Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Theory of Humor Series, part 11, Sociology of Status

This series of blog posts began as an analysis of the comic quality of the novel A Confederacy of Dunces (Confederacy), by John Kennedy Toole. After eight posts, I had only just laid out the theory of humor I using to frame the analysis. I have now been invited to write a book chapter on Toole and Confederacy, so now I will only use this series of blog posts to more fully articulate that theory of humor.

For a quick recap, humor has IMHO two fundamental aspects: incongruity, a contrast that causes the brain to try to resolve a puzzle of interpretation, and disparagement, a non-violent way to adjust the dynamics of a group status hierarchy, an adjustment which can be either gentle or aggressive. I will try to refrain from calling it MY theory of humor, as the theory is largely pieced together from various strands of the long tradition of trying to define humor.

In part 4, I described a theory of humor in which humor is set within the context of a small human group, where a status hierarchy exists among the members of the group, who all know each other. Humor can act as a method of playfully challenging or reasserting the status of members without threatening to tear the group apart or commit violence against group members. I made the point that social psychology shows us that status orders arise naturally within human groups and are unavoidable.

In part 5, I emphasized that, while all groups have status orderings and humor can act as a gentle way to adjust the group status structure, sometimes the ordering within a group is oppressive to some members. Humor in those situations can be used as a mechanism of oppression. In part 8, I talked about stereotype humor as a pathology of humor within large groups, an easy way to get a laugh without a detailed knowledge of the target of the humor.

I was recently reading a sociological study. That book demonstrated for me that some sociologists (perhaps all) have viewed status hierarchies strictly through the lens of large groups in a mass society, rather than through the lens of personal interactions in small groups. This particular sociologist defined "social classes" as groups within the society united by economic interests, whereas "prestige groups" were defined by a common social status afforded members of those groups.

From the perspective of prestige groups within large societies, I would have to say that stereotype humor is the norm, not the exception. Stereotype humor is a mechanism that one prestige group can use to adjust the status level of another group, specifically downward. When leaders of a group want to challenge the position of their group within the prestige hierarchy, they reject the stereotype humor as unacceptable. Such jokes become politically incorrect.

I would like to argue, nonetheless, that such use of humor between prestige groups does not have to be oppressive. Just as gentle teasing can be inclusive in small groups (see part 6 of the series), not everyone within a target group of stereotype humor might take offense. What comes to mind is the example of the Prairie Home Companion. Garrison Keillor would joke about the Bachelor Norwegian Farmer. Knowing many Norwegian-Americans, I am unaware that they in general took offense, and my sense was that many Minnesotans of Norwegian ancestry were flattered by the attention. The teasing indicated that Norwegian Americans were part of the in-group, though perhaps not at the peak of the status hierarchy. It also acted as a mechanism for putting forth a Midwestern cultural identity and celebrating it.

One could even argue that Keillor was offering a rural American cultural identity which was an alternative to Southern cultural identity. Many rural Americans have been attracted to the humor of Jeff Foxworthy and others and identify themselves as Southern, even when they do not live in an area that was part of the former Confederacy. Keillor's Norwegians offer a rural identity that is decidedly not Southern. My own family is from Appalachia, and could choose to identify with a hillbilly cultural identity, as celebrated in such shows as Hee Haw. Sometimes Appalachian identity is lumped into Southern identity, but in the American Civil War, Appalachia generally fought for the North against the Confederacy (Eastern Kentucky and Tennessee, West Virginia, which was the only region to secede from the Confederacy, and Western North Carolina and Maryland, etc.). I found it interesting that my own father passionately embraced Keillor's Midwestern vision rather than a cultural identity with the South, though he did enjoy watching Hee Haw just to annoy my mother (perhaps challenging her pretension that we were not culturally part of Appalachia).

