Mock the Weak ECR Workshop notes and advice

Resources and Advice

This document was developed at a Postgraduate and Early Career Publishing Workshop run by Rosie White and Megan Sormus (Northumbria University), 13th September 2016, in the run-up to Mock the Weak: Comedy and the Politics of Representation (Teesside University, 14th-15th September, 2016)

 

Online Resources:

There are numerous online advice guides regarding how to get published in academic journals and edited collections etc – these are a few we thought were useful and to the point:

https://www.theguardian.com/education/2015/jan/03/how-to-get-published-in-an-academic-journal-top-tips-from-editors

http://www.jobs.ac.uk/careers-advice/working-in-higher-education/640/getting-your-academic-work-published/

http://www.inquiriesjournal.com/blog/posts/51/5-tips-for-publishing-your-first-academic-article/

  • There are mailing lists which cover most disciplines and these are a great source of information; the posts will give you a sense of what people are working on, what conferences are coming up and where you might pitch your work.
  • Giving a paper at a conference is usually the first stage in getting your work published – either in a dedicated collection or journal issue related to that event or by making contacts with editors and fellow academics.
  • The MeCCSA mailing list covers most areas of media and communications studies, and has a lively and informative Postgraduate Network
  • The Standing Conference of University Drama Departments has a useful mailing list and postgraduate network for anyone working on performance: http://www.scudd.org.uk/
  • There are also (of course) social media groups – but be warned, these often feature horror stories that may not be useful.

 

And some advice:

  • Don’t take rejections personally
  • Ask for feedback…
  • And send it somewhere else!
  • Talk to colleagues and peers about your work and experiences
  • Think about what is right for you and what you are comfortable with.
  • Don’t be afraid to approach a journal and submit work without an invitation!
  • Do talk to editors – via email or at conferences etc.

Interview with Anshuman Mondal

 

  • You work as a Professor of English Literature, and your research focuses (I believe) particularly on the representation of Muslims. Can you tell us a little more about your interest and work on this subject?

There are several intersecting dimensions to how this came about. One, I began seriously working on contemporary representation of Muslims back in 2009, when I was given some study leave to pursue a project on the rhetoric of multiculturalism’s ‘failure’, and I felt that it was necessary to trace this rhetoric back to what I thought was its first point of departure: the controversy over The Satanic Verses. It was supposed to be just one chapter of that work, but it just grew and grew until I found myself focussing almost entirely on this issue of free speech, and Muslim reactions to what they perceive to be grossly provocative (ab)uses of free speech. Muslims, of course, happen to be quite prominent in questions surrounding the limits of free speech, but they are not the only ones. Gradually, the whole question of free speech and what it means for a multicultural society began to absorb me until it became my principal research area, and this work was eventually published as a book in 2014 called Islam and Controversy: The Politics of Free Speech after Rushdie (Palgrave).

Second, I have had a long-standing interest in Islam in modernity dating back to my doctoral thesis, which looked at the development of anti-colonial nationalist discourses in the Near East and South Asia in the first half of the twentieth century, specifically India and Egypt. It quickly became apparent that the question of secularism was particularly tense and fraught in these nationalist discourses and though I was just as interested in the emergence of Hindu nationalism during this period Islam also became entwined in nationalism in these countries, and what in India is known as ‘communalism’ became a major preoccupation for these nationalists. In India, of course, there was Partition and the formation of Pakistan as a consequence of all this; in Egypt, there was the emergence and rise of modern Islamism (the Muslim Brotherhood began in 1928 in Egypt), what was once (and still is in some circles) called Islamic fundamentalism (I’m not very happy with that term for all sorts of reasons and prefer the more precise ‘Islamism’ – but that’s a whole other story).

As a result of this interest in the emergence and development of modernist ideas within Islam (reformist as well as Islamist and lots of shades in between), I began to be invited to speak about these topics in the media and for national current affairs magazines like Prospect and this led to an invitation by Greenwood Press to write a book about young Muslims in Britain. I initially declined but then a conversation with one of my Muslim students (an excellent student who graduated with a first but also happened to wear a jilbab, a garment that covers the whole body except for hands and face) and I realised that although I knew a great deal about some dead male Muslims from the early twentieth century, I knew virtually nothing about the lives and experiences of young Muslims in contemporary Britain – apart from how they were represented in the news media, and within mainstream culture. In travelling around the country researching what would eventually become Young British Muslim Voices, I realised just how large the divergence was between how these young men and women represented themselves and how they are represented in the media. So naturally, as a literary critic, those other (and othering) representations grabbed my interest.

  • Where it has become increasingly unacceptable to exclude or mock women, homosexuals, and ethnic minorities on the basis of their group identities, religious (particularly Muslim) identity is still often seen as a legitimate target of attack. Why do you think this is the case? And (why) is it problematic?

I think there are two things here. First, within liberalism – which is the discourse within which the modern western notion of freedom of expression develops and within which it has been most refined – there was, from the outset, a self-image of liberals as fighting against an over-mighty state and the arbitrary power of absolute monarchs. At the time, these states were heavily entwined with established churches and so religion was part of the ensemble of ‘power’ against which liberalism defined itself. I think this perception has continued to inform society even though formal, institutionalized religions have declined sharply in western Europe. On the other hand, the ‘soft’ power of religion has been mobilized very effectively by a number of political and civil society groups and thus religion appears still to be a very powerful force in society, and this is grist to the mill for those who see the value of free speech lying in the ability to speak ‘truth to power’: mockery of the powerful is a very strong moral card to play, and thus whilst many groups who have been historically disadvantaged have successfully mobilized against offensive or mocking representations and put these ‘off limits’ religious groups are not seen as being disadvantaged because of the persistence of the association of religion per se with powerful and dominant interests – even if, on many grounds, some religious groups are in fact among the most disadvantaged in society. And, indeed, it is possible to argue that their disadvantage is not due to their religion but some other factor, such as race, ethnicity or class for example.

