent that what makes the “Niggar Family” skit so powerful is its way of combining the logic of remediation with an alternative mode of premediation, one that evokes a set of affective attachments that contribute affirmatively to a democratic politics of empowerment and pluralization. Consider especially the concluding “this racism is killin’ me inside” statement. At first, it may be tempting to interpret this statement as moving the audience to the edge of a world in which the absence of anything affirmative is so prevalent that one is limited to mourning but not transforming the effects of unjust and discriminatory practices (past and present). If we look closer, however, we see how the statement in fact participates in something more than a politics of mourning. This additional something comes best into perspective if we recall that the “this racism is killin’ me inside” statement does not occur in a vacuum but instead comes at the heels of two other statements—the “finest table in this restaurant” and the “oooh-weeh!” Neither of these statements expresses a negation per se but instead invokes a counterpoint to the absence of something affirmative, creating an oscillation between a fact (racism) and a desire (justice) bridged by an indeterminate howling—the “oooh-weeh!” This oscillation makes it fair to say that the final statement of the skit participates in an assemblage of affects and desires needed to restructure the current scene, something that allows political opponents to see each other, not as enemies but as agonistic friends who meet at “the finest table in the restaurant.”52 At this table, whites and blacks meet, not because they want to erase their differences, but because they desire to augment their power, both as individuals and as a community. At this table, racial differences are acknowledged but not seen as essential to what one is, was, or could become, whether as an individual or as a community. At this table, painful experiences are shared and endured for the purposes of empowering new connections across socially and racially marked differences.

Whether or not this imagined table ever materializes itself in any real sense is an open question to which we may never know the answer. This uncertainty, however, does not diminish the skit’s political importance. If anything, we might say that the ambivalences of the “Niggar Family” skit adds an extra dimension to our discussion of the link between affect and mediation because it demonstrates how the empowerment and pluralization that especially Spinoza associates with hilaritas can be enhanced through a variety of media and traditions that make expressions of cheerfulness, humor, and laughter politically potent in unexpected ways. As the “Niggar Family” skit explicates better than most other skits on late night television, including the many other skits aired on the Chappelle’s Show, this is especially true in an age of cable network television where old art forms can combine with new media techniques in ways that, like the sugar going into the blood, reenergize the body politic by accelerating its desire to affect and be affected in many ways. The empowerment and pluralization that follows from this acceleration may not be easy to predict; and yet it would be wrong to dismiss the ensuing effects as non-affirmative. To do so, I think, would be to dismiss the very trajectory of comic power—to undo the existing mediations of political life in order to empower a set of new ones that move the citizenry’s capacity for thought and action toward a more joyful (and in that sense more pluralizing) state of affairs. It is the desire to enable this movement, however risky it may seem, that best captures the genius and ingenuity of a comedian like Dave Chappelle.

V. Conclusion: Another Road to Democratic Politics?

By way of conclusion, let me suggest two general insights that follow from this way of placing Chappelle’s Show alongside both contemporary media studies and Spinoza’s philosophy of immanence. Most obvious is how testing one against the other help to substantiate the argument of this article—that we shouldn't accept the current account of comic power as offering no solution to injustice, and that we instead should acknowledge it as making an enduring positive contribution to contemporary democratic politics. As we have seen in the preceding pages, the key to this insight is an analytical reorientation, which emphasizes the intertwinement of comic power and mediation in order to show how those affected by the former can be drawn into an ever-growing force field that moves them from a passive to an active embodiment of lived experience. Compared to the existing accounts of comic power in contemporary democratic theory, the upshot of this argument is thus a distinctively affirmative vision of the work that comedians perform on late night television: rather than seeing their efforts as merely exposing the wreckage that subsists beneath the media-induced images of modern democracy as efficient and progressive, the argument developed here suggests that the comedians go one step further insofar as their work supplements the experience of negation and undoing with an expanded desire for affectation. The latter, I have argued, is significant, not only because it can move society toward a politics that undoes injustices such as racial discrimination, but also because it emphasizes empowerment and pluralization as intrinsic to democracy as such. Without the latter, the former is neither as compelling nor as powerful as it could—and indeed should—be.

