Kick-off event at KWI Essen: November 24-25, 2023

Deadline: August 15, 2023

CFP: Network ‚Comedy as Cultural Studies/Das Komische als Kulturwissenschaft’

Submission of project outlines: 15 August 2023

Kick-off event at KWI Essen: 24-25 November 2023

Satirical poems and humorous prints, comedies and vaudevilles, stand-up, witty adverts and memes: to elicit responses from an audience, funny artefacts must draw upon cultural knowledge and invoke conventionalised
expectations, only to subsequently disavow or thwart them, at times spectacularly. On the one hand, this renders
social constructions and conflicts visible, such as the inclusion/exclusion dynamics that arise from categories
of difference like race, class, gender or disability. On the other hand, comedy can explore unexpectedly modified
cultural and bodily techniques, thereby both imagining and shaping alternative models of social coexistence.
Commonplace situations that go hilariously wrong as well as popular comic genres thus provide important
spaces for the negotiation of cultural knowledge. In this regard, they possess considerable influence, easily
rivalling so-called high culture.

Seemingly fixed meanings, referential frameworks and courses of action can be disturbed or exaggerated by
comedy, thereby exposing their inherent instabilities and contradictions. Thus, comic artefacts and phenomena
generate a sense of uncertainty and relativity, which unsettles widely accepted norms. At the same time, this
guarantees their epistemological productivity: Based on iteration, i.e. the repetition and failure of symbolic
conventions, comedy brings forth realms of ambiguity and these, in turn, compel societies to deliberate
meaning. This often extends to analysing culture itself, in other words: the processes, discourses, and practices
that contribute to symbolic orders. For when presented in amusing and whimsical settings, culture can be
addressed as a mutable construct that could have taken a different trajectory.

Comedy relies on many factors, including its – potentially involuntary – producers as well as the individual
dispositions and emotional states of the audience. A well-placed joke can soothe and reconcile, it may cause a
smile or even bring forth comic relief, yet it can just as well lead to a complete loss of control – for example,
when it overwhelms the recipient’s body and causes corporeal ‘boundary reactions’ (H. Plessner), eliciting tears
of laughter and involuntarily sounds. The pranks of a circus clown can evoke sympathy or act out aggressions;
a bizarre anecdote told at a social gathering may foster intimacy or help to overcome embarrassing situations,
but it could also stimulate feelings of shame. The impact and the functions of comedy are rarely clear-cut. While
subtle irony can formulate subliminal criticism, qualify positions or reverse perspectives, crude and vulgar
humour sometimes satisfies a desire that is socially or politically taboo. The varied effects also emerge from the
comic forms and media that are employed. Therefore, it is important to also examine the differences between
real-life occasions for laughter, which may arise coincidentally, and the countless aesthetic possibilities comic
performances enact.

It is also worthwhile to consider the periphery: those instances in which comedy feels cringy or unpleasantly
uncanny; the situations in which it not only stages failures but actually fails itself, leading to awkward silence.
Whether deliberate or accidental, comic phenomena evoke an array of effects and affects, which prompt vigilant
monitoring by societal, legal or aesthetic discourses. In addition to thematic aspects, comic techniques become
highly significant here, such as satirical distortions, grotesque amalgamations, understatements and
amplifications; serial or contrastive arrangements, diversionary tactics and tipping points; mechanical bodies,
pain, both staged and genuine, and occasionally astonishing acrobatics. Firmly established aesthetic, artistic and
media practices of comedy even have the potential to elicit laughter when they are deliberately subverted,
undercut or rejected – after all, “comedy is always a pleasure-spectacle of form’s self-violation” (L. Berlant/S.
Ngai). That said, the different techniques of comic representation remain intricately intertwined with the
cultural knowledge of their era, shaped by it both in their inception and subsequent modulations. At the same
time, it is crucial to acknowledge the importance of feedback: comic techniques can influence societies as
profoundly as the themes, behaviours or situations that generate comedy and are analysed by it.

We are seeking research projects from the humanities and the social sciences for an upcoming DFG network
that recognises comedy as a distinct cultural practice. Taking historical change and differences in media into
account, the network aims to explore comic forms, configurations and strategies, their effects and functions as
well as their extremes, limitations and blind spots. We aim to establish a transdisciplinary framework for
scholars working on cultural studies projects that prioritize the historical and cultural specificity of comic events,
rather than pursuing universal theories of comedy. A wide range of research subjects, aesthetic interests,
methodological and theoretical concerns as well as epochs from antiquity to the present are welcome.

The fundamental goal of the network is

  • to establish comedy, often neglected in many disciplines, as a structurally complex, aesthetically rich and socially relevant object of research,
  • to uncover the unique potential of comedy, its diverse forms, practices and epistemic contexts as valuable tools for cultural analysis,
  • to critically examine, refine and expand both recognised approaches and current avenues of research through transdisciplinary scholarship, so as to develop new cultural studies approaches to comedy.

The network can accommodate a maximum of 20 members, including researchers from outside Germany. It
will commence its work for a period of up to three years upon securing funding. Working languages are German
and English. If third-party funding gets approved, the network will cover the costs of travel and
accommodation for members attending future network events.

The network’s kick-off event is scheduled to take place on 24 and 25 November 2023 at the Institute for
Advanced Study in the Humanities (KWI) in Essen. Following brief presentations of the projects (5-10min),
our attention will turn towards envisioning network events and research topics, collaboratively establishing the
foundation for the DFG application. In the absence of funding, we can provide support for the inaugural event.

Interested parties are invited to submit a short project outline of approx. 1500 characters and a biographical
that may include previous publications in the field. Please send both documents, preferably bundled into
one single PDF, to by 15 August 2023.