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! 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, 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”. 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.
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