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Wit's End

Wit's End: Women’s Humor as Rhetorical and Performative Strategy

Sean Zwagerman
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    Wit's End
    Book Description:

    InWit's End,Sean Zwagerman offers an original perspective on women's use of humor as a performative strategy as seen in works of twentieth-century American literature. He argues that women whose direct, explicit performative speech has been traditionally denied, or not taken seriously, have often turned to humor as a means of communicating with men.The book examines both the potential and limits of women's humor as a rhetorical strategy in the writings of James Thurber, Zora Neale Hurston, Dorothy Parker, Edward Albee, Louise Erdrich, and others. For Zwagerman, these texts "talk back" to important arguments in humor studies and speech-act theory. He deconstructs the use of humor in select passages by employing the theories of J. L. Austin, John Searle, Jacques Derrida, Shoshana Felman, J. Hillis Miller, and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. Zwagerman offers arguments both for and against these approaches while advancing new thinking on humor as the "end"-both the goal and limit-of performative strategy, and as a means of expressing a full range of serious purposes.Zwagerman contends that women's humor is not solely a subversive act, but instead it should be viewed in the total speech situation through context, motives, and intended audience. Not strictly a transgressive influence, women's humor is seen as both a social corrective and a reinforcement of established ideologies. Humor has become an epistemology, an "attitude" or slant on one's relation to society.Zwagerman seeks to broaden the scope of performativity theory beyond the logical pragmatism of deconstruction and looks to the use of humor in literature as a deliberate stylization of experiences found in real-world social structures, and as a tool for change.

    eISBN: 978-0-8229-7377-5
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Introduction
    (pp. 1-9)

    “It is good to be shifty in a new country,” says Simon Suggs, the mischievous protagonist in Johnson Jones Hooper’s nineteenth-century comic stories (Cohen 207). The shifty Suggs could be the voice of humor itself, as it eludes attempts to define or domesticate it. Humor, writes Constance Rourke, “is a lawless element, full of surprises” (ix). In her groundbreaking study of American humor and popular culture, Rourke depicts the humor of the early frontier as a means of negotiating with the unknown and unpredictable, a tool as useful as the pocketknife for survival on the fringes. But in her bibliography,...

  2. 1 “Like a Marriage with a Monkey” An Argument for the Use of Speech-Act Theory in the Analysis of Humor
    (pp. 10-41)

    InSense and Sensibilia,J. L. Austin complains about the tendency in philosophy for a term to become so broadly used that it ceases to be useful at all, a process whereby “a word, which already has a very specific meaning, [is] gradually stretched, without caution or definition or any limit, until it becomes, first perhaps obscurely metaphorical, but ultimately meaningless” (15). Austin coined the term “performative” to refer to those utterances that, unlike statements, do not “‘describe’ or ‘report’ or constate anything at all”; rather, “the uttering of the sentence is, or is a part of, the doing of...

  3. 2 Subversive Potential Meets Social Resistance Women’s Humor in Thurber, Hurston, and Parker
    (pp. 42-91)

    In looking to American letters for representations of humor in dialogue between men and women, what better place to begin than with the writer who, at least according toBartlett’s,is credited with the phrase “The war between men and women”? Yet James Thurber’s work tends not to be taken very seriously. Thurber’s contemporary Will Cuppy gives voice to what I have suggested is a false binary between the humorous and the serious when he refers to Thurber and E. B. White’sIs Sex Necessary? as “a minor classic—and one uses the term ‘minor’ only because it is so...

  4. 3 Generally Unhappy The Deconstruction of Speech Acts and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
    (pp. 92-128)

    In order to analyze the performative uses of conversational humor, we must join broader debates about performativity and language use itself. The stakes of these debates are no laughing matter. Language, including language in literature and the language of linguistic theory, is a tool for extending connections. As participants in, and not mere observers of, critical thought, pedagogy, and community, we have the opportunity—in fact, the responsibility—to foster theories that sharpen those tools, theories tested in the laboratory of a lived, shared, contested social reality. As I have noted previously, Austin does not discuss the social inequalities that...

  5. 4 Comic Relief A Stand-up Performance by J. L. Austin and the Consequences of Not Getting It
    (pp. 129-171)

    So now where are we? For this not to be wit’s end, we will have to assert some sort of counterstatement to the Derridian and post-Derridian undermining of communication. For having followed the course of speechact theory from Austin to Derrida, and representations of women’s use of humor from Hurston to Albee, we seem to have come to a most unhappy place of performative failure. Three-quarters of the way throughHow to Do Things with Words,Austin begins Lecture X as follows: “Forgetting for the time the initial distinction between performatives and constatives and the programme of finding a list...

  6. 5 Failure Revisited and Authority Regained Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine
    (pp. 172-193)

    In the climactic scene of Hurston’sTheir Eyes Were Watching God,Janie stands trial for killing her husband, Tea Cake, an act clearly depicted in the novel as self-defense. A trial is a quintessential performative scene, and the language of performativity pervades Hurston’s description:

    The court set and Janie saw the judge who had put on a great robe to listen about her and Tea Cake. And twelve more white men had stopped whatever they were doing to listen and pass on what happened between Janie and Tea Cake Woods, and as to whether things were done right or not....

  7. 6 Sisyphus’s Punch Line Intentionality and Wit as Treatment for Postmodern Depression
    (pp. 194-214)

    In “Words as Deeds,” Burke concludes that, since contexts change over time, “the relationship between ‘scene’ and ‘act’” changes, and the “enactment” of a particular speech act today may well have a different meaning than it did when enacted previously (148). “In this respect,” Burke asks, “can the same utterances, as a speech act, have the same meaning they had when first declared?” (149). This may sound at first like support for Derridiandifferanceand the undecideability of meaning. But contexts are typical (in the sense of recurrent: types manifested as tokens), so they are not radically unpredictable, ambiguous, or...