The Provocation of Laughter and the Practice of Resistance: On Humour and the Politics of Subjectivity

Image: Horst Rosenthal, Mickey au Camp de Gurs (1942), Centre de Juive Contemporaine, Paris

Event details

Department of International Relations Seminar

Date & time

Friday 23 February 2018


SDSC Reading Room, Hedley Bull Centre (130), corner of Garran Road and Liversidge Street, ANU
ANU Canberra


Dr Alister Wedderburn, Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, ANU


Bell School

Tragedy has played a prominent and active role in the construction of Western political imaginaries. For many thinkers working not only in IR but also in a host of other disciplines, tragic drama offers a singular and compelling representation of humanity’s social, political, and/or ethical capacities and limitations: to be a political subject, in these instances, is to be a tragic subject. My presentation will begin by establishing a genealogical understanding of tragedy as a discourse embedded within relations of power/knowledge. In so doing, I will ask questions of the ways in which certain strands of thought within the discipline have framed debates about agency, subjectivity, power, and the politics of culture and performance.

I will look to make an original contribution to these debates by asking, conversely, what a comic sensibility might have to offer to IR. As events like the Danish cartoon crisis of 2005-2006 or the 2015 shootings at the offices of Charlie Hebdo illustrate, humour’s relationship to politics is both ambiguous and potentially controversial. Yet despite this, it has nevertheless been commonly used by those engaged in practices of resistance, often in contexts with little obvious levity, and my presentation here will focus on this unexpected point of intersection. Turning to some of the earliest Greek theories of comedy, I will argue that humour has historically been understood – in the West, at least – as a discursive register through which a claim to political subjectivity can be made in the face of its ostensible denial. In light of this, I will explore how humour has functioned in three specific contexts: in wartime concentration camps, as part of HIV/AIDS activism in the 1980s and 1990s, and in carnivalesque mass protest around the turn of the millennium. I will conclude by suggesting that one way in which humour might be of value and interest to IR is as a field of practice through which subjects might insert themselves into discourses or discussions from which they are apparently forbidden. A focus on comic practices might therefore offer an unusual perspective on the multifaceted processes of (dis)ordering that constitute IR’s object of study.

Alister Wedderburn is the John Vincent Postdoctoral Research Fellow in International Relations at the Australian National University. He received his PhD from King’s College London in September 2017 and is interested in political and IR theory, post-structuralist philosophy, practices of resistance and the global politics of visual, literary and popular culture. His article ‘Tragedy, Genealogy and Theories of International Relations’ was published in the European Journal of International Relations in 2017.

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