Collaboratory 2!

[Thanks to Giulia Baccini, Hannah Burrows, Niamh Kehoe, Rafał Borysławski, and Aubrey Mellor for the photos!]

Daniel Derrin, Durham University

HOP hosted its second collaboratory at Durham University, 26-28 July, thanks again to the generous funding of the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council. Thank you to all who were a part of it, travelling from all over the globe to make it the wonderfully stimulating event it was.

We heard presentations on attempts to investigate ‘humour’ in many different historical contexts and across several media. For example, we heard about investigations of humour in: Old English saints’ lives, medieval writing about monsters, medieval romance poetry, cross-media translations of Tristram Shandy, jestbooks from ancient China and from post-Tridentine Italy, early modern comedy including Shakespeare, early modern religious writing and handbooks of ‘courtesy’, fools in Restoration comedy, seventeenth and eighteenth-century productions of Ben Jonson’s comedies, the archives of twentieth (and twenty-first) century British standup comedy performance, medieval pageants featuring the character of Herod, North Korean children’s films, Japanese and Chinese satirical cartoons from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, representations of tickling in paintings, and comic stereotypes of Italians across twentieth century popular media. We also heard critical accounts of translation theory and of ‘benign-violation’ theory, as they pertain to humour in history. In addition, we heard discussions of humour in performance, including: contemporary productions of Shakespeare, a current adaptation of Plautus called Vice Versa, and a contemporary dramatic adaptation of an Old Norse satirical saga The Saga of the Conspirators.

A particular concern of the conference was identifying where existing ideas about ‘humour’ are problematic or limited with respect to such historical contexts and forms of translation. In line with that, the conference began with the crucial recognition that all historical studies of ‘humour’ must address: historiographically speaking, ‘humour’ is a recent (and often clearly Anglophone) category, an umbrella term which brings together many different historical phenomena. This is both a problem and an opportunity. At one level, we need to acknowledge an illusoriness within the very idea of historical ‘humour’. A clever pun in a medieval text might have little in common with a comic stage character or a satirical cartoon. Yet, at another level, we can see and feel patterns across material disparate in time and kind. This invites theorization about the nature of particular common grounds: similar objects? similar rhetorical functions? similar historical or social situation? perhaps there are others? Trying to abandon naïve assumptions about historical ‘humour’ does not erase the need to arrive at new ways of identifying historical patterns.

At a certain point in our conference, one of our number made the suggestion that humour studies, especially where it is oriented toward history and historical phenomena, is desperately in need of new ideas. This is most evident at the points when one feels the limits of that unhappy triad: ‘superiority’, ‘incongruity’, and ‘relief’. Anyone who has ever encountered humour studies will have come across these ubiquitous terms. Speaking personally, I think they should be unequivocally abandoned.

I want to suggest below some of the broad areas that I felt emerged across our discussion, in which there might be ample space for new ideas. If others occur to you, please do share them in the ‘leave a reply’ section below. Each is an area in which more clarification (and distinct ideas) could be developed by researchers.

(Of course, several of these areas were confronted by our speakers and I don’t mean to suggest that they have never been, or aren’t being addressed. The way I’ve phrased things below is my own and other members of our circle might put the questions differently).

