“Making a Big Apple Crumble: The Role of Humor in Constructing a Global Response to Disaster”

June 22, 2011 § 2 Comments

See below.

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.


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