Monday, August 1, 2016

Theory of Humor, Purdie's Discourse Theory

I have been chipping away at a paper on the humor in Confederacy of Dunces. I have not made much headway. However, I can comment on some of the texts which I am studying.

Recently, I have been reading Susan Purdie's book, Comedy: The Mastery of Discourse (University of Toronto, 1993). I find much to like in its examination of disparaging humor. However, she comes to the topic from Lacanian psychoanalysis and theory of language. I find Lacan to be largely bogus, so in her grand gestures toward a philosophy of humor, I find I disagree with her on the most fundamental level (although she might say that this disagreement is a display of my patriarchal discursive power). Still, at the level below the largest scale, I find she makes many good observations and will probably quote her if I ever get this paper written.

Things I like about the book: I like the point that there is a power dynamic in social relationships and that humor can be used with in that dynamic. So she makes a good point that we laugh at someone who is aspiring to an undeserved status. I can even go along with her distinction of the inept-speaker construction versus the low-status-person construction. Her analysis of gender and humor is good.

Things I do not like about the book: Purdie sees all human thought and subjectivity as being mediated by language. So all humor is language-based. I follow Steven Pinker on the division of thought and language. Purdie also brings in Freudian and Marxist ideas that are unnecessary to her immediate arguments and that do not stand up well to scrutiny, even her own scrutiny.

The book's basic thesis is that all joking (all humor folded into language) is a violation of the normal rules of discourse; however, both the Teller and the Audience understand the violation, so the violating language is marked off and acknowledged to be violating. So the Teller proves his or her mastery of language by a controlled violation of its conventions. I much prefer Mulkay's book On Humour (1988). It divides communication (and mental states) into serious mode and humorous mode. The controlled violation in Purdie's book can be seen as humorous mode in Mulkay's construction.