Nonsense, Irony, Humor

by Susan Stewart

When a fiction concomitantly presents two domains of reality as a set of voices in conflict with one another, irony results. In irony the text begins to demonstrate the relative nature of provinces of meaning. The text begins to split. Messages and contexts must be seen as part of a hierarchy of relations for interpretation to take place. What was left unsaid in the context of the everyday lifeworld—that one must abstract from context, lifting language from one context to another and thereby objectifying it, that one must choose from tradition in terms of relevance structures—begins now to "all talk at once." The ironic messages "Little did he realize" and "How could we have known" are comments upon the nature of relevance structures and the possibility of conflict between our expectations in social interactions and the conclusions of social interactions. They point to the tragedy of any attention that is focused—its essential incompleteness. With irony, common sense begins to be undermined. In terms of the work that irony accomplishes—a presentation of the relative nature of points of view, of the incomplete and only partially predictable nature of experience—we can see irony as a kind of metacommunication, a communication that bears a message about the nature of communication.

Irony emphasizes the textual, the interpreted, and the cultural, rather than the natural, status of social interaction. Thus it may be seen as linked to other parodies, satires, and burlesques of the everyday world; the specific taking in and taking over of one text by another. These genres show the possibility that intertextual relationships can be not only harmonious