LINGUIST List 23.1425

Wed Mar 21 2012

Review: Discourse analysis; Sociolinguistics: Tsakona & Popa (2011)

Editor for this issue: Joseph Salmons <>

Date: 20-Mar-2012
From: James Murphy <>
Subject: Studies in Political Humour
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EDITORS: Tsakona, Villy and Diana Elena PopaTITLE: Studies in Political HumourSUBTITLE: In between political critique and public entertainmentSERIES TITLE: Discourse Approaches to Politics, Society and Culture 46PUBLISHER: John BenjaminsYEAR: 2011

James Murphy, Department of Linguistics and English Language, University ofManchester, U.K.

INTRODUCTIONThe book under review is the 46th volume of the very fertile DiscourseApproaches to Politics, Society and Culture (DAPSAC) series. The aim of thisvolume, according to its editors, is to 'debunk two popular myths aboutpolitical humour' (1). The first is that 'political humour is considered to besubversive and leading to political change' (1) and the second that such humouris a 'prevailing and exclusive feature of specific sociocultural environments'(2). In what follows, I will summarise each chapter with a view to showing howit contributes to the aim of debunking these myths, followed by a generalevaluation of the book.

SUMMARYChapter 1 is an introduction by Villy Tsakona and Diana Elena Popa, the editors. As well as setting out the aims of the volume and the contents, Tsakona & Popaprovide helpful background on humour and its application to politics/politicaldiscourse. The editors favour a 'broad church' approach to humour and welcomethe attention of different disciplines to its study, following Ruch (1998) inusing 'humour as an umbrella term covering all related phenomena' (3), e.g.satire, mockery, irony, etc. In defining 'political humour' the editors againsuggest the broadest of meanings, arguing that it is humour produced by or aboutpoliticians. They suggest that its purposes are equally varied, withpoliticians using humour in order to ultimately attract voters, whilst the pressand others use it 'to simultaneously "criticize" political decisions andfigures, and entertain the audience' (8-9). The section on the side-effects ofpolitical humour is of particular interest and highlights how jokes can becreated by totalitarian regimes as a means of controlling the people (12-3).Other side effects are also noted, including a reduction in trust in thepolitical classes and a loss of respect for politicians who use humour in'inappropriate' contexts.

Part I on 'Humour by politicians' begins with Ralph Müller's chapter 'Fun in theGerman parliament?'. Using a corpus of written proceedings from the GermanBundestag in conjunction with video recordings, Müller seeks to explain thediffering contexts in which the parliament's stenographers use the terms'Heiterkeit' ('amusement') and 'Lachen' ('laughing') to describe instances ofmirth and merriment amongst members of the Bundestag. Müller finds that'Lachen' has a variety of communicative and social functions, including rebuttalof a statement without further engagement; denigrating a speaker in order tostrengthen in-group relations; marking another's behaviour as sociallyinappropriate (the case of a parliamentarian speaking whilst intoxicated isgiven as an example of this function). 'Lachen' is found mostly to indicatescornful laughter and that the instances that provoked it 'do not displayintentional humorous incongruity' (33). 'Heiterkeit', on the other hand, isusually provoked by some form of intentionally humorous statement or act.Amusement is also derived from a number of situations including: speaker(s)using non-standard language, which humorously contrasts with the formal settingof the Bundestag where standard language is the norm; attempts by speakers tonegotiate with the Chair to give them further time to speak; attempts tomanipulate parliamentary conventions e.g. superficially turning controversialstatements into questions in order for the speaker's talk to be deemedparliamentary. 'Heiterkeit' seems, therefore, to be less scornful and lesshostile. Müller concludes by suggesting that the difference between 'Lachen'and 'Heiterkeit' can be considered akin to the difference between 'laughing at'someone and 'laughing with' them.

Chapter 3 sees Argiris Archakis and Villy Tsakona look at 'Informal talk informal settings: Humorous narratives in Greek parliamentary debates'. Theauthors provide a detailed analysis of four humorous extracts from ano-confidence debate in the Greek parliament. Through this analysis, they showthat parliamentarians use humour to support their argumentation. Some speakersinvoke ordinary citizens in their narratives, which Archakis & Tsakona suggestis done in order to appropriately address the wider Greek public (which theysuggest favour positive politeness in Brown & Levinson's (1987) terms and thusprefer to be addressed as a friend/acquaintance) and so that ordinary people'sdiscourse is represented in the formal setting of parliament. By using thediscursive practices of the 'normal' Greek person, i.e. joke-telling andstory-telling, the politician can present him/herself as a man/woman of thepeople. In their discussion and conclusions, the authors present numeroussuggestions for further work, including a diachronic study to see whether thetelevising of parliamentary exchanges has led to a change in thefrequency/nature of humorous narratives and a cross-cultural study to see howhumour in politics is manifest across nations.

