"Humor is the only test of gravity, and gravity of humor; for a subject which will not bear raillery is suspicious, and a jest which will not bear serious examination is false wit."
Too long for a t-shirt?That's what Aristotle said, a couple thousand years ago. I think some of us, the smart ones especially, remember well the part about putting humor to the test of gravity. But does anyone remember the other part? If you write serious things, you should not only write with the anticipation of being made fun of (just like you would write with the anticipation of counter-arguments), but you should write things that know how to "take a joke." And perhaps you should even make some jokes yourself.
I think this guy just wants girls to stare at his chest.
I think this guy just wants girls to stare at his chest.
Some people laugh at anything, and that's fine. We need to laugh. But I suspect that Aristotle wants us to put humor to the gravity test especially when it is used to make an argument. Humorous rhetoric might give us a knee-jerk laugh because of odd analogies, exaggerations, etc, but if we are really to be convinced of something because of a joke or two, we had better examine the jokes a little more closely. Aristotle wants us to remember: "Don't make bad analogies, don't mix your metaphors, don't get caught in a string of superficially humorous conclusions and end up committing every logical fallacy I took the care to name!"
Mixed metaphors tangent. . . here I am trying to recall a quote that maybe no one's said yet. It seems like some 19th century humorist would have quipped, at some point, "The best metaphors are like the best women: shortly spoken and unadulterated." (I thought of putting a metaphor into the quote, but you try it -- it makes things confusing. Seems if you talk about "metaphor," you have to maintain your distance from it and use "like" if you want to liken it to something. Otherwise "metaphor" absorbs everything. There should be a term for that. "The metaphoric spiral!" or some crap.)
The best humorists, especially satirists, pay close attention to the logic of their joking. They convince us with their solid jests. But was the cogency of their arguments what got us to read them? No. It was the damn jokes! And the approachable, accessible language of humor.
Serious writing on some serious subject is almost always meant to convince, and it has to be put to the test of levity, just as much as our beloved satires have to bear up under the test of gravity. When we learn to problem solve in grade school we often hear that looking at something "upside-down" is a good way to find a new approach -- it's also a good way to see the holes in the thing. An academic might deny that anything can be gotten out of the "raillery" test when applied to his forty or so dry pages, and he might not see what humor has to do with him at all. "A pointless exercise, to go 'round poking fun at scholars!" But his essays, and the rest of them, need a good turning upside-down once in a while. Who knows, something might leak out. (Or float away, since we're suspending gravity for this test.)
We may or may not prove some argument weak or wrong by spraying it with silly string and seeing where it sticks. But if we think of the serious subjects with humor in mind, we quickly see how little humor they have to offer. The good humorists do not forget their heads, but the well-respected academics completely forget everything else besides. This is where I think academics have gotten off-track as far as writing things worth reading, that is, things that end up being convincing to more than one faction of one department at one university. When I say "convincing" I'm also implying that some of the unconvinced remain unconvinced because they can't even read the whole thing. Not only is the humorless language of today's scholarship nearly inaccessible to most people, it is sometimes not even interesting to those who can access it.
I'm sure most academics today would have mixed feelings about mixing their seriousness with their humor (I know many of them do have some kind of humor, suppressed or reserved for parties as it may be), and I know that academic work is not intended for mass consumption and therefore will probably remain mostly inaccessible even if it acquires a funny bone. So be it. But as we've seen for millenia now, humor makes for effective rhetoric, and its levity gets us to write in a more open and readable voice. So even if the argument is meant for spectacled eyes only, why poo poo using humor in it? (I don't think there was always such a hard line between the arguments of the scholarly and the arguments of the funny.) If using humor does not distract from the argument, if it does not rely on false wit, there is no reason to stifle an urge to jest. (Supposing the urge is even there...)
Coming from the humor camp I often cross the line and let too much humor into the argument pages. The comic relief is as much for me as for the reader. My professors have found it mostly effective, but the funny thing about it is, the more intense an argument I want to make about something, the more jokes I end up making about it, and then I just get silly. I think I'm just applying Aristotle's suggestion with a proportionately heavy hand, to see if those most "serious subjects" can stand some most intense raillery, but then I lose control of myself. One professor called it "cuteness," which he tolerated in small doses, but throughout a certain paper on Kristeva (for some reason my own disagreements with her make me giggle uncontrollably), his comments were progressively less tolerant. The paper title earned me a "clever!" but successive jests earned "cute!" then "too cute?" and finally "definitely too cute." Conversely, I wrote long and serious papers about some beloved Romantic philosophers without even cracking a smile. It happens.
Maybe I have not developed the mastery over academic writing that I would need in order to successfully merge my two voices. But I think there are those who are capable, and some of them are not even trying. The audience is part of the problem. We read these dry things because we have to, but also because we really are interested in the subjects! I just wish the subjects could be delivered to us more gingerly. I bet other students wish the same thing, but they wouldn't dare let on. (Except in some undergraduate classrooms where complaining is routine.)
Here again I have to thank my senior seminar professor Patrick Dunn, who is hilarious when speaking on funny things and serious things alike, and is my proof that laughter lives within even the most brilliant academic (perhaps especially within the most brilliant), no matter what "critic-face" he may wear. In that class we studied the most "serious" theories and theorists we'd seen in our undergraduate careers, and read some of the most difficult critical texts we'd ever come across. And we laughed like hell at all of it.