‘Humour is not resigned; it is rebellious.’
Sigmund Freud ‘Humour’1
On 28 March 2017, activists known as the ‘Stansted 15’ obstructed a charter airplane, preventing it from taking deportees back to their countries of birth. The Stansted 15 managed to immobilize the plane by sitting to its front and rear on the tarmac and locking themselves together with metal tubes. When the police approached, they were asked what was in the tubes. The activists’ answer must have not amused the police because we find reference to it in the court trial.2 They humorously told the police that their tubes were constituted by ‘Kryptonite’.3 For those of us like myself who are not well versed in popular culture and have to look up this mysterious substance we find that ‘Kryptonite’ referred to Superman the DC comic created by Jerry Sieggel and Joe Schuster. Kryptonite is a green crystalline substance that has the capacity to destroy superman’s powers. I must admit that I laughed when I realized what they were possibly trying to get across to the police officers with this joke.
Of course we know that Superman the superhero is somewhat above the law, always flying around saving humans from potential evil characters or governments. Superman is a good guy with super powers. I can only speculate or use my associative thinking to suggest that the activists’ reply wanted to bring the following to the officers’ attention: whilst they may see themselves as officers of the law and think that they are doing good, they are not invulnerable. They have an Achilles heel, a substance that represents the ability at any moment to remove their powers. A substance that can reveal the fiction of their power and the travesty of their practices, the latter being implicated in making deportees lives unsafe. Of course this was not going to amuse the officers or the institution of law, as the answer given by these dedicated activists (belonging to three coalescent groups: ‘End Deportations’, ‘Lesbian and Gays Support the Migrants’, and ‘Plane Stupid’) is described as being unhelpful to the officers who we are told were concerned with the safety of the aerodrome and possible terrorists attacks as the terrorist scale at the time was severe.4 The Stansted 15 are described as difficult and wasting police time, as they did their best to delay the departure of the plane.3 Indeed they were successful in stopping ‘34 of the 57 deportations, as a 48-hour delay allowed these detainees additional time to pursue their cases (a second replacement flight left two days later, with only 23 people on board).6 Following Freud’s essay on ‘Humour’ (1928), their humorous response was rebellious, not resigned to the decisions of the State (to deport people resident in the UK because of alleged immigration violations) and the State apparatus of the police.
The Stansted 15 were charged with s.1 of the Aviation and Maritime Security Act of 1990, an offence that covertly interpelates the accused as a terrorist and consequently as a political criminal.7 I want to suggest that this severe charge may lay precisely in the ‘threat’ that the humourous utterance brought into the open. In being charged with s.1 (the shorthand for which is ‘Endagering safety at aerodromes’), their joke or the joke — as Paulo Virno suggests in Multitude: Between Innovation and Negation (2008) — falls into the category of linguistic ‘forms of verbal thought’ (Virno, 2008: 72) that are innovative and can ward off the routine of rules and turn us towards multiple directions. Whilst Amnesty International may be correct to suggest that the severity of the charge may be ‘to discourage other activists from taking non-violent direct action in defence of human rights’8
Virno’s book is situated within the field of political philosophy and sets out to critique amongst other things the concept of sovereignty. Virno takes on two of the most cited advocates of sovereign theory, Thomas Hobbes and Carl Schmitt, as well as critics of sovereign theory — those that reserve some optimism in a post-sovereign constellation, such as the anarchist linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky — and post-structuralist thinking in general (Virno, 2008:21). Virno argues that to achieve an Exodus, or create a life outside the State, theorists of the left must stop ignoring the ‘nature’ of human subjectivity, which as Hobbes suggests, is enveloped in hostile and destructive drives. Exodus can only be achieved if we embrace the fact that life is ambivalent, oscillatiing, and perturbing. As already mentioned, jokes fall into the category of linguistic ‘forms of verbal thought’ that can point towards alternative horizons. Bratich further argues that the very structure of jokes (or witticisms) support the breaking of rules:
Jokes take us from rules to regularity (custom, openness). A joke is an abrupt divergence from the expected application of rule, akin to ‘changing topics’. This swerve, a surprising reaction to the norm, is the sources for exodus as well. The crisis that spawns innovation in political terms is a crisis of a form of life, one whose indeterminacy and precariousness can plunge into the worst totalitarianism while holding the promise of an abrupt way out. Jokes have a political function, as they make rules open to change, creating the conditions of new ways of thinking, specifically as public action. (Bratich, 2009: 73)
Both Virno and Bratich provide us with a lesson on how to exit the State and its apparatuses.
