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 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."

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Theory of Humor Series, part 6, Oppression and Humor

Having finished part 5 of this series, defining comedy, I feel it important to try to elaborate on my view of social structure. One might take my discussion in part 4 of this series Social Dynamics and Disparagement to mean that, because status hierarchies form naturally in human groups, all forms of social status hierarchy are good. I certainly didn't mean to imply that. History is strewn with innumerable examples of humans committing acts of extraordinary evil, especially when acting in groups. Humans high in a status hierarchy can use their social power to author evil on those lower in the social hierarchy or to get the group to commit evil acts again persons outside the group.

Humor can be used as a tool of social oppression. Groups can ridicule those members low in status. A subset of the group can also form a small group that ridicules people outside the in-group as Other. Humor can be employed as part of a propaganda campaign to dehumanize other groups, which may be a precursor to violence. Mulkay, in his book On Humour, argues that it is not the humor itself that is oppressive, because humor is fundamentally non-serious; rather, what can be oppressive are the serious ends to which the humor is employed. Be that as it may, there are many instances where the target of the humor is not joining in the laughter and might in fact be terrorized.

What I did mean to say is that, even in the most unoppressed, egalitarian, or emotionally harmonized group, there are natural differentiations of status that develop from the grassroots upward. Recent research on bee hives suggest that decisions are made by consensus, and within human groups, there may be more consensus used to confer status than it at first appears. On the other hand, even in the most apparently rigid vertical hierarchy, leaders are wise to satisfy important factions of a group politically and build coalitions. And within a group that has a formal hierarchy, the informal social power might be other than it appears. Members who are technically low status within the formal structure of the group may have outsized informal authority. Again, the point is not that all hierarchies are good, but that all groups, including harmonious groups with little or no oppression, have status differentiation.

Another point raised in the literature (Terrion and Ashforth, 2002) is that, within a group that strives for cohesion, the target of putdown humor is often a higher status member, a member whose status is not threatened by the teasing deprecation. Low respect is marked by an absence of putdown humor (70). So humor's disparaging quality does not have to be aggressive and alienating of its targets. Terrion and Ashforth conclude that highly cohesive groups may practice self-deprecation and ritual gentle putdowns, and that that practice signals to others in the group that each member subordinates his or her welfare to the welfare of the group (73).

The earlier sections of this series might have left the impression that I was arguing that all humor is put to benign purposes. The point of this section is to make clear that that is not the case. Humor can be part of oppression. The converse is also not the case: not all humor, even humor that clearly deprecates others, is necessarily oppressive. Both in its oppressive and non-oppressive instances, humor can adjust status within a group.

Terrion, Jenepher L. and Blake E. Ashforth. (2002). "From 'I' to 'We': The Role of Putdown Humor and Identity in the Development of a Temporary Group." Human Relations, 55 (1): 55-88.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Theory of Humor Series, part 5, What is comedy?

In part 2 of this series, I defined humor, and mentioned that I would need to also define comedy. I shall now try to do so.

Comedy is a range of literary or performative genre which generally either end in a positive resolution or use humor to generate mirth. (For the sake of simplicity in discussion, I will refer to comedies as texts, even though a performance is not, IMHO, a text.) Now, it may seem odd to include in a single category texts that have positive resolutions but might generate little mirth (sentimental comedies, for example) with texts that generate mirth but do not have positive resolutions (dark comedies, for example). But our culture uses that loose category for both groups. I have a theory (below) about why one might want to lump them together.

In the theory of poetics, comedy has traditionally been contrasted with tragedy. Aristotle saw the comic character as inferior to the spectator but harmless. By contrast, the tragic character was superior to the spectator, and in tragedy, we witness the downfall of the great. Aristotle began a long line of thinkers who valued tragedy above comedy. (Even in the modern day, the Oscar for best actor rarely goes to a role in a comic movie.) Later theorists have pointed out that, although the comic hero is disparaged and embarrassed, that person often perseveres through the humiliations to be part of a happy ending.

This concept of inferior and superior works well with the theory of humor I articulated in part 4 of this series. There, I argued that humor functions as a non-violent way to adjust an individual's place within a group status hierarchy. We laugh at the pompous individual whose opinion of his status is higher than the consensus opinion of the rest of the group. Or the group feels greater cohesion after members share a laugh at something external to the group.

The comic hero isn't necessarily inferior to the spectator in all regards, but some of the hero's qualities are such that the spectator sees the hero as another member of the group, and probably not the unquestioned peak of the hierarchy. Even a totally ridiculous character who is strictly inferior is usually allowed to continue to be part of the group.

The comedy whose object is to generate mirth often deals with humor's function as a device to adjust group status and build group cohesion. Humor also can be used to lower stress by ridiculing the forces that threaten the group, and comedy can be a vehicle for delivering that psychological relief. So even a dark comedy with grim humor can comfort the spectator that the horrific threats portrayed can be ridiculed.

A comic text that does not feature much mirth but that does have a positive resolution ends with a social group without open conflicts. In traditional western societies, a major contest within a social group is the pairing off of couples into formal marriage. Some marriages allow the couple to enjoy many years of contentment and low emotional conflict and stress, while others can be fraught with stress, conflict, and violence. Many comedies deal with the delicate process of choosing a marriage partner, which can have lifelong consequences. The text often ends with the marriage, settling a source of potential group division.

Then there is the comic text itself, aside from its content. Part of the nature of a public performance or a published text is that it is an assertion by the author or performer of social status. If I make a speech before a group, and it fails, my social status drops. Many leaders within human social groups earn their high status based on their command of written or spoken persuasion. (One theory for why men tell disproportionately more jokes than women and why women laugh approvingly at them is that the men in question are trying to assert their status, perhaps as a courtship display.)

A physical work of art is also an assertion of social status. If it is accepted, it is an object which is respected and which confers on its creator respect as a genius, able to perceive what others cannot. A viewer signals membership within a group by demonstrating an appreciation and respect for a certain type of art. Conversely the viewer may signal rejection of the value of that group by belittling a style of art or performance. (For example, Nashville's radio show "Grand Ole Opry" was named in mocking rebuttal of a competing radio show that broadcast classical music from the Grand Opera.)

A comic performance or text is also an assertion of status. The comic performer who gets no laughs dies on stage and is humiliated. If no publisher is willing to accept a manuscript, if no reader is willing to buy a book, if no review praises it, then its author has low status. It has to be embraced by the social group to be a success. So the comic text uses humor to adjust social status within its narrative (laughing at the ridiculous), but the text itself is a bid for social status. If the wider group, lead often by high status arbiters of taste, does not accept the text's version of adjusting group status, it will itself lose status.