Is it OK to Laugh? Pooyan Tamimi Arab, Konstantinos Kalantzis, and Rihan Yeh discuss the analytical power of jokes

You probably don’t read CSSH for the jokes. We’re not a funny journal – which is odd, given the human capacity for comedy and farce. When we do publish essays about humor, they stand out. Not because they will make you laugh, which is rare enough, but because they will make you think about why you are laughing. It’s a difficult maneuver. Jokes play on ambivalence and contradiction. They are often transgressive. Overthinking a joke is a good way to kill it. Yet simply going along with the joke can dull our sense of how and why it is funny. 

That’s the risk. Intentionally working humor into our theory and practice can produce analysis that seems dirty, silly, hurtful, or lame. And, miraculously, it can engage honestly with those qualities while producing insights (and levels of empathy) that would have been impossible if the analysis, or the things analyzed, weren’t funny. 

In recent years, three CSSH authors have achieved this miraculous effect. If you’ve not read their essays, do so now. You’ll laugh — out loud, we predict! — and you’ll be laughing about serious stuff.

Tamimi Arab, Pooyan. 2022. Can Muslims Drink? Rumi Vodka, Persianate Ideals, and the Anthropology of Islam. Comparative Studies in Society and History 64(2): 263-299.

Kalantzis, Konstantinos. 2015. “Fak Germani”: Materialities of Nationhood and Transgression in the Greek Crisis. Comparative Studies in Society and History 57(4): 1037–1069. 

Yeh, Rihan. 2017. Visas, Jokes, and Contraband: Citizenship and Sovereignty at the Mexico–U.S. Border. Comparative Studies in Society and History 59(1): 153–182.

Clown Renè Rivel, 1931. Photo by Sasha Stone.

To set the comparative mood, we asked Tamimi Arab, Kalantzis, and Yeh to read each other’s papers. Then we offered them the following prompt:

It seems that jokes, inane or hilarious, sly or ridiculous, allow you to say things, or analyze things, in ways other genres cannot. You do a good job of telling us why, but we’re curious to know how “at home” you are with the analysis of funny things. You’re not comedians, after all, though we suspect each of you is funnier than the average person. You seem to trust, give in to, or simply “enjoy” the humor you are describing, even when it’s corny, sexist, sacrilegious, bound to be misconstrued or weaponized. There are wonderful moments where you admit this, sometimes with a note of embarrassment or resignation.

Here’s what we want to know: what is humor doing for you, and what are you doing with it? You could rephrase that, to make it about the people you are depicting in your essays, but they’re already in on the joke(s), or so it seems, and you’ve given them plenty of stage time. It’s what you do alongside them that is so unusual and promising.

Their responses are fascinating. As you’ll see, additional thought does not kill the jokes. Instead, it produces another round of miraculous results. The lines between analysis and joking dissolve, and across the entire workspace – note, what is happening takes effort – the authors tap into energies they cannot fully control. Humor pulls them along, and the ride is worthwhile because, in each case, a joking mood enables alternative forms of critique, commiseration, and rapport. It feeds off pattern and power, yet it remains subversive, alert to nonsense, and at odds with propriety. 

We won’t give away the punchlines, which depend on delivery and style, but our authors make key points we should single out in advance. Humor gives access to deep feelings (Tamimi Arab); it allows us to criticize things and derive pleasure from them at the same time (Kalantzis); and it allows us to experience impossible things, to trigger and share the pain caused by what we want but cannot have (Yeh).

Some forms of humor do not translate well, a fact that produces jokes of its own, but our authors are quick to see what makes their essays comparable. Jokes are crucial, whether they pass between friends or across international boundaries, as are the impulses and sensations we call “funny.” Strange, isn’t it, that such potent energies are the ones so many of us, for complex reasons, are reluctant to explore in our work? If we can’t shake these interpretive inhibitions – or worse, if we make a fetish of “sober argumentation” – the jokes are on us.

So lighten up. Consider the craft(iness) in these commentaries. Yes, it’s OK to laugh, and to understand the variations in laughter. It will make comparison funnier. Analytically, and for our own souls, that’s a good thing.