This links to the second point: the relation of religious identity to other forms of identity. It is notable that the groups who have been most successful in ruling out mockery of their identities have been those who mobilize on the basis of what has been termed ‘involuntary’ identities. Involuntary identities are those that are deemed to be ‘inherent’ or ‘intrinsic’ to personhood, such as gender, sexuality or race. There is an ideology of ‘nature’ at work here that queer theorists and radical feminists as well as anti-racists have contested and challenged over the years, but in the dichotomy between ‘voluntary’ and ‘involuntary’ identities that underwrites this kind of discourse, the idea that some identities are ‘natural’ persists with a great deal of ‘common-sense’ stubbornness. Religion, of course, is seen as a ‘voluntary’ identity insofar as it is deemed to be a matter of ‘belief’, which is how British law – in the form of the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 – defines ‘religion’ and so this has been given the imprimatur of legal classification. If it is a matter of belief, and if it is possible to change your beliefs – as conversion, for example, demonstrates – then religious identity is freely chosen rather than something that is just a part of one’s personhood whether one likes it or not. Religious identity is rationally ‘professed’ as opposed to ‘confessed’ (in which it is difficult to give a rational account of why one believes the things one does). If this is the case, then religion unlike race, or gender or sexuality must be subject to criticism in the ‘marketplace of ideas’ (one of the key tropes in liberal free speech discourse) because it is in the business of ‘truth’ and if this is the case, then it should be tested in the marketplace, which is the mechanism by which false ideas are ‘weeded out’. And in particularly robust liberal theories of free speech (especially the contemporary no-holds barred version that emerged after the Rushdie affair, which I have called ‘absolutist’) criticism must, of course encompass ridicule, mockery and offensiveness.

However, scholars such as Talal Asad and Timothy Fitzgerald have critiqued this idea that religion is simply a matter of belief, and I concur. On the one hand, I think that religious beliefs, even if they have a rational element to them, are very difficult to account for rationally – and if you ask most religious believers I think they would be hard-pressed to give such an account. In response to the question ‘why are you a Muslim?’ or ‘why are you a Christian?’ most will falter in their attempt to give what you might call a ‘theological’ response and instead fall back on metaphors of genealogy (‘because my family is Muslim’, or ‘because that is how I was brought up’) or simply assert that they feel their religious identity is right for them. This aligns us with aspects of identity like ‘ethnicity’ and other involuntary identities (‘ethnicity’ is a really interesting liminal case, in fact, because it is so open-ended; it can be both ‘naturalized’ in such a way that it becomes a synonym of ‘race’ or it can be ‘culturalized’ in such a way that it then raises the question of whether ethnicity is ‘performative’ – and if it is, then it is surely not an involuntary identity in the sense outlined above).

Conversely, if theorists like Butler, Sedgwick, Bhabha and others are correct and all identities are ‘performative’ then the distinction between voluntary and involuntary identities collapses. Modern critical and cultural theory contests Freud’s dictum that ‘biology is destiny’ but contemporary understandings of who does and does not deserve to be mocked or offended still rests on residues of older, essentilizing modes of thought that certain identities are ‘natural’ whilst others are not.

  • Your most recent book, Islam and Controversy, is about the liberal defence of freedom of speech and its critiques. Is it possible to summarise in a few words the problems that you perceive with this absolutist defence of the freedom of speech?

Not really, but I’ll give it a try. Basically, what I call ‘absolutist’ free speech advocacy is a contemporary discursive formation that emerged in the wake of The Satanic Verses controversy. It effectively argues that there should be few if any restrictions on freedom of expression and those that remain should only be there to contain direct incitement to imminent physical harm (it is very important to stress the word ‘physical’ here; most absolutists are implacably against the idea that speech and discourse can cause psychological or emotional harm, and even if they do sometimes concede that such harms may result they rule them out as immaterial when set against the value of freedom of expression – they are very Cartesian like that).

When you examine this discourse, you find that it consists of the extremely skilful rhetorical interweaving of various different strands of liberal theorizing on the nature and value of free speech. In a nutshell, they entwine the ‘consequentialist’ arguments put forward by philosophers such as John Stuart Mill with the ‘anti-consequentialist’ arguments of people like John Rawls. For consequentialists like Mill, freedom of speech has value because it leads to good consequences, and absolutists hold strongly to the idea that free speech gives rise to valuable and worthy effects, but the problem with consequentialism is that it opens the door to limits on free speech if, for example, these consequences are threatened or undermined by certain forms of speech. This is a door that absolutists would like to close quite firmly, so they also argue that free speech is good not because it leads to good consequences but rather because it is a valuable thing in and of itself regardless of the consequences.

These two positions are clearly not resolvable – largely because anti-consequentialism was developed precisely in order to address weaknesses in Mill’s consequentialist arguments; on the other hand, anti-consequentialism’s main weakness is that it slips some forms of consequentialism ever so quietly back in through the back door while pretending it is doing no such thing. But contemporary absolutists – who by and large are not philosophers but artists, public intellectuals, journalists and professional provocateurs – have weaved these contradictory positions into a rhetorical tapestry that has enabled them to suggest that freedom of speech is not just a very important freedom (which it is) but the very foundation of all freedom, which is both legally and conceptually nonsense. This is why legally speaking freedom of speech and religion are known as ‘qualified’ as opposed to inalienable human rights. But the idea that freedom of speech is the fundamental freedom is very useful politically.

  • What curbs on the freedom of expression would you like to see? And who do you think they should be exercised by?

 This is a difficult and very sensitive question and requires very careful consideration. First, I am not very keen on the idea that it can be settled ‘in principle’ or by some conceptual or theoretical formula – there can’t be a ‘one size fits all’ answer to this because, as the various human rights conventions and charters acknowledge, the reason free speech is a qualified right is because the limits of speech can only be determined in relation to the context in which it is being considered. The principal context is the social context – different societies have different limits because ‘freedom’ is not just an abstract concept but a lived reality that emerges out of the political struggles to define and re-define it within a given social context. Therefore, I think we need to consider this question very differently in contexts like, for example, contemporary Bangladesh which warrants a very robust defence of freedom of speech as opposed to, say, western liberal democracies with their constitutional safeguards and strong legal precedents that protect freedom of expression. In the latter context, we can begin to enquire and probe the question of limits with greater nuance and sophistication precisely because the surrounding framework is relatively robust. As I have already said, freedom of expression is a very important freedom but precisely because of this it is equally important not to lose sight of why it is important and to consistently keep that in mind – ironically, given they almost revere Mill, contemporary absolutists, as my name for them indicates, have settled into the ‘dead habit’ of re-heating arguments developed in a different historical and social milieu as though they are willy-nilly applicable in all contexts. One of the main presuppositions of my book is that contemporary multicultural societies have so thoroughly changed the social contexts of western liberal democracies that we need to re-examine how and why it should still have purchase for us today.

