Comic Effects: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Studying Humor
Paul Lewis’s book on an interdisciplinary approach to the study of humor in literature was helpful in a number of ways. I thought that the way he brought in the theory of humor in social sciences (particularly Freud and various interpretations of Freud’s theory) was particularly interesting. He sees the application of the study of behavior as quite appropriate to literary humor, since after all writing about the lives of people is writing about their behavior. In a sense, then, the “mixing of methodologies” that occurs in interdisciplinary research is especially apt for humor research (ix-xi) Another helpful part of the book was seeing the way Lewis applied theories of humor to specific literary works like Poe’s gothic stories and poems or to “fictions of development” like Catcher in the Rye. I liked his close readings, and the way he specifically applies the theories, avoiding the generalizations he warns against is a good example to follow.
Lewis talks a lot about the potential pitfalls in theorizing about humor. First is “the universalist mindset,” which he defines as “the danger of universalizing or globalizing literary humor,’ which may lead one to think that “humor can be easily explained or subsumed under a catchy formula or definition” (x). Another danger can be found in humor study’s own subjectivity (this echoes a concern about American Studies). Lewis asks, “if humor appreciation is subjective and contextual, rooted in individual affective and intellectual responses, how can critics isolate such elusive phenomena for analysis?” (x-xi). The answer, Lewis decides, is that we cannot have as our critical goal to “standardize humor appreciation but to refine our understanding of the humor we perceive in literature by helping us see how it is structured, how it functions, and how [...] it is one determinant or component of character, genre, and writer” (xi).
In his first chapter on “Humor Criticism and Humor Research,” Lewis tries to dispel long-lived assumptions about Humor, replacing them with truths grounded in research. For example, a common assumption has been that “one of the root causes of humor is fear” (4). Lewis disputes the connection, saying that in fact such a connection has never proven the connection, that “research is demonstrating [...] humor and fear often seem to arise together or in sequence not because fear causes humor but because they have a common origin in incongruity” (5).
Lewis also discusses James F. English’s argument that “we needed to move away from traditional comic theory toward a broader interest in literary humor generally” or what English calls “trans-generic” criticism (8). That way, according to English, we could think “more precisely” about humor and determine “form, content, function and context” (8). That would allow us to more thoughtfully mix literary criticism and “social science research,” and the result would be that when we analyze the humor of a character, we would know specifically whether indeed we “are focusing on humor appreciation, humor creation or both” (8).
If we accept certain “distinctions” and draw on the existing research, says English, then we don’t have to belabor the established ideas in humor studies, namely that: (1) “humorous experiences originate in the perception of incongruity [...]; (2) in most cases humor appreciation is based on a two-stage process of first perceiving an incongruity and then resolving it; [...] (3) that humor is a playful, not a serious, response to the incongruous;[...] (4) that the perception of an incongruity is subjective, relying as it does on the state of the perceiver’s knowledge, expectations, values and norms, that, because the presentation of a particular image or idea as a fitting subject for humor is based on value judgments[and ...] (5) the creation and use of humor is an exercise of power; a force in controlling our responses to unexpected and dangerous happenings, a way of shaping the responses and attitudes of others and a tool of intergroup and intragroup dynamics (qtd. in Lewis 8-13). So if those assumptions are givens—and indeed they are stated repeatedly by many theorists—that gives us room to move forward into discussions of why and when that others haven’t thought of.
Lewis also discusses Victor Raskin’s real/unreal dichotomy for understanding jokes (in The Semantic Mechanisms of Humor ) in which Raskin defines three means of interpreting jokes: “the actual versus the non-actual, the normal versus the abnormal and the possible versus the impossible” (12).
