Wednesday, January 28, 2004

Arthur Asa Berger's Basic Techniques of Humor

I'm finishing up on that semiotics peer day. Having a hard time letting it go, actually. Learners keep sending in their essays, and I can't seem to stop reading Arthur Asa Berger. He illustrates his own book with these delightful little comic drawings, like the ones that pun on the word "con." You have to see them to understand. But today I came to the part I that made my hair stand on end. I said, "Holy Shit! This could be, like, the total framework for my program." Let me explain.

I'm talking about Berger's book Signs in Contemporary Culture: An Introduction to Semiotics (2nd Edition), where mentions "Signs that Lie." He gets on the topic of parody as a "technique of humor (as contrasted to a form of humor, such as the joke or riddle)" (102). Okay, so that might only be exciting to me. But on the next page of the book is the table I reproduced above, where he classifies these various techniques of humor. I read these columns vertically. The first column on language struck me, maybe not 100%, but in great share, as New York humor. Then, the second column, Logic, struck me as the more subtle Midwest humor. I saw elements of both the South and Hollywood in both Identity and Action. But I wondered if there was some heuristic of classification possible here, some dissertation work. I have to think more about this, but it seems like a big, important idea.

Tuesday, January 27, 2004

Picture Freud's drawing of the iceberg, the one he used to connote the topography of consciousness. Most of the berg is underwater, but, say, a third sticks out. This is where I am with semiotics, treading water, but mostly submerged. Luckily, I am a strong swimmer. I like this semiotics, even though it is intimidating. I guess I find the terminology the most difficult, the most weighty. I was drowning among the signs and symbols and images and's so confusing.

I find myself afloat, though, when I consider that signs and images and symbols are all around us. We use and interpret them all the time, less than consciously most often. For the peer day in semiotics, one of the books I am reading is Arthur Asa Berger's Signs in Contemporary Culture: An Introduction to Semiotics, which I would recommend to anyone who wants to learn more about the topic. It's told in incredibly accessible language with fun examples and funny line-drawings, and it's written by someone who is respected in the field. I gather that this isn't dumbed-down. It's just told smartly and simply.

But let's get back to the water. It's sleeting today in Arlington, Virginia. A wedge of warm air in the atmosphere above us is causing rain to fall onto cold, cold earth. It forms white sheaths over the finer branches of trees, like they are wearing these impossible white glassy sweaters. This ice is falling atop yesterday's's been a merciful four-day weekend of semiotics immersion, a gift to this graduate student. I'm using Berger's book to try to understand the movie Monster's Ball, which is part of the topic of our peer day. Another source is Barthes's book on Semiotics, which is less easy to understand. Barthes isn't as bad to read as the French feminists, but I have to admit that after a few pages I find my chin hitting my chest, which is like a personal drowse alarm going off...

Anyway, this winter-y, wet exterior is perfect for navigating this iceberg of semiotics. My big problem in decoding Monster's Ball was not finding semiotic elements but just labeling the ones I did find. Herbert, the peer day convener, chose a good film in that it is so rife with signs, symbols, whatever, that one would have to be asleep to miss them. The issue for me, though, was deciding what they were. I'm starting to realize that in doing literary analysis, I have already been doing semiotic analysis, by another name. Paradigmatic analysis, for example, comes very naturally to me. According to my understanding at least, paradigmatic analysis is looking at oppositions within the story to try to derive meaning. The oppositions stood out to me first.

I saw that two sons were beaten. Two sons died. Two people were incarcerated, albeit differently (Lawrence was jailed, and Buck was put in a nursing home against his will). These were significant. The element that each of these oppositions had in common was some idea of racism. While both Hank and Leticia beat their sons, Hank beat his son because he interfered with an execution. But Leticia beat her son because she wanted to protect him from racism. Hank's son shot himself because Hank said he didn't love him. Leticia's son died because he was hit by a car and no investigation would be done because he was Black. Lawrence was executed, and we don't know why; Buck is put in a nursing home because he makes a racist comment to Leticia. So the paradigmatic analysis of these oppositions yields a result: race is a critical issue here. I won't belabor this or reprint my paper here, other than to say I was excited about how that worked.

