Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Because Aristotle likes jokes...

...we should be able to be both scholarly and funny.

"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?
I think this guy just wants girls to stare at his chest.

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.

"False wit"
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.

Suspicious subjects
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.


  1. I must disagree about people laughing at everything being fine. After spending a semester with a bloody hyena, I cannot deal with people that fall over laughing because of something as insignificant as waving. Especially if it's a grating laugh :)

    I love this examination of humor. I've never understood comedy. I know what cracks me up and what doesn't, but it's almost like a science that I can never hope to understand. Humor does seem to be a common language and I think a lot of scholarly articles would be much more accessible with some lightness.

    I wish I could work more humor into my essays and I even think my work could use more of it. Not slapstick mind you, but definitely a kind of levity.

    Thanks for another great post. I've now got something to mull over during the dreaded anatomy lab tonight (insert sad sigh here)

  2. "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."

    I love it--I'm totally now using "the metaphoric spiral." What seems to happen, from my perspective, is that more and more appears metaphoric, until we reach some level where thought itself, intention itself is metaphoric, in that it only seems to move by comparing one thing to another, overcoming difference with sameness. But what's weird is precisely that weird blindness beforehand to the metaphoric mise en abyme, the weird inattention to the wider level of metaphoricity that without warning tumbles over you. How to explain this before and after: before the spiraling and after it? And how might we talk about narrower and wider metaphoric spheres of influence? To put it a different way, I have been explaining to my students recently that most discourse is metaphoric. But obviously we act as if it isn't. Now, I'm not going to get all Frenchie and lament this! This isn't a fault! Why? Because we act as if it isn't precisely by pointing to narrower metaphors, saying: "Now *that's* a real metaphor... what you call metaphor is too broad, since it is just language in general."

  3. MJ - For lack of a better response... LIKE, TOTALLY! And I'd be honored if my terminology could be of any help.

    I started to notice how metaphoric most language is when I was writing poetry for a class. So I'd keep trying to remove more and more in-between or noncommittal words and just say that things ARE something else, until the lines became indecipherable (at which point I'd back off, a move some poets refuse to make even after they cross the indecipherability horizon). But like you said, discourse is where we can find so much metaphoric language, and the Frenchies are just as guilty of that (not that it's a bad thing) even if they try to parse the language all out for us! And of course I got to thinking harder about that once I read your post on how metaphor works, with its metaphoric explanations of itself. There was a comment I wanted to respond to (someone seemed to think it was a bad idea that you used metaphor in the post?) but I think I got too confused.

    Maybe it would be a useful exercise to map metaphors in concentric rings (circles are a pretty basic metaphor we always use without even thinking about them).

    I agree that none of this word spiraling or our treatment of it is a fault. I don't think we can "beat" metaphor or it's wily spiral, and I don't think we need to. It's a beautiful thing that words can stand for (or BE) almost all of experience and thought, even if they have their limits. (The abyss of all meaning on the one hand, the completely ineffable on the other. Or are those the same thing?)


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