The limits of humor

3 April, 2022

Limits of humor

The aftermath of the Will Smith affair in the USA and the Nobel Peace Prize proposal for “Katiba des Narvalos” in France enlighten us on the role and limits of humor and its relationship with the state.

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What about the limits of humor?

Will Smith slaps Chris Rock at the Oscars
Will Smith slaps Chris Rock at the Oscars.

Will Smith has resigned his membership in the Academy of Motion Pictures. The decision comes after intense media pressure and after it became public that the police tried, during the ceremony itself, to convince Chris Rock to sue him so they could arrest him and handcuff him in front of the cameras before the end of the ceremony. This final coda to the “scandal” definitively closes the media debate on whether the verbal violence of comedians can be confronted by their victims or must be stoically endured.

Meanwhile, in France, President Macron’s party nominates “Katiba des Narvalos” (KDN) for the Nobel Peace Prize. KDN is a group of trolls on social networks who enter more or less islamist chat groups, try to bust them and caricature them after sending reports to the French intelligence. They are not professionals, they are “vigilante” citizens. Their method is what is being rewarded: the supposed “humor” of which today the Islamists are the targets and tomorrow the victims could be any anarchist or communist current.

Humor held by power

Jesters portrayed by Velázquez
Jesters portrayed by Velázquez

When we look at Velázquez’s buffoons, one thing becomes clear: the painter did not find them amusing. The reason is that the jesters of his time were no longer that profession instituted by Peter the Ceremonious to “keep away sadness and ill-humor, and in all things be amiable”. They were rather the opposite of the saturnal tradition, they did not represent the inversion of power even in the reduced space of the Court.

With the consolidation of absolutism, the jester becomes the sovereign’s spokesman, an intermediary who, with burlesque overtones, mediates and disseminates the most delicate matters of royal politics, of which he becomes an effective propagandist. The aulic bard of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries assumes the established social order and ends up subordinating laughter to the service of power: his contentious jokes are transformed into moralizing sentences (Minois 2000: 262-264), if not simply gossip and flattery in the decadent Spain of the last Habsburgs.

The character of the madman in the medieval spectacle and in the princely courts of the Renaissance, Francesc Massip Bonet

This inversion of the role of “humor”, its instrumentalization by the state, will turn buffoonish satire into a tool of courtly repression which, when the bourgeoisie takes over the direction of the state, will become a tool of social coercion in preparation for repression.

The Bonapartist police will coordinate with the caricaturists of the official press in the same way that a century later the German press will prepare “with humor” the assassinations of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht or the stalinist caricaturists will recover the anti-Semitic motives of Russian white propaganda to dress up the mass murder of the Bolshevik Left Opposition first and of Trotsky himself later.

The “weapon of humor” has an owner

Let us now look at the “Will Smith affair” from the state’s point of view. His smack was actually a crime the ancient Romans would have judged as “atheism”: he broke the sacred order of an imperial ceremony. Over and above the influence of feminism, in the framework of the great national ceremonials, the personal is always political. That is, the personal is judged in relation to the state. The slap received by Rock was subsidiarily received by the state and the “greater good” of the cultural hegemony of U.S. capital in the world.

Whether there was prior symbolic violence in Rock’s jokes does not matter. Rock stood on the podium, the voice of power. Smith had to endure stoically and with a smile, showing that “thick skin” which the spectacle of power mephistophelically demands from those it exalts for their services. In this case even symbolically, since Smith had already won an Oscar despite not knowing it yet.

An important element we must not forget: humor, in the context of public spectacle on television or in the press, is part of the industry of opinion and therefore a “pillar of democracy”. Chris Rock on the Oscar podium is not at all the same as a nobody repeating the joke in a digital public space.

Nor is digital harassment of a public official the same as trolling anti-state conversations. Even more so if, like KDN, the troll collaborates with the intelligence services and becomes part of the war propaganda justifying the French military intervention in Mali.

That is to say, “humor without limits” is a prerogative of power, symbolic aggression dressed up as a “joke” is glorified and presented as a fundamental right because it is after all a prerogative of the state. But any reaction to it, except when it is promoted by the state itself as part of a safe carnivalesque outlet (as happened with BLM at the beginning) will be harshly repressed and persecuted.

The “limits of humor” are those marked by the spaces of power. That is why this is not about themes. What matters is not so much what is said, but who says it, when and where.

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