Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Boundaries? What boundaries?

I used to have this concept of a hypothetical "line" that existed in society when it comes to humor. In my mind, there was a thin, straight black line that ran across the spectrum of jokes: on this side of the line, the jokes are acceptable, but on the other, the humor is offensive. Most importantly, crossing that line was to be avoided at all costs.

This class has helped me to see this concept with new eyes. The hypothetical "line" actually exists, but it is not as thin, straight, or impassable as one may think. Humor helps to shed light on boundaries, yes, but it also serves as a vehicle for crossing them, or a tool for redrawing them. It is true that humor can function to effectively offend or alienate people. But in many ways, humor is unifying. This has been the most surprising thing I've learned this semester.

My thought process over the last few months has been strongly influenced by and linked to the social theory of humor. This theory proposes that humor can be used to reveal the organizational structure of society and to suggest the possibility of transformation. Our class discussions have focused heavily on this subject as well. We have talked about the "fault line" that humor reveals between the expected and unexpected, the controllable and uncontrollable, the crude and the sacred. In some ways, the cosmic theory of humor helps here, too. Humor can allow people to transcend social boundaries, thereby reaching new levels of community.

Most of the authors we have read this semester have used this theory in some way. Through their books, we have been able to enter into worlds we would not normally be able to go. Sedaris took us into his childhood, where he spent much time discovering his homosexuality. Perry showed us what it would be like to encounter "a Madea," and the culture that she inhabits. Gilbert invited us on her journey of self-discovery, Bryson invited us to join him in his re-entry into the States, Kalman invited us into her thought process, and Amy Sedaris invited us to several of her parties. Kinney gently took us back to middle school, Hau'ofa took us to an island in the South Pacific, and Hurston took us to a working-class neighborhood outside Chicago.

In all of these works, boundaries are revealed and then crossed. As a heterosexual woman who grew up in a white middle class household, I was initially excluded from Sedaris' experience of discovering his homosexuality, or Perry's experience of Madea-like women in his black, urban neighborhood. Yet, through their humor, these authors were able to redraw the boundaries that were revealed at the outset so that I too could be included.

There is little else that could function as well as humor does in bringing people together. Food, perhaps, or maybe alcohol. Humor has such a significant ability to unite different people because it is so universal. I mean, who doesn't like to laugh? As we have been saying all semester, however, it is also important to keep in mind the presentation of the humor. The pieces we read effectively linked author and audience because the author crossed or redrew boundaries with care. These writers didn't barrel across the "line" in an effort to offend (as some comedians or writers do). Instead of barging in on the reader's space uninvited, the author reaches across the line and invites the reader to join his or her side. This method is effective because it brings two opposite sides of the spectrum together in a way that gives both parties the opportunity to signal their consent. In this way, the unifying function of humor can best be seen and celebrated.

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