Looking back at those assumptions, then, we can begin there and move forward into analysis. Arthur Koestler’s Act of Creation, says Lewis, examines “cognitive and emotional responses to the incongruous” (14). Koestler discusses “how the fool, the artist and the sage follow similar cognitive processes, moving from the perception of an incongruity to an assimilation that results in the creation of humor, art or knowledge” coming to the conclusion that the creativity he discusses applies “to literary works as well” (14). In other words, says Lewis, “we can learn a good deal about the generic properties of particular works, about the personalities of given characters and about the ways in which given writers tend to use humor by observing (1) what they regard as incongruous and (2) how they deal with the incongruities they contain or perceive” (15). Here, Lewis applies Koestler’s idea to interpreting and analyzing literature—we begin where the idea of defining incongruity left off and, in effect, answer the “so what” question about it. Lewis says we can ask two questions to analyze a humorous text: “within the fictive world it creates, what is normal and what is not?” (15)
Similarly, Mary K. Rothbart’s “safety-arousal model of humor appreciation” finds “three primary responses to incongruity,” namely, “fear, problem solving and amusement” (15). Rothbart asks: “(1) Is the stimulus dangerous?; (2) Is the stimulus evaluated as a serious challenge to the person’s knowledge or is it seen as playful or inconsequential?’ (3) Can the incongruity be resolved?” So in this model as well, we can see reactions that “may lead to smiling and laughter” (15).
What is interesting is that incongruity doesn’t necessarily guarantee hilarity. The difference between tragedy and comedy is often minute. According to Susan Snyder, “Shakespeare’s great tragedies achieve much of their impact by following but then subverting comic structures” (qtd. in Lewis 18). Lewis also points out G.W. Knight’s “classic study of humor in King Lear” that argues that “Lear’s downfall is due in part to his inability to laugh at himself” (18).
Another interesting part of Lewis’s discussion points at the “shift in taste away from writers like Cooper and Poe in America toward writers like Twain and Howells.” According to Lewis, this shift could be attributed “in part to the development of a new sense of humor.” Lewis cites Edwin Cady’s argument that the shift in sense of humor began because of satires of romantic texts (20).
Lewis also points out another way to get at the incongruous, by character analysis. He says, “we can better understand a character by seeing the extent to which he or she deals with incongruity by way of defensive reactions, fear, problem solving and/or humor” (20). In addition, says Lewis, “Humor uses and appreciation can also reflect a given character’s openness to change, his or her adaptive potential” (21).
To study the way an author uses humor seems fruitful—in fact, it might seem as though there would be a certain pattern of life for the humorous author, but in fact there isn’t one, says Lewis. According to Lewis, Seymour and Rhoda Fisher tried to find out in their Pretend the World is Funny and Forever: A Psychological Study of Comedians, Clowns, and Actors. They found the typical comedian:
* “[H]ad to deal with contradictory and incongruous messages from his or her parents about such fundamental matters as the parents’ expectations and feelings about being parents” (22). They describe the typical mother as “severe and non-nurturant” and with low expectations for the child’s behavior. The typical father is described as dependent “on his child for emotional and even material support” (22). As a result, the comics often had to care for siblings and act as “adult beyond their years” and “gave more psychologically to their parents than they received” (Fisher qtd. in Lewis 22).
* Demonstrated “a magnified fascination with contrasts of moral values—good vs. bad, virtue vs. vice” as well as size when they were given a Rorschach test (22). The Fishers related this ability to detect contrasts to a sense of incongruity necessary for a sense of humor.
* Demonstrated “a sense of relativity of all norms and an impulse to deny or evade danger or menace” which would contribute to “two humorous strategies employed by comics in dealing with the incongruous” (23).
Some of the personality types sound a little suspect—like the cold mother. It seems reminiscent of the schizophrenic “cold mother” type. They always want to blame the mom has become a cliché. Nonetheless, it’s interesting to consider the above as a template.
Lewis explains, in sum, in his first chapter, that interdisciplinary models of humor were at one time considered flawed because it was thought impossible to have “’universal components of humor” that would apply to literature (26). However, Lewis holds that the argument was probably never valid because no need to focus on “humor as universal and constant phenomenon” exists (26). Lewis believes it is important for literature scholars to follow the work of humor scholars in the social sciences (27).
Wednesday, June 08, 2005