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Wit and Politics an Essay on Laughter and Power

Wit and Politics an Essay on Laughter and Power

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Wit and Politics: An Essay on Laughter and PowerAuthor(s): Hans SpeierSource:
The American Journal of Sociology,
Vol. 103, No. 5 (Mar., 1998), pp. 1352-1401Published by:
Stable URL:
Accessed: 24/11/2010 16:40
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Witand Politics:AnEssay onLaughterandPower'
HansSpeierTranslated nd edited byRobertJackall,WilliamsCollegeOriginally ublishednGermann1975,hisreflectivessay drawsonmaterialfromwide rangeofepochs andsocieties oanalyzetheuses, ntricacies,ndparadoxesofwitnpoliticalrelationshipsgreat nd small.Topicsincludewitasaweapon, hecruciallementofsurprise,he uses ofnonsense,heaughter f boththemightyandtheweak, whisperedokesintotalitarianegimes,nd witanddeath. Theessayreturnsepeatedlyotheparadoxoftimelessness,thats,the recurrence fsimilarforms fpoliticalhumor,ndeedidentical okes,indifferententuries ndamong differenteoples.
Political ndNonpoliticalJokesPhilogelos,heancientGreekollectionfokesbyHierocles ndPhilag-rius,ontains he storyfthe dull-wittedmanwho hearsthatravens ivemorethan200years.Hedecidestokeeparavennacagetofind utifhe has been told the truth.2 hestorylso occursna17th-centuryapa-
Trans. ote:Hans Speier riginallyublishedhis ssay n bookform n1975 s Witzund Politik: ssay iuber ie Macht and dasLachenZurich: dition nterfromG,Texte/Thesen8,VerlagA. Fromm, nasbruck). ftertsGerman ublication,peier translated artof the essay ntoEnglish, rovidingdditional xamples o amplifyanalytical ointsmadein hisoriginal ext.But heabandonedhetranslation ithonlyfragmentsompleted.npreparinghisranslation,consultedpeier'spartialtranslationnd integratedntothistext ome of hissupplementalxamples.amgrateful o AnnetteHarms-Hunold f VerlagA. Fromm,MargitSpeier Speier's widow),ndSybilBartenSpeier's aughternd executor fhisestate)orermissiontorepublish peier'sworknthisform.also wishtothankMargit peier,G.L.Ulmen, homasKohut, nd GaryFord formportantuggestionsnthetranslationand Arthur.Vidich or closereadingfheompletedmanuscript.oan . WallingandPeterGiordanoprovidedhelpful ibliographicalssistance. irectcorrespon-denceto RobertJackall, epartmentf Anthropologynd Sociology,Williams ol- lege,Williamstown, assachusetts1267.
Trans.note: ee Thierfelder's1968,p. 125) edition, hich ontains 65 okes fromthe everal ncientmanuscriptshatwere obbled ogethert various oints o makeupthePhilogelos.his edition lso contains nearly ompleteistingfallextanteditions ndtranslationsfthecompilation.he most omprehensivedition efore ThierfelderasEberhard1869),which ontains 64okes.?1998by The Universityf Chicago.Allrights eserved.
1352 AJS Volume 103 Number5(March 1998):1352-1401
Witand Politicsnese version ndina modernGermanorm. he Japanese tory ssome-whatnferior ecause of ts explicitness.It is said that tortoiseives or0,000 ears. thoughtfulanaughtbaby ortoisend said:"I'llkeep hisnd seeifthat s true."isfriendlaughed nd said,Our ife s like hedewon theflower n theRose ofSharon. oweverongwe live, t'snotmorehan hundredears.Howthenananyoneeeftortoiseives or0,000 ears?"he manreplied:"That's pity."Blyth 959, . 485)Toward the nd ofKonradAdenauer's hancellorshipfheGerman ed-eralRepublic,tappearedtomanyGermanshat he oldmanwasdeter-mined o remainnoffice orever. s rumorhasit,the federalhancellorwasbreeding ianturtlesn order overifyhathey eallyeachtheageof300 years Thierfelder968).Thesedifferentersionsfthe ame oke,separatedbymore than a thousandyearsandbyculturaldistancesnoless formidable,aisetwofundamentaluestions.Within herealmofwitin general,what s theprovincefpoliticalwit?And how doesone accountforeopleofcompletelyifferentulturesndepochs,s is oftenhecase,laughingboutveryimilarokes?Anonpoliticaloke,such asthe GreekorJapaneseversions ustcited,cansuddenlyecomepolitical,sinthe Germancase,whenapubliclyprominent ersonbecomes he butt f theest.But politicalwit does notconsistolelyofthe ridiculef thehighndmighty.okesanvictimizenot only prominentwieldersofpoweror those who abuse that power;theyftenmake theweakandunknownntoaughingstocks.ndeed,ests"from bove,"fromhosefhigher tatus,ather han hose from elow," thats, okesbornoftriumphnstead fresistance,maybetheprototypi-calpolitical okes.Moreover,hetargetsfpoliticalwitfrombeloware notnecessarilyindividualprominentersons. oliticalwit can be directed gainstocialgroups, ircles,r stratawhosesocialpositions contested:he nobility,the nouveauriche,onquerors, ordergarrisons,he police, udges,andso on.And,ofcourse,manycultureshavejokesaboutpeoples whoare differentnsomeway, uch as ethnic, olitical,ocial,orreligiousminori-ties,whosesocialsubordinationrforeignnessake thembjectsofridi-cule. These include okes abouttherish,blacks, Catholics,Jews,Sicil-ians,theEastGermans,nd neighboringeoples.There are also asmanyjokesaboutconquerorssaboutsubject peoples.Finally, olitical okesmaybe directedgainststablished nstitutions, policies,rpubliclyecognized alues.3Forexample,nthefall of 1974
3Someeditorsfcollectionsf politicalokes distinguishetween ersonal nd non-personalokes. See, e.g.,K. Hirsche 1964,pp. 33ff).1353

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