  • Historiographical purpose: thinking across the spectrum of historical study from historicism (elucidating context for its own sake) on the one hand, to presentism (writing history to address contemporary needs) on the other.  Where does the study of ‘humour patterns’ fit within this? In fact, do our very conceptions of the object of historical study – ‘humour’ – change according to our historiographical orientation along this spectrum? One might also think about this in relation to humour translation across time: how do translations of historical ‘humour’ that ‘foreignize’ (prioritize meanings in source culture) differ from those that ‘domesticate’ (prioritize meanings in the target culture)? Is the ‘humour’ being thought about different, depending on the translator’s purpose? And what about when ‘translating’ within (or across) different media: for instance, verbal translation as against performance adaptation?
  • Intermedial translation: thinking through ‘humour’ when it moves from one media form to another: poetry to stage performance, or novel to film. Take this scenario: when a sense of the satirical purpose of the original comes across in the media-specific forms of the translation, despite the differences of time, culture and form. In this case, has the ‘humour’ been translated or not? That is, should we think of humour as rhetoric or form, content or function?
  • Rhetorical purpose: one of the research contexts that makes studying historical humour different from studying contemporary humour is the greater degree of difficulty in understanding its rhetorical purpose, because of the gap of time and culture. How can we understand humorous intentionality in more distant historical contexts? Is it possible/necessary to develop a ‘rhetoric of humour’, or are established concepts within the history of rhetoric enough?
  • Ethics and politics: there are strong reasons for thinking that jests which render things ridiculous are ‘structured’ by implicit beliefs about how things in the world ought to be. That is the basic recognition of ‘benign violation’ theory (McGraw and Warren). The phrase ‘ethics of humour’ is usually taken to refer to questions about whether it is ethically right, or not, to laugh at particular things but is it not sometimes necessary to think of the ‘politics’ of humour as an ‘ethics’? One way to put the question might be this: when should we think of the politics of humour as ‘ideological’ and when should we think of it as ‘ethical’? Are there better terms that could be developed?
  • Social function: putting humour ‘content’ aside and thinking about particular historical examples of humour and larger socio-historical patterns that shape it: for example, cultures of courtesy and politeness. Others?
  • Seriousness/non-seriousness: thinking more about the problems of that binary. It isn’t just a contemporary distinction. It’s an historically attested one too. We only have to think of the difference assumed between ‘jest’ and ‘earnest’ in English literary history. And it is still a means of controlling the politics of humour, for instance: when people say ‘I was only joking, don’t take it so seriously’. Nevertheless, working with historical examples of humour very often requires us to focus things in such a way that the binary seems useless. This is not just because we take our own historical enterprise seriously, but also because what we are trying to do is to understand things that are less accessible in this research context than they can be in the context of contemporary and near-contemporary examples of humour, such as rhetorical intentionality and ideological context, implicitly things to be ‘taken seriously’. Historical focus asks us to break down the seriousness/non-seriousness binary. Is there, then, some way of sharpening ideas about how particular humours of the past (and the present) fit along a seriousness spectrum instead?

Daniel Derrin is co-investigator of the HOP project and co-organiser of collaboratory 2.

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Playful but Problematic: Medieval Humour and Contemporary Performance

Jamie Beckett, Durham University

Aside from the slightly tired yet somehow satisfying adage, ‘humour studies is no laughing matter’, I had little idea what to expect when I first heard about the first HOP Collaboratory, hosted at the University of Aberdeen. As a PhD candidate at Durham University, I explore the relevance and function of humour and laughter within late medieval drama, specifically those performances of biblical or devotional drama which were staged in the North East of England in the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries. Yet whether it’s discussing obscene portrayals of biblical patriarchs, or the riotous laughter of unruly townspeople, I’m often the only humour scholar at the party.

I’m fairly used to the responses I get from most people when I’ve told them what I do. ‘That sounds like fun’, which it is – some of the time. ‘How interesting’, which it is – most of the time. Or even ‘tell us your best joke then’. People know humour, understand it to be an essential part of modern life, and even of the so-called ‘human condition’. But to study humour, especially in the context of a past which appears so stubbornly distant and alien in social terms, is a different kettle of fish entirely.

But this is what made Collaboratory 1, run as part of the Humours of the Past network, so interesting: the meeting brought together a group of scholars from all stages of their academic careers, united not by period or theme, but rather the consideration of historical humour as a scholarly study. The purpose of the Collaboratory was to bring together scholars of humour to discuss, question, and argue over the theoretical approaches in the context of our individual studies, and how the methodological issues we face compare to those faced by others whose materials differed widely from our own.

