“What Happened To Jokes?”: The Shifting Landscape Of Humor In Hungary

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East European Politics And Societies


Since 1989, commentators on both sides of the Atlantic have mourned the death of jokes in postsocialist societies. While in fact humor has not gone away, the everyday experience of sharing jokes as an intimate form of political criticism has indeed vanished. Drawing from ethnographic fieldwork, interviews, and archival research on the history of Hungarian humor, this article contributes a new perspective to the recent wave of scholarship on Soviet laughter, by examining the “loss of the joke” as both a cultural phenomenon and a critical discourse in postsocialist Hungary. First, we argue that a series of important shifts in the way Hungarians work, socialize, communicate, and engage in politics has led them to be far more circumspect in sharing political humor. Second, we analyze the self-reflexive perception of loss as a form of cultural criticism that indexes broader anxieties about the challenges of interpreting the operations of power under postsocialism. With this shift in political sensibility, we argue, the lament that the joke is “lost” may now offer more effective political commentary than a joke itself.

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