Ba dum tsssss!

The Sympathetic Power of Laughter                                                 

Pooyan Tamimi Arab

When I explain to friends that I wrote a long ethnographic article about “Rumi Vodka,” published by Cambridge University Press in a reputable international quarterly, they often start to laugh. Drinking is apparently a laughing matter; more so when the vodka bottle mischievously cites a Sufi master, and even more when it’s elaborated on in a serious place like an academic venue. But maybe Malinowski was right and anthropology really is “the science of the sense of humour” (2015[1937]: 301, cited in Etnofoor editors 1988: 2–3)This certainly appears to be the case in the three CSSH articles under consideration. All three are ethnographic pieces in which the authors intertwine the personal and the political and expose themselves and their interlocutors to the readers. Although they concern different topics—the Mexico-U.S. border, the Greek debt crisis, and the meaning of Islam and alcohol consumption for Persian speaking refugees to the Netherlands—each piece describes jokes and provokes laughter. What is humor doing for us researchers and what are we doing with humor?

Malinowski suggests that humor lies in the possibility of reversals, to see dominant identities from others’ perspectives and to find a common humanity in those diverse perspectives. The anthropologist, he writes, “has to break down the barriers of race and cultural diversity; he has to find the human being in the savage; he has to discover the primitive in the highly sophisticated Westerner of today, and, perhaps, to see that the animal, and the divine as well, are to be found everywhere in man” (2015: 301). In the case of my research on Wine Shop the Philosopher in The Hague, the Netherlands, revolving around the owner who fled Afghanistan at a tender age, my interlocutor’s passion for philosophy and poetry led me to focus on “idiosyncrasies elided by stark categorizations of sober Muslims and European drinkers, African and Asian believers and European unbelievers, refugees and citizens, existential vulnerability and fortune” (Tamimi Arab 2022: 293). Humor was never the end goal. I certainly didn’t set out thinking that my research should be funny.

In hindsight, humor intuitively helped me in my ethnographic research on alcohol consumption and the question of what it means to be Islamic in at least two ways. Laughing with others was crucial in building rapport, as has been noted by many anthropologists (see, for example, Swinkels and de Koning 2016). Additionally, laughter helped me to process and make sense of my interlocutors’ and my own strong feelings about the importance of drinking as a subversive response to the Ayatollahs in Iran and the Taliban in Afghanistan, and as part of a centuries-old antinomian tradition in Sufi poetry. The jokes about drinking, much like drinking itself, were as Rihan Yeh puts it (2017), “performative arguments” that enabled one to take (seemingly?) contradictory stances toward the possibility—not a given reality—of being Muslim and a lover of intoxicating drinks. In other words, humor’s power can be liberating, even if it does not necessarily or entirely undo the ideological structures it wants to break free from. 

Karagöz and Hacivat, Turkish Shadow Puppets. Photo by Mourad Ben Abdallah.

An example that comes to mind are the witty poems of the Bektashi Sufi order. Not only do they praise drinking as a way to reach mystical union with the divine, but the poets don’t hesitate to speak back to God himself. Take Kaygusuz Sultan, who lived in the fourteenth century and was considered a great teacher of Bektashi poets. In one poem, he points to the orthodox Sunni conception of God, who is believed on the Day of Resurrection to make all righteous souls cross a bridge as thin as a hair. Appalled by this vision of extreme moral purity, the poet wrote: 

Thou hast created rebellious slaves,
Saying, Let it ever be thus;
Thou hast placed them there.
Thou hast gone out to the border, God. 

Thou hast created a bridge of hair
Saying, let the slaves come and pass over.
Rather, let us stand here.
If thou art a hero, pass thou over, O God.[1]

The Turkish poem, orientalist John Kingsley Birge explains, challenges God to do the very thing that he commands (1937: 89–90). This unfair God created us the rebellious way we are only to leave us and to eventually make us cross an impossibly narrow bridge—in other accounts described as sharper than a sword—which inevitably drives many to fall into eternal hellfire. Why doesn’t he cross the bridge to see what it’s like to be us? The poet goes on to call God a bastard—commented on by Birge as being extreme in its “apparent irreverence,” enough for outsiders to consider the poet a disbeliever—before it becomes clear that he in fact yearns for unison with God through the act of drinking. Centuries later, the poem still has the capacity to bring a smile to believers and non-believers alike, in the lands of the former Ottoman Empire—where the Bektashi order thrived against the odds until severe crackdowns in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—and beyond. 

