“Jokes and the Discourse on Disaster”

June 21, 2011 § 1 Comment

Too soon?

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.

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