(Photo: Flickr – Jim Greenhill)
By Sam Lewis – Regular Contributor
If you spend even a minute on twitter or any political WhatsApp group then it becomes apparent how, quite frankly, overly serious people take politics. Furthermore, given how dire the state of the world is it can be very difficult to laugh about the affairs of the world. Yet is this an oversimplification? In a world of increased polarisation there is a ginormous amount of shows devoted to political satire and people who claim that controversial comments are just ‘comedy’. Therefore, in this article I shall seek to examine what is a fascinating form of political discourse (not people who use twitter and text groups too much, forget them) and by expanding into the role of literature I shall hopefully show why it is essential to any rational normal form of political expression.
When receiving the Mark Twain prize famous political satirist Jon Stewart stated, “comedy doesn’t change the world, but it is a bellweather […] when a society is under threat comedians are the ones that get sent away first.” If this quote is to be taken seriously then there appears there not only appears to be a role for more farcical forms of political expression but also a reflection of a functional society. The role of comedy that Jon Stewart is reflecting on is comedy as critique. By using humour people are able to criticise those in power as seen in the forms of media such as the Private Eye or less well in America (but to be honest that can be said about all forms of American comedy) in the Daily Show. Crucially this form of comedy operates by using a form of absurdity by removing power from the powerful. Laughter is created by stripping away any of the attempted façade of power or prestige that politicians attempt to convey and present the more often than not reality of them being ego-maniacal, stuck-up man children. When Jon Stewart talks about societies that do not allow this form of comedy he is therefore talking about situations where the myth of power is so strong that any attempt to destroy it is not permitted. This was made most apparent to my narrow-minded mind in the Charlie Hebdo attack in 2015. The attack and in particular the response to it show a general acceptance that satire is a key tenant to free speech and how in this society you are more than free to tweet ‘je suis Charlie’ no matter how little impact that has and how much you are only doing it to fit in.
However, this is only scratching the surface of its use. For my 300 or so word tangent has not necessarily been about the absurd. Crucially the political satire referred to here has a clear belief in a good and bad. By attacking those in power it is easy to side with those in opposition. I am not saying this to be one of those people who yell that all comics have a left-wing agenda and that it needs to accommodate both sides of the isle but instead to show how that whilst they strip away one layer of the paint the painting still remains. The reality is that if we saw the world today as a metaphorical ship that is sinking the choice is more often than not is between a captain who wants to stand completely still and bark on about how the ship can fix itself and another who wants to reverse the skip back into the iceberg it already crashed into. (Also side point but why do right-wing commentators use ship metaphors so much and should I be worried that I now seem to be doing it?) The reality is by satirists siding with either side of this they have to form a perspective on the world, one which cannot be deconstructed.
If you have bothered to stick around this long then you are probably yelling in frustration WHAT THEN DO YOU MEAN BY ABSURD!!!! To understand a move away from the aforementioned form of comedy to a more absurdist form of satire one must understand the term of the ‘wise fool’. This character is a comedic one but one who through their stupidity can highlight more the faults of the characters around them then themselves. From a political perspective a recent example of this would be Sacha Baron Cohen and in particular his tv show ‘Who is America?’ Whilst Cohen plays a variety of eccentric characters the humour comes from what he is able to make other people to such as making a gun advert for children or making someone run at him whilst mooning him and yelling a racial slur (seriously watch it it’s insane!). In this way the fool adopts a neutral perspective to reveal the stupidity of those around them rather then telling you who is good and who is bad. In this way absurdity becomes more than a tool of free speech and an deeply revealing check on power.
However, it must be acknowledged that the neutrality of this form has its consequences. The form of the wise fool can be used in the complete opposite way. Going back to literature some politicians can be seen to act like Iago in the play Othello, a character who acts a fool in order to manipulate his way into influence or as he says, “I am not what I am”. In this way whilst some have played to fool to reveal the truth others use it to hide it. This has been seen most clearly by Boris Johnson who deliberately ruffled his hair to create the façade of the loveable uncle but for ages his true intentions were left obscure. Whilst this is the most obvious one, politicians in general who make crass remarks are often playing the same role, diluting the scandalous quote with a whole bunch of other ones. In this way once again the absurd is therefore not pure criticism put a role adopted by a variety of people with a variety of intentions, a morally ambiguous tool that can be used for good or bad.
Yet, looking at absurdity as morally grey is how we get reveal its essential role in political discourse. In its truest form it strips down the concepts that are essential in political life either by critiquing them or by creating an even more absurd perspective. Whilst the likes of Johnson and Trump can be seen as buffoons, they were also able to demonstrate large number of ways that politics is limited by the purely artificial. In particular, in how a politician can speak or act whilst in power and what people can really do about it (Trump was never found guilty in the impeached trials in the end).
However, to see the truest power of absurdity we must go back to fiction. In particular it is likes of Kurt Vonnegut who are able to use absurdity to deconstruct most of the frameworks we hold so dear as a society. The most striking example of this is in his book Breakfast of Champions where, by taking the role of an all-seeing God / placing himself as the author in the story (sort of, it’s really odd) he deconstructs the concept of America. By acting as a reserved outsider, he notes the how ridiculous facets of a nation including the role of symbolism: arguing instead that America’s moto should be “in nonsense there is strength” or national history by pointing out that “The founders were aristocrats, and they wished to show off their useless education, which consisted of hocus-pocus from ancient times. They were bum poets as well.” Importantly, unlike previous examples where absurdity has been applied to divisive aspects of politics, this is used to question more commonly accepted truths. The reality is that it is not that some people believe is symbolism of fictitious truths but that we all do, whether it be in this case the concept of the nation or a certain moral or philosophical outlook on life (and yes I know that the absurd is in itself a philosophical concept used by Camus but firstly this is clearly not the form of absurd I’m talking about and secondly I prefer the term radical acceptance) and in reality we could all benefit from questioning those once in a while It is in this way that absurdity has strength. The absurd can be used to not just back up an opinion but question the common assumptions we make in life. In a world where more radical forms of change are often rejected because that is simply not the way things are done this is more important than ever as it reveals that lack of validity that these forms of argument actually have.
One thought on “The Role of Absurdity in Political Discourse ”
Isn’t it the point that politics is taken seriously? The role of politics is innate to all of us. I think avoiding the concept of social media “not people who use Twitter and text groups too much” is too far-fetched, as most of this politics and cancel culture comes from social media as a whole. Very traditional VP imo.