The basic humor process : a cognitive-shift theory and the case against incongruity


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Dannagal G. Young

What happened? Local: The wind was not sufficient for all. This is based on a metaphor, whose vehicle is the situation of insufficient resources, so familiar to us in other contexts, but inappropriate in this one. Broken metaphors are different from flattened metaphors, and are not within the direct scope of this paper.

The Basic Humor Process

What I want to mention in this section is yet another ruse used by jokes: reversing tenor and vehicle. The result involves both flattening of the metaphor, and the vehicle pointing at itself. In the next joke a metaphor is dismantled by exchanging the roles of tenor and vehicle.


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The result is, again, going one level lower — to the plain meaning. In the next joke it is not a metaphor that is reversed, but metonymy representing something by its part or something pertaining to it.

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Metonymy is a kind of pointer, and in this case it turns out to point at itself. The carpenter and the electrician needed such a pointer, the boxer did not. He himself is the pointer. The joke starts with a promise of information on the playboy version for married couples. Instead, we receive information and a mocking one at that on married life. This move is not restricted to these families. It can be found in many jokes.

The owner of a tail docked cocker spaniel brings it to the vet, and asks him to cut the tail even shorter. The maneuver is transparent: from meaning to its signifier. The wagging of the tail is a sign of joy.

Cognitive Dissonance Theory: A Crash Course

The man is not interested in the meaning of the wagging, the joy it is going to be there whether the tail is short or long , only in the sign. The pointer is triumphant over its meaning. The tail is wagging the dog. These two steps are precisely what happens in flattening of metaphors. Taking a metaphor at face value means that the external wins over the internal. The carrier of meaning turns out to be more important than the meaning itself.

Here is a classic of this sort:. A picture is a pointer: it points at the object itself.

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Here it is preferred to the object. Proud parents provided me with a metaphor for this state of affairs. They were trying to teach their baby names of objects, by pointing at them while articulating their names. But instead of looking at the object, the baby clutched the finger. This is what happens in the jokes we are considering: you look at the finger, instead of what it points at. Like dogs they lived in the street, some say that like dogs they even made love there, defying common morality. The most famous of them was Diogenes BC , about whom it is told that his possessions amounted to a waist cloth, a bowl and a jar.

When one day he saw someone drinking from the stream by cupping his hands, he broke the jar.


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The symbol behaves in jokes in a similar way. Its most precious possession is its meaning. But it happily forsakes it, to become liberated of worldly possessions. Relieving itself of the burden of the meaning, it is free and jubilant. An engineer is stranded on a desert island, and leads a miserable Robinson Crusoe existence. A few months on he has an excursion to the other side of the island, and discovers there a beautiful woman who was also stranded. He finds that she has managed to provide herself with the comforts of civilization — a cabin with running water, kitchen and furniture.

She invites him to a lavish dinner, wine included. Is there anything else I can do for you? Is it the absurdity of the request that is funny? But there is something subtler going on. E-mail is a means of communication, and as such it is a carrier of meaning, pointing as it does to the addressee. The woman offers the thing itself — the engineer prefers the pointer. Is it legitimate to ascribe such sophistication to a joke? Most definitely.

As Papa Freud taught us, even non-assuming products of thought are often deeper than meets the eye. A menu is a carrier of meaning, in that it points at possible choices. Here it becomes the thing itself. The woman chooses its entirety. Mindess spoke of the joy of liberation in laughter. This can be viewed in two ways. One is the metaphorical joy of the carrier of meaning, of triumph over the meaning. Then there is the joy of the listener, who finds that he or she is not bound to the ordinary meaning of the pointer — this is joy of freedom from commitment.

A classic example is play on words — shared, actually, by both poems and jokes. The external appearance of the words precedes their meaning. By the way — this is another characteristic shared with poetry, where the rhyme and meter play an important role. And here, too, there is a difference between jokes and poems: in poetry the diversion does not annihilate the meaning, but enriches it.

In jokes, the connection between form and content is accidental, and is eventually mocked and discarded. Two nonagenarians marry. On the first night he gropes for her hand, they hold hands and fall asleep. On the second night he gropes for her hand, they hold hands and fall asleep. The holding of hands is a pointer, arousing anticipation of what is expected to follow. But it then transpires that it carries no meaning beyond itself — this is it. The conductor died. The rehearsal is cancelled. After a few minutes he returns. Are you deaf? The man on the opposite seat gets annoyed, and eventually pulls a sandwich out of his bag and offers it to him.

The hungry passenger, his impatient travelling companion, as well as the reader of the joke, are all more interested in the words uttered than in the hunger itself. Another example in which the saying is that which matters:. A quick transition occurs from the position of an observer to that of a participant. Would you like to hear a joke?

Once there were two jokes. One fell ill. The other sat by its bed, consoled it, fed it soup. The Monty Python group cultivated this type of humor. Your type makes me puke!

1. A revolution

The man in the office does it as a job, not driven by real emotions — Bergson may glee. At any given moment the man may wonder whether he is having an argument or arguing his right to have one. The move we are describing in this paper is like that — from external to internal. From the meaning, which is outside, to the carrier, which is inside our thoughts.

The basic humor process : a cognitive-shift theory and the case against incongruity The basic humor process : a cognitive-shift theory and the case against incongruity
The basic humor process : a cognitive-shift theory and the case against incongruity The basic humor process : a cognitive-shift theory and the case against incongruity
The basic humor process : a cognitive-shift theory and the case against incongruity The basic humor process : a cognitive-shift theory and the case against incongruity
The basic humor process : a cognitive-shift theory and the case against incongruity The basic humor process : a cognitive-shift theory and the case against incongruity
The basic humor process : a cognitive-shift theory and the case against incongruity The basic humor process : a cognitive-shift theory and the case against incongruity

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