Monday, January 17, 2005

“Humor as Rhetoric and Cultural Argument”

Stephen Smith’s 1993 essay from the Journal of American Culture argues that “humor is ‘a part of the interpretation of life’ (Leacock)” and that “humor is usually purposeful and often persuasive” (51). He believes, in fact, that humor is “one of the more effective means of argument and persuasion in popular culture” (51).

His argument, though lofty, is common sense, when I stop to reason it out. He cites Gary Fines argument, for example, that “humor can both build social cohesion by narratively establishing group norms and maintain social control through ridicule to enforce norms and punish deviance” (51). Step into any high school if you don’t believe him. A great popular culture example of this principle is the high school comedy film, which explicitly serves to ridicule those who deviate from the standard behaviors and appearances (thin, heterosexual, etc.). The fact that humor affects the behavior of others is a given, then. Noticing it goes back as far as Freud (though Smith doesn’t mention that here).

Smith moves, then, more specifically to the idea of Southern humor. Citing C. Vann Woodward’s essay on “The Irony of Southern History,” Smith explains the “ironic society” of the South. “[P]articipants in an ironic situation are rarely conscious of the irony, else they would not become its victims,” says Smith (52). Another writer, Olsen, says that “Irony is a state of mind [...] that assumes the presence of a meaning behind or under a given text” (qtd. in Smith 52).

The argument from there is to prove that the South is an ironic society. Smith moves on to describe the literary history of the South (in brief). He attempts to “identify the unique characteristics of contemporary Southern humor, illuminate the distinctive new rhetoric of the new ‘local color’ writers and distinguish it from that of their literary progenitors” (54). In order to do so, Smith examines the work of five contemporary Southern writers who exemplify the characteristics of Southern writing.

South Carolina writer, William Price Fox writes of Doug Broome, characteristic of the “anti-heroes frequently found in contemporary Southern humor” (54). Another characteristic is interaction with a Black character on equal terms (55). Smith describes Southern culture as “constituted by the unique traditions and rituals of the region,” identifying Labor Day as “the highest of holy days” (55). He explains that one Fox novel describes “four [...] sacred rites—dancing, dying, dining and drive-ins” (55). As a narrator, Fox toys with Southern “conservative conformity.” Smith says that “[r]ather than poking fun at the deviants to demonstrate social superiority, as did the early local color writers, Fox and the other contemporary writers of humor” are more likely to construct “a vision of a more tolerant society” (55).

Another writer is Larry L. King (obviously not the fish-faced CNN interviewer), who, notably he says has the same sense of “place” and “people” as Fox. Like other Southern writers, King “writes in first person and identifies with the common folk” (56). The tension is that one always reluctantly must admit to being part redneck, but the ideal would be to be a Good Ol’ Boy. Smith quotes King’s novel, when the protagonist says he still doesn’t like “being called a Redneck…especially when you know in your genes and in the dirty back roads of your mind that you are one—despite having spent years trying not to be” (56). He draws a distinction between “’a Neck of the true plastic Jesus-on-the-dashboard and the pink-rubber-haircurlers-in-the-supermarket variety’ and a higher life from known as a Good Ol’ Boy” (56).

By comparison, columnist Lewis Grizzard’s writing, says Smith, might be “the best example of the rhetoric of Southern humor” because he tends to value the “folks who overcome overwhelming odds” over “the morally superior stance of the Old South Whigs and the New South Bourbons” (56).

Another of the five writers, Florence King, grew up in the Ballston area, right around the corner from here. He describes her stories and narratives as leaning “toward subtle irony” but with some “full-frontal satire” as well, since she wields “her weapon sometimes as a scalpel but more often as a machete” (58). Smith says that Southern women use the language differently than men for four reasons: First, because, traditionally, “writing was work that required no heavy lifting [...] so it came to be seen as women’s work.” Second, “the Pert Plague” made Southern women better storytellers. Third, women are better equipped to handle “the special contradictions of Southern culture.” For example Southern women are expected to “be frigid, passionate, sweet, bitchy, and scatterbrained—all at the same time” (58). Fourth, because they’re used to making conversation at boring debutante balls, their facility with language exceeds men’s. Apparently, Smith is arguing that King’s work demonstrates these principals (though I don’t recall her, for example, attending cotillions in her autobiography).

However, King does define Southern-ness after a fashion, when she says, “Southerners have a genius for psychological alchemy….If something intolerable cannot be changed, driven away, or shot, they will not only tolerate it but take pride in it. Conformists to the end, they nonetheless feel affection for any eccentric.” King says that calling someone an eccentric “is the nicest thing any Southerner can say about one of their own” (qtd. in Smith 59).

Finally, Smith discusses Molly Ivins, the famous Texas columnist, saying that Ivins qualifies as a new Southern regionalist because she observes the rules of new Southern rhetoric. Rather than seeing the region as “a homogenous and monolithic culture,” she views Texas as “a mosaic of cultures [...] black, Chicano, Southern, freak, suburban, and shitkicker (Shitkicker is dominant)” (qtd. in Smith 59).

Smith points out that Ivins uses humor to poke fun at some of the most serious issues in Southern culture. She argues that “[r]ace might be the key to understanding the changing order of Southern society,” saying “Once you figure out they are lying to you about race, you start to question everything” (60).

Smith decided to write about these new Southern writers to prove that “the rhetoric of contemporary Southern humor was quite different from that of the past” (62). Applying Bakhtin’s ideas about language, he points out that these writers “provide an effective [...] heteroglossia that lets their characters speak for themselves in their own language” (62). In addition, unlike earlier writers who were conscious or unconscious racists, they “enthusiastically side with their characters in challenging the hegemony of the prevailing hierarchy of class and race” (62).

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