The second insight is more general and concerns the issue of genre in contemporary democratic theory. As is well known, this issue has for the most part been either ignored or dominated by an argument in favor of tragedy as the best way of representing the challenges of contemporary democratic theory, including the ones that apply to the kind of politics that has been the main focus in this article. To be sure, the argument for why tragedy is the best way of representing the challenges facing democratic politics is multifaceted and ranges from Euben’s paradigmatic statement about tragedy as the “road not taken” (and why this is a mistake)53, to Butler’s and Žižek’s divergent fascinations with tragic characters such as Antigone and Oedipus54, to Honig’s critique of “classicization” and her appeal for “genre-switching” in contemporary democratic theory. 55 Each of these interventions inflects the importance of tragedy differently. Common to all of them, however, is the shared assumption that tragedy represents an appropriate starting point for thinking about politics in general and democracy in particular. Indeed, judging from the current literature it would seem that to either criticize or perfect contemporary democracy, we first must come to terms with how tragedy determines our conception of what it means to be a citizen facing the (often contradictory) demands of desire, justice, law, tradition, and sovereignty. Without tragedy, you might say, there would be no politics.

The argument developed in this article resists this conclusion. The reason is not that tragedy has nothing to teach democratic theory—it obviously has—but that the tendency to privilege it as the “road not taken”—and thus as the best way to challenge mainstream approaches to politics—has become counterproductive for new ways of thinking about democracy, cutting off a host of insights and resources that could be mobilized productively if the comic became more prominent. Three aspects of comic acts and power embedded in them stand out as particularly relevant in this regard. First, the pace and rhythm of comic acts make them effective in attracting the interest of the general public, drawing ordinary citizens into discussions that they otherwise would find abstract and reserved for experts. Second, once comic acts have opened up the discussion of democracy to new constituencies, the acts may also help to reorient the suffering emphasized by the tragic paradigm, allowing citizens to recognize the presence of pain and violence while moving them toward another, more joyful engagement with politics writ large. And third, we might say that comic acts such as the ones discussed in this article are inherently democratic; rather than negating negate the openness and plurality associated with lived experience, they affirm these qualities, hailing them as a reason to accelerate (not manage) the transition from passive to active modes of thinking and acting.

My wager is that these three advantages can help reorient the terms of contemporary democratic theory in such a way that we might begin to envision another “road” toward a democratizing politics committed to empowerment and pluralization. Whether or not taking this road will change how we define democracy as such is an open question that lies outside the scope of this article. As already indicated, my aim here has been a narrower one—to develop a critical approach to comic acts and the relations empowered by expressions of cheerfulness, humor, and laughter.

Might this not be reason enough to see comic acts and the power embedded in them as crucial elements in how we conceptualize the road to democratic politics?

Lars Tønder

Lars Tønder is a lecturer in political theory in the School of Social and Political Sciences at The University of Melbourne. His articles on tolerance and free speech have been published in journals such as Political Theory, Contemporary Political Theory, and Theoria. He is the author of Tolerance: A Sensorial Orientation to Politics (Oxford University Press, 2013) and the co-editor of Radical Democracy: Politics between Abundance and Lack (Manchester University Press, 2006). The working title of his new book project is Comic Politics: Culture, Media, and Democratic Agency. Lars can be reached by email at lars.toender@unimelb.edu.au; his website is here: https://unimelb.academia.edu/LarsTønder

Notes

1. From a skit called the “Niggar Family” which first aired on January 28, 2004 as part of Episode 2 of Season 2 of the Chappelle’s Show. The show was produced by Comedy Partners and was first shown on the American cable television network Comedy Central.

