From the Series: Greece is Burning
Anthropological interest in Greece centers on the crisis, and most recent ethnographies leave readers with feelings of compassion, solidarity and respect for the subjects of a tragic and unfair predicament. However, in the life that still goes on the crisis produces not only tears but also laughter, brought about by jokes making light of this condition. In what follows I argue that taking this joking seriously must begin with attending to the funniness of the jokes and refraining from translating them into the terms of serious political critique.
“The future of Greece has gone in its pants” is the punch line of a joke playing with a clichéd analogy between the country’s children and Greece’s future. It is often deployed by politicians through the image of an actual infant with soiled pants. The mishaps to which the future of Greece is subject highlight its being alive and resilient and—given that in Greek “shitting on oneself” means “not giving a shit”—relate the future’s oblivion to current adversity. After all, indestructibility is an essential attribute of comic characters (Kiourtsakis 1985; Zupančič 2008, 42–60). But the joke also enables people to draw relations of analogy and synecdoche between the infant and their own selves: it renders their own resilience and indifference to hardship visible to themselves, as well as the magnitude of the forces against them. Describing Greece as a giant mental hospital, a kingdom of absurdity, or a brothel—as a space in which freedom, sanity, and morality are out of place—people say “we laugh so as not to cry,” or, “not to go crazy,” or “not to die.” Laughing in the midst of the crisis is an anomaly that underlines both the severity of the situation and people’s determination to survive it. Jokes, laughing, and the crisis itself seem to lend coherence to their dual subjectivity as both victims and heroes. It is this unlikely coincidence that is funny (Zupančič 2008), not the serious message that Greece and its people will endure.
Political joking in Greece (and elsewhere) is often explicated as a discourse generated by the very power relations about which it serves as commentary (Knight 2015; Gerakianaki 2015; Theodossopoulos 2013, 2015). The relevant question then is whether joking constitutes a form of resistance against oppressive conditions, a form of letting off steam that enables the reproduction of these painful conditions, or a combination of the two. In the case of jokes that draw laughter behind the backs or in the face of the powerful, it is apparently all of the above. In the context of scholarly analysis, the coincidence of opposites is far from a laughing matter and demands serious unpacking. But one cannot take everything seriously, and focusing on the oppressive conditions within which political jokes are usually exchanged entails the risk of forgetting that jokes are meant to be funny. Such forgetting protects anthropologists from the awareness that the noble end of ridiculing the powerful is often achieved through vulgarity, aggression, sexism, or ethnic slurs. After all, the vast majority of political jokes are beyond the limits of political correctness, however broadly such limits may be defined (Kalantzis 2015). Perhaps the briefest example is the pun sexualizing the power the former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis would hopefully wield over the European leadership, especially Angela Merkel: “Varoufucker.” From a Euro-American, middle-class perspective, mockery—laughing at—is morally suspect. But what people in Greece mean when they say “we laugh so as not to die” is “we laugh at and survive despite those plotting our demise.” Emphatically, the self-conscious deployment of joking as a survival strategy is not a manifestation of the dominant Western ideology that elevates happiness and resilience to the status of supreme ethical goals and blames “losers” as morally deficient (Zupančič 2008, 3–10).
Disregarding the political incorrectness of jokes or attending to that incorrectness as a form of transgression reinforces the sense that to be subversive, jokes need not be funny. From either perspective, joking is elevated to the status of political critique. This amounts to a rather condescending gesture that leaves intact belief in both the supremacy of critique and the conceptual power of the political. The alternative is not to reverse the formulation, seeing critique as a form of joking, but rather to accept the inconsistency of the two terms and focus on the ways in which they might nevertheless be connected and compared. Such a prospect is beyond the scope of this essay, so I limit myself here to some elementary remarks. The most crucial is that critique is not meant to be funny or pleasurable. Joking and critique might be comparable to the extent each enables insights into the contingency, fragility, and malleability of taken-for-granted definitions concerning what counts as reality. But in the case of joking this effect seems to be brought forth effortlessly, without hard work, ponderous anxiety, or twisted jargon; it is almost as if it appears out of thin air. In this light good jokes can be compared to magic tricks, or works of art that captivate because they seem to have come about so easily (Agamben 2007; Gell 1999).
Having argued that taking jokes and joking seriously entails attending to their funniness, I close with the suggestion that joking and playfulness may constitute a perspective on critical subjectivity and not just the objects of it. David Graeber’s (2014) question “what’s the point of doing it if we can’t have fun?” is a better first step toward being critical than the question “what’s the point of having fun if we can be critical?” But the latter is a good joke.
Agamben, Giorgio. 2007. “Magic and Happiness.” In Profanations, translated by Jeff Fort, 19–22. New York: Zone Books.
Gell, Alfred. 1999. “The Technology of Enchantment and the Enchantment of Technology.” In The Art of Anthropology: Essays and Diagrams, edited by Eric Hirsch, 159–86. London: Bloomsbury.
Gerakianaki, Galateia. 2015. “Geloiografiakei politiki kritiki sti metemfiliaki Ellada (1950–1974) [Caricature and political criticism in post–Civil War Greece (1950-1974)].” PhD dissertation, University of the Aegean.
Graeber, David. 2014. “What’s the Point if We Can’t Have Fun?” Baffler, no. 24.
Kalantzis, Konstantinos. 2015. “‘Fak Germani’: Materialities of Nationhood and Transgression in the Greek Crisis.” Contemporary Studies in Society and History 57, no. 4: 1–33.
Kiourtsakis, Giannis. 1985. Karnavali ke karayiozis: I rizes ke i metamorfosis tou laïkou geliou [Carnival and karagiozis: The roots and transformations of folk laughter]. Athens: Kedros.
Knight, Daniel M. 2015. “Wit and Greece’s Economic Crisis: Ironic Slogans, Food and Anti-austerity Sentiments.” American Ethnologist 42, no. 2: 230–46.
Theodossopoulos, Dimitrios. 2013. “Infuriated with the Infuriated? Blaming Tactics and Discontent about the Greek Financial Crisis.” Current Anthropology 54, no. 2: 200–221.
_____. 2014. “On De-Pathologizing Resistance.” History and Anthropology 25, no. 4: 413–30.
Zupančič, Alenka. 2008. The Odd One In: On Comedy. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.