Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Subverting Control at the Dinner Table

In reading the different articles for today, the main point that struck me as the most humor was Douglas’s argument about what makes a joke. Douglas argues that a large component of a joke is the social setting and social situation in which is made. I understand this not just to mean the immediate social situation, but the different temperament and established ideas of the society as a whole where/when the joke was made. Because of this, the recognition, interpretation, and reception of a joke, is largely reliant on an understanding of that social situation. Douglas’s other main argument that engaged me was what the form or makeup of the content of a joke constitutes. He says a joke is “the juxtaposition of a control against that which is controlled…such that the latter triumphs…A successful subversion of one form by another completes or ends the joke, for it changes the balance of power” (150). At first this seemed like a dumb, because I didn’t really understand what he meant. But as he went on I started agreeing more and more with his argument. He’s saying that at the basis of a joke is a controlling factor, and a factor that is controlled by it. A joke subverts that power structure so that the controlled factor triumphs over the formerly controlling one. What made this click for me is when Douglas suggested that often times the force that served as the ‘control’ of a this joke form is social patterns and accepted social structure. The subversion comes when someone frees themselves of that and acts in a way that is not governed by this control. Obviously to make a joke like this, or to understand it, a keen awareness of the social situation in which the joke is made is necessary. A story I thought of that in a way can exemplify this idea is one of a certain ritual I partake in with my brothers and sisters:

I’m 21 years old, and my older brother Terrence is 22. After that I have two younger brothers: Chris (14) and Jack (11); and two sisters: Grace (9) and Emily (4). We have this tradition, or I guess you’d call it more of a pastime, that started a couple years ago just before Christmas. We all have these individual stockings to hang over the fire place, each characterized by some sort of holiday icon; Mine and Terrence’s are two different depictions of Santa Claus, Chris has a snowman, Jack’s is a reindeer, Grace has a snowwoman, and Em’s is a “snow angel.” One day, somewhere in the early 20’s of December, we were all sitting around the dinner table. My dad was at work and my mom had made us dinner and then had to run out somewhere so it was just the six of us, and towards the end of the meal conversation sort of died and everyone was just sitting around kind of bored. Somehow a comparative conversation about the stockings, which could be seen from the kitchen table, got underway, and arguments broke out as to whose was the least attractive.

Things got heated as people yelled about the inauthenticity of Terrence’s Santa’s beard, or pointed out the awkward stance of Grace’s snow-woman. Just as Jack diverted observations that his reindeer wasn’t even Rudolph (it was just one of the others that nobody even cared about) by begging the question “What the heck even is a snow angel?” A process started to be structured to resolve the issue in question: who has the ugliest stocking? I forget what the outcome was that night, but this process has been adapted into a game that we now play regularly after dinner or in long car rides. We play year round, using the shirts people are wearing rather than their stockings (It’s called the ‘ugly shirt game’).

The ‘game’ is a series of votes. Each round 5 votes were cast (everyone votes except Emily, who never seems completely aware of what is going on). Each person votes for who at the table they truly feel is wearing the ugliest shirt, and usually explaining some commentary on why they find that shirt so visually offensive (“It’s just so plain”….or “look at that random sentence on it, what does that even mean?”). Whoever receives the most votes is eliminated from the game, though they are still entitled to vote in subsequent rounds. At the end whoever remains is awarded the title of having the least ugly shirt of anyone at the table. Any ties result in the ballot being deferred to Emily, who is presented with both options (the names of the two owners of the shirts in question), and must make a choice as to whose shirt is uglier. The other voters are free to verbally appeal to Emily, which results in everyone just screaming at her simultaneously("SAY JACK, EMILY, SAY JACK"…"NO EMILY, PATRICK, SAY PATRICK"). During these immensely suspenseful and climactic periods Emily looks back and forth around the table. It’s impossible to tell what she’s thinking but her face usually expresses some combination of amusement, confusion, and fear. When she finally says one of the names, cementing the fate of whomever she chooses as an eliminated player, her answer is met with cries of victory (YES! THANK YOU EMILY) or sorrow (NO EMILY…WHY?! EMILY NO). Emily never seems sure how to react, but overall I would guess she likes the attention.

Sometimes, and this really builds to the suspense, Emily doesn’t realize that she must choose from only the two options she is presented with. So one faction will be aggressively shoving, let’s say, Grace’s name down her throat, while an opposing alliance will be shouting at her to say Chris’s name; and just when she starts to open her mouth to say something, and you think you’re about to know who the next one eliminated will be, she says “Terrence!” Then there is a frustrated groan from everyone; “Noooo Emily, Grace, or Chris.” She always looks mildly confused at everyone’s annoyed dismissal of her answer, and looks eagerly around the table for some of the Thanks, or even anger, she is usually met with when she delivers her verdict.