In putting forth a theory of humor as a status adjustment mechanism, I focused on small group status dynamics. I believe that the small group is the origin of the status instinct within humans, and the dynamics of the small group long predates humans, being part of the behavioral repertoire of all social animals. Hominids have lived in small groups millions of years before we humans formed mass societies. So when trying to define humor as a characteristically human behavior, small group dynamics and personal interaction should be used as the base context within which to understand it as a social behavior.

Nevertheless, in hindsight, I should have acknowledged that stereotype humor fits neatly into the sociology of status within mass societies.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Theory of Humor Series, part 10, Changed Priorities Ahead, No Joke

Someone contacted me and invited me to write a chapter for a prospective book of criticism on John Kennedy Toole. I have accepted the invitation. Good thing I dragged this series out without ever getting to the meat of the issue. I plan to take this topic and create the book chapter. I will continue in this series to articulate my own general theory of humor, but not use it to analyze Confederacy of Dunces. You will have to buy the book for that. Or interlibrary loan it. However, if the book project falls through, I may finish this series as originally envisaged here online.

Photo use allowed, credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/petereed/138369750

Friday, March 2, 2018

Blog Interrupted by Father's Death

I had a post written and ready to put on the John Kennedy Toole Research blog for March 1st. However, my father died on February 21st. I am now dealing with my father's estate far from my home computer with the text of the post. Click here for the obituary.

What is relevant for my writing on the theory of humor is that my father had a keen sense of humor, which he enjoyed cultivating. He helped educate and inform my sense of humor. In the obituary on the website, we even slipped in a joke. It says, "And some say because of his reputation for punctuality, his portrait now hangs in the waiting room of the hospital’s new Family-Centered Maternity Suite." But his reputation was that he was never punctual. For those in the know, that explains why his portrait hangs in the hospital waiting room.

Much of his humor was in context and usually related to the foibles of individuals around him. Once when I was young, he was driving a crowded car. I passed gas that was extremely foul smelling, and it filled the silent car. He cleared his throat and in a calm voice said, "You know Vernon, it's not the smell we mind so much ... it's the burning of the eyes."

Because of his humor, he was often asked to MC the roasts for doctors at the hospital who were retiring.

In his last year of life, despite a severe stroke, he was able to enjoy humor, and once in that last year, I was able to get him to laugh until he cried. He will be missed.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Theory of Humor Series, part 9, Two Schools of Thought Become One Theory

This series of blog posts has as its ultimate goal an analysis of the comic quality of the novel A Confederacy of Dunces (Confederacy), by John Kennedy Toole, though I am not in any rush to get there. I am as much interested in developing a general theory of humor.

I have been rereading my blog entries from May to December of 2017, the first eight parts of this series, and I have discovered that I unconsciously practiced a sleight of hand, which I now want to point out and make explicit.

In Part 3 of this series, I tried to characterize the two main schools of theories of humor. At the end of the entry, I simply stated that theories that claim a.) humor deals with incongruity and b.) humor deals with disparagement are not incompatible. What I did not say was that the theory to which I myself subscribe includes both incongruity and disparagement.

In Part 4 of this series, I focused in on what I consider to be a core fact of human nature, that, because we are a social species, we naturally form status hierarchies within groups. I then argued that one can understand the disparagement aspect of humor within the context of small group status hierarchies. So I slipped quietly from saying, a.) "many theories of humor focus on disparagement," to saying, b.) "all humor does in fact have a disparaging aspect." I then added to my theory that humor acts as a social status regulator to Mulkay’s theory that the humor mode allows a diversity of interpretations of reality within a group.

In Part 5, I tried to define comedy, and I did so in the context of a theory of humor focused on small group social regulation. So I was applying a theory of humor that I hadn’t explicitly defined, but slid into sideways. In Part 6, I discussed the fact that some disparagement in humor can be oppressive, but emphasized that not all disparagement has to be oppressive. But again, I was presuming that all humor has a disparaging aspect. In Part 7, the topic was a comic device that employs incongruity, but I then discussed how it is often used in a context in which there is disparagement. In Part 8, I showed how stereotypes allow for convenient incongruity and disparagement, assuming a theory of humor that contains both.

