Dehumanized and Rationalized (2/6)

Dehumanized and Rationalized (2/6) November 26, 2016

Missed the introduction? Part 1 is here.

Photo from Pixabay, in public domain.
Photo from Pixabay, in public domain.

Studies of oral histories and testimonies often focus on the literal truth of the content, though according to folklorists such as Alan Dundes, the real importance of folklore items often cannot be consciously articulated.  The consideration of latent content—as opposed to manifest content, which is the surface meaning of a text—makes jokes an especially suitable genre of inquiry.  Sigmund Freud laid the groundwork for this consideration of jokes in his Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious, in which he claimed that jokes derive from the unconscious realm and can be decoded using techniques similar to those used in other unconscious processes like dreaming.  Beyond their connection to the unconscious, jokes are an appropriate genre for a study of reactions to violence because they are “socially sanctioned outlets for expressing taboo ideas and subjects.  Where there is anxiety, there will be jokes to express that anxiety” (Dundes 1987, vii).  Humor scholar Arthur Berger agrees that “jokes and riddles (and other forms of humor) deal with social and political matters of consequence” (Berger 1995, 163).  If a topic is of importance to a social group, there will in general be folklore pertaining to it, not just jokes.  The problem now is reaching an adequate definition of a joke.  Freud struggled with the characterizations of jokes tossed about by writers in his day, and failed to formulate a concise description.  Berger has provided a working definition of jokes by emphasizing that “jokes are not to be equated with humor,” and by using the term joke to mean, “a relatively short narrative, meant to amuse and be funny, that contains a punch line” (Berger 1995, 11).  Jokes utilize many rhetorical techniques and can be analyzed in many ways; the approaches relevant to this study, which will be explained later, are mostly psychoanalytic.

Choosing materials for this study required a consciousness that the origins of the data would influence the nature of the inquiry.  As I lacked linguistic access to certain data, for example, Jewish jokes within the concentration camps that would provide for a study on “gallows humor,” I narrowed my focus to American texts transmitted and recorded in English.  Rather than collecting World War II jokes myself, I was able to rely on the Folklore Archives, which Professor Dundes and his students supervise.  Every year for the past few decades, Professor Dundes has taught Anthropology 160, Forms of Folklore, and each year he has required his hundreds of students to each collect 40 items of folklore from friends, family, strangers, etc.  The result is a staggering amount of folklore, classified by ethnicity and genre, embodying many traditions, but with a special bias toward Anglo-American folklore.  Due to the breadth of the materials available in the Folklore Archives, I believe I am justified in stating that I was able to gather a representative sample of American folklore items pertaining to World War II, and thus I can carry out an analysis of American attitudes toward these events.

My main tools will be psychoanalytic, not because I am entirely convinced that psychoanalysis holds the key to unlocking all meaning, but rather because I find humor to be such a slippery topic that there does indeed seem to be some unconscious characteristic about it.  Moreover, Dundes makes a compelling case that folklore contains a large amount of fantasy content, which cannot be adequately explained without recourse to some theory of symbolism that accounts for its collective appeal, though he is careful to note that he is not interesting in making generalizations about universals (Dundes 1976, 34).  The main concept that Dundes utilizes is projection, which he briefly defines as “the tendency to attribute to another person or to the environment what is actually within oneself.  What is attributed is usually some internal impulse or feeling which is painful, unacceptable, or taboo” (Dundes 1976, 37).  Projection is a useful tool especially for interpreting jokes because they are both related to unconscious workings of the mind and they often deal with improper and offensive subject matter.  The accompanying concept of projective inversion, or inverted wishful thinking that allows the avoidance of guilt and the blaming of the victim (Dundes 1976, 51), is also important here.  As an example, in his relevant study of Auschwitz jokes, Dundes asserts that Germans shift their own guilt over the Holocaust onto Jews by telling jokes in which the Jews view Auschwitz as a sauna or enjoy being gassed.  Thus, by utilizing projective inversion, or blaming the victim, “This defense of projection allows Germans to fantasize that the gasification of the Jews is not their fault; Jews really wanted such treatment….The Jews themselves are to blame” (Dundes 1983, 35). Thus by telling jokes about a certain event, a member of a group can assert or deny involvement in various ways using these mechanisms, and others.

A few other important theoretical approaches to humor, as discussed by Arthur Berger in An Anatomy of Humor, are superiority theories (comedy is based on the ridiculous), the incongruity theory (expecting one thing and getting another), and conceptual/semiotic theory (humor deals with cognitive categories such as metacommunication, paradoxes, etc), though he also mentions psychoanalytic theory, to which I have already given special attention (Berger 1993, 2-5).  These theories, though not strictly folkloristic, will provide a useful frame for examining jokes.  The discipline of folkloristics itself is, sadly, lacking in original theory, due to an emphasis on collecting and classifying items rather than interpreting them.  Folklorists are often preoccupied with tracing the origins of items, but I will refrain from discussing the origins of the items I am analyzing for meaning because what is relevant for my study is that the jokes are being transmitted in America, hence they must be pertinent to people’s needs.

Finally, I move to the texts themselves.  I shall provide the items verbatim within the text of this paper, as well as informant and collector information where relevant.  Every item on the original transcript has informant information at the upper right corner of the page, indicating the informant’s name, age, occupation, nationality, languages, location, and the date collected.  Some of the collectors, after recording the item and providing some context for it, continued to analyze the item, however their focus is not of primary interest here.  In some cases, I have provided multiple versions of the same joke, to get a sense for the minor differences between versions, but in most cases I thought it appropriate to work with a single version of an item where the collector provided evidence that the item was already in circulation, and not simply an invention of the informant’s.  The majority of my items come from a category known to folklorists as “blason populaire,” which means that the item operates on some sort of stereotype, usually negative (for example, ethnic jokes constitute a large component of our blason populaire collection).  Though I have already stated that I plan mostly to work with jokes, there are a few other genres in my materials, including songs, rhymes, and a few items of folkspeech.

Stay tuned for Part 3…

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