Wednesday, September 26, 2012
The duck-rabbit again...
Of late I've been working on my exegesis. There have been some interesting posts on the International Society for Humor Studies (ISHS) bulletin board on the topic of incongruity and resolution. This has been troubling me for some time. Resolution sounds so final, once a joke is resolved its affect is completely discharged. On a second hearing the less funny or not funny at all. This does not seem to capture the social nature of the process. Jimmy Carr in the book he wrote with Lucy Greaves tells of the comedian Peter Kay he tells the oldest of old jokes as a way of interacting with the audience (p. 137).
To use a visual example of incongruity and resolution, Wittgenstein's duck-rabbit encapsulates two incongruous images into one visual statement. In his Philosophical investigations I believe he argued that the viewer can resolve the image to represent the image of a duck or to represent the image of a rabbit. Also, the viewer can examine the image itself purely as a shape that represents the form described by the tone and weight of the lines.
For me the truly interesting idea is that the image resists final and complete resolution. It is possible and, to a degree, desirable to flip between the two (three?) versions of the image. Just because the image has been resolved as a duck, for example, this does not remove or delete the possibility of the rabbit. Also, the third version (neither duck or rabbit) is a view of structure. This is akin to the linguistic structure of a joke - it is itself anything but funny.
Maybe this helps to explain why old jokes, ones we've heard tens if not hundreds of times before, still have an effect. Sure it may not be the same as the original / initial effect but it is an effect nonetheless. It also suggests that the structure of the joke is necessary but not sufficient to generate the affect of humour.
I agree that the duck-rabbit is not particularly funny. The version Wittgenstein used was the simplest of line drawings as opposed to the more 'realistic' renderings - Margaret Rose uses one of these more detailed versions. The simple line drawing does away with all the extraneous detail. I do find the wistful upward gaze of the rabbit charming - it has a Luenig-like innocence.
As a metaphor for incongruity and humour I am still drawn to the duck-rabbit (please ignore the possible pun). One of the three viewings of the drawing is purely structural - the drawing as a shape representing neither the duck or the rabbit. That for me is a powerful metaphor for structuralist approaches to humour. The structure can tell us the HOW of humour but it is not in itself humorous. This is 'dissecting the frog' to use another famous animal analogy. Likewise, the removal of extraneous detail is akin to the need for brevity or economy in humour.
As you pointed out the big WHY question is much harder to get at. I would argue that the text alone, regardless of the method of dissection, can not provide that answer for us. The answer to the WHY question (if there even is a single answer) must then exist somewhere in the interplay of the psychological, social and cultural elements of a system that encapsulates both production and reception.