National Identity and Boundary Maintenance - Space and Exclusion in Humour

The second rhetorical theme that seeks resolution in culturally racist humour focuses on the ‘other’ as a transgressor of national boundaries. This is primarily an ambivalence or anxiety generated if the ‘other’ is perceived to cross these boundaries, and becomes the subject of humour coupled with proteophobic expression. In being connected to nationalism, it is one of the more prominent subjects of cultural racism.

The theme focuses on frontiers, which are highlighted as the dichotomous nature of national boundaries. This can be extended to include a number of regional or super-national boundaries. The ‘other’ who moves into the home territory across the national frontier can create racist anxiety. Humour offers a rhetorical expression of this anxiety and a resolution of the ‘problem’ through an imaginary placement of the ‘other’ in the ‘correct’ category. As Marotta suggests ‘[t]he Other or the stranger, from the perspective of the will-to-order, epitomizes chaos and thus is a potential threat to the stable and fixed boundaries’ (2002: 39). Cultural racism represents a reductionist account of the incompatibility of different cultures, and in its worst form, is a racism that sees cultural segregation as necessary (Miles 1989: 62-4). In humour, the theme of segregation is given rhetorical strength through its enactment in the realm of linguistic fantasy. This appears as the expression of proteophobia in culturally racist joking. These jokes move through various types of segregation, which include preventing the arrival, the removal, and in the extreme form, the death of the cultural ‘other’. Each stage of proteophobia can allow an additional rhetorical strengthening, aside from that resolution offered in co-agitation, by removing the ‘other’ that is responsible for its generation. Once again, when coupled with humorous co-agitators, they provide a strengthened rhetorical resolution of the ‘problems’ confronted by cultural racism.

Parekh summarises the culturally racist view of nationalism and boundary maintenance, obsessed with the idea of national decline, that consists of beliefs that see a ‘loss of national identity, a weakening of the sense of patriotism and the decline of public culture and spirit’ (1986: 34). The perspective of this ‘weakened’ Britishness is reasserted and attached to an image of a natural or essential British culture (1986: 35). Parekh describes culturally racist constructions of Britishness as incoherent. He states that it ‘is so obviously incoherent and confused that, had it not found some support in influential circles, one would leave it alone to collapse under the weight of its own contradictions’ (1986: 38-9). What such commentators omit is that this incoherence can be rhetorically supported or resolved by humour, which helps prevent its ‘collapse’.


The ‘others’ who transgress national boundaries are described in several ways - the asylum seeker, the illegal immigrant, the refugee and the immigrant worker. Balibar proposes that cultural racism will actually substitute arguments of race for those of immigration as a part of its coding exercise (1991: 20). He argues that ‘[t]he functioning of the category of immigration [acts] as a substitute for the notion of race’ (1991: 20. Emphasis in original). Bauman adds similarly that the ‘concerns with boundary-drawing and boundary maintenance tend to focus today in most Western countries on immigrant workers’ (2000b: 226), while Parekh provides a neat paraphrase of this culturally racist logic:

Their presence erodes the unity of national sentiment and subverts Britain’s sense of nationhood. The British feel deeply threatened by them and fear for their unity and integrity as a nation. They cannot be blamed for feeling this way for it is inherent in ‘human nature’ to wish to live with men and women of one’s kind. (1986: 37)

A close connection exists between the themes of nationalism, xenophobia, immigrational prejudice, and the logic of exclusionary racism in this humour. This ‘othering’ does not have to either follow strict racial lines or be applied to the usual suspects of cultural racism, and so those subjected to it do not need to embody the characteristics of old colonial subjects in order to become the victims and focus of cultural racism. As Gilroy explains, ‘[e]ven if they are “white”, they can be held hostage by the racialized specification that they are immigrants. Even Poles and Kosovars can project dangerous discomfort into the unhappy consciousness of their fearful and anxious hosts and neighbours’ (2005: 435). While Gilroy argues these newcomers provoke memories of lost empire, this is an unnecessary inference for my analysis. The focus on the boundary-crossing ‘other’, no matter which group, reappears because of the transgression of the boundary that constructs the racist imaginary. This ambivalence of space may or may not have appeared in colonial times. It is the fixing of cognitive categories that proteophobes desire rather than the return of a specific socio-historical period, which may or may not become attached to this. As Marotta explains ‘[nationalism seeks unification and homogeneity and this is achieved through the act of drawing boundaries between natives and aliens’ (2002: 42). Davidson’s comedic career provides numerous examples. In a 1982 performance he asks, ‘anyone from England? Do you know what, don’t you think Great Britain’s the best country in the world? Don’t you think? Yeah, it’s got to be, every other bugger’s living here ain’t they’ (1982). This joke expresses sentiments about any group at anytime because it mentions none. Jethro gives an extreme example: ‘I saw a man in Shepton Mallet pouring petrol over asylum seekers. I said “What are you doing that for?” He said, “You can get fifteen to the gallon”’ (2006). This is a more obvious example of proteophobic destruction expressed through absurdity (Berger 1995a: 54).

