June 24, 2011 § 1 Comment
One of the things about theory –specifically theories related to social sciencey chuman behavior stuff– is that they mostly insist on logic. Which is great & I suppose necessary, on account of what would be the alternative. I mean, logic works — it’s great on paper, and sure helps explain things. Which is good! But irl the same things which make perfect sense when written down are messy and fraught and often defy rational explanation, making even the most logical and straightforward explanation of a given set of behaviors either unhelpful or downright damaging. This is my main problem with people like Freud, to give an obvious example, especially his work on and with jokes. Because as logical as his system might be, it’s just that, a system, and I don’t know of a single system without at least one well-greased crack. Systems aren’t things, after all, they’re man-made explanations which help give our world structure and meaning. Again, I’m not saying that structure doesn’t or can’t serve a critical diagnostic or basic explanatory function. It’s just that human behavior is so much more complicated and mysterious than many social-scientific theories are equipped to allow — and, perhaps ironically, also so much simpler. People do things for all kinds of reasons; to suggest that there is one ur-cause is to ignore all the other factors that may or may not in some unpredictable combination help explain at least an aspect of whatever behavior in question — not least of which is the often-overlooked but actually highly salient point that people do the things they do because they’re fun.
This, in a nutshell, is Peter Narvaez’ argument in “Tricks and Fun,” which examines turn-of-the-century decorum (or lack thereof) at Newfoundland funeral wakes. He does his due academic diligence, of course, and places in theoretical context a host of seemingly profane behaviors. It could be, as a number of theorists have suggested, that mourners felt compelled to “play” within these sacred spaces in order to placate the dead (115-117). It could be that they did so in order to challenge the ruling order (121-123). Narvaez carefully considers both possibilities; although he concedes that each makes partial sense, especially when applied to their respective contexts (both were forwarded by Irish scholars in response to Irish funeral behaviors), neither adequately explains why Newfoundland wakes would play host to such bawdy, drunken fun, and why the tradition would persist for so many generations. Why, for example, would mourners play a game “with penalty of biting the corpse’s toes?” Why would they rig the corpse to scare unsuspecting guests? Why would they make the corpse “drink” alcoholic beverages? Why would they dress the corpse in silly outfits? Why would they embrace the occasion to play seemingly-cruel practical jokes on select attendees (117-120; also this)? A theorist could drive herself crazy trying to assemble a logical explanation. And she could put together a really smart, really compelling account of socio-historical forces which explains why otherwise “normal” people would engage in such seemingly abnormal, possibly even amoral, behaviors. But as Narvaez suggests, a strictly theoretical explanation is unlikely to set fire to any of the actual participants’ pantaloons. Indeed, almost none of the informants’ testimonies would support such a reading. Per their own explanations, people flocked to these sorts of wakes because they were fun, suggesting that tradition lived on for as long as it did because people kept showing up. Some informants even expressed glee when whatever old codger died (129). Because that meant a party! And parties mean drinking! And drinking means pranks! And hurray, etc.
Of course, there’s room to talk about counter-hegemony, and there’s room to talk about subversion, and all that jazz. Greater Forces are certainly at play, but play is also at play — people like to feel good, and like to do things that make them feel good. Sometimes “feeling good” is as simple as having a full stomach and nice buzz (what Narvaez describes as “evasive” pleasures). Sometimes “feeling good” means doing something you know you shouldn’t be doing (described as “subversive” pleasures)(128). Frequently, “feeling good” means both. So, while a well-drawn theory will consider if and how and why these pleasures reflect larger social forces, a fully embodied account –that is, one applicable to the world that is, and not merely the world we construct with our logic– must also acknowledge that pleasure is often a reason in itself. The question, then, of why Newfoundlanders would raise hell at wakes could be answered simply: they wanted to.
If feeder question: One of the running jokes I have with some of my troll friends is that my explanations for their behavior are often way more involved than their own explanations. I believe, for example, that trolls are responding to an incessantly histrionic news media; I believe that trolls engage in what I call cultural digestion, making them conduits for offensive behavior as opposed to the originators of these behaviors; I believe trolls chip away at the sanitized image we have of ourselves. I also believe that when a troll sits down at his computer, he’s not thinking about how best to challenge hegemonic forces. Not that he wouldn’t be capable — many of the trolls I’ve worked with are highly self-aware and self-reflexive. But in the moment, they’re doing it because, frankly, trolling is fun. It makes them laugh. They wouldn’t keep coming back if the behavior didn’t have some sort of emotional payoff. Of course, “enjoyment” isn’t and shouldn’t be regarded as some behavioral holy grail. But it must be integrated into whatever theoretical framework, since rejecting affect is rejecting the human.
If stand-alone question: Could spin the article to talk about the flip-side of transgressive humor — it’s funny because it’s bad. This is why, no matter how socially-conscious someone might be, transgressive jokes often still hold great appeal. If they didn’t, people wouldn’t continue engaging with them. tl;dr you can’t very well talk about the transgressive impulse without acknowledging the deep enjoyment people get from transgressing. This doesn’t mitigate whatever harm the jokes cause, but it does place the jokes in a wider and more honest emotional context.
June 23, 2011 § 3 Comments
In this scintillating entry, I shall discuss girls’ games and girls’ gaming. But first, a confession: up until um probably seventh grade (Eighth grade? not entirely sure how to demarcate) I was a mean girl. I was bossy and forceful and basically did precisely as I pleased. Weirdly, teachers and authority figures generally just loved me, so apparently I wasn’t total hell, or at the very least was clever enough to know when and where to behave myself. I would have done well in Slytherin, is what I’m saying. So it was with some –let’s say bemusement– that I read Linda Hughes selection. It’s not a bad article, and certainly covers important ground — pulling from two years’ research in the grade school foursquare trenches, as well as the feminist folklore of games and gaming canon (lol there’s no such thing), she argues that folkloric accounts of girls’ play often emphasize and/or subsequently lament the passive nature of girls’ interactions, thus framing gendered play as “central villains in the process of creating and sustaining patterns of inequality” (133). That is to say, girls are trained to behave like girls; play reinforces those ideals. Because traditionally masculine qualities –aggressiveness, independence, competitiveness– are privileged over traditionally feminine qualities, girls’ play helps internalize both the experience and acceptance of feminine inferiority. Not only is it important to reevaluate the ways in which girls’ gaming is described (134), Hughes argues, it’s critical to acknowledge how and in what ways girls’ gaming challenges traditional accounts of female interaction (135). Only then might we know exactly what is at issue.
