Out in the Country: Youth, Media and Queer Visibility in Rural America

July 2, 2011 § 3 Comments

One of the irritating things about this exam process is that I’m not reading for fun or even for learning, I’m reading for The Test. That’s not to say that I’m not enjoying the process, because I am, sometimes. And that’s not to say that I’m not learning, because that’s also happening. But the exam is structured in such a way that I have to be efficient and practical about what I study and how. In a nutshell, I have to take a ME-ME-ME approach to the things I read — how does this selection fit into MY project, MY interests, MY exam schema. It’s entirely solipsistic, and I don’t like it. But I only have so much time, and have a shitton to read, and am trying to make my life as easy as possible. To do this I’ve identified several likely exam questions (I won’t know exactly what’ll be asked of me till the day of) through which I’ve been framing all my readings. As I read, I identify what I’ll be able to use for each possible testing scenario, which, as you’ve probably seen, I briefly sketch out at the end of each entry. The reading part, though, that’s what’s annoying. For example, as I was reading Mary Gray’s dizzyingly well-researched Out in the Country, I had to focus on the usable bits, since that’s what I’m here to mine. Again, I don’t like it. But such is life I suppose.

In a nutshell, Out in the Country interrogates how and why and in what ways rural queer youth engage media. Furthermore it “questions how the taken-for-granted binaries of rural/urban, closeted/visible, and online/offline work together to privilege ideologies of visibility and produce isolation irrespective of where one lives, universally marginalizing queer lives beyond the metropoles in the process” (29). But could I linger too long over meaningless details like “what the book is about?” Hell no, because I have a test to pass! -And instead focused on the aspects of Gray’s argument that I’ll be able to integrate into my answer. Like I said, the whole thing is pretty gross.

Whatever though, I’m used to it. So, keeping my (likely) questions in mind, here are the recyclables:

1. “in situ”: a concept to describe media artifacts; emphasis on context. “Archeologists use this phrase to describe an artifact at the point of unearthing or sighting, one that is still embedded in a deposit suggesting its age and cultural context” (126) — applicable to the point and purpose of a particular joke.

2. “boundary public”: a concept describing how individuals appropriate –ostensibly public– spaces which “meet the distinct expectations of different social groups ‘both plastic enough to adapt to local needs and…yet robust enough to maintain a common identity.'” (95) In short, a moment of liminality in an otherwise demarcated space. Conditions which engender the need for boundary publics are characterized by “circulation rather than congregation” (89). i.e. no stable home (118) — could be likened to spaces (either geographical or emotional) in which jokes are told. 

3. “reference groups”: concept from sociologist Tamotsu Shibutani, “audiences that are not obviously on the scene” (129)…”Each person performs for some kind of audience; in the drama of life, as in the theatre, conduct is oriented toward certain people whose judgment is deemed important” (131) — relevant to discussions of constitutive humor. 

4. importance of ethnography, connection to permeability between online and offline spaces (Baym quote on 14): the whole point of this book is to challenge the idea that there are any simple “fly-over” answers to the kinds of questions people pose about the media and people’s engagement with/reaction to similar. Everything is overdetermined. In order to know how rl collides with or supplants or augments online life, you have to ask the people whose lives they are (What Sex am I section). — gets back to issues of context and the dangers of  mapping things you’re only seeing from inside an airplane. 

Approach to feeder question and stand-alone question(s) will probably be similar, and will help provide structural support. Boy oh boy aren’t instrumentalist approaches fun!

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“Dumb Blondes, Dan Quayle, and Hillary Clinton: Gender, Sexuality and Stupidity in Jokes”

July 1, 2011 § 1 Comment

Jeannie Thomas has a lot to say about jokes you guys. First of all, people tell them. Second of all, some people laugh and some people don’t. Third of all, the same joke that’s funny to George D. Asshole might not be nearly as funny to Cindy F. Christian. Also, joke cycles don’t just appear out of thin air, thematic jokes “spread” because they tap into some manner of zeitgeist, whether relatively positive (born of collective interest) or relatively negative (born of collective prejudice or fear). The ubiquity of blonde jokes, for example, can be linked to the rise in visibility of women in the workplace and other positions of power (278), as well as to the gradual association (both positive and negative) of blonde hair with femininity. Blammo! There be joke cycles.