2. Baruch de Spinoza, Ethics, in Spinoza: Collected Works, trans. Samuel Shirley (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2002), Part IV, proposition 42. References to the Ethics will hereafter take the form of EIIIp9s to indicate the scholium to proposition nine of part three of the Ethics. Other abbreviations include: d for demonstration; c for corollary; def for definition; s for scholium; and ap for appendix.

3. Although this article focuses primarily on events in Europe and the United States, the power of comic acts can also be found in other places. For one recent example, see Lisa Wedeen, “Ideology and Humor in Dark Times: Notes from Syria,” Critical Inquiry, vol. 39, no. 4 (2013), pp. 841–873.

4. According to a 2009 poll released by the Pew Research Center, young people aged 18 to 29 said that they learned just as much about the 2008 United States presidential campaign from skits on Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show as they did from nightly news broadcasts on ABC, CBS, and NBC (see David Bauder, “Young Get News from Comedy Central,” Associated Press, February 11, 2009). Along similar lines, telecommunication researchers have found that the “fake” news reported on the Daily Show covered the 2004 national political conventions and the first presidential debate that year with the same depth and substance as the “real” news reported on the traditional television newscasts (see Julia R. Fox, Glory Koloen, and Volkan Sahin, “No Joke: A Comparison of Substance in The Daily Show with John Stewart and Broadcast Network Television Coverage of the 2004 Presidential Election Campaign,” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, vol. 51, no. 2 [2007], pp. 213–227).

5. Roderick P. Hart & E. Johanna Hartelius, “The Political Sins of John Stewart,” Critical Studies in Media Communication, vol. 24, no. 3 (2007), pp. 263–272.

6. J. Peter Euben, Platonic Noise (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), p. 98.

7. As is well known, comedy and the comic are uniquely difficult to define because each crosses the other. For a general discussion of this crossing, and why it nonetheless might be helpful to discuss comedy and the comic separately, see Andrew Stott, Comedy (London: Routledge, 2000), Introduction; Eric Weitz, The Cambridge Introduction to Comedy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), pp. 2–3.

8. The distinction I propose between comedy and the comic is thus similar to the often-used distinction between tragedy and the tragic. For a discussion of the latter, see the contributions to Tragedy and the Tragic: Greek Theater and Beyond, ed. by M. S. Silk (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).

9. Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans. Hélène Iswolsky (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1984), p. 71. Bakhtin goes on to note (p. 101) that the “sixteenth century represents the summit in the history of laughter and the high point of this summit is Rabelais’ novel. After this work a rather sharp descent starts with Pléiade…it [laughter] loses its essential link with a universal outlook, it is combined with negation, and with a negation that is dogmatic. Limited to the area of the private, eighteenth-century humor is deprived of its historical order; true, its relation to the material body principle is preserved, but this very principle acquires the nature of a trivial private way of life.”

10. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994), p. 7. McLuhan’s book was first published in 1964.

11. Robert Hariman, “Political Parody and Public Culture,” Quarterly Journal of Speech, vol. 94, no. 3 (August 2008), p. 261.

12. Ibid., p. 265.

13. Ibid. (my emphasis). Hariman’s discussion of comic power is not limited to the negation emphasized here but is also interested in the affirmative dimension that the present article develops through Spinoza’s philosophy of immanence.

14. For a recent overview of this history, see Simon Critchley, On Humor (London: Routledge, 2002), pp. 2–3.

15. According to Hobbes, the pleasure provoked by laughter leads to the realization of a “sudden glory arising from sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others, or with our own formerly” (Thomas Hobbes, The Elements of Law, Natural and Politic [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008], Part I: Human Nature, Chapter IX, p. 54). For an influential interpretation of this passage, and the rhetorical situation surrounding it, see Quentin Skinner, “Hobbes and the Classical Theory of Laughter,” reprinted in Visions of Politics, Vol. III: Hobbes and Civil Society (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

16. Sigmund Freud, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, trans. James Strachey (New York: W. W. Norton, 1960), p. 181. Although Freud proposes a distinction between the joke and the comic, I see both as related phenomena and do therefore not make a sharp distinction between them.

