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Comic Medievalisms

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  • You Had to Be There: Anachronism and the Limits of Laughing at the Middle Ages — Louise D'Arcens (74 comments)

    • Comment by Nicholas Birns on November 9th, 2013

      And of course the very title Duke of Edinburgh would have made no sense until 1707 or at least 1603.

      Comment by Nicholas Birns on November 9th, 2013

      However, in fairness, one of Thatcher’s hereditary peers, Harold Macmillan, gave a very effective condemnation of the libertarian economic policies of the Thatcher government.

      Comment by Nicholas Birns on November 9th, 2013

      Well done

      Comment by Luke Fidler on November 14th, 2013

      It might be shopworn at this point, but Monty Python and the Holy Grail (or, indeed, any of the Monty Python medievalizing skits) might make for a good reference here. “Nuanced and knowing use of temporal disjunctions and incongruities” fits them to a tee.

      Comment by Luke Fidler on November 14th, 2013

      For a cyberspace comp, see the resoundingly popular Chaucer Doth Tweet:

      https://twitter.com/LeVostreGC

      Comment by Luke Fidler on November 14th, 2013

      A very interesting piece. I’m reminded of The Name of the Rose, which turns on Aristotle’s lost treatise on laughter – you might think about ways in which the caricaturing of the Middle Ages as humorless (or as interested in “crude” humor) buttress some of the anti-medievalisms at play in the reception of Blackadder.

      Comment by Asa Mittman on November 15th, 2013

      I find my classes and I engage in a lot of anachronistic medievalist laughter.

      Comment by Asa Mittman on November 17th, 2013

      Surely unintentional, but this reads as if saying that he is beheaded while (urinating by Edmund), as in, urinating next to Edmund.

      Comment by Asa Mittman on November 17th, 2013

      A clear, sharp, well-argued essay, straight through.

      Comment by snakley on November 24th, 2013


      What an interesting and useful understanding of laughter as anachronism! I wonder if you could foreground this incisive point a bit more– or perhaps help it to pack an even more powerful punch by splitting this paragraph’s long final sentence into two shorter sentences.
       

      Comment by snakley on November 24th, 2013

      Nice!

      Comment by snakley on November 24th, 2013

      Interestingly, Bailey is imitating Chaucer more closely by failing to resist the anachronistic allusion. He “sends” Dick Emery back to Chaucer’s day somewhat as Chaucer sends Dante Alighieri back to Arthurian England in the Wife of Bath’s Tale’s bedroom lecture– only Chaucer does not acknowledge this particular anachronistic move and it is not so funny. . .

      Comment by snakley on November 24th, 2013

      I love this analysis– it really shows how complex a form of rhetoric comedy can be!

      Comment by snakley on November 24th, 2013

      *what* they are laughing at

      Comment by snakley on November 24th, 2013

      Yes– this is a very sharp and clear piece! However, I feel as if it ends a little abruptly . . .but perhaps you’ve simply left me wanting more. Yes, I think that’s it!

      Comment by Karl Steel on November 27th, 2013

      “medievalism studies has not so far been exercised by the question of comedy as a particular form of medievalist representation”

      I don’t know if this makes me a rube, but where does Bakthin figure into this?

      Comment by Karl Steel on November 27th, 2013

      Seems to me too that the ‘you had to be there’ is a recognition that jokes are NOT just linguistic but rather belong to an entire heterogeneous moment, which means that a linguistic analysis, omitting as it does affect, objects, arrangement in space, and even levels of intoxication or family love, isn’t going to cut it at all.

      Comment by Karl Steel on November 27th, 2013

      ” many would argue that the success or failure in eliciting (rather than just soliciting) laughter is what determines whether a text is humorous or not.”

      or at least whether one can imagine someone ELSE laughing at it. Being told that something is funny (or tragic) is a good way to imagine someone else’s affect and world. probably not relevant to your points, but.

      Comment by Karl Steel on November 27th, 2013

      In other words, the joke can creates a new now with a different past folded into it.

      Comment by Karl Steel on November 27th, 2013

      and then there’s stuff like Book of Days, or the way the presumptive stupidity of the medieval so often functions as a sign of the postwar pointlessness of it all in Bergman … not funny, but on my mind.

      Also on my mind: the way the medieval functions so well because it signals the oversincere, the childish, the bodily, &c. So much humor is about people that are dedicated sincerely to causes we don’t value ourselves. Medieval works perfectly for this for some reason.

      Comment by Karl Steel on November 27th, 2013

      a great example of that unthinking anachronism which forms mostly masculine communities across time

      Comment by Karl Steel on November 27th, 2013

      Great ending, and sad too the way that the status quo just absorbs critique. Seems the function of humor can also be to make us feel that we are DOING SOMETHING while the actual inequities continue on as merrily and inexorably as ever. Reminded of what I’ve read about The Hunger Games, where the portrayal of a nasty government VERY concerned for its reputation seems to me to be a smug fantasy that literature and mockery can actually accomplish anything at all.

      Comment by tprendergast on December 13th, 2013

      I wonder, could one make a case for the discussion between Jorge and William of Baskerville about laughter (in The Name of the Rose) as at once an instantiation of comedy and a treatment?

      Comment by tprendergast on December 13th, 2013

      So if laughter is “outside of time” does it have a privileged place in noting our relationship to history? I’m thinking of the beginning of the essay where you say, “I wish to explore the ways in which the temporal dimension of humor makes it an especially felicitous vehicle for engaging with the past.” Is it merely “felicitous” or something more?

      Comment by tprendergast on December 13th, 2013

      “. . . it could just as easily be describing a burst of anachronistic medievalist laughter.” It could–but it seems to me that she’s thinking of something that is not anachronic, at least not in the way that you’re treating it here.

      Comment by tprendergast on December 13th, 2013

      ” . . . the programme is able implicitly to take the side of creative anachronism.”Or is it more complicated than this? I’m thinking about your “Laughing in the Face of the Past” in a previous number of Postmedieval.

      Comment by tprendergast on December 13th, 2013

      It’s hard for me not to think about The Canterbury Interlude here–though the intent was probably different

      Comment by tprendergast on December 13th, 2013

      “This ridicule of the period rests largely on popular belief that it was intellectually, culturally, and socially stagnant.” I’m beginning to wonder about this. Have all of our efforts to convince people that this is not true gone for naught? Maybe it’s more like Sloterdijk’s ideology of cynicism. People know very well that the Middle Ages was not “dark” and stagnant and yet . . .

      Comment by tprendergast on December 13th, 2013

      ” . . . he is not sufficiently socially marginal or incongruous to offer critique.” This seems a parallel (and maybe this is your point) with the assertion that laughter exists outside time. And if laughter can be critique, do we (or perhaps “should we”) privilege critique from one who is an outsider? or at least marginal?

      Comment by Jesús Rodríguez-Velasco on December 14th, 2013

      I think I understand why you are using Weber here, but I am also wondering whether it would be more productive to engage in a different dicussion. Obviously, one about present as historical present tense, which is not so much about present as representation, but as present as presence –which would also allow you to discuss the concept of presence from the standpoint of a theory of history, engaging in a discussion with Eelco Runia, or Hans-Ulrich Gumbrecht. Obviously it is only a suggestion, but also the beginnings of a critique of Weber. (Sorry for my intrusion here).

      Comment by Dan Kline on December 14th, 2013

      I know it’s not the topic of your essay, but the spatiality and topography of ‘there’ is also intriguing. Although Weber says its ‘impossible to locate,’ the joke seems to be present to something in addition to representation itself and attempts to make something present–the equally elusive ‘you’ perhaps? I guess I’m wondering if concentrating on the temporality leaves the spatiality uninterrogated and the impossible task of bringing that medieval something to this place, this present?

      Comment by Dan Kline on December 14th, 2013

      Like Karl, this paragraph got me to thinking about Bakhtin as well, as the chronotope tries to include both time and space. But, again, my comment here concerns that spatial dimension that is not really the substance of your essay. Just a thought.

      Comment by Dan Kline on December 14th, 2013

      Lovely and interesting review of the literature. I had forgotten the Kant reference and was unaware of the Schopenhauer.

      Comment by Dan Kline on December 14th, 2013

      I wonder if there is an unplumbed depth here in the analogy between ‘incongruity humor’ and anachronism–two disjunctions whose synchronic jolt can elicit a snort of laughter? Which might also be a function of the abject?

      Comment by Dan Kline on December 14th, 2013

      I did not know Greene, so thank you for that reference. And I think this paragraph really works well in furthering your argument.

      Comment by Dan Kline on December 14th, 2013

      Nice. The ‘creative’ aspect of the med/Ren faire is in its heedless combination of multiple anachronisms into a synchronic moment of suspended temporality, as diachrony collapses upon itself. The creative multiplicity is part of its giddy humor.

      Comment by Dan Kline on December 14th, 2013

      Oops! This comment should be under para 8.

      Comment by Dan Kline on December 14th, 2013

      There’s a joy, too, in the rhyming itself with contemporary idioms put into play with the Chaucerian couplet – sack and snack, and no ordinary snack, but a massive snack.

      Comment by Dan Kline on December 14th, 2013

      I’m glad you brought up the performative and bodily dimensions of the humor. The physical dimension of the abjected body – in moderns wearing a codpiece or the snort that comes with comic anachronism – seems to be an underlying theme in your essay.

      Comment by Dan Kline on December 15th, 2013

      Lovely analysis. Love love love the ‘Medieval Helpdesk,’ and my students love it as well. Students often see it in the sense that we’re not really postmedieval.

      Comment by Dan Kline on December 15th, 2013

      Does Blackadder’s ‘not quite striking the right balance’ mean it’s trying for a different form of humor?

      Comment by Dan Kline on December 15th, 2013

      Thanks for the review. I don’t know the entire series that well, so it’s helpful to include the overview.

      Comment by Dan Kline on December 15th, 2013

      Knighted, was he? Ironic indeed. The medieval persists despite his attempts to relegate it to the ash heap of history.

      Comment by Dan Kline on December 15th, 2013

      So, Blackadder does not exhibit the clash of temporalities that you say characterizes comic medievalism – because Blackadder’s medievalism is so static and demeaning?

      Comment by Dan Kline on December 15th, 2013

      You seem to have shifted the terms of your analysis here a bit to the specifics of Blackadder’s depiction of aristocracy. Would it be helpful to your argument to bring in again the dynamics of temporality with which you began your essay? It’d be interesting to see how Blackadder works (or doesn’t work) in those terms. Is the present tense of the historical moment of Blackadder smother the sense of medieval alterity in the series? Or is a static view of medieval alterity so over-present that the series is no longer humourous?

      Comment by Dan Kline on December 15th, 2013

      “In short, unlike Bill Bailey and Bugs Bunny, the medieval Edmund is not anachronistic enough to the program’s historical milieu to act as a focalizing character for the program’s medievalist satire of monarchy.” Yes, now I see that you’re getting back to some of the earlier analytical vocabulary.

      Comment by Dan Kline on December 15th, 2013

      So, in a sense, the medieval setting was too present in the first series? ‘Getting distance’ in subsequent series created the context for better comedy?

      Comment by Dan Kline on December 15th, 2013

      A provocative and fluid piece. I do agree that it ends rather abruptly, and I found myself wanting to see a bit more integration between the analytical framework established in the opening few paragraphs with the example of Blackadder in the second half; that is, a bit more on the temporalities present (or not so present) in Blackadder and how it fails as an example of the humor you establish in the opening.

      Comment by Dan Kline on December 15th, 2013

      Can’t wait for the new book!

      Comment by Jonathan Hsy on December 15th, 2013

      This a wonderful insight!

      Comment by Rick Godden on December 15th, 2013

      Possibly relevant here is how Dinshaw presented some of this work at NCS Portland via references to Portlandia, a show devoted to anachronism as humor.

