Saturday, 30 November 2013

Red Dog.

Humour can be described at various levels, from a cultural level to an individual level and arguably humour is a cultural construction, a cultural capital that is used at an individual level for purposes of expressing the potential scope of human experience, and includes techniques for coping with adversity, representing uncomfortable or unconscious truths and challenging the representational ability of language itself.  Its subjects are the scope of human experience and include gender, hierarchy, ideology, economics and prejudice.  There are various  theories on humour that individually seem to focus on particular aspects such as, absurdity, repression, status hierarchies and cooperation to name a few,  but they tend to make some common observations, the most significant one being  humour reflects a set of incongruous conceptualizations or paradoxes and it is able to address taboo topics or transgress social expectations.

In  a journal article titled “The First Joke: Exploring the Evolutionary Origins of Humor” by Joseph Polimeni and Jeffrey P. Reiss (2006) it describes three essential themes  that are repeatedly observed in theories of humour., but it is potentially significant to recognise that three is an awfully convenient number that people like to use. These three themes could be integrated into a single statement such that, incongruous conceptualization describes the production of a symbolic absurdity and this production is used discursively for expression which can have a political purpose in its social context.

The three themes individually described by Polimeni & Reiss (2006) are,

1) incongruous conceptualizations,
2) repressed sexual or aggressive feelings, which may be described more broadly as approaching taboo topics and transgress social expectations to achieve particular discursive objectives and
 3) humour elevates social status by demonstrating superiority or saving face. This observation can be broadened to having a foucauldian aspect involving power and identity and indicates that humour is something performed in a communicative event, even if that event is with oneself as a self reflection. The description of the demonstration of superiority may be demonstrating discursive competency although humour is used for political purposes such as designating out groups and deflecting criticism.

An example of a joke that functions predominantly by its incongruous content can be found in Carty & Musharbash (2008 :  210) description of the Red Dog joke, which is as follows.

During the summer at Yuendumu, at a time when initiation ceremonies were going on, they saw Neils dog, Barbie, running into the camp with red ochre handprints all over her body.  To translate the joke it becomes necessary to know that red ochre had significant symbolic power and was used to make things sacred and at the that initiation ceremonies had a significant gendered spatiality. The dogs owner Neil had been recently initiated and was quite fond of dogs, spending nearly as much time playing with dogs as socialising with people. Thus what was funny to the people in the camp was the absurd meaning of a red ochre on a dog and the meaning of the message of the handprints on the dog.  Of course after explaining all this the joke is dead. ( from You’ve Got to be Joking : Asserting the Analytical Value of Humour and Laughter in Contemporary Anthropology. (2008))

The incongruity found in the  Red Dog joke is due to the absurdity of the human meanings of the elements found in the Red Dog joke. Although we can appreciate the absurdity, the taboo content of the red dog joke is lost because we don’t have a full understanding of its social context, we have not internalized the rules that the joke transgresses. An example of a joke that features a significant understandable transgressive content is Purdies Errol Flynn joke.

Erroll Flynn invited a group of friends to dinner and gave them (insert a series of items and activities, entertainment that reflects opulence). At last a dwarf musician appeared who played an incredible selection of jazz and classical rock. All the guests wanted to know where Flynn had found this dwarf genius, and in the end he explained. “I did a good turn for this witch” he said “and she said she would give me anything I wanted. The trouble is, she’s a bit deaf, and she though I asked for a twelve inch pianist” (Purdie 1993 : 35) (from Comedy theory and the postmodern (2006)).

The transgressive or taboo element is the suggested knowledge that Erroll Flynn did not want a twelve inch pianist.  To get the joke the audience has to know the most likely word that rhymes with pianist, which is also suggested by the adjectival component “twelve inch” thus the jokes incongruous conceptualization is the derived semantic ambiguity of the noun phrase.

There is also a social dimension to the Errol Flynn joke. This joke dates to at least the late 1930’s as Errol Flynn was a famous silver screen Hollywood actor who was known for his swashbuckling roles and had a reputation for womanizing. Thus the social context of the joke is that Errol Flynn is someone known for his opulent lifestyle and sensationalised affairs and the dwarf is assumed to be part of this opulent lifestyle, this assumption is challenged by the semantic ambiguity of the punchline.

