Visual anthropology review

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The humor of “FC” can also be interpreted as incongruity humor. According to a prevailing theory, humor results when two disparate, incongruous elements are juxtaposed—from sudden, surprising departures from the expected, from perceptions of anomalies and matter out of place. As Immanuel Kant originally put it, “Laughter is an affectation arising from the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing” (quoted in Murray 1993:12). Thus, many people laugh at the surprising juxtaposition of human and non-human animals in Gary Larson’s “Far Side,” such as the cartoon of a group of dinosaurs standing around smoking cigarettes, with a caption that states,“The real reason dinosaurs became extinct.” A filmic example is the popular documentary “American Tongues” (Kolker and Alvarez 1986), which gets laughs by juxtaposing dialects in the United States. Anomalies are another common form of incongruity and source of humor, as Mary Douglas (1975) has shown. Putting a tin-can (“dirt,” in one cultural frame) on your head is matter out of place, like shoes on the table; it is not what you expect to or normally do see in that place. Humor not only results from such a juxtaposition, but it becomes a culturally approved way of handling the anomaly. As I show in this section, the humor of “FC” is based on such incongruities and anomalies. This does not necessarily mean that a sense of superiority may not also motivate student laughter at “FC,” but the perception of incongruities is certainly one motivator, and may even be a sufficient explanation in itself for the film’s humor.

In fact, as a rule, first-contact situations—in which two radically different cultural frames are juxtaposed—are inherently incongruous and liable to comedic interpretations. Even serious academics sometimes publicly acknowledge this state of affairs. For example, in his presidential address to the American Society for Ethnohistory, James Axtell (1992:171-193) discussed many examples of humor in early contact situations, including humor perceived by Indians and Europeans at the time, as well as in the eyes of contemporary readers of historical records of these encounters. Apparently Axtell’s talk struck a nerve, for after it his colleagues showered him with other examples of humorous first-contact situations in the Americas (Axtell 1992:172). Writing about the other side of the world, David Tomas says he was initially attracted to the history of first encounters in the Andamanese Islands because he “was drawn to these odd events that seemed to escape all classification precisely because of their ephemerality, transience, and humor” (1996:2).

Just as humor is inherent in these moments of first-contact, so is wonder and awe. Stephen Greenblatt argues that “wonder” was the “central figure in the European response to the New World, the decisive emotional and intellectual experience in the presence of radical difference…” (1991:14). Greenblatt connects this travel discourse with philosophers like René Descartes, who argued that wonder’s strength derives from the element of surprise, “the sudden and unexpected arrival of this impression” (Greenblatt 1991:19). But of course a “sudden and unexpected” surprise could just as well describe incongruity humor. Greenblatt writes that “Wonder—thrilling, potentially dangerous, momentarily immobilizing, charged at once with desire, ignorance, and fear—is the quintessential human response to what Descartes calls a ‘first encounter’” (1991:20). If so, you could also say that humor is the quintessential response to the recollection of first encounters. “Recollection,” rather than ‘experience,” is probably the right word here because initial contact itself can be so startling as to produce more fear than humor. Relief humor may be a common response in these initial moments (i.e., the laugh from sheer relief at not being harmed), but it takes time for incongruity humor to work.

It is safe to assume, then, that other academics have been amused when learning about first-contact situations, and that they were reluctant to say so in public, since commenting on humor in most academic circles leaves one vulnerable to charges of frivolity and/or insensitivity. Not being burdened with such anxieties, students, on the other hand, said what others may have felt: it is funny to see someone wearing a biscuit box on his head. And their answers consistently pointed to the incongruity factor, albeit without using that term or offering much elaboration, as in the following 100-level students’ explanations for why they found the headdress scene funny:
1) “It’s an ordinary item we see every day used in an unordinary way”—Kristin Avery.
2) “It was funny because it’s something so ridiculous in our culture. If someone walked around campus with anything out of the ordinary, anything obscure, it would be funny”—Sally Bullock.
3) “…such a juxtaposition, so we see it as odd, out of place”—Megan.
4) “Seeing something familiar used in a very different way. It was odd, strange, and somewhat comical”—Holly.
5) “Irony, again. Seeing something out of place can sometimes be a little humorous.” Comparison: “It’s like seeing a baby wearing a grown-up shoe: something that’s totally familiar and therefore “disproportionate” to the culture of the baby”—Renee Koenig.
6) “Seeing a person with something unusual on their head (such as a tin can) is not a common occurrence and is funny looking.” Comparison: “’Signs’ where they put tin foil hats on to block brain waves from aliens. Other kids movies where they put the metal spaghetti strainer on their head”—Ashley San Blise.
Virtually every student (of the 17 who found this scene funny) said something similar, about this being an unordinary image. And you can see that some of these quotations were made by the same students who identified the headdress as childish. My deliberate withholding of the full quotations above demonstrates how easy it is to misinterpret subjects by taking their statements out of context—a familiar problem, but not a minor one in a field where so many of us have such strong moral opinions about putatively negative cultural representations.

These student statements confirm that incongruity accounted, at least in part, for the perceived humorousness of the headdress scenes. Taking a cue from Taussig (1993), we could say, more specifically, that these scenes present an incongruity of economic forms. The tin can and Kellogg’s biscuit box are icons of capitalism: machine-produced in standardized, identical forms, and advertised and sold as commodities in a non-face-to-face, capitalist market. The headdress, on the other hand, is a unique, hand-crafted ceremonial object. A tin-can headdress is therefore a place where the impersonal suddenly meets the personal, where two different economic worlds collide in a single striking image. At the same time, there is a common ground that allows this incongruity to make sense. Both the capitalist products and the headdresses made from them are objects of desire and display. A biscuit-box hat is totally unfamiliar in one sense yet not in another—move the Kellogg’s logo down a bit and you could have a marketable t-shirt in the U.S. We don’t have to accept Taussig’s entire argument about the parallels between primitive magic and Western mimetic technologies to see that part of the appeal of such first-contact images is that they playfully juxtapose capitalist and non-capitalist economic systems.

It may be that incongruity alone can explain the humor in “FC” with little recourse to superiority theory. I remember my own two-year old son Zach laughing when he saw my mother putting a pillow on her head and asking him if it was a hat; he was old enough to realize that hats go on heads and pillows don’t, yet not old enough to have developed a sense of superiority to his grandmother. As this ready-at-hand and presumably familiar example shows, incongruity can, at least theoretically, suffice as a stand-alone explanation for humor.9

But to what extent does incongruity explain the humor in “FC”? I cannot rule out the possibility that the film’s humor also derived from perceived superiority in a broad sense, including what MacBean calls spectacles of technological dominance. It would be understandable if the students, even with pseudonyms, didn’t want to say that they found the headdress and other scenes amusing because they made them feel culturally superior. And even if students were open to such self-incrimination, it could be hard for them to recognize a sense of superiority that is an integral, unconscious part of their world view; incongruity, on the other hand, is by definition something out of the ordinary and, thus, easier to identify. We therefore cannot expect student exegesis alone to tell us whether the film’s perceived humor is based on superiority. Fortunately, though, there are other ways to get at this problem: namely, comparing the various scenes in “FC” that the students did and did not find funny.10

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