In my research, the anthropological method of employing humor was indistinguishable from the philosophical drive to ask existential questions. Indeed, according to Malinowski, “the anthropologist learns to appreciate that Socratic wisdom can be best reached by sympathetic insight into the lives and viewpoints of others” (2015: 302). This dialogic process can itself be amusing, such as when the others laugh at the anthropologist who is clumsily finding their way in another world—and you’re never a “native” unless you’ve mastered and can reproduce local humor. As the distinction between researcher and researched is blurred, humor’s power to reverse, to make the impossible possible, gives us a sympathetic understanding of our interlocutors, their hopes and fears, in situations where their jokes may easily be viewed unfavorably as sexist, xenophobic, or blasphemous. It’s tricky, though, to avoid making fun of these others’ ill manners—especially when competing nationalisms and “fantasies of nativism” are involved (Kalantzis 2015: 1038, 1064)—and to simultaneously avoid presenting a too rosy picture of their humor. Why do it at all? In my research, I felt that taking the risk is unavoidable and worth the trouble: appreciating jokes can be a step towards better understanding experiences of the Kafkaesque violence—of nations’ borders, in Yeh’s research, of political-economic structures, in Kalantzis’ research, or of Islamic orthodoxies in my study—that lie behind our interlocutors’ rude or offensive antics. 

Slippery Delight: Problems of Pleasure and Reproduction in Jokes

Konstantinos Kalantzis

What is humor doing for us, and what we are doing with it? These questions, central to this edition of In Dialogue, hint at the tension between giving in to jokes and the expectation that anthropologists should provide “serious” accounts of humor’s social role. The challenge is partly to the notion of anthropological analysis as a dispassionate exercise, the equivalent of Kant’s model of aesthetics, which by subordinating the senses to reason fails to do justice to people’s intense, corporeal ways of experiencing images (Buck-Morss 1992; Pinney 2006). 

The problem of enjoying jokes is key to my 2015 “’Fak Germani’” piece, named after a bit of graffiti I recorded in an abandoned village bought by Germans in Crete. Part of my argument was that a particular idiom of joking was becoming prevalent among educated middle-class Greeks. Borrowing from “lowly” fields (shepherds, football hooligans, etc.), this style of joking produced ill-mannered responses to the demeaning sense of German/European surveillance that followed the 2010 EU-IMF bailout of Greece. As the jokes were at odds with a middle-class self-image, my interlocutors assumed a slippery stance—a maneuver that played out often in social media, where the jokes were simultaneously propagated and undermined as vulgar and ridiculous (2015). 

In his contribution, Tamimi Arab frames humor as an ethnographic device for building rapport with his interlocutors, as an entry point to understanding the ostensible contradictions between drinking alcohol and being Muslim. CSSH readers might openly identify with his graceful protagonist, Ofran, a victim of brutal displacement, for whom drinking and joking conjure up an internationalist imaginary against the purist desires of neo-nationalism, Dutch, Iranian, or Afghan (2022: 279). But what happens when jokes evoke politically incorrect, deeply ambivalent material whose enjoyment might be improper or embarrassing?