Throughout the Collaboratory, an issue that especially caught my attention was the contemporary prism through which we, as scholars, necessarily view humours of the past. Can the types of humour which we enjoy in the present ever be viewed as analogous to that which was enjoyed in the past, or must we – as members of the contemporary world – always submit to the idea that this past humour can never be fully understood? Must we always approach humours of the past through the obscuring lens of the present? The issue is essentially one of equivalence and translatability – both linguistic and temporal.

On the one hand, we may be tempted to treat humours of the past as entirely imminent, pertinent, and knowable: the same jokes, just packaged in a different way.  This argument, often utilised as a way for modern audiences to be taught to appreciate humorous material from the past, reinforces the idea that we are dealing with universalized comic forms, merely shrouded in unfamiliar language, just waiting to be cracked open and re-appreciated. But in trying to ‘re-find’ the joke, and make historicized humour funny again ­– whether through the re-printing of visual media, re-vocalization of sometimes unpalatable verbal humour, or the restaging of early drama – we risk partisan selection, misrepresentation, and ultimately a misunderstanding of the past. Humorous material is either sanitized to remove any element of the past which we may now find repugnant or offensive, or reduced to a basic level which is unrepresentative of its former self.

These issues are felt keenly in my own field by scholars of early drama. Re-staging an historic performance, or early drama for which only a script survives, is often utilised as an important part of study, revealing facets of dialogue, staging, or production hitherto obscured. Yet performance is the relationship of audience and production, and understanding historic humour can prove elusive in this context. When we re-stage dramas of the fourteenth, fifteenth, or even sixteenth centuries, even the most faithful dramatic representation can be hampered by the reception it receives from modern audiences –  with spectators whose field of reference is entirely different from their medieval or early modern counterparts, who laugh at different things, and don’t laugh at others.

In producing late medieval drama on the modern stage, for the most part we have only scripted lines on a manuscript page (and sometimes stage directions) to rely upon. Humour in a performance is constantly re-molded by the response of the audience – even in modern plays, comedic material can raise laughs on certain nights, but not others: those speaking the lines must adapt to their circumstances, and find out what works with certain spectators, but not others.  As audience response is rarely recorded for early drama, we can only speculate on how early spectators would have would have reacted differently from us, laughed differently from us. It is difficult to know what value and meaning humour held for them, and whether it was at all similar to our own appreciation.

As modern readers or spectators, it is tempting to look down on humours of the past as something more primitive, less refined than our own. But the prejudices brought by a modern audience do not denote greater liberality, or sophistication, but merely difference in understanding. I primarily research the so-called ‘Mystery Plays’ – works of early drama popular in England before the Reformation. The Mystery Plays staged scenes from the biblical history of the world, often for huge audiences on the streets of late medieval towns and cities. When we consider these performances, it is easy to think we understand all that they were – religious plays, celebrating and representing communal devotion.

Here we see examples of humour: something which to some may be surprising in itself, as contemporary perceptions of religion seem often to be far from comic. Still, in some of these pageants, the humour feels familiar, and easy to understand. In the popular pageant concerning the great Flood, for example, even if we are not aware of the late medieval convention which saw Noah’s wife played as a quarrelsome woman, refusing to board the ark through mistrust of her righteous husband, the bawdy knock-about humour on marriage feels entirely familiar. Think only of the ‘old married couple’ stereotype: from the bickering of Kate and Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew, to the flirtatious squabbles of Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart’s characters in 1951 film The African Queen, or even the petty squabbles of Pam and Mick (Alison Steadman and Larry Lamb) in British sit-com ‘Gavin and Stacey’.

But if this humorous situation is easy for modern audiences to laugh at, other biblical pageants contain comic elements far more estranged from our understanding. In another medieval pageant ‘Joseph’s Troubles About Mary’, originally staged in the City of York, a different marital dynamic is played out when the elderly carpenter accuses his young bride of sexual infidelity. With ever-rising anger, the increasingly exasperated Joseph questions his youthful wife ‘Whose is the childe thou arte withall?’, to which she replies, quite meekly, ‘Youres, sir, and the kyngis of blisse’. All is settled eventually when an angel descends to explain that this child is the son of God. But the humour of the piece plays on Joseph’s status as a mistrustful old man, suspicious of his beautiful young wife – a familiar trope, but one here made funnier by the audience’s implicit faith that the latter figure was, indeed, a virgin after all – the Virgin, in fact.