      Comment by Susan Aronstein on December 15th, 2013

      Wonderful discussion here, both of Greene and of your addition to his theory.

      Comment by Susan Aronstein on December 15th, 2013

      Love the point about the costumes; this exchange  becomes a wonderful defense of  popular culture appropriations of the past.

      Comment by Susan Aronstein on December 15th, 2013

      Nice discussion of this sketch!  It is interesting to me how many of your examples in this discussion are what Hutcheon calls “palimpsestuous texts” and, as such, resonate differently with knowing and unknowing audiences.

      Comment by Rick Godden on December 15th, 2013

      Louise, I love this essay. I really love your articulation of how the comic acts as an intrusion into history or the present. I wonder if there could be more foregrounding of how the first series of Blackadder creates its comic space and moment by rewriting history (Richard IV and Brian Blessed’s laughter). History goes back to normal when the comedy runs its course.I know it is not the focus here, but I would love to see some more consideration of the tragic sweep of the fourth series. Blackadder keeps resorting to more and more ludicrous and cunning plans in order to forestall the inevitable sweep of history. And then, the whole series ends with an unsettling but poignant merger of comic and tragic impulses.

      Comment by Susan Aronstein on December 15th, 2013

      This is interesting as it sets up the period as precisely anti-comic–static, rigid, sterile, a fact that bolsters your discussion of the series’ political context in the next paragraph.

      Comment by Susan Aronstein on December 15th, 2013

      I’d forgotten about Spitting Image!  Thank you for reminding me.

      Comment by Susan Aronstein on December 15th, 2013

      With Dan, I was wanting a bit more integration between the first and second half of the essay, but loved the piece– complex and thought-provoking, it sets up a discussion that will help all of us in the field think about humor and anachronism. The turn to the present situation of the Royals and Britain is a telling and poignant observation.

      Comment by 1789tape on December 15th, 2013

      one of the most widespread.

       

      Can a phrase be “compounded”? More seriously, is this a phrase one would actually use of medievalist humor without invoking the impossibility of being there. The title is a great one for the essay, but it’s applicability isn’t so much about degree as about a structural paradox.

      Comment by 1789tape on December 15th, 2013

      I think the phrase primarily means that if you weren’t there, you don’t understand the context. Or that it was a visual joke. Or the joke depended on a shared community. The temporal aspect is something *you* are foregrounding, quite rightly, in this context, but the sociality is primary, I think.

      Comment by 1789tape on December 15th, 2013

      I’d delete “scholars such as”.

      Perhaps a slight point of difference, though, might be that CD’s “now” is disruptive, whereas anachronistic medievalist laughter tends to be normative.

      Comment by 1789tape on December 15th, 2013

      I’d delete “scholars such as”. Perhaps a slight point of difference, though, might be that CD’s “now” is disruptive, whereas anachronistic medievalist laughter tends to be normative.

      Comment by 1789tape on December 15th, 2013

      This show is about mostly science nerds. Maybe think about the point that historical pedantry is easily appropriated, i.e. anyone can be a historical expert.

      Comment by 1789tape on December 15th, 2013

      And also, he looks like the Pardoner.

      Comment by 1789tape on December 15th, 2013

      And also, his hair looks like the Pardoner.

      Comment by 1789tape on December 15th, 2013

      Can you say a bit more about the idea of Shakespeare as co-writer? Maybe that’s one of the explanations of the transition across the four series? that the first gestures towards a different genre – history play – rather than comedy. Or historical satire? very risky strategy, no? The timing of the comic “gag” of the series is thus very very delayed. But perhaps you’re going to go on and say this? (I’m not finding it super-easy to negotiate this site, I have to say, and it’s too tempting just to read paragraph by paragraph, not the whole essay first.)

      Comment by 1789tape on December 15th, 2013

      *its* satiric potential.

      Comment by 1789tape on December 15th, 2013

      I would like to see another paragraph here tying this up to the “you had to be there’ tag. If this tag is used, as you say, for a failed joke, how does it actually apply here? just “where” would we have to be? Or is that so impossible to answer, in this case, that the phrase doesn’t actually help with blackadder. In a way, the place you have to be to find the first series funny is the fourth series, or rather, the point at which you realise the overall trajectory you outline above, from stupid nobility to smart social decline . This is implicit in the essay, but I would like to see you round this all up. And also, then, who’s the “you” you have to be?

      Also, are you sure about the use of “conceived” in the penultimate sentence? Made me laugh, though!

      Comment by Kate Koppelman on December 15th, 2013

      I’m reading this essay after reading Brantley’s, so I find myself wanting the two of them to be in more conversation with each other.  I’ll say a bit more about that later, but one point that I see as linking the two is the relationship between notions of comic medievalism (the “madcap intrusion” of the past into the present) and the seriousness to which other aspects of medievalism are often put–the medieval as signifier for willing sacrifice or masculine homosociality, as Brantley reminds us.  The work you do later in the essay of asking us to attend to the moment of production of a piece of comic medievalism (which I think is fantastic), makes me wonder about how the two strains of anachronism are working in concert.  I’m thinking, in particular, of what happens now when I show the film, Excalibur to students.  This is not a film that wants to be comic, but yet, students almost always laugh at it–at the moments that I found (and still find) moving and highly serious produce bursts of laughter that, in many ways, are more robust than even those produced by Monty Python.  What is happening in this case?  How does the almost double anachronism of that text (a medieval story, a 1980s retelling) force the comic into the serious?  Are the students laughing at the Middle Ages, or are they laughing at the highly-polished suits of armor that Boorman seems to have loved so much?  Granted, my familiarity with theories of humor is very limited, so perhaps this is a category of laughter that would be seen as separate from what you are working with here.

      Comment by Kate Koppelman on December 16th, 2013

      I agree with the above comment–and note that David Matthews’ essay opens this up a bit when he notes that “There is humor in knowingness” (par. 10).  Because even anachronism (or especially anachronism?) demands knowingness.  I can’t “get” the joke if I don’t understand the chronology.  This also works with an analysis of Monty Python, right?  There are elements of the film that are funny no matter what (mostly physical comedy), but the other bits that medievalists find funny aren’t always going to be laughed at by an audience that doesn’t get the period.  Is this scene more of a lampoon of “historical expertise” (or science nerdery) than it is an example of comic medievalism?

      Comment by Kate Koppelman on December 16th, 2013

      I really, really like this section (and the following) of your essay.  I agree with the above comment (Dan Kline’s) that this seems to need some kind of a clearer link to the work you do at the beginning of the piece with anachronism more generally, but this way of engaging with comic medievalism–to demand a reading that looks backwards but that also looks at the present moment in which the comic medievalism is produced–is really important, I think.  Partially that is because it calls out anachronism (whether comic or not) as a tool of ideology, which, of course, it is (the best example of this I give to my students, as it works in Chaucer, is the “Knight’s Tale”).  So, how do comic medievalisms participate in this exchange?  

      Comment by Kate Koppelman on December 16th, 2013

      I really, really like this section (and the following) of your essay.  I agree with the above comment (Dan Kline’s) that this seems to need some kind of a clearer link to the work you do at the beginning of the piece with anachronism more generally, but this way of engaging with comic medievalism–to demand a reading that looks backwards but that also looks at the present moment in which the comic medievalism is produced–is really important, I think.  Partially that is because it calls out anachronism (whether comic or not) as a tool of ideology, which, of course, it is (the best example of this I give to my students, as it works in Chaucer, is the “Knight’s Tale”).  So, how do comic medievalisms participate in this exchange?  

      Comment by Valerie Allen on December 16th, 2013

      I like the consideration of (space and) time as distancing mechanism essential in humor alongside questions about temporality and periodization. I’d have thought the convergence could fruitfully include a consideration of actual timing or spaces in jokes, which require both dilation and compression.

      Comment by Emily Houlik-Ritchey on December 16th, 2013

      I, like the others who have commented on this paragraph, am struck by this turn toward the anachronism of laughter. I wonder whether studies of medieval anti-Jewish stereotypes might push back against your assessment that scholarship has not attached ethical urgency to the study of historical humor. When medieval jokes are made at the Jews’ expense in the Croxton Play of the Sacrament or at women’s expense in fourteenth or fifteenth century lyrics, have not scholars read them in ways similar to the sociological critiques of contemporary jokes ripping on social minorities? I think that certain studies of these historical instances of humor engage their ethical urgency, although I also appreciate the point that you are making about humor studies generally.

  • One Does Not Simply Laugh in Middle Earth: Sacrificing Humor in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings — Brantley Bryant (67 comments)

    • Comment by Nicholas Birns on November 7th, 2013

      A great paper–I especially like the idea of the fan community providing the pluralism that the film, with its more hierarchical sense of humor, could not. I understand your methodology is to rigorously exclude issues of the book and adaptation, but, in terms of your argument, my reaction to the film is that the seriousness of the book is if anything played up–as witnesses in the Galadriel prologue which casts an overtone of world-historical seriousness unlike the book which lets the seriousness sink in. In other words, it may be that seriousness not humor is what is exaggerated in the movies, and that this is a reversal of our usual expectation that it is the comic, which is subject to exaggeration and distortion. 

      Comment by Nicholas Birns on November 7th, 2013

      Why do you think though Pippin is so, so marked as buffoonish at the beginning?

      Comment by Nicholas Birns on November 7th, 2013

      Ironic that Gandalf makes this comment in that he has just sent Frodo and Sam into Mordor, far more dangerous. You might argue that this is to set off the triviality of Hobbit Humor as against the elevation that will be concomitant with Pippin’s belated heroism.

      Comment by Emily Houlik-Ritchey on November 8th, 2013

      I am wondering, in light of your overall argument in this section of the essay, how you would read the fact that Gimli apparently does equal/outstrip Legolas in their killing competition? Legolas has to “kill” an orc Gimli has already axed in order to tie his total. It seems to me that this moment has some enduring subversive potential that your discussion of the killing competition in this paragraph does not touch on (and granted that this paragraph might not be the place to do it–but I put my comment here as this is where you bring up this scene). Gimli’s assumption that his prowess equals Legolas’s is bourn out, despite the impressiveness of Legolas’s physical tricks that you’ve already read so compellingly. You’ve convinced me that Gimli’s comic trajectory in many respects matches the hobbits’, and you’ve also convinced me that Gimli’s case yet remains fascinatingly more complex.

      This also makes me wonder about Gimli’s laughter in response to Legolas’s comment: “Shall I describe it to you, or would you like me to get you a box?” (when the two are on the Helms Deep ramparts awaiting the besieging army). Would you read this as an example of Gimli deploying ironic (heroic) humor, or a more subversive acknowledgement on the part of both elf and dwarf that his very different (short) body, style of combat, and style of humor are equally up to the martial task?

      More broadly, I guess the point in this essay that most fascinates me is your reading of Gimli’s role in the overall trends of humor that you’ve noted. Your essay subordinates the discussion of Gimli to the rest of the argument, rather than positioning it as the crux, or the nut to crack. I suggest, for what it’s worth, that another compelling organizational strategy might be to lead up to Gimli and spend more time interrogating the ways his character conforms to and pushes against the uses to which humor is otherwise put in the films.

      I enjoyed reading this.

      Comment by Nicholas Birns on November 9th, 2013

      I might go into the implied correlation between species alterity/height and humorousness, i. e. the entities not seen as ‘human’ get or are marked by a different sort of laughter.

      Comment by Asa Mittman on November 14th, 2013

      This is right on target, and one of the (many) problems in these films.  Would it be good to nod briefly, at the outset, toward the source novels, to give the reader a sense of whether or not this reflects Tolkien’s approach or deviates from it?