Drollery detail from the Rylands Haggadah, 14th Century

Tamimi Arab’s friends laughed when he told them a “reputable international quarterly” (CSSH) published his piece on “Rumi Vodka.” Likewise, my own photo from a presentation showing me in my serious conference attire in front of a power-point slide displaying gangsta hip-hop figure Alitiz (adored and ridiculed by my middle-class interlocutors) giving a Greek version of the middle finger to Chancellor Angela Merkel, went viral among my non-academic friends. The image was funny to them because, like Rihan Yeh’s account of joking on the US-Mexico border, it combines two worlds that formally oppose one another: the English-speaking conference, the domain of sober intellectual value (in segmentary terms [Herzfeld 2022], representative of the Europe that Greeks deeply respect yet were reacting against in 2015); and the domain of aggressive vulgarity. Alitiz operates here like the narco-corrido lyrics and trafficking jokes that Yeh’s middle class tijuanense interlocutors find attractive against their devotion to US-derived civility and obedience. Their realization of the violence of US bureaucracy resembles my interlocutors’ recognition of the callousness of northern European commentators, following the bailout deal. 

In“’Fak Germani’” I too was eager to understand. At a personal level, this translated into an effort to find solace in analysis. The piece was born out of frustration with what seemed like a new historical phase: “the Greek crisis” as an epoch. The epoch’s ingredients put me in proximity to many of my interlocutors. I was pursuing a post-doc at what seemed to be the beginning of endless short-term contracts, a plight that has received critical attention in anthropology, though not always as an example of neoliberal austerity policies (e.g., Peacock 2016). My proximity to the crisis coincided with the omnipresence of Greece as a burning place in global media and the convergence of the personal, sexual, and national in stories of Greek-German couples breaking up over animosities between their respective nation-states. EU monitoring was viscerally felt. People joked that the German chancellor was watching them with punitive eyes whenever they held feasts or enjoyed themselves.

I was also increasingly disappointed by the standardized critique of Western discourse on Greece, which portrays that discourse simply as externalist, as Orientalist. Not only did this criticism elude the complex ambivalences of Orientalism – I explore these in the Greek-German constellation, (Kalantzis 2016; 2019:246-287 and forthcoming) – but it also could not do justice to the position from which I was observing (borrowing from Melanie Klein, let’s call it “depressive”). The latter reveals the limitations, mutual conditioning, and conflicts of all reactions by internal and external actors, surveillors and resisters. Part of me wanted to exorcise this frustration and unleash the contagious magic of the jokes.

And it seems my Greek interlocutors weren’t the only ones enjoying what novelist JM Coetzee describes as “the release of the genie” (2003: 56). A non-Greek colleague, critical of German austerity policies in the EU, whom I accidentally met at an academic event, shouted “Fak Germani!” upon seeing me. Was he referencing my article, thus uttering the content of the graffiti found on a Cretan tarmac (whose ungrammatical, ephemeral, sexualizing nature I discussed, in my essay, as political limitations)? Or was this simply an opportunity to say that phrase? The ambiguities contained in these acts of reproduction are, I would argue, the key issue. 

But why I am speaking of contagion? Central to my piece is the idea that in reproducing what one is formally criticizing, a degree of ambivalent pleasure may be derived from the object of critique. I approach this reproduction as something uncontrollable, not as an intellectual strategy. This is why one Greek performer of a joking genre that over-identifies with its object of critique, without identifying itself as parody – a genre called Stiob in the Soviet context (Boyer and Yurchak 2010) – vocally objected to my analysis in the conference mentioned above. In conceiving of that slippery delight, I draw on an old visual-studies idea according to which visual reproduction can never be entirely negative as it ultimately allows for the appearing object’s revival (Bucher 1981). Later writings politicize this approach further by arguing, for instance, that photographing neo-Nazi/fascist groups, despite critical intent, may reproduce the subjects’ self-image of order and power (Godby 2000). A persuasive version of this notion is offered, about textual writing, by Coetzee, whose heroine Elizabeth Costello delivers a lecture on the importance of not releasing “the genie,” the evil that dwells in detailed accounts of torture perpetrated by Nazis in Third-Reich Germany (2003). 