Could it be that the Stansted 15 were turned into political monsters, not just because they wanted to stop deportees from being sent to their countries of origins where evidence suggests they would have faced torture and persecution, but precisely because they dared to show up the State and to establish their own law? Michele Foucault in his Collège de France lecture (29 January 1975) suggests
that the political criminal is the first or at least the most important and striking monster to appear at the end of the eighteenth century … [she/he] is someone who breaks the pact to which he has subscribed and prefers his own interest. (Foucault, 2003: 92)
As such he or she faces a severe punishment, more severe than the one saved for a conventional criminal. Why we may ask? The political criminal is not only guilty of breaking the social pact, wanting the creation of a new social order; the political criminal is also guilty of exposing the sovereign himself as a monster, the first monster (Foucault, 2003: 4). The sovereign is a monster because he
is … someone who [is] beyond status and the law … who promotes his violence, his whims, and his irrationality as the general law or raison d’Etat. This means that from his birth to his death, or for as long as he exercises his despotic power, the King…is quite simply a monster in the strict sense.’ (Foucault, 2003: 94)
It is not coincidental that with regard to the question of observing the law, of following the rules of the State, the issue of who has the monopoly over the security of the land becomes the focus of the prosecutor’s cross examination. The ‘Intercept’ reports that the prosecution asked one of the activists to confirm whether ‘he cares about fairness, does not wish for harm to come to his fellow human beings, and accepts that we all have to live in accordance with the rule of law. To do otherwise, Badenoch suggested, would be anarchy. Smoke and the rest of the Stansted 15 … had self-selected their own rules.’’9
The trial of the Stansted 15 is set to be completed in the next two weeks. They face a potential life sentence for daring to show up the State. If found guilty, it will not only be for showing that the security measures at Stansted airport can be violated and that the State cannot guarantee safety and security, but also for daring to say that they as citizens desire a different model of safety. They desire a polity that attends to the safety and care for persecuted deportees, a polity where welcoming and friendliness is made a priority. Their humorous response to the police may lead to their sentencing, and I certainly hope the twelve members of the jury are able to see the realms of possibilities that the joke opens up, a world where the safety of the dispossessed is more important than the delay and possible inconvenience suffered by those who had the means to travel for pleasure on 27 March 2017. Let’s hope that the jury is open to the possibility of another world.
Elena Loizidou is Reader in Law and Political Theory at Birkbeck, University of London.
Braitich, Z.J. (2009) ‘Book Review: Virno Paolo. (2008) Multitutde Between innovation and Negations. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e)’ Journal of Communication Inquiry, 2009 33 (1), pp. 71-85.
Foucault, M. (2003) Abnormal: Lectures at the College de France 1974-5 . New York :Picador.
Freud, S. (1928) Humour. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 9, pp. 1-6.
Virno, P. (2008) Multitude: Between Innovation and Negation. New York: Semiotext
- Freud, S. (1928). p.3 ↩
- Finnegan, S. and Watchen, T. ( 2 October 2018) https://www.essexlive.news/news/essex-news/live-stansted-15-trial-updates-2064632 (accessed 23rd November 2018) ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Ibid ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Hayes, G., Cammisss, S., and Doherty, B. (16 March 2018) ‘Deportation and direct action in Britain: the ‘terrorist trial’ of the Stansted 15’ Open Democracy https://www.opendemocracy.net/graeme-hayes-steven-cammiss-brian-doherty/deportation-and-direct-action-in-britain-terrorist-trial-o (accessed 23rd November 2018). ↩
- The Stanstead 15 have pleaded guilty to the offence of aggravated trespassing, a common charge to blockade activists that was used in recent times against activists, for example Black Lives Matter in 2016 who occupied City airport. The Crown Prosecution pursued this more severe offence, which while explicitly does not designate the offenders as terrorists had an intention to address terrorism and was a response to the Lockerbie disaster. For more, see the excellent article cited above. ↩
- (28 September 2018) ‘Stansted 15: Amnesty to observe trial amid concerns for anti-deportation activists’ https://www.amnesty.org.uk/press-releases/stansted-15-amnesty-observe-trial-amid-concerns-anti-deportation-activists (accessed 23rd November 2018). ↩
- Nathanson, R. (17thNovember 2018) ‘Deportations now faced Imprisonment in the UK’ https://theintercept.com/2018/11/17/stansted-deportation-flights-uk/ (accessed 23rd November 2018) ↩