      Comment by Asa Mittman on November 14th, 2013

      I’m not quite convinced, here.  Perhaps this is just my response, but I found these moments clumsy and jarring, moments that remove me from the imaginary world of the narrative and remind me that this is the work of a filmmaker making choices about what the characters can and will do.  They are not quite comic, since Legolas is not really allowed physical comedy.  They don’t, for example, make use of the juxtaposition of his serious iconic presentation with the absurd and unconvincing acrobatics for humorous punch (like, say, Chaplin would).  They seem a clumsy attempt at some sort of “swashbuckling good fun!” but fall flat.  Is there actually any humor, here?

      Comment by Asa Mittman on November 14th, 2013

      I agree with your characterization of the presentation of the Hobbits, but would add that there is a problematic undertone in their representation:  they are racially marked as different from the humans, elves, etc., so their laziness, uncouthness, and (especially, perhaps) inability to “speak properly” seems to me to be in the long tradition of mockingly “humorous” presentations of colonial “natives” and other Others, who tend to be presented via just these tropes.

      Comment by Asa Mittman on November 14th, 2013

      Precisely — connected to my comment about “racial” depictions, above, which are always used to establish qualities held by the “unmarked” [i.e. “white”] hero at the center of the narrative.

      Comment by Asa Mittman on November 14th, 2013

      I, of course, would love to read an essay on “monster humor”!  There is *so much* material, and I think it is rarely written about.  Collaboration prospects…..

      Comment by Asa Mittman on November 14th, 2013

      Great, great!  Yes, indeed.

      Comment by Karl Steel on November 27th, 2013

      at first I wasn’t quite convinced by Asa, and then I was wondering about the distinctions between humor, pleasure, and the kind of affective identification that Legolas’s daring-do causes. The closest analog I can come up with is a bunch of sportsball fans watching sportsball and pumping their fists when their player does something cool. I can go along with this as hero humor, sure, especially because that’s important for your argumentative scheme, but there’s also that element of ADMIRATION and WONDER at something cool being done unflappably. Hobbit Humor by contrast is FAMILIAR and HOMELY LIKE HOBBITS and models back to the viewers what they actually feel rather than what they want to be feeling. It’s a classic comic vs tragic mode, of course (comedy as we are, tragedy as we admire).

      Comment by Karl Steel on November 27th, 2013

      Put this in the main body of the text. Postmedieval doesn’t like a long footnote anyhow, and this is a great observation.

      Comment by Karl Steel on November 27th, 2013

      yes, exactly, and maybe important for the letting go vs self-control binary of hobbit vs hero humor. food and food pleasure (including vomiting and defecation) is THE boundary breaching, self-dissolving pleasure (you know, Freud and Bakthin), while the elf of course eats dainty bites and doesn’t age and is in total control precisely to the degree that he doesn’t eat or drink. Legolas feels tingly just the once.

      Comment by Ashby Kinch on December 10th, 2013

      I agree with Asa that this is a trenchant observation of the film’s tone through your observations about its modes of humor, which are narrow, and narrowing as the series progresses. Aside from nodding to the source novels, one might also reflect on the broader cultural paradigm that Jackson draws on here. The grim, ironic humor of martial violence is a trope of action films, after all. If he were pressed, he might say he grounded it in Tolkien’s sources–rather than Tolkien–heroic speeches from Old English martial texts. But too often the characters sound more like Schwarzenegger, who mastered the art of the violent one-liner.

      Comment by Ashby Kinch on December 10th, 2013

      Aside from drawing the viewer in and establishing grim resolve, this form of humor also sanitizes the violence that is about to take place, and makes of it an appropriable commodity to be re-cycled in viral response by a community that transmits it. The acidic one-line has become a crucial part of the development of action films during moments of extreme violence. In fact, it’s one of the devices that separates, it seems, a film that is going to investigate the problem of violence from one that is not.

      Comment by Ashby Kinch on December 10th, 2013

      I like where this paragraph starts, but I think it stays within the film’s own ideology: if “lightly humorous heroic battle sequences…promotes the idea that honor is won through mastery and restraint,” they also attempt to soften the idea that mastery and restraint justify violence.

      Comment by Ashby Kinch on December 10th, 2013

      This reference to Finke and Shichtman’s reading of Holy Grail is apt, and I would say, in fact, that the broader “medievalist” film culture–not the Middle Ages per se–that Holy Grail was mocking is what influences Jackson quite unironically. As I said above, I think Jackson’s sources are as much contemporary action films as they are the Middle Ages: he wants the grandeur of a heroic “medieval” past, but he wants the power and force of a modern hero fighting unbeatable odds. This is a thoughtful and enriching essay, and I enjoyed it thoroughly.

      Comment by Alex Mueller on December 12th, 2013

      I think this is a great way to start the essay, especially for those of us who know the meme, but I wonder if one of the images could be included here, much in the same way they are included in Kim Wilkins’ piece.

      Comment by Alex Mueller on December 12th, 2013

      This is an excellent point (and again images of the memes might amplify its excellence).  Thinking about this paragraph in terms of the claims to the “post-Bakhtinian” nature of the collection in the editorial preface, though, it might be useful, either here or elsewhere in the essay to situate this “subversive rescripting” (great phrase) within Bakhtin’s theory of laughter, which appears (at least here) to explain why the “comic tweaks” respond to moments of seriousness.

      Comment by Alex Mueller on December 12th, 2013

      I agree completely with Ashby on this point.  The humor and irony of these moments shut down the possibility of a critique of violence, the kind in which, as Benjamin advocates, such martial displays could be examined “within the sphere of means themselves, without regard for the ends they serve” (“The Critique of Violence,” trans. Edmund Jephcott, Selected Writings, Vol. 1, 1913-1926, ed. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings, Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1996, 236.)

      Comment by Alex Mueller on December 12th, 2013

      Asa makes a great point about the way this scene calls more attention to filmmaking, but I’m persuaded by the argument that Legolas’ absurd prowess operates in the comic mode, simply because it is so exaggerated and light-hearted in nature, so much so that we are encouraged to ignore the massive amount of destruction he causes, even to the elephant.  I think that maybe the problem is the word “humor,” which, as Karl rightly notes, may not quite jive with the feelings of admiration and wonder that are mixed in here.  Maybe we are amused?

      Comment by Alex Mueller on December 12th, 2013

      I agree with Asa that this racial difference is acute, but is this marking accentuated in the films?  Or does it merely replicate Tolkien’s own racial othering or colonialist language?

      Comment by Alex Mueller on December 12th, 2013

      In the spirit of Asa’s comments about the racial marking of the hobbits, I wonder if more could be done with the literal or contextless nature of Hobbit (by the way, are hobbits capitalized or not?) speech.  Sam’s comments reflect his own insular view point that demonstrates little to no metaphorical or historical understanding of the world around him.

      Comment by Alex Mueller on December 12th, 2013

      I agree that this speech is eloquent, but doesn’t it also reflect Sam’s nostalgic “out-of-placeness”?  His pastoral vision is one exclusively defined by the Shire, which suggests that his speech still retains its “native” (again, via Asa) flavor.

      Comment by Alex Mueller on December 12th, 2013

      Emily’s comment is very helpful, I think.  Gimli is clearly an important “middle man” between your heroes and hobbits, so further exploration would be great (if there is space and time, of course).  I would like to add, though, that even if Gimli and Legolas technically “tie” in their contest, doesn’t Legolas implicitly win given the relative ease he displays in his killings, particularly in contrast to the great effort Gimli expends?

      Comment by Alex Mueller on December 12th, 2013

      I take the point about the Hobbit Humor disappearing, but is it going too far to say that there is only a “small trace of the original homeliness and simplicity” left at the end?  For most non-Tolkien loving viewers I’ve talked to about the films, the pastoral end of the last film is an irritating and overly long return to the homely, Shire-loving mode.  It seems almost superfluous to some, which suggests that its presence is significant, if a bit annoying.

      Comment by Alex Mueller on December 12th, 2013

      A beautifully written paragraph, that elegantly explains the implications of your argument.  One suggestion: given Asa’s comments earlier in the essay about racial difference, it might make sense to move the McLarty quote to your discussion of Hobbit Humor.

      Comment by Alex Mueller on December 12th, 2013

      Such a great ending to a great essay, Brantley.  Loved reading this.

      Comment by Steve Mentz on December 13th, 2013

      I’m with Asa also — but I’d also be interested to have you think through this conflicted stance in re the comic in Tolkien’s novels, including perhaps thinking about the arrival of halfling to LOTR as adding just a bit of Third Age comedy to the high-tragic Noldor. There’s some joy in The Silmarilion, and perhaps also in Bilbo’s song about Earendil in The Fellowship (cut in the films, of course) — but little merriment. Maybe I’m also asking you to think about the sillier songs in LOTR, from Tom B. to (my personal favorite, which got lots of choruses around my house some years back) “The Bath Song”: “Better is beer, if drink we lack / And water hot poured down the back!”

      I guess I’m rambling toward the suggestion that the dichotomy in re human-sized (rather than high epic) comedy seems to me something Tolkien added to Middle Earth in The Hobbit, and then ambivalently retreated from in LOTR. I don’t know how thoroughly Jackson engages all of this, though he seems to know his Tolkienia.

      Comment by Steve Mentz on December 13th, 2013

      I agree with these comments that Gimli might be interestingly put at the center rather than the margins of the comic->epic transformation you see, though he’s still cracking jokes in Book III. It seems to me, in fact, that he might muddle the progressive arc so beloved by Hollywood: his most serious/epic/tragic affect might appear in Moria, before the joking at Helms Deep and Minas Tirith.

      The other figure who straddles the comic-epic binary might be Treebeard.

      Comment by Amy Kaufman on December 13th, 2013

      This paragraph performs a lot of the analysis that I wanted the essay to be doing throughout its discussion, as others have noted in earlier paragraphs. Race and disability inform the categories of humor identified (and revised) by this essay as well as the construction of idealized medieval masculinity under examination. Integrating race, disability, and masculinity into each comedic type would really strengthen the argument and lead to your excellent conclusion about the conservative medievalism in the films in a more satisfying way.

      Comment by Steve Mentz on December 13th, 2013

      The last two paragraphs are really great summations of a clear argument, and it’s hard to defend Jackson’s ham-handedness. I suppose I still wonder if the “resistance and imagination” you celebrate in the unruly fantasy world of fandom — a sort of Middle Earth-of-Middle Earth? — doesn’t itself follow Jackson’s lead as much as departing from it. To the extent that the post-Mt Doom sequences are about nostalgia and loss, they might celebrate the old-time beery slapstick even as they eschew it?

      I agree with a few other commenters above that Gimli might remain less like the (normative, center-of-the-film sequence) hobbits than he seems here. I also think of Treebeard, also a figure of fun — takes too long to talk, can barely see his feet, his first reaction to finding the hobbits is to put them in his poem-list of creatures: sounds like an English professor to me! The Ents v Isengard battle, too, is pretty slapsticky: the Ent who dunks his burning head, etc. I’m not quite remembering Treebeard’s curtain call in the film, but in the books he’s a spokesperson for loss w/o quite acceding to epic machismo,

      Not to add extra labor to a very fine essay by asking for an Entish note! I enjoyed reading it!

      Comment by Amy Kaufman on December 13th, 2013

      I’d really like to see you foreground your own categories (Hero Humor and Hobbit Humor) as informed by Berger but modified for medievalism, because the original categories don’t quite encompass what’s happening in the films once gender, race, and ability are factored in, as you note in the conclusion. I feel as though there’s a bit of a struggle to conform examples to his categories when it might be more fruitful to move beyond them.

      Comment by Amy Kaufman on December 13th, 2013

      I agree with Asa and Ashby: there are moments that seem to beg for some discussion of Tolkien’s original, particularly the function of hobbits themselves. For Tolkien, their childlike nature is arguably redemptive and indicates purity – do those qualities have the same effect here when played for humor, or does our contemporary fantasy about the sobriety of medieval masculinity make that impossible?