After all, although the rules of many girls’ games (scare-quotes implied, because wtf makes a game inherently feminine) may appear to corroborate the oft-cited assumption that nice girls play nice, the reality of girls’ gaming –you know, what happens when someone bothers to pay attention to what girls actually do– reveals an evolving and highly complex system of negotiation not just in relation to a particular set of rules but within a number of overlapping social spheres. Yes, friendship and cooperation and “playing nice” are often given a great deal of lip-service. But girls! They can be assholes, one of the unpleasant side-effects of being people. As one of Hughes’ participants coyly offered, it’s not that girls don’t have the same ultimate goal –#duhwinning– as the boys. It’s just that “You have to do it in style” (144), suggesting that the performance of play is as important as, if not more important than, the gameplay itself. Indeed, as Hughes magnanimously declares in her conclusion, “All girls do not lack skills in organizing and sustaining large-group activities of games with highly complex and elaborate rule structures. All girls are not incapable of engaging aggressive competition, and they do not all fall apart in the face of the slightest disagreement” (143).
To which I, as a spider-queen and general maker of mischief, can only reply OH MY GOD NO SHIT???
If feeder-question: The foursquare case study bores me and anyway on its own ain’t all that relevant to m’project, but some of the meta-insights could be helpful in terms of framing. Specifically the claim that “to have assumed that these girls competed as individuals just because they chose a nonteam game would have significantly distorted and oversimplified the social reality” (142) could be applied to trolls, who are often described/condemned as antisocial anomalies but are often highly social within their particular trolling community, itself subject to some form of hierarchy, either interpersonal or in terms of cultural fluency. So often, trolling is a performance for other trolls; the resulting lulz thus functioning as a kind of naughty bastard Boy Scout badge. You lose all that nuance if you refuse to see trolls as anything other than lonely wheezing basement-dwellers.
If stand-alone question: Same basic idea, idea that oversimplification oversimplifies. Hughes’ emphasis on shifting focus from what is played to how it’s played (134) is an important concept in terms of transgressive humor. Like, yeah we need to know what jokes are told, but the how and the why often have a profound impact on what the what actually means. LOL WORDS
June 22, 2011 § 1 Comment
“The Wages of Sin: Stories of Sex and Immorality”
This is not a cheerful selection, and makes my job feel much more perilous. But such is life, I suppose. So — throughout this selection, Gary Alan Fine and Patricia Turner challenge the pollyanna-ish (white person reference very much intended) contention that America has totally solved that whole pesky race thing. Yes, they concede, some minorities have it less bad than in previous generations (talk about being damned by tepid praise) — but the rumors and stereotypes which function to buttress structural inequities are just below (and frequently lay directly atop) the surface, no matter how vociferously someone might insist that race doesn’t just not matter, but doesn’t even exist.
Significantly, these types of stereotypes –which Turner and Fine loosely bifurcate as either portraying the target group as shrewd, greedy and untrustworthy or stupid, violent and sexualized– form the backbone of all ethnic joking. Historically, blacks as seen by whites fall into the latter category, a position even well-meaning whites frequently justify by citing various crime, welfare and educational statistics, ostensibly the “grain of truth” in whatever stated stereotype. As the authors are quick to point out, of course, “statistics are numbers, collected for particular purposes, depending on the categorizing schemes of those in power, and are often used in ways for which they were never intended” (150) — in many cases, to lend pseudo-scientific credence to prejudiced attitudes, simultaneously “verifying” the belief in question and exonerating the messenger of even the slightest tint of racism. After all, numbers don’t lie! -a position that the authors are quick to dismiss. As they explain, “The discouraging reality is that widely held stereotypes seem justified, even though this justification may misstate the causes of these phenomena, ignoring the results of other, more powerful societal forces such as discrimination or the hostile beliefs of others” (150).
The most insidious of these rumors and stereotypes speak to perceptions of black male sexuality, which is often portrayed as voracious and animalistic (images which the authors trace to the fears of white slaveowners) (150), and which continues to animate many negative perceptions of an apparently homogenous black community. When humor enters the equation –and it frequently does, as stereotypes are only a punchline away from a joke– whites often justify their laughter by insisting they’re only kidding and/or that some people need to learn to take a joke (151-152); Fine and Turner present a particularly telling example of an egregious (some might even say laughably) racist joke-flier plastered across the city of Milwaukee in the early 90s (151).
As further evidence of the implications of racist h(r)umor, Turner and Fine present two case studies: the OJ Simpson trial, in which the once-popular football star was framed by a rabid (white) media as an abusive, murderous drunk –indeed, what many whites already regard to be “normal” behavior for a black man (155)– and various rumors surrounding the existence and spread of the AIDS virus. Regarding the former, the authors contend that, “For many African Americans the charges [against Simpson] represented the white power structure’s attempt to get back at this uppity negro” (156), a suspicion which fueled a whole host of alternative forensic theories. Unsurprisingly, say Fine and Turner: “If one lives in a world in which the police can do whatever they wish, manufacturing and manipulating evidence at will, and in a world in which black men, no matter how prominent, are always at risk, such scenarios about the Simpson case are plausible, if not likely” (157), a conclusion echoed in and by the suspicion that widely-held belief by blacks (and others, primarily groups most strongly effected by the virus) that AIDS was deliberately created by the government and either purposefully or accidentally introduced into “undesirable” minority populations. Again, the existence of such theories are hardly surprising — in many ways, it speaks to the cybernetics of racist rhetoric and behavior.
