Laughter and Socialism

posted by Katalin Teller on 2008/12/04 19:53

[ Call for Papers ]

One of the most interesting recent announcements, at least for me, is the call for papers launched by the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Princeton University. The organizers intend to discuss the Totalitarian Laughter: Cultures of the Comic under Socialism. The conference will take place May 8-9, 2009, deadline for submissions is February 10, 2009.

Throughout its history, socialist mass culture actively relied on satire, humor, and comedy to foster emotional bonds with its audience. Orchestrated by the state cultural industry, public laughter released social and political tension, while leaving intact or buttressing mechanisms of repression and institutions of power. In turn, late Soviet irony or the aesthetic of grotesque, developed from below, became instrumental in solidifying a cultural distance from the values promoted by the socialist state. Varied in their impact and scope, these cultures of the comic nonetheless constantly pointed to the irrationality and ludicrousness of the socialist way of life.

Whether officially approved or censored, totalitarian laughter relativized existing practices and norms, suggesting different models of understanding and embodying really existing socialism. Regardless of their content, these jokes of repression shared the same quality: they were made, not found. It is precisely this active production of totalitarian laughter from above and from below that this conference aims to explore. How did state socialism transform traditional genres and categories of the comic? How crucial was state censorship in producing (or suppressing) totalitarian laughter?  Through what forms of displacement and condensation did official and non-official cultures achieve their comic effect? How did these practices of the comic correspond and interact with each other? What kinds of communities were formed in the process of producing jokes of repression? What were the mechanisms and paths of circulation through which laughable versions of socialism became available to larger audiences? Finally, what kinds of pleasure did totalitarian laughter promise, if not deliver?

We seek to address these questions by bringing together an interdisciplinary group of scholars interested in reconstructing the peculiar relationship between repression and laughter under state socialism. We invite papers that explore forms of socialist grotesque in the Soviet Union and Central and Eastern Europe in such diverse fields as politics, history, literature, arts, music, theater, television, and film, among others.

Please send an abstract (300 words) of the paper you would like to present at this conference, along with your CV, to

We may be able to offer a limited number of travel subsidies for foreign presenters.

Those selected to give presentations at the conference will be contacted at the end of February 2009. Final papers will be due no later than April 20, and they will be posted on the conference’s website.

Program committee: Serguei Oushakine (Princeton), Petre Petrov (Princeton), Seth Graham (UCL), Kevin M.F. Platt (Penn), Nancy Ries (Colgate).


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