      Comment by Amy Kaufman on December 13th, 2013

      This is one of those examples in which Berger’s category might be transcended: is slapstick still “democratic” when it’s only used with physically Othered characters?

      Comment by Amy Kaufman on December 13th, 2013

      I really like the way you frame this discussion with popular resistance to the reverent medievalism demanded by Jackson’s films.

      Comment by Amy Kaufman on December 13th, 2013

      Yes – exactly.

      Comment by Amy Kaufman on December 13th, 2013

      I agree. This point: “Rambunctious laughter, the film implies, is for those ignorant of the greater world and unreceptive to the mythic seriousness of the films’ medieval subject matter ” might be moved here instead.

      Comment by Amy Kaufman on December 13th, 2013

      I agree. This point – “Rambunctious laughter, the film implies, is for those ignorant of the greater world and unreceptive to the mythic seriousness of the films’ medieval subject matter “- might be moved here instead.

      Comment by Anne Harris on December 13th, 2013

      In making the quest through the extended DVD editions and all (all) of the commentary (newborn at home), I vividly recall Jackson’s reverence for Tolkien, LOTR, the whole project. There’s a great bonus feature short that shows Jackson during his last shoot starting the scene over and over again because he can’t bear that this is the last scene of the film he’s going to shoot. SO, I wonder (as the others have here) about humor in the books, but also about Jackson as auteur and how his reverence to, intimacy with, love of Tolkien and the books might be shaping the film’s shifts towards the heroic.

      Comment by Anne Harris on December 13th, 2013

      How much do you see this “characteristic understatement” as a modern fascination /fetishization of the British stiff upper lip? I think of the absurd understatements of some of Kipling’s characters (from The Man Who Would be King especially) as they face doom and gloom. 

      Comment by Anne Harris on December 13th, 2013

      Yes (Asa), but aren’t Hobbits also very very English? I think back to Karl’s earlier comment about the “homely” humor of the Hobbits? The Shired, etc. etc. as this unbelievably nostalgic English countryside, and the inhabitants also. So the humor here is the humor of the deeply familiar (to an Englishman).

      Comment by Anne Harris on December 14th, 2013

      Yes yes yes! I am so glad to see Gollum here as his wordplay (him in general) is the dark side of humor: laughter gone mad, the guffaw that won’t stop, the secret creepy chuckle. So is monster humor then “non-didactic” use of humor? If there’s room to expand the essay just a little, monster humor is it – as it relates to Hero/Hobbit Humor (is it its dark side? this hits close to home for Frodo; it is something different altogether?).

      Comment by Anne Harris on December 14th, 2013

      yes to all the comments above – I’m glad to see a critique of Jackson in these terms. Humor has the potential to cut through nostalgia in its maudlin mode and your essay, among many other things, explains to me the film’s receding into nostalgic sighing. Perhaps my “resistance and imagination” may begin again with the books themselves! Thank you so much for this wonderful essay, Brantley.

      Comment by Asa Mittman on December 15th, 2013

      Ooooh, Anne, you KNOW I love the idea of monster humor.  And it would be most interesting to consider not the human humor we have, laughing at monsters, but as you imply, the sense of humor held by monsters.  Brantley — collaboration potential….

      Comment by Jonathan Hsy on December 15th, 2013

      YES I agree with Karl — this is so good it really should be promoted to the main text!

      In general: I did find myself wondering if you see Eowyn merely facilitating moments of comic relief through her effects upon the male characters, or if she is a willing participant in any way. I haven’t read McLarty’s article, but I would guess that “different rules” apply to humor where women are concerned.

      Comment by Jonathan Hsy on December 15th, 2013

      Excellent point about Heroic Irony vs. Hobbit Humor. This seems to align with generic conventions: dramatic irony for weighty genres (tragedy) and physical humor for lighter ones (comedy).

      Comment by Jonathan Hsy on December 15th, 2013

      Love this reading of the how verbal humor is encoded in these two different languages!

      Comment by Jonathan Hsy on December 15th, 2013

      This reading reminds me a lot about Asa’s question about the racial encoding of hobbits elsewhere. In this case, we might ask (perhaps with a nod to disability theory) how Gimli’s “physical inferiority” is encoded, managed, and integrated into masculine collective norms. Are with laughing with or at Gimli here? What sort of underlying assumptions about disability and/or embodiment are the films making? This paragraph seems to suggest, in the “toss me” moment, that we are allowed to share in this laughter as Gimli makes the joke at his own expense and is apparently submitting to those communal norms.

      By the way, this “Nobody tosses a dwarf!” comment and its humorous reversal makes me wonder how this joke is referencing the larger cultural phenomena of “dwarf tossing.” It’s interesting that here we have a different case of pop culture medievalism to help frame the issue: I’m thinking of the moment in “Game of Thrones” actor Peter Dinklage’s Golden Globes acceptance speech in which he honored a friend of his, a little person and aspiring actor who was injured after being tossed by a drunk man outside a pub.

      I guess I’m saying that I see how Gimli is assimilated back into the norms of collective heroism that the LOTR films promote, but I wonder to what extent it matters that his embodied difference persists (with reference to humans that is).

      Comment by Jonathan Hsy on December 15th, 2013

      Again, I think it’s worth thinking about Gimli’s embodied difference and why he can’t seem to be fully assimilated into this ending.

      Comment by Jonathan Hsy on December 15th, 2013

      Yes, great point Amy — I have been wondering about race, gender, and disability as well and they all seem to bubble up suddenly at the very end of this. I do grant that it’s very difficult to write a coherent essay that addresses all of these threads simultaneously though!

      Comment by Jonathan Hsy on December 15th, 2013

      Thinking about this again: I do think this is a really great paragraph overall, as you do at least suggest how disability theory might intervene in this. Your point that the hobbits are assimilable into heroic norms while the dwarf is not is a great one.

      Comment by Jonathan Hsy on December 15th, 2013

      I agree: excellent ending here, and I do like that you framed the whole discussion with the comic resistance to the reference Jackson’s LOTR demands.

      Comment by Jonathan Hsy on December 15th, 2013

      I think you’ve framed the whole essay very well through Berger but part of me wonders how this essay would take a different form if framed via laughter instead (I’m thinking about Bergson on laughter).

      Comment by Susan Aronstein on December 15th, 2013

      Great point — given Tolkien’s own academic field, Jackson’s use of litotes seems very apt (even if not entirely intentional).

      Comment by Susan Aronstein on December 15th, 2013

      This meme is the perfect way to start this essay; I agree that including an image would be useful for readers not familiar with the meme.  I might also consider striking “for example” and instead list 3 or 4 captions after the :.

      Comment by Susan Aronstein on December 15th, 2013

      I also found these sequences somewhat jarring–particularly the “boarding” scene, which seemed to be straight out of Disney’s Tarzan, but my middle-school boys loved them; I think the observations about sports figures and action films correctly identify the genre and appeal of these sequences.  I also wonder if thinking about Legolas (and perhaps all of the heroes) in terms of the classic binary between the comic and anti-comic might be useful here.  In these scenes, Legolas certainly proves to be flexible and innovative; this might also add a layer to thinking about the Hobbits, who, as the film goes on, need to channel their own comic traits and use them for something beyond mischief and to obtain a larger goal than food and drink.

      Comment by Susan Aronstein on December 15th, 2013

      Great discussion of the hobbits and their “boys will be boys” pranks that need to be policed by the more “adult” characters in the films.  It is interesting, given your later discussion of Gimli, that he is always portrayed as fully adult.

      Comment by Susan Aronstein on December 15th, 2013

      Great discussion of Pippin’s transformation from Fool of a Took to warrior; I also find the sequence that cross-cuts between Denethor’s feast, Pippin’s song and Faramir riding to battle to be a turning point here.  Nor sure how (or if) singing and the subject of this song might fit into the discussion of hobbit speech.

      Comment by Susan Aronstein on December 15th, 2013

      Your discussion helps to clarify what is going on in Jackson’s prequel Hobbit films.  Without Aragorn and not much of Legolas, the distinction between the heroic body and the lower-class body has to happen within the dwarfs. to the extent that Thorin and Kili (and, to a lesser extent, Fili seem to be from a different race altogether–which I find jarring in the films but which makes sense when considered in this context.

      Comment by Rick Godden on December 15th, 2013

      I agree with Anne about the homely Englishness of the Hobbits. One major difference between the Hobbits and the rest of the Fellowship is that the half longs are everyday folk, whereas everyone else is noble or royalty. For do, however, is more of a country gentleman. It’s not a perfect analogy, but the other three hobbits remind me of the many earthy, lower class or uncouth noble characters in Shakespeare.

      Comment by Kendra Smith on December 15th, 2013

      I agree with some of the comments already left.  Even though I get that you’re focusing exclusively on the film, so we’re getting Tolkien’s vision filtered through Jackson, I think it might be helpful to say just a bit about this context. 

      Your point about how there is a “distinctive ideology of masculine heroism” in the films is quite convincing, but how does this differ from the heroic ideology present in Tolkien’s source material?  And, since Tolkien was quite influenced by heroic epic works such as Beowulf, how is Jackson’s treatment different from the “ideology of masculine heroism” in these types of works (they rely on the same type of extremely understated humor, grim humor, flyting, etc.).

      Comment by Rick Godden on December 15th, 2013

      Yes, more Gollum! Gollum’s comic aspects in the LOTR films are, as you point out, dominated by “grotesque, infant-like babbling and dance, and emotional exuberance.” What about the riddles from the Hobbit? I know it’s outside the essay’s scope, but Gollum’s riddle lust would seem to be a perversion or the absurd conclusion of the more “restrained … wit and wordplay.”

      Comment by Kate Koppelman on December 16th, 2013

      When you call LOTR “mythic medieval,” are you talking about the fantasy element of the films (and the books)?  Or is that a different sort of “mythic”?  I know this isn’t the topic of your essay, but it is an issue that I find really fascinating–I have this problem when I watch Game of Thrones—an impulse to try to read the “history” in the episodes while the “truth” is that this is a built world.

      Also, is the Middle Ages especially open to this kind of generic hybridity?  I suppose that steampunk does this as well with the Victorian period, but do other periods not work as well?  But, now that I start thinking about it, I’m coming up with all kinds of examples of this (Firefly being one that makes me sad to think about, since it’s over), and it’s really not a question about comic medievalisms, but your reading made me think about it, so there you go.

      Comment by Kate Koppelman on December 16th, 2013

      Reading this section, I was reminded of the ending of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight–Gawain has become world-weary, but the court remains rambunctious.  And, depending upon how you read the poem, this raising of Gawain to the level of chivalric high-seriousness while Arthur remains immature has the effect not of valorizing the Arthurian court, but of belittling it (again, this is how I read the poem, I know that isn’t the only reading of it).  So, rather than erasing humor, that poem uses the reintegration of romance to erase (at least in part) chivalry, not humor.  I’m muddled in how to express that just right, but I think it leads me to wanting more from you in terms of where, exactly, the medievalism is in the films.  Or, what are the precise links between these filmic scenes and the texts to which the films (and the books) refer?  Asking for that is asking for a larger project, but it is also asking for, perhaps, some more direct link to the period  itself.

      Comment by Kate Koppelman on December 16th, 2013

      I also really loved these last paragraphs.  The transformation of Hobbit Humor into Hero Humor is a sign that the films want to present one version of the imagined medieval fantasy past,  one that affirms martial masculinity but allows for the humor that, as Louise argues, can collapse the distance between past and present.

