Visual anthropology review


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It should be clear, then, that students are not laughing at Papua New Guinean stupidity or fear in “FC.” But I would go even further than saying that the students’ humor is non-malicious; more positively, I think it derives from an intellectual impulse that could be called the delight of insight. Far from “just a joke,” incongruity humor is inherently connected to intellectual processes, including nimble perspectivalism and creative linking of ostensibly disparate phenomena. Sammy Basu characterizes these connections as follows:

[H]umor gives reason room to play. Truth has (flip-)sides. Texts are not necessarily univocal, neither is language. Both obtain their meaning through interpretation and usage. Humor finds ambiguities, contradictions and parables in what is otherwise taken literally. The comic is itself a form of contingency, novelty, re-creation, re-description. Aristotle noticed this, too: “those who joke in a tasteful way are called ready-witted, which implies a sort of readiness to turn this way and that,” as did Kant. Humor acts as a lens in a skeptical and perspectival epistemology through which one witnesses what is absent from the “whole truth.” There is, of course, no reason to assume that the comic perspective is any more true than the serious discourse that it debunks. Still, it is usually a veracity at once economical and hyperbolic that accounts for really delicious humor. At the very least, humor suggests that all knowledge…is laughably partial and incomplete (1999:388; see also Basu 1999:377).

Not only is the intellect-humor connection well established (yet repeatedly forgotten) by philosophers, as Basu notes, but social psychologists have more recently verified this connection with experimental evidence (see Murray 1993). Indeed, from what I have seen, students enjoy the buzz of a sudden altering of their normal perspective, the surprising discoveries of cultural juxtaposition and analysis—the sudden leap from seeing the “holy mouth men” as part of an exotic culture (Miner 1956), or from seeing white Australians as gods to humans whose shit stinks. As one student said about the gramophone scene: “…in a way, it is a box of ghosts, though.”

Just as I argued above that the incongruity of first-contact situations makes them particularly prone to wonder and humor, I would argue that such encounters are linked to cognitive processes as well. In other words, we should add humor to the connection between wonder and intellectual discovery that has been well articulated by philosophers dating back to Aristotle: “Such terms, which recur in philosophy from Aristotle through the seventeenth century, made wonder an almost inevitable component of the discourse of discovery, for by definition wonder is an instinctive recognition of difference, the sign of a heightened attention, ‘a sudden surprise of the soul,’ as Descartes puts it (p. 362), in the face of the new” (Greenblatt 1991:20).20

Not only do the students themselves enjoy the cognitive thrill of a good joke, they get vicarious pleasure from seeing that cognitive thrill experienced by others, which at least partly accounts for the perennial appeal of media images of natives marveling over Western technology. Nor is this desire to “give the gift of humor” limited to undergraduates: even sensitive, seasoned anthropologists occasionally confess to fantasizing about native awe at their technologies. For example, Stephen Leavitt, who has done fieldwork in Papua New Guinea, admits: “In spite of myself, I often wondered what it would be like to take a Bumbita man to San Diego, to show him the freeways, the skyscrapers, the factories and shipyards” (2000:305). Following Lamont Lindstrom’s bold analysis of the connections between Western unrequited love, capitalist desire, and the anthropological literature on cargo cults (1993), Leavitt interprets his impulse as “a romantic fantasy of the fulfillment of desire” (Leavitt 2000:305). I agree with this cargo-cult interpretation, particularly since Leavitt’s fantasy concerns a post-contact, capitalistic situation, but I would add that this fantasy is also linked to the thrill—and humor—of intellectual discovery, whether experienced by oneself directly or vicariously. We should expect scholars and teachers, whose business it is to hand out surprises, to be drawn to such images of wonder and humor. I don’t necessarily mean to endorse such first-contact fantasies; in fact, knowing that many of history’s wrongdoings have been committed by people intent on bringing the best of their culture to others, perhaps the presence of a gift-giving impulse should make us more suspicious of Western narratives of native awe. But even if that’s the case, I think it is worth recognizing the intellectual dimensions of first-contact narratives as well.

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