Scholarly article on topic 'What a Joke'

What a Joke Academic research paper on "Art (arts, history of arts, performing arts, music)"

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Academic journal

Academic research paper on topic "What a Joke"

Perception, 1979, volume 8, pages 363-364


What a joke

What is it to perceive that something is funny? The humorous has an enormous range—from silly episodes to the most sophisticated verbal formulations and play upon words—while humour's power can destroy individual dignity and the Governments of Countries. It is interesting that the British satirical television series That Was The Week That Was was effectively banned prior to a General Election, a few years ago, for fear of its political effects. One need only look at early issues of Punch, or consider the Eighteenth Century Broad Sheets where the most cherished institutions and most highly regarded people were lampooned, to see humour deployed as a destructive weapon. It is as though humour restructures our perceptions. This restructuring can be dangerous where loyalties and beliefs are hard to justify; but perhaps humour is the supreme therapy for individual and social sanity. But to those endowed with a strong sense of humour, individuals and organisations who patently lack fun and self-ridicule are terrifying.

How do people who live by humour appear to those who lack it, or who have rejected humour as hurtful or dangerous? I suppose words such as 'irresponsible', 'trivial', and even 'anarchic' are called up. No doubt this can be justified but perhaps they are not all bad. Perhaps, indeed, humour gains positive points by attacking individual and social structures so that we are not entirely tyranised by responsibility, profundity, and whatever the contrary of 'anarchic' may be: ('narchic'?).

Kindly consider the following joke: Wagner's music is better than it sounds. Why is this funny? Is it funny? Is it funny to extreme devotees of Wagner?

We may begin to see that this joke, and lots of other jokes, could be used as cognitive probes to explore and dissect the human mind.

Kindly consider such variations on this paradigm joke as: "Beethoven's music is better than it sounds". Or, "Mozart's music is..." Or, "the Beatle's music is..." One's reaction is surely subtly and interestingly different for each case; and no doubt there are significant individual differences here, reflecting each of our cognitive maps by which our behaviour and thinking are guided. The jokes became map-lights, showing tiny features that startle us; and they may show that our secret maps were ill-surveyed and perhaps so antiquated that we are beyond a joke.

Let's extend the range of the paradigm joke to, for example: Gibson's theory is better than it looks. This is hardly a joke; for we can well imagine that, if this is our view, we do not understand it properly. It could well be a true statement at the surface level of meaning. But this is not so for the Wagner joke, for we do not know quite what music is, over and above (or beneath) how it sounds—which is how it seems. I, for one, see the Beethoven and the Mozart examples as not the same as for Wagner; for to me there does seem to be more to Beethoven and Mozart—indeed much more—hidden beneath the surface of their sound so that the sound is somehow representing something else. Then, "Beethoven's music is better than it sounds" has a non-joke meaning, like: "Wittgenstein is deeper than I can see"; or "Helmholtz is right though I cannot quite understand why".

No doubt it is unfair to take Wagner in this way, and this is the trouble with jokes— they are seldom fair. They are, or can be weapons of unlimited range and beyond any control: puns can even destroy the language which is their launch vehicle.


If death is necessary for organic change (and what is fair about death?) perhaps humour is the cognitive complementary to death; scything the weeds, and occasionally a brilliant bloom, to allow and sometimes to inspire change from the accepted.

If indeed jokes can be used as I have suggested as cognitive probes, they can be used not only for mental dissections but also for psychic surgery. It should be possible to cauterise ideas and prejudices, and to sever connections so that ideas are freed. Pushed too far, the mind would lose all structure and be merely random (free for all and useless for anything), but applied to the right degree probe-jokes should have benefits comparable to any psychotherapy, while being a lot more fun.

Possibly jokes have a poor academic press because they are not true. So they are in the fiction list. But no tools or weapons are true; and neither are they false. In this sense jokes are not propositions, so their meaning is always mysterious, and so when verbal quite different from other sentences. Jokes are pun-punctuated Life Sentences. Alas though, they may terminate with a semicolon, and always with a full stop.

There are Good jokes and Bad jokes, and naughty jokes, and many other kinds of jokes. From your reaction to a joke I can sound you out, as I can never understand Wagner. Isn't this funny?

In any case, jokes are much too serious to be left to the comics.

Richard L Gregory