Parrhesia, Humor, and Resistance

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This paper begins by taking seriously former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass’ response in his What to the Slave is the Fourth of July? to systematic violence and oppression. He claims that direct argumentation is not the ideal mode of resistance to oppression: “At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed.” I will focus on a few elements of this playful mode of resistance that conflict with the more straightforward strivings for abstract, universal, objective, convergent, absolute thinking that champions reason over emotion, logic over narrative, and science over lived experience. In contrast, the type of protest employed by people like Douglass can utilize aesthetics and logic, playfulness and seriousness, emotion, even anger, and reason. Douglass provides examples of humorous, sincere parrhesia, oscillating between the lexicon of the dominant sphere and the critical reflection from a trickster on the margins. This will require an analysis of Michel Foucault’s conception of parrhesia: courageous truth-telling in the face of powerful people or institutions. It is a study of humor in the parrhesiastes, an element I think neglected by Foucault. I argue that the humorous parrhesiastes offers a mode of resistance which can subvert oppressive power structures that perpetuate injustice, revealing the fact that humor can be integral in courageous truth-telling.
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Archival date: 2020-10-12
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