      I think this is one of the reasons that I would have loved to have seen your essay engage with hers more overtly.  So, in this case (LOTR), the collapse must be controlled because if it isn’t, we might be faced with a farcical understanding of the medieval past—a satire, rather than a comic valorization.  And, if we think about the argument that there is a link between the particular kinds of (and historically situated) comic medievalisms, what can we say about the historical moment of these films; a moment that began in 2001 (granted filming had been completed before September 11th) and ended in 2003?  I’m guessing that others have written about at least the political implications and affirmations of the film, but can medievalists add to this discourse using your reading of not only the valorization of heroism, but the erasure of hobbitism?

  • Valhallolz: Medievalist Humor on the Internet — Kim Wilkins (40 comments)

    • Comment by Sean Rintel on November 15th, 2013

      This reference to me for “restricted code” is flattering, but it should really be to Bernstein: Bernstein, B. (1964), ‘Elaborated and Restricted Codes: Their Social Origins and Some Consequences’, American Anthropologist, 66:6 part 2, pp. 55-69.

        

      Comment by Sean Rintel on November 15th, 2013

      This reference to me is flattering, but I am merely paraphrasing Dawkins.

      Comment by Sean Rintel on November 15th, 2013

      This use of Scott Atran is good. I think it relates well to my expression of the process (from the cited 2013 article) via the descriptor “templatability”. While Atran is dead-on about the genotype being the heart of what is transferred by and across memes, my concept of templatability provides the material analytic explanation of how that is achieved: “Templatabilty lies at the heart of online memes and especially crisis memes. The memetic process is a product of the human capability to separate ideas into two levels—content and structure—and then contextually manipulate that relationship. Templating is the practical, methodical, and material process by which this contextual manipulation is expressed” (p. 256).

      It seems to me that the  ‘contextual manipulation’ is especially central to the amusing intertextual anachronisms inherent in most of these medieval image macros.

      Comment by Sean Rintel on November 15th, 2013

      At some point you need to indicate that image-text combinations have a technical term: image macros.

      Comment by Sean Rintel on November 15th, 2013

      “Chubby bubbles girl”, note, is not an image macro. She is an “exploitable”.

      Comment by Asa Mittman on November 20th, 2013

      Is it fair to say that genes “copy with absolute fidelity”?  I don’t think this is, strictly speaking, correct.

      Comment by Asa Mittman on November 20th, 2013

      This is a very interesting essay.  One thought:  I wondered throughout about the poseur culture, about medievalists mimicking “gangsta” speech, with the ever-present excuse of “irony.”  There are all sorts of class- and education-based transgressions occurring that are also, I think, fundamental to the humor.

      Comment by Ashby Kinch on December 10th, 2013

      Am I missing something here, or does the example of the BT Google search interface make exactly the opposite point, that the humor works in the direction of pointing out that “even” an 11th century user could use Google given the right “translation” because the interface is made idiot-proof? It seems to me, in fact, that this paragraph reveals a subtext that I had not fully considered in terms of the “meme,” but had often considered in terms of the Internet, namely, that the putative universal availability of all knowledge narrows considerably among user groups to, well, memes. In fact, as an experiment, I re-wrote one of the sentences here: ”


      We understand the digital age as a period of unobservable, dematerialized technology and superstitious ignorance of the past, characterized by a life circumstscribed by keyboard and screen.”
       

      Comment by Ashby Kinch on December 10th, 2013

      Exactly. The anxiety of this “community” of male users generates a meme whose very repetition–and its humor–whitewashes its sexism, and distracts attention from the deeper anxiety that pervades internet culture, namely, the contrast between liberatory identity disconnected from the material context (the “freedom” meme) and the deeply-ingrained human paranoia of deception detection, which we evolved tens of thousands of years ago to mitigate the disadvantages intrinsic to the obviously advantageous evolution of social cognition. We’ve never had a technology that so quickly put us into contact with the minds of others at such a massive scale. While we gleefully indulge that fantasy of a boundless community, we also retreat into snarky, small-scale communities for protection. Memes, and meme humor facilitate this, and memes that use “medieval” tropes seem consistently to appropriate the medieval as a device for assuaging anxieties of difference / sameness. In other words, they traffic in cliches that reify the “difference,” while at the same time erase historical difference (through pseudo-language, anachronism, etc) to justify a kind of “trans-historical” set of desires (to see a woman’s breasts, for example).

       

      Comment by Andrew Elliott on December 11th, 2013

      Apologies in advance for the long comment!


      I really like your analysis and central argument here; especially like the analogy with memes and genes which works well. The reference here to ‘adaptogenic’ texts is interesting, and chime with the concepts of ‘spreadable’ and ‘sticky’ media which Henry Jenkins et al discuss in terms of viral media. What emerges from Jenkins’ ideas are the ways in which they mean that we cannot easily talk about the audience of the memes (which has a knock on effect on our ability to talk about the “butt” of the joke in medieval memes).
       
      I recognise that you have carefully avoided using the term ‘audience’ here, and I fully agree. The concept of an audience is very difficult when we are dealing with the issue of the meme creator as a ‘produser’ (or its corollary, the ‘prosumer’). What this means, as you recognise, is that the line between creator and consumer is blurred, since in many ways the creators are themselves a part of the audience of those jokes, in their complex position as both consumer of various aspects of popular culture and producer of new meanings in that same milieu. Here they are consuming one popular cultural product (Skyrim), using another (the Bayeux Tapestry), and producing a third; secondly, the furtherance of the meme is dependent on many of those consumers retransmitting the meme (and so becoming producers/produsers themselves). To use your (wonderful) analogy, some might understand the genotype but not the phenotype, others vice versa…
       
      As such, any audience is a complex mix of heterogeneous users/consumers which is further complicated by the range of competencies which they bring to the meme: some might understand the “bitch, please” reference, others might only understand the Skyrim reference, and others might identify the meaning of the original BT. So there is only the ideal reader (Joyce’s “ideal reader suffering from an ideal insomnia) and a host of real readers who consume the text in a variety of ways.
       
      The point of my complicating matters is that when it comes to relating this idea back to the world of comic medievalism, it has important ramifications for how the joke works; it’s very difficult to understand what we are laughing at here, and thus how important a role the medieval plays in the meme. I’m aware that this is quite some digression, but I think a consideration of the range of competencies in the audience of a meme really helps your argument, that the medievalism is the meme (to misquote you and suggest a—deeply unfair—parallel with McLuhan). But if medievalism comprises the shared cultural assumptions we hold about the era, then it matters whether we are laughing at the Bayeux Tapestry itself or at the inappropriateness of the joke (here, the anachronism); the latter requires knowledge of the medieval to function (which is why the Avengers meme doesn’t work), which reveals a great deal about the way in which the medieval functions in the online world.
       

      Comment by Andrew Elliott on December 11th, 2013

      There is also an interesting crossover from the virtual to the real in the world of the Technoviking, with the production of Technoviking dolls (http://www.neatorama.com/2012/02/26/techno-viking-action-figure/). Thus the medieval becomes commodified and substantial, which supports your argument that these memes are not always transitory and fleeting.

      Comment by Amy Kaufman on December 13th, 2013

      This is a very rich essay, but I’m not completely convinced by the argument that meme humor operates via exclusivity and illusions of modern superiority. Don’t memes have the potential to be inclusive and educational, particularly due to their location on the Internet, a repository of information about obscure references?

      I think this analysis might benefit from some of the work done on neomedievalism (in Studies in Medievalism 19 and 20, esp. the essay by Robinson and Clements) – it could provide the language for some of the more complex free play of medievalism that occurs in memes, the tension between reverence and irreverence arguably at work in something like the Bayeux meme.

      Comment by Amy Kaufman on December 13th, 2013

      I am in love with your title!

      Comment by Amy Kaufman on December 13th, 2013

      I agree with Ashby here. Arguably what’s funny is what we have in common – the meme works because so little has changed *except* language.

      Comment by Amy Kaufman on December 13th, 2013

      I worry about the use of this Dawson quote about motherfucker and “the black idiom,” especially as it immediately transitions into a high/low culture discussion. It doesn’t contribute much to the argument and it opens up a cultural can of worms (or snakes?)

      Comment by Dan Kline on December 15th, 2013

      I too love the title and the topic.

      Comment by Dan Kline on December 15th, 2013

      Just a picky little note: you capitalize Internet here but it’s lower cased in your abstract. Sorry for the pedantry…

      Comment by Dan Kline on December 15th, 2013

      Nice intro.

      Comment by Dan Kline on December 15th, 2013

      You lay hold of an effervescent phenomena quite well here, but I defer to Sean’s expertise as to some of the particular nomenclature.

      Comment by Dan Kline on December 15th, 2013

      Is it worth mentioning somewhere the joke inherent in the Demotivational Posters series? Their very form plays upon those terrible corporate motivational posters often used to motivate individual initiative and create ‘team spirit’ in a corporate setting.

      Comment by Dan Kline on December 15th, 2013

      Great example.

      Comment by Dan Kline on December 15th, 2013

      You address my earlier comment about demotivational posters here!

      Comment by Dan Kline on December 15th, 2013

      The phenotype/genotype distinction is very helpful.

      Comment by Dan Kline on December 15th, 2013

      Going along with Asa’s comment, the transcription errors in gene replication might be equivalent to the incremental repetition of many internet memes. Fidelity might include within itself the idea of genetic drift?

      Comment by Dan Kline on December 15th, 2013

      Going along with Asa’s comment, the transcription errors in gene replication might be equivalent to the incremental repetition of many internet memes. Fidelity might include within itself the idea of genetic drift?

      Comment by Dan Kline on December 15th, 2013

      I know I won’t get the language exactly right here, but are the Bayeux memes a kind of individual chromosome to the larger (and longer) original Bayeux tapestry? Just a thought for extending your analysis.

      Comment by Dan Kline on December 15th, 2013

      For the non-geeky internet reader, does ‘gtfo’ need to be unpacked?

      Comment by Dan Kline on December 15th, 2013

      Isn’t there also some fun to be had in knowing the Samuel L. Jackson is also the actor who uttered the now famous, ‘get medieval on your ass’ in Pulp Fiction?

      Comment by Dan Kline on December 15th, 2013

      Isn’t this a two-way road? Vulgariazing the high class and classing up the low class?

      Comment by Dan Kline on December 15th, 2013

      Nice. I would’ve missed these markers of Marvel culture.

      Comment by Dan Kline on December 15th, 2013

      I really like this essay but wonder if in the conclusion you might go beyond the genotype and phenotype distinction or qualify or specify it somehow. Is medievalism a meme? Or are these memes individual chromosomes that make up a medievalist-humorist genotype?

      Comment by Jonathan Hsy on December 15th, 2013

      Yes, LOVE the title!

      Comment by Jonathan Hsy on December 15th, 2013

      Yes, this is framed so well. I very much appreciate how you are focusing on a particular genre of meme (image-text units) and that you are actually going back to the origins of meme theory to unpack what pop culture perhaps unthinkingly has come to call “memes.”

      Comment by Jonathan Hsy on December 15th, 2013

      Interesting insights in this paragraph, but I’m not exactly sure where it fits in the general stream (or flow) of the discussion. Is it possible to rework this paragraph with more of a clear thesis statement to signal how this relates to others?

      Comment by Kendra Smith on December 15th, 2013

      Love the Skyrim reference, which itself points to a sort of “endurance,” since the precursors of this game live on in various memes (which dig back to the first majorly-popular game in this series, Daggerfall, released in 1996).

      Comment by Kendra Smith on December 15th, 2013

      Your point also leads me to wonder a bit more about the socio-cultural make-up of these “affinity spaces” (and this works also with the points that were brought up in relation to the gender discussion in paragraph 26).  For example, it seems worth examining more closely (and this is probably outside of the scope of the current project) to what extent is it problematic that geek culture (which, from my experience, is largely white and leans more toward the affluent side) oftentimes appropriates and deploys “the black idiom.”  What might it look like if this were operating in reverse?  Just some thoughts.

