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Achmed the dead terrorist and humor in popular geopolitics

Abstract

The critical geopolitics literature has engaged popular culture and media in many forms, usually focused on mass media or elite-produced niche media. The issue of humor as a form of popular culture with geopolitical content has been explored only recently by geographers. This paper utilizes disposition theory, with its emphasis on social context, to link humor and geopolitical analyses of humor. The analysis of two Jeff Dunham comedy skits centering on the character Achmed the Dead Terrorist demonstrates the utility of disposition theory as a construct to situate humor in the context of its original production and as a fluid, global phenomenon that is shared through various social networks via the Internet.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. The idea that humor is a tool used to maintain an individual sense of superiority at individual and societal scales is found in superiority theory. Traceable to the thinking of Plato and Aristotle, it was formally articulated by Hobbes (Morreall 1987). Hobbes was cognizant of the power of laughter and by extension, humor) to inflict emotional harm onto others. Hobbes went as far as to note that such behavior was not for great minds, as great minds would only compare themselves with the most capable. This view underscores that humor reinforces social roles promoted by dominant segments of societies, making it clear humor is part of the struggle for and maintenance of power.

    Incongruity theory relies on human efforts to create abstract concepts and expected patterns in daily life. Occurrences contradictory to preconceived notions, replete with newness, contrast, inconsistency and surprise, form the basis of amusement and humor (Morreall 1987; Rothbart 1976). These events entail a sudden shift in psychological state of being, encompassing elements of surprise, all the while maintaining a level of pleasantness at the new situation. It is this distinction of pleasure separating this form of incongruity from negative results such as confusion and emotional distress. Critics such as Santayana assert that humans, as rational actors, do not have positive reactions to incongruity and the pleasure experienced is to be found in the physical, emotional, and cognitive stimulation and satisfaction from that stimulation (Morreall 1987; Martin 1987). Supporters of incongruity theory argue incongruity can be enjoyed for its own sake, as a form of aesthetic appreciation (Clark 1987, p. 152).

    Relief Theory focuses on the affective qualities of laughter and amusement, such as the physiological release of excess energy in laughter. This notion was developed by Freud, who argued that humor and the stimulation derived from it result from the release of unconscious repressed thoughts and the redirection of energy that is normally reserved to subdue these thoughts and feelings (Morreall 1987). This theory is critiqued by those arguing that not all laughter results from amusement, and not all instances of humor are linked to repressed feelings (Morreall 1987; Clark 1987). Others note that feelings of superiority are not necessary for humor (Smuts 2006) and holding a superior position vis-à-vis another is not enough to always engender laughter.

  2. One of the common criticisms leveled at the three theories is a lack of unified explanation for all acts of laughter and humor. Superiority theory assumes that feelings of superiority are necessary for such humor, but as Smuts (2006) points out, such feelings are a not necessary condition for humor, nor is holding a superior position in social terms vis-à-vis another enough to always engender laughter in humorous situations. Other criticisms of superiority theory point out that humor need not involve feelings of superiority or be derisive in nature (See Morreall 1987; Clark 1987). In the case of incongruity theory, not all instances of incongruity are necessarily humorous and often are distinctly unfunny (Morreall 1987; Martin 1987). Supporters of incongruity theory counter by arguing that incongruity can be enjoyed for its own sake as a form of aesthetic appreciation (Clark 1987, p. 152). Relief theory is criticized for the fact that not all laughter results from amusement, nor are all instances of humor are linked to repressed feelings (Clark 1987; Morreall 1987).

  3. It should be noted that the Muslim co-author of this paper was the first of the authors to find these clips, partly as they were forwarded to him by other Muslims. His reaction was of laughter.

  4. The comments function for both clips was disabled as of October 20th, 2008. While an unlimited comments section would provide a constantly changing text for analysis across time, we would acknowledge that the meaning of the video clips is context specific, thus highly variable with time.

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Correspondence to Darren Purcell.

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This article is in memory of Mahmut Gokmen, who passed away July 20th, 2008. The authors thank the three anonymous reviewers for their helpful guidance and the forbearance of the guest editors in light of the tragedy.

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Purcell, D., Brown, M.S. & Gokmen, M. Achmed the dead terrorist and humor in popular geopolitics. GeoJournal 75, 373–385 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10708-009-9258-9

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Keywords

  • Critical geopolitics
  • Disposition theory
  • Humor
  • Popular culture
  • Popular geopolitics