Monday, May 17, 2010

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.

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