Tuesday, 8 November 2011

The Cultural Politics of Justice

Campbell, E. (2011) Theoretical Criminology, The cultural politics of justice: Bakhtin, stand-up comedy and post-9/11 securitization, 15(2), 159-177

The emergence of cultural criminology has provided academics with many new and intriguing lenses on the world. The importance of cultural criminology has often been in its higher vantage point and its stated aim to consider not only the criminal justice system in its operational capacity, but the society in which this functions, and the cultural roots and legitimacy of the system itself; the awareness that representations are important.

In 'The cultural politics of justice' Elaine Campbell presents some challenging concepts on the use of language, making the first reading a somewhat daunting task. The articulation of her thesis, for those who were uninitiated with the theoretical groundings, required some reading around which had the happy result of unearthing further work on the nature of discourse. Using a dyad of literary theorists/philsophers, Campbell considers the positions of J├╝rgen Habermas and Mikhail Bakhtin and their diverging views on language and meaning. Bakhtin's dialogism versus Habermasian clarity of language. In Habermasian discourse ethics, it is believed that the potential for reason and compromise was inherent in communications and that through consensus society could establish normative truths. Bakhtin alternatively viewed language as always shadowing earlier utterances, always operating in an interpretative context and inherently contestable. Which of these expressions accurately accounts for the manner in which stand-up comedians tackle conceptions of 'justice'.

Bakhtin, in his study of the work of French Renaissance writer Rabelais, pulled out themes of the carnival and the grotesquerie and spoke of that lewd and subversive folk humour inherent in the writings. Campbell updates this concept for the present-day with idea of stand-up comedians as the successors to this.

The juxtaposition of the 'carnival' and 'grotesque realism' is reminiscent of Foucault's description of gallows and scaffolds entertainments, so vividly portrayed in Discipline and Punish. The humour and festivities of the common people as they gather for the execution and their subversive take on proceedings.

The censorship of various modes of speech during a crackdown on securitisation is spoken of in the article. A recent, British example involves the case of Paul Chambers, who made the mistake of tweeting his annoyance at the closure of Robin Hood Airport. The tweet, seemingly innocuous "Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You've got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!!" provoked a police and judicial reaction which betrayed the low levels of tolerance currently exhibited towards risque jokes involving national security in some countries. However, those following the case on Twitter displayed a cheering 'counterpublic' sphere reaction with the adoption of the solidarity hashtag #IAmSpartacus.

However, we felt that humour can also be used to disguise prejudice. Someone like Bernard Manning, who is rarely, if ever seen on TV, draws large crowds of people who are excited about seeing someone who represents a world which is not inhibited by P.C language. What we see on televised stand-up shows consists in the main of a sanitised humour, cleansed of much of the right-wing comedy that is still common in society.

The article presents an imaginative means of thinking about justice and societal concepts of the same, we should always welcome a new position from which to assess these often taken-for-granted concepts.

An important question raised during our discussion was about how far can comedy go in terms of activism. Certainly there have been some good examples, such as George Carlin's 1972 'Seven Words' routine, in which he reflected on what he saw as a censorship stranglehold on broadcasting in America. This became the centre of public debate, news stories and a legal case. Today though it seems that successful satire must capture rather than rage against the zeitgeist. How far can we say that these comedians are trailblazers and how far are they simply reflecting back at us the comedy that we have generated in response to particular situations, such as surreal procedures now associated with airline travel and security checks.

Comedians, satirists, polemicists such as Michael Moore, Mark Thomas and Ian Hislop are in the business of passing a wry eye over political and current affairs, fusing humour and issues of concern. Russell Brand's article in the Guardian, in the aftermath of the English riots is something to consider here. Relevant, told with a certain humour, and talking around ideas of relative deprivation, consumerism, anomie and dominant culture.

Campbell mentions, as she transcribes some of the stand-up routines, that there is often a moment of nervous audience laughter. Does stand-up that touches these hard-to-reach and cringing parts cause self-reflection in the audience? When asked to consider an assumed prejudice, or asked to probe and find one's own hidden stereotypical shorthand, do comedians succeed in making their listeners rethink their own ideas about justice?

Humour is an inescapable part of the human condition, we find it in the bleakest of situations, it appears as an irrepressible component of how we interact with others. For this simple reason it seems straightforward that how we use humour to explore our world is an integral means of understanding how we see the world. It is another tool used to create the web of meanings that comprises society.

This month’s blog was written by Lynsey Black and Louise Brangan.

The views expressed in this blog are the authors' alone.

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