Modern audiences might shy away from aspects of ‘Josephs Troubles’: the comic relationship of an old man and his very-young wife; the placement of Joseph and Mary, the parents of Christ, into these roles; even the suggestion – however ridiculous – that the Virgin Mary was not so much of a virgin after all. Modern re-staging of the play must take all of these things into account if they still wish to rouse a laugh. But it is possible to change the nature of the play to better suit modern tastes, whilst still being true to the comedic elements within a scene inspired by medieval tastes.

This is best shown in a recent re-staging of the York ‘Crucifixion’ – a performance which modern audiences can hardly be expected to regard as a barrel of laughs. In the original late medieval staging of this pageant, it has been suggested that Christ’s executioners were staged as comic figures, ultimately attempting to distract the audience from the centrally poignant iconography at the centre of the performance. In this modern version, performed to a large audience in the shadow of Durham Cathedral as part of the city’s Theatrum Mundi festival of early drama, producers were inspired by the tricks used on medieval audiences – using laughter as a tool to conceal the sacred image of Christ’s tortured body, before a dramatic revelation at the end of the play.

After a comic exchange of punning and alliterative dialogue, presenting the soldiers as loutish chancers drinking and arguing over the task in hand, the modern spectators were made to think that the actors playing these figures were themselves unable to work the stage mechanics to hoist up the bulk of the crucifix. The inability of these figures to raise the cross brought tension and laughter to the situation, before several members of the audience were roped in to help. It was only when a deprecating cheer had gone up, after the job had been done, that the audience looked again at the body of Christ on the cross, and realized that they – and their laughter – had been complicit in his execution. As in the medieval context, humour was used as a tool to explore the uneasy relationship between the sacred and the profane, or even mundane – understanding laughter both as a marker of sinfulness, and a tool of devotion.

Nevertheless, sometimes we must resign ourselves to the fact that a modern audience can never be a medieval one. Re-working the humour to fit a new context inevitably changes it. And if producers are always attempting to find new meaning in old texts, and bringing new contexts to provoke new-found relevance, what does that mean for the study of humour in the past?

If we accept that we can never fully recreate or understand humours of the past, we do run the risk of us disassociating ourselves from the laughter entirely, and treating it as a distant and incomprehensible artefact. L. P. Hartley said that “the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”. Must we study humours of the past as foreign forces, entirely distinct from our own conception, regardless of whether we still find an old joke funny, still laugh at an ancient parody or antique rhyme? We may appreciate humour in a different way to our ancestors, but we can often still appreciate it – something which raises the multi-layered nature of humour, and the different levels on which examples can be understood, across time as well as between members of the same audience.

There is sometimes an anxiety that as modern readers or scholars we cannot fully discern whether something was intentionally funny, especially if it is not framed in a humorous context, or whether it just appears so because of its distance from us in terms of oddity, abruptness, or apparent incongruousness. We may find a representation which appears to us to be humorous, but may just be a quirk of time: a text or figure doing something silly, surprising, or even downright odd; a scurrilous image on a cheaply-made amphora; or even comic marginalia in a richly-decorated devotional aid. But we must always assume that humour was as much part of the past as it is the present and the future.

As scholars, we bring with us a certain cache of biases, contexts, and perspectives; as in any other discipline, these frames of analysis have to be acknowledged if we are to further our understanding of humour in the past. Our knowledge is limited by the context, knowledge, and evaluative frameworks which represent the past –  essentially the lived experience central to the understanding of any joke. Yet we can still approach humour of the past by trying to better understand this lived experience; awareness that our view of humour is filtered through the lens of the present can be useful.

It was heartening, in the HOP Collaboratory, to see other scholars wrangling with similar issues, despite the difference in contexts, frameworks, and time periods which they covered. To see how others approached humour in their own projects demonstrated the huge diversity within the field, but also the questions which brought us together – of how humour could be understood, and how inherently linked it was to a certain place, time, or culture. Not always fun and games, but plenty of laughs. A funny sort of research, I suppose.

