Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Lockyear, Sharon and Michael Pickering, Eds. Beyond a Joke. New York: Palgrave, 2005.

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.

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