The conspiracy of laughter and the prosecution of humor in global times

Lecture: Ritu Gairola Khanduri, Associate Professor at the University of Texas-Arlington. 
Veröld - hús Vigdísar, Room 008. 

Can one engage “offensive” political cartoons while acknowledging the right to laughter and taking a position against the conspiracy of this laughter that maligns and potentially incites violence? To offer a possible answer, I will build on episodes leading to the prosecution of humor and the persecution of cartoonists in Jordan (ranked 138 in the World Press Freedom Index, 2017), Australia (ranked 19), France (ranked 39), USA (ranked 43), India (ranked 136), Malaysia (ranked 144), and Iran (ranked 165). Journalistic norms and the boundaries of free speech with caveats about “hate speech” in these countries provide (contradictory) answers to this question. It is hard to abide by these norms—hence to settle the discrepancy one sees protests, petitions, persecution, prosecution and violence from within these countries as well as from without, from proponents of the right to free speech and freedom of expression. Given its interest in comparative cultural studies, anthropology can offer concepts and tools to engage the challenge posed today by political cartoons and the humor and offense they generate. Beginning with Radcliffe-Brown’s structural functionalist analyses of “joking relationships” in Africa (1940) and turning to Mahadev Apte’s comparative study of humor anthropology (1984) and more recently to Carty and Musharbash’s attention to the social life of humor (2008), the turn to the politics of humor, which is the focus of my work on political cartoons in India, seems to reinforce an often-heard critique that anthropology is gloomy. From a relativistic perspective, a sensibility and aesthetic generating solidarity and alliances, to rethink humor as a conspiracy and source of conflict may seem like a theft of laughter, devolving the human spirit into a grim narrative of rights and identity politics. This shift is the starting point for my paper to engage four points in the guise of questions: Why are political cartoons and their humor the site of contentious politics today? How can anthropology offer a framework for thinking about political cartoons (without morphing into what Sherry Ortner calls a “dark anthropology”)? Do political cartoons instigate renewing the notion of freedom in a liberal democracy? Would a specific focus on political cartoons and the reactions they receive, from the public and the state, reconfigure the World Freedom Index making the “free” countries seem less free? (in other words, are cartoons a special category of news that tell us more about our practice of press freedom?).

Ritu Gairola Khanduri is a cultural anthropologist and historian of India. Her research interests are in media, cartoons and comic books, gender, Gandhi and science. She is the author of Caricaturing culture in India: Cartoons and history in the modern world. Cambridge University Press. 2014.

mið, 10/18/2017 - 17:00
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