June 15, 2011 § 1 Comment
In their 1978 preface-to-the-preface of their original 1970 manuscript, Alan Dundes and Carl Pagter explain just how difficult it was to get the damn thing published. Even after a successful first and second print run (well, “successful,” the term is relative — we’re talking scholarly research here, not Dan Brown Christian fan fiction), no publisher would touch their third edition. Because you guys! Folklore isn’t written it’s oral, making their collection, however interesting, not actually folklore and therefore not suitable for an ostensibly FLR imprint. No frogging way! quoth the duo, who go on in their introduction to explain exactly why and exactly how photocopier art –the subject of their study– is indeed folklore, and traditional folklore at that. Who cares if the data is technically written down, it’s still clearly “folk” (performed/circulated by a group of people who have at least one thing in common) and it’s still clearly “lore” (the thing performed/circulated is able to exist in more than one place at any given time and boasts minor to major variations between versions; in other words, is unofficial and highly malleable). Had this volume been collected and published in this, the year of our lord 2011, only the stodgiest of folklorists’ panties would have ruffled at the prospect of non-oral, non-illeterate peasant lore-o-the-folk. But in the 70s, tradition was tradition, and breaking with tradition was a big deal, making Dundes’ and Pagter’s various apologia folkloric relics unto themselves. Isn’t it ironic!
But I digress. Dundes and Pagter, being folklorists, subsequently present a structuralist account of photocopier art forms. There are mock-letters, one of which purports to be the retirement-home ramblings of a pious Christian grandmother who finds herself in a tiff with her roommate (“naturally I told her to go fuck herself”) (36); parodies of songs, including a mock 12 Days of Christmas told from the perspective of the unlucky recipient (“What’s with all these fucking birds??? Seven swans a-swimming. What kind of a God-damned joke is this?”) (47); definitions and taxonomies, for example types of men in the office washroom (“PERSONALITY MAN: Tells dirty jokes while pissing. Has pronounced control over farts. Farts at will”) (65); mock-office memos, typically those which cast the workplace as a three-ring circus (“YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE A BRAIN TO BE AN BOSS, JUST AN ASSHOLE”) (101); and dozens and dozens of pictures which, as the authors contend, were far too obscene ever to appear in print (including pictures of penises, pictures of bathroom antics, people with their heads shoved up their asses, butchers who flaunt their junk to female customers, satirical representations of Peanuts cartoons, all of which conclude with the line “goddamn you Charlie Brown,” and so on) (144-195). What’s funny is that it’s just as dirty as anything humans do ever, even though this study was collected in the late 60s/early 70s (though many of the samples were based on tropes dating back to the 50s) and swearing hadn’t been invented yet.
As Dundes and Pagter note, this so-called “paperwork folklore” was the result of workers using the office photocopier to run off jokes and funny pictures for their friends, who would subsequently make copies for their friends, which eventually would hop from office to office, a process greatly accelerated by the introduction of fax machines (xx) and which bears striking resemblance to the creation and transmission of viral online content. Though regarded as “just” humor (LOL NO SUCH THING) by those who transmitted it, Dundes and Pagter insist that photocopier humor is contingent upon the culture out of which it came, arguing that “[photocopier art] is a veil barely concealing an expression of most of the major problems facing contemporary American society” (xxii). These problems included, but were not limited to, profound racial, sexual and class tensions, as well as the sense of alienation many American workers felt in the face of unprecedented expansion of white collar bureaucracy (and all the attendant bullshit therein) — thus making the study of such works a noble endeavor indeed. Also give us jobs, because what we do is very important.
If feeder question: This book is clearly relevant to my own interests; I’ve used it to help place trolling behaviors in the appropriate cultural context. It could also segue nicely into a conversation about the apparently clear demarcation between “oral” and “written” cultures, since Dundes and Pagter are bumping up against the impulse to treat text as some archivable stable thing-in-the-world which doesn’t and can’t live in the ways that verbal communications can/do/must. Bullshit I say!
If standalone question: Consider the impulse to photocopy some racist or sexist thing; even if the person may be photocopying a racist joke to be like “racism sucks,” he or she is still reiterating the original message (even if his intention is to challenge the message) and therefore could be said to be a link in the chain of continued meaning.
June 14, 2011 § 1 Comment
White people! Who do they think they are, with their pinky skin and little dogs. And their sweaters, my god. What a bunch of weirdos!