Final call for papers – HOP Collaboratory 2!

EXTENDED SUBMISSION DEADLINE AND KEYNOTE SPEAKERS ANNOUNCED!

Humour, History, and Methodology: A Multidisciplinary and Trans-Professional Enquiry – Durham University – 26-28 July, 2017

The Humours of the Past (HOP) Network brings together researchers and practitioners with a mutual stake in understanding, interpreting and communicating humour of various kinds from particular times and cultural contexts. The study of humour as an approach to history, and history as an approach to humour, are developing areas of enquiry. However, there has been relatively little cross-disciplinary reflection on the methods researchers use to identify and understand humour from the past, and on what may be similar across disparate cultural materials. Furthermore, academic researchers have had only limited opportunities to discuss their modes of enquiry with practitioners who also have a professional stake in interpreting humour from the past, such as actors, directors, curators, and translators. To this end, HOP is holding a conference at Durham University, 26-28 July 2017 to encourage researchers and practitioners to share approaches. In addition to individual papers, there will be three roundtable discussions, exploring the verbal, visual and performative ‘translation’ of historical humour to contemporary audiences.

Keynote speakers: Em. Prof. Conal Condren (UNSW); Mr Phil Porter (playwright; works include ‘It’s a Mad World My Masters (RSC; 2013), ‘Vice Versa’ (RSC; 2017)); Prof. Indira Ghose (Fribourg).

We invite submissions of abstracts of not more than 300 words for 20-minute papers addressing, in their own way, the methodological issues that must be taken into account when studying humour from a particular past. Relevant topics might include:

  • case studies of productive (or, unproductive) ways of identifying and/or theorising humour in a specific historical context
  • the history and intellectual context of particular humour theories
  • reflections on the uses and limits of particular theories of humour with respect to different historical periods
  • studies of words for ‘humour’ and related phenomena in specific linguistic and temporal contexts
  • the particular challenges of ‘translating’ verbal, visual, or performative humour for contemporary audiences
  • historical case studies of humour censorship as a way into historical-cultural preoccupations
  • the comparative value of studies of contemporary humour and comedy for considering more distant historical material
  • investigations of the traditions of longstanding ‘laughable’ tropes (as applied to race, nationality, gender etc)
  • studies of historical humour from particular theoretical vantage points, e.g. history of emotions, medical humanities, or theories of cultural value/ideology
  • cross-temporal and/or cross-cultural comparisons of ‘humour’ and of humour theory
  • case studies of successful inter- or cross-disciplinary projects involving historical humour

Please submit abstracts (300 words max) to humoursofthepast@gmail.com by 1 March 2017. We particularly welcome submissions of coherent panels of 3 linked papers. For further information about the network, see: https://humoursofthepast.wordpress.com/ and follow us on Twitter @historichumour.

For a printable PDF of the CfP that can be passed on, click here!

Organisers: Daniel Derrin (Durham University), Hannah Burrows (University of Aberdeen)

Let’s go to the HOP!

Anthony Mitzel, Università di Bologna / University College London

As winter quickly approaches I think back to the first collaboratory of the Humours of the Past (HOP) network at the University of Aberdeen. The journey to the Granite City was a chance to take in some papers that served to better contextualize the study of humour in a historical frame, i.e. the ancient and modern antecedents of the field; where Humour Studies is today in the contemporary sense, and crucially where it is going.

HOP offers the opportunity for academics and professionals to collaborate, expand, and fill in gaps in the analysis of certain observable phenomena related to humour and its place in culture. During the first collaboratory there were talks outlining certain developments in the study of humour not only from the western canon but the eastern one as well. Discussions on theories regarding humour were brought up, analysed, and discussed. Moreover, the small groups enabled younger researchers – myself one – the opportunity to get feedback on specific research projects, journal articles, or conference presentations. I benefitted from this with my current research project on the use of Italians as trope not only in automobile commercials but consistently in mass media. At one point, I was asked to define my explanation of the Italian trope which led me to re-evaluate the operational definition I had been using up until that point. I also appreciated the opportunity to interact with established senior and junior faculty from esteemed universities around the world. This experience proved to be very useful, quite interesting, and intellectually stimulating.

