Undergraduate Module Descriptor

POL3258: The Politics of Humour

This module descriptor refers to the 2022/3 academic year.

Module Content

Syllabus Plan

Whilst the precise content may vary from year to year, it is envisaged that the syllabus will cover all or some of the following topics:

Part 1: Theories of Laughter: Philosophical debate about laughter is as old as philosophy itself. We begin the module by examining the three rival philosophical accounts of why we laugh that have dominated Western opinion on the subject: 1. The Superiority Theory (first proposed by Thomas Hobbes and most recently defended by Henri Bergson), 2. The Incongruity theory (developed first by Francis Hutcheson) and 3. The Relief Theory (most commonly associated with Sigmund Freud).

Part 2: The Social Functions of Humour: With these rival philosophical paradigms in mind we turn next to examining the social and political functions of humour, drawing on the work of thinkers such as Norbert Elias, Slavoj Zizek, and Terry Eagleton. Does the playfulness of humour soften social interactions, or can it fuel social conflict? Does ridicule provide an outlet for emotions that might otherwise lead to violence or does it constitute a form of verbal attack that can itself be violent? If people stop laughing at each other is this, as Zizek said of Yugoslavia on the eve of its collapse, a sign that they will soon start fighting each other instead?

Part 3: The History of Ridicule in the Public Sphere: In this section we turn to history to examine the rise of political satire in Europe with the expansion of print media and the relaxation of censorship in the 18th century. How did the early public sphere in England cope with the growth of satire? How did satirists, playwrights, and authors exploit the new freedom to mock others in front of ever-widening audiences and were they restrained? We conclude this section by looking at some case studies of political humour in African, Asian, and Middle Eastern contexts for comparison and contrast.

Part 4: Understanding Political Humour Today: In the final part of the module we return to the present to ask what, if anything, is unique about the way humour is used for political purposes today.  We will analyse the political nature of contemporary comedy through studying the work of stand-up comedians (Stewart Lee, Dave Chapelle, Samantha Bee, Michelle Wolf), internet memes, and late-night comedy shows (Saturday Night Live, Late Night with Seth Myers, the Daily Show, Last Week Tonight).  Has the digital age transformed how we use humour politically? Or has it merely provided a new medium for old techniques? Has the manner in which states regulate humorous speech changed and if so, how? Does humour distract citizens and make them bemused rather than indignant when they witness injustice? 

Learning and Teaching

This table provides an overview of how your hours of study for this module are allocated:

Scheduled Learning and Teaching ActivitiesGuided independent studyPlacement / study abroad

...and this table provides a more detailed breakdown of the hours allocated to various study activities:

CategoryHours of study timeDescription
Scheduled Learning and Teaching Activities4422 x 2 hour seminars
Guided independent study88Preparing for seminars; reading and research; watching comedy.
Guided independent study168Complete assessment tasks: reading, research and writing

Online Resources

This module has online resources available via ELE (the Exeter Learning Environment).