Patrick T. Giamario
Just over three years ago, Volodymyr Zelenskyy wasn’t yet president of Ukraine; he only played one on TV. In Servant of the People Zelenskyy portrayed Vasyl Holoborodko, a high school history teacher who unexpectedly wins the presidency after his rant about government corruption goes viral online. In a case of life imitating art, Zelenskyy leveraged Holoborodko’s popularity to wage his own successful presidential campaign in 2019. Prior to Servant of the People, Zelenskyy had founded his own comedy troupe and studio, wrote and starred in a series of raunchy romantic comedies, hosted a sketch comedy show, played the voice of Paddington Bear, and performed on the Ukrainian Dancing with the Stars.
Hardly the résumé of a statesman.
Nevertheless, in recent weeks Zelenskyy has won global acclaim for leading the resistance against Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. It is difficult not to be moved by Zelenskyy’s poise and determination in face of the destruction wrought by Russian forces and the threat they pose to his life. Zelenskyy’s rapid move from the comic fringe of Ukrainian politics to the very center of great power conflict was unexpected, and to many commentators, a source of alarm.
Yet, as I demonstrate in my new book, Laughter as Politics: Critical Theory in an Age of Hilarity, the case of Zelenskyy exemplifies just how well worn the path from gelopolitics, or laughter-politics (gelōs [γέλως] being the Greek for “laughter”), to geopolitics has become in recent years. Fictional political campaigns by Robin Williams and Stephen Colbert in the mid-2000s introduced the idea of a comedian winning elected office. In 2008 Saturday Night Live’s Al Franken was elected to the U.S. Senate; in 2010 Icelandic comedian Jón Gnarr was elected mayor of Reykjavik; in 2015 television comedian Jimmy Morales was elected president of Guatemala; and in 2018 comic actor Marjan Šarec became Prime Minister of Slovenia. And of course in 2016 Donald Trump – himself an accomplished insult comic – won the most powerful office in the world.
How do we make sense of this breakdown of the boundary between gelo- and geo-politics? Is it simply another example of entertainment colonizing the realm of serious political affairs? Or does laughter’s prominence today suggest something more fundamental about the political prospects of our current social conjuncture?
My approach to the politics of laughter, which I unpack in the book, draws on critical theory, the history of political thought, and scholarship in racial and gender politics to argue that laughter constitutes a privileged site of politics in the social order. Laughter is what Theodor Adorno calls an experience of the non-identical: it is both a product of society (i.e., laughter obeys and reinforces the rules of a given social structure) and a rupture within society (i.e., laughter necessarily exceeds the bounds of existing language). Arising at moments of fragility and fracture within the social order, laughter can work to either defend that order against these vulnerabilities or exacerbate them even further, opening society up to greater transformation. Laughter’s outsized presence in the current conjuncture is thus a function of the multiplicity of political opportunities – both democratic and fascistic – that this moment affords.
From the perspective of this critical theory of laughter, it is not at all surprising that a figure like Zelenskyy has proven to be an adept political leader. As someone who knows how to make people laugh, Zelenskyy is acutely attuned to the fault lines of the social order. He can sense the precise points at which an audience’s political attachments (e.g., to liberal democracy or nationalism) are under pressure, and he knows how to activate and mobilize those feelings. This is what comedians do all the time – whether via physical humor that interrupts the body’s routinized and disciplined movements under a system of power like the workplace (e.g., Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times) or stand-up acts that express and process histories of oppression (e.g., Hannah Gadsby in Nanette).
This is of course not to say that all comedians-turned-politicians make good leaders. Trump’s retreat into the White House bunker during the 2020 George Floyd protests demonstrates that there is no direct connection between comedic talent and political bravery. Laughter doesn’t have a politics; it is a site of politics. And politics, as we know, can be liberatory or reactionary, courageous or cowardly. Nevertheless, Zelenskyy’s transition from gelopolitics to geopolitics should not be surprising or discomfiting. Where there is laughter, there is politics, and all else being equal, an expert in laughter has a head start in politics. For a democratic left that has grown suspicious of laughter in recent years, the case of Volodymyr Zelenskyy serves as a timely reminder of laughter’s peculiar political efficacy and emancipatory potential.
About the book
Explores the role that laughter plays in constructing, preserving and transforming contemporary social and political life
Published March 2022
Hardback and ebook: £85/$110
About the author
Patrick Giamario is Assistant Professor in Political Science at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. He is the author of several journal articles and Laughter as Politics will be his first monograph. Giamario is a political theorist with research interests in critical theory, democratic theory, and the history of political thought. His research has been published in Contemporary Political Theory, Philosophy & Social Criticism, Political Research Quarterly, and Angelaki. He is currently working on a new project on the politics of deception.