Circulating Humor: Nonsense Politics
14 September 2012, 4 – 7 pm
Institute for International Studies, 223 Moses

Infotainment rules. Year-end television ratings in 2011 confirmed that The Daily Show and The Colbert Report had drawn more viewers than Fox News, the most watched news channel in the US. What does this tell us about the state of democracy and participation? In this year of another “electoral theater,” it appears timely to analyze politics as comedy and comedy as politics. Humor constitutes a stage for performances that forge and disrupt rituals of community. German comedian Martin Sonneborn, former editor of the magazine Titanic and founder of the party Die Partei, proposes an absurd program such as the re-erection of the Berlin wall; Turkish German stand-up comedian Serdar Somuncu impersonates Hitler; University of California students emulate the rhetoric of efficient privatization; activists tricksters assume corporate personas and ruling voices. All these comics intervene by mobilizing strategic role-play, mimicking practices they set out to deconstruct by exposing their absurdity, and inviting the audience to join in their tactics of denudation. At this workshop, such examples will be discussed and analyzed collaboratively with participants. We will work toward a theoretical framework for the analysis of comic interventions as complex social, discursive and aesthetic acts.

“Nothing is Done”, an exhibition of satirical posters by graphic artist Klaus Staeck targeting environmental questions will complement this workshop. Opening in Doe Library on 13 September 2012.
Introduction: Social Dynamics of Role-Play and Exposure
Deniz Göktürk (University of California, Berkeley)

Performative Dimensions of Wit and Nonsense
Uwe Wirth (University Giessen)
In this paper, I will trace the performative dimension of wit in particular, and of ‘the comical’ in general, in reference to Jean Paul´s definition of wit as “the disguised priest who unites every couple” and Freud´s definition of non-sense. One aspect central to Freud´s theory of humor and jokes will serve as a vantage point for my argument: the aspect of „comic lending,“ which Freud borrowed from Jean Paul and re-defined as Aufwandsdifferenz (difference of effort). This term is applied to phenomena of performed non-sense, such as the so-called non-sense joke, in which “fallacies” are brought to the fore and are at the same time “disguised” by “cloaking them in the appearance of logical reasoning.” In my paper I discuss the political implications of this performative dimension, especially with regard to the logic of “difference of effort”, but also with regard to the Derridean logic of grafting (greffe). In the workshop we will analyze the comical at the crossroads of performativity, grafting and politics by focusing on a contemporary example. In 2004, on the occasion of the federal election, Martin Sonneborn, former editor-in-chief of the satirical magazine Titanic, founded the party „Die Partei“ (The Party) and caused much indignation with his nonsensical, provocative party manifesto, which included the proposal to rebuild the Wall between East and West Germany.

Mocking the Nazi Past: Genetic Memory in Serdar Somuncu and Oliver Polak’s Stand-up Comedy
Annika Orich (University of California, Berkeley)
This paper discusses the way genetic thinking has shaped the concept of cultural memory in contemporary German society. To trace this relationship, I will examine the stand-up comedy of Serdar Somuncu and Oliver Polak, currently, as some have argued, “the most caustic comedians of the country.” German Turkish comedian Serdar Somuncu gained fame for his controversial readings of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf in the mid-1990s and has recently caused a stir with his show Hassprediger. In recent years, German Jewish comic Oliver Polak has attracted attention for his taboo-breaking routine Ich darf das, Ich bin Jude and Jud Süß Sauer. Somuncu and Polak’s comedy constitutes a site of memory that commemorates the Third Reich and challenges common notions of this past. Their comedy routines about Germany’s notorious history and the country’s perennial process of coming to terms with its Nazi past moreover serves as a means to critically examine the present status of immigrant minorities in German society. I will argue that Somuncu and Polak’s humor complicates the way in which cultural memory is constituted as a hereditary entity that is transmitted from one generation to the next and, thus, difficult to acquire outside of ethnic inheritance and belonging. Of particular interest for this discussion is the role that humor plays in both challenging and reinstating the genetic components of cultural memory and related discourses on German national identity.

Travesties of Privatization
Shane Boyle (University of California, Berkeley)
Through a discussion of selected guerilla performances, Internet pranks, and ironic manifestos created by the UC Movement for Efficient Privatization (UCMeP), this talk examines how student activists at the University of California have turned to satiric performance as a mode of critique and mobilization against the budget cuts to public education in California. UCMeP’s playful yet earnest performative manipulations of the discourses and rituals of authority staged by the UC administration take the rhetoric and proposals for privatizing public higher education to an absurd extreme. Be it raising philanthropic money to reward the UC Board of Regents, renaming campus buildings in honor of administrators, or auctioning off prominent campus landmarks to the highest bidder, UCMeP employs a performance-based strategy of satiric over-identification that ridicules the authoritative discourses used to legitimate austerity measures and criminalize dissent. Inspired by the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army in Germany and the Volxtheaterkarawane in Austria as well as tactical impersonations by The Yes Men, such performances resonate on a broader international scale. How might we distinguish between the political import of satire as deployed by activists enmeshed in particular political struggles from its use in other contexts, like television, film, and online media? And as scholars and activists, how might considering the relation of satire to the struggles it seeks to engage provide a useful lens of critique?

Tactical Performance: Symbolic Sabotage and Satirical Surprise
Larry Bogad (University of California, Davis)
This presentation will examine recent attempts by creative activists to use theatrical techniques to enhance the impact of social movement interventions – in public squares, corporate meetings, military recruiting centers, commercial port shut-downs, and other pressure points in the body politic. Guerrilla musicals, mass-produced newspapers and Clown Armies will be assessed for their specific strengths and weaknesses as levers/lockpicks in the activist toolkit.

Discussant: Priscilla Layne (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill)

Co-sponsored by the German Department, the Multicultural Germany Project, the Institute for International Studies, the Contemporary European Performance Working Group at the University of California, Berkeley, and the Goethe-Institut San Francisco.