      Comment by Kendra Smith on December 15th, 2013

      Your point also leads me to wonder a bit more about the socio-cultural make-up of these “affinity spaces” (and this works also with the points that were brought up in relation to the gender discussion in paragraph 26).  For example, it seems worth examining more closely (and this is probably outside of the scope of the current project) to what extent is it problematic that geek culture (which, from my experience, is largely white and leans more toward the affluent side) oftentimes appropriates and deploys “the black idiom.”  What might it look like if this were operating in reverse?  Just some thoughts.

      Comment by Kim Wilkins on December 16th, 2013

      Thanks so much for reminding me of this, Andrew. What a great point!

      Comment by jenboyle on December 16th, 2013

      I am interested in your use of Dawkins as an entry into meme theory, your very compelling remarks about the “scale” of memes in the former paragraph, and then your landing with Knobel and Lankshear.  It seems to me that once you are working with Knobel, Jenkins et al, the turn to media “affordances” and “evolutionary pressures” becomes almost entirely metaphoric, and perhaps (only perhaps) you want to retain something beyond their function metaphorically at the level of “culture”(which, for me, pulls me immediately out of a micro attentiveness to medium).  Perhaps not a direction you want to mine, but I am thinking here of the meme activism of Paul Caplan <http://theinternationale.com/&gt;; what Thacker and Galloway have to say about the bipolitics of memes in The Exploit (The Exploit: a theory of networks, Minneapolis University of Minnesota Press, 2007); and even Tony D. Sampson’s work on “virality” (Virality: Contagion Theory in an Age of Networks, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012). Jodi Dean has also recently done some work with memes <http://jdeanicite.typepad.com/&gt;.  I’m really intrigued by your implied focus on scale and the “moment” of expression and some of the above may get further along this line.

       

       

      Comment by jenboyle on December 16th, 2013

      Affective, detailed play with phenotype, genotype, and DNA; for me, this section is coded to that earlier very brief mention of the importance of “technical affordances.”  Where does the bio that is flourishing in this section fuse with the network of technical objects and affordances, and the “moment” of the event you described earlier?

  • Medieval Comic Relief: Cannibal Cow, Duck’s Neck and Carry On Joan of Arc — Stephen Knight (28 comments)

    • Comment by Asa Mittman on November 17th, 2013

      Is it just “story,” or, more broadly, imagery, styles, motifs, and so on?  And it is always to admire issues of modernity?  Surely, at times, it is to critique them via an (often imagined) ideal in the past?

      Comment by Asa Mittman on November 17th, 2013

      This is, indeed, remarkable poetry!

      Comment by Asa Mittman on November 17th, 2013

      Is this an accurate way to think of it?  Could there be a “credible authorial original,” or is it a sort of multi-text (as Mandeville has been characterized), a rhizome of texts, a series of interrelated versions without a possible, nice and neat “correct” version?

      Comment by Asa Mittman on November 17th, 2013

      This feels a bit credulous of the “real” Jeanne, whom we know only through other texts.  I would suggest that the contrast here is not between the “real personality” and the satire thereof, but between texts that glorify and texts that mock.

      Comment by Asa Mittman on November 17th, 2013

      Seems that an illustration — and analysis thereof — would be a good addition, here.

      Comment by Asa Mittman on November 17th, 2013

      I’d argue that there are also smart medieval studies student who think — rightly! — that Chaucer will be dirty fun.

      Comment by Karl Steel on December 9th, 2013

      perhaps medievalism also requires a sense of difference combined with identification, and a sense of continuity, either broken or not.

      Comment by Ashby Kinch on December 11th, 2013

      With Asa, I’m not sure how dumb, or even “football-playing” a student needs to be to have absorbed this topos. Indeed, it’s strange to me that, despite (because of?) the fact that Chaucer is taught less in the high schools, this reputation of his continues to frame my students’ understanding–not completely, mind you, but it’s one of the things they bring into the class with them (and I’m talking here about an American, public University teaching context). Especially given the self-conscious way in which Pope’s “imitation” is a piece of juvenalia, I wonder whether that aspect of sexual license is part of an apprenticeship that one is supposed to grow out of. This is a fascinating article, exposing something important about the way the medieval stands in here for a moment of sexual license that has analogues in the spiritual fantasy and terror that grips the contemporary / slightly later Gothic writers, and the obverse of which is the sunny, Provencal medievalism of Keats’ “Eve of St. Agnes,” as a lost, unrecoverable time of innocence. The essay also provides an interesting cautionary about episodes of putative sexual liberation and their vehicles (say, ’60s interest in tantric yoga). They end up, as always, telling us much more about the contemporary modes of sexual repression than the literary influence of, say, Chaucer (in Pope’s case). Pope’s simplifications might attest to his (poetic / intellectual) inability to handle the literary complexity that Chaucer’s MerT puts in play as it does his medievalism, but I think that is merely another wrinkle in your paradigm, since the adaptation of Chaucer’s story can be rationalized by claiming to get to its core conflict, which is (in this reading) sexual. Anyway, I’m rambling now, but thanks for this fascinating tour through the dark chambers of masculine poetic sexuality.

      Comment by seamanm on December 11th, 2013

      This definition of medievalism seems to depend on an unnecessary gulf between the medieval past and the present–which would exclude many medievalisms. One can speak of that past while also sense its continuity without doing so from a conservative orientation. Some desires for the medieval past may be rooted in conservative urges, others not.

      Comment by Myra Seaman on December 11th, 2013

      From the examples here, it sounds as if the additions are not only to the medievalism (the focus of the paragraph’s first sentence) but also to the parody. It’s difficult for me to discern, so far, the target(s) of the humor. It seems to be as much contemporary figures and recent predecessors as it is the middle ages.

      Comment by Myra Seaman on December 11th, 2013

      I’d be interested in hearing some more in support of this indicating “a move toward the recuperation of the rejected medieval”–how it’s a recuperation, specifically, where it was (also specifically) rejected before.

      Comment by Myra Seaman on December 11th, 2013

      I’m wondering about the term “dismissive” being used here and elsewhere to describe perceived attitudes toward medieval predecessors; is making something comedic (especially something, like Chaucer’s poetry, that is often itself already comedic) necessarily dismissive?

       

      Comment by Myra Seaman on December 11th, 2013

      Something more specific than a “mix” of past and present would guide me a bit better into this next section.

       

      Comment by Myra Seaman on December 11th, 2013

      I found all of these different engagements, be they with Chaucer, with Joan of Arc, or Arthur, deeply interesting. It also struck me that you represent the post-medieval authors as working with the original, that is, with Chaucer’s poems, with Joan “herself” (as Asa commented on, above), or with King Arthur, rather than with the long-standing and diverse reception histories surrounding each. I found myself, as a result, wondering if the ‘target’ of the humor was necessarily as specific, and as medieval, as you present it. Some further support for that reading throughout the essay would’ve helped to keep me on track at such moments.

      Comment by Kate Koppelman on December 16th, 2013

      I really liked reading this essay because I am so thoroughly uninformed about how the 18th-century interacted with the Middle Ages.  I want desperately to read these texts now and, if possible, use them when I teach the Middle Ages.

      But, it was at this point in the essay that I really felt like a chance had been missed to get at not only what these authors are doing, but why they are doing it–or, what their particular engagement with particular versions and stories of and from the Middle Ages allows them to do.  When you say that “the prime source of excitement in the medieval for these writers was its availability as an alternative domain where writers could misbehave and deploy without guilt elements of sexual desire and sexual fantasy,” I find myself perking up (is there a pun there?  If so, ignore it).  Why does the medieval allow them this freedom?  What is it about the period (either in its historical “truth” or in its contemporary perceptions) that allows this kind of play?  And, of course, this then begs the question of our own enjoyment of the period and whether or how we find pleasure there that we see as an escape.  Fradenburg’s “history is an erogenous zone” comes to mind, as does Dinshaw’s more recent work on popular medievalisms.  But, really, I just want to know more.  They did it, yes, and it is funny and strange and fascinating, but that doesn’t feel like enough to me.  

      So, what do we do with the fact that, while I agree that these texts seem to miss “the levels of irony and critique” in Chaucer, they also call out the bawdiness that is already there?  It seems strange to say that this is an “alternative domain” when it is already a domain in which the desiring body was a source of excitement (and not just spiritual danger).  Or, is it not strange at all and that is exactly your point–that because it is “already there,” these authors can make more of it?

      But if that is the case, then Pope’s revision of Chaucer seems a much different move than Voltaire’s reading of Jeanne.  Voltaire is fabricating ribaldry–and in the domain of a real figure, not a fictional one.  I think the essay collapses some of these differences and in doing so, misses a chance to investigate larger questions of both pleasureful (be they comic or not) engagements with the medieval past and the ways in which those engagements must refigure that past.

      Comment by Stephen Knight on January 7th, 2014

      The term `debate’ includes `critique’

      Comment by Stephen Knight on January 7th, 2014

      difference is implied throughout this paragraph

      Comment by Stephen Knight on January 7th, 2014

      All medievalisms deploy a gulf, if only to deny it rhetorically or affectively

      Comment by Stephen Knight on January 7th, 2014

      The medieval irony is doubly used, both to amuse about the past and to license modern satire, as the Scriblerus reference indicates.

      Comment by Stephen Knight on January 7th, 2014

      The best; it’s Merlin speaking.

      Comment by Stephen Knight on January 7th, 2014

      Just as the story of Queen Elizabeth onthe 18th C stage, with relfemale actorsalised, so the medieval myth is drawn into the physical emotionalisation of narrative, which will provide secondary energy for the tradition, and remain present as Tennyson reworks the Arthur myth in his first idyll `Merlin and Vivien’.

      Comment by Stephen Knight on January 7th, 2014

      The point is that it is a mix, not a hierarchy, and both elements remain active.

      Comment by Stephen Knight on January 7th, 2014

      Voltaire’s firm efforts to deny authorship of the apparently offensive elements indicate that he at least thought of it as an authorial text, but then he had not read Haydn White as way of disavowing responsibility in postmodern mode. The `mess’ of the textual state is a product of limuted shclkarship rather than ultra-modernity.

      Comment by Stephen Knight on January 7th, 2014

      As commented above post-modern uncertainty may be contemporarily gratifying, but it didn’t help Jeanne at her execution. Texts relate to realities and have potentially real political and attitudinal impacts, and the savage sexism of this allegedly classic text deserves exposing.

      Comment by Stephen Knight on January 7th, 2014

      Agreed.

      Comment by Stephen Knight on January 7th, 2014

      `Why’ is another essay: this essay breaks the ground of this curious proto-medievalism.

      Comment by Stephen Knight on January 7th, 2014

      The idea of the medieval is always differentiated from the idea of the modern. For Coleridge and Keats it offered relief from urban and mercantile modernity. Modern medievalism rises in the 1970s when people lose faith in futurism. Debates like these can only be developed separarely, not gestured at in an essay like this, opening up for the first time one of the initatory gestures towards modern medievalism –though in fact Chretien deTroyes is a medievalist,and a good deal more positively than Voltaire and those who feel Chaucer might be a release from respectability (never in my experience female).

      Comment by Kate Koppelman on January 7th, 2014

      Agreed.  I hope that you and others will continue the conversation in that direction.  I’m ready to read more.

  • Said in Jest: Who's Laughing at the Middle Ages (and When)? — David Matthews (28 comments)

    • Comment by Candace Barrington on November 6th, 2013

      For a recent discussion of Erasmus’s irreverent Peregrinatio Religionis Ergo, see the 3rd chapter of Gary Waller’s Walsingham and the English Imagination (2011).

      Comment by Candace Barrington on November 6th, 2013

      This seems to be a early moment when the Middle Ages are considered an age of gold. We certainly don’t see it during the Middle Ages themselves. (I realize this sort of idealization isn’t part of your argument; however, re-reading this passage made me laugh because it anticipates so many familiar elements of medievalism.)

