The Joke's On Who

The Performative Possibilities of Humour


  • Lisa McKeown New School University



Wittgenstein, feminism, Simon Critchley


In this paper, I argue that humour is an underutilized tool in countering social injustice. Within feminist epistemology much has been made about implicit bias stemming from knowledge gaps. Yet studies that have shown that awareness of our implicit bias does little to change our behaviour. Instead, I argue that overcoming bias might require a less purely intellectual, more creative approach. Wittgenstein speculated that one could write a book of philosophy entirely in the form of jokes. In part, he thought that jokes offer an illuminating synopsis or overview of a state of affairs. We might even say jokes offer a fresh gestalt. It’s not just about a picture of the facts, but of our attitude towards them. As a result, while it can be tempting to respond to oppressive comments or slurs with outrage and indignation, there is a unique effect when we respond with a joke. First, jokes can reframe the perspective suggested by the slur. Second, jokes allow the speaker to make a lateral conversational move to evade being trapped in a defensive argumentative position. Using tone to open up new discursive planes allows for more communicative possibilities on an emotional as well as intellectual level.


Author Biography

Lisa McKeown, New School University

Lisa McKeown has a PhD in Philosophy from The New School for Social Research. Her dissertation critiqued contemporary feminist diagnoses of silencing, arguing that any good theory must incorporate a diagnosis of why not only language, but body language, appears to be illegible to certain sexual aggressors. In addition to her philosophical writing, Lisa has written on feminism and philosophy for public audiences, including She Does The City, a prominent Toronto publication. She also freelances as a theatre reviewer, and has written and performed stand-up-comedy since 2017. 


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