Laughing Off Violence: The Genre of Comedy and its Politics (Part 1) (Seminar)

Cultural Studies and Media Studies / Global Anglophone

Jiwon Rim (University of Pittsburgh)

The current COVID-19 pandemic highlights the relationship between disaster, racism, and comedy in unexpected ways. Fear, hostility, and open acts of violence towards Asian bodies, the perceived carriers of disease, are naturalized in part through their exaggerated and comic portrayals. The images of Oriental “gross” food consumers in Hazmat suits and masks circulate via internet memes and anecdotes of personal encounters, generating a shared normal response of derision and repulsion. What is so funny, though? And why does the comic invite violence? Comedy is never innocuous. Comedy, as often as not, involves violence—a laughable kind of violence. It relies on a culturally shared distinction (or at least, the knowledge of shared distinction) between two kinds of violence: the kind of violence that we can laugh off and the kind of violence that we cannot.

This panel explores the hierarchical construction of bodies in the genre of comedy: on the one hand, “serious,” "important," “high” bodies, and on the other, “expendable,” “low,” “funny” bodies. Or, to put it differently, this constitutes a distinction between human bodies proper and less-than human bodies. Our panel discusses the politics of the genre of comedy from a range of theoretical and literary perspectives. Our goal is to shed light on how this popular form works—in both overt and insidious ways—to arrange complex networks of social and cultural hierarchy, as well as more fundamental definitions of the “human.” As such, this panel cuts across periods and mediums of the comic, rather than attempting to focalize on a specific literary era; including, but not limited to, papers on the imbrication of critical race theory and early modern dramatic comedy, and on the construction of the animal and the human in contemporary pop culture.

This panel explores the relationship between the comedy genre, violence, and embodiment. Comedy relies on, and constructs, a distinction between two bodies: on the one hand, “serious” bodies that should not be violated, and on the other, “low” or “funny” bodies that are expendable. This panel is looking for papers that shed light on how this popular form arranges networks of social and cultural hierarchy, produces definitions of the human and abject, and works across literary periods and mediums.