Interpretation and Jokes

Interpretation and Jokes April 2, 2005

I have found it useful to think about hermeneutics by considering how jokes mean what they mean. Jokes mean “intertextually,” that is, only in relation to presupposed texts and discourses and cultural practices that are present in the joke only as a “trace.” Shrek is a great example; nothing in the film is funny if you don’t know fairy tales, nursery rhymes, popular culture, previous films, pop music, and so on. If you don’t have access to these prior “discourses,” you simply miss the intended meaning of the film’s authors.

The analogy between jokes and texts-in-general has some other important implications:

1) It highlights the limitations of hermeneutical method, particularly if hermeneutical method is developed along the lines of a “scientific” model. Humor is notoriously difficult to analyze, and it suffers from the ironic fate of losing its raison d?etre through analysis; an analyzed joke is no longer a joke. ?Getting it?Eis not an output that comes at the end of a set of technical operations. Good biblical interpretation in particular depends on wide knowledge of the Bible, and on having the knack for bringing the right texts into connection with each other, so that each can catalyze the other.

2) This analysis thus properly places emphasis on the character of the interpreter. If hermeneutics is a science, then it is possible to train interpreters in the proper methods and techniques, and this can occur without much if any attention to the character of the interpreter. But what do you say about someone who is tone deaf to humor? Are there techniques for developing a sense of humor? An interpreter who doesn?t ?get it?Emight improve with wider knowledge and by imitating the example of a good interpreter. But something like a conversion needs to take place. To lack a sense of humor is not an intellectual vice; it is a symptom of a contracted soul. And so is bad, unimaginative, interpretation.

3) Finally, this paradigm gives us a way to characterize the experience of good interpretation. On the side of the interpreter, the experience of arriving at a satisfying interpretation is an experience of intellectual release and satisfaction, like the experience of hearing a good joke. An interpreter might literally laugh when he arrives at a satisfying interpretation (I have). The same goes for the one who reads or receives the interpretation. The nearly audible “click” as pieces fall into place is very similar to the sudden joy of hearing a well-timed joke. The glad “aha” evoked by a good interpretation is even a criterion (not the only one) of a good interpretation.

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