If feeder question: Will be similar to my response if stand-alone question, though will focus specifically on trolling humor as opposed to transgressive humor generally. The basic idea is — well jesus, ok, you’ve got these “jokes” which are born of actual intolerance, actual hatred, ideas which don’t just allow for but actively sustain the invisibility of racist power structures. If your assumption is that racist power structures are bad (and who would disagree with that, publicly at least), then anything which helps make them stronger are by extension also bad. If racist jokes feed into racist power structures, then one can only conclude that racist jokes are bad. The question of course is just that — do racist jokes feed into racist power structures? In other more accurate words, do all racist jokes always feed into the same racist power structures in the same ways? I still say the question (and/or the impulse to ask the question) is strange, since it presumes right out of the gate that all language is always-already created equal. But as we’re already discussed, jokes themselves (saying nothing of individual signs, which is a related but currently unaddressable can of worms) don’t have static ontological status. They aren’t things, they’re mediums for particular messages. If the message is racist, then the joke is racist. If the message is something else, then the joke is something else. That doesn’t mean that a trace of the original/historically accepted meaning (in itself a tricky concept) doesn’t persist — in terms of trolling, that trace is necessary to elicit the appropriate level of discomfort in whatever target. Still — what do we do with this trace? All kinds of shit has traces of other shit, it’s called language, it’s messy, and that’s just when we’re talking about how the word “cat” refers to the specific four-legged evil thing who sits at my feet all day and glares at me for no other reason than she’s pretty much an asshole.
The question, I guess, is this — does transgressive humor make racism (or sexism, or homophobia, or whatever other -ism) worse? Not just “racism” (or whatever) as abstract noun, but as a lived experience. Does ostensibly or explicitly or inadvertently or deliberately racist/sexist/homophobic humor, no matter where or why the joke is told, no matter who tells whatever joke, or why, make individual people’s lives worse? Again, I’m inclined to say … oh my god it depends, in large part because people’s individual experiences vary so greatly. Presuming that all people have the same reaction to the same thing seems to me to … well, to suggest that people are simple. And for fuck’s sake, we’re a lot of things, but we’re certainly not that. So I don’t know.
June 22, 2011 § 2 Comments
Directly following the September 11th attacks, and like a proper Folklore ghoul (we are vampires, you see, sickened by tragedy but also keenly aware that whatever awful thing will be GREAT for our project), Bill Ellis outlined his predictions for the disaster joke cycle he was sure would emerge. He predicted that WTC jokes would remain dormant for a certain latency period; that the jokes would focus on the images of the attacks; that the jokes would build upon previous jokes; and that the primary mode of delivery would be email. Two years later, after pouring over thousands of archived message boards and personal emails, Ellis was able to assess the efficacy of his original predictions. As he explains, most of these predictions were realized, though in unexpected ways.
He was correct, for example, that a latency period would stifle the wide distribution of WTC humor. That said, because he was dealing with searchable archives (primarily Usenet boards), Ellis was able to witness the isolated emergence of WTC jokes a mere three hours after the first plane hit (at the time this turnover must have been astounding, though compared to our current media-saturated Twitterverse, in which we’re buried in our smartphones reposting the latest news onto seventeen different social networking sites before any official announcements have been made, three hours might as well be three weeks). Unsurprisingly, these early jokes were met with disgust and sometimes palpable rage, even within otherwise-permissive joking spaces like alt.tasteless.jokes (46); they wouldn’t “catch on,” so to speak, for another week—it wasn’t until September 18th that WTC humor began to develop what Ellis calls the “play mode” (a willingness to joke semi/publicly about a given event, also referred to as the “risable moment” following a disaster) necessary for a full-blown joke cycle.
Ellis was also correct to assume that visual images would play a prominent role in WTC humor, although images of the attacks themselves were generally rare. Instead, especially during the first wave of WTC jokes, people used photo manipulation software to create aggressive “vengeance” images, for example of Bin Laden “Have You Seen Me” posters and commercial jet planes repurposed as bombers (47; 64). Similarly, per Ellis’ initial hypothesis, WTC jokes repurposed a host of existing jokes, including a number of Gulf War images and motifs. The resulting humor (or “humor,” depending on whom you ask) emerged, just as Ellis predicted, in several distinct waves, from September 18th-25th and September 27th-October 20th in America and September 19th-30th in Britain. The former American wave was on the whole bellicose and hyperpatriotic, while the latter often commented upon and in some cases explicitly mocked the first wave; the British wave remain relatively self-contained, primarily because British jokes incorporated British references and simply weren’t “spreadable” in an American context (57).
Ellis concludes his study by considering the role of the internet in the creation and dissemination of WTC humor. Initially he predicted that most WTC humor would be spread via email; this was indeed the case in America, though the category of “email” should have been broadened to include messages posted onto forums and similar content-overflow sites. Intriguingly, WTC humor in other English-speaking countries such as Britain and Australia were on the whole orally transmitted, immediately begging all kinds of questions we don’t have space to consider here. Even more intriguingly (well not really intriguing, more like #indeed), Ellis gestures towards the constitutive, dynamic and self-sustaining nature of online humor, suggesting that the internet may not be a lifeless archive after all. Instead, the Internet itself, along with the creative, collaborative space it provides, seems to have influenced not just the dissemination of jokes but the content of these jokes as well. Suck on that, infinite bulletin board!
If feeder question: Connection to other disaster humor could be one-two punch re: RIPshit. Also provides a lovely moment on p. 43 when he considers the movement from latent to active humor. That is, the moment at which it becomes ok to laugh. (is it ever ok to laugh? = the obvious counterpoint). Could also consider the relationship between technological mediation and humor — that the internet impacts (doesn’t dictate, but has an effect on) the kinds of jokes that are told, the implication being that the internet lends itself to a certain kind of ambivalent laughter.
If stand-alone question: Much of the same as above, minus the trolls. Really the question is, is it ok to laugh at terrible things? Does laughing at something –no matter the intention of the laughter– only make whatever thing stronger or more dangerous?I’m beginning more and more to believe that the question is weird and loaded and is actually a trap, on account of you don’t ask that sort of question if you don’t already think you know the answer. As I see it, the only useful response is, well, first of all, who exactly is laughing, what are they laughing at, and most importantly, what purpose does/might/could the laughter serve? -which takes us back to the message>medium issue from yesterday.
June 21, 2011 § 3 Comments
“The Context of Internet Humor”
The fun with Elliot Oring continues! In this article, which was published in 2003 but appears to draw from research conducted in the late 90s (in itself a dangerous proposition), Oring considers the relationship between humor and cyberspace. Cyberhumor! Specifically, he examines twenty websites either fully or partially devoted to post-Monica Bill/Hillary/Chelsea Clinton humor. Data which apparently he was saving for a rainy day? But I digress. Pulling from his cyberfindings, Oring arrives at three basic conclusions, two of which I agree with and appreciate and one of which gives me a major case of the facepalms but which means well, and therefore should be treated charitably.
Oring’s first point is that, contrary to popular opinion, the internet is not (solely) a cold and anonymous place; the “Web Masters” whose sites Oring examines often include a great deal of personal information, making it possible to make loose associations between the admin of whatever site and the jokes he/she publishes. Secondly, because these websites are destination vacations (i.e. people either deliberately seek them out or find them via hyperlink), it is also possible to glean some information about the individual users of whatever site. Thus by studying the humor of a particular online community, it may be possible to learn something about the people who seem to enjoy, or at least respond to, the posted content. Using this approach, Oring presents six metacategories –indexical, distracting, tendentious, offensive, harmless, perilous–which help explain the variety of users’ attitudes towards the jokes they make and read. Maybe not the most earth-shattering insights, but he’s taking online communities seriously before many folklorists were willing to admit that “community” was even possible online. So — you know, yay.
The third point is where Oring loses me completely. Although he concedes that the internet is a hotbed for interesting material (+1), and that this material is well worth studying (+2), and that it’s important to think about the people behind the individual users (+3), he asserts that the tubes are little more than an archive for content, as opposed to a living, evolving repertoire (->9000). His reasoning is simple: the repertoire is oral, the archive is written. The internet is little more than words on a screen, an infinite bulletain-board if you will, and therefore is and can only be archival. This is just…well, wrong, but as I said, I can’t really blame the guy. For one thing, his dataset was, as of publication, nearly 5 years old. And since his book was published (2003), much has happened in the world of cybershit. For example Web 2.0 har har oh that little thing. Not that Web 2.0 marked some fundamental departure from how previous generations of users utilized their respective networks. Online repertoires have always existed, you just needed to know how to find them. And given that Oring found his sample using “a popular search engine” (AOL Keyword: LOL), it’s not at all surprising that what he found was a static collection of static joke collections. In other words, Oring is wrong, but only because he wasn’t looking in the right places.
If feeder question: I mean the stuff about challenging traditional accounts of anonymity is relevant. Certainly conceptions of the repertoire. Sort of obvious.
If stand-alone question: I’d emphasize context stuff, specifically in relation to self-selected filter bubbles — people hang out on sites that reflect their values/sense of humor, meaning that certain assumptions about propriety or aesthetics or whatever often go unexamined. Problems arise when a member of one group attempts to cross-pollinate before knowing the “rules” of the new community. Could be connected to Oring’s previous thing about how jokes aren’t always the same joke, and that something which undermines a dominant ideal in one context could reaffirm the ideal in another. JOKE AS MEDIUM NOT MESSAGE.
“The Humor of Hate”
See now this makes me smile. Although I have a few minor lil’ bones to pick with Oring’s last selection, I am delighted by this next one. Which is basically like Freud! You’re dumb. Or not that exactly, it’s just that Oring takes great care to undermine the assumption that humor is inherently aggressive, and that jokes are always disguised fighting words — i.e. people tell jokes because they hate you, or hate themselves, or hate something, resulting in precisely the dragon-guts shitpile Legman describes in his angerbear intro to No Laughing Matter. Oring –who is reasonable! and smart! and an all-around nice man to read– decides to test this theory by examining WAR, a news(“news”)paper published by the White Aryan Resistance. If humor is all about repression, Oring postulates, then an organization which prides itself on its lack of repression wouldn’t have anything to joke about. Right?
The answer is, of course, no — the fine folks at WAR frequently deploy humor, and not of the random dumbass knock-knock joke variety but deliberate racially (well racist-ly) charged humor, most frequently in the form of satirical cartoons. Oring is quick to concede that the humor present in WAR‘s pages is hardly cerebral, and is…you know…not funny. It does however utilize the “appropriate incongruities” characteristic of comedic technique — specifically “punning, exaggeration, irony, indirect representation, extended analogy, [and] allusion” (44). As one might expect (if one were of the Freudian persuasion), WAR also uses humor to depict acts of violence against minority groups, an urge even the staunchest racist knows he must suppress. At least while Big Brother is watching. Despite this apparent Freudian victory, Oring is quick to point out that the humorous accounts of violence are no more sadistic than their non-humorous counterparts, suggesting that humor might be a, but is certainly not the, vessel for aggression.
Because yeah, humor can communicate “some hidden or unrecognized hostility” (57), but jokes in themselves aren’t necessarily or inherently hostile. Meaning –whether hateful or complimentary– inheres primarily within the message, not the specific linguistic medium (i.e. people respond to what the joke says/means, not the fact that it is a joke). That said, the joke does do something not found in “normal” discourse — it implies (and occasionally directly constitutes) a community. As Oring explains, humor “calls upon individuals to invoke an extant body of tacit, everyday knowledge in order to recognize and make sense of an incongruity” (56) — a schema which helps explain why a certain joke may soar in one setting and bomb in another. It depends on who tells and who hears and what everyone present brings to the table, echoing Oring’s implicit claim in “Jokes and the Discourse on Disaster” that one joke can be many jokes, depending on the circumstance of their telling.
If feeder question: Connection to trolls, same idea…on account of trolls are many things, but they’re sure as hell not passive in their aggression. Whether they mean what they say is a different issue (and ties into the question of replicating systems) — but trolling humor is predicated on explicitly aggressive humor explicitly directed in the most explicit terms possible. Will have to think more about how I might integrate Oring’s insights into a discussion of trolling…
If stand-alone question: Focus on the inclusion of the racist cartoons and statements. I’ll admit to chuckling at some of them, not at the subjects themselves but at their utter absurdity. They were “funny,” but not in the ways they were intended to be. This actually is exactly the issue I’m circling. Does my laughter actually replicate the systems of oppression I’m ostensibly mocking? What if I show one of the cartoons to a friend, does that replicate racist ideology? It might be a cop-out, but as of press time I suppose my answer is……well…..that’s a really weird question, let’s start there.
June 21, 2011 § 1 Comment
In his highly influential “Jokes and the Discourses on Disaster,” Elliot Oring examines the various “tasteless and cruel” jokes that emerged in the wake of the 1986 Challenger space disaster, and posits an explanatory framework that manages to take transgressive humor seriously without falling back on knee-jerk ethical condemnations. In other words, this essay is my fucking hero.
Characterized by “graphic images of death and dismemberment” (282), Challenger disaster jokes pull from the most morbid aspects of the reported story. “What color were Christa McAuliffe’s eyes?” went one joke. “Blue,” went the answer. “One blew this way and the other blew that way.” Additional jokes made light of McAuliffe’s civilian status (Q: What were Christa McAuliffe’s last words? A: What’s this red button for?), her inferior teaching skills (“good teachers don’t blow up in front of their class”), and the crew’s untimely demise (“What’s worse than glass in baby food? Astronauts in tuna”) (280). Analytic responses to Challenger jokes followed one of two basic models: either the jokes were evidence of human depravity, suggesting that the joke-tellers suffered from some form of personality disorder, or they served a critical therapeutic function, suggesting that the joke-tellers were in fact excessively, and therefore unsustainably, sympathetic. Oring took an entirely different approach, instead calling attention to the media’s role in disaster joke cycles. As he explains:
Without imputing any malevolence to newspeople, it should be recognized that public disasters are media triumphs. They are what make the news. Indeed, our awareness of national or international disasters is dependent upon the media—particularly television news broadcasting. Furthermore, the frame for communication of information about a disaster is established by the media. (282)
In terms of the Challenger disaster, this frame was one of patriotic and emotional horror. Images of the explosion were played again and again, each time accompanied by a wide-eyed newscaster who reminded his or her audience that this was tragedy of the very highest order. And yet these same newscasters skirted the fact that, by playing and replaying the explosion, they were forcing their viewers to watch seven humans-worth of meat convert to particulate. The emergent humor iterated this omission, calling attention to the uncomfortable truths that the media continued to exploit but refused to acknowledge. Additionally, Challenger humor tended to poke fun at the “human interest” aspects of the story that the media did feel comfortable addressing (and consequently fetishizing)—McAuliffe’s physical appearance, the astronauts’ last words, what they had eaten just before their deaths, and so on (280-283). From this perspective, Challenger jokes are less about the individual astronauts –who Oring intriguingly declares are not “persons” at all, rather “media personalities” (283)– than they are reactions to the media’s histrionic framing. Oring suggests that:
[The media’s] insistent rhetoric of tragedy, grief, and mourning might well have been regarded as an affront and intrusion by a viewing public who felt that they were perfectly capable of determining their own emotional responses to the event. It was perhaps inevitable that a rebellion against such media homiletics might surface, and humor was the strategy of that rebellion. (284)
In short, –and in stark contrast to Legman’s take on “dirty-dirty” jokes– people who make terrible jokes are not necessarily terrible people, nor are they necessarily using humor to work through their own trauma. They might not feel the slightest bit traumatized, except to the extent that the media won’t let whatever story die. Which is Oring’s main point: viewers (and/or readers) exist in symbiotic –and at times parasitic– relationship with a news media which in itself is somewhat trollish (my take, not Oring’s), resulting in myriad hegemonic and counter-hegemonic behaviors. To argue anything less is to infantilize the audience.
If feeder question: Oring’s account, though technologically dated, provides an excellent framework for understanding trolling humor, particularly RIP humor on Facebook. (more on this in my RIP trolling paper)
If stand-alone question: I could connect this argument with Christie’s, since both provide an account of transgressive/taboo humor that looks beyond simple (well, seemingly simple) moralizing. Also skirts the same tiger trap, in that intention doesn’t mitigate harm (I’m thinking about the BBC interview) — in order to make these sorts of jokes, one is forced to objectify those who are most personally impacted. Maybe this is bad. So, yes, this sort of analysis leaves open all kinds of ethical issues; then again it’s not designed to adjudicate. Maybe this is also bad. It does however provide an alternative take on why people say and do the things they say and do, since people say and do all kinds of wacky shit for all kinds of wacky reasons. In the end, providing a fuller –if flawed– explanation is better than providing an airtight verdict based on foregone conclusions.
Oh and let’s not forget that the first section of the article postulates the polysemic nature of jokes, lending itself nicely to a discussion of the ways in which jokes can both undermine and reify social inequities. The joke may mean some thing (in Oring’s terminology, is predicated on some foundational incongruity), but it is meaningful only in relation to the teller and audience; the success of a joke thus depends on that joke’s ability to tickle the right bones (so to speak LOL) in each listener. Thus what the joke is saying, really, is less important than how people react to the joke, and what it means within that particular context (however narrow); a particular joke is not always the same joke when told in different circumstances. This is hugely important.
