When Bakhtin is in Boystown

Over the weekend, I sat at my computer. At one point mid-Saturday, I wailed to my cats who sat on the couch looking at me impassively, “This all just needs to slow down!” For historians, my naive outside perception is that the challenge is often finding one’s data. Has someone preserved a set of documents, letters, or diaries that have information about the story that I want to tell? For the ethnographer, the challenge can often be keeping up with one’s data. Queers aren’t going to sit down and shut up just because I need a day off. Queer Metropolis never sleeps.

Last week, in another example of a place-based online community, someone started a Tumblr—a popular micro-blogging platform; slightly more space than a Twitter, slightly less than a full blog—called When in Boystown. When in Boystown uses GIFs and memes combined with titles that together form a punchline about some aspect of the neighborhood.

There are a range of posts that, in the words of one commenter on the site, “depict of a view of Boystown that a lot of people have.” Some posts comment on the shared gay experience of people that frequent Boystown:

So you’re a straight guy and you work out at LVAC?

Others, comment on a particular area or bar in Boystown, joking about the scene that goes on at that spot:

Boys at Minibar

A New Bear at Big Chicks

Center on Halsted

What is the difference between these three? As Nico Lang correctly identified in a commentary on the site for Huffington Post Chicago “When in Boystown: Don’t Create Racism, Create Change,” some of these target marginalized groups and others target those in power. That’s true, but the real distinction here is the target and the consequences of the joke. Lang quotes Jezebel contributor Lindy West’s “A Complete Guide to Hipster Racism”:

Here’s the thing about jokes. They only work when they’re aiming up … People in positions of power simply cannot make jokes at the expense of the powerless.

Lang, West, and others that say that these jokes “serve to further marginalize people who are already marginalized in our community” are correct. However, this conversation is missing an explanation of why these jokes entrench privilege, while other jokes work against it. Without a dialogue on why, the common responses are often “They are just jokes,” “How come Black people can make fun of race but whites can’t?,” or “It’s ok to make fun of the boys at Minibar but not the Black kids at the Center? That’s reverse racism!”

Your Friend thinks this Tumblr is Racist

Mikhail Bakhtin’s writings on humor can help answer these questions. Bakhtin is most remembered—when he is remembered at all—for his writings on ‘dialogics’: “The meaning of a word is determined equally by whose word it is and for whom it is meant…A word is a territory shared…” For Bakhtin, everything is a dialogical conversation. This blog, an article, and the When in Boystown Tumblr are dialogues with the reader, who help shape the meaning as it is being produced. It is not enough to look at the intention of the producer of a text, or a joke, but we also have to consider the consequences on the intended and unintended targets.

Bakhtin looks at humor by examining why modern readers find the medieval French Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel, a parody of powerful French society of the time, so offensive and disgusting. As Michael M. Bell, in his article “Deep fecology: Mikhail Bakhtin and the call of nature,” comments:

Many people have found his [Rabelais’s] writing distasteful and obscene, plainly offensive to basic sensitivities. Rabelais’s novel…follows the fabulous careers of Gargantua and his son Pantagruel, both fantastically obsese and vulgar giants. They live an outrageous life centered wholly on bodily acts–eating, drinking, excreteing, copulating, giving birth. Rabelais spares no detail in describing these acts. In a word, Rabelais is gross.

Bakhtin argues that we find Rabelais offensive because he draws attention to the grotesque body over our modern civilized body. Setting aside the other consequences of this argument—Bell, for instance, demonstrates the changing relationship with nature revealed through our changing attitude towards the body—Bakhtin argues that Rabelais is not gross, despite long passages describing shit. There is a difference between gross and carnivalesque.

The gross, or offensive, makes fun of others and places them lower than the speaker. A carnivalesque joke on the other hand might use the same material, but it attempts equality. The jokester is also laughing at themselves. They confirm our common humanity. For Bakhtin, Rabelais is reminding us that we all eat, shit, ooze, and have sex. Furthermore, when the powerful are the targets of carnivalesque jokes, they are “uncrowned.” They are brought down from on high, but, because the clown is also laughing at themselves, they are not brought low. The joke attempts to change and level social relations.

This distinction answers the three common responses to offensive jokes. First, they “aren’t just jokes” because humor has consequences. It can either be a tool for equality or reinforce marginalization by reminding everyone how little power the powerless have. This is why so-called hipster racism is still offensive. Even if the speaker is attempting to say, “Isn’t that stupid that people used to say this for real?,” the joke reminds everyone that the power differential exists.

Similarly, “Why can Black people make jokes about race” and charges of “reverse racism” are not focusing on the proper issue. Offensiveness is not judged solely on the intentions or social position of the author; the target of the joke and the consequences are important. A queer person making fun of queerness is including themselves within the joke. Using carnivalesque humor, they remind everyone of their commonalities.

The Colbert Report—where Stephen Colbert parodies a conservative pundit—or making fun of the boys at MiniBar is still funny because the targets are “uncrowned.” The jokes remind everyone that the powerful have flaws. These kinds of jokes go too far when they attempt to bring the targets lower than the speaker. Showing conservative politicians doing stupid things confirms that they are no better than us. However, go further and claim that they are stupid and the joke becomes mean. The consequences must be social leveling, not mere inversion of hierarchy.

Carnivalesque jokes provide a way out of the trap of colorblind ideology. Humor does not have to be bland jokes about kittens or jokes that don’t reference human differences like race, gender, class, ability, or sexuality. All discussions of race are not automatically racist. Humor can be a tool for social transformation. We just need to be conscious of the consequences.

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