If the 1940s seems inapplicable to post-bailout Greece, consider that the German-imposed austerity reactivated a mnemonic lineage: Germans of the 2010s were perceived as executors of austerity who descended from the executioners of the 1940s Occupation. On the slippery nature of reproduction, consider the awkward scenes of Germans visiting an unofficial, quasi-domestic “war museum” in highland Crete. They perform a certain anti-war humanism, with humbleness, restrained smiles, and guest-book comments stating “never again.” But upon entering the museum, they let out gasps of shock at the displayed swastika flag, a key museum artifact found in the area following battles between Allied soldiers and Nazi troops in 1941. The discrepancy between the visitors’ and the owner’s take on the rawness of the past is further exaggerated by Sfakian men’s open embrace of warrior aesthetics. The owner of the museum suspiciously tells me that some of his German visitors are crypto Nazis, while his pre-adolescent son walks around in military garb (common among young male shepherds) and uses WWII binoculars from the museum collection to monitor his neighbors, which feeds into Sfakian ideas of gazing as gathering info about enemy patrilines.

Is it OK to laugh? Behind an affirmative response to this question lies a moral understanding integral to anthropology’s approach to politics, which privileges the opposition of power and resistance (even though this opposition has been critically revised over the decades). If Germany and the EU are agents of power, then tricks and ill-mannered jokes at their expense become acceptable forms of local response. This effort to restore agency characterizes the present moment in anthropology, which foregrounds what Robbins (2013) calls, disapprovingly, “the suffering subject” (see also the Book Symposium on Han 2012). It has a deeper history, however; for instance, in arguments about how the aggressive objectification of female Western tourists by Arab (or Greek) men is compensation for their subordinate political status (Bowman 1989; Buck-Morss 1987), an argument more difficult to hear or make in the post-#MeToo moment. 

In retrospect, my piece tried to unleash and restrain the genie, laughing and analyzing the evasive politics joking produced, while refusing to translate joking into consistent political engagement, let alone resistance (Bakalaki 2016). I wanted to heed the laughter that subverted the seriousness of actions. All three essays explore these issues and are aware of the limitations of joking (which manifest, in Yeh’s account and my own, in the simultaneous disavowal and admiration of European or US power, while Tamimi Arab’s interlocutor speaks of the actual impossibility of joking about alcohol and Islam in Afghanistan). At a utopic level, jokes point to the limit of semiotics. Jokes do rather than mean, even when laughter comes from a break with acceptable meanings. It’s something we all struggle with in our essays.

A Plea for Shamelessness (Just a Little)

Rihan Yeh

Friends! I think our conveners have played a joke on us with their invitation and are rubbing their hands together off-screen, waiting to see how we get ourselves out of this fix. It’s hard for us academics not to list toward the side of seriousness – as Pooyan says, we never intended to be funny (really!) – but if it’s clear by this point that jokes are limited, it’s also clear that the solace of analysis is too. Let us not, then, end on this note of struggle. 

Sadler’s Wells Playbill. Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

All three of our pieces emphasize ambivalence, what I refer to in my essay as jokes’ power to let people have their cake and eat it too, and we have different degrees of ambivalence ourselves towards jokes. Konstantinos seems to have the hardest time swallowing: “I was especially troubled… by my own… sudden laughter,” he writes (Kalantzis 2015:1060). Probably I should have shown myself more troubled, though I think the ickier implications of the jokes I discuss are self-evident. In any event, our pieces are remarkably close (apologies: I swear I had not read yours!), and it’s Pooyan’s that offers, it seems to me, a key to the other two. 

In Pooyan’s piece, jokes mediate the tension between drinking and being Muslim, but this tension is only part of a larger impossibility, which both alcohol and joking/philosophizing help to manage: the exile’s impossible relation to the homeland, which robs these very practices of the political import they might have had at home. There is pain here at the bottom of jokes’ pleasure, and though less stark, that’s true (as you both point out) of Konstantinos’ and my pieces as well. In Ofran’s wine shop, jokes crisscross and commingle with poetry; they are part of the “participatory philosophizing” (Tamimi Arab 2022:264) that the essay both recounts and recreates. In a twist on Michael Silverstein’s analysis of oinoglossia or wine-talk – “you are what you say about what you eat” (2004:644) – the wines are the poetry printed on their labels, and it is this wisdom the drinkers steep themselves in and become one with as they drink. The alternative Islam or Iran – this gastro-cosmopolitanism holds together overlapping imaginaries – that becomes embodied in these rituals of drink and talk is a collectivity to come, marginalized and fragmentary, that now can perhaps only be dreamt in exile. Just as Pooyan has embedded in his text jokes, poetry, and images of wine bottles, he has embedded another material touchstone not of Ofran’s but of his own exile: the photograph of a book cover, stamped with poetry as the wine bottles are. “Merely looking at a copy,” he writes, “revives sentiments of loss and beauty” (289-290). In the text, wandering amongst these mementos, we are in Ofran’s wine shop. Thank you, Pooyan, for inviting us in. 