Thomas postulates that blonde jokes, along with all other jokes in the whole wide world, are successful to the extent that they embody or create the illusion of incongruity, superiority, ambivalence and/or transgression (282). Of course, what seems incongruous to one person might appear perfectly normal to another, meaning that each individual response will feature some unique combination of the above criteria, often shifting based on who tells a particular joke when and where. That is to say, the same person might have entirely different reactions to the same joke –or same kind of joke– depending on the circumstances (280-282).

Thomas expands her analysis to include Dan Quayle and Hillary Clinton jokes; as one might expect, the emergent joke cycles are…you know…different. Jokes about Quayle focus on his apparent stupidity, undeserved privilege, immaturity and cowardice. Jokes about Clinton portray the then-first lady as “a bitch, a witch and finally a cunt” (301). Salty! Again, there are lots of reasons for telling and laughing at these sorts of jokes — it depends on the person and situation. Thomas suggests that much politically-motivated humor in the US reflects and/or implicitly critiques a two-party system in which the population is already divided into “us” and “them,” making jokes about politicians entirely par for the course (“I think the joke about X is funny because he’s a ___ and I’m a ___”). Attitudes towards sex and gender are also on parade, though jokes about Dan Quayle are, thankfully, less likely to focus on his genitals or sex life. Which is part of Thomas’ point — jokes allow people to articulate their anxieties and frustrations; the more anxiety-inducing the situation, the greater number of subsequent jokes. Clinton caused/causes a lot of people a lot of consternation, discomfort(s) which tie directly into contemporary effed-up attitudes towards women, particularly powerful honeybadger women. Consequently the jokes about Clinton have far more teeth than jokes about dumb old butthead Quayle, though Thomas doesn’t much address this discrepancy.

If feeder-question: First of all yawn. Second of all hmm in terms of my own research I’d say…well I guess I could talk about the difficulty, if not outright impossibility (and/or ineffectuality, which might be the more important adjective) of positing intentionality on the part of the teller or listener of a particular joke — that instead of focusing exclusively about how an individual feels about a particular joke (i.e, having them explain what the joke is about, who cares), we should focus on what the prevalence/popularity of that joke or kind of joke says about the culture out of which it came. Which could provide an ok segue to trollshit.

If stand-alone question: Provides another example of context trumping content. There is no one correct or definitive response to a particular joke, since the meaning of that joke isn’t static, at least not in the real world.

“Plain and Fancy: A Content Analysis of Children’s Jokes Dealing with Adult Sexuality”

June 30, 2011 § 1 Comment

First of all, children are perverts. This is science fact. Parents often pretend their little angels are pure of heart and groin until the Change, which is subsequently met with the lamentation of innocence lost. But it’s like LOL your kid has always been a sex fiend, deal with it. In her (inadvertently?) hilarious 1976 essay, Rosemary Zumwalt balks this trend (and per her introduction, it really is a trend not to talk about the freaky shit kids do with and to each other, even in academic folklore circles) and presents, as one might expect from reading the title of this post, a content analysis of prepubescent kiddie’s sexy sex jokes. Throughout the essay, she discusses a series of jokes/joke families in which children are confronted with their parents’ terrifying shriveled genitals, and offers an interpretation of what means what to whom. Here is one scintillating example:

There was a boy and he asked his mother if he could take a  shower with her. His mother said yes, if he didn’t look up or down. So in the shower, he looked up and he said, “Mommy, what are those?” And so his mommy told him they were headlights. So then he looked down, and he said, “What’s that?” And she said, “Oh, that’s my gorilla. “So then she said,” Go bug your father.”

And so he went to his father and asked him if he could take a shower with him. So his father said,” Yes, if you don’t look down.” So in the shower, he looked down, and he said, “Daddy, what’s that?” And his father said, “Oh, that’s my banana.” And so in the night, they were all ready for bed, and the little boy said, “Mommy, Daddy, can I sleep with you?” And so they said,” Yes, if you don’t look from side to side.” So in the night, he looked from side to side, and he said, “Mommy, Mommy, turn on your headlights! Your gorilla’s eatin’ daddy’s banana!” [joke fin -ed.]

In this joke, the mother has all of the sexual power. The father is equipped with a banana, which can be devoured by a hungry gorilla. And the child fears that his father is about to lose his banana to just such a gorilla. But there is electrical power to light the dark in this joke too. If mommy will just turn on the head- lights, certainly the flood of light will allow daddy to retrieve his banana, and hopefully it will all still be there. The mother is the gorilla, symbol of uncontrolled sexual drive. The father is the gorilla’s favorite food, and the little boy sounds the alarm, saving his father from castration. (262-263)

Etc, etc. Based on this joke/family (there are a number of jokes which feature some combination of headlights and hot dogs and all manner of fanciful evasions), as well as one particularly gruesome joke in which a young girl “learns” about her father’s “dolly-bird” then ends up “strangling it” and “smashing its eggs” when it “spits at her” (266), Zumwalt argues that these jokes don’t just tell us about children’s sexuality, but also about adults’ attitudes towards children’s sexuality — namely, instead of providing straightforward explanations, parents sugar-coat (inb4 lol you pervert) their explanations and, in a nutshell, facilitate the child’s ignorance about sex.  Zumwalt goes on to argue that the recurring images –of electricity, of food, of animals– are themselves significant, implying the shared desire for power, a sense that sex is an aggressive act as well as a profound oral fixation (266). Ha ha gross.

Zumwalt’s most interesting point is that children’s jokes about adult sexuality are actually somewhat subversive; the “butt” of the joke (and/or the recipient of the figurative dicksmash) is always the adult –or adults– who refuse or are too bashful to take their children’s questions seriously. This explains the apparent shelf-life of these jokes; once a child has reached sexual maturity (i.e. the juevos have dropped), they are no longer as curious about their parents’ bodies, since now they have their own filthy disease-traps to worry about. Zumwalt provides one final joke to drive home the teenage rejection of the very category of genitalia:

This little boy walks into the bathroom, and he catches his mother naked. She was a little embarrassed. He said, “Mommy, what’s that?”And she says, “Oh, that’s where God hit me with an axe.” And the little kid says,” Got you right in the cunt, eh?” (267)

If feeder-question: Well, the jokes are all basically examples of kids trolling the shit out of their parents. (lol stretching)

If stand-alone question: Could talk about the joke-work angle, how studying particular jokes can reveal a whole system of relationships and power within those relationships (relational nestings?) — in this case, the jokes reveal adults’ attitudes towards children’s sexuality and the children’s attitudes towards those attitudes (which is what gives the jokes their dolly-punch). Maybe the self-reflexive and revelatory nature of jokes? So, it’s not just what is said in the joke, but how the joke inheres within a given social context. Also there is some talk about the (implied) subversiveness of these jokes — perhaps could use as proof of how jokes allow subordinated chilrens to exert power over their parental overlords. (but how effectual is this power, is the question — in the case of the kids, yeah their jokes may provide a send-up of their parents, but a) do these kids even know that’s what’s happening, b) how important is it that the kids are aware that they’re being subversive and c) their jokes don’t get them what they want, namely knowledge)

 

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.

“You Have to Do It with Style: Girls’ Games and Girls’ Gaming”

June 23, 2011 § 3 Comments

Girls are cooperative, passive, and avoid conflict in relationships

In this scintillating entry, I shall discuss girls’ games and girls’ gaming. But first, a confession: up until um probably seventh grade (Eighth grade? not entirely sure how to demarcate) I was a mean girl. I was bossy and forceful and basically did precisely as I pleased. Weirdly, teachers and authority figures generally just loved me, so apparently I wasn’t total hell, or at the very least was clever enough to know when and where to behave myself. I would have done well in Slytherin, is what I’m saying. So it was with some –let’s say bemusement– that I read Linda Hughes selection. It’s not a bad article, and certainly covers important ground — pulling from two years’ research in the grade school foursquare trenches, as well as the feminist folklore of games and gaming canon (lol there’s no such thing), she argues that folkloric accounts of girls’ play often emphasize and/or subsequently lament the passive nature of girls’ interactions, thus framing gendered play as “central villains in the process of creating and sustaining patterns of inequality” (133). That is to say, girls are trained to behave like girls; play reinforces those ideals. Because traditionally masculine qualities –aggressiveness, independence, competitiveness– are privileged over traditionally feminine qualities, girls’ play helps internalize both the experience and acceptance of feminine inferiority. Not only is it important to reevaluate the ways in which girls’ gaming is described (134), Hughes argues, it’s critical to acknowledge how and in what ways girls’ gaming challenges traditional accounts of female interaction (135). Only then might we know exactly what is at issue.

After all, although the rules of many girls’ games (scare-quotes implied, because wtf makes a game inherently feminine) may appear to corroborate the oft-cited assumption that nice girls play nice, the reality of girls’ gaming –you know, what happens when someone bothers to pay attention to what girls actually do— reveals an evolving and highly complex system of negotiation not just in relation to a particular set of rules but within a number of overlapping social spheres. Yes, friendship and cooperation and “playing nice” are often given a great deal of lip-service. But girls! They can be assholes, one of the unpleasant side-effects of being people. As one of Hughes’ participants coyly offered, it’s not that girls don’t have the same ultimate goal –#duhwinning– as the boys. It’s just that “You have to do it in style” (144), suggesting that the performance of play is as important as, if not more important than, the gameplay itself. Indeed, as Hughes magnanimously declares in her conclusion, “All girls do not lack skills in organizing and sustaining large-group activities of games with highly complex and elaborate rule structures. All girls are not incapable of engaging aggressive competition, and they do not all fall apart in the face of the slightest disagreement” (143).

To which I, as a spider-queen and general maker of mischief, can only reply OH MY GOD NO SHIT???

If feeder-question: The foursquare case study bores me and anyway on its own ain’t all that relevant to m’project, but some of the meta-insights could be helpful in terms of framing. Specifically the claim that “to have assumed that these girls competed as individuals just because they chose a nonteam game would have significantly distorted and oversimplified the social reality” (142) could be applied to trolls, who are often described/condemned as antisocial anomalies but are often highly social within their particular trolling community, itself subject to some form of hierarchy, either interpersonal or in terms of cultural fluency. So often, trolling is a performance for other trolls; the resulting lulz thus functioning as a kind of naughty bastard Boy Scout badge. You lose all that nuance if you refuse to see trolls as anything other than lonely wheezing basement-dwellers.

If stand-alone question: Same basic idea, idea that oversimplification oversimplifies. Hughes’ emphasis on shifting focus from what is played to how it’s played (134) is an important concept in terms of transgressive humor. Like, yeah we need to know what jokes are told, but the how and the why often have a profound impact on what the what actually means. LOL WORDS

Whispers on the Color Line: Rumor and Race in America

June 22, 2011 § 1 Comment

Don't tell me what to do, Amazon screengrab

“The Wages of Sin: Stories of Sex and Immorality”

This is not a cheerful selection, and makes my job feel much more perilous. But such is life, I suppose. So — throughout this selection, Gary Alan Fine and Patricia Turner challenge the pollyanna-ish (white person reference very much intended) contention that America has totally solved that whole pesky race thing. Yes, they concede, some minorities have it less bad than in previous generations (talk about being damned by tepid praise) — but the rumors and stereotypes which function to buttress structural inequities are just below (and frequently lay directly atop) the surface, no matter how vociferously someone might insist that race doesn’t just not matter, but doesn’t even exist.

Significantly, these types of stereotypes –which Turner and Fine loosely bifurcate as either portraying the target group as shrewd, greedy and untrustworthy or stupid, violent and sexualized– form the backbone of all ethnic joking. Historically, blacks as seen by whites fall into the latter category, a position even well-meaning whites frequently justify by citing various crime, welfare and educational statistics, ostensibly the “grain of truth” in whatever stated stereotype. As the authors are quick to point out, of course, “statistics are numbers, collected for particular purposes, depending on the categorizing schemes of those in power, and are often used in ways for which they were never intended” (150) — in many cases, to lend pseudo-scientific credence to prejudiced attitudes, simultaneously “verifying” the belief in question and exonerating the messenger of even the slightest tint of racism. After all, numbers don’t lie! -a position that the authors are quick to dismiss. As they explain, “The discouraging reality is that widely held stereotypes seem justified, even though this justification may misstate the causes of these phenomena, ignoring the results of other, more powerful societal forces such as discrimination or the hostile beliefs of others” (150).

