Engaging Humor: “The Context of Internet Humor” and “The Humor of Hate”

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.


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§ 3 Responses to Engaging Humor: “The Context of Internet Humor” and “The Humor of Hate”

  • jwp,humboldt says:

    This is so thinkish at a third or fourth level that it feels dangerous to reply. There’s the history of the controversy between whether written means dead while speaking means alive (as in Socrates rebuking Phaedrus for trusting the written, which is after all only an archive, and then Jackie Derrida mopping the floor with him and John Sarle because after all even archives aren’t archives), and there’s those layers, so archaeology of knowledge shit from Foucault and Nietzsche and deep structure/syntax/meanings from Chomsky and Freud, and there’s the human as okay vs. human as blank slate formed by the current lower levels of hell so the issue of whether we ought to cut trolls off at the knees or rather we ought to Understand Them, Ich und Thou and empathy and peace will come only when we recognize the enemy uses the same mirrors we do and underneath we are all potential trolls and all that rosy-and-shitty shit. What’s a poor blog reader to do? All I can do is lean back and applaud. It’s quite marvelous. Please don’t burn out.


    • Burn out, I’m not sure I even know what that means. Which I suppose is a partial response — for me, what trolls do, how they speak, who they are both online and irl, it’s nothing different than the things we see and say and think every conscious moment, and sometimes beyond even that. Trolls are a particular population and they do particular kinds of things and yeah they dredge up all sorts of awful (and wonderful, and ambivalent) shit, but the shit is there whether there are trolls around or not. Trolls make the shit visible, they FORCE you to live in the world with all its contradictions and disappointments and violence and humor. It’s not an easy place to be, and what trolls do –consciously or not– is not let you forget it. Burning out isn’t an option, because it’s just how things are. Also aw, I miss you.

  • […] Alen Fine, Patricia Turner (American race relations); Eliot Oring (the humor of hate); Eliot Oring (disaster humor); Lewis Hyde (trickster myths); Christie […]

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