June 20, 2011 § 1 Comment
No Laughing Matter is an ethnographic collection of thousands upon thousands of off-color, rude and downright nasty jokes; the volume is divided into “clean-dirty” and “dirty-dirties,” distinction Legman halfheartedly draws between jokes intended to nauseate and distress the audience and those which do so incidentally. The book contains nearly two thousand samples, including rape jokes, castration jokes, prostitution jokes, and every kind of joke about every kind of excretion one could possibly imagine. It really is fun for the whole family, boasting subsections entitled “Defiling the Mother,” “Fuck” and “Urinating on Others.”
In his weirdly caustic introduction, G. Legman considers the origins and significance of the aforementioned shitshows and attempts to place the (dirty) joking impulse in the appropriate social context. Taking a page from Freud’s playbook, G. Legman argues that tendentious jokes –i.e. jokes directed at a particular butt, whether an individual or group– originate as “hostile impulses of free-floating aggression in the tellers of jokes” and function primarily as “expression[s] of social and sexual anxieties [the joke tellers] are otherwise unable to absorb or express” (20). In other words, they’re not funny, and they’re not fun (18). As Legman cheerfully explains:
“the whole dramatic recital seems to be taking place inside the Dragon’s guts, and everyone involved is bathed in the same fiery and disgusting dirtiness and wet, slipping and sliding together in the same humorous blood, shit, piss, pus, puke, and slime. Worst of all, as might be expected in the liqueous and nauseous stuffs so often used as subject, there is no firm footing anywhere underneath. One is disgusted and yet one laughs, and one is disgusted with oneself for laughing. Yet, as the whole mud-bath has been entered into under the name of humor and under the mask of jokes and good-fellowship, there can be no end until one does laugh” (19).
Thus, “the laughter which greets the ‘punchline’ of jokes is really just an expression of the anxiety of all concerned over the taboos that are being broken” (21). It sure is a good thing that all humans have a single Freud-approved, universally applicable and therefore highly predictable response to everything that happens ever!
Oh, sorry, was I editorializing? I can’t keep track sometimes– I am large, I contain hostilities. Anyway, on Legman’s view, jokes are more a Rorschach test than a throwaway moment of bullshit between friends, suddenly imbuing a seemingly fun and harmless act with far-reaching social significance, due in large part to Legman’s claim that jokes are a “disguised aggression or verbal assault directed against the listener, who is always really the butt” (20). And what these jokes are matters, since “a person’s favorite joke is the key to that person’s character” (14). That is to say, what one laughs at reveals who (or what) one truly is. But not just “is” in the predicate, i.e. Clintonian sense — is in the nominative, i.e. serious business sense. As in, what you are, at your core, as a human. Per Legman, “Your favorite joke is your psychological signature. The ‘only’ joke you know how to tell, is you” (16). Freud!
One of the more notable aspects of this selection is Legman’s utter rejection of the clear distinction between joke-teller and joke-listener, a position based on his assumption that jokes aren’t created as much as they are repeated. “Since the jokes that are told are really only being repeated from previous listening, in the deepest sense teller and listener are indivisible and identical. The favorite jokes of one are -by and large- the favorite jokes of the other…[and] Only the special favorites are retained, or transmitted very often” (15, his angry italics) — thus likening Legman’s position to one of memetics (and/or spreadability, to use Henry Jenkins’ term). Legman takes this one step farther, arguing that the existence of dirty-dirty jokes speaks to a collective unconscious riddled with shared cultural anxieties and prejudice (assumption: that collectivity/consensus is something that happens in culture, which apparently is a thing, and consequently all people a) have the same anxieties and b) express these same anxieties in similar if not identical ways. -Ed)
If feeder question: OMG OBVI, trolls are very bad men and say all kinds of naughty things. Based on Legman’s analysis, it seems reasonable to conclude that trolls must be the jokes they tell — namely racist, sexist and homophobic. But nay! Because it’s a wee bit more complicated than that. I mean yes, trolling is disturbing, trolling is politically problematic, etc. But it’s not merely racist, sexist, or homophobic. In fact it’s not merely anything. Insert everything I’ve done for the last three years, ending with them Dickwolfs. Course there’s still all that jazz about how it doesn’t matter why something is said, it’s the fact that it’s said…which is the whole crux of the issue and can only be countered with a discussion of overdetermination of meaning and intent.
If stand-alone question: HUGE emphasis on the breakdown between joke teller and joke listener. Am reluctant to make a blanket statement about the -apparent, per Legman- magical kindred connection between teller and listener, since two different people can and frequently do take two different meanings from the same joke, but Legman’s system does give me some places to hang my hat in terms of the repercussions of transgressive humor, and the ways in which joke telling releases whatever thing into the wild despite the teller’s intent (the joke gets passed along & may fall into the “wrong hands,” thus reifying whatever social inequity, even if the teller meant to challenge whatever injustice).
June 20, 2011 § 3 Comments
In “Secret Erections and Sexual Fabrications,” Simon Bronner revisits his 1985 work Chain Carvers: Old Men Crafting Meaning and posits an additional layer to his argument. It’s not that his initial hypothesis –namely, that traditional wood carvings provide a creative outlet for men concerned about the march of time, both in terms of physical aging and also technological progress– is wrong. Bronner maintains that woodcarving is indeed an important aspect of his collaborators’ identities, and reasserts the claim that such behaviors allow the men to express personal anxieties in a controlled, socially-appropriate setting. Specifically, they are able to give physical form to their experiences (and frustrations) in and with the objects they choose to carve — wooden chains, cages, tools, and canes being the most popular forms. “When I feel chained, I make chains,” one collaborator explains. “When I feel caged, I make cages” (280). In short, Bronner argues, carving allows old men to take control of the one area of their lives over which they feel they still have full dominion, a “typically male pattern” which Bronner describes as a “regression-progression behavioral complex.” Old men, he explains, feeling the weight of their years, reach back to the activities they learned as boys. Within this new/old realm, they are subsequently able to grow and develop into this new phase of their lives; thus regression, spurred by the desire to revisit the “good old days,” engenders emotional progress (282).
