Dystopian literature depicted the nightmares of the twentieth century. Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, George Orwell’s 1984, and Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon (albeit the latter qualifies for the club of the novels of warning to a lesser extent) anticipated those simulations of reality, or fabrications of consciousness, that were and continue to be deeply and strikingly characteristic of the modern mass-media world. That our perception of the world and our awareness may be framed by the mass media, but that we deal with images, forgeries, and phantoms, instead of reality as it is, was shown plausibly by Jean Baudrillard.
Baudrillard’s acclaimed theory of simulacra, or simulations of reality, is quite similar to what Milan Kundera has aptly described as the world manufactured by the new type of mass-media people whom he calls imagologues, the engineers and dispensers of images. Imagology, the art of making sets of ideals, anti-ideals, and value-images that people are supposed to follow without thinking or critically questioning, is the offspring of the media and advertising. If so, as Kundera argues in his novel Immortality, reality disappears. An old lady in a nineteenth-century Bohemian village was far more in control of her own life as well as the cycle of nature and mundane reality than a millionaire or a powerful politician nowadays who is confined to throwing his life on the mercy of spin doctors.
If we take a closer look at Michel Houellebecq’s The Possibility of an Island (La possibilité d’une île), we can see a similar view on what happened to politics of art and art of politics. Art and fiction cannot survive other than by surrendering themselves to images full of sex, violence and coercion; moreover, they close ranks with fictionalized politics and sensationalist media messages by subsuming to cheap sensationalism, noisy conspiracy theories, lawful insinuations, conjectures, and hatred skilfully translated into the language of political cartoons and political entertainment.
Yet there is no reason to exaggerate the role of imagologues, or, in present political parlance, spin doctors, as politicians themselves are keen on acting as constructs of the media. They are not that same breed or class of people they were from the Puritan Revolution in England, the first action in modern history that established the rule of law as a controlling principle above the king, to the Second World War and post-war epoch with historic figures like Winston Churchill or Charles de Gaulle or Willy Brandt. Now they are pop culture stars, celebrities, victims, or entertainers. In most cases, they function as the new class of politicians-entertainers.
Only two things matter in the world of a technological and consumerist society as depicted by Houllebecq: the entertainment of politics and the politics of entertainment. This is the reason why stand-up comedians, TV producers working on political entertainment, and TV hosts become an inescapable and critically important part of the new establishment. Politicians cannot exist without imagologues, according to Kundera. Yet they can no longer exist without the political humour, or, to be more precise, entertainment world. They can change their places at any time. Political humour and entertainment folks can go to politics, whereas politicians gladly become TV stars, preoccupied or at least tinged with political entertainment. Just think about Silvio Berlusconi.
Curiously enough, the new forms of political entertainment go hand in hand with a gradual disappearance of the old good humour. The new political humour is more about concealed hatred than joke and laughter, and hatred turns out to be about angry political clownery nowadays. They are easily convertible and interchangeable. Hatred becomes a valuable political commodity. Clownery becomes a widely accepted and assumed form of political intelligence service. Look at the head of Russia’s Liberal Democrats, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who, to recall a witty description by a German politician, after five minutes of his talk in Germany proved an anti-liberal, after ten minutes an anti-democrat, and after fifteen a fascist.
It was with sound reason then that the British historian Peter Gay described the epoch of the invention of modern political cartoons as an era of hatred. If we make jokes on the fringes of what is allowed and on the edge of permissiveness, we are bound to border on hatred – precisely like the main character of Houellebecq’s novel, Daniel, a highly successful and angry stand-up comedian in whose case indecent and dubious jokes about Jews, Palestinian Arabs, Muslims, immigrants make his name and become the name of the game.
In our technological consumerist society, entertainment is much preferable to genuine humour which survives on the fringes of entertainment, power and prestige. The whole world has become political. As a result we have been freed of the stereotypes and nonsense of our earlier experience. But we will also lose humour, which was born of none other than stereotype – from safe nonsense in an unsafe world – and powerlessness. This is so not only because political animosities and hatred masquerade as entertainment and popular culture. The point is that politics is about empowerment, which is why it cannot tolerate weakness. The brilliant humour of East European Jews is a perfect example of existence on the other side of the field of power.
The political humour of our times – with its safe flirtation with power – is politics in its truest form. It is no longer anti-structure or linguistic carnival, but a light and breezy adjustment to the structure and field of power. It is also a warning: Ladies and gentlemen, you are not the only ones here. Share or you will perish. That’s the name of the new game.