Monday, May 17, 2010

Douglas, Mary. “Jokes.” Implicit Meanings: Essays in Anthropology. London: Routledge, 1975. 90-115.

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.

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