Pranksters: Making Mischief in the Modern World, by Kembrew McLeod

An enjoyable assortment of media hoaxes that would benefit from some theoretical analysis, says Chris Knight

August 14, 2014

In this action-packed book, vampire-fanged strippers, satanists and circus escapologists jostle for our attention with conspiracy theorists, Fox News anchormen and gay rights activists. Pulling his dragnet across media headlines from the 17th century onwards, Kembrew McLeod regales us with a marvellous assortment of “pranks” – a catch-all apparently covering any pronouncement not authenticated as literally true. The exhibits range from anti-capitalist street theatre through stand-up comedy to anti-Semitic forgeries such as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

McLeod is no ordinary academic. He avoids postmodernist jargon, writing in refreshingly straightforward journalese. The downside is that Pranksters is so lacking in theoretical analysis or focus that it might have been titled Media Hoaxes: A Personally Compiled List.

Among the pranks are some of the author’s own. Dressed as a robot in 2008, he interrupted President Bill Clinton mid-speech in Iowa City, transmitting a metallic-sounding message from “robots of the world”. Enchanted by the outfit, the media revelled in headlines such as “Roboprofessor Heckles Clinton”. But no media report conveyed anything of what McLeod was trying to say. Four years later, Roboprofessor swung into action again, this time against a female Republican presidential candidate hostile to gay rights. As her supporters shouted “Stay in the closet!”, Robot pleaded: “I cannot help myself. I was programmed to do this. I am gay.” “Republican Candidate Harangued by ‘Gay Robot’” screamed the headlines. Commentators joked that since the candidate’s views “seem to come from outer space”, getting a visit from a robot should have been of little surprise to her. That particular stunt worked.

McLeod’s message is that for a media stunt to work, it has to be kept simple. My own street theatre experience confirms this. To communicate “abolish the monarchy”, bring a life-sized guillotine. If you think Goldman Sachs bankers need hanging from lamp posts, bring a rope. If you remember Maggie Thatcher as a blood-sucking vampire, drive a stake through her heart. The best antidote to violence is not bromide pacification but Punch-and-Judy gallows humour, freeing us to vent our rage on effigies.

Like any good trickster, McLeod holds nothing sacred. One selected target is the hallowed image of Winston Churchill. In 1920, informed by the lurid accounts in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Britain’s future war leader against Nazi Germany warned of a Jewish-led “worldwide conspiracy for the overthrow of civilisation”. McLeod’s purpose here is to show how one century’s biting anticlerical satire can morph into the next century’s anti-Semitic forgery. The episode, writes McLeod, serves as “a cautionary reminder of trickery’s unintended consequences”. Yes, point taken. But what is this particular story doing in Pranksters? Where is there any semblance of humour in grim Churchillian fantasies of this kind?

In Rabelais and His World, Mikhail Bakhtin explained how carnivalesque laughter can serve the populace as a levelling device inaccessible to their oppressors. Tyrants dare not be seen to laugh. McLeod misses this political point entirely. As he lists pranks irrespective of their source, Bakhtin’s laughing chorus of the ungovernable populace becomes drowned out by idiosyncratic idiocies mouthed by media personalities so disparate as to have nothing in common.

McLeod’s concluding lines seem correspondingly confused. “Despite some amusing moments sprinkled throughout Pranksters,” he tells us, “I can’t shake the feeling of dread that runs through it.” Instead of celebrating his own hilarious art, McLeod ends up lamely advising “that we need to develop more critical habits of mind, so that next time – hopefully – we won’t get fooled again”. Having blurred Bakhtin’s key distinction between humour bubbling up from below and manipulative deceptions orchestrated from above, the author here throws everything away.

Pranksters: Making Mischief in the Modern World

By Kembrew McLeod
New York University Press, 364pp, £18.99
ISBN 9780814796290
Published 25 May 2014

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