Chapter 4, '"Stop caressing the ears of the hooded": Political humour in timesof conflict' by Marianthi Georgalidou, investigates humour in the speeches ofGreek politicians made during the period of civil unrest in December 2008,during which young people wearing hoods ('the hooded', cf. British English'hoodies') demonstrated violently following the shooting of a student by thepolice. Georgalidou shows how the sound-bite of one politician aimed at a rivalparty telling them to 'stop caressing the ears of the hooded', implying thatthey were not condemning the violence of the hooded youths in order to gain anelectoral advantage, was a fertile trope which was used extensively by othersduring this time of civil unrest. She shows how humour was used by the accusedpolitical party in an attempt to repudiate the allegation that they supportedthe violence, and how productive the 'hooded' comment was for jab-lines usedeven in the formal setting of the Greek parliament. She concludes by suggestingthat the humour was used not only as a conversationalised form of talk, but alsoas a good means of casting aspersions on a rival political party.

Chapter 5 'Entertaining and enraging: The functions of verbal violence inbroadcast political debates' concludes Part I. In the chapter Marta Dynelsuggests that the assumption that the viewer of a televised political debateshould be thought of as an overhearer is flawed and cogently argues that s/heshould, instead, be thought of as recipient 2, or a meta-recipient, whilstrecipient 1 is a member of the studio audience. In the rest of the chapter,Dynel analyses pre-election debates from 2007 in Poland with a view to exploringthe interaction between verbal aggression and humour. She finds that humour isused disaffiliatively by politicians seeking to denigrate their opponents andthat aggressive utterances are produced humorously in order for the politicianto demonstrate his/her wit and rhetorical skill. She also suggests that the useof humour is a potentially dangerous strategy, with the potential for thepolitician to be viewed as 'uncouth rather than witty and rhetorically skilful'(127).

Part II on 'Political humour in the media' begins with Diana Elena Popa'schapter entitled 'Political satire dies last: A study on democracy, opinionformation and political satire'. Popa sets out the function of (televised,animated) political satire suggesting that it must: be a tool for the public totalk about the state of the nation; discuss topics which other media sources areafraid to, thereby being a source of information; continually scrutinise publiclife which may result in poor behaviours being corrected; and protest againstthe inappropriate behaviour of politicians. Popa analyses episodes of theanimated Romanian satirical programme 'The Animated Planet Show' to see whetherit fulfils these criteria. Through this analysis, Popa shows that writers usedifferent satirical strategies: an 'overt satirical strategy' which seescriticism carried out openly by characters in the programme and a 'covertsatirical strategy' which sees ridicule brought on politicians and others by'taking all their statements and purported beliefs to their furthest supposedlylogical conclusion, revealing their hypocrisy and stupidity' (145). Theexamples taken from the show along with Popa's analyses leads the reader to beconvinced that 'The Animated Planet Show' does fulfil the function(s) ofpolitical satire which were set out at the beginning of the chapter.

Chapter 7 'Being Berlusconi: Sabina Guzzanti's impersonation of the ItalianPrime Minster between stage and screen' by Clare Watters highlights the culturaland political importance of impersonators of politicians. She shows how SabinaGuzzanti has constructed a humorous, counter-image to Silvio Berlusconi in herimpersonation of him. Watters argues that the success of Guzzanti'simpersonation lies in the contrast between the carefully stage-managed,image-based politics of Berlusconi and the impersonation itself, which some maycontend is a more realistic portrayal of Berlusconi than the one put forth inthe media (much of which he owns and controls). Watters discusses how thecensorship of Guzzanti on the television has led her to develop her characteraway from the screen, which has in turn led to an increase in the politicalaspects of her humour which is 'beyond the bounds of what Italian television canallow' (187).

In Chapter 8, Efharis Mascha discusses political satire within a popular cultureframework. In 'Mocking Fascism: Popular culture and political satire ascounter-hegemony', Mascha uses Gramsci's (1985) theory of popular culture toexplore the themes developed in caricatures of Mussolini printed in satirical(leftist) Italian journals between 1919 and 1925. Mascha develops the idea thatpopular culture was counter-hegemonic (i.e. an alternative) to fascism andMussolini's brand thereof, since it attempted to organise popular consciousness-- in particular against the propaganda perpetuated by the regime regarding thesupposed omnipotence and immortality of the dictator, Mussolini. Maschasuggests that political satire did not directly affect the emergence of Fascismsince it was at 'the margins of popular culture' (211) and was notwell-organised and was increasingly censored by the Mussolini regime.