Related to this, I would like to make it clear that I am not in favour of reducing the awesome complexity of these questions to whether one is ‘for’ or ‘against’ free speech, as if by opening free speech up to critical scrutiny one therefore should be aligned with censorship. Part of what interests me about free speech controversies is the way they provide a kind of live tableaux of underlying political struggles that periodically emerge to the surface, precipitated by such events. My plea is to see struggles over free speech as being so much more than campaigns against free speech. What interests me is not so much the legal limit but rather the way in which the ‘politics of free speech’ plays itself out in controversies in the visible effort to define and re-define the moral limits of what is or is not acceptable. Feminists, anti-racists, gay rights activists and now disability-rights campaigners have long waged campaigns – very successfully in some cases – to redefine the limits of free speech with respect to race, gender, sexuality and now transgender activists are doing so too. As I have said in relation to your previous question, religious campaigners have had less success for reasons specific to the way in which religious identity is conceived. Against them are opponents who want to define freedom in other ways. The struggle between these groups and the outcomes that emerge (nearly always provisional) are what shape freedom in general and freedom of speech in particular. Freedom is liquid, always on the move, always mobilized as is power – and that, too, is a binary that needs deconstructing because freedom is not ‘other’ to power and vice-versa, but rather both are imbricated within each other in complex and very mobile ways. As a scholar observing these struggles I can say that everyone who is participating in these struggles (and, at a certain level, we are talking about everyone) is ‘exercizing’ a limit on freedom because the ‘exercize’ that I am interested in here is not a legal concept but a moral one.

As you can probably gather, I am not a great fan of legalism and that is not my principal concern. However, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with legal limits on free speech if these limits reflect a democratic consensus on the moral unacceptability of certain kinds of discourse. I understand, of course, that such consensus can reflect dominant and more powerful interests over those of less powerful groups and minorities – I am not trying to idealize this, this too is political, and the concept of ‘hegemony’ that can be at play within ‘consensus’ seriously undermines one of the key conceptual underpinnings of liberal free speech theory, namely the idea that an autonomous and sovereign individual is ‘freely’ expressing ideas and opinions as if they were the sola author and origin of them – but it is generally true that more democratic societies reflect the politics of free speech ‘at play’ within their civil societies in their respective legal systems and therefore their legal restrictions, which will be more considered, more circumspect, less arbitrary and less capricious than in less democratic societies. This returns us to the point about context I began with: as a person or citizen as opposed to a scholar, I would hope that certain outcomes prevail over others (that being my politics) and if, through the process such outcomes wind their way through the political and legal institutions of society through a robust process of democratic deliberation and eventually onto the statute book, then I don’t see that as a diminution of liberty. Rather, it is the outcome of democratic politics isn’t it? In relatively free societies, unpopular and unjust laws rarely escape scrutiny and nearly always incite further struggle. Freedom is not a zero-sum game because it is not a quantum; it is, as I said, liquid and mobile and it is rarely, if ever, settled – and we need to break the habit of such abstract thinking when discussing these matters.

  • You link together the ethics of representation and the ethics of reading when it comes to the subject of giving/taking offence. Can you say a little more about this?

This is about contesting what you could call the ‘artefactualization’ or ‘reification’ of speech and discourse that has become so very prevalent as a habit of thought in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. This habit of thought is embedded in, on the one hand, contemporary First Amendment jurisprudence which largely proceeds on the basis of what Stanley Fish calls ‘categorical analysis’. The first question asked in such jurisprudence is ‘Is it speech?’ and if it is then ipso facto it is protected by the First Amendment regardless of any consequences (historically speaking, this is very specific to a particular development in US constitutional jurisprudence). Effectively, this dis-embeds any particular discourse from its context by abstracting it (categorical analysis proceeds on the basis of asking typological or taxonomic questions). In broader liberal free speech advocacy and theory we find an almost total focus on the ‘fact’ of speech – not even ‘what’ is said, but rather that ‘something’ has been expressed, regardless of ‘what’ its content is. Aside from direct incitement to imminent physical harm, which is the only exception permitted to this rule, the content of the speech is largely immaterial. Just as in the First Amendment jurisprudence I have just mentioned (to which it is clearly related insofar as they have a dialectical relationship to each other: each has made possible and legitimizes the other) there is a form-content split at work: as long as ‘expression’ takes the form of speech and discourse (as opposed to, say, ‘action’ such as wielding a knife or shooting a gun) then that is enough – it must be protected as a ‘right’.

Interestingly, this has certain parallels with developments in modern philosophy and literary theory that emerged at about roughly the same time. These developments – encompassing ‘New Criticism’, ‘structuralism’, through to post-structuralism – all bracketed off anything outside the ‘text’ – such as the ‘author’, history, society – and focussed purely on an individual’s relationship to the ‘text’. One can see the parallels and continuities between this kind of formalism – which has a largely radical pedigree – and the liberalism against which such movements usually defined themselves, and out of such overlaps of opposing positions develops, usually, the kind of consensus we see at work in contemporary western understandings of free speech, which spans the left and right as well as the centre of politics.

In contrast, it became apparent to me that one simply could not approach free speech controversies in these ways. These events reveal that language, speech and discourse cannot be divorced from social, historical and political circumstances; that ‘who’ is speaking and to ‘whom’ they are addressing their speech – as well as the properties of their speech (both in terms of form and content) – are all relevant to the ways in which these controversies play out and, more important, to how we should assess the moral validity of the various positions staked out by the protagonists, both those deemed to have ‘given’ offence and those who ‘take’ it. That is, not only is there no form-content distinction, there is also no ‘speech-action’ distinction either. ‘Speech’ is a form of action insofar as all writing, all discourse, all forms of expression are forms of communication, which presupposes that they are therefore ‘social’ (as opposed to individual) acts.