The rest of the analysis wasn't so easy. By the time the movie ended, I had the idea that maybe the filmmaker wanted us to see Buck as the emblematic racist, the epitome of racism, but I wasn't sure which term to apply. It seemed to me that metonymy might be right, but when I reread the definition, I wasn't sure. I decided to call him the iconic racist. Then Leticia would be the iconic African American and Hank as the iconic racist who must decide to atone). The cool thing about this peer day has been the online discussion, where we could post these ideas and try out the terminology. Last night, I got to test the waters a little bit. I learned that metonymy was the right term. So this morning I finished my paper and sent it in.

There was more online discussion than that, where people were throwing around the ideas of syntagmatic analysis (not to mention some pretty important ideas which prove me wrong on the whole idea I have about Hank as the rescuer of Leticia)--which I understand as the analysis of the narrative structure--and the analysis of the index (signs with a causal relationship). Another whole question exists for tonight and tomorrow about the ethics of the semiotics of film. I am not sure I can stay afloat for that one. Sink or swim, as they say.

Saturday, January 24, 2004

Students, Semiotics, and The Spiral of Learning

Today I want to comment on the grand scheme of what I am learning. I should say by way of explanation that this weekend my focus is a peer day on the semiotic analysis of film. For those of you who don't know what a peer day is, click here to go to the Union Institute's website and find out. It came along at just the right moment. I've been reading about criticism, and I've read my share about formalism, structuralism, semiotics, and post-structuralism. What I know now is just enough to be dangerous.

These are terms I have been exposed to before and I have a surface-level memory of the terms, the kind of memory one would have after studying for a terminology quiz. And now, hopefully, my understanding deepens. The problem is that now I'm having to operationalize my understanding of the terms. In other words, in order to write a paper, I have to start really applying the terms. Here is where the paralysis sets in: With my new-found appreciation for the complexity of criticism in general and semiotics specifically, I know just enough to know that I am probably not applying what I know precisely enough. I feel self-conscious and hyper-aware of the risk one takes by putting one's learning into writing. I'm starting to have new and deeper sympathy for my students. We ask students to do this all the time.

This self-consciousness,I think, is particularly evident in college students at all levels, and it's one of the key factors in writer's block. College students are for the first time dealing with incredibly abstract concepts. At the same time, they are learning that the complexity is beyond them. Then, we ask them to write papers and apply these concepts. It's the only way to help someone learn to do so. I just want to acknowledge that difficulty, since I'm teetering at the edge of that paralysis.

I can give a very basic example. In working on my Learning Agreement, I have had to define my methodology for my disseration before I really understand what a methodology is (other than at a very surface level). So, I submitted an early draft to John T., my core advisor, a few days ago, and now as I drive down the road and wonder about his response, I cringe every few miles at how I must have revealed my substantial ignorance by wielding these terms indiscriminately and incorrectly. When I talked about using the bricolage of structuralism, did I fool anybody, or just sound like a fool? It's the same feeling you get when you remember something stupid you said to someone over and over again, cringing each time.

No wonder my students panic. I'm not sure what the cure is for this, other than repeated exposure to the pain. Dewey's idea of the spiral of learning applies here. I remember in my first turn through graduate school reading Walker Percy's writings about semiotics with almost no comprehension. The ideas were so dense, they were impermeable. I didn't come back to those ideas until recently, and even though more than ten years had passed, I had sort of a foundation for understanding, and I'm a tiny bit better.

So today I'm working on semiotics again for that peer day. The first exercise has been to look at an advertisement and determine the signifier, signified, and meaning. Then, we had to look at a scene from the film we'll be analyzing Monster's Ball, and do the same thing. Here's what I came up with:

Exercise #1

Find an advertisement for a product or service that you may be thinking of buying, or may have bought. Analyze the advertisement in terms of signifier, signified and overall sign. Chart your analysis as follows:
Overall Sign

Signifier Signified

Various Hondas People who look like their cars

Meaning: We are our cars, or our cars define our appearance

Now write a brief narrative explanation of the meaning of this advertisement:

The advertisement, “It Must Be Love,” is for Honda as a brand. We see a black screen with two same-size rectangles in the center. On the left appears the signifier, a Honda—say the SUV—and on the right appears the signified, a person who “looks like” the vehicle. Then, as the music plays, the pictures of cars and their owners cycle through, and we see the association between the profile of the car and the lateral profile of the face, or we see the ears sticking out and the open doors of the car. (The ad is available online at: The message to us is: You are your car. Your car is so important that it defines you as a person.