As the word “past” signifies, the main guiding principle of the network is, but is not limited to, history. As stated in HOP’s mission statement the project, “brings together academic researchers, directors, translators, curators and others who have a professional stake in interpreting humour and laughter from cultures of the distant and more recent past”. From this diverse interdisciplinary working group comes an opportunity for the cross pollination of ideas, methods, and competencies. Language, it can be said, does not operate in a vacuum. Neither does the study of humour. It cuts across time and space. HOP is one solution for researchers in these diverse fields working in diverse institutional and geographical realities. HOP also operates as a de facto think tank fostering connections and developing synergies around the world at various academic institutions with clear goals in mind, chief amongst which is looking at humour on a holistic continuum; drawing from the past to make inferences about the present.

This synchronic-diachronic approach to the study of humour has numerous benefits. One example comes to us via William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. In Act 2, Scene 1, Antonio utters to Sebastian the famous line, “What’s past is prologue”. Here Antonio implies that everything that had been done in the past has led them to the moment when they will potentially commit murder. Fatalistically speaking, Shakespeare is quite clear that our two conspirators have little choice and no agency in their decision-making process. The intertemporality – to borrow from economics jargon – of the past (diachronic) in conjunction with the present (synchronic) leads Antonio into this fatalistic mode of reasoning and thus further shapes the situation our two conspirators find themselves in. At its most basic, Shakespeare’s use of this binary demonstrates a reading of the past which has consequences in the future. The same reasoning, that is the dualistic nature of a diachronic and synchronic binary, is crucial to the study of humour. It offers researchers a more complete understanding by placing humour on a continuum instead of just random disconnected occurrences fixed solely in temporary events and moments. The binary, that is, the connection between the past and the present, is the metaphorical filament that connects while helping to transcend the intertemporal, interstitial space between events and by extension the humour encoded in them. Ergo the past illuminating the present.

My initial foray into humour was through the writing and performance of stand-up comedy. Creating satirical comedy sets gave me the opportunity to work through various scripts and techniques in the creation of humour and elicitation of laughter. But after a while, I began to look deeper into the comedy I was doing and the study of humour in general. As stated above, my current research is on the Italian as a humorous trope in the advertising of automobiles, and specifically, FIAT Chrysler’s use of the Italian angle in selling the newish 500 series of cars to American consumers and their collaboration with the comedy website Funny or Die![1] Since the merger of Fiat-Chrysler and FIAT, the multinational car corporation has been active in raising their profile in the US. One of the ways they have attempted to do this is through humour. In the past, a Fiat automobile was not known for reliability, at least in the US. I should add that the small, compact European sized car was overshadowed by the larger American style boats that floated around the interstates of 1970s-80s America. One such European automobile, the Yugo[2], was the epitome of cheap and no doubt considered “euro trash” or even communist at the time. As a linguist and interpreter of culture, I often apply mixed methodologies outside of but complementary to linguistics such as the study of signs (semiotics) and memes (memetics) when analysing humour as it relates to notions of perception. In fact, during one of the small HOP “break off” discussions which took place after most sessions a crucial component missing from my analysis emerged: Fiat advertisements in the UK from the 1980s and 90s. By discovering and incorporating these commercials into my corpora, I would be able to contrast these past commercials to the sample from the more recent US commercials I had already accumulated. Without going into too much detail, in the UK the Fiat Uno was portrayed as a way out of a boring middle class existence. In one spot from the 1980s, we see a woman who wants adventure, luxury. Unfortunately for her, the husband seems to only be interested in watching the telly and seems rather uninterested in his wife, or what she has been up to all day when she returns to her uninterested, couch potato spouse. This I think works off the classic stereotype of the husband being annoyed with his wife, perhaps even vice versa if we would like to venture a bit into the “meta” joke realm. Also, the incongruity of one person wasting time in front of the couch while the other is out experiencing the world only to return home from her imaginary journey, satisfied, also builds an allusion in the end which acts as a de facto punchline; that the wife was having an affair with the Fiat Uno and the freedom it provides. Furthermore, upon returning home the wife states that she had forgot the “French bread”.[3] Clearly entertaining to the viewer because we had just seen her in “France”. In regards to humour, a noticeable contrast emerged between the cultures of the US and UK: while the British commercials were more interest in the escapism a Fiat automobile provided, the American ones focused more on consumption of the perceived coolness of the car, its styling, and the Italians themselves. Furthermore, the Italian people component was downplayed in the UK. In the US, they take centre stage. More importantly I could observe a clear shift in how Italians – and by extension Italy – are portrayed though space and time and subsequently the narrative “memes” that are inadvertently created and propagated via the medium of television. Moreover, these memes continue to be underpinned with humour and audience expectation dealing with classic tropes, behaviour, and cultural/gender stereotypes are fundamental attributes of the memplexes in commercial advertising.

