I first posted this as a blog some time ago, but got no reaction. But maybe a blog wasn't the right medium, that's why I'm trying the forum now...
[As a note on the side: why keep reactions to blogs and (reactions to) forumposts separate? Wouldn't it be helpful if a reaction to a blog would show in the forum, with the blog as the original post? Just an idea, I don't know if Ning allows for this.]
This is a (blogpost) forumpost to introduce my group
on the anthropology of laughter and humour (humor for our American friends). It's my intention to formulate a tentative outline for research into what is, as far as I know, an underdeveloped field of inquiry.
I'm not going to bore you with a review of all the
research that already has been done, I couldn't even if I wanted to, because I only just started reading myself. But I'll provide an incomplete reference list in the discussion forum of the group. Also, to keep all options open, I'll try to be as brief as possible (although that's not one of my strong points, I'm told).
Humour and laughter provide anthropology the
opportunity to study that hard-to-grasp intersection between the social/cultural and the individual. And in my opinion it has the potential to push the analytical and methodological boundaries of our profession.
The social and cultural aspects of humour and
laughter are clear. Carty & Musharbash (2008) call a 'sense of humour' the "strangely nebulous heart of understanding, and belonging, within social relationships" (p. 209). Humour is seen as a boundary between in- and outgroups: "Laughter is a boundary thrown up around those laughing, those sharing the joke. Its role is demarcating difference, of collectively identifying against an Other, is as bound to processes of social exclusion as to inclusion" (p. 214, emphasis by the authors). And although humour and laughter are universals, "they remain intimately and often elusively localised in their nuance and content" (p. 213).
aspects ascend from our bodies and psyches. I'm not a doctor or a psychoanalyst, so I don't have much to say about this. But it's clear that laughter is a physical reaction. Images of fear stimulate those parts of our brain that are connected to emotions and to motor processes (de Gelder et al, 2004), I wouldn't be surprised to see that humour has the same kind of effect. As for our psyches: laughter, for example, isn't only a reaction to something funny, it can also be an expression of some kind of existential fear (Bataille, 1986).
For me, the really interesting
part is where these two aspects (or methodological vantage points) meet. And the place where they meet is in the body, but this time the body in all of its meanings, not just our biological body.
assertion brings along a lot of implications, but also opportunities.
implications are that we have to work with theories of the body that are contested. Take for example Lakoff & Johnson's 'Metaphors We Live By' (1980) and their 'Philosophy in the Flesh' (1999). To me these two books offer an intriguing philosophical background that warrants further exploration. Because if our body (the senses, the brain, locomotion, sensorium (coordination between the senses), etc.) is the basis of our cognitive processes, then differences in those processes are related to all the different ways we deal with our body, and this in turn could provide us an explanation of what is at the basis of the differences in what we call a 'sense of humour'. But from what I read about their work, not everybody agrees with me on that.
habitus, hexis, doxa, etc., all of which could be relevant to the study of laughter and humour, offer us an other example of those implications. Bourdieus's concepts are so often interpreted (and contested) in so many different ways, the usefulness of them can be questioned. 'Embodiment' offers us a similar problem.
The role of emotions
is also something to be dealt with, just like the (less controversial or problematic) senses and cognition.
And I would also like to
propose something of a road less travelled by anthropologists: intuition and empathy (which occupy a space between emotions, the senses and cognition). Humour and laughter require both, but both were, as far as I know, never before the central subject of anthropological study (if they were, please let me know!).
I've tried, in a brief manner,
to outline how I see an anthropology of humour and laughter. I hope this inspires a lot of response and will lead to a lot of participants in our group.
Bataille, G. (1986). 'Writings on Laughter, Sacrifice, Nietzsche, Unknowing' in October, 36 (3): 3-110.
Carty, J & Musharbash, Y. (2008). 'You've Got To Be Joking: asserting the analytical value of humour and laughter in contemporary anthropology' in Anthropological Forum, 18 (3): 209-217.
de Gelder, B., Snyder, J., Greve, D., Gerard, G. & Hadjikhani, N. (2004). 'Fear fosters flight: A mechanism for fear contagion when perceiving emotion expressed by a whole body' in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 101 (47), 16701-16706.
Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1980).Metaphors We Live By.Chicago: University Of Chicago Press.
Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1999).Philosophy in the flesh: the embodied mind and its challenge to Western thought.New York: Basic Books.
(English isn't my first language, Dutch is, officially English isn't even my second language, that's supposed to be French, so if you see a spelling mistake, bad grammar, or if you just want to comment on my way of writing, let me know. Always happy to learn!)
