Within critically-conscious circles the issue of humor is always made salient. Generally, humor has the power to be transformative and redemptive: by providing an alternative way of addressing, understanding, and looking at the manifold issues we encounter in our day-to-day lives, humor possesses the qualities needed to raise-awareness to and subvert the status quo. It allows us to critique and assess problems and questions in easily-digestible, less-aggressive an overt ways—in ways that defy traditional and colloquial notions of activism and political revolt.
David Foster Wallace, in an interview on his novel Infinite Jest, talks about the role humor plays in literature. He quotes Lichtenstein who believes that “the most serious and profound problems and questions and issues could be addressed only in the form of jokes.” In “U.S Lit,” Wallace notes the tradition of “black humor,” sardonic, dark, almost sinister humor. Dark Humor as a literary tradition has the power of forming subversive critiques of dark and serious issues by highlighting the extreme, severe nature of injustice, pain, and agony, rendering them down to something laughable, and forcing us to grapple with the inherent dissonance between the two feelings and responses. Across the literary canon we can see this tradition in action, from Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, etc., etc. Creating this dissonance or disjunction between the in the way in which we address negative experiences and problems is most colloquially known as irony, “the expression of one’s meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect.” Irony can be used to effectively highlight the way we cope, process, and deal with hardships—it provides temporary relief from the burden of internalizing one’s negative conditions in serious, solemn ways, and shrouds social critique under a veil of jocularity.
My problem with lazy deployments of irony and Dark Humor strongly mimics Wallace’s. In the same interview, Wallace notes “a strange situation [in the U.S] where in some respects, humor and irony are political responses and redemptive. And in another sense, particularly in popular entertainment, irony and dark humor can become a way of pretending to protest when it really isn’t”—as Wallace expounds, “the song of a bird that has come to love its cage; and even though it sings about not liking the cage it really likes it in there.” As he resolves, “it can be both a wake-up call and an anesthetic.”
Websites like Stuffwhitepeoplelike.com are hilarious in the way they expose how staples of many socio-economically stable, white, suburban cultures and their commodities rest on white and class privilege, while never once providing an alternative to the culture and ideology it supposedly critiques; whitewhine.com, similarly pokes fun at the gratuitous indulgence in problems manifest out of social privilege while never exposing how this privileged experience came about, nor how its existence is detrimental to others. This ironic critique of one’s privilege is problematic in that it’s rooted in the assumption that these issues of class, race, and gender disparity are so passe as to be mockable, and that the people mocking these issues are genuinely critically and socially aware, and concurrently, that people actually oppressed, under-resourced, and suffering should be equally comfortable relishing in the absurd socio-economic and social disparity between them and dominant classes. Effectively, this shallow, meta-ironic expose of one’s privilege disservices more than it subverts and transforms; it strips humor of its possible political function and couches it in a masturbatory self-indulgent context, and dictates to marginalized, disserviced, and oppressed the ways in which we ought to critique structural divides in our society, which, more often than not, are perpetuated most strongly by the dominant classes; it renders humor a buffer that protects us from having to critically self-reflect both on ourselves and society.
I strongly disagree with the idea that the people largely responsible for perpetuating negative mythologies about the inner-workings of oppression and manipulated discursive power (i.e: white, upper-middle class, male, cisgender, straight people) should have sole license to dictate the terms under which their oppressive regime should be addressed and understood. How about we empower the people who’ve historically been denied the right to challenge their experiences to lambast the structural divides that silence, marginalize, and oppress them, and create a climate in which it’s equally acceptable to do so through humor, anger, critique, and genuine dialogue. Let’s not let the dominant class yet again control the ways language can be used and understood; let’s provoke actual social change by a genuine—or at least fully responsible reflection and attack on the status quo.
(For Wallace’s Interview: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ggtt7cODZd0)
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