“Jokes that Follow Mass-Mediated Disasters in a Global Electronic Age” by Christie Davies

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.


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