Each of our pieces deals, then, as the jokes we examine do, with impossible relations across geopolitical borders. The ambivalences we stew in, as do our interlocutors, spring from these. The jokes don’t end the struggle. Their politics may be not just evasive or retrograde but downright repressive: some of the jokes Konstantinos recounts themselves replay the policing of Greeks by powerful others. Whatever their politics, though, jokes stick a finger, as the saying in Spanish goes, straight into the sore. As Ofran’s wine shop shows, the jouissance of that jab works within a wider assemblage. Humor and seriousness, jokes and analysis, are false oppositions: moments suspended in a flow of action that requires, dialectically, a bit of each. 

Pooyan says that jokes build rapport in the field, but in his essay they do something more: they appear at the point of an intellectual impasse between Ahmed (with whom Pooyan allies) and Ofran. The essays sits, if I may say so, a little uneasily within this crossroads. But insofar as jokes are part of what turns the essay itself into a wine shop, they are also that point at which – to take a liberty with a line of Ofran’s (288) – such roads of contradiction are crucified. I think this is what jokes do for us, in the best of cases—interrupt and bind the text to some deeper energy that motivates the writing as it does investigation, without being encapsulable by argument. They press into the tensions and contradictions of political being, its ambivalences and impossibilities, in a world where any resolution belongs to a future yet to come. In pressing, jokes give a taste of that future – of the crucifixion of borders – even as they fizzle out in shortcomings. Just as they do for our interlocutors, they provide a concentrated burst of energy illuminating the limits of our ruminations. In that sense, they represent the heart towards which all true seriousness tends. 

Así que, mis querides chingüengüenchones, ¡hay que esculcar hasta los huevos![2]


[1] Âsi kullar yaratmışsın / Varsın şöyle dursun deyu / Anları koymuş orada / Sen çıkmışsm uca Tanri / Kıldan köprü yaratmışsın / Gelsin kullar geçsin deyu / Hele biz şöyle duralım / Yiğit isen geç a Tanri.

[2] “And so, my dear shameless ones, one must rummage through even the eggs!” Esculcar los huevos is a reference to a joke I discuss in my essay (2017:164); for the record, the original is homophobic. 


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Yeh, Rihan. 2017. Visas, Jokes, and Contraband: Citizenship and Sovereignty at the Mexico–U.S. Border. Comparative Studies in Society and History 59(1):154–182.

Pooyan Tamimi Arab is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Utrecht University, The Netherlands. His research combines anthropology with political philosophy, focusing on questions surrounding tolerance, neutrality, and public reason. He is author of Why Do Religious Forms Matter? (Palgrave, 2022) and a member of the Young Academy of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Konstantinos Kalantzis is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Thessaly. He is author of Tradition in the Frame: Photography, Power, and Imagination in Sfakia, Crete (Indiana 2019) and director of the ethnographic films Dowsing the Past (2014) and The Impossible Narration (2021). He is the 2019 recipient of RAI’s JB Donne essay prize on the Anthropology of Art. His latest research received funding from the European Research Council (ERC, EU Horizon 2020, grant agreement no. 695283, PhotoDemos project).

Rihan Yeh is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, San Diego. She studies the effects of the Mexico–US border on public life in Tijuana. She is author of Passing: Two Publics in a Mexican Border City (University of Chicago Press, 2018), which received Honorable Mention for the 2019 Gregory Bateson Prize, Society for Cultural Anthropology.

By ashryock

Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Anthropology University of Michigan

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