Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Billig, Michael. Laughter and Ridicule: Towards a Social Critique of Humour

Billig, Michael. Laughter and Ridicule: Towards a Social Critique of Humour. London: Sage, 2005.

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).

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