The most efficient method of creating waste free social space is simply not to generate waste in the first place, or to not allow the ‘other’ into social space, to exclude the ‘other’. This urge to expel the ‘other’ appears in Davidson’s comedy. On a supposed visit to Iraq, Davidson talks to an Iraqi civilian who mistakes him for Tony Blair.

This bloke said ‘Mr Blair, you Prime Minister, you done fantastic job for our country’ [italics signifies an Arabic accent], I said ‘what!’ ‘Mr Blair you done’, I said ‘I’m not Mr Blair’, ‘you tell Mr Blair he done fantastic job for our country’,

I said ‘we’ll he’s fucked our country right up!’ Do you know what he said? Oh yes, oh yes, um, you know what he said? ‘Don’t say that I’m going to live there next week’. Now people listening to that might think, ‘oh here he goes, Jim Davidson doing a racist joke’. Now I don’t think it’s racist cos we’re worried about our borders ladies and gentlemen? Do you know what I’m saying? Let me give you, Uncle George is a lorry driver right, drives all round Europe and he got stopped by the British, British right, not French, this is down at Dover, by the British immigration officer. He said to him ‘Vot have you got on vour lorry?’ [Indian accent] ‘What?’ ‘Vot have you got on vour lorry?’ He thought shit, I’ll own up. He said ‘I’ve got 42 Croatian gypsies’. He weren’t nicked. Do you know what he said? ‘Are they on pallets?’ It’s a joke. No our blokesare doing a good job with what Iraqis are left in Iraq at the moment. (2003)


Davidson covers a lot of ground in this joke; he suggests an influx of Iraqi asylum seekers, attempts to render his humour acceptable, comments on existing British ethnic groups and expresses concern about Eastern European migrants. The joke contains the proteophobic theme. First, the joke depicts a problematic ‘other’, in the form of the Iraqi that needs to be kept out of British society. Interestingly, noting Bauman’s dichotomy of the ‘tourist’ and ‘vagabond’ (1997b), the movement of Davidson’s ‘tourist’ self is not judged as disturbing boundaries in the way that the ‘other’ will. Davidson and the British Army are not depicted as invading, overrunning or illegally visiting Iraq. Second, Davidson rhetorically excludes himself from being labelled racist by denying that excessive anxiety over illegal immigration (a common although contested theme of cultural racism) is a racist preoccupation. This again evokes the ambiguity of the working class racism and highlights the problematic terms of expression involved in it. Again, the technique is rhetorical because it begins with the use of prolepsis in anticipation of an accusation of racism and then diverts attention through metonym, towards a particular aspect of Davidson’s racism - his interest in immigration and border control. The joke then moves on to discuss ‘Uncle George’, who is perhaps the patron saint of British lorry drivers - this resonates with a further chain of patriarchal, British signification, and distinguishes Uncle George from the Asian policing the border. The infiltration of the ‘other’ into positions of power, which is expressed through the accent and vernacular of the Asian customs officer, is a frequent fear. In this case the 42 Croatian gypsies enter the country because of the ineffective customs officer and represent a fear of the Eastern European ‘other’. The joke is proteophobic because it attempts to justify keeping the ‘other’ at bay, in this instance by preventing their arrival. It again draws on nationalism, xenophobia and immigrational prejudice.

Cuisine can also be linked with proteophobia and exclusion. In the 1982 performance Davidson jokes ‘people think there’s a lot of Pakistanis in Brixton, there ain’t, the West Indians have found out they taste like chicken’ (1982). This joke turns the strangeness of the food of the ‘other’ back onto the ‘other’ as a removal technique. The proteophobic fantasy is acted out by the savage West Indians who are able to consume large amounts of the alien Pakistanis, all through an expression of the strangeness of the food of the ‘other’. This joke directly expresses the anthropophagic trope described by Bauman, that is said to construct


proteophilia and focuses on devouring the ‘other’. The emphasis is on audience consumption though, rather than on the ‘other’ consuming the ‘other’, which gives it a touch of the aggressive.

This next joke from Manning focuses on clothing. Although the logic of the joke is a little difficult to decipher, its intention, as a violent joke, is distinctly proteophobic. Manning says ‘Pakistani watching television, he said “wear something white at night”. Put a white hat on, white coat, white suit, white gloves. Fucking snowplough knocked him down. Unlucky that isn’t it’ (1984).[1]

The logic of exclusion in cultural racism - Bauman’s proteophobia - is expressed in a number of styles in culturally racist humour. These include concerns over nationalism, immigration and inventive methods of removal in fantasy that focus on cultural difference. Most also exhibit the theme of a resentment-based working-class racism.

  • [1] The joke below by Manning, which is obviously racist and xenophobic, shows theviolence that some of his humour depicts: You Japanese never laugh do you, never fucking laugh, do ya ah, never laugh.We’ve not forgotten Pearl Harbor pal, don’t you fucking worry about that. Whata fucking shit-house trick that was. He’s fucking sat there can’t wait to get homeand make another Datson. You look like a nice fella, go and piss on that Jap.Bastards. Got no fucking time for them me. There was a plane crash in Madridabout six months ago and 200 Japanese on that plane. Broke my fucking heart,six empty seats there were. (1984)
< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >