Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Theory of Humor Series, part 4, Social Dynamics and Disparagement

In part 2 of this series, I used ideas from Rod Martin to define humor. In part 3, I explained the two broad categories within which one can place the hundreds of theories of humor that have been proposed over several millennia: incongruity and disparagement. In this part, I will dig deeper into the nature of disparagement.

To approach disparagement, we must first back up to a fundamental aspect of human nature. We humans are social animals. Social groups naturally sort themselves into social or dominance hierarchies. Social psychologists can show that if you put two people in a room and give them a task, they will quickly and sometimes unconsciously sort themselves into a leader and a follower. The hierarchy of deference can take various forms, and the dynamics within the group can be complex, so social groups do not clearly fall into linear pecking orders based on physical intimidation (indeed, even in the original 1922 Schjelderup-Ebbes report that coined the term "pecking order," the order within a large group was often not strictly linear). Nevertheless, there is always within a small group of humans a social structure where some in the group defer to others.

I believe in our culture we tend to downplay this aspect of human nature because we value ideals of equality, liberty, and freedom. The observation that, in a group situation, one person will always defer to another goes against our ideals in the abstract. The democratic idea that the leader is chosen by the followers and is therefore the first among equals allows us to reconcile our nature with our ideals.

Because higher social status has its benefits, the role of higher status is sometimes contested. Roger Gould (Collision of Wills, Chicago, 2003) observed that a great deal of interpersonal violence occurs in contests over things that do not appear to have a great deal of economic value. The object of the conflict is however a symbol of social status, so the fight was really over the relative positions of the participants in the social hierarchy. In order for a group to act together with trust and cohesion, the threat of open internal conflict needs to be controlled.

Play occurs in a safe environment. Humor usually signals deference and a non-threatening situation (which is why the villain's evil laugh is especially unnerving). Self-deprecating humor signals to the group that the speaker does not insist on a threateningly high status. When we laugh at the pompous individual, we are lowering the person's status within the group. The word pompous itself implies that the person is trying to claim a social status higher than the person deserves. When we laugh with our group, we develop a sense of bonding and cohesion. Studies have found that within a group, even the target of laughter often feels more group cohesion as a result of being laughed at.

Within this context of group status hierarchies, one can see that the disparagement aspect of humor serves as a regulator of group dynamics. While some theorists of humor characterize it as aggressive, one can see it as a mechanism for mediating social tension in most cases without resorting to violence or group division. Which explains why most spontaneous laughter in small groups is not associated with mirth; it is a signal of deference. Nevertheless, the goal-directed, dominant individual often discourages humor and values seriousness. There are not a lot of knee-slappers in the Christian Bible, with its uber-dominant God the Father.

Michael Mulkay, in his excellent book On humour: its nature and its place in modern society (Blackwell, 1988), expanded the issue of the incongruity in humor into a broader social and philosophical theory. He argued that in normal, serious situations, one interpretation of reality is considered correct, and others are looked upon by the group as defective and possibly worthy of suppression. Humor can open up a space for conflicting interpretations to coexist without causing a rift in the group.

Mulkay did not add to his theory the concept of social dominance within the group. The group's dominant interpretation of reality is usually put forward and enforced by high status individuals, so competing interpretations of reality can be threatening to the status structure. Humor can allow alternative interpretations to be introduced without challenging the top of the dominance hierarchy, though humor can indeed be used for a challenge. (In Nazi Germany, it was illegal to name your dog "Adolf," for example.)

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Theory of Humor Series, part 3, Incongruity versus Disparagement

Incongruity versus Disparagement

I will in this entry briefly discuss what I see as the major division of many of the theories of humor. I take most of my information from Rod Martin's textbook The Psychology of Humor (Elsevier, 2007), though I have consulted other sources as well.

For this brief discussion, I will use as an example the famous prosprodokian: “I’ve had the most wonderful evening ... but this wasn’t it,” a witticism which has been falsely attributed to Groucho Marx.

Over the millennia of written history, there have been many theories of humor. Within the western intellectual tradition, the various theories have fallen into what I consider two broad categories: incongruity theories and disparagement theories.

An incongruity resolution is a cognitive process in which the brain detects a contrast or ambiguity and then tries to resolve the interpretations of the incoming information into a consistent whole. The pleasure in resolving an incongruity is similar to the pleasure felt when solving a puzzle. In the joke above, the listener begins the sentence thinking that the speaker is talking about the present moment, this evening, but the end of the sentence forces the listener to reinterpret the beginning of the sentence. The surprise reinterpretation of the beginning of the sentence is a puzzle the brain derives pleasure from solving.

Disparagement theory says that humor fundamentally lowers social status. A man in a suit walking down a sidewalk has a certain amount of implied dignity. When he slips on the proverbial banana peel, his facade of dignity slips too, and we laugh at him. In the example joke above, the beginning of the sentence seems to be a compliment to the host of a party, a customarily positive exaggeration, while the resolution of the incongruity is a negative assessment of the evening, and, told to the host's face, could be highly insulting. The joke has been falsely attributed to Groucho Marx because that sort of disparagement in a refined social setting was typical for the characters he played.

Many humor theorists have combined both incongruity and disparagement. Herbert Spencer argued that humor resulted from "descending incongruity." Arthur Koestler, who coined the term bisociation (which was an important concept in the history of the incongruity school), argued that, in addition to two competing interpretations, there was always an element of aggression in humor. Most humor theorists have either been primarily in the incongruity camp or primarily in the aggression/ disparagement camp, but the two are not incompatible.

Next month, I will expand on the issues surrounding the disparagement theories of humor, because their function within the social dynamic is not as simple as it might appear.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Theory of Humor Series, part 2, What is Humor anyway?

There are several background steps one must take before investigating the nature of the humor within A Confederacy of Dunces. The first step in investigating the theory of humor and how it works is to define our subject: what is humor? A different but related question is: what is comedy (which I will write about eventually)? Historically, this second question is often how the subject of humor was touched on at all. For example, Aristotle compared comedy to tragedy, tragedy being the primary subject, and comedy being its inferior opposite. He did not directly address the question of humor, and his concept of it was not well-formed.

Some thinkers over the millennia have limited humor to that which makes us laugh out loud or have some other visible reaction. Several centuries ago, it was considered rude to laugh out loud in polite society, so philosophers railed against humor, even as they might introduce in their writing sly wit that might cause the reader quiet amusement. Indeed, the English word "humor" (or "humour" if you are British) comes from the theory of humors, which claimed that human emotions and mental well-being were controlled by four fluids or humors in the body. The word only narrowed into its current meaning of comic humor in the last couple hundred years. Other thinkers and experimentalists operationally define humor as formal jokes or cartoons, which can be tested easily in the lab, while others have shown that in social groups, most laughing is not a response to anything humorous.

I have found the book called "The Psychology of Humor," by Rod Martin (most recent edition Academic, 2007) to be especially useful and well-written. Martin offers several definitions of humor, and I will cite two of them. First, he offers a quick definition on page one: "[Humor] is essentially a type of mental play involving a light-hearted, non-serious attitude toward ideas and events, [which nevertheless can be used as a tool for serious purposes]." One element of this definition that is important is the concept of play. Many theorists of humor get so involved in the mechanics of the joke that they forget that at its core, humor comes out of playfulness.

Martin then outlines four elements that go to form humor (Martin, 5-9). There is a social context within which humor occurs, namely that of play. We rarely laugh when we are alone, and there are social situations where it is inappropriate. Humor can be used for a serious purpose, such as expressing outrage about hypocrisy, but the humor itself is fundamentally playful. Second, there are cognitive and perceptual processes that function in order to for something to be identified as humorous. An event or thought has to trip something in the brain that says, hey, that's funny. Third, there is an emotional aspect of humor. The act of appreciating humor is an emotional state that Martin labels "mirth." While laughter is often associated with the state of enjoying humor, the essence of that enjoyment is the emotional state of mirth. Finally, laughter is an expression of mirth. It is also a social signal, and can positively reinforce the behavior of others (laughing with) or negatively reinforce it (laughing at). Laughter can also be infectious and trigger laughter in others in the group.

So there is the concept of humor that I am using in my exploration of Toole's work. Next month: Incongruity versus disparagement.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Theory of Humor Series, part 1, the Danger of Posting Things Online

Over the last five years I have been slowly working on (or stalled out on) a paper about the nature of the humor in John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces. Usually, when doing research, you should keep your ideas under wraps until you have a scholarly paper accepted, so that no one swoops in and publishes your idea in a peer-reviewed setting before you do.

I flirted with being scooped myself with the fact that Toole had indeed known about Boethian philosophy from his class in Chaucer. I posted that fact out on the open Internet in my Evidence of Influences paper a couple of years before I published it in a peer-review setting, and my peer-reviewed statement was only two months earlier than Cory MacLaughlin's Butterfly and the Typewriter. MacLaughlin presented the same fact about Toole and Chaucer in his book, probably having gotten it from my Evidence of Influences paper online. He did cite my paper in his bibliography, but I do not think he credited it with being the source of the Chaucer information.

However, seeing that this project is stalled, I would rather have my ideas out in the world without peer-review credit than not have my ideas out in the world at all. Last summer, I posted a series of entries to this blog about aspects of the theory of humor, and I reviewed Purdie's book on the topic. I will now tag these blog entries with the title: Theory of Humor Series.

That having been said, one of my goals in this blog is to prove that I am still kicking and that my activity related to Toole's work has not ended. But considering that it has slowed down, I have an incentive to drag out any topic (such as the reviews of the "Best of") as long as I can.

With that in mind, I won't actually talk at all about the theory of humor in this particular entry. I will just string you along until next month.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Myrna Minkoff identified??

Recently I ran across a folk song written by a poet named Frances Myra Minkoff. She is best known for co-writing songs with Fred Hellerman of the Weavers, which was a folk group based in Greenwich Village in the 1950s. One of her anti-war songs was recorded by Harry Belafonte in 1963. So she was an active in New York about the time that John Kennedy Toole was studying at Columbia. In Confederacy of Dunces, Myrna Minkoff is a clueless, dogmatic leftist who carries a guitar and inflicts folk songs on listeners. I know nothing about Fran Minkoff's personality, so I cannot speculate on whether Ken Toole borrowed anything from her but her name and her penchance for counterculture folk lyrics, but I am willing to bet that the name of his character is adapted from her name.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

John Kennedy Toole Scholarship #15: Hardin (though not necessarily the best)

I have been offering periodic reviews of articles in the mainstream scholarship ("mainstream" defined as indexed in the MLA International Bibliography). I have focused on the articles and theses that I thought were the best. However, some scholarship is influential and therefore important even when it is not IMHO among the best scholarship. Below, I review an article by Michael Hardin. I do not consider it among the top articles on Confederacy of Dunces, but it is influential because of its pathbreaking aspects. While I do not find his overall thesis as compelling as those of other critics, Hardin's article should be cited by other scholars because of his unique observations. So here I offer my critique.

Citation: Hardin, Michael. "Between Queer Performances: John Kennedy Toole's The Neon Bible and A Confederacy of Dunces." Southern Literary Journal 39, no. 2 (2007): 58-77.

Annotation: Hardin makes the case that the protagonists of both of John Kennedy Toole’s novels have queer (and specifically homosexual) identities. He reviews the same gender ambiguity that Pugh and Gatewood have reviewed, but he views it as an indication of a repressed gay identity rather than general gender transgression. He is critical of the (IMHO strong) claims of Clark and Miller that Ignatius displays infantilism. The article has some pluses: Hardin was the first critic to find several likely double entendres in Confederacy (for example, at the gay rally, Ignatius asks the crowd if they would turn their backs on their fellow man), and the comparison with Neon Bible is useful. Because it was the first to make some observations, if one writes about the queer aspects of Confederacy, one should read and cite this article. However, its thesis is not as compelling as those of Clark, Pugh, Gatewood, or Patteson and Sauret.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Review of a new obscure article on Toole

In the last couple of years, I have not kept up on reviewing articles on Confederacy of Dunces that do not appear in the MLA Bibliography. Here is a new review.

Pal, Abhijit. "A Confederacy of Dunces: Mental Illness in the Life and Work of John Kennedy Toole." Advances in Psychiatric Treatment 19, no. 6 (2013): 467-469.

This brief article simply reviews the evidence of mental illness in John Kennedy Toole's personal life and compares it to the attitude portrayed in A Confederacy of Dunces toward mental illness. The author points out that it was becoming fashionable in the scholarly literature and in popular narratives to question the effectiveness of psychiatry and to relativize mental health at the time that Toole was writing Confederacy. Not bad, but not groundbreaking. Light on scholarship.
The other reviews of obscure articles can be found at: http://course1.winona.edu/vleighton/toole/Toole_obscure_scholarship.html