Humour is a fundamental component of who we are as a species and how we interpret and interact within the quotidian whether it be with banter amongst friends, jokes and observational humour at a comedy club, or during a presidential election cycle. In many cases, humour possesses the ability to help people cope, negate, or even restructure reality itself. It may sound a tad clichéd but if there was ever a moment for a discipline in the humanities to offer a new outlook on the world, or find something in the past that could create a paradigm shift in how we interpret this fragile world we inhabit, now would be that time. The Humours of the Past network is right there linking a group of researchers with years of experience working on a wide range of projects. Time and time again we have seen the transformative power of the written word, words put to the stage, mass popular media, and the ever-increasing presence of social media platforms and their effect in social and political contexts. One filament that threads through each medium across time and space has been, is, and will continue to be humour. And I for one look forward to the work that is being done and that which will emerge from the HOP network/collaborative in regards to the study thereof.

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1fBFm4OD2W0

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SYiksjzOPi8

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BuNY7kH0uI8

Anthony Mitzel is a PhD researcher in the Department of Italian/Centre for Translation Studies, University College London and an adjunct professor in the Department for Interpreters and Translators University of Bologna, Forlì. @anthonydmitzel

HOP Collaboratory 2 – call for papers!

ANNOUNCEMENT OF CONFERENCE AND CALL FOR PAPERS 

Humour, History, and Methodology: A Multidisciplinary and Trans-Professional Enquiry – Durham University – 26-28 July, 2017

The Humours of the Past (HOP) Network brings together researchers and practitioners with a mutual stake in understanding, interpreting and communicating humour of various kinds from particular times and cultural contexts. The study of humour as an approach to history, and history as an approach to humour, are developing areas of enquiry. However, there has been relatively little cross-disciplinary reflection on the methods researchers use to identify and understand humour from the past, and on what may be similar across disparate cultural materials. Furthermore, academic researchers have had only limited opportunities to discuss their modes of enquiry with practitioners who also have a professional stake in interpreting humour from the past, such as actors, directors, curators, and translators. To this end, HOP is holding a conference at Durham University, 26-28 July 2017 to encourage researchers and practitioners to share approaches. In addition to individual papers, there will be three roundtable discussions, exploring the verbal, visual and performative ‘translation’ of historical humour to contemporary audiences.