Bronner does not contest these conclusions; he does however reveal that, subsequent to the publication of Chain Carvers, he discovered the prevalence (and significance) of privatized forms of woodcutting, upon which his present study is based. In private, and almost exclusively in the company of other old men, woodcarvers would brandish explicit/ly sexual artifacts, most prominently figures of men either in coffins or barrels spring-loaded to reveal a surprise erection. “Now that’s a woody,” one of Bronner’s informants “gleefully chimed,” suggesting that woodcarvings help these men explore the relationship between sex and death (283). As Bronner explains, “the incongruity is the representation of death and its association with withdrawal and decay, yet the viewer discovers an active, if hidden, member” (285) — making this stripe of woodcarving both defiant in the face of death and accepting of the aging process. And don’t even get him started about canes, my goodness.
An especially interesting aspect of Bronner’s study is the emphasis on audience, secrecy and context. The old men who otherwise take such joy in their carvings are reluctant to share their risque work with anyone outside the initiated group — women, for example, even the men’s wives, would per Bronner’s collaborators either be offended or simply wouldn’t understand. Consequently the only “safe” place to share such creations is with other old men who get it, because they are it. There is of course risk whenever the carvings are shown for the first time — the viewer might, as one collaborator put it, “take it the wrong way” (287). But when the conditions are right, the benefits greatly outweigh the risks; exchanging a knowing chuckle with a like-minded (and bodied) equal helps create what Georg Simmel calls a “second world” in which “external realities are separated for examination” (Simmel 1950, 320, 288). In the woodcarving world as described by Bronner, “a life frame and its problems are playfully enlarged [LOL], male bonds are privileged, and unsympathetic others are excluded” (288). The joke-frame thus acknowledges and protects against a perceived threat to the woodcutter’s pride, and therefore (according to Bronner) his manhood.
tl;dr, phallic or otherwise risque carvings function as a “sign of continued hardiness” (311); by creating and commiserating over risque art objects, woodcarvers directly challenge “the equivalence of the end of sex with the end of life” (311).
Referring to George Bloom, one of Bronner’s collaborators, Bronner concludes thusly: “In his narratives and carvings, he sought other embodiments, other ways to show me he fit, as an old but productive and creative man, into a manly tradition. He had to believe that his experience should not leave him a wilted thing of the past, but an erect figure and vital presence” (311-312). In other words, I can’t do that, but I can do this.
If feeder question: Other than the dick thing, it’s a stretch…one approach might be to focus on the “second world” aspect of Bronner’s argument, which is another way of talking about constitutive humor & can easily be spun towards trollshit, since is predicted on emic/etic distinction.
If stand-alone question: Same idea, though would branch out analysis to talk about the important of context in discussions of humor generally and transgressive humor in particular. Also would emphasize the relationship between joke teller and audience, specifically referencing the woodcutters’ reluctance to being women in on the joke.
June 17, 2011 § 5 Comments
In Trickster Makes This World: How Disruptive Imagination Creates Culture, Lewis Hyde examines the trickster archetype, focusing specifically on the stories of Hermes, Coyote, and Krishna. A creature of the threshold –”sometimes drawing the line, sometimes crossing it, sometimes erasing or moving it” (8)– trickster is “the mythic embodiment of ambiguity and ambivalence, doubleness and duplicity, contradiction and paradox” (7). He is amoral (10), driven by appetite, and shameless (153); he’s held captive by desire, is wildly self-indulgent and is drawn to that which is dirty or censured (176; 185-190). tl;dr, he really doesn’t give a shit. He’s also playful and creative, inventing lies to invent the truth; at the very least, trickster calls into question what is in fact true, thus imbuing his duplicity with polysemic pregnancy (72-75). In short, trickster possesses –and/or has the potential to conjure– the keys for locks which do not yet exist. As a result, Hyde argues, trickster has the uncanny ability to “see into the heart of things” (283), making him as prophetic as he can be unruly and destructive. But not traditionally so, since trickster spends very little time actively reflecting on his own behaviors. And yet, he –at the very least, his behavior– reveals.
As evidence, Hyde tells a story about the Indian god Krishna. A particularly mischievous young god, Krishna is quick to develop a taste for women. He’s a god, after all, and can have what he wants. One night, he takes a walk into the woods and begins playing a magical flute. All the women who hear Krishna’s song are mesmerized and follow its call into the forest, where they begin to dance. In the name of efficiency (among other things), Krishna multiplies himself by sixteen thousand and presents himself to each woman—then disappears with the sunrise. According to Hyde, this moment captures the “negating strain” (287) inherent to trickster’s behavior. He rejects laws of propriety, but doesn’t attempt to replace these laws with some other set. As Hyde maintains, “[trickster] is not the declarative speaker of traditional prophecy, but an erasing angel who cancels what humans have so carefully built, then cancels himself” (287). Trickster doesn’t tell us what to make of his actions. That’s not his job. He acts, he leaves, and suddenly there is nothing, forcing those left in trickster’s wake to “spin out endlessly their sense of what has happened” (288). Tricksters are prophetic, then, because they refuse to prophesize; in so (not) doing, they “point towards what is actually happening: the muddiness, the ambiguity, the noise” (300).
