Is a (tired) goat like a (dead) frog?; or Some thoughts on the objections to the humorous object as an object of study
When computers learn how to make jokes, artists will be in serious trouble.
–Donald Barthelme, “Not Knowing”
We have all had the experience of having something we are fascinated by dampened by learning more about it. The tragedy of poor schooling is not unmet standards or bad test scores–the tragedy of school is having the natural curiosity of childhood deadened. Of course, much of the transition from magical world of wonder to rational world of knowledge is necessary… we wouldn’t want an entire nation of clowns who do not understand that magnets are not miracles. But thought and study don’t have to lead to the death of wonder–what I, and I would hope other scholars of humor (and of almost any subject, really), would like to convince you is that study can lead to both a knowledge and a deeper appreciation of the subject, a deeper fascination with the complicated and, yes, fun workings of humor.
But when it comes to humor, people often have a different reaction. Humor, of course, is not a science–and there is not formula that a computer can learn to tell a joke properly in front of an audience, even if computers can make jokes. Jokes and laughter are a different kind of subject, and one dominant thread holds that turning humor into an object of study might diminish the vitality of the work.
The objection that the study of humor takes something alive and turns it into something like a computer program is a real fear, and surely one with some basis. But often, and maybe unfortunately, this real issue for discussion gets wighted down into one simple, and somewhat misleading, metaphor: “killing the frog.” Both Sharon McCoy and I have taken on E.B. White’s semi-famous warning that studying humor is like dissecting a frog. I have seen several versions of this saying:
Analysts have had their go at humor, and I have read some of this interpretative literature, but without being greatly instructed. Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.
Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.
Sharon nicely explains that the metaphor is off–frogs are already dead when they are dissected–and that the act of dissecting the frog leads to scientific understanding of not only frogs, but of ourselves and of our environment. In my post, I explained that White states this position, and then he goes on to offer some definitions of humor–partaking in a long tradition of people claiming you can’t define or discuss characteristics of humor and then going ahead and doing so. I call it a “definitional denial.”
What I think the prevalence of this quote points to is a larger fear that the study of literature–or of film, or of television, or of any piece of artistic expression–somehow seeks to lessen the experience of that object. That to seek to understand a cultural object is to lessen the authentic interaction one might have with that object. That to call something a “cultural object,” and to point out that it might have a historical or sociological or psychological or linguistic or any other academicalistic meaning, takes that thing out of the realm of enjoyment, of relaxation, of appreciation and then puts it into the realm of school. And with humor–which most people experience as enjoyment, as laughter–the feeling is either heightened or easier to vocalize. For those who didn’t get pleasure out of school, putting humor into the scholarly realm might be a heightened betrayal .
When encountering a frog, most people just want to watch it, not cut it open to see how it works.
But some of people like to think about how humor works. We are scholars. Just as there are scholars of frogs, and of schools, and of Texas music, and of male flight attendants, and of religion, and of stadiums, and of just about everything else, there are scholars of humor. And unless you don’t like scholars in general, there should be no need to defend any particular branch of study: from frogs to funny.
That being said, I seem to be venturing close to my a corollary form of the “definitional denial”: the defensive denial–claiming I don’t need to defend the study of humor and then doing so. Instead, let’s turn not to a dissecting a frog, which is not a terribly good metaphor for humanistic study of humor, to looking at a goat. Not just any goat. This goat:
Seeing this piece, we might have any number of reactions–“What does it mean?” “Who is it by?” “is it supposed to be funny?” “I like it” “I hate it” “eh” “wow” “is it art?” These reactions are not much different from the reactions people might have to a piece of humor more generally. Your answers to these questions, your reactions, matter to you. And the range of reactions a cultural object might have are important as evidence of audience reception.
But to the art historian, or the aficionado of art more broadly, the historical context of Rauschenberg’s combine matters, along with its formal characteristics and its place in his development as an artist.
The first time that I watched Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, I was recovering from having my wisdom teeth extracted, and I was on a lot of drugs. Apparently there had been some complications during the procedure, and when the doctor finally got in there, what I had were closer in size to wisdom tusks. The resulting painkillers were, as they say, the good stuff, and I headed back to my parent’s house to recover and watch some movies. What I remember next is being about halfway through Rushmore, and apparently I was crying uncontrollably and screaming at the screen: “Why are they taking this kid so seriously?! He’s just a kid! You’re an old man, Bill Murray, why are you friends with a kid?! Attractive British lady whom I don’t know: are you, like, dating this kid?! What is wrong with all of you?!?” Someone in my family was kind enough to turn the movie off for me at that point.
I can’t remember what exactly I was on, but it was an oddly emotional weekend. I also remember having a serious conversation with a Slurpee – also while crying. I thought that it thought that it was better than me because I was having such a hard time actually getting it into my mouth.
So… I may have missed a little of the nuance of Rushmore the first time around, but I eventually watched it again in a less chemically-outmatched state, and was deeply moved by its story of the danger of trying to do everything that you can. But while the character of Max Fischer is forced to exfoliate the many obligations that keep him from ever getting anything real accomplished, Wes Anderson has always struck me as a director whose own precision (although his critics tend to call it “preciousness” with alarmingly unoriginal frequency) is constantly at odds with this central lesson of his second film. As is widely known, Anderson’s attention to mise en scene, props, set decoration, and design makes any other definition of “minutia” seem like something closer to “carpet-bombing.” Anderson is the kind of director who puts things that will never be used in drawers that will never be opened. It is for this reason, though, that his films are unparalleled in their sense of texture and depth, their luxurious albeit impossible touchableness. Like the famous large-scale, long-take, cut-out tour of the good ship Belafonte’s quarters in The Life Aquatic, there is something undeniably special about many of Anderson’s designs. As with much realistic dollhouse furniture, for example, our relation to the original object is changed by seeing the detail with which it can be made small. Likewise, Anderson’s aesthetic requires us to accept the artificiality of stage construction as a precondition for having access to what we would have otherwise just assumed would be there.
For example, within the first moments of Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson’s seventh feature film, anyone attuned to the director’s fastidiousness will have noticed a pair of scissors hanging on the wall, which – regardless of whether they do or do not play a role later in the film (they do) – are as important as anything else. This is not to say that they are or would be symbolic, signifying, or necessarily indicative of anything other than themselves. Rather, they are just so. One of the most visually appealing (and frequently humorous) features of Anderson’s films is not exactly what is there, but that what is there is there. This does not mean that nothing has been left out, as though he were a bitter neo-realist kneeling at the death-dusty bedside of verisimilitude, but that Anderson’s surfeit of objects and documents and little homemade things contributes to an architecture of fantasy wherein what seems so very unreal about this films is the result of too much of life. It’s a little like the difference between looking at your apartment and thinking, “Hey, there’s my stuff” and looking at the same space and thinking “Now that is what I call a scrapbook!”