We now invite submissions of abstracts of not more than 300 words for 20-minute papers addressing, in their own way, the methodological issues that must be taken into account when studying humour from a particular past. Relevant topics might include:

  • case studies of productive (or, unproductive) ways of identifying and/or theorising humour in a specific historical context
  • the history and intellectual context of particular humour theories
  • reflections on the uses and limits of particular theories of humour with respect to different historical periods
  • studies of words for ‘humour’ and related phenomena in specific linguistic and temporal contexts
  • the particular challenges of ‘translating’ verbal, visual, or performative humour for contemporary audiences
  • historical case studies of humour censorship as a way into historical-cultural preoccupations
  • the comparative value of studies of contemporary humour and comedy for considering more distant historical material
  • investigations of the traditions of longstanding ‘laughable’ tropes (as applied to race, nationality, gender etc)
  • studies of historical humour from particular theoretical vantage points, e.g. history of emotions, medical humanities, or theories of cultural value/ideology
  • cross-temporal and/or cross-cultural comparisons of ‘humour’ and of humour theory
  • case studies of successful inter- or cross-disciplinary projects involving historical humour

Please submit abstracts (300 words max) to humoursofthepast@gmail.com by 1 February 2017. We particularly welcome submissions of coherent panels of 3 linked papers. For further information about the network, see: https://humoursofthepast.wordpress.com/ and follow us on Twitter @historichumour.

For a printable PDF of the CfP that can be passed on, click here!

Organisers: Daniel Derrin (Durham University), Hannah Burrows (University of Aberdeen)

Collaboratory 1!

 

With gratitude to the Arts and Humanities Research Council, we can now report that HOP has successfully had its first major meeting, or, ‘Collaboratory’! This was held July this year at the University of Aberdeen. Nineteen of us came together to make a start on a wide-ranging set of investigations all linked to the issue of how we access and understand humour across a diverse range of historical contexts. What is the nature of the similarities and differences between the different phenomena we are dealing with as historians of humour? What comparability of method might there be in our different ways of looking into historical humour? We think Collaboratory 1 has taken an important step in investigating these questions, along a path that HOP will continue to follow.

We want to thank everyone for their participation and say a little more about what happened at the Collaboratory 1 and where we are going next.

Jessica Milner Davis offered a reflection on the inter-cultural complexity of the linguistic terms for ‘humour’. This drew attention to a two-sided coin: on the one side, the difficulty of comparing disparate phenomena with different terminology arising across time and culture, and, on the other, the sense that there is actually something comparable, as our desire to use the catch-all term ‘humour’ suggests. We then heard from Graeme Ritchie and Will Noonan who critiqued some of the existing theoretical models that have been used to investigate our questions. Central among these is the General Theory of Verbal Humour (GTVH). A strong consensus emerged that, for all its strengths, the GTVH offers historians basically what most ‘incongruity’ theories do: a structuralist means of confirming a sense (derived from elsewhere) that humour exists in a historical context. Beyond this, what often needs to be addressed in historical cases are issues that the GTVH was never designed to address: for example, the question of humour’s function, its ideological import and emotional significance, the question of what a comic character, or a comic butt is within a particular cultural situation, and so on.

Participants had the opportunity to share case studies with one another and explain the nature of their particular research questions within their field of study. There was a considerable range of projects represented overall, from ancient Greek comedy and comic vase painting, ancient Chinese jokes, Norse riddling, comic medieval manuscript illumination, Shakespearean foolery, 19th century Japanese comics, and many more. HOP is seeking to encourage a much wider sharing of research questions and methodologies used in across comparable areas of historical enquiry.

In addition, with talks by Delia Chiaro, Aubrey Mellor, Alexandre Mitchell, and Christie Davies, we began to address four areas of investigation that will be developed as the HOP network expands beyond its academic circle. These are issues that bring historical humour into the present:

  1. How do we translate historical humours?
  2. How do we perform them on contemporary stages?
  3. How do we understand historical visual humour and curate it for contemporary visitors to exhibitions?
  4. How do we understand the history of particular comic stereotypes? What role do they continue to play in social conflicts and potentially in policy responses to those conflicts?

If you are interested in any of these questions, whether you’re an academic, an actor, director, curator, translator, or work in a different industry entirely, we welcome your input, and invite you to get in touch. Just use the contact page here on the website. HOP’s next major event will be held in Durham next (Northern Hemisphere) summer. More details and a cfp will be made public soon. Anyone with an interest in these questions will be very welcome to attend.

Daniel Derrin (Durham University)

Hannah Burrows (University of Aberdeen)