The question of who ‘the whiteman’ is, really, and what he thinks of himself is addressed in Basso’s piece — by not being addressed at all. In fact “the whiteman” is only considered as a cultural construction in relation to a particular group of Western Apaches; individual white people are neither considered nor consulted. Who the whiteman is and what the whiteman is like depends on the place, the person speaking and the circumstance of whatever utterance (5). Because the category is itself unstable, characterizations (and subsequent analysis) of humor directed at “the whiteman” must therefore be regarded as highly contingent “symbolic inventions” (14).
Basso’s project, then, is admittedly limited — using theories of play forwarded by Bateson and Goffman (11), among others, he describes a particular kind of satirization undertaken by a particular group of people (geographically located in Cibecue, AZ) highlighting a particular understanding of what it means to be a whiteman. Specifically, he focuses on “the performance of carefully-crafted impersonations” (6) of whitemen — 39 examples either personally observed or recorded. These performances, almost all of which were performed by men who had been drinking, are framed by a sudden shift in tone and comportment, often pulling from the stock phrases and outlandish behaviors which the community regards as characteristically “white.” As Basso explains, these performances reveal much about the joker himself (he is not shy, for one), provide information about the relationship between the speaker and the butt of whatever joke (they’ve reached a level of comfort conducive to and absorbent of mock insults), and highlight the relationship between the joker, the butt and the audience and/or larger community (everyone is on the same cultural page and is able to decode the joke/meaning in similar ways) (9; 57-60).
The cultural context is critical, and helps explain why such performances are relatively rare — in Western Apache communities, joking is regarded as a potentially dangerous endeavor, one which has the potential to tear the seams of an unproven friendship (38). Older, more weather-tested friendships (Basso utilizes the metaphor of the buckskin starting on p. 67) are much more resilient and are unlikely to be threatened by even the most ill-timed or insensitive remark (42). In fact, the stronger the relationship, the more it can handle; Western Apache men often “show off” their friendship by playing as enemies (74). Still, performing as the whiteman at a fellow Apache is a particularly dangerous undertaking because it calls attention to and requires one to be complicit in one’s own subordination. Imbuing “play” with an all-too-real cultural sore spot is often too much for even the strongest relationship, and for that reason is either not initiated or swiftly denounced (71-73) — emphasizing the idea that whitemen have a talent for making trouble even in absentia (76).
If feeder question: will use use Basso’s argument to highlight the cultural contingency of language within trolling subcultures.
If stand-alone question: will focus on Bosso’s articulation of risk-assment in relation to “dangerous” jokes, how these kinds of jokes -whatever the intention of the teller- run the risk of reifying the systems they purportedly challenge.
June 14, 2011 § 1 Comment
And by “LAST SUMMER” I mean “this summer,” and by “YOU” I mean “I.”
Because exams! It’s what’s for dinner. And/or is my literal actual job for the next three months. The exam process in the English department is…well let’s just say new (my cohort is the first to go through what we initially dubbed New Quals and which we currently refer to primarily with swear words) and refers to two separate tests. The Breadth Exam comes first and consists of a written portion and an oral portion, which themselves are divided into two lists of materials — my first list is titled “Race, Gender and Humor in Folklore Studies” and focuses on ethnographic accounts of race, gender and humor (go figure) and the second is “Race, Gender and Symbolic Power” and addresses many of the same issues but from a media studies/textual analysis perspective. Students will be asked to pick up and respond to two prepared questions, one on Monday and another on Wednesday; in each case we’ll have 48 hours to return our answers. A week later we’ll be grilled on both lists in some sort of roundtable slash inquisition, the specific details of which still remain a bit fuzzy (I think we just show up?). About three weeks later our advisors will administer proper orals, which in my case will cover Digital Culture + Dissertation Related Project (trollshit, obviously).
Between the three lists I’ll be responsible for about 200 items, some entire books, some chapters, some articles, some videos. I don’t know what questions will be asked of me, but I have a plan, boy howdy do I ever. One aspect of that plan is to post basic synopses of each item plus connections with anticipated questions/my larger research projects onto this here blog, which will allow me to quickly and easily stockpile materials.
So yeah! Over the course of the next few months I’ll be liveblogging the fun, using as many naughty words as possible because studying for exams SUCKS. So instead of driving myself insane with Earnestness, I’ma take a page out of honeybadger’s playbook and just smack the shit out of shit. You hear that, exams? I’m not scared of you. What are you waiting for, indeed.