Are They for Real? Activism and Ironic Identities
A new breed of political activist has begun to appear on the streets and in the news. They are no longer trying to out-shout their opponents, but are agreeing with them instead, enthusiastically taking their adversary’s position to exaggerated extremes. It is a practice here termed “identity-nabbing,” in which participants pretend to be someone they are not, appearing in public as exaggerated caricatures of their opponents or ambiguously co-opting some of their power. This paper focuses on three groups in particular: The Billionaires for Bush, Reverend Billy, and the Yes Men. Each group stages elaborate, ironically humorous stunts as a means of attracting public attention to particular political/social issues. The ironic frame not only provides entertainment value, but also contains its own community-building function, as it requires the participation of the audience to actively read it ironically. Banking on the pre-existence of communities that share their assumptions and get the joke, these groups attempt to turn what Linda Hutcheon refers to as “discursive communities” into political communities (or counterpublics), urging people to actively identify with the importance of the issue at hand, and to continue circulating the critique. They rely on the co-participatory workings of irony to spur people into viewing themselves as a collective with collective power. None of these groups are aiming for revolutionary change, but by turning laughter over a shared joke into anger and engagement they work to attract attention, get others involved, and slowly shift debate.
Recommended CitationDay, Amber, "Are They for Real? Activism and Ironic Identities" (2008). English and Cultural Studies Journal Articles. Paper 86.