Whatever else it might be, communication is a social performance, always related to an ‘other’. If this is so, there is no way of keeping questions of authorial responsibility at bay, which is something that rubs against the liberal position that all responsibility for the effects of speech lie with those who ‘receive’ it such that how readers respond is disconnected (via the initial disconnection of the ‘text’ itself) from the very person or persons who addressed them. This is why the ethics of how you respond to a form of discourse is invariably tied to the ethics of the person doing the representing, as embodied in the ‘representation’/text – there is an inevitable and unbreakable relation between the two forms of action.

Of course, when it comes to sophisticated and highly complex forms of speech-act (such as those designated ‘literature’ or ‘satire’) one of the valuable insights of the formalist method was to despatch the ‘intentional fallacy’ and therefore one has to try and come up with some way of reckoning with the ‘textuality’ of the discourse in question without bracketing off the author on the one hand (as is the case with modern formalism), or the reader on the other (which is the basis of Roland Barthes’ famous complaint about older forms of literary criticism in his famous ‘Death of the Author’; simply trying to decipher what it was the author ‘meant’ to say reduces the reader to a mere cipher, a vessel into which (hopefully) the ‘true’ meaning of the text will pass). Keeping the inter-relationships between author, text and reader in play and to account for this theoretically is what I have tried to do in Islam and Controversy.

Bringing back the question of the ‘morality’ of literature without lapsing into moralism is another key challenge. As I said in one of my earlier responses, I am more interested in the ethics at play in the politics of free speech, and not so much in the question of legal restrictions and limits. Of course, these interact and intersect, but in the context of western liberal democracies with strong juridical and political institutions protecting freedom of expression, how the limits of freedom of expression are shaped on the ground, as it were, within the limits of the legal so that the ‘sayable’ becomes normalized as ‘unsayable’ (as has happened to greater or lesser degree, for instance, with racist, sexist, homophobic speech) or the ‘unsayable’ becomes ‘sayable’ (as is happening now, in the backlash against ‘political correctness’) involves an understanding of how political struggles between social groups makes certain kinds of expression morally (un)acceptable. It seems to me you simply cannot ask these sorts of questions if you a) adopt a formalist position that brackets off everything outside the ‘text’; and b) adopt the view that ‘what’ is said as well as ‘how’ it is said is immaterial to the moral, political, and social value of any given speech-act.

  • In your discussion of satire, you pay particular attention to power relationships in giving moral (il)legitimacy to the satirist. As well as an ethics of representation, then, it suggests that the positionality of the satirist is important, too. How does this play out in recent works of satire, such as Four Lions, in which the writer/director is not a Muslim? (I recognise that a certain brand of terrorism is the proper subject of satire in that film, but it perhaps runs the risk of being interpreted as a satire of Islam more broadly, or of young British Muslim men.)

If you begin with the idea, which I have just spoken about, that there is always an indissoluble relationship between a speaking subject and an interlocutor to whom their speech is addressed, then in evaluating the moral and political value of this speech you have to consider the position of the speaker in relation to the addressee. What is the power-relation between them in the context of the speech situation? Is the speaker more powerful than the object of their speech? This matters because one of the very powerful things about satire is that it endows a certain licence to the satirist to engage in mockery, abuse and insult. In our relatively egalitarian times, what gives it moral legitimacy, therefore, is the extent to which such licence is wielded against the powerful rather than the powerless. Many contemporary writers, artists and intellectuals in fact think that satire inherently mocks the powerful, but this is not the case and the idea that it does is itself a very recent one. As always, satiric discourse is, like all forms of discourse, a tool that is deployed in the service of a certain kind of social performance. And yes, this performance always runs a very considerable risk of being misconstrued and misunderstood, but that is true of all forms of communication, all kinds of discourse. And, like language more generally, it can be used in destructive and hostile as well as constructive and friendly ways. And just as inter-cultural communication in general is subject to great risks of miscommunication, or can be deployed to attack the ‘other’ rather than build bridges with them, so too do satires that tackle culturally ‘other’ practices and people run a very great risk either of missing their satiric target – especially when the target needs to be as precisely and sharply defined as radical Islamist terrorism – or colluding (if not intentionally participating) in their othering and exclusion.

One of the very admirable things about Four Lions is that it is prepared to take that risk, but it also acknowledges it and goes about its business with a forensic care and attention to nuances and details that, in my interpretation, allow it to hit its satiric target (Islamist terrorism) without the kind of ‘collateral damage’ that would result if it were less sensitive to the distinctions that need to be drawn between these particular kinds of Muslim and others, these particular interpretations of Islam and others. Other so-called satirical treatments of Muslims and Islam have not, in my view, been so careful to attack with such precise and proper finesse.

  • What will you be working on next?

I have become very interested in the paradoxes of liberal free speech theory, especially with regards to Mill’s classic work On Liberty, which I am currently writing a couple of essays about. One of these looks at something that is both central and yet curiously marginalized in that body of work, namely ‘listening’: with my collaborator, Tanja Dreher at the University of Wollongong, I will be editing a volume of essays on the ethics and politics of listening and reading ‘across’ difference, on intercultural responsiveness as it were. Another aspect to my current critical engagement with liberalism is in the intersection of liberal free speech theory with another of liberalism’s key tropes, tolerance, and the ways in which the governmentality of tolerance (to use Wendy Brown’s phrase) is being constructed today in the context of multicultural ‘failure’ and the ‘war on terror’ around the paradox of no longer tolerating intolerance, as then Prime Minister David Cameron put it. Finally, I hope to acquire some funding for a follow-up to Young British Muslims a decade on in very different, even more charged and fraught circumstances.

Interview with Lynne Parker

1) First off, could you tell us a little bit about your work in/with comedy?