So there you have it: the theory I use posits that all humor has two aspects: incongruity and disparagement, and that the disparagement can be used to regulate social status within a group. That regulation can be oppressive but does not have to be. I defined it very clearly in paragraph two of part 7, but I presented it as though I was simply recapping something earlier arrived at. Now I am stating clearly that that is the theory of humor I am using in this study.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Best of John Kennedy Toole Scholarship #16: Rudnicki 2

For the last eight months, I have been writing a series that is exploring the nature of humor in general and the humor of A Confederacy of Dunces in particular. Because my ambition is to articulate an entire theory of humor, even after eight installments I have not even gotten close to bringing up Toole's book. So for this post, I thought I would pause with my humor theory series and actually have a blog post that talks about Confederacy of Dunces.

As I said in June 2013, I would like to offer an annotated bibliography, one citation at a time, of the best of the scholarship on Toole's Confederacy that is findable via MLA Bibliography (as opposed to obscure). Here is item number sixteen:

Citation: Rudnicki, Robert. "Euphues and the Anatomy of Influence: John Lyly, Harold Bloom, James Olney, and the Construction of John Kennedy Toole's Ignatius." Mississippi Quarterly 62, no. 1-2 (2009): 281-302.

Annotation: This article has the distinction of being the first scholarly article on Confederacy to use information from the Toole Papers at Tulane University. Rudnicki has two main theses: first, that Ignatius's overwrought style was influenced by Toole's study of the Renaissance dramatist John Lyly; and second, that Toole is an interesting subject to use when studying the question of literary influence. On the first thesis, Rudnicki shows evidence from Toole's B.A. Honor's Thesis that he was quite familiar with Lyly's trademark rhetorical style called Euphuism. Rudnicki then demonstrates that Euphuistic elements are present in the discourses of Ignatius Reilly. As for the second thesis, Rudnicki shows how Toole's style matured by comparing his juvenile work, The Neon Bible, with his later work, Confederacy. For theory, he refers to Harold Bloom.

Oddly, Rudnicki does not seem to have extensively studied the archives, and he repeatedly makes assertions about the influence of a given writer on Toole without offering any evidence or analysis to support the claim of influence. For example, he off-handedly refers to Salinger’s possible influence, without having mentioned Toole’s written praise for Salinger found in the Toole Papers. It would not be such a big deal, except that his thesis is the use of Toole as an example of literary influence. One might suppose that he would therefore be careful about documenting actual evidence of potential influence. This weakness is one reason this article only made it to sixteenth place in my rankings.

Despite these issues, this article is good, as it was the first to use anything from the archives, and it does a good job of both demonstrating the influence of Euphuism and discussing the general problem of speculating about influence.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Theory of Humor Series, part 8, Use of Stereotypes in Humor

This series of blog posts has as its ultimate goal an analysis of the comic quality of the novel A Confederacy of Dunces (Confederacy), by John Kennedy Toole. In the previous seven posts, I have defined humor, defined comedy, and discussed comic devices related to hiding and revealing. One problem with writing a text as a series of blogs is that I am publishing pieces of the text before it is entirely finished, and I have discovered that I should return to a subject that I had not fully discussed. This post is such a digression.

For a quick recap of humor theory from part three of this series, humor has two fundamental aspects: incongruity, a contrast that causes the brain to try to resolve a puzzle of interpretation, and disparagement, a non-violent way to adjust an individual's (or subgroup's) place within a group status hierarchy, an adjustment which can be either gentle or aggressive.

The common feature of humorous performances that I failed to mention earlier has to do with the use of stereotypes. The first fundamental aspect of humor, incongruity, is often generated by a text which has two or more possible interpretations. When the comic text begins, one interpretation is the most reasonable one; then as the text ends, the other interpretation is forced on the audience. This flip is called bisociation. However, for the surprise to be spontaneous, the second interpretation needs to be already loaded and hovering at the ready in the minds of the audience. People who do not get a joke often lack the understanding that would create in the background the surprise second interpretation.