17. Contrary to Hobbes, Kant suggests that the key to comic power is not the institution of a hierarchical relationship but rather the way jest and laughter turn a “tense expectation...into nothing,” producing an incongruity that undoes the experience of mediation, empowering an “equilibrium of vital forces” in the body (Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, trans. Werner S. Pluhar [Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1987], Part I, Division I, §54, pp. 203, 202). This insight is further elaborated by George Bataille who suggests that “laughter is…the effect of unknowing…Something unexpected occurs, which is in contradiction to the knowledge we do have” (George Bataille, “Un-Knowing: Laughter and Tears,” October, vol. 36 [Spring, 1986], p. 97). For an elaboration of the connection between Kant’s and Bataille’s views on laughter, see Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen, “The Laughter of Being,” trans. Terry Thomas, in Bataille: A Critical Reader, ed. by Fred Botting and Scott Wilson (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998).

18. Hariman, “Political Parody and Public Culture,” p. 261.

19. Ibid., p. 263.

20. Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin, Remediation: Understanding New Media (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2000), p. 5 and passim.

21. For Bolter and Grusin, paradigmatic examples of the double logic of remediation include movies such as Strange Days (1995) where the action centers on how to bypass the experience of mediation by way of new technologies that are themselves modes of mediation.

22. See Sabrina Tavernise and Brian Stelter, “At Rally, Thousands—Billions?—Respond,” New York Times, October 30, 2010.

23. See David Carr, “Comic’s PAC is More Than a Gag,” New York Times, August 21, 2011.

24. See Nicole Allen, “Stephen Colbert Testifies in Congress, in Character,” The Atlantic, September 24, 2010.

25. For a version of this argument, see Mark B. N. Hansen, New Philosophy for New Media (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004), p. 22.

26. According to Grusin, the movie that best illustrates this premediating logic is Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report (2002). For further elaboration, see Richard Grusin, Premediation: Affect and Mediality After 9/11 (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2010), Chapter 2.

27. Ibid., p. 46.

28. For a similar point, see Davide Panagia, The Political Life of Sensation (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009), p. 2.

29. For Spinoza’s embrace of this tradition, see especially “Letter 56” in Spinoza: Collected Works, p. 905.

30. According to Warren Montag, Spinoza read the Ecclesiastes as an Epicurean text, which in turn strengthened his own “way of thinking” (Montag, “Lucretius Hebraizant: Spinoza’s Reading of Ecclesiastes,” European Journal of Philosophy, vol. 20, no. 1 [2012], p. 113). Whether or not the Ecclesiastes in fact is an Epicurean text is not as important as to note that this is how Spinoza interpreted it. For a helpful overview of the many different interpretations of the Ecclesiastes, see Craig Bartholomew, “Qoheleth in the Canon? Current Trends in the Interpretation of Ecclesiastes,” Themelios, vol. 24, no. 3 (1999), pp. 4–20.

31. In what follows I use the Latin hilaritas term to mark the term’s more expansive meaning and implications.

32. To my knowledge, the most comprehensive treatment of Spinoza’s concept of hilaritas is Minna Koivuneimi, Towards Hilaritas: A Study of the Mind-Body Union, the Passions and the Mastery of the Passions in Descartes and Spinoza (Uppsala: University of Uppsala, 2008). Although Koivuneimi situates Spinoza’s discussion of hilaritas in relation to Descartes’ metaphysics, she does not elaborate on how hilaritas is related to the politics of humor, laughter, and cheerfulness.

33. Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community, trans. Michael Hardt (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), pp. 18–19. For an account of the link between the coming community, belonging, and self-activity, see also Brian Massumi, Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), p. 242.