The game isn’t without controversy, feelings are almost always hurt. It’s not the fact that people are mad that their shirts are ugly, no one cares about that except maybe Grace. The bad blood usually instead stems from the political struggles that take place during the game. Voting is only about 35% about the shirts, the rest is personal. Since voting is public, no vote goes unpunished. Some grudges span from game to game (despite games usually being months apart). For instance Jack and Grace are in a constant feud, and so unless they are met with a new rivalry within a specific game, they almost exclusively vote for each other. I’ve recently enacted a strategy to always vote for Emily, no matter what, because she is the only one who cannot retaliate. It works well, and no one’s picked up on it so far. The worst and most disrespectful insult you can say to someone during the ugly shirt game is to accuse them of ‘playing politics.’ This slur gets slung by bitter losers several times per game (“Ok, that’s fine, play politics Christopher, that’s cool.”) To which any self-respecting sibling adamantly defends themselves (“Its about the shirts, alright, your shirt is dumb, that’s why I voted for you.”

The last time we played the Ugly shirt game was especially explosive. The final two came down to myself and grace, and as fate would have it, the vote was a tie. Grace has always wanted to win, but never has. She perhaps holds more stock in a potential victory than anybody else in the family. She turned to Emily as soon as the tie was declared and started desperately pleading “PLEASE EMILY…PATRICK, say PATRICK.”

So me being 21, her being 9 and desperate to win this title (which I, due to an impeccable collection of track and field invitational T shirts, have won multiple times), I was presented with an option. I could let her win; not lobby against her, let her have sole influence over Emily’s decision. I could make her day. Retrospectively, perhaps that might have been the most respectable option. But that’s not really how my family works, and it certainly isn’t characteristic of my relationship with Grace (Who, I am ashamed to say, despite being 12 years her senior I get some sick pleasure out of teasing)….So I yelled that much louder “SAY GRACE EMILY SAY GRACE.” Jack, fulfilling his role as natural mortal enemy of Grace, echoed my command, while Christopher and Terrence, hoping to avoid tear-shed, and perhaps feeling legitimately sympathetic with Grace’s obvious desperation to win, sided with her. Party lines were clearly drawn as both sides shouted passionately at Emily, who sat in her high-chair at the head of the table glancing from brother to sister, taking it all in. After a few false declarations by Em, she finally opened her mouth and yelled “GRACE!” She smiled, looking at Grace, thinking she’d be happy....

Grace collapsed onto the floor in hysterics. Crying like a madwoman she sobbed “WHY EMILY, WHY?!...I JUST WANTED TO WIN ONE TIME EMILY, WHY DID YOU DO THAT??!” Jack enjoyed every word of his statement (which he said with the most disdainful and superior tone I’ve ever heard): “Grace, it’s just a game…get over it.” She Grace was past the point of reason though, “I KNOW ITS JUST A GAME JACK, I KNOW IT WAS, BUT I JUST WANTED TO WIN ONE TIME, OK?!…..JUST LEAVE ME ALONE.” Terrence and Christopher tried to offer consolation, Jack continued to voice his disgust, and I began to clear the table while composing several lyrically driven songs, all of which declared the superior beauty of my shirt, while expressing the intense glory that is brought by a victory in such a prestigious competition. Emily, completely unaware that she had just ruined Grace’s life, got down from her seat and went over to see what was wrong. Grace was Emily’s idol and Em spends most of her days following Grace around imitating everything she does. Quite understandably, Grace refused to speak to Emily for the next three days. I’m still not sure if the silent treatment went over Emily’s head or not, but the uneasiness in the air whenever she walked into the room was potent.

So that’s the story, and it depicts an aspect of what I understand Douglas’s argument to be. Here’s how. First, a knowledge of the society in which this takes place is necessary. For instance, in our society families sitting down to dinner with one another has the connotation of a certain warmth, of loved ones gathering at the end of a day to check in with one another due to a certain consideration for each other’s feelings and well-being. A family dinner is a situation that implies pleasant conversation. Furthermore, in our society brothers and sisters are expected to act and feel certain ways towards each other. For instance, an older male is thought of to feel protective and accommodating to the feelings of a younger female sibling. In general older people should feel less prone to enjoy pleasantries that they can see are trivial and meaningless, especially at the expense at a younger person who places much more importance of such matters. A family as a whole should be cohesive and unified, a haven from political and manipulative struggles. All of these societal ideals serve as the controlling factors. They control the characters of the story that exist in this society (me and my brothers and siblings). SO according to Douglas’s structure, the joke/humor of the story comes from the juxtaposition of these characters and these societal factors that should control them, and the subversion of that form so that the characters don’t at all appear to fall under the control of those factors.

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