The different functions and content of the humour suggests that a cross cultural comparison if made, would be most productive if it included an attempt to compare similar functions and content.

An example of classifying humour by function, with lose associations with content can be found in Alfred Malinowski’s (2013) Characteristics of Job Burnout and Humour amongst Psychotherapists.  Its uses a four part scheme by Malinowski (2013) with the opposing categories of  affiliative humour vs aggressive humour and  self enhancing humour vs self defeating humour. This study provides classifications of the discursive functions humour is used and expands on the social status theme observed by Polmeni & Reiss (2006). 

The classification of self defeating humour is correlated with emotional exhaustion and depersonalization, while self enhancing humour is correlated to personal accomplishment (Malinowski 2013). Depersonalisation is describing a cynical and negative attitude that distances the individual from the (social) situation. Humour used reduces the amount of anxiety and worry and produces positive emotions. Aggressive humour tends to have a negative effect on the user and relationships. Adaptive humour consists of affiliative humour and self-enhancing humour (from Martin et al 2003) that forms and reinforces friendships, group relationships and group cohesion. Self enhancing humour is correlated with an individual’s emotional well being.

Examples of adaptive humour can be seen in Mahedev Aptes (1985) synthesis of  joking relationships, commonly seen between extended relatives in preliterate societies. The joking appears to have the function of reducing potential conflict and aggression. Tribal clowns as described by Colin Turnbull in his book Wayward Servants: The Two Worlds of African Pygmies,  a study of the Mbuti seem to have “face saving” functions despite their interfering role (Polimeni & Reiss 2006 : 358), this is a social role .

Aggressive and Self defeating humour seems to be correlated with emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and a lack of a sense of personal accomplishment (Malinowski 2013). Aggressive humour is the type of humour that uses sarcasm and teasing to relieve tension and to attract attention. Aggressive humour may negatively effect the relationship of individuals and lead to a lack of social support in times of crises. Self defeating humour is humour that is used to make degrading remarks about oneself for the approval of others, saying something critical or comical about oneself to make other people laugh. Self defeating humour is correlated with high levels of anxiety, depression and lower levels of self esteem. These are correlations and correlation does not necessarily mean causality.

What these classifications potentially describe in my opinion is play behaviour being introduced into situations of adversity that has been classified into a four part scheme, certain types of humour will be used by the individual when experiencing emotional exhaustion and the compromise of normative expectations associated with a just world hypothesis. Aggressive humour may be used in situations of intra-group / inter-group competition and reflect the political situation of contested ground. I suspect that “play behaviour” in the context of situations of aggression is potentially dangerous as it reflects the depersonalization of the user and a reduced evaluation of consequence, as “play is unreal”. I think this is what makes the image of the Joker so malevolent, malice in the context of reduced evaluation of consequence.

Perhaps adaptive humour is part of the process of evaluating the situation, but there may be Focauldian processes in its evaluation. For example the use of self defeating humour for the approval of others may be an affiliative behaviour, a way of saving face. It can have discourse goals (Burgers, Mulken & Schellens 2013) such as diminishing or enhancing criticism by communicating the disparity between reality and the ideal, the correlation of anxiety, depression and lower levels of esteem may not be a  causal relationship but simply a reflection of the situation and its toll on the individual, correlation, not cause.

Language in its broadest sense refers to a symbolic system that is central to the construction of subject identity (Pye 55 : 2006) and humour in its many forms is a game of symbolic manipulation in which the psychological and textual converge, and this game can use breaks in the symbolic system to convey existential absurdity and human suffering (Pye 55 : 2006). The “breaks” are the overloaded signifying structures, the signifiers and signified that are used in a semantic space. This is the significance of the red dog joke, the red dog represents a break in the symbolic system, as it is an overloaded signifier.  A competent adult doing this is demonstrating his awareness of the procedures of signification and is therefore asserting an identity as a fully competent adult showing skill in discourse. A child doing this may simply be learning how to use language, which adults will find amusing, see types of narratives contained in the comedy section of Readers Digest. Of course children tell jokes too.

A Foucauldian aspect is the construction of individuals as a focus of humour, where the victim of the joke, comic figure, does not have full control of the signifying system and thus is constructed as being discursively incompetent.  Other breaks in the symbolic system are used to produce taboo results and transgress social expectations, which are part of their appeal.

