- The Politics of Humor, from Dry to Wet
There is nothing funny about this essay.
Unless, of course, you found that sentence funny. If it did amuse, it may be because we tacitly assume that academic essays are serious business and that seriousness and humor are strange bedfellows (and not in the good way). Besides, seriousness and humor ought simply to be manifest, never pointed out. But suppose I began with a different statement: "This essay is not funny." That would likely not solicit amusement but merely set a grave, slightly combative tone. We might then suppose that it is "nothing" that is funny. "Nothing" is funny, and we—those living through populist oligarchies and impending climate catastrophe—know it. "Nothing" demonstrates our shared understanding of how words, concepts, and etiquette affix to one another, and part of humor's power is its talent for confirming our sense of when the adhesive is coming unstuck.
Funny or not, this essay is concerned with this corroborative use of humor, with humor as a means of delineating a collective and, further, through such cartographic gestures, of ratifying it. The times call for thinking about the specificity and mechanisms of humor, too, because we are drowning in discourse about its meaning, or meaninglessness. From presidential candidate Trump asserting his entitlement to sexually assault women to corporate executives and esteemed professors facing sexual harassment charges to comics fired for racist quips, a consistent defense has been that the words under scrutiny were not meant, that the speaker was only kidding. It would be impossible to count the number of instances in which conservative pundits and Republicans have responded to President Trump's tweets and statements by asserting he was "just joking," while liberal critics have insisted that he is in fact in earnest.1 [End Page 1]
The content of those agitating for change is also subject to question about the nature, or sheer presence, of its humorous intentions. For example, a furor broke out after liberal comic Michelle Wolf told the following joke at the 2018 White House Correspondent's Dinner: "I actually really like Sarah [Huckabee Sanders]. I think she's very resourceful. She burns facts, and then she uses that ash to create a perfect smoky eye. Like maybe she's born with it, maybe it's lies. It's probably lies." Conservatives objected that there was no joke, that Wolf's remarks were merely an overly partisan, and even misogynist, attack on the then press secretary. Nevertheless, protest slogans scrawled on poster board and stapled to sticks continue, typically, to feature quips and barbs (their handmade materiality an index of manual labor intended to acquire added poignancy online) in an effort to telegraph disapproval, attract attention, and propagate new national cultural values. As Maggie Hennefeld succinctly puts it, "There is no fiercer political weapon than laughter" (2018a). Laughter at political humor, largely circulated online, is offered up as the anti-gunshot, the anti-pussy grab, the anti-chokehold, the anti-deportation, the anti-children learning a lockdown rhyme. We ask humor to take the place of physical retaliation, of sit-ins, of the guillotine. But how cutting is it? Humorous dissent is lumped into what is sometimes called "outrage culture" but is more aptly categorized as indignation. These protests are not merely expressions of anger but a collective foot-stamping at injustice. The etymology of indignation involves indigestion, what does not agree with one's organism. So how can indignancy be a principle affect of popular entertainment—of protest-tainment—if "entertainment" has roots in sustaining and maintaining a public?2 One way, it seems, is to allow humor to play the conciliatory role, the ant-acid we swallow to temporarily relieve what we might legitimately call the burning of our hearts.
But a predicament arises when we are persistently presented with the dichotomy of sincerity and jocularity. When we are told that to joke is to speak without meaning, and that joking obviates responsibility for the consequences of the utterance, and if everything is a potential joke or can be made into a joke, we are in danger not of stopping to kid around but of...