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Laugh it Off

From: “Mandisi Majavu”
To: chimurenga@panafrican.co.za
Subject: laugh it off/young capitalists/samething?

Below is an interview with Justin Nurse (founder of Laugh It Off). I wrote to him a few months ago, asking Nurse to clarify a few contradictions…, and also with an aim of trying to find out more about his company – meaning what they are trying to achieve.

Dear Justin Nurse,

My name is Mandisi Majavu; I admire your work – challenging big business that is.

However, I thought I should write to you and find out what is it that you are trying to achieve, and what motivates Laugh It Off? I hope you do not mind taking a few minutes of your time explaining what Laugh It Off is about really? You might not agree, but I believe that whoever is prepared to voice their beliefs/opinions in public must be prepared to defend and explain those views. Would you agree?

In the latest edition, Laugh It Off annual review, you claim: “The word on the street can be found in these pages. Words like AIDS, war, and America appear frequently. Issues screaming to be discussed more vigorously by South African society in general are communicated with the sensitivity and urgency these issues require.”

Surprisingly, when I paged through your magazine, I couldn’t find one word about racism (especially Cape Town racism) – is this not the word on the street? It certainly is on the streets of Khayelitsha and Mitchell’s Plain.

Instead, there is a stupid article by Ronnie McCleod (pg 89) entitled “What makes you black” which totally treats the issue of racism with ridicule and with insensitiveness. Can you explain…?

What about stifling patriarchy – is that not the word on the street?

Or perhaps we need to understand the goals of your company. Are you just another company concerned about sales and profits? Are you just another company who saw a “gap” in the market, and decided to exploit…? Nowadays, business exploits everything: our culture, history, etc. Look what they did with Che Guevera. Now, you know Che was killed for his ideas, which were basically communist in nature? But look around you – who wears Guevera shirts? It’s the folks in Constantia and Camps Bay; the same class that Guevera was decidedly against.

But I digress…

How do you hope to make any serious damage in the system if you are engaging in exactly the same way big business relates to people: buying and selling? Is Laugh It Off just another business enterprise? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against buying and selling per se; but I do not believe that the only way to share information and ideas is through selling them to one another.

As much as your company seems to be anti well-known brands, Laugh It Off seems to be a well known brand itself? Do you see a contradiction here? Or, this was the strategic plan from the beginning?

Like I said I admire your work, but that does not mean I agree with everything you say or do. And it is possible to critique what one admires.

I would love to hear from you.
Best wishes
Mandisi

Well, Justin responded.

Mandisi, thanks for your e-mail. Somehow it slipped through the cracks, and today is the first I have seen of it. Herewith our response:

“I thought I should write to you and find out what is it that you are trying to achieve…snip…must be prepared to defend and explain those views. Would you agree?”

>We would agree with you, and we proudly defend our statements – regardless of the legal consequences. As to what motivates us, running our own business and contributing to the SMME industry in SA gets us up in the morning and pays the bills. The work that we do puts SA’s social, political, and cultural agendas under the microscope by way of satire. Satire is the cornerstone of Laugh it Off, and we find it a more effective way to make a point than by going off on a political rant.

“Surprisingly, when I paged through your magazine…snip…Can you explain…?”

>We’re not saying our book (magazines don’t have spines) has every word on the street. We certainly acknowledge that there are more words and more issues out there than those that can be tackled in the 112 pages of a book that was more a celebration of South African youth culture, than an in-depth discussion of highly complex issues such as racism. The Annual was a vehicle for artists, not politicians, to express their ideas on only some of the issues affecting our country. As to your reference to Ronnie McCleod’s article, the Mail & Guardian ran this piece and would disagree with you, as would many of the readers of the Laugh it Off Annual who voted for their favourite piece in our New Media Awards. But having differences on opinion is all part of the healthy democracy we live in. Bear in mind that the author of that piece is a green puppet/ventriloquist, and is a prime example of the satire we mentioned earlier. “What makes you black?” is a reference to the pay-off line of a Metro FM ad. Should they be chastised for not dealing with the issues of racism that their title implies?

“What about stifling patriarchy – is that not the word on the street?”

>Yes. I’m sure it’s one of them.

“Or perhaps I need to understand the goals of your company… snip…the same class that Guevera was decidedly against.”

>A fundamental economic principle is that if you want to operate in a capitalist economy, you need capital. We hope that the more financially successful and well-known Laugh it Off becomes, the more we can make a difference to the people we are communicating to. Laugh it Off’s success can also provide others with the opportunity to have their say. Who could we be exploiting exactly? People who buy our book or T-shirts, and are presented with a different view? To exploit someone is to take unfair advantage of them. We make our T-shirts locally, resisting the super cheap option of importing sweatshop produced T-shirts from the Far East, so that can’t be it. We also don’t really market our products in the way that some companies do with misleading advertising – our stuff is on the shelves, and the choice is there for each and every person to decide if they want to buy it and support us, or not. Che got killed in Bolivia by attempting to lead a political coup. He didn’t fight big business.

“But I digress…”

>Indeed you do.

“How do you hope to make any serious damage in the system… snip…I do not believe that the only way to share information and ideas is through selling them to one another.”