34. Spinoza, “Letter 19,” in Spinoza: Collected Works, p. 808.

35. Another way of saying this is to note how Spinoza’s argument intersects with the one of the Ecclesiastes. Like the Epicureanism that subsists within this part of the Hebrew Bible, Spinoza envisions a state of being in which minds and bodies “dance” and “mourn” alongside each, engendering an embodied construction that the Ecclesiastes refers to as the “house of mirth.” Unlike the Ecclesiastes, however, Spinoza does not see this construction as a second-best alternative that one reluctantly accepts to inhabit because the better and more attractive goal is unavailable. According to Spinoza, hilaritas is “always good,” and therefore “never excessive,” not simply because it makes life’s sorrows more tolerable in a passive sense, but also because it introduces a dynamic process that changes the conditions under which humans and other embodied beings think and act.

36. Spinoza’s concern for prudence is picked up by Deleuze who links it to a “long affair of experimentation” and an “ethology” aiming to identify and mobilize the most powerful “composition of fast and slow speeds” in any given context. See Gilles Deleuze, Spinoza: Practical Philosophy, trans. Robert Hurley (San Francisco: City Light Books, 1988), p. 125.

37. I discuss the challenges that such an exposure poses for liberal democracies in “Freedom of Expression in an Age of Cartoon Wars,” Contemporary Political Theory, vol. 10, no. 2 (2011), pp. 255–272.

38. This interest is furthermore motivated by the fact that Spinoza himself is not a comedian, let alone someone who writes with the rhetorical ingenuity that we normally associate with expressions of humor, laughter, and cheerfulness. Surely the reason for this is Spinoza’s geometrical method, which precludes a style that would have made his philosophical treatises fun to read. (On the rhetoric of Spinoza’s geometrical method, see Christopher P. Long, “The Rhetoric of the Geometrical Method: Spinoza’s Double Strategy,” Philosophy and Rhetoric, vol. 34, no. 1 [2001], pp. 292–307.) Still, the lack of comic “feel” in Spinoza’s works is important to note because it in addition to making us doubt that Spinoza really “gets” the power of comic acts, raises the question of whether his philosophy might not obscure the point suggested to us by media scholars such as Bolter and Grusin, namely, that the way comic power inserts itself into the political context is a function of the available media technologies, which obviously have changed since the time of Spinoza. Critics might see this gap as a reason to reject the arguments developed in the previous section of this article. Why move to a tradition like Spinoza’s if it implies an outdated conception of media and mediation? Why not then either look to the future or uphold the terms suggested by the existing debate in contemporary democratic theory, keeping the critique of comic power closer to the expressions that we currently associate with cheerfulness, humor, and laughter? The discussion in this section aims to answer these questions as well.

39. Chappelle’s Show ran from 2004 to 2006, and was abruptly ended when Chappelle decided to quit the show midseason, citing creative burnout and a work environment that was uncomfortable as some of the reasons for leaving the show.

40. For a discussion of slavery as “bare life,” see Ian Baucom, Specters of the Atlantic: Finance Capital, Slavery, and the Philosophy of History (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005), pp. 192ff.

41. Richard Pryor on 60 Minutes II, CBS News, December 29, 2004.

42. For a helpful comparison of Pryor and Chappelle, see Glenda R. Carpio, Laughing Fit to Kill: Black Humor in the Fictions of Slavery (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), Chapter 2.