Part III on 'Public debates and political humour' opens with Chapter 9 by LiisiLaineste called 'Politics of taste in a post-Socialist state: A case study', inwhich she explores recent public discourse on the decency or lack thereof inEstonian ethnic jokes. The author argues that Estonia is the ideal location toinvestigate how the ethnic joke can shape national identity, given thatEstonia's national identity is still in flux since its recent independence andsince 'ethnic jokes are available without censorship and the negotiations oftaste are still underway' (220). Laineste presents a case study of mediareaction to a complaint made by a member of the Russian-speaking minoritycommunity in Estonia that the school curriculum recommended texts whichcontained jokes like 'Why do Russians wear straw hats? Because you always mustput hay on manure' (224). In her analysis, Laineste shows that the officialfall-out from the affair was a government apology and statements saying that'racist' jokes should not form part of public life and therefore be censored.Whilst press articles reporting the story focussed on the potential threat toEstonia's international image caused by the racism (described by the authorusing Vihalemm and Timmi's (2007) terminology as the 'discourse ofself-criticism'), members of the public commenting on the articles defended the'racist' jokes with the majority supporting their comments by using the'discourse of danger' (i.e. Estonians had previously been victims of Russianpower so that their xenophobia was justified) and others using the 'discourse ofhealthy reasoning' (i.e. racism 'is a natural co-product of cultural encounters'(223)). Laineste concludes by arguing that politicians and the media do attemptto set new frames for the perception of what is in bad taste.

Chapter 10 entitled 'Humour and…Stalin in a National Theatre of Greecepostmodern production' by Vicky Manteli analyses a performance of the theatreproduction 'Stalin: A Discussion about Greek Theatre' using a semiotic approachbased on Attardo's (2001) 'General Theory of Verbal Humour'. Manteli introducesthe reader to some basic concepts about the nature of postmodern theatre andabout the semiotic theory her analysis is couched in. Through the detaileddescription and analysis of the props used, the staging of the work and the(metatheatrical) discourse used in the performance, Manteli highlights howhumour (and in particular irony and parody) is used to attempt to tackle'totalitarian ideologies…and expose their potential to distort political realityand historical memory' (267). Manteli also shows how the humour in postmoderntheatre is often derived from the use (and abuse) of theatrical conventions,genres and discourse, which she argues can be seen as an extension of Attardo's(2001) notion of 'hyperdetermined humour' which gives credence to the furtherexploitation of Attardo's humour theory to the analysis of works of theatre.

A final note from the editors concludes the volume, summarising the workcontained in the preceding chapters.

EVALUATIONThe volume at hand is, to my knowledge, the first collection of work dedicatedto the exploration of humour in a political context. It treats the subjectusing methodologies from a number of contrasting fields (theatre semiotics,media studies, popular culture studies, discourse analysis, sociolinguistics,etc.). In this respect, the book can be said to stray somewhat from the goal ofthe DAPSAC series which aims to 'investigate political, social and culturalprocesses from a linguistic/discourse-analytic point of view' and some may findthe lack of linguistic detail in some of the chapters disappointing. However, Ifound the eclecticism of the book to be in no way disconcerting, especiallysince all of the chapters were working, in one way or another, towards thecommon goal of debunking the two myths which were set out in the editors'introduction.

The book does make great strides in fulfilling that goal. A number of thechapters do show convincingly that humour does not change the politicalsituation (in particular chapters 6-9) and how in some instances, the reverse istrue and politics changes the humour (6 and 9). As far as the second myth isconcerned, the range of nations represented goes some way to showing thatpolitical humour is not limited to a particular sociocultural environment,though one criticism of the volume would be that it is notably Eurocentric andthat chapters focussing on humour in politics outside of Europe would havehelped to debunk the myth further.

A praiseworthy feature of the volume lies in its strong editorship. It is clearthat all of the authors have had access to one another's work which is reflectedin authors referencing related work from the volume. The editors' final notealso helps to digest the vital information from each of the chapters leading tosuggestions of where humour research in/on politics ought to look next. Thename and subject indexes are also very useful.

In summary, 'Studies in Political Humour' is a volume which scholars working onpolitical discourse, humour theory, and the interface of the two will findvaluable. It considers humour (broadly defined) from a wide range ofperspectives and this may inspire readers to look to other disciplines whencarrying out further work on such topics.

REFERENCESAttardo, Salvatore. 2001. Humorous texts: A semantic and pragmatic analysis.Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Brown, Penelope & Stephen Levinson. 1987. Politeness: Some universals inlanguage usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gramsci, Antonio. 1985. Selection from 'Cultural Writings'. Ed. D. Forgacs & G.Nowell-Smith. London: Lawrence & Wishart.

Ruch, Willibald. 1998. 'Foreword and overview. Sense of humour: A new look at anold concept'. In: The sense of humour: Explorations of a personalitycharacteristic, Willibald Ruch (ed.), 3-14. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Vihalemm, Triin & Mailis Timmi. 2007. Rassism eesti trükimeedias [Racism in theEstonian press]. Ministry of Justice press conference, 15/10/2007.

ABOUT THE REVIEWERJames Murphy is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Linguistics andEnglish Language at the University of Manchester. His Ph.D. researchfocuses on the pragmatics of apologies in political discourse. Hisresearch interests include political discourse, conversation analysis,speech-act theory and corpus linguistics.

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