I set up Funny Women in 2002 to address the gender imbalance in comedy, then launched the Funny Women Awards, which is now recognised as leading comp for women, in 2003.  I started running workplace programmes 7 years ago and now run events and programmes for companies like JLL, MasterCard, Investec, Virgin and Lloyds of London.

2)  What do you hope to achieve through Funny Women?

We hope to showcase new female comedy talent that might otherwise be overlooked, and to give women the confidence to ‘Stand Up to Stand Out’ in the workplace and have a voice.

3) How do you think that comedy can be useful for challenging stereotypes and redrawing hierarchies?

Comedy gives us our unique voice – it’s uncensored and impactful.  People remember if you say something funny, so it’s a major skill for anybody wishing to communicate.  What better way to challenge stereotypes and redraw hierarchies?  I’ve just produced Ayesha Hazarika’s ‘Tales from the Pink Bus’ at the Edinburgh Fringe and she achieved more exposure and publicity for her three-night run than many of the acts who were there for three weeks. The show challenged the political hierarchy and showed it up in all its pain and glory!

4)   Why do you think that comedy can be useful for opening up controversial topics to debate?

As above.  Politics exists alongside satire.

5)   Are there particular forms or styles of comedy that you find more helpful (or radical) than others?

I love satire, but I also love very surreal comedy like The Goon Show and Mighty Boosh.  One challenges you intellectually, while the other taps into your inner child. That sounds horribly pretentious but you get what I mean!

6)   What projects have you particularly enjoyed working on (and why)?

So many.  I am passionate about the Funny Women Awards and it never ceases to surprise me year on year with the amazing women who take part across all of our categories.  I love to run workshops for women who I know are desperate to try stand up but have never given themselves permission to try. When the breakthrough comes, the feeling of achievement is immense for both tutor and student.

7)   Which comedians or shows should we be keeping a particular eye on?

All of our 2016 Awards finalists, of course!  Heidi Regan who has just won ‘So You Think You’re Funny’ and then some really fun stuff like The Travelling Sisters, Anna Morris and Jayde Adams (2014 Funny Women Awards winner).

8)   Can you tell us anything about any upcoming projects that we should look out for?

I’m excited that my study with Oxford University into the personality traits of female comedians is underway.  I am also writing a book about ‘How to be a Funny Woman’ which is a personal exploration of how women can use humour to build their confidence, improve communications and develop a persona for business or pleasure.  I’ve got miles of material and will be featuring some of my favourite funny women in the book, not necessarily comedians.

 

Interview with Matthew Greenhough

1) First off, can you tell us a little bit about your theatre company – Wound Up Theatre?

Wound Up Theatre is a small comedic theatre company, run by two very conflicted Northerners based in London. We consist of me, who is the creative director but also a writer and performer, and my partner Abee McCallum, who is a writer and producer. We are the constants but we also have a group of associates and comedians. Since 2013, Wound Up has been our platform for socially aware, political comedic theatre, which facilitates discussion while challenging contemporary issues in a comedic and accessible way.

The company formed in 2013 while I was still in University. The sole aim at the time was to create a piece of comedic theatre for the fringe. The result of that ambition was our first production: Delusions Of Adequacy. From the off, we were trying to adopt an approach that set the work apart in the highly saturated comedic world of Edinburgh: we billed Delusions as “A Unique Stage Comedy: Part Theatre, Part Sitcom, Part Stand-Up, Part Greek Tragedy”.  The play followed the struggles of a young Northern man struggling on benefits, and was written as a reaction to the high levels of youth unemployment at the time. After previews in Newcastle, the show enjoyed a sell-out run as part of the PBH free fringe and received very kind, almost overwhelmingly positive feedback from audiences. It was also the success of that show which moved the company down to London.

Once based in London, both myself and Abee were invited to join the Soho Young Writers Company, and it is at the Soho that I wrote and developed the early versions of the company’s second production: Bismillah! An ISIS Tragicomedy. The piece, like our first, explored the politicised nature of youth for people in modern Britain. This time, we examined the nature of radicalisation and disenfranchisement in society, and it seemed the perfect successor to Delusions.  On its outing at the fringe the show received 4 and 5 stars during its run and was listed for the Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award. Again, we were overwhelmed by the response, which this time included many international organisations, including the Guardian, where it was described by Mark Lawson as “Bold and thought provoking”, and the BBC, where we were publicly endorsed by Nihal Arthanayake on the Asian Network. We also received a variety of very kind reviews, but as a company we were perhaps most flattered by a quote in the List: “Powerful, hilarious and gripping… Bismillah! is a daring testament to what a small company can achieve with a bit of talent, intelligence and heart.”

2) What is your company’s artistic aim? At the forthcoming conference, we are particularly interested in the politics of representation in relation to comedy – how does your company think about questions of representation (of British Muslims, for example)?

As a company we try to create new and unexpected pieces of comedic new writing and live performance that use comedy to explore current social and political issues, particularly those affecting young people. We want to make audiences laugh, and in doing so, also provoke discussion and provide a fresh perspective on difficult subjects. This is something we feel is not being provided in the same way by other mediums and theatre companies.

When creating work, we don’t have a particular embedded approach to ideas of representation. This is purely because we try to approach every production completely unburdened by external ideas in order to develop the most effective creative position for each specific project, and fear that holding on to any external factor could be creatively restrictive. With our last two shows though, with hindsight, I think our approach to representation was really informed by the dogmatic black and white portrayals of people from vulnerable groups in the mainstream media, and our work has acted as a rebuttal to those portrayals. The media, print press in particular, often represent groups in a very reductive and simplistic way, which fits the narrative and enforces the perspective that suits their ideology. These are often gross generalisations and stereotypes, which I think reductive. What we have tried to do in response to this, is to represent the reality, explore the nuance that they neglect to instil their ideas. We therefore try, I think, to explore the grey areas and find a truth, which is what all good comedy and theatre does.

