Rowman and Littlefield International

Comedy and Critical Thought


Published on Tuesday 27 Mar 2018 by Iain McKenzie, Fred Francis and Krista Bonello Rutter Giappone
"Every one of these essays is the beginning of more potential research in this field. It is our hope as editors that the collection provides a survey of the terrain that will inspire this work to be done."

 

Q: Why did the critical theorist cross the road?

A: To see the problem from the other side.

 

The power of comedy to unsettle established truths, to challenge dominant discourses and satirise those in government is well known. It is equally well known, however, that comedy is often deployed in propaganda, used to reinforce established norms and conventions and part of the rhetorical arsenal of those who rule over us. So, how do we tell the difference? For this we need to approach comedy with a disposition oriented towards rooting out presuppositions and scrutinising them with all the tools of the critical theorist. In this volume, we have gathered together a wide range of critical theorists and comedy scholars who all share this disposition.

 

Q: Why did the critical theorist cross the road?

A: To establish what can and cannot be known about legitimate public highways.

 

This collection examines what happens when comedy and critique intersect. It does so by bringing together critical theorists and comedy scholars with a view to exploring the nature of comedy, its potential role in critical theory and the forms it can take as a practice of resistance. Broadly speaking, there are two main themes: a) comedy, critique and resistance; b) laughter as resistance. The first theme speaks to the ways in which critical theorists have analysed comedy and how critical theorists have mobilised comedy within the workings of their philosophical systems. That said, it is also important to consider the possibility that there is no useful link between comedy and critical thought, especially in what are often called post-critical times. Perhaps the tasks of critique and resistance need to be considered separately? The essays under this first theme consider these questions utilising a variety of critical perspectives, from process philosophy to cognitivism to contemporary work on the nature of capitalism (and more besides). The second theme focusses on how those that make us laugh are often also that make us think. The fool, the comic and the satirist have a certain license to interrogate the social and political realm that is not always available to the politician, commentator or theorist. Of course, for all that comedy and critical thought do appear to have a close connection, we also know that comedy is often used to reinforce the status quo, and sometimes functions as an exclusionary mechanism in the service of hierarchical power relations. It is not always easy to know when comedy is conservative and when it is radical and in this collection we do not shy away from these difficulties. Indeed, many of the contributions address it head on in their analyses of the complex intersection of comedic practice and practices of resistance, in different contexts.

 

Q: Why did the critical theorist cross the road?

A: Because it was established that both sides are resting on the same foundation.

 

We think of this volume as agenda-setting. Rather than pursue a single line of enquiry we thought that it is important at this early stage in the development of the cross-fertilisation of comedy and critical thought that we explore and experiment with as wide a range of perspectives as possible. We extended this invitation to our contributors and, we hope that you’ll agree, they all responded with such flair and imagination that we now know that the agenda for this new interdisciplinary research is even wider and deeper than we first thought. Between the covers, under the umbrella of the first thematic, you will find work on the nature of comic estrangement, the difference between critical and resistant humour, what we can learn from Lenny Bruce, the relation between laughter and liturgy, and a new concept for understanding the role of humour as performative resistance. Under the second thematic, you’ll find contributions on Eighteenth-Century Dutch conformist comedians, British cartoon comedy from the First World War, reflections on comedy in contemporary art, an investigation of the role of humour in Beckett, a dissection of the role of comedy in Punk music, an exploration of postcolonial humour, an examination of the rhetorical strategies of a Brazilian clown running for election and some darkly comic interventions in the everyday life of meetings and self-help. Every one of these essays is the beginning of more potential research in this field. It is our hope as editors that the collection provides a survey of the terrain that will inspire this work to be done.

 

Q: Why did the critical theorist cross the road?

A: It was the necessary unfolding of world-historical spirit.

 

We hope that this volume makes you think and that you will also find many moments that will make you laugh. Perhaps by the end of it, you will agree with us that thinking and laughing are even more deeply connected than we – critical theorists and comedy scholars – sometimes imagine.

 

Q: Why did the critical theorist cross the road?

A: To map the movement of the nomadic chicken.

 

And we are sure that you can come up with better jokes!