Collaboratory 2

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

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?