>Laugh it Off hopes to make a difference from within the system. Centuries of different political and social systems rising and falling has found us born in a capitalist system, and while we understand and appreciate the ideas of these systems, we don’t live in the USSR in the 1950’s.

“As much as your company seems to be…snip…the strategic plan from the beginning?”

>No, perhaps a paradox, which is an apparent contradiction. Grenpeace is a brand. A brand for good. We like to see ourselves as a media Greenpeace. Everything these days is brand-related: from Proudly South African to BafanaBafana. Brands are the façade of companies, and the more successful your brand, the more successful the company. The more successful our company is, the greater the chance of new ideas being shared, and the greater the chance for change for the good.

“Like I said I admire your work…snip…to critique what one admires.”

>We thank you for your comments, as well as those in the Mail & Guardian of February 6 to 12. Perhaps we could give you guys a crash course in brand-building and basic business principles so that the Touissant Movement doesn’t ever get mistaken for a group of people trying to replace Philippe Troussier as the BafanaBafana coach? Just kidding… laugh it off.

Thanks for your interest in Laugh it Off. We hope our comments will have been of some help.

Sincerely,
Justin Nurse

After this response from Nurse, I did not know if I failed to express myself clearly; but one thing seemed clear: confusion was in the air. So I wrote back to Nurse the day after receiving his reply to our first email.

Hi Justin,

Thanks for taking time to write to back. You said so many things that I do not even know where to begin replying to your email. So, Laugh It Off (LIO) is, first and foremost, a business enterprise – that part I got, loud and clear. And the goal is to contribute to some industry.

And you say satire is the cornerstone of LIO – “we find it a more effective way to make a point than by going off on a political rant,” you add. But why do you feel you have to discredit what you call a “political rant” to make your point? Can’t you make your point clear without having to discredit something else? Perhaps I should remind you of a “political rant” that led to the first republic in world history – 1789, French revolution. Another “political rant”: May 1968 – riots in Paris started by the Situationists. I can go on like this, but I fear this email will be too long.

As for the Mail and Guardian disagreeing with me – that wouldn’t really surprise me, to tell you the truth. As for your readers voting for the piece as the best analysis since Das Capital; well, suffice to say a large majority of South Africans still believe in miracles; but that does not mean miracles happen – does it now?

You go on to say: “Laugh It off hopes to make a difference within the system.” I think this statement shows confusion of what the system is really about. Why would you want to be in a system of cutthroat competition and mass-marketing? Why would you want to be involved in a losers’ game: economic competition instead of cooperation, popularity contests in place of community, the struggle to measure up to social norms instead of the pursuit of individual dreams? – to paraphrase Michael Albert. Wouldn’t you rather be fighting against this system than wasting your talents working within it?

I forget which thinker once said: “of course the system has ‘appropriate procedures’ for people with grievances to go through to try to make things better, that’s the safety valve to release pressure when people get too worked up.” Do you think the powers that be would really let anyone use their own laws and methods to depose them?

It is interesting the way you define exploitation. So you do not think ideas/history/culture can be exploited? When they (big business) commercialize ideas or any of the above mentioned to benefit (meaning making profits) themselves – what do you think they are doing? Business will/is using our ideas to make profit but do not enrich nor expand our ideas in exchange; on the contrary they live our idea/history/culture meaningless – empty of content!

That Justin is exploitation spiced up with alienation.

Che was killed by the CIA in the jungles of Bolivia fighting against this system. When Che went to Angola to fight apartheid forces, he was fighting against this thuggish system. When Che went to Congo, he was fighting this wicked system. Che dedicated his life to fighting a system that produces big business, and a system that will stop at nothing when wanting to make a profit.

Best wishes.
Mandisi

After this email Justin Nurse decided not to reply.

This piece was first published in Chimurenga Vol. 6 The Orphans Of Fanon (October ’04). .

Laugh it Off are still laughing it off. They can be found here.

Mandisi Majavu is a free-lance journalist. He is the Book Reviews Editor of Interface: A Journal For and About Social Movements. He is the co-editor of ‘Visual Century: South African art in context Vol 4: 1990 – 2007’ (Wits Press, 2011). Some of his work has appeared in the anthologies: ‘Real Utopia: Participatory society for the 21st Century’ (Ak Press, 2008) and ‘Beyond Borders: Thinking critically about global studies (Worth Publishers, 2006).

One Response to Laugh it Off

  1. Art, Los Angeles September 24, 2013 at 6:37 pm #

    Not sure why this piece is reappearing now. The problem with Majavu’s argument is that ideas are not tainted just because the paper that bears them is sold for a profit, nor is a satirical magazine inevitably suspect because it uses branding to create a presence for itself in the public sphere. Just like the state, a flawed instrument, can at times deliver justice, so can the flawed tools of competitive enterprise produce and circulate meaningful social critique. The fact that LIO participates in “the” system does not discredit it.

    Now, I think Majavu’s argument would be stronger if it looked at the way that those ideas are consumed. LIO’s particular style of marketing may predispose readers to treat those ideas like commodities — i.e., as intensely personal but ultimately temporary and disposable. That should be the focus of the critique, rather than some bullheaded fiction about how “community” and “competition” are intrinsically zero-sum.

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