The most insidious of these rumors and stereotypes speak to perceptions of black male sexuality, which is often portrayed as voracious and animalistic (images which the authors trace to the fears of white slaveowners) (150), and which continues to animate many negative perceptions of an apparently homogenous black community. When humor enters the equation –and it frequently does, as stereotypes are only a punchline away from a joke– whites often justify their laughter by insisting they’re only kidding and/or that some people need to learn to take a joke (151-152); Fine and Turner present a particularly telling example of an egregious (some might even say laughably) racist joke-flier plastered across the city of Milwaukee in the early 90s (151).

As further evidence of the implications of racist h(r)umor, Turner and Fine present two case studies: the OJ Simpson trial, in which the once-popular football star was framed by a rabid (white) media as an abusive, murderous drunk –indeed, what many whites already regard to be “normal” behavior for a black man (155)– and various rumors surrounding the existence and spread of the AIDS virus. Regarding the former, the authors contend that, “For many African Americans the charges [against Simpson] represented the white power structure’s attempt to get back at this uppity negro” (156), a suspicion which fueled a whole host of alternative forensic theories. Unsurprisingly, say Fine and Turner: “If one lives in a world in which the police can do whatever they wish, manufacturing and manipulating evidence at will, and in a world in which black men, no matter how prominent, are always at risk, such scenarios about the Simpson case are plausible, if not likely” (157), a conclusion echoed in and by the suspicion that widely-held belief by blacks (and others, primarily groups most strongly effected by the virus) that AIDS was deliberately created by the government and either purposefully or accidentally introduced into “undesirable” minority populations. Again, the existence of such theories are hardly surprising — in many ways, it speaks to the cybernetics of racist rhetoric and behavior.

If feeder question: Will be similar to my response if stand-alone question, though will focus specifically on trolling humor as opposed to transgressive humor generally. The basic idea is — well jesus, ok, you’ve got these “jokes” which are born of actual intolerance, actual hatred, ideas which don’t just allow for but actively sustain the invisibility of racist power structures. If your assumption is that racist power structures are bad (and who would disagree with that, publicly at least), then anything which helps make them stronger are by extension also bad. If racist jokes feed into racist power structures, then one can only conclude that racist jokes are bad. The question of course is just that — do racist jokes feed into racist power structures? In other more accurate words, do all racist jokes always feed into the same racist power structures in the same ways? I still say the question (and/or the impulse to ask the question) is strange, since it presumes right out of the gate that all language is always-already created equal. But as we’re already discussed, jokes themselves (saying nothing of individual signs, which is a related but currently unaddressable can of worms) don’t have static ontological status. They aren’t things, they’re mediums for particular messages. If the message is racist, then the joke is racist. If the message is something else, then the joke is something else. That doesn’t mean that a trace of the original/historically accepted meaning (in itself a tricky concept) doesn’t persist — in terms of trolling, that trace is necessary to elicit the appropriate level of discomfort in whatever target. Still — what do we do with this trace? All kinds of shit has traces of other shit, it’s called language, it’s messy, and that’s just when we’re talking about how the word “cat” refers to the specific four-legged evil thing who sits at my feet all day and glares at me for no other reason than she’s pretty much an asshole.

The question, I guess, is this — does transgressive humor make racism (or sexism, or homophobia, or whatever other -ism) worse? Not just “racism” (or whatever) as abstract noun, but as a lived experience. Does ostensibly or explicitly or inadvertently or deliberately racist/sexist/homophobic humor, no matter where or why the joke is told, no matter who tells whatever joke, or why, make individual people’s lives worse? Again, I’m inclined to say … oh my god it depends, in large part because people’s individual experiences vary so greatly. Presuming that all people have the same reaction to the same thing seems to me to … well, to suggest that people are simple. And for fuck’s sake, we’re a lot of things, but we’re certainly not that. So I don’t know.

“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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