Society for Philosophy and Culture seminar, held at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, in August 2010, as part of our series "Human Beings & Freedom: An Interdisciplinary Perspective". Nicholas Holm speaks on "Reassessing the Right to Laughter: Humour, Dissent and the Liberal Imagination" with responses by Dolores Janiewski and Mike Lloyd.

Historically, humour has been conceived of as a site of liberation and freedom – a free play of affect wherein the self can critically appraise the political conditions of its existence. Moreover, contemporary laudatory accounts of humour – specifically those associated with the incongruity tradition – have sought to tie humour to a liberatory political project that challenges authoritarian or oppressive governmental technologies in its very nature: in Revel with a Cause, Steven Kircher even goes so far as to argue that humour served as an essential form of dissent in postwar America. In this talk, Holm maps the ways in which humour has been tied to the expectations of liberal democratic society, from Jon Stewart to the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy, as a gauge of social tolerance and self-critique and how the reasonable subject of liberal society has thus become configured as a humourous subject. Holm argues that the centrality of humour to the dominant liberal capitalist political configuration suggests that humour has come to play an increasingly central role in the political, as well as aesthetic, terrain of the current moment, but that the liberal understanding of humour fundamentally misconstrues the way in which it functions as a political force, underestimating its aggressive and even repressive force. Contrary to this dominant understanding, Holm suggests that humour acts to discipline as well as liberate, and any rigorous examination of the political role of humour must take this into account. Given the importance of humour to the constitution of the ‘reasonable’ and sophisticated subject of the contemporary Western metropolis, Holm then suggests that a better understanding of the cultural mechanics of humour is a vital part of any rigorous critical theory of the political potential of contemporary culture.

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