Does this explanation correspond to things that can be said to be demonstrably real, to something biological? Damage to the central nervous system tends to suggest the areas involved in processing humour. Epilepsy patients with damage to the frontal cortex have been described as acquiring a “humourless” personality and brain lesions to the right hemisphere tend to have the greatest cognitive impairment on humour appreciation. The right hemisphere is involved in “global attention” and the expression and comprehension of emotion, and this includes the interpretation of emotional material presented linguistically (Polimeni & Reiss 2006 :  356).

Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) of unimpaired individuals found that activation in the prefrontal cortex (MVPFC) bilaterally ” correlated with how funny a joke is” (Polimeni & Reiss 2006 : 355).  The importance of the left inferior frontal cortex for the reconciliation of ambiguous semantic content with stored knowledge in humour was suggested by a study by Moran et al (2004), described by Polemi & Reiss (2006), which monitored humour detection & appreciation in individuals watching The Simpsons and Seinfeld comedies in an event related MRI experiment and found significant activation of the left posterior middle temporal gyrus, left inferior temporal gyrus, right posterior middle temporal gyrus and right cerebellum. The temporal lobes tend to be related to the language component of humour and prefrontal cortex is intimately involved in humour, in its detection of semantic ambiguity and humour appreciation

The prefrontal cortex has many higher cognitive functions and has projections from the subcortical dopaminergic reward system. Its involvement in attention, incorporation of emotional behaviour, semantic memory retrieval, episodic memory, working memory and theory of mind suggest (Polimeni & Reiss 2006 : 356) and  demonstrate the complexity of the cognitive processes involved in humour detection and appreciation.

Humor is generally understood to be a pleasurable, at least to the competent adults engaging in the activity and thus must be linked to the subcortical dopaminergic reward system. From an evolutionary perspective there is likely a direct or indirect selective pressure for its existence and perhaps it is related to play behaviour in mammals generally, which have learning functions. Mammalia is the only phylum in the animal kingdom to feature play behaviour and many features of human evolution have been extended from neotenic origins. This could be an example of a selected feature in human evolution deriving from a juvenile state, a neontic feature retained into adulthood that has been used in complex ways to serve a variety of functions. 

"From Thatababy comic strip. By Paul Trap (2013)"
Comic from Thatababy. By Paul Trap (2013)


Burgers, Christian; Mulken, Margot van & Schellens, Peter Jan. (2013). The use of co-textual irony markers in written discourse. From Humour 2013, Volume 26, No 1. Pages 45 -68.

Carty, John and Musharbash, Yasmine. (2008). You’ve Got to be Joking : Asserting the Analytical Value of Humour and Laughter in Contemporary Anthropology. In the Anthropological Forum. Volume 18. Number 3. November 2008. Pages 209 -217.

Malinowski, Alfred. (2013). Characteristics of Job Burnout and Humour amongst Psychotherapists.  From Humour 2013, Volume 26, No 1. Pages 117 -133.

Moran, J.M.; Wig, G.S; Adams, R.B; Janata, P & Kelley, W.M. (2004). Neural correlates of humour detection and appreciation. In NeuroImage. Volume 21. Pages 1055 -1060.

Mosko, Mark S. (2009). The Symbols of “Forest” : A Structural Analysis of Mbuti Culture and Social Organization. In the Journal American Anthropologist, Volume 89, No 4 . Pages 896 -913.

Polimeni, Joseph & Reiss, Jeffrey. (2006). The First Joke: Exploring the Evolutionary Origins of Humor. In Evolutionary Psychology. Volume 4. Pages 347 -366.

Pye, Gillian. (2006). Comedy Theory and the post modern. In Humour 2006, Volume 9, No 1. Pages 53 -70.

Recommended Websites

David Raymond Davis (April 2011) writes about Collin Turnbull in “The Deconstruction Zone”

Collin Turnbull (1961) provides examples of intra-group toleration  amongst the Mbuti and it would have been potentially productive to compare humour communicating the value of toleration. Its worth noting that the book People of the Forest (1961) has been described as a kind of fairy tale that can be deconstructed according to the psychological needs of Collin Turnbull, it’s a harsh analysis but illuminating.

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