Doctor of Philosophy
School of Humanities and Social Inquiry
Sorensen, Majken Jul, Humorous Political Stunts: Nonviolent Public Challenges to Power, Doctor of Philosophy thesis, School of Humanities and Social Inquiry, University of Wollongong, 2014. https://ro.uow.edu.au/theses/4291
Humour and seriousness are frequently posed as opposites both in academia and everyday language. However, some nonviolent actions are both humorous and serious and living proof that the dichotomy misses an important type of humour. These humorous political stunts publicly challenge dominant discourses and powerful institutions and people in five distinct ways. 1. Supportive stunts are framed as ostensible attempts to help, celebrate and protect from harm. 2. Corrective stunts present an alternative version of dominant discourses by hijacking the identity or message of people, companies and institutions. 3. Naive stunts disguise their critique behind a pretended innocence, and 4. absurd stunts defy all claims to truth and rationality. In 5. provocative stunts the pranksters transcend power by appearing not to care about the consequences of infuriating the powerful. The particular dynamics of these five strategies are explored through 15 short examples covering everything from struggles against neo-liberalism and controversial bank investments to dictatorships. A theatre metaphor further illustrates how humorous political stunts can be analysed.
The nuances about relations of power and humour uncovered by this typology illustrate why it is inadequate to discuss whether humour should be considered subversive or a vent for frustration as has been debated within humour studies for decades. Instead the interesting question is what role humour can play in facilitating resistance, since political humour is so diverse and takes place in such different contexts that it is misleading to evaluate its impact as if it is all the same. Two in-depth case studies are the basis for the further exploration of humour and nonviolent action. Inspired by participatory action research methodology, the study has utilised archival material, media reports, interviews, workshops, and participant observation to document and analyse the use of humour by the groups Ofog and KMV.
Ofog is a Swedish anti-militarist network working on issues related to the arms industry, military recruitment and military test sites. Ofog activists have found the use of humour to be a positive way to reach out to media, passers-by and potential new activists. Even more important is humorous political stunts’ contribution to the discursive guerrilla war waged by activists. Power does not just manifest itself in brutal repression and exploitation, but also in dominant discourses about what is true, right and just. In this struggle, humorous incongruity can deconstruct patterns of domination through the use of exposure, exaggeration, parody and irony among many other techniques.
Kampanjen Mot Verneplikt, KMV, was a Scandinavian campaign against conscription active in the 1980s. Here the focus is the work for improving the conditions for Norwegian total resisters who refused both military and alternative service. KMV pursued different strategies in its work, one of which was to create a spectacle around court hearings and imprisonments, including several humorous political stunts. Together with the legal work of filing charges against the state for violation of their human rights, KMV’s spectacular actions were crucial in changing the law on conscientious objection.
The phenomenon of humorous political stunts is discussed in relation to Vinthagen’s theory of nonviolent action and its four dimensions. Just like other nonviolent actions, some stunts are strong in one dimension while others mainly work in another. Almost all the stunts temporarily contribute to breaking power and many also include a dialogue facilitation element. The absurd and naïve stunts have demonstrated a particular ability to be part of utopian enactment and normative regulation, since Santas, clowns and similar figures speak to people’s imagination and hopes for a more just and peaceful world.
Analysing humorous political stunts can give both academics and activists insights into what type of stunt is most likely to emphasise a certain aspect of a humorous nonviolent action in relation to various audiences. It will also bring a deeper understanding of the nature and dynamics of power, resistance and humour.