The Senses of Humor

The Senses of Humor: Self and Laughter in Modern America

Copyright Date: 1998
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 280
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  • Book Info
    The Senses of Humor
    Book Description:

    Why do modern Americans believe in something called a sense of humor and how did they come to that belief? Daniel Wickberg traces the cultural history of the concept from its British origins as a way to explore new conceptions of the self and social order in modern America. More than simply the history of an idea, Wickberg's study provides new insights into a peculiarly modern cultural sensibility.

    The expression "sense of humor" was first coined in the 1840s and the idea that such a sense was a personality trait to be valued developed only in the 1870s. What is the relationship between Medieval humoral medicine and this distinctively modern idea of the sense of humor? What has it meant in the past 125 years to declare that someone lacks a sense of humor? How is the joke, as a twentieth-century quasi-literary form, different from the traditional folktale? Wickberg addresses these questions, among others, using the history of ideas to throw new light on the way contemporary Americans think and speak.

    The context of Wickberg's analysis is Anglo-American; the specifically British meanings of humor and laughter from the sixteenth century forward provide the framework for understanding American cultural values in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The genealogy of the sense of humor is, like the study of keywords, an avenue into a significant aspect of the cultural history of modernity. Drawing on a wide range of sources and disciplinary perspectives, Wickberg's analysis challenges many of the prevailing views of modern American culture and suggests a new model for cultural historians.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-5438-7
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
    D. W.
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-12)

    Everyday language and ordinary speech in twentieth-century America find a place for something called the “sense of humor.” We routinely describe individuals as possessing this trait; we use it as a shorthand for recommending the personal quality of people; we look for it in our associates and friends as a sign of their good nature and compatibility. Anyone who has read letters of recommendation or glanced at the personal ads that fill the back pages of urban weekly newspapers knows that the term “sense of humor” recurs with amazing frequency. It is a simple description of a universally recognized personality...

  5. ONE The Idea of Humor
    (pp. 13-45)

    The idea of the sense of humor as an attribute of persons, something individual people could be said to have or not have, was first formulated in the Anglo-American world of the mid-nineteenth century. The invention of this new concept was closely related to a specific idealized version of the bourgeois individual commensurate with the new bureaucratic and corporate imperatives of the period. But the story of the sense of humor does not begin in the nineteenth century. The component concepts of “sense” and “humor,” in their shifting meanings and growing importance from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, are...

  6. TWO Humor, Laughter, and Sensibility
    (pp. 46-73)

    The meaning of humor, as we have seen, had become associated with laughter in new ways from the sixteenth century forward, and had joined a constellation of terms that helped define the meaning of laughter in the modern era. But the meaning of laughter in Anglo-American culture, and in European cultures in general, had not been static throughout the modern period. In fact, the appearance of humor as a new relation of laughter, as a category or object of laughter and the laughable, occurred at a fortuitous time in the history of laughter itself. The histories of humor and laughter...

  7. THREE Bureaucratic Individualism and the Sense of Humor
    (pp. 74-119)

    The eighteenth century gave the Anglo-American world the cult of sensibility, the moral sense and the common sense, but not the sense of humor. It was the nineteenth century that formulated the term “sense of humor” and came to attach a significance and value to the personality trait designated by that term. If the sense of humor was a relatively late coinage to describe a character trait, it has compensated for that tardiness by becoming the most prominent of personality attributes in the everyday speech of the twentieth century. While we recognize all types of particular “senses” in describing the...

  8. FOUR The Commodity Form of the Joke
    (pp. 120-169)

    The man with humor may make a joke, said Brander Matthews at the end of the nineteenth century; the man with a sense of humor may take one. This distinction was repeated more than once, although many people in the twentieth century have used “sense of humor” as a term to describe both capacities.¹ What gets lost in the distinction is what floats between the two personal attributes of humor and sense of humor: the joke. In Matthews’s expression, the joke is naturalized, taken for granted as an item of exchange, understood as the given objective correlate of the sense...

  9. FIVE The Humorous and the Serious
    (pp. 170-218)

    In the late 1980s, an ambitious work in the sociology of humor suggested that everyday action in advanced industrial societies is divided into two related but opposed modes: the serious and the humorous. According to Michael Mulkay’sOn Humor, the serious mode is characterized by action—and, more specifically, language—meaning what it says; by accepting a set of commonly held conventions about the singular nature of the world, the social actor in the serious mode expects those conventions to render the intent and meaning of his actions transparent to others. We are serious when we mean what we say....

  10. Conclusion
    (pp. 219-222)

    The past two decades have seen a rebirth of interest in humor and laughter in several important cultural venues: the expansion of stand-up comedy and the clubs and cable television outlets that support it; the affirmation of medical and health benefits to be derived from laughter in the wake of Norman Cousins’s self-medication with Marx Brothers movies; the rise of humor consultants flogging their message of increased productivity and well-being within corporations and other large, bureaucratic institutions through development of the sense of humor; the increasing use of humor as a sales technique, particularly in television advertising. Within the academic...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 223-258)
  12. Index
    (pp. 259-267)