43. Richard Pryor, “Bicentennial Nigger,” on Bicentennial Nigger, Warner Bros., 1976. In addition to the skit discussed in the next paragraph, Chappelle’s departure from Pryor’s strategy of remembrance is particularly evident in a skit titled “Haters in Time,” which first aired on the “Greatest Misses” episode on March 31, 2004. The skit shows four pimps—three African Americans and one Asian—who travel back in time in order to visit a slave plantation in Antebellum America. When the white slave owner comes out to confront “you niggers,” asking the four pimps to “watch their mouth,” Silky Johnson, a recurring character on the show played by Chappelle, draws a pistol to overpower the abuse symbolized by the whip held by the slave owner. Pointing the pistol at the slave owner, Silky Johnson emphasizes the need to reverse this abuse by engaging in a longer explanation of the term “honky,” which in turn leads Silky Johnson to predict that in the future “all black people will be free.” Startled by this prophetic statement, the slaves behind the slave owner ask, “when are we going to be free,” to which Silky Johnson answers “how about now-ish.” The skit immediately cuts back to the live studio where Chappelle admits that what he is about to show will bring everything to a “screech.” Chappelle nonetheless insists that we must go on, and the skit thus resumes showing how Silky Johnson kills the slave owner with a gunshot that is shown three times in slow motion. Returning back to the live studio, Chappelle explains that although others might not find it funny, he would include this sequence on every show “if I could.” See http://www.comedycentral.com/video-clips/jktbrs/chappelle-s-show-greatest-misses---haters-in-time. Last accessed May 31, 2013.

44. The following paragraph is based on my discussion in Tolerance: A Sensorial Orientation to Politics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), p. 100.

45. The skit can be seen here: http://www.comedycentral.com/video-clips/mlg0y7/chappelle-s-show-the-niggar-family. Last accessed March 6, 2013.

46. The actual n-word is spelled with an “e” and not an “a”.

47. For an overview of minstrelsy in Antebellum America, see the contributions to Inside the Minstrel Mask: Readings in Nineteenth-Century Blackface Minstrelsy, ed. by Annemarie Bean, James W. Hatch, and Brooks McNamara (Hanover, Conn: Wesleyan University Press, 1996).

48. Hariman, “Political Parody and Public Culture,” p. 261.

49. Michael Rogin, Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Post (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), p. 32.

50. See also John Limon, Stand-Up Comedy in Theory, Or, Abjection in America (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000), p. 85.

51. Carpio, Laughing Fit to Kill, p. 86.

52. Another way of saying this is that it is possible to avoid the tendency among existing discussions of Chappelle, which so far have been reluctant to embrace his show’s political potential, suggesting that what “makes Chappelle’s sketches funny to the American public is that his racial humor in many regards ‘intensionally’ [sic] represents alternative worlds and scenarios that are simply too far-fetched to possibly be true” (Richard J. Gray and Michael Putnam, “Exploring Niggerdom: Radical Inversion in Language Taboos,” in The Comedy of Dave Chappelle: Critical Essays, edited by K. A. Wisniewski [Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co., 2009], p. 16.). I want to suggest that the exact opposite is the case, and that the reason for this is the show’s distinctive mix of negation and affirmation, invoking an intertextuality that recalls the continued relevance of civil disobedience and nonviolence. Indeed, the upshot of Chappelle’s Show (and why it remains so controversial) is that it posits a politics of empowerment and pluralization reinvigorating the struggle against racial oppression.

53. J. Peter Euben, The Tragedy of Political Theory: The Road Not Taken (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990). Euben’s assertion that tragedy represents the “road not take” sparked a whole series of interventions in contemporary democratic theory, including (most recently) William Connolly, The Fragility of Things: Self-Organizing Processes, Neoliberal Fantasies, and Democratic Activism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013); Stephen K. White, The Ethos of a Late-Modern Citizen (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009).

54. See respectively, Judith Butler, Antigone’s Claim: Kinship Between Life and Death (New York: Colombia University Press, 2000); Slavoj Žižek, “From Antigone to Joan of Arc,” Helios, vol. 31 (2004), no. 1–2, pp. 51–62.

55. Bonnie Honig, Antigone, Interrupted (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), pp. 30, 80–81.

Additional Information

ISSN
1092-311X
Print ISSN
2572-6633
Launched on MUSE
2014-12-05
Open Access
No
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.