The second fundamental aspects of humor, disparagement, is fulfilled by this bisociation because the second interpretation usually lowers the status of the target of the humor.

Among close groups, there is a large shared history populating objects and individuals with known characteristics, which can be used to generate the second interpretation. So if A and B have a friend C who is forgetful, then the story featuring C might flip from an interpretation that C was passionate or heroic to the interpretation that C had forgotten something. And forgetfulness, while not reprehensible, is not a positive trait. The joke does not have to be mean-spirited so long as the target is well accepted by the group despite that known character flaw.

In the joke repertoire of traveling comics or in the industrial comedy broadcast by mass media, there is often little shared history among the audience, so stereotypes about groups are frequently used to create that second interpretation. The group could be a gender, an ethnic or racial group, an occupational group (lawyers), or people from a neighboring state or country. Stereotypes save the effort of building a second interpretation to which the joke flips. Unfortunately, in order to fulfill the disparagement aspect of humor, the stereotype needs to be one that lowers the status of the individual or target group, and this use of negative stereotypes perpetuates and reinforces those stereotypes. Members of the stereotyped group often find the joke offensive and oppressive.

A comic text can avoid stereotypes by presenting a character in the comic text with obvious flaws, and then building the text's bisociative twists on those flaws. The flaws do not apply to an entire group, just to that individual. But that backstory takes time to construct, time that the comedian may not have. Comics often pick on celebrities, because the celebrities have character traits known widely to the audience, which can be easily exploited for the interpretive surprise, and woe be the person who recently was in the news accused of a ridiculous act.

So those who criticize humor for its oppressive quality have a point. Humorists often do employ stereotypes that unfairly characterize individuals within an identifiable group. Again, those humorous put-downs may be on a spectrum from gentle and pro-social to hostile and alienating, and each individual experiencing the humor might assign it to a different location on that spectrum. The comic has to navigate and know the audience well. If the comic uses stereotypes, they have to be ones that many in the audience accept at least at a minimal level. This feel for the audience may even be not consciously understood by the humorist. A gentle humorist is one whose humor generates pro-social feelings among the broadest possible audience; an aggressive humorist may build strong pro-social feelings among a privileged subgroup by disparaging another group within a potential audience.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Theory of Humor Series, part 7, Comic Devices I, Discovery

In this section, I am using the book The Cambridge Introduction to Comedy by Eric Weitz (2009) extensively.

In Christopher Booker's The Seven Basic Plots, he claims that the comic plot as a genre deals with 'a coming to light of things not previously recognized.' (150 as quoted in Weitz, 75). Comedy uses devices such characters who disguise themselves, characters who swap identities, cases of mistaken identity, and misunderstood conversations among others to create a situation where something is hidden and then revealed. In theater, the audience often knows the hidden information and enjoys watching the characters discover it.

This hiding and discovery fits well with theories of humor centered on incongruity. Someone uses one mental frame to understand events, and then discovers that the original interpretation was wrong. The reader or audience enjoys the resolution of the conflicting versions of reality. Either the audience experiences the surprise resolution themselves, or they enjoy watching some of the characters experiencing the surprise.

This device of hiding and revealing also can conform to the disparagement theory of humor, where humor is a non-destructive way of adjusting social status. The comic discovery is often embarrassing to one or more of the characters. A character might create a modest falsehood to conceal a fact that might cause the social group to lower their opinion of that character. The plot then causes the false version of reality to expand. Then customarily when the expanded deception is revealed, that character's embarrassment and social downgrade are magnified.

Comedy often features a blocking character, who wants to prevent the comic heroes of the story from assuming their rightful and appropriate social places within the group. The blocking character often also wants to preserve his or her own inappropriately high social status. As Weitz says, "Comic custom ... prescribes maximum and prolonged humiliation for this character" (118).

There are many comic devices, but these are representative of a certain class of such devices that one can call "discovery devices."