Jan, I like what you are doing with this Group, but the Forum is for discussion and what are your points for discussion here? You must have noticed that people are very reluctant to post here. Many blogs go unanswered. Often I am the only one who bothers. I just posted four blog items with some quite engaging stuff, but so far I got two brief responses. It has nothing to do with the quality of your English. If you stood up in a pub and made a speech like the one above, how many people do you think would be listening by the end? There is no reciprocity here. The logic is one of attraction. You have to seduce people to engage with you. We get too many ads in the Forum. Why not tell a joke? Or ask people to make jokes and see if they travel cross-culturally? I offer one of my rules: jokes don't travel across language barriers. But this is a great place to find out if that is true or not. You've got to be an optimist to post in this Forum, but it helps to be a realist too. Do you know the one about the optimist who fell off the top of a skyscraper? As he passed the 35th floor on the way down, he was heard saying, "So far so good".
Great topic Jan. While there is some anthropology of humour out there it is much too sparse.
I've been interested in the anthropology of humour since carrying out my doctoral fieldwork in Guatemala where two jokes stood out - one was a particularly tasteless joke about the lynching of a Japanese tourist which happened in the town (which actually seemed to be a way of coping with the tragedy - and as such fits more closely with the fear aspect of any embodied understanding of such humour). The second involved watching an American tourist getting a young Maya to pull his finger (just in case that doesn't translate see - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pull_my_finger) - the shocked response and subsequent laughter this produced was just about the funniest thing I've ever witnessed in my life. The first was perhaps about "demarcating difference" as you mentioned - but the second seemed to be something more universal and had the opposite effect - drawing people together. The body, despite its differences from one group to another and from one person to another, is perhaps the closest thing we have to a universal in social anthropology. While theories of the body may be contested, and while humour may frequently illustrate differences in doxas and habituses - it frequently has the opposite effect reminding us of our similarities. Humour based in and around the body seems to be the most easily translatable - from international success of the slapstick of Mr Bean (which played on a constant loop in one bank in Guatemala) to the ubiquity of home videos of men getting hit in the testicles with various pieces of sporting equipment - humour based on the body seems to have the widest audience. The body would seem to be the source of humour which comes closest to defying Keith's observation that "jokes don't travel across language barriers". While I'm sure an innapropriate execution of the pull my finger joke may get you killed in certain situations I think it equally demonstrates the potential for cross-contextual humour. I think Leach was onto something with his (post-Strauss, liminally based British) structuralist analysis of the pun - the role of liminality is key to understanding humour. The fine line between disgust and humour I feel points towards the correct assumptions of British structuralists (esp. Douglas and Leach) about underlying structures of the mind corresponding to social realities. Not all the time - but for disgust and humour (building blocks for social practices such as ettiquette) I think structuralism accounts for certain humour the best. The innateness of such humour would seem to me to suggest something embodied which is beyond habitus or doxa (although they can over-ride such humour - you can easily be taught that something is not funny) which is perhaps best looked for in our cognitive/biological make up.
Incidentally - if you're interested in the relationship between the body and humour - have you seen Diane Nelson's (1999) A Finger in the Wound - especially chapter 5 on Rigoberta Menchu jokes. It's very good.
And if we're in need of a question to turn this forum into a discussion - I like Keith's suggestion of a search for cross cultural jokes. Does the pulling of a finger and the suggestion of a causal relationship between pulling that finger and subsequent flatulence represent a joke which works cross culturally specifically because of it's embodied generality?
PS - sorry to introduce scatological humour into what was otherwise a serious topic - but I think it's relevant RE: the interesction of humour and the body.
For disrupted cause and effect (as in finger pulling joke) there has to be a set of pre-supposed boundaries between the properties/things in question. I got this picture in my email (which raises questions about how people use the medium). But anyway, it is funny if you find the particular disruption of boundaries and relations of cause and effect funny:
Somewhere in my stack of Seikatsu Shimbun newsletters from the Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living, a consumer research think tank in Japan, is an issue that talks about "taboo products," things that people find embarrassing to buy, condoms, for example. The article cites (and here my mind goes blank) a psychological study indicating that responses to liminal things range from mild interest through humor to fascination, then to disgust and, finally, horror. As a fan of Mary Douglas, I found this quite interesting. The research demonstrated that while liminality might be a necessary condition for taboo, it certainly isn't sufficient to account for the strength of the response. This is a topic that Douglas took up in Natural Symbols, where her group and grid framework suggests sociological hypotheses related to the importance of the boundaries that liminal objects straddle. It seems to me (1) that structural analysis based on the universality of bodily features is a great place to begin, but (2) a lot of cultural variation in what seems humorous lies in strength of response, suggesting (3) looking at factors that affect strength of response is an area that needs more exploration.