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.

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 paraprosdokian: “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 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