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:

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Thursday, December 1, 2016

My research cited by other texts: Parsons

Here is another text that cites my John Kennedy Toole research.

Parsons and Magnani (2014). "Late Medieval: Chaucer." The Year's Work in English Studies. v. 93 (1): 257-276. This article cites on page 274 my article "A Refutation of Robert Byrne" article.