Exercise #2

Choose your favorite or least favorite scene from the film Monsters Ball, or from your favorite television show, or from a social situation you experience, and analyze it in terms of signifier, signified and overall sign. Write it out as follows:

1.) First, write a brief narrative description of the scene:

At the end of the scene where Leticia and Tyrell go to visit Lawrence in jail for the last time, Lawrence apologizes to Leticia at the end. “I’m sorry for all the pain I caused you,” he says, and then he is led away towards us with a guard on either arm. Another guard tries to help Leticia out at the rear of the screen. Crying, she says, “I know my way out.” We are left with the image of the empty room, and in the right-hand rear corner are two plants close together, both alive, but with straggly green leaves. A little closer to us on the right is a single plant, mostly dead, in a black pot. That image stays on the screen for a few seconds before the transition to the next scene.

2.) Second, chart the scene’s signifier, signified and overall sign as follows:

Overall Sign

Signifier Signified

Three plants Leticia, Tyrell, and Lawrence

Meaning: Leticia and Tyrell will persist

3.) Third, now write a brief sentence that summarizes the meaning of this scene:

The filmmaker shows us with this sign that Leticia and Tyrell, though like the two straggly plants they may not seem hardy, will live on and have each other, while Lawrence will die—is in effect already dead—alone.

I'm getting ready to send it in, but I'm antsy, wondering if I really got the picture with the signified and the signifier, especially in exercise #2. Did I really choose a sign, or is it an symbol? I decided it probably isn't a symbol, because I don't need any cultural frame of reference or previous understanding to understand the meaning. But I'm not sure whether I'm blurring the terminology or not. This is the plight of the student.

Thursday, January 22, 2004

It's just before eight in the morning and I'm trying to get a little schoolwork done before I go to work-school. I just finished a quick scan/read of the Atlas of the New West. I was hoping it would give me some ideas about the Hollywood humor section of my dissertation (at Union , those are called PDEs). William Riebsame, who edited the book, chose to define the new west as the western half of the country, excluding the West Coast. So, it ended up not being that much help. In fact, as happens several times a day now, it made me question the validity, worth, value, etc. of my ideas. But even Riebsame admits that the definition of the west has shifted around over time. He says that at one point it was all the land beyond the Alleghenies. It shifted from there to everything west of the Mississippi . That was my understanding, sort of. But now he defines the interior west as "the old-style frontier" which stretches "from the foothills of the Rocky Mountains to the crests of the Sierra Nevada and Cascade ranges" (46).

If I were to choose this Interior West region, it would be entirely different humor and literature--but it would follow the rural theme that I chose in the South and the Midwest . I don't see any real definitive humor here, at least any that is distinguishable from just bland, rural humor. So it wouldn't make sense for me to have a chapter here.

Anyway, the only other thing that I really wanted to record from this book was a Candace Bushnell quote comparing regions (from a later chapter). She said: "People blame New York when their relationships don't work out. They think if they just lived someplace else it would be better. But they don't want to go to Iowa . They want to go to Colorado ...It's so beautiful It's like Shangri-La. It's a place to go where people never age" (155). So that book can go back to the library now.

I’m in a sea of books…one on Interdisciplinary Approaches to Humor looks good…and Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space and Yi-Fu Tuan’s Space and Place. The more I read, the more I know I need to read.

It makes me think of someone Diane R. knew in her doctoral program, a woman who when Diane started had already been in the program for ten years. She could never finish because she kept finding ONE MORE THING for her lit review. Aggggggggghhhhhhhhh….

Wednesday, January 21, 2004

This is my first post. I want to record my thoughts as I work on my doctoral program at the Union Institute, where I am studying Humor, so I should probably tell a joke. This one is my favorite:

These two rednecks are sitting on the porch, looking out in the yard where they see a dog licking himself.

"I wish I could do that," said the one.

"I reckon you could, if you pet 'im first."

That joke never ceases to crack me up.