Panel on Humor and the public sphere

Conference Panels with open calls


Call for papers on Humor and the public sphere

Panel for the ISHS Conference 2022, Bertinoro, Italy

Convenor: Giselinde Kuipers (

This panel invites presentations on humor in the public sphere. What role can humor play in the public sphere? Under what conditions is humor conducive to the free, open debate required for a healthy public sphere? Can humor also hamper or sabotage the public sphere? How is the working of humor in the public sphere impacted by humorous genres, forms, styles, media or platforms? How does the role of humor in the public sphere vary across place and time? And: is the notion of public sphere actually useful in understanding humor as a form of public communication and debate?

Jürgen Habermas coined the notion of the Public Sphere (Öffentlichkeit in German) in 1962 to describe the arena for free public debate and discussion, neither part of the private sphere nor controlled by governments or economic interest, as it emerged in early modern Europe. For Habermas, the public sphere in its idealtypical form is a place of rational and open exchange of arguments, that happens between free, equal citizens. As such, it is crucial to the emergence and functioning of democratic societies. While contested by scholars, this notion of a semi-separate sphere for public conversation has been central to ongoing debates on politics (e.g. democracy, citizenship, participation, inclusivity) and public communication (including media, platforms, media systems, critique, censorship, free speech and its limits). Despite its limitations – in particular its normative, some say unrealistic or utopian character -- the notion of “public sphere” has proven good to think with. It directs our attention to the fundamental question for democratic societies: what is needed to make everyone participate? What sort of conversations can we have, and do we need to have, to create and sustain a free and open society? What sort of institutions and cultural forms can support an open, free and inclusive society?

Although discussions of the public sphere typically stress the importance of serious, rational talk, this is of course not the only form of communication that happens in the public sphere. Later formulations have incorporated the importance of other types of talk, including more emotional, poetic or humorous forms of exchange. Satire, in particular has been mentioned as an important part of a vibrant public sphere (cf. Habermas 1996). However, thus far there has not been any systematic investigation of the role of humorous communication in the public sphere. In humor research, there has been an ongoing, yet undecided debate. A long tradition of scholarship has highlighted the importance of humor and satire for open and democratic societies, and especially:  the rather scary politics often associated with political attempts to curb or regulate humor and satire. More recently, however, the humor scholars have pointed to the “dark side” of humor: Politicians, humorists and citizens also humor in ways that are less than conducive to free, equal, open and democratic exchange.

Since Habermas’s original analysis of the public sphere, this idealized notion of a public sphere populated by reasonable, carefully arguing citizens has only become less realistic. Public speech and public debates these days are multimodal, multilingual, mediated, full of jokes and emotions, not to mention emojis, gifs and memes. Humor is a more central feature of public communication, on all levels of civic participation, than ever before. Thus, a further exploration of the role of humor in public spheres is long overdue.

This open panel therefore aims to bring together humor scholars from a range of disciplines to discuss the role humor and the public sphere. This could include both theoretical contributions and empirical papers discussing various forms, genres, places, and historical periods. However, in order to maintain coherence, contributors are urged to engage explicitly with the (post)Habermasian notion of the public sphere. This engagement, of course, does not need to mean an acceptance or embracing of this notion: scholars may present endorsements, applications or extensions, but of course also hesitations, objections, critiques or rejections. The aim is a two-way exchange: how can we better understand humor through the lens of the public sphere? But also, how can we think through this notion of the public sphere, through the lens of humor?


Abstracts of up to 250 words should be submitted on the ISHS 2022 website at <Submissions 2022> by May 1, 2022. When you upload your abstract, insert panel convener Giselinde Kuipers.