Tricks and Fun: Subversive Pleasures at Newfoundland Wakes

June 24, 2011 § 1 Comment

Oh you mean the PLACE

One of the things about theory –specifically theories related to social sciencey chuman behavior stuff– is that they mostly insist on logic. Which is great & I suppose necessary, on account of what would be the alternative. I mean, logic works — it’s great on paper, and sure helps explain things. Which is good! But irl the same things which make perfect sense when written down are messy and fraught and often defy rational explanation, making even the most logical and straightforward explanation of a given set of behaviors either unhelpful or downright damaging. This is my main problem with people like Freud, to give an obvious example, especially his work on and with jokes. Because as logical as his system might be, it’s just that, a system, and I don’t know of a single system without at least one well-greased crack. Systems aren’t things, after all, they’re man-made explanations which help give our world structure and meaning. Again, I’m not saying that structure doesn’t or can’t serve a critical diagnostic or basic explanatory function. It’s just that human behavior is so much more complicated and mysterious than many social-scientific theories are equipped to allow — and, perhaps ironically, also so much simpler. People do things for all kinds of reasons; to suggest that there is one ur-cause is to ignore all the other factors that may or may not in some unpredictable combination help explain at least an aspect of whatever behavior in question — not least of which is the often-overlooked but actually highly salient point that people do the things they do because they’re fun.

This, in a nutshell, is Peter Narvaez’ argument in “Tricks and Fun,” which examines turn-of-the-century decorum (or lack thereof) at Newfoundland funeral wakes. He does his due academic diligence, of course, and places in theoretical context a host of seemingly profane behaviors. It could be, as a number of theorists have suggested, that mourners felt compelled to “play” within these sacred spaces in order to placate the dead (115-117). It could be that they did so in order to challenge the ruling order (121-123). Narvaez carefully considers both possibilities; although he concedes that each makes partial sense, especially when applied to their respective contexts (both were forwarded by Irish scholars in response to Irish funeral behaviors), neither adequately explains why Newfoundland wakes would play host to such bawdy, drunken fun, and why the tradition would persist for so many generations. Why, for example, would mourners play a game “with penalty of biting the corpse’s toes?” Why would they rig the corpse to scare unsuspecting guests? Why would they make the corpse “drink” alcoholic beverages? Why would they dress the corpse in silly outfits? Why would they embrace the occasion to play seemingly-cruel practical jokes on select attendees (117-120; also this)? A theorist could drive herself crazy trying to assemble a logical explanation. And she could put together a really smart, really compelling account of socio-historical forces which explains why otherwise “normal” people would engage in such seemingly abnormal, possibly even amoral, behaviors. But as Narvaez suggests, a strictly theoretical explanation is unlikely to set fire to any of the actual participants’ pantaloons. Indeed, almost none of the informants’ testimonies would support such a reading. Per their own explanations, people flocked to these sorts of wakes because they were fun, suggesting that tradition lived on for as long as it did because people kept showing up. Some informants even expressed glee when whatever old codger died (129). Because that meant a party! And parties mean drinking! And drinking means pranks! And hurray, etc.

Of course, there’s room to talk about counter-hegemony, and there’s room to talk about subversion, and all that jazz. Greater Forces are certainly at play, but play is also at play — people like to feel good, and like to do things that make them feel good. Sometimes “feeling good” is as simple as having a full stomach and nice buzz (what Narvaez describes as “evasive” pleasures). Sometimes “feeling good” means doing something you know you shouldn’t be doing (described as “subversive” pleasures)(128). Frequently, “feeling good” means both. So, while a well-drawn theory will consider if and how and why these pleasures reflect larger social forces, a fully embodied account –that is, one applicable to the world that is, and not merely the world we construct with our logic– must also acknowledge that pleasure is often a reason in itself. The question, then, of why Newfoundlanders would raise hell at wakes could be answered simply: they wanted to.

If feeder question: One of the running jokes I have with some of my troll friends is that my explanations for their behavior are often way more involved than their own explanations. I believe, for example, that trolls are responding to an incessantly histrionic news media; I believe that trolls engage in what I call cultural digestion, making them conduits for offensive behavior as opposed to the originators of these behaviors; I believe trolls chip away at the sanitized image we have of ourselves. I also believe that when a troll sits down at his computer, he’s not thinking about how best to challenge hegemonic forces. Not that he wouldn’t be capable — many of the trolls I’ve worked with are highly self-aware and self-reflexive. But in the moment, they’re doing it because, frankly, trolling is fun. It makes them laugh. They wouldn’t keep coming back if the behavior didn’t have some sort of emotional payoff. Of course, “enjoyment” isn’t and shouldn’t be regarded as some behavioral holy grail. But it must be integrated into whatever theoretical framework, since rejecting affect is rejecting the human.

If stand-alone question: Could spin the article to talk about the flip-side of transgressive humor — it’s funny because it’s bad. This is why, no matter how socially-conscious someone might be, transgressive jokes often still hold great appeal. If they didn’t, people wouldn’t continue engaging with them. tl;dr you can’t very well talk about the transgressive impulse without acknowledging the deep enjoyment people get from transgressing. This doesn’t mitigate whatever harm the jokes cause, but it does place the jokes in a wider and more honest emotional context.

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