      Comment by Candace Barrington on November 6th, 2013

      I find myself wanting to compare the sources of humor in Dane Hew and Monty Python. As you’ve presented them, humor in both arises out of a informed sense of the past; however, MP’s audience sees errors in the way the medieval past is often stereotyped, while DH’s audience laughs because that past might not be as dead as wished.  Could it be that some of the MP humor results from simultaneously wishing that the past is dead and knowing deep down that it remains very much alive (our peasants continue to be mistreated, etc.)? Or does this draw a tighter connection than you want to draw?

      Comment by Candace Barrington on November 6th, 2013

      David, I very much like your analysis of Dane Hew. Thanks for sharing it in this forum.

      Comment by Tim Miller on November 6th, 2013

      Paragraph Three: Sentence beginning “As the subsequent career…”: The distinction that you draw here between a hypothetical sixteenth-century propagandist and the Pythons is excellent, but I question whether we can really say with confidence that the satire here is not aimed at the Middle Ages at all, and rather only at contemporary understandings of the period. I think everyone would agree that this is indeed a knowing satire of some kind, but doesn’t the scene nevertheless also invite the viewer to laugh at, for example, the (actual) extreme disparity during the Middle Ages between the the “clean” upper class and the “dirty” lower classes? In other words, the joke may not actually serve as propaganda to make a dirty, even literally beshitten Middle Ages repulse us, but it seems to me that a fundamental part of the humor does rely on a critique of what we would today call “income inequality” during the Middle Ages. In this respect, the Pythons could also be seen to critique modern romanticizations of the Middle Ages as a utopian space (as we might find implied in the fictions of writers like Morris or Tolkien).

      In fact, I would suggest that the following scene, which presents a strikingly different portrait of peasant life, is very relevant here. The scene pokes fun at the idea that a group of peasants might form an “anarcho-syndicalist commune” and “take it in turns to act as a sort of executive officer for the week.” If your reading is correct that the humor of the second scene functions primarily to lampoon the exaggerated depictions of the medieval as a benighted dark age, I think that the third scene offers a corrective in the other direction, reminding us that both the shit-covered peasants and the utopian anarcho-syndicalists are equally constructs of modern medievalism.

      Comment by snakley on December 5th, 2013

      So are you imagining an arsenal of terror, melancholy, and humor, two pistols and a can of mace?  At any rate, I am interested and enjoying this essay!

      Comment by snakley on December 5th, 2013

      Ok, nice, but I wonder if and when we’ll rejoin terror and melancholy . . .hopefully somewhere in here, but if not, then in another essay or book?  There is something very dangerous about laughing at human history, yet also something very necessary, no?

      Comment by snakley on December 5th, 2013

      I’m glad we are continuing on with melancholy here, and hopefully with terror too– because these matters remind us that there is something very dangerous and defeatist about laughing at human history, yet also something very necessary and cathartic.

      Comment by snakley on December 5th, 2013

      nice!

      Comment by snakley on December 5th, 2013

      I haven’t seen the Trouble with Harry, but the narrative this scenario first brings to my mind is the “The Story of the Hunchback”, a section in Alf Layla wa Layla, aka The Thousand and One Arabian Nights. The setting is China, and the King of China loves the Hunchback, who is a jester-like entertainer. A Muslim tailor, Jewish doctor, and Christian trader all believe they kill the Hunchback and confess to the murder. Do you know this tale? Maybe you’ll mention it later?

      Comment by snakley on December 5th, 2013

      This is so interesting vis-a-vis “The Story of the Hunchback”, which is one of the least sexual episodes from Alf Layla wa Layla;  and yet it contains a good deal of husband-wife teamwork, as I recall. (I’m not sure if this information will be of use, but it certainly can’t hurt to share!)

      Comment by snakley on December 5th, 2013

      Also– a tailor is first to kill the Hunchback in Alf Layla.

      Comment by snakley on December 5th, 2013

      This is fascinating so far– though the link you are making between chivalry and the monastery is not as crystal clear as some other points. I could use a stronger, more direct statement than I’ve seen thus far. Off to teach now; will finish this evening!

      Comment by snakley on December 5th, 2013

      Lovely!  I get what I was missing now!

      Comment by snakley on December 5th, 2013

      Great suggestion, I think!

      Comment by Bettina Bildhauer on December 10th, 2013

      Or could it work both as an exaggerated parody of medieval hygiene AND of medievalism, depending how sophisticated each viewer is? I would now agree with the fine analysis proposed here, but as a teenager found this film hilarious despite almost certainly missing the point that it sends up not the Middle Ages, but representations of the Middle Ages.

      Comment by Bettina Bildhauer on December 10th, 2013

      If you want to mention a medievalist film version of this narrative, Sumurun (Ernst Lubitsch, 192o) uses the Arabian nights story.

      Comment by Ashby Kinch on December 10th, 2013

      While I am interested in the contrast you are drawing, I am reticent to accept the high discursive frames of melancholy and terror as historical parallels to Monty Python. As much as I love Python, the humor appeals across a very broad spectrum, and its historical parallel would be popular entertainment. So, searching for a “humorous middle ages” means looking for those moments when the practices and customs of, in this case, chivalric behavior were subjected to humorous inversion. How about Psalters, where parodistic images abound? Anyway, I don’t think that opposition is central to your paper, but I think if you are looking for medievalist humor among European intellectuals, you really are engaged in Quixotic quest.

      Comment by Ashby Kinch on December 10th, 2013

      I wonder, too, whether the monk figures as a source of abjection for a Protestant reader. As a figure from fabliau with a long history, the hyper-sexualized monk might be, in this story, repeatedly and symbolically killed as a kind of “scapegoating” that justifies the dissolution on moral grounds. And this might account for some of the discomfort in the humor. In any event, this was a fascinating excursion into a text that I did not know at all.

      Comment by Bettina Bildhauer on December 10th, 2013

      This is brimming with great ideas, lovely turns of phrase and astute observations, just as I’d expect from you. The brief readings of Monty Python, Don Quixote and Hitchcock whet the appetite for more, but old-fashioned (or greedy) as I am, I don’t feel I get what I want. I would have loved more in-depth analyses and references (e.g. at least one reference for your definitions of humour, first mention of the Middle Ages, the basic literature on your texts and films…). I would have loved to have heard more especially in the Dane Hew section, which I think is the heart of the article. I understand that it’s hard to do this in such a short format, but maybe if you cut, say, the Hitchcock section… or maybe a better solution would be to turn this into a book, as there are so many avenues to explore: the return of the dead, melancholy, humour, misdating… Even the current format, it’s an inspirational piece that’s already made me think a lot – congratulations!

      Comment by Kate Koppelman on December 16th, 2013

      I’ve mentioned this section in my comments on another essay, but I think that your reading of “humor in knowingness” is really important.  This is, I think, especially the case for modern comic medievalisms.  So as you note, medievalists love to laugh at Monty Python, and contemporary students do as well, but not for the same reasons (or not always for the same reasons), right?  What is the relationship between a particular “knowingness” that was attached to or required to laugh at the Middle Ages and the more “general” (whatever that means) understandings of it?

      Comment by Kate Koppelman on December 16th, 2013

      Again, I want more conversation between essays here.  Is this a different formulation of the Middle Ages than the one that Brantley is working with in his essay?  Or is it unfair of me to try to stretch these readings across such disparate texts?  Or might there be a connection between what you are reading as melancholy and what Brantley describes as an erasure of Hobbit Humor?

       

      Comment by Kate Koppelman on December 16th, 2013

      I agree with an earlier comment that, while the reading of Hitchcock is great, I wonder if it takes up too much of your time here?  Your reading of Dane Hew is really where the essay gets going.

      Also, your comment about the “black comedy” of Hitchcock makes me wish that this, and all the essays I’ve read here, had done more to foreground the generic elements of comedy.  Comedy is about (or at least partially about) restoring order—it is about the opportunity to reign in those impulses that threaten to destroy or at least disallow the kind of social order that the text advocates. So, it allows some playfulness and disequilibrium, but it often works to either erase it at the end or to transform it into something that is not threatening.  I guess that this implies that any comic medievalism sees some kind of potential threat in its object (and I really do mean, “I guess,” since I am a novice in theories of comedy or humor).

      Comment by Kate Koppelman on December 16th, 2013

      I’m so sorry about all that weird formatting above!  Ack!

      Comment by Kate Koppelman on December 16th, 2013

      So, the text itself functions as the corpse—the body that cannot be buried.  The Middle Ages, then, act as the revenant that will not go away and that produces both laughter and, potentially, a threat to the anxious efforts of a present trying to take itself seriously.  I’m reminded of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s story of the man who dies and returns that night to his wife’s bed–as a revenant, not as a ghost.  In this first story, Geoffrey sees very little threat in the man’s body, instead, it is an irritant that the whole community resolves to eliminate in a fairly calm fashion.  But, as Geoffrey continues to tell other stories of revenants, they get more and more scary–barking dogs attend them, they become bloated with blood.  

      I think this is the most important claim in the essay—the one that should be foregrounded and the one that actually shows that the essay is not entirely about finding an originary moment of laughing at the middle ages.  Instead, it is about, as all of these essays seem to be about, the relationship between humor (generic comedy) and the past—a past that must always be in the service, in seems, of an anxious present (anxious because, perhaps, it knows that its own future pastness cannot be negated.  It knows, perhaps, that its vital and living body holds within it only one promise, death).  Talk about melancholy!  But in a good way.  I really enjoyed this essay.

      Comment by Kate Koppelman on December 16th, 2013

      Again with the formatting.  I hope that perhaps a moderator can fix this?  Sorry again!

      Comment by Stephanie Trigg on December 16th, 2013

      Not sure if it’s really legitimate to argue for the interpretation of a scene from  Jones’ later career, though. (Just thinking about Louise’s essay on the temporality of medievalist humour: do you “need” to know about Jones’ later career to get the joke?)

      Comment by Stephanie Trigg on December 16th, 2013

      So, then (and I agree that it’s in this paragraph we really see where you are going — and perhaps you might hint this earlier on), I wonder whether the category might not equally still be religious (i.e. monastic) satire, as much as it is the medieval that’s becoming humorous here. The last sentence here also makes me think of the opening of the Wife of Bath’s Tale and its fairies/friars joke. The medieval that appears and disappears, etc.

  • ‘simply to amuse the reader’: The Humor of Walter Scott’s Reformation — Andrew Lynch (22 comments)

    • Comment by B. Saltzman on November 21st, 2013

      Andrew,
      This is a wonderful essay, full of rich and engaging analysis of Scott’s subtle sense of historicist humor and the serious political-religious implications that only the comedic could bring to light.
      I have made comments by paragraph throughout, but at the top I should note that I think it might be helpful to distinguish between some of the terms for humor, as used throughout the essay, including, but not limited to “comic,” “amusement,” “humor,” “playfulness,” “harsh wit,” and “whimsy.” The lines between these concepts seem blurred from the start, which makes it hard to understand how, for instance, the comic performance of Tully-Veolan’s hereditary right is comparable to the “comic clash between style and substance” (para. 25).  Some of these terms and their meanings are particular to Scott and his contemporary readers, while others are part of the critical argument that you have brought to bear on these texts. Each term carries a specific sense (or at least can be made to carry a specific sense), but those senses seem conflated here. I think it would help to provide some kind of paradigm at the start for understanding those differences and what they mean for your interpretation of Scott. I can imagine two ways of presenting such a paradigm (though by no means are these the only ways to do so):
      First, you might wish to reflect further upon early nineteenth-century uses of these terms to show where their meanings overlap and where they are distinct. Second, you might consider using each term to refer to a specific kind of humor by theoretically distinguishing between, for example, the particular site of certain kinds of humor and the comedic agency behind them (on the one hand) and the perspective from which other kinds of humor are recognized (on the other hand). I imagine the former as an deliberate performance of comedy, but the latter as an accidentally comedic act that is only made comedic by the audience’s laughter. There must be a difference, in other words, between humor that gets a character in the novel to laugh and humor that gets the reader to laugh precisely because no character in the novel seems to get the joke. At the same time, amusement appears to be altogether different from, say, comedic irony; the former serves to distract, certainly, but the latter can incisively highlight inconsistencies, contradictions, or paradoxes. It is obviously not possible or desirable to completely segregate these concepts, but a theoretical paradigm for understanding how you approach the different kinds of humor would further aid the reader in understanding your analysis of a number of different scenes and the different kinds of humor that they produce.
      Lastly, part of the challenge in writing about humor and amusement, of course, comes from the fact that explaining a joke is always a fated endeavor; defining humor itself may be even more fated still. Yet in addition to the above recommendation, I think it may also be necessary to show your readers, especially those less familiar with Scott and his own contemporary moment, why some of his lines would have been funny and in what way (again drawing on some kind of paradigm for understanding the various forms of humor) they would have been received.

