Friday, November 19, 2010
From the back cover: "Gelven finds that in revealing the spirit of graced folly, comedy teaches us about our own essence, the fundamental nature of our finitude. This will undoubtedly be of considerable importance not only to philosophical aestheticians or literary critics, but also for those seeking to understand the nature of truth itself."
Saturday, June 5, 2010
A historical account of the carnivalesque in art, mostly more concerned with the grotesque than the humourous per se. Addresses the historical role of the carnival, and its relation to art through a series of painters from the 16th century to the present day. Mostly concerned with carnivalesque themes such as crowds, masks, bodies and inversion. Lots of pictures of genetalia interpreted through Bahktin with a predominantly formal concern, though many of the paintings are argued to convey political messages (though not have political effects as it were).
A companion essay by Roger Malbert is more scpetical as regards the political function of the carnival in his treatment of contemporary art. Argues that the carnival loses something of its essence when it passes from lived exprience to text, but that it also gains the ability to capture the fleeting and thereby confront the viewer with the world. Anthony Howell and Paul McCarthy are perhaps the most interesting examples.
Wednesday, June 2, 2010
Back cover: "This is the first book to take seriously (though not too seriously) the surprisingly neglected role of humour in art."
Terribly written. Mostly descriptive. Author points out her favourite works with regard to each artist. Idiotic and bluntly self-contradictory statements flung together. Poorly researched.
Sample sentence: "The fact that they are colour photographs makes them seductive like candy."
Tuesday, May 18, 2010
This book aims to investigate the line between offensiveness and humour. Citing several examples, from Berlusconi's comparison between a German MP and a concentration camp guard to an MP who made not one but two racist jokes at public functions in Britain, the editors suggest that there is a certain line between humour and offensiveness. Unlike Ted Cohen, who argues that the debate around offensive jokes should not revolve around whether or not they are funny, the editors suggest that some jokes, including Berlusconi's, are "desperately unfunny" (3). Teasing out additional strands to describe this split, the editors describe the "negotiation" that takes place in the creation of humour, often implicitly and quickly, sometimes in the length of time it takes to tell the joke—by the time the punchline occurs, we've decided whether or not to laugh (9-10).
The editors don't believe, as they say Howard Jacobson does in his book Seriously Funny, that there are no lines to be drawn within humour (11). They balk at the assumption that to consider such lines paints one as humourless or anti-humour; instead, they suggest more carefully analyzing the relations between the aesthetics and ethics of humour and a prominent theme in their analysis is the line between offensiveness and funniness (12). The line here, they argue, becomes very clear in jokes that revel "violent racism" or physical violence (13). More often, however, they recognize that the line between offense and humour is blurry and in flux, not to mention the face that "who 'we' might be is heavily burdened with political as well as moral issues" (13). The complications, they suggest, have lead critics like Jacobson to argue instead for a line between so-called "make believe" or fiction in joking as opposed to "real" life. The editors, however, recognize that humour is as much a part of real life as it is a kind of fiction, as well as noting that make believe precisely makes one believe, or constructs reality.
The editors position their project in terms of building tolerance in an increasingly multicultural world (14).The question of which "we" is the source of laughter and the rationale of ethical values makes up the core project of this collection. The editors write, "One of the aims of this book is to explore this tension and the question as to where the limits of humour might lie in order that 'we', in the multicultural sense of the word, may come to laugh together on a much wider basis and without the unexamined prejudice that allows for humour calculated to do little else than cause deep offense in others" (14). In accomplishing this goal, however, they don't aim to create an "absolute evaluative template" by which to measure humour, but rather to recognize the way in which the ethics and aesthetics of humour are "inextricably entwined" (15). In this way, they work with humour in a way that recognizes and accepts its slipperiness, its ability to be read and misread in multiple ways, to confirm prejudices or defy conventional wisdom, to posit ambiguity or to create the impression of certainty.
Critchley's book has probably become one of the most-cited overviews of the topic of humour. He traces the three prominent theories of humour: superiority, relief and incongruity, along with descriptions of laughter from classical through to recent texts. His chapters deal with topics ranging from the question of whether humour is particular to humans, the body and humour, Bergson's notion of the mechanical and laughter, ethnic humour, the idea of humour as creating community and Freud's theories on humour. Much of the book simply and concisely outlines discussions that have occurred around these topics. For instance, in his chapter on ethnic humour, Critchley suggests that ethnic jokes reveal the repressed anxieties of the teller (75). In humour, Critchley argues that we align and differentiate ourselves with communities, both in ways we find pleasurable and positive and in ways we find uncomfortable.
Critchley offers Freud the last word on humour, focusing his final chapter on his late essay "Humor," in particular. The chapter moves from laughter and humour to a discussion of the smile. He writes, "a smile is the mark of the eccentricity of the human situation: between beasts and angels, between being and having, between the physical and metaphysical. We are thoroughly material beings that are unable to be that materiality. Such is the curse of reflection, but such also is the source of our dignity. Humour is he daily bread of that dignity" (109). The chapter finally closes with Beckett, a playwright whose humour is often not at all risible and whose smiles are rife with a range of emotions and negations. He concludes, paraphrasing Beckett between his hyphens,
For me, it is this smile—deriding the having and the not having, the pleasure and the pain, the sublimity and suffering of the human situation—that is the essence of humour. This is the risus purus, the highest laugh, the laugh that laughs at the laugh, that laughs at that which is unhappy, the mirthless laugh of the epigraph to this book. Yes, this smile does not bring unhappiness, but rather elevation and liberation, the lucidity of consolation. This is why, melancholy animals that we are, human beings are also the most cheerful. We smile and find ourselves ridiculous. Our wretchedness is our greatness. (111)
It's interesting that Critchley moves away from laughter at this moment and towards the smile. I think his focus on laughter (and smiling) stems from his interest in the bodily experience of humour, but the study of humour (as opposed to its physiological response) precludes distinctions between smiles and laughter (or smiles as laughter as this concluding quote seems to suggest) as evidence of humour's occurrence or as part of its analysis. I'm not sure that the smile in this case indicates a laughter at unhappiness, but does indicate the linkage between affect and humour, or the notion that humour acts as a microcosm of our affective relation to our existential situation. Moreover, privileging wretchedness as greatness seems a potentially problematic move without further analysis or support, though it's a provocative idea.
While Nietzsche's Gay Science does not offer anything so comprehensive as a theory of humour, he speaks often about laughter and pleasure. More than this, his concept of eternal recurrence, elaborated in this book as well, can be figured as a kind of nihilism that Nietzsche figures as ambivalent, equally a "tale told by an idiot, signifiying nothing" and a productive site of inquiry. As Kaufmann writes in a footnote, "The absence of all purpose and meaning to which one's first reaction may well be nausea or despair, can be experienced as liberating and delightful in what Nietzsche later calls a 'Dionysian' perspective" (248). Rather than a typical annotation, I've included a series of almost aphoristic quotes from the text that voice his ideas on topics around nihilism, cynicism, laughter, comedy and humour.
"How the theatrical scream of passion now hurts our ears, how strange to our taste the whole romantic uproar and tumult of the senses have become, which the educated mob loves, and all its aspirations after the elevated, inflated and exaggerated! No, if we convalescents still need art, it is another kind of art—a mocking, light, fleeting, divinely untroubled, divinely artificial art that, like a pure flame, licks into unclouded skies... We know better afterward what above all is needed for this: cheerfulness, any cheerfulness" (37).
"To laugh at oneself as one would have to laugh in order to laugh out the whole truth—to do that even the best so far lacked sufficient sense for the truth, and the most gifted had too little genius for that. Even laughter may yet have a future. I mean, when the proposition 'the species is everything, one is always none' has become part of humanity, and this ultimate liberation and irresponsibility has become accessible to all at all times. Perhaps laughter will then have formed an alliance with wisdom, perhaps only 'gay science' will then be left" (74).
"For the present, the comedy of existence has not yet 'become conscious' of itself" (74).
"The gruesome counterpart of laughter, that profound emotional shock felt by many individuals at the thought: 'Yes, I am worthy of living!'" (75).
"Reflecting has lost all the dignity of its form: the ceremony and solemn gestures of reflecting have become ridiculous" (81).
"The greatest danger that always hovered over humanity and still hovers over it is the eruption of madness—which means the eruption of arbitrariness in feeling, seeing, and hearing, the enjoyment of the mind's lack of discipline, the joy in human unreason" (130).
"The lovely human beast always seems to lose its good spirits when it thinks well; it becomes 'serious.' And 'where laughter and gaiety are found, thinking does not amount to anything': that is the prejudice of this serious beast against all 'gay science'" (257).
"The whole pose of 'man against the world,' of man as a 'world-negating' principle, of man as the measure of the value of things, as judge of the world who in the end places existence itself upon his scales and finds it wanting—the monstrous insipidity of this pose has come home to us and we are sick of it. We laugh as soon as we encounter the juxtaposition of 'man and world,' separated by the sublime presumption of the little word 'and.' But look, when we laugh like that, have we not simply carried the contempt for man one step further? And thus also pessimism, the contempt for that existence which is knowable by us? Have we not exposed ourselves to the suspicion of an opposition—an opposition between the world in which we were at home up to now with our reverences that perhaps made it possible for us to endure life, and another world that consists of us—an inexorable, fundamental, and deepest suspicion about ourselves that is more and more gaining worse and worse control of us Europeans and that could easily confront coming generations with the terrifying Either/Or: 'Either abolish your reverences or—yourselves!' The latter would be nihilism; but would not the former also be—nihilism? –This is our question mark" (286-87).
"The desire for destruction, change, and becoming can be an expression of an overflowing energy that is pregnant with the future (my term for this is, as is known, 'Dionysian'); but it can also be the hatred of the ill-constituted, disinherited, and underprivileged, who destroy, must destroy, because what exists, indeed all existence, all being, outrages and provokes them" (329).
"romantic pessimism, the last great event in the fate of our culture. That there still could be an altogether different kind of pessimism... I can this pessimism of the future—for it comes! I see it coming!—Dionysian pessimism" (331).
Going back to ancient Hebrew, Egyptian and Greek writing, artwork and religion, this readable and accessible book traces the history of laughter in Western culture. For instance, Sanders open the book by referencing a 3rd century Egyptian alchemical papyrus in which the Creator laughs of chaos, with bursts of laughter bringing forth all aspects of creation (1). Sanders notes that the history of laughter (in the west) and the structure of modern humour is built on a tradition that comes to us via the Greek and Latin foundation of much of western knowledge. As such, he notes that a bias towards both a white, male humorist and laugher is built into the tradition to some degree (26). At the same time, Sanders describes the modern joke as stemming from the collision of this intellectual, rhetorical world with the vernacular, oral world (26). Sanders thus situates the study of laughter (and I would argue humour as well) within cultural studies, conceived as a combination of critical and aesthetic theory with everyday experience and subjectivity.
One of the key strands in this book follows laughter's association with power. He writes, "From the point of view of the marginalized and the disenfranchised, if they cannot participate in the writing of history, they can at least try to erase it. To pull this off, however, one must realize that while a laugh can turn the subtleties of power inside out, making them suddenly visible, it can also turn power into pure brutality, for power, finally, has nothing to say to laughter—it remains dumb in the silent sense, dumb-founded in the weakest way. When it responds, it can only resort to mere physicality –torture, imprisonment, or even death" (25). This reading of power in relation to laughter, or their interplay, is interesting particularly alongside a Foucauldian notion of power as negotiated. I would argue, though, that the power he is describing is equally tied to the provocation of such laughter, or humour. In other words, something must provoke the laughing-at-power that he describes. At the same time, the violent response of the structure of power to laughter suggests that joking and humour are both forces around which both resistance and repression congeal. The orientation towards change is captured in his statement, "everyone laughs in the future tense" (32).
Sanders notes that the decoupling of the word and its usage in the modern period occurs alongside "an artistic revolution of laughter, in surrealism and dada" (31). He speculates that "joking may characterize best the breaking that postmodernists seem to relish so much" (31). These statements reinforce my idea the contemporary sense of humour can be traced to the artistic and literary movements of modernism.
Monday, May 17, 2010
Freud, Sigmund. "Humor" (1927). The Future of an Illusion, Civilization and Its Discontents and Other Works, Standard Edition. Vol. 21. London: The Hogarth Press, 1961, pp. 159–66.
Freud returns to the subject of humour long after his book Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious to offer several further thoughts on the subject started in his initial book. This essay's central question is summarized as follows, "In what, then, does the humorous attitude consist, an attitude by means of which a person refuses to suffer, emphasizes the invincibility of his ego by the real world, victoriously maintains the pleasure principle—and all this, in contrast to other methods having the same purposes, without overstepping the bounds of mental health" (163). Like his previous book, this essay draws on examples and those chosen to support his questions in this case are often examples of dark humour—for instance a man sentenced to death who looks up at his own hanging to say "well, the week's beginning nicely."
Freud adds four points to his initial analysis of humour in this essay. The first is that it is "not resigned; it is rebellious" (162); suggesting contra Morreall, that humour might precisely be a mode for revolution. Going further, Freud suggests that humour offers a person a defence, a means by which to "ward off possible suffering" (164). Freud adds to this the feeling of pleasure in a mutually shared enjoyment. Lastly, humour for Freud involves the superego, which, in the moment of joking reassures the ego. He writes, assuming the voice of the super-ego, "Look! Here in the world which seems so dangerous! It is nothing but a game for children—just worth making a jest about!" (166).
This later essay by Freud crystallizes many of the ideas that occur in Jokes in a more meandering form. Further, here he more pointedly accounts for instances of dark humour. At the same time, his emphasis on notions of relief theory and the psyche remain (perhaps obviously) his most prominent lines of analysis. I wonder how Freud's description of the superego/ego relationship here would relate to a subject/ideology dichotomy were one to map his analysis onto a broader reading of the subject in relation to culture. What role would humour play in such a shift?
Cohen, Ted. Jokes: Philosophical Thoughts on Joking Matters. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.
In a book that includes more jokes than many on the topic, Cohen offers an accessible and readable a description and analysis of joking, with chapters entitled, "Jokes Are Conditional," "When Jokes are Assymetrical," "Problems and Occassions for Joke-Making," "Jewish Jokes and the Acceptance of Absurdity," and "Taste, Morality, and the Propriety of Joking." In his introduction, Cohen limits his object of study to two specific joke forms: short story jokes and formula jokes. Though in a less specific manner, he reinforces Douglas's point that jokes work because their audience brings certain awareness or assumptions to the joke (3). Unlike some others, Cohen begins by asserting his belief that no comprehensive theory of jokes is possible (10). He does suggest understanding jokes as a form of "performance" (11), a position which his text, rife as it is with jokes, reinforces. In this, he offers perhaps the most explicit linkage between performativity and humour studies.
His last chapter, "Taste, Morality, and the Propriety of Joking" offers an explicit consideration of black humour and dark jokes. He asks,
Do I think we should joke about absurdities? Should we be laughing at the fact of death? Death is a bleak topic. Jokes about death can be bleak. But apart from all that bleakness, joke-telling about death has a special dark side, which it shares with much joke-telling.
Though this statement is provocative, Cohen does not go on to suggest what this "special dark side" of jokes around death might consist of. However, he goes on to offer a discussion around contentious issue of morality and ethnic or other jokes often considered objectionable. At the beginning of this chapter, Cohen posits a line determining when a joke is "out of place," at the question of avoidance. He suggests a joke is objectionable when it is a mechanism used to avoid, rather than address a topic head on (69). At the same time, Cohen goes on to suggest that ethnic jokes are not necessarily objectionable because they "purvey stereotypes" (78). All jokes, he argues, portray fictions and falsehoods. With ethnic jokes, Cohen acknowledges there may be something "especially disagreeable or obnoxious in this particular idea's being believed" (79). However, he stops short of condemning jokes that take African Americans, for instance, as their butts because he believes making moral declarations on jokes is an impossible task. In trying to imagine the moral response of an "ideal observer"—a figure often used in analytical moral theory—to ethnically-charged jokes, Cohen argues that one cannot definitively say whether such a creature would object or welcome such jokes (81). So far, he goes on to argue, it cannot be shown that such jokes produce genuine harm to someone (81). Thus, rather than arguments over whether jokes are good or bad, funny or unfunny, Cohen argues that analysts should be interested in the fact that even objectionable jokes can be funny and wonder why this might be so (84).
Zizek, Slavoj. “The Christian-Hegelian Comedy.” The Artist’s Joke. Ed. Jennifer Higgie. London: Whitechapel, 2007. 216-220.
More than any other writer on humour/joking, Zizek parses an understanding of comedy and joking (in the case of this essay) within the terrain of Continental philosophy and critical theory. In this essay, he describes the character of what he calls the Hegelian joke, further offering an analysis of Christianity as based on a comic structure. This annotation will focus on the former, though the latter is also interesting, and typically mind-boggling, in Zizekian fashion. Zizek describes a tripartite joke structure that fits within the typical Hegelian dialectic. Thus, the "Hegelian" joke for Zizek is that which the butt's subjective position is undermined, in which he/she finds him/herself part of the group he/she is ridiculing (216). The negation of this joke, or its antithesis, is a joke in which the punchline involves the exclusion or othering of the subject outside of the group. Finally, the third term Zizek describes is the joke correlative of "infinite judgement," or tautological "supreme contradiction" (216—all of these terms are explained with great jokes in the text, which I won't quote here).
Going on to further parse the comic in Hegelian terms, Zizek describes the difference between a tragic and comic hero in terms of the actor's distance from the role: where the tragic hero is representative of a universal character and is separated from him/herself, the comic character "is never fully identified with his role; he always retains the ability to observe himself from outside: 'making fun of himself'" (217). That is: this self-reflexivity is built into the character him/herself. Linking this analysis with Hegel's notions of comedy, Zizek notes that "what happens in comedy is that the Universal appears directly" (218).
Seeming to offer a direct rebuttal to analyses such as that offered by Paul Lewis of killing jokes as our response to a fallen world, Zizek writes,
Comedy does not rely on the undermining of our dignity with reminders of the ridiculous contingencies of our terrestrial existence. On the contrary, comedy is the full assertion of universality, the immediate coincidence of universality with the character's/actor's singularity. Or to put it another way, what effectively happens when all universal features of dignity are mocked and subverted? The negative force that undermines them is that of the individual, of the hero with his attitude of disrespect towards all elevated universal values, and this negativity itself is the only true remaining universal force. (218)
This quote also offers a counterpoint to the view that negation through comedy (perhaps also cynicism) need only lead to a universalized negativity. Instead, Zizek positions individuality and/or subjective experience and the ability to harness negativity through comedy as a counterforce to a kind of blasé nihilism. Perhaps nihilism only becomes such when we treat it as hopeless—we reify it in naming and lamenting it as such.
Zizek goes on to write "the comic effect proper occurs when, after the act of unveiling, one confronts the ridicule and nullity of the unveiled content—in contrast to encountering behind the veil the terrifying Thing too traumatic for our gaze. Which is why the ultimate comical effect occurs when, after removing the mask , we confront exactly the same face as that of the mask" (219). This quote links Zizek's discussion of comedy here with his analysis of ideology in Sublime Object of Ideology, where he describes our relationship to ideology in very similar terms.
The opening lines to Mary Douglas's essay on jokes and joking practices highlight a key problem in the study of humour by not only anthropologists (whom she names), but among theorists of humour more generally. She writes, "Anthropologists tend to approach ritual joking from scratch, with merely an introspective glance at the cases in which they themselves feel impelled to joke. Consequently they have treated joking rituals as if they arise spontaneously from social situations and as if the anthropologist's sole task is to classify the relations involved" (90). She positions her look at joking in terms an analysis that seeks to articulate modes of thought or expression in relation to social experience, rather than the classification of types of social experience—what she sees as the direction in which anthropology must develop in the mid-1970s. She also describes the importance of looking at joking in terms of its everyday use and its subjective character, though again tying these analyses to the consideration of larger social structures (92). Joking, for Douglas, is a "play upon form" that acts in a similar way to a kind of "ritual pollution" (92). Her essay is primarily concerned with the practices of joking in the Dogon tribe in Africa, which are scatological and based on the exchange of what western anthropologists in the past saw as "gross insults" (92). In this, Douglas pinpoints a central problem in the study of humour: its cultural specificity. She asks whether jokes can be understood outside of the culture that produces them, following this with a tantalizing question around interpretation: "When people throw excrement at one another whenever they meet, either verbally or actually, can this be interpreted as a case of wit, or merely written down as a case of throwing excrement? This is the central problem of all interpretation" (92).
Douglas explicitly separates her analysis of joking from the study of laughter: "it would be wrong to suppose that the acid test of a joke is whether it provokes laughter or not" (92)—a useful division and precedent for ongoing analyses of humour. She bases this distinction on the work of Bergson, whose essay on laughter speaks about joking and humour, but not about laughter specifically. She offers an insightful analysis of Bergson and Freud, saying that both assume a structure characteristic to humour; however, she finds it difficult to map their structure onto the joking rituals of the Dogon, and so she extrapolates from their analyses to find instead that the form of a joke lies less in the utterance alone, but "can be identified in the total social situation" (93). In Bergson's definition of humour, Douglas balks at the moral judgment implied between the "good" joke—the human—and the "bad" mechanism at which the joke pokes fun (93-94). Douglas offers a more expansive definition, saying, "A joke is a play upon form. It brings into relation disparate elements in such a way that one accepted pattern is challenged by the appearance of another which in some way was hidden in the first" (96), and in this description betrays her affinity with Freud's definition of joking.
The rest of Douglas's chapter concerns a specific analysis of Dogon joking rituals, which, though interesting is less vital to this project. However, her careful positioning of the topic, largely in order to justify it as an object of study within 1970s anthropology offers a useful framework by which to begin similar work in reference to other theorists of humour who have similarly limited or expanded the topic of humour, sometimes seemingly arbitrarily, until its limits seem not to offer any kind of useful field within which to work. Her work also offers an explicit connection between the everyday, ritual and questions of larger cultural or ideological meanings.
The latest book from a man who has made it one of his academic missions to establish the parameters of the philosophical understanding of humour. The first part of the book summarizes work he has done in the past to collect and name the three central theories of humour: 1) superiority theory, which Morreall describes as seeing humour as anti-social; 2) incongruity theory, which he describes as the view of humour as irrational; and 3) relief theory, which sees humour as a kind of pressure valve that releases social or psychic tension. He adds to these the minority view of Aristotle and Aquinas and, more recently, Robert Latta, which sees humour as playful relaxation.
In "That Mona Lisa Smile: The Aesthetics of Humour," one of the more interesting chapters in the book for the purposes of this work, Morreall describes humour as an aesthetic experience aligning it with the Kantian notion of disinterestedness (or suggesting that the goal of aesthetic humour is disinterested, focused only on providing amusement), adding to his description of the aesthetic of humour the elements of surprise or a shift in perspective, which contribute to its aesthetic appeal or pleasure (70). He distinguishes this from "non-aesthetic" humour on the basis of the motivation behind the joke, with jokes focused on superiority, for instance, falling into the latter category (72). Morreall wants to distinguish humorous amusement from similar kinds of cognitive shifts at work in tragedy, horror, the grotesque or macabre, suggesting, "humorous amusement, by contrast, is by itself a positive state with no negative emotions" (74). He also separates the fantastic or bizarre from humour, citing the Surrealists as an example and suggesting that these elicit cognitive rather than emotional shocks and thus cannot be considered humour. In his effort to delineate a unique kernel that is humour, however, one wonders at the exceptions to these rules: black humour, Holocaust jokes, killing jokes or nervous laughter, and how these would be accounted for in terms of their aesthetic function.
In the chapter, "Laughing at the Wrong Time: The Negative Ethics of Humor," Morreall goes on to describe 8 basic moral objections to humour, which he claims as the most common objections; that it is: insincere, idle, irresponsible, hedonistic, reducing self-control, hostile, anarchistic and foolish. In each case, Morreall cites examples to debunk each claim, though, equally, in each case, some example could be offered in support of the initial objection as well. Overall, however, in his effort to defuse these negative objections, Morreall wants to get past an ethical argument against humour that focuses on its phthonic element (Ronald de Sousa), or malicious attitude (98). Instead, Morreall describes humour as offering a "practical disengagement" (101), in this separating laughter and humour from emotion (101). In support of this division, he writes, "when we want to evoke anger or outrage about some problem, we don't present it in a humorous way, precisely because of the practical disengagement of humour. Satire is not a weapon of revolutionaries" (101). Though unclear on how someone like Swift fits into such a claim, Morreall moves on quickly from this claim to suggest in this context that the negative implications of humour are better viewed as stemming from this practical disengagement. He describes three such negative ethics in the bulk of the chapter: irresponsibility, the blocking of compassion and the promotion of prejudice, each of which is relatively self-explanatory.
In the following chapter, entitled "Having a Good Laugh: the Positive Ethics of Humour," Morreall counters the negative ethics of humour by describing the "intellectual virtues fostered by humour" (112). THeseinclude: fostering open-mindedness and spurring critical thinking (113). Here, he cites Jon Stewart and Bill Mahar (sic) as examples of political satirists who "encourage us to think twice before accepting any political message" (113).
The descriptions Morreall offers of both the negative and positive attributes of humour seem anecdotal and heavily tied to whichever example he chooses to illustrate his point. For instance, humour can be said to promote prejudice when the example cited is Don Imus's "joke" about the Rutgers women's basketball team, but political (perhaps even revolutionary?) when referencing Jon Stewart. While Morreall's work reinforces the idea that critical analysis should be applied to the topic of humour, his approach is largely anecdotal and relies heavily on generalizations that don't hold when applied to a range of examples.
Lewis, Paul. Cracking Up: American Humor in a Time of Conflict. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.
Lewis's main contribution in this book is his effort to delineate two prominent modes of humour in popular discourse: 1) healing humour and 2) killing jokes. The first he traces alongside the development of a view of humour and laughter as healing alongside the growth of new age and self-healing movements in the chapter "Red Noses at the Ready!" In this chapter, Lewis remains relatively sceptical of the idea that so-called "destructive" modes of humour should be disavowed (as is the call of the "positive humorists") and the concomitant idea that the healing mode of humour should be celebrated unquestionably. However, ultimately, Lewis locates positive humour as a response to a sense that existence is dark and meaningless (107). This sense of nihilism, for Lewis, elicits two responses: either the denial of pleasure or to protest this so-called "enemy" by taking "comfort in a life of simple pleasures" (107). Clearly, Lewis privledges the latter tack over the former.
The bulk of his book takes up the idea of the "killing joke," which he describes as a mode of joking in which "neither the speaker nor the creator of the joke is only kidding." Killing jokes "depict not only death but a more or less total destruction of the recognizable human identity (shape, form) or their victimized butts" (41); thus, as opposed to the positive humor folks, the killing joker uses "humor not as comic relief but as comic intensifier" (40).
Lewis summarizes his analysis of killing jokes and their cultural role in the following passage:
"By allowing us to shift from impotence to power, from victim to predator, killing jokes can provide distance from both vulnerability and guilt. By bringing audiences to the moment of danger and then adopting a playful attitude, they assume a willingness to reject or repudiate humanity. The multiplication of this humor, the resonance of these jokes through the past decades, suggests that they are performing what Frederic (sic) Jameson describes as 'transformational work' on social anxieties and what Philip Fisher has called 'cultural work,' that is, they are contributing to changes of consciousness by 'massing small patterns of feelings in an entirely new direction" (62).
He goes on to describe killing jokes "as gallows humor for a poisoned planet, killing jokes are an understandable response to the human—indeed planetary—predicament two millennia after Christ" (62).
Thus, with both positive humour and killing jokes, Lewis ends up at a similar diagnosis: seeing these as symptomatic of a late-capitalist moment he sees as existentially, ethically and morally dark, if not diseased.
Lewis's delineation of and description of "killing jokes" as a prominent feature of the current pop cultural mediascape is useful in underscoring the central role occupied by humour, particularly dark humour, in contemporary cultural production. Likewise, his recognition of the proximity of multiple "negative" emotions: fear, anxiety, cynicism alongside a mode that offers, even in its darker incarnations, pleasure and relief, complicates any easy understanding of humour as wholly negative or positive, instead pushing discussion towards the function of such a concatenation of seemingly contradictory feelings. However, his work in situating this mode of humour in terms of a broader cultural moment returns to a binary between fear and pleasure, with the latter implicitly priviledged as desirable in overcoming the former. At the same time, his suggestion that contemporary modes of humour are symptomatic of our cultural moment is a rich observation that calls for further work.
Tuesday, May 4, 2010
A social history of 'joking' in America since the 1950s that argues for the importance of humour as a measure of zeitgeist and an influential social force surpassed only by popular music in its daily cultural impact. Joke cycles, understand as historical and social entities, form the central object of study.
Bolskin argues that the humour of this period was distinctly rebellious and informed political, racial and social debates, though this might be somewhat called into question by Boskin's identification of Saturday Night Live as the "most barbed" show on American television. Boskin suggests that certain comedians function in a manner akin to "shamans" bringing forth social tensions and taboos and confronting them. Humour is thus primarily characterised as a positive force of "resistance and reconciliation." Humor is directly identified as a liberal force and as a means to build ocmmunity.
Drawing on Hobbes' wider corpus and contemporay accounts of his character, Ewin argues that Hobbes oft-quoted remarks on laughter should not be understood as a dismisal of laughter all together as a generally disagreable condition. Rather, Ewin suggests, Hobbes considers laughter at another's misfortune to be symptomatic of a particularly uncharitable and malicious passion that does not befit a great mind or a gentleman. Thus, Hobess does not rule out all laughter, but simply that which lacks compassion, which Ewin argues is the often overlooked central tenet of Hobbes's political and social theory.
A fannish collection that aligns Stewart with Neil Postman, Socrates and the Greek Cynics. TDS and Philosophy is one of the ‘purest’ form of the approach that asserts, in the words of one of its contributors, that “with political satire in particular, humor can’t be disconnected from the broader social project of liberation” (Vanderheiden 206), thereby attributing to political humour an entirely critical and liberatory function. Ignores issues of political economy, medium, capitalist structures or any nuanced theory of humour. Stewart is hailed as a modern philosopher or public intellectual, and the show is lauded an exercise in unimpeachable critical thinking.
Gray, Jonathan, Jeffrey Jones and Ethan Thompson. Satire TV: Politics and Comedy in the Post-Network Era
An account of contemporary satirical TV shows - including The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, South Park, SNL, Dave Chappelle, Sacha Baron Cohen and Chris Morris - which provides useful descriptive and historical content. Theoretically bound to Bahktin via Crichtley school of humour theory, however, which leads to unsophisticated celebrations of subversive and critical power of satire as political force. Useful categorisations of terminology, but reductive critical political analysis leads to premature conclusions.
Regarded as one of the founding texts of the Superiority tradition of humour theory, wherein Thomas Hobbes asserts that “the passion of laughter is nothing else but a sudden glory arising from the sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmities of others, or with our own formerly” (54). Thus, humour is a respose to perceived superiority in relation to another, or in respect to one's past self. This perception must be both new and sudden. Like many early writers (and several contemporary ones as well) Hobbes collapses any distinction between humour and laughter. Less often noted is that Hobbes also leaves open the possibility of non-mocking laughter, declaring that: "Laughter without offence, must be at absurdities and infirmities abstracted from persons, and where all the company may laugh together” (55).
A pupil of Zizek, Zupančič offers a philosophically dense and complex interpretation of humour as transcendant incongruity taken up in the context of contemporary examples such as Borat and George Bush Jr jokes.
For Zupančič, Comedy is not a simplistic liberation: irony and laughter can function well in conditions of true ideology wherein the subject feels profoundly free – freedom and humour constitute an important aspect of the contemporary dominant ideology (4). The subversion of humour is not to be found in its intellectual resistance, indeed currently all that is negative must be seen as positive, happiness is a virtue (6). Contemporary ideology biologises difference in a form of inverse racism (6). The current ideology celebrates the absence of ideology which is replaced with happiness and comedy (7).
In dense Hegelian and Lacanian language, Zupančič argues that “true comedy” constitutes a split between the actual and abstract realisation of an Universal ideal thereby revealing the gaps in the implied finitude of the social order (30-52).Taking up the Freudian notion of the tendentious, Zupančič argues that comedy allows us to realise, and thereby laugh at, the paradoxical functioning of our symbolic and contingent universe (142-7). This is carnival on a transcendent, rather than social level.
Zupančič suggests that humour acts to question the sanctity of what Hegel dubs the symbolic Universal by revealing how it emerges out of the concrete Particular (27-9) or, in other words, how seemingly eternal unquestionable aspects of existence are really products of the transient everyday. This occurs because humour reveals how the Universal arises out of concrete forms, a process that creates a short-circuit between the lofty nature of the Universal and the “obscene other side” that emerges from its materialist consequences (32), the two aspects stitched together in a comic contradiction. Humour, in Zupančič’s conception, can therefore accommodate the existence of two mutually exclusive frames of reference that are compelled to co-exist, which leads to a perceptual break-down of the symbolic order and allows us to draw nearer to the Lacanian kernel of the Real (142). In this scheme, comic characters are funny because they embody a single universal notion, be it piety or cleanliness, for example, to the detriment of their particular existence as an embodied subject – they put the universal desire of their self before their actual existence which creates comic consequences wherein the Universal, which is revealed to only exist in the Particular, comes into conflict with it (Zupančič 49-51). The comic character is thus not subversive because they challenge the dominant ideology or what Zupančič refers to as the Universal, but because they reveal how that ideology emerges out of the material and how it must therefore always exist within a particularity even as it feigns an essential nature.
Billig offers a fairly comprehensive historical account of the key texts of humour theory from a perspective directly at odds with that offered by conventional "humor studies." Billig goes perhaps too far in the opposite direction though, declaring all humour to be an act of aggressive social control and power with the aim to humiliate and discipline its subject (194-9). In Billig's account, humour is cruel and dominating, and he therefore can function as a useful illustration of a particular anlytic extreme.
Also useful is Billig's argument that humour has become a social obligation, and very little is now considered outside the purview of humour (11-5), such that humour should be considered a form of conformity, not rebellion. Moreover, Billig asserts that it is mistaken to make any distinction between positive and negative humour (22-5), such as those offered by Zupančič and Eco, and instead he argues that all humour is a rejection of negative and critical thinking that results in a conservative mindset (30). Such misunderstandings are argued to arise from an approach that treats humour as a cognitive and intellectual, rather than emotional, phenomenon, and which thereby abstracts humour out from the social conditions wherein it operates (64-6). Socially understood, laughter is never kind-hearted, it always arises out of a desire to ridicule and discipline (134-6). In political terms, this ridicule is always on the side of the powerful, and thus cannot constitute a rebellion of any sort: in fact, Billig asserts, any attempt to conjoin political dissent with humour, robs any radical or revolutionary action of its power (209-12). In these claims, Billig represents the other dominant strain of contemporary humour theory – opposed to the carnivalesque tradition – which regards humour as Adorno does pleasure, an acritical and disempowering force that, in addition, acts to sustain social discipline through humiliation: a profoundly conservative politics of humour. Billig thus rejects any distinction between carnivalesque positive and repressive negative humour because in his conception all humour is inherently tied into normative demonstrations of superiority and indifference for human life, and thus can only be used to reaffirm, not subvert, existing social power structures
Billig offers an interpretation that holds that the function of humour may be quite different from the humorist’s intention; thus, a joke that is intended to serve a subversive function may be revealed to function conservatively. This interpretation is supported through recourse to the Freudian notion of the “tendentious joke,” a form of humour that expresses hostile or obscene thoughts (Billig 154).
Lewis explicitly situates his critical method within the social-scientific field of ‘humour studies,’ in contrast to classical approaches. In his account modern humour research and criticism rejects any clear distinction between or adherence to these formulae, treating humour as a complex “whole made up of many parts, many variables, many potential topics of inquiry” (6), rather than as a unified abstract entity. Despite his espoused hostility towards systems, Lewis's account of humour is based in notions of incongruity, which he argues is not a sufficient condition, but instead needs to be the subject of emperical research in order to determine the other parameters.
For Lewis, Humour is an exercise of power, with the implication that it is correct, appropriate and ethical to find the posited incongruity amusing (13). He therefore offer sa negative assessment of the politics of contemporary humour in his declaration that while traditional comedy was anarchic and subversive, modern sitcoms function to perpetuate the status quo and are therefore conservative and sterile (65). For Lewis, humour can act as a means to evade reflection, implying value judgements in a “seductive” fashion (67), which recalls Marxist complaints about the function of culture more generally. In a manner that recalls both Freud’s tendentious joke and Bergson’s notion of “social nagging,” Lewis argues that humour can act as a means of socially sanctioned aggression, a struggle for supremacy, which does not liberate, but punishes (34-7). Beyond Bergson and Freud, though, Lewis rejects previous theories based upon unitary explanations and assumptions, which he suggests must be replaced by a critical social scientific method (2-4), and an evaluation of the assumptions that underpin any declaration as to what exactly counts as humour (14).
While beginning with a broad focus, the later sections of Lewis's book are a series of close readings of literary texts, in particular Gothic texts, combined with assertions as to the desirability of neuropsychological cognitive analysis. The literary is put forward as a central means by which to assess this cognitive functions.
The pleasure of a joke, Freud suggests can arise either from its “joke-technique,” an economy of phrase which produces mild amusement (“Jokes,” 85-91) or from its “tendentious” qualities, by which a joke circumvents socially-conditioned repression and allows one to take pleasure from normally inaccessible sources, such as sexuality, hostile mockery or cynicism (“Jokes,” 92-111). Tendentious humour achieves this breaking of social taboos by ‘bribing’ the listener with the pleasure of jest and joking, so that they might permit the expression of what is customarily repressed and suppressed which affords even greater pleasure. The humour of tendentious jokes, because it arises more from the statement they convey than the form they take, forces us to distinguish between the substance of the joke and the joking form, or “joke-work” which, in the case of tendentious humour, merely operates as a Trojan Horse, allowing the impermissible idea to be given expression.
While the tendentious elements might suggest the potential for the joke to act as a vehicle of political criticism, this is undercut by Freud’s account of the fundamental pleasure of the “joke-work,” which is explained as a source of play, wherein the pleasure arises out of “savings in psychical expenditure” itself caused by the recognition of the familiar and the repetition of the similar (“Jokes,” 119-24). Thus any critical political potential of tendentious humour stands in contrast with the conservative function of this joke-work, which, as in Bergson’s model, involves a return to that which is already known, here presented as a source of pleasure. Thus while Freud does not state his model in ideological or political terms – rather he understands the social motivation of the constructing and sharing of joke as a means to release psychic energy (“Jokes,” 135-43) – a certain conservative political aesthetic may be conceived within.
Bergson presents humour as an intellectual, rather than emotional or sensual, matter: noting that humour requires an absence of feeling, “a momentary anaesthesia of the heart” (2-3). Bergson suggests that to find humour in a fellow human’s situation it is necessary to regard them without sympathy, and pay no heed to the pain or suffering that may be inflected on them in the course of the humour. He attributes to humour a minor social function: that of gentle reprimand where laughter as a corrective “social nagging” (66) in response to inflexible, ignorant or eccentric behaviour (8-10, 89-98). In Bergson’s account, then, humour begins to carry out a basic social function, yet this is not the political aesthetic proper, because this disciplining function arises at the level of social interaction, rather than any aesthetic aspect of a text. Furthermore, humour here operates not to defamiliarise, but to ensure that unfamiliar or unexpected behaviour is curbed. This is a political function (if not an aesthetic one), but a conservative one.
At the centre of Bergson's theory of humour is an opposition to mechanical forms of being - of speech, of movement, of thought - which humour helps to correct: “the attitudes, gestures, movements of the human body are laughable in exact proportion as that body reminds us of a mere machine” (15). Bodily movements, like gestures, cannot shift and alter as living thoughts do, which is why they are comic, and why imitations are funny – because they treat the body as a machine (16). Things that are similar make us laugh because they are like mass-produced goods which are inherently mechanical (17). We cannot see the rigidity in things we are familiar with though, such as in fashion clothes. There is a distinction between comic de jure and comic de facto (19), we don’t laugh at familiar things because “the continuity of custom having deadened within them the comic quality” (19).
Incongruity does not produce laughter; it just puts us in a situation where we can recognise the rigidity of an aspect (19). There are also things that we see as artificial but that are not, which we experience as funny (20). This is not logical but rather reflects the dreaming of society (20). We laugh at the natural that is mechanically tampered with or that is understood as if it were (21). The ceremonial always contains something of the comic, and becomes comical once they lose the seriousness with which convention endows them (22). We also display our rigidity when we act in a typical way at a time when we should not (23). Materiality when we expect to find vitality is funny (24) as are situations where our attention is called to the bodily over the moral, reminding us of the physical (25). It is comical when the letter (rigid) overcomes the spirit (26) – taking metaphors literally etc. The crystallisation of the mind and the inelasticity of the body go together (28). We laugh when a person gives us the impression of being a thing (28).
In Kant’s account, humour, or laughter as he has it, is conceived as a form of pleasure that is entertaining and lively, but that is without consequence or intention (208). For Kant, humour is a gratifying and enjoyable bodily sensation produced by an “oscillation” of the mind, “inner motion” and body, but with little wider philosophical importance (208-10).
Kant argues that humour, because it is an aesthetic characteristic, is without intention or effect beyond aesthetic pleasure. Thus humour, or laughter as he would have it, does not arise out of social relations but rather, “is an affect resulting from the sudden transformation of a heightened expectation into nothing.”
“Something absurd (something in which, therefore, the understanding can of itself find no delight) must be present in whatever is to raise a healthy convulsive laugh. Laughter is an affect arising from a strained expectation being suddenly reduced to nothing. This very reduction, at which certainly understanding cannot rejoice, is still indirectly a source of very lively enjoyment for a moment. Its cause must consequently lie in the influence of the representation upon the body, and the reciprocal effect of this upon the mind. This, moreover, cannot depend upon the representation being objectively an object of gratification, (for how can we derive gratification from a disappointment?) but must rest solely upon the fact that that reduction is a mere play of representations, and, as such, produces an equilibrium of the vital forces of the body.” (209)
“It is noteworthy that in all such cases the joke must have something in it capable of momentarily deceiving us. Hence, when the semblance vanishes into nothing, the mind looks back in order to try it over again, and thus by a rapidly succeeding tension and relaxation it is thrown to and fro and put into oscillation. Since the snapping of what was, as it were, tightening up the string takes place suddenly (not by a gradual loosening), the oscillation must bring about a mental movement and a sympathetic internal movement of the body.” (210)
A series of biographical vignettes exploring influential American Stand-up comedians from Larry Bruce through Jerry Seinfeld. Zoglin frames his subject within their political contexts and the politically iconoclastic force of comedy in conflict with commericial impulses is a constant theme by which each performer is measured. Popular and non-theoretical, but perhaps all the better for this, as Zoglin does not attempt to force his musings on the political role of comedy into any of the pre-formed boxes. Worthwhile as a historical source, though too in awe of its material and undeveloped in its narrative of 'selling-out' to offer usefully critical comment.
Eco distinguishes between humour and the comic, both of which arise out of the violation of cultural and social rules. Humour is understood as a positive force, wherein a social or textual rule is explicitly established and then broken (“Comic” 276-8), such that the values therein embedded are revealed (“Carnival” 7-8). In contrast, the comic is a rhetorical device in which a social rule or intertextual frame is broken without that frame ever being made explicit (“Comic” 272). Hence, in order for the comic to be appreciated as such, the rule must be presupposed to the extent that it is regarded as inviolable; comedy is only perceptible to those who have internalised the rule to point where it is regarded as inviolable (“Comic” 275). Thus what appears as a moment of liberation is argued to actually institute a reinforcement of the existing order: in the modern media, “laughing is allowed precisely because before and after the laughing, weeping is inevitable” (“Comic” 275). Moreover, even as the carnivalesque humour of the mass media reveals that the rules may be broken, it circumscribes the conditions for doing so, only in specific arenas and in particular ways (Eco, “Carnival” 6). The distinction between the comic and humour can therefore be framed that carnivalesque comedy breaks the rule and, in doing so, reinscribes it; where as humour acts to defamiliarise the rule and therefore make it known.
For Bakhtin, the carnival, or the “carnivalesque,” was a comic state of being that functioned during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance as a respite from official order and the everyday repression of the lower classes: a site of festivity and liberation wherein boundaries and hierarchies were inverted or overcome, rationalism and fear were revoked and seriousness was repealed, if only briefly (3-52). In the carnival there is no distinction between actors and spectators (7). The clowns are not actors playing a part, they inhabit the borderline between life and art (8).While it was not official, the festive aspect of life was tolerated, even legalised (9) because it could not be completely shut down. The carnival is liberation from the prevailing truth and established order and an entry into “truly human relations” (10).
Though not all interpretations of humour as subversion evoke the spirit of the carnival, insofar as the carnival represents the ability of (folk) humour to challenge authority and realise the contingent nature of existing structures of power, the notion of the carnival can serve as a useful metonym for the constellation of theoretical approaches that locate in humour an innate capacity for subversion.
Bhaktin argues that Carnival was so important in this earlier moment, because the official culture of the medieval was without laughter (73) therefore ‘vents’ needed to be created (75). Medieval laughter “was absolutely unofficial but nevertheless legalised” because the rite of the ‘fool’s cap’ was inviolable (89). For the brief time of the festival, life leaves it strictures (89) Carnival is freedom from class status and therefore fear (90). But humour was not just to escape repression, it being laughter in and of itself was crucial to liberate and enliven the people (94). However a love of laughter is not always resistance or opposition, laughter can respect what it parodies (95).