If feeder question: In his preface, Hyde speculates as to whether or not there are any uniquely American tricksters. He rejects the idea that slippery politicians are tricksters, since tricksters are by definition marginalized and peripheral. He suggests that various confidence men of film and literature might qualify, since the con man embodies certain aspects of American culture that are true but rarely spoken aloud—for example, that capitalism courts greed and theft and doesn’t merely justify but actually requires unethical behavior (11-13, whole section important). Because their behaviors unearth similar truths, I could argue that trolls function like (if not “as”) trickster. Trolls might not be culture-heroes in the purest sense; they might not create or sustain the universe. But by rejecting the majority’s rules (see section on psychopathy on 159), by refusing to contain themselves, trolls reveal precisely those cracks, precisely those hypocrisies, that the self-proclaimed moral authority refuses to acknowledge. That they don’t provide answers doesn’t (shouldn’t) take away from what they do provide, namely insight into the world as it is, not the world as we might wish it to be. Heed marginalia, there is much left to mine.
If stand-alone question: Could be pretty cool, actually; after acknowledging that taboo/transgressive humor can indeed reify existing systems, I could frame “bad” humor in terms of Hyde’s formulation of trickster figures, since the complexities [this humor] unearths and the conversations it generates are important, even critical. Per Hyde: As opposed to crystallizing moral certainty, the erasure of trickster figures in favor of uncomplicated binaries merely buries that which is inherently true. “We may well hope our actions carry no moral ambiguity,” Hyde writes, “but pretending that is the case when it isn’t does not lead to greater clarity about right and wrong; it more likely leads to unconscious cruelty masked as inflated righteousness” (10-11). Similarly, taboo humor reminds us that the word isn’t a simple or fair or even sometimes entirely sensical place. Simply condemning/eradicating its traces in humor actually does nothing, in fact might court something even worse (274). Yeah that’s actually sort of badass, I like it! Oh and also, consider the (possible) conservatism in “dirt-rituals,” hugely relevant in discussions of transgressive behaviors (188-198).
June 16, 2011 § Leave a Comment
So, did you hear the one about [some terrible thing]? Oh too soon? Sorry, I was just joking. I’ve actually donated $5 to the victims’ families by texting “cares” to 05005.
And thus begins and ends the time-honored tradition of talking shit about the awful shit that happens, because what else can you do other than throw yourself off a bridge. Christine Davies explores this impulse in his rather cranky selection in Of Corpse, arguing that disaster humor –a comedic genre designed to poke fun at violent or otherwise tragic current events– is born of a particular set of historical and technological conditions. “Sick” humor has been around for ages, from the very second Heavenly Father kicked us out of His magical sandbox. But even the sickest jokes did not, as far as anyone can tell, take the form of the modern disaster joke until the introduction of television (16-17). Moreover, while people certainly commented upon gruesome news, this commentary never evolved into stable and therefore traceable joke cycles (that is, series of jokes which emerge, evolve and eventually plateau in direct response to a tragic event). Certain events have inspired quite a bit of post-hoc joking, for example the sinking of the Titanic or the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, but Davies contends that this humor didn’t become prominent until after the events were widely theatricalized (17). The first major disaster joke cycle followed President Kennedy’s assassination, coinciding with what Davies describes as the “total triumph of television” (19). Over time, the cycle blossomed out to include Jackie-O jokes and RFK jokes and Chappaquiddick jokes, in order of appearance.
In the late 60s and early 70s, disaster joke cycles became increasingly common and began to address global tragedies, which Davies claims were, for the first time, “localized” — that is, global events were being beamed directly into suburban living rooms. Davies attributes this uptick in disaster joking to two basic causes. First of all, he claims, the main consumers and producers of this nascent humor were young people, a demographic known for its antithetical tendencies. This suggests that disaster jokes, as opposed to (merely) expressing callousness, function to subvert the so-called “secular preaching” of the media (23; 27).
Despite the tendency of kids to be assholes, the most significant cause of disaster humor was –and remains– television itself. Davies presents three causes for this connection. First of all, disasters in the television age are followed and preceded by “rubbish” (24), creating an incongruous package to respond to, therefore complicating or outright undermining normal expressions of human empathy (25). Secondly, television blurs the line between reality and fantasy, fact and fiction. In this way, live disasters are conflated with fictional representations of disasters, precluding the viewer from truly “believing” that the event has taken place (25). Finally, the viewer cannot fully experience the event in question, rendering him or her incapable of responding viscerally to televised tragedy. In other words, it is difficult to take televised tragedy very seriously, allowing for, or even necessitating, a cynical or comedic response (26).
Interestingly, Davies is less inclined to see the internet as a similar source of disaster jokes; although he admits that the internet is (at least can be) counter-hegemonic, he ultimately concludes that the tubes are merely a “facilitator” of disaster humor. The internet may encourage “globalized” joke-telling, and it may allow people to exchange information immediately, remotely and oftentimes anonymously, but it isn’t the cause of anything, not in the way that television causes disaster humor to flourish. In Davis’ mind, the internet is little more than a never-ending bulletin board.
If feeder question: Although I agree with many of Davis’ contentions, I have a difficult time accepting this last one; much of my research has focused on the ways in which the structures of various online platforms influence user behavior. This is not a technologically determinist stance –the internet lacks agency, for one thing– but it is a recognition that tools matter, and can have a profound impact on the people who use them. I also think I could spin this guy alongside Oring for some touching discussion of RIP trolling, on account of maybe I could argue online humor is double (maybe even triple?)-mediated. Also the stuff about questioning the impulse to designate disaster humor “aggressive,” since who and what is it actually attacking (29), and the possibility that this sort of humor is less an expression of subhuman heartlessness and more an example of social and political resistance, particularly “an evasion of compulsory rhetoric” (27).
If stand-alone question: Well golly I suppose I could talk about how difficult (and possibly dangerous) it is to make snap judgments about people’s motivations. From an outsider’s perspective, a particular joke might appear clearly callous/racist/sexist/awful/sociopathic/whatever, and therefore deserving of swift condemnation. But people’s reasons for doing the things they do and saying the things they say are highly overdetermined, and ignoring major influencing factors such as one’s relationship to or with the media (and the medium through which whatever message is transmitted) is –could be– quite the oversight. inb4 it doesn’t matter why people say the things they say, it matters that they say them. Yes yes that’s the whole question now isn’t it.