      Comment by B. Saltzman on November 21st, 2013

      James’s comment about Waverley’s self-forgetfulness is particularly interesting. I wonder if it is, in fact, dependent upon (rather than opposed to) the “self-awareness” posited by more recent critics. The self-forgetful novel requires some kind of prior “self-reflexive awareness,” otherwise it is not “self-forgetful,” per se, but rather “unaware of its self” or careless or nonchalant. And that is altogether different from a novel that amuses its reader (i.e. forces its reader to forget him- or herself).

      Furthermore, I am curious about the jump from amusement of the sort James imagines in a ballad and the humor that the author imagines in Scott’s historicism. I’m sure this will be sorted out below, but perhaps it would be helpful to signal the perceived relation between amusement and humor at the start (perhaps even in place of the discussion of the critical attributions of “self-awareness,” which seems to distract from the primary interest of the essay).

      Nearly every reader . . . : This sentence is slippery. The reference to “every reader” is hard to justify, and it is unclear to whom the changing “ideas” belong.

      Comment by B. Saltzman on November 21st, 2013

      Again, is “amusement” pejorative and “humor” (as an extension of wit) complimentary?

      Chapter Introductory: This seems evocative of Chaucer’s ernst and game. Perhaps see Eleanor Johnson’s recent book on the ethics of form (Practicing Literary Theory in the Late Middle Ages), which might also offer a way to read James’s comment comparing Scott’s writing to old ballads at the start of the essay.

      Comment by B. Saltzman on November 21st, 2013

      Narrative situations and character portraits: The complexity of Scott’s humor suggests that it is self-aware and more sophisticated than cheap comedy. Is there a difference, in other words, between self-conscious humor and incidental comedy (e.g. between telling a joke and inadvertently doing something embarrassingly laughable)?

      Comic by the English courtroom: What exactly about the courtroom’s response indicates that it is comic?

      Comment by B. Saltzman on November 21st, 2013

      In popular memory: fix “’

      To amuse in Scott’s period . . . religious history: This seems an extremely important part of your argument, yet it gets buried in your discussion of Alexander, Lincoln, Ferris, etc. at the start of this paragraph. Is there a way to highlight the point in a separate paragraph, perhaps drawing on more contemporary examples beyond those in the OED?

      Comment by B. Saltzman on November 21st, 2013

      Danger: The alignment of joking with danger is (I think) not innocent here, since it is clear that the critical kind of humor used in witty attacks is of a very different variety compared with purely amusing humor. Arguably, the former (critical wit) defends against the latter (immature humor), since (as you note) it keeps the reader on edge, lest he or she fall into the comedian’s trap. 

      Comment by B. Saltzman on November 21st, 2013

      Seems relatively undirective: The phrase is unnecessarily hesitant, and perhaps “undirective” is best substituted for another word.

      Accountable: Who holds the reader accountable? Only the reader’s self-consciousness can do that, but a reader who fails to see the humor is likely not to possess in the first place enough self-consciousness to hold him- or herself accountable.

      Comment by B. Saltzman on November 21st, 2013

      Wilder German reading: How so?

      Comment by B. Saltzman on November 21st, 2013

      General doctrine: I don’t think you have shown what Scott’s “general doctrine” would have been, if he even had one (all evidence seems to indicate something more ambivalent and complex than the word doctrine would suggest). Also, the second part of this sentence, “and in the tale’s own words . . .” deserves its own sentence, since it confuses the important point you are trying to make in the first part of the sentence.

      Why did he do it?: Do what, exactly?

      The narrative summary at the end of the paragraph is essential, but somewhat hard to follow.

      Comment by B. Saltzman on November 21st, 2013

      Scott seems to be: I am having trouble following the logic of this sentence, since it relies on evidence which has not yet been supplied (how exactly does Scott “show it happening in a suspect way that diverts and distracts readers’ ability to observe God’s just judgements”?). If I understand your argument correctly, there seems to be two separate points to this sentence: 1. Scott pleases and disturbs his readers, and 2. he pleases them teleologically (the ultimate end is clearly pro-Protestantism) while disturbing them with the temporarily amusing impracticality of Catholic rituals that mirror his own authorial agency (?).  

      Comment by B. Saltzman on November 21st, 2013

      Humor of the Novel: Why does the human decency evinced by a persecutor-less and martyr-less Reformation novel constitute humor and not just irony? Can it even be considered comic irony? If so, how?

      Dawson, 2004)istory): typo

      Whimsical: The choice of word is telling and apt, but it introduces a comedic quality not yet specifically considered.

      Comment by B. Saltzman on November 21st, 2013

      Begins (guardedly) to resemble: the scene seems to resemble the latter example more than the former, but then you might have to show how the latter example (not yet discussed in the essay) is necessarily comedic and/or humorous. In my view, what unites the scenes from The Monastery that you discuss in this paragraph and what makes them humorous is the fact that they are all playing with the timing of the concealment and dispersion of knowledge. Warden and Eustace’s argument distracts Glendinning; Alice has already died, yet Eustace does not know it and thus toils on needlessly; Elspeth dies before confessing. This careful narrative temporality is perhaps what distinguishes comedy from history. The narrative can be manipulated so that otherwise dull events are forced to overlap with one another in a way that makes each of them urgent, significant, and entertaining.
      Earlier in The Monastery: Cite passage from The Monastery.
      Like almost everything else in the book: I’m not sure how “this situation” (the precise situation is unclear) and “everything else in the book” is comically doubled by Morton and Moray’s dispute. How does their dispute bear on the prior scenes? Or is it simply another example of exaggerated debate?

      Happened in its own time: I think the point these passages are making is that “major historical changes” take place slowly over a long period of time; but when the events and principles underlying the changes are compressed into the playground of a fictional narrative, the temporal contingency of scenes and characters produces a comic effect by making, for instance, one urgently heated argument overlap with an event that simultaneously renders it null.

      Antiquarianism is absurd: This final sentence makes a claim for the absurdity of antiquarianism, but that claim seems undeveloped at this point, and even then it only sets up Ferris’ argument; perhaps it would be better to lay down the precise impact of these numerous passages which you have insightfully brought together in this paragraph.

      Comment by B. Saltzman on November 21st, 2013

      I think this paragraph may need some kind of concluding sentence to wrap up your thoughts on the Monastery before moving on to The Abbot.

      Comment by B. Saltzman on November 21st, 2013

      The preservation of these monuments: This quotation wants contextualization.

      Comment by B. Saltzman on November 21st, 2013

      What is meant by “Nothing is made emotively present to the imagination”? Also, the reliance on imagining a hypothetical reader’s response as the basis for a passage’s comedic effect (here and elsewhere in the article) seems tenuous.

      Scott respects the historical passions: For a concluding sentence of the penultimate paragraph, the words “respect” and “teasing” seem a little too mild, given your overall argument.

      Comment by B. Saltzman on November 21st, 2013

      This is not quite a comedy: it is unclear what “this” refers to.

      Post-modern: Is this anachronistic, given that it is used to describe Scott’s contentment?

      Human source: Are you implying that it is possible to obtain purely disinterested narrative only from a divine source?

      Has made us aware: this phrase seems too ambivalent and passive, given what you have argued above. Scott is doing more than just “making us aware,” and whatever he is doing he is doing it more forcefully, too.

      Enjoyment: not everyone enjoys an act of comedy, especially if it depends upon an insult or contains an implicit critique.

      Duncan: this quotation seems to deserve its own sentence and set up, since it isn’t immediately clear whether it is a critical quotation or a quotation from Scott (even something as simple as, “what Ian Duncan refers to as ‘history . . . at a second remove’” that is, ‘the characters’ own obsession . . . “’ would work). Also, the remainder of the sentence carries on with even more alternative descriptions of Scott’s use of the past; its logic would benefit from further compartmentalization.

      Comic recognition: I’m not sure I follow your meaning, especially with respect to how this comic recognition provides both respite and a common ground.

      This was such an enjoyable read, Andrew. Thank you for sharing it, and I look forward to seeing the issue in print!

      Comment by Bruce Holsinger on December 11th, 2013

      I like the intro, though I’m not sure I would cast the appreciation for Scott’s seriousness as “more recent”–it was Lukacs’ whole point about Scott and the origins of the historical novel. Perhaps inflect this point differently?

      Comment by Bruce Holsinger on December 12th, 2013

      You might look at Jane Austen’s tongue-in-cheek reaction, in a letter to her sister–is her own humor a reaction to Scott’s?

       

      Comment by Bruce Holsinger on December 12th, 2013

      Andrew, this is a really brilliant and incisive piece on Scott. Having just taught Waverley for the first time I’m very attuned to the difficulty of saying something original or interesting about his corpus, but you’ve done so with a light but magisterial touch that I really admire. I’ve made just a few suggestions/comments below. One thought I had is that you might think about the various kinds of humor Scott provoked in his readers: i.e. not descriptions of Scott as comedic, but comedic/amused reactions among his readers. I’m thinking here of Jane Austen’s tongue-in-cheek reaction, in a letter to her sister, upon learning of Scott’s success as a novelist when he’d already had such success as a poet–is her own humor a reaction to Scott’s in some way? I wonder as well if you’re familiar with Bergson’s “Comedy”–an old but wonderful book on the nature of the comic in art, fiction, philosophy, and so on. His thoughts on the expansiveness of the comic mode might be an interesting place to go for refining definitions of the comedic, as you suggest at various points in the essay. Really wonderful stuff!

      Comment by Bruce Holsinger on December 12th, 2013

      Can you bring in Mark Twain here? His was probably the most caustic reaction to Scott and what Twain regarded as his rather lame attempts at humor–and it’s certainly a reaction that many of your own readers will be very familiar with.

      Comment by Andrew Lynch on December 16th, 2013

      Thanks for this and for all comments, Bruce. I’d written on Scott and Lukacs previously in *postmedieval*, and on Scott and Twain elsewhere, so tended to elide those points, but they are important in the bigger picture, I agree. Will see about getting Henri Bergson in there too for more definition. And I agree: Austen’s comments show her alive to a humorous side to the prodigious success of Scott in both forms, which is there too in Fanny Price’s disappointed expectations of the chapel at Sotherton. Glad you enjoyed it. Cheers, Andrew

      Comment by Andrew Lynch on December 16th, 2013

      Dear Benjamin  (I’m guessing you are the Berkeley scholar of Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Latin that I googled), Thanks very much for your comments and for reading so carefully. I am going to use them to work on improving clarity and to incorporate what I can in the space provided. Very best wishes for your own work.

      Andrew

Source: http://mcpress.media-commons.org/postmedieval_comicmedievalisms/all-comments/