Using Bismillah! as an example – there have been a large number of young British Muslims defecting to IS, a tiny percentage proportionally, but a large number, which has gained a lot of media attention. This is terrible, and the decision to defect morally indefensible, but the way the young people who do go and fight for the Islamic State are represented in the media is as if they are alien monsters. No attention is given to the circumstance in this country that leads young people to think that risking their lives for a death cult is a good idea. It tends to be framed as if the blame lays entirely on their religion, which is exceedingly damaging. What we sought to do then was to explore the realities of life for young people from a persecuted religious minority and present their circumstances truthfully, to open up a discussion about what might be the real problems that lead to radicalisation and disenfranchisement. The play openly condemns the monstrous acts committed by some of these young people who defect – our character, while having defected, has not committed any crimes beyond adopting a reprehensible extremist ideology, an ideology that is partly deconstructed and mocked in the play. Effectively, we wanted to present a character that explored what turns normal young men into killers for a cause that is not theirs. This, by its nature, throws up a lot of contradictions and unexpected realities, and it is from here that we find the comedy.

3) Can you tell us a little about last year’s Edinburgh Fringe hit, Bismillah: An ISIS Tragicomedy, and how you went about researching it?

Bismillah! was last year’s Edinburgh show and was easily Wound Up’s biggest success to date; it is something we’re very proud of. The show told the story of a young British Muslim, “Danny,” from London, who having defected to join IS in Syria finds himself in Northern Iraq guarding a young British Soldier, Dean, who is from Leeds. During their time together they explore their realities back in Britain and how they found themselves fighting for their respective armies. Through their dialogue, we explore the impact of social alienation and disenfranchisement of youth in contemporary Britain, and leave the audience to ponder the impact of those circumstances on the characters’ lives and choices. The show was listed for the Amnesty International freedom of expression award, endorsed by The Guardian and Nihal Arthanayake on the BBC Asian Network, featured in a number of international publications, and received very lovely glowing reviews from critics.

Admittedly it was creatively a bold choice for us as a company, primarily made up of two white northern people – raised Christian and now agnostic, to try and represent the experiences of a young, disenfranchised British Muslim man, let alone one who had been indoctrinated into a warped extremist Islamist ideology. Rather outside the realm of our personal experiences. Why we felt the confidence to do this, however, was that the play was not trying to represent Danny as defined by his faith, but by his humanity, which we all share. His reality, as we saw it, was simply that of an angry young person who felt left out and enraged by society. This is something that many young people, including myself, can relate to. Using this as a base I was able to see through the hysteria in the media and create a character I could understand and who was real to me. In order to add authenticity to the character, I researched into the backgrounds of young British men fighting for IS overseas.  Interestingly, what I found was that far from being radical Islamists in the past, most had been moderate or even non-practising Muslims, and were either often highly educated or conversely had been involved in street gangs. Many had been bullied and/or been the subject of racist abuse, all of which informed the character. I also heavily researched means of radicalisation, even looking at material developed by IS recruit in order to understand the nature of the character’s warped ideology. Much of this fed off the insecurities all young men feel, which further informed the character and his fictional experiences. With regards to representing elements of his faith, we were keen to separate the extremist ideology of ISIS with the beliefs of Islam, so we researched Wahhabism and its relationship with traditional progressive Muslim beliefs to make sure we presented the wider Islamic community’s beliefs respectfully and condemned the Islamist perversions of the faith.

4) Why do you think comedy is useful for opening up conversations around controversial topics such as extremism in its many guises?

Because it makes accessible something which otherwise might be seen as an impenetrable and intimidating subject. It is often discussed as to whether there is a limit to what comedy can joke about, and I think the beauty of comedy is that there is not, and that if it is handled thoughtfully and intelligently then humour can be the perfect way of making difficult subjects palatable to people, and to open up discourse on a subject that may otherwise not have taken place.

This is why I wrote Bismillah! Admittedly, talking about extremism is not an obvious catalyst for comedy. We never sought to get laughs from the tragedy and always wanted to be respectful, so we were always sensitive to the realities of the setting. At no point did we want to discuss comedically the horrors being committed in the Middle East or get laughs at the expense of any vulnerable people. What we wanted to explore were the realities for the characters, the juxtaposition between their lives growing up and where they find themselves in the play. We therefore draw humour from British life, and its impact in this context. This was comedically rich, as we were able to explore the area between their backgrounds and experiences as they now find themselves in this completely alien circumstance. By using comedy to point out this reality, we were trying to open up a dialogue for the audience without them even realising. The contrast also helped to inform the tragic narrative as it demonstrated the characters’ desire to return to their former lives. We were never laughing at them in a cruel way, I hoped, but with and for them. With Bismillah! I felt comedy was the best means of opening up the conversation about extremism, as it served to point out the ridiculous side of the subject, which exists but is not discussed, because it is rightly completely overshadowed by the horror. No matter how horrifying, though, if you are able to find a way to laugh at a subject, you are able to defuse it and make it more palatable, and therefore to understand it better. I think this is helpful when mainstream representations of the issues tend towards the hysterical; comedy can therefore provide a safe space to look at the subject openly and objectively, which can only be a good thing.

5) Muslims are often homogenised, badly represented and stereotyped in Western media. In taking extremists that identify as Muslims as your subject matter you run the risk of a kind of bullying mockery that would reinforce divisions. In my opinion your play was much more complex than this, throwing up an unexpected series of similarities and divisions that complicate a simple us versus them binary. How did you go about creating humour that is inclusive, rather than creating further alienation?

This was one of the major aims of the play so I’m pleased that this was your reaction. One of the main motivators for writing Bismillah! was a very noticeable rise in Islamophobic attitudes in the UK in recent years. Even the fairly liberal theatre/comedy circumstances within which I tend to move, prejudice towards Muslims, seemingly fuelled by damaging representations peddled by the media, seemed to be increasingly prevalent and seemingly accepted or left unchallenged. I did not think this was acceptable: Muslims were being described as if they were some kind of different species, which was ridiculous. And this ‘othering’ as I referred to it, I saw as exceedingly damaging. It was also ironically what the extremist Islamic fundamentalists wanted – division between Muslims and the rest of western society. Not only was it racist, but it fit neatly into their narrative and their aims. I was therefore very keen to write a play to celebrate shared humanity and the similarities between cultures and people through the characters instead. One of the key ways I pointed out the ludicrous nature of the division was to re-frame the characters’ conflicts with one another, less white and Asian or Muslim and Christian, but instead Northern and Southern; a genuine national rivalry but one that is farcical, light hearted, and often jovial. Shifting their conflict to being one that was about the North/South Divide in Britain served to highlight that all their differences were just labels, arbitrary, and that they had more in common than they could know. This was where the humour was found, ensuring it was inclusive not victimising.

6) How did you protect yourselves against what has been called the ‘Alf Garnett syndrome’, whereby the figure being satirised becomes a source of celebration (in this case the young recruits to ISIS/the British Army)?

While I can see that this is a potential risk with all satire and provocative comedy to some degree, it wasn’t something that concerned us massively, due to the nature of the show. While a comedy, we also employed tragedy heavily in the storytelling for Bismillah! Due to the tragic contemporary nature of setting, a solely comedic tone felt inappropriate, and would have been counter-productive to the intention of the piece. With a melancholic thread running through the story, we were able to present the characters, hopefully, as rounded, real people, not as stereotypes or caricatures: there was never going to be a catch phrase. Also, spoiler alert, the tragic climax of the play leaves the audience, hopefully, without a desire to celebrate the characters, their words or their actions. By presenting a real flawed character not larger-than-life stereotypes, I never considered the possibility of him becoming a figure of celebration. If the play achieves its artistic ends, you celebrate neither Danny nor Dean – you pity them.

7) Something that I perhaps didn’t expect from the title of the play, but very much enjoyed when I watched it, was that a lot of the play’s tension and humour came from a North/South divide. The play seemed more concerned with Britishness than Islam – was this something that you saw as central from the outset?

As mentioned, the North/South divide was key to refocusing the play away from the misery of the circumstances towards the shared humanity of the characters. While it was something I considered in creating the characters, the extent to which it helped shaped the piece was not something I expected. Once that element had been introduced, the dialogue wrote itself. Being from the North but based in the South, it’s something I’ve become overtly aware of, and it is such a ridiculous circumstance, which provokes light hearted semi-ironic prejudice, that it seemed obvious to exploit it to highlight the arbitrary nature of labels and tribalism. While the North/South divide was a useful tool to explore it, this was always intended to be a play about life in modern Britain.

8) I notice that the play was longlisted for Amnesty International’s Freedom of Expression Award at the Fringe festival last year (2015). Contrary to many lazy definitions of freedom of speech that valorise the freedom to say anything (often cited when serious offence has been caused – cf. Charlie Hebdo/Rushdie/Danish cartoon affairs), Amnesty’s prize rewards the building of understanding and raising of awareness. How do you understand freedom of speech/expression in relation to your work?

Much like our approach to representation, at Wound Up we don’t have a specific approach when it comes to thinking about freedom of expression in our work. As with defining our practice in relation to representation, it would be damaging to consider the wider implications or limits of the work during the creative process. I think that to consider limits during a first draft, for example, would lead to a lot of self-questioning and second guessing, which could end up being tantamount to self-censorship. With this in mind, I would also therefore defend the definition of freedom of expression/speech as the ability to say anything, however unpalatable. While the idea of freedom of expression as a tool to help build understanding is the ideal, all ideas of censorship need to be discounted in order to allow this to happen, even liberal, well-meaning censorship intended to protect people’s feelings; in fact, in recent years I have viewed this means of censorship as far more damaging and creatively restrictive than traditional conservative restrictions imposed on freedom of expression. I personally find shock offence rather hack comedically, but I was accused of just that with Bismillah! But for me, I suppose, it comes down to the intent. Ideally, all boundaries of free of speech would only be being pushed by people who intend to expand collective intelligence and understanding, not simply to offend for shock value. But ultimately, in order to allow some people to instil positive outcomes by testing the limits of their freedom, then freedom of expression, by extension, needs to be the ability to say anything, and needs to be granted for all. I believe this even if leads to statements and the expression of ideas I may not be comfortable with. I did something easily comparable to the artists responsible for Charlie Hebdo/Rushdie/Danish cartoon affairs, but I think my intentions were different. Whatever my feelings on their work, I defend those artists’ rights to make the work they did, otherwise I couldn’t in good conscience make my own.

9) You are now in the process of developing the play into a run for the Theatre Royal Stratford East, I believe. Can you tell us a little about what has been involved in the development?

Theatre Royal Stratford East saw the play at Edinburgh last year and offered to help us develop the show for a professional run in their studio space. Since then, the play has been through a number of redrafts, under the mentorship of the marvellous actor/writer Sevan Green, with the intention of turning the show into something unencumbered by the restrictions of a fringe venue and time restraints. We are currently bringing together the creative team (hopefully utilising the team from the fringe show), along with director, Jonny Kelly, and producer, Dan Sellick, for a run that will hopefully be starting early in 2017.

It’s been a huge privilege to redevelop the show with TRSE. With their remit to champion unheard voices in society, it really is the perfect location for the show to find its future and to develop it with the help of the theatre’s immensely talented team. We’re seeking to evolve Bismillah! from its fringe form to something more considered and impactful, without losing it heart and humour.

What their involvement has really allowed us to do is to explore the characters more closely, while at the same time giving the story some more room to breathe. The play is now longer in its current form than the fringe (from the hour long running time in Edinburgh to around 90 minutes). This allows the play time to examine all areas and perspectives of the characters and their positions, particularly areas which may have felt rushed in its former incarnation due to the festival setting.

A significant outcome of the rewrite has also been to remove the character of “Babs”, turning the play into a two hander. It became clear during the run that the character – an ISIS general and superior of Danny – while performed exquisitely by Ikram Gilani, served more to move along the narrative than to contribute to themes. The effect of changing the play in this way was to tighten it, and to focus it completely on the two main remaining characters. Also, with no visible threat, the claustrophobia of the setting increases. The outside world, off the stage, is more threatening as the reality of it is purely in the audience’s imagination. It also serves to make the two central characters more whole and nuanced – Danny’s internal struggle is now the driving force of the plot, as opposed to his fear of his superior, and in isolation with his captor, Dean’s motives for engaging with Danny become more ambiguous, leading to a more morally questionable character. We are confident that this change makes for a stronger play.

Another reason that we have written out the Babs character is down to a question of representation. Moving forward, if the play continued to feature a Middle Eastern character without exploring his reality and his motivations in relation to his position and the conflict in Syria, I think we would run the risk of simply presenting a 2D caricature of someone from the region. We don’t want to exploit the problems or the people of the Middle East. The realities of life for people from around the setting of the play are so complex, it would not be in keeping with the nature of the play not to explore the reality of the character in greater depth and simply to keep him as the villain of the piece. In order to avoid a potentially reductive portrayal that doesn’t manage to present the character truthfully, we decided to focus the play solely on the experiences of the British characters, which we could do more confidently. This allows the play to focus solely on what we wanted it to do initially, which is effectively to represent the experiences of young people in Britain through a comedic exploration.

10) Can you tell us anything about your next project?

Well, right now the next project is phase 2 of Bismillah! But much of this relies on securing funding. If we are able to put on the play for an extended run successfully, then we will hopefully be building on that and taking the play on a national tour, to get the message of the play out to as many people as possible.

Beyond Bismillah! we have a number of shows in the early stages of development. Excitingly, we have a two hander written by our producer Abee McCallum, which will look at prostitution, specifically two young female students who turn to prostitution to support themselves during their education. Personally, I’m developing a one man play based around ideas of fame and the different ways in which famous people and their realities are represented. I’m also in the very early stages of development for a semi-biographical piece being created by a theatre maker, which will examine the experiences and perspectives relating to the migrant crisis.

Ultimately, our next aim as a company is to build on the success of Bismillah!, to grow and be recognised as legitimate theatre makers who use comedy to explore difficult subjects in a funny and accessible way.

Interview with Akua Gyamfi

1)      First off, can you tell us a little bit about your work with the British Blacklist?

I started the British Blacklist as a response to the lack of platforms physical and online which celebrated the talents of British African Caribbean creatives.

2)      You’ve got a very varied CV! When did you decide that it was important to set up an organisation like the British Blacklist, and why?

My varied CV  is a result of not knowing what I wanted to do when I left school and just trying my hand at everything and anything which caught my interest. After becoming a young mother, I realised at the time my hairdressing career which was excelling and about to take me into the international arena wasn’t going to work with a baby in tow. So I decided to go back into education and the easiest thing I thought was something media related as I’d always been brilliant at English. As a result I ended up taking a Journalism degree, and freelancing for various online platforms. It was trying to find information on specifically British black art and the difficulties which arose from the lack of information, inspired me to set up the British Blacklist.

3)      What do you hope to achieve through your organisation?

What I hoped, and what I think my team and I are achieving is providing a place for British black and now global black creatives can showcase their work. On a professional, credible  platform.

4)      I realise that the British Blacklist is concerned with promoting performers from a wide variety of TV, film and music genres, but I’d like to hear more in particular about your work with comedy actors, writers, and performers. Who/what should we be keeping an eye out for? Or who have you particularly enjoyed working with?

Oooh there are so many. We love Lateef Lovejoy. Javone Prince, London Hughes who’s really representing for black British comediennes. The Fresh Prince of Hackney, Kojo is also doing so much for the industry being one of the few from the UK who’ve been able to successfully bring UK comedy to the states. Of the newbies, Judi Love is fantastic, the Mandem on the Wall boys and of course Kayode who’s had cult success with this Hood Documentary webseries which was recently picked up by BBC 3.

5)      For the purposes of this conference, we are particularly interested in comedy and the politics of representation. (How) do you think that the representation of black Britishness has shifted in comedy over the past few decades?

I think the UK mainstream still struggles with showcasing British Black talent. Unless comedians end up playing it straight, they tend to maybe get bit parts in bigger shows, or aren’t seen at all. It’s a shame that in 2016 we’re still revelling in the memory of The Real McCoy and Desmond’s. These shows are 20+ years old and across our main channels not one have successfully been able to recreate something new. Javone Prince was lucky to get a BBC series but where’s the follow up? When you see comedy variety shows on TV they rarely feature black comedians… so there’s a lot of work which needs to be done

6)      Do you think that there are still issues with the ways in which black Britons are represented in TV and film comedy?

I think the industry is trying. But as always a lot of talk and minimum action seems to be the routine. I’m tired of diversity events, and workshops and seminars etc. It’s just time to do.

7)      Can you tell us anything about any upcoming projects that we should look out for?

Well we’ve been waiting forever for Kojo’s new comedy feature The Weekend to land. ITV not long ago presented some pilot comedy shows, sketch shows in particular which featured a host of new talent… we’re waiting to hear if these are going to get further development.

Mock the Weak: Comedy and the Politics of Representation

Welcome to the website for the Mock the Weak: Comedy and the Politics of Representation’ conference, which is taking place at Teesside University/Stockton ARC between 13-15th September 2016.

Please browse the site for further information about guest speakers, the conference programme, registration, accommodation and travelling to Teesside/Stockton using the menu or by typing the relevant term into the search box on the left-hand side of the page

We look forward to seeing you in September!

Sarah and Helen

Call for papers

Comedy is an ambivalent medium that ranges from the reactionary and conservative to the radical and subversive. It has both a political role in entrenching or overturning existing hierarchies of power, and a psychological one, in giving voice to taboo topics. At a time when questions related to comedy (regarding the limits of free speech, the power dynamic inherent in joking, and the representation of minority groups frequently othered in mainstream discourse) are increasingly prominent in political debate and news journalism, this conference makes space for academic debate to lead the conversation. This conference aims to bring together delegates from a range of disciplines and covering a spectrum of research interests, united by the common strand of representational techniques employed in comedy in its various guises (as stand-up performance, written or visual text, or joking utterance).

 

Confirmed Keynotes:

Dr Sharon Lockyer “Reversing Disability Discourses in Live Comic Performance”

 

Dr Anshuman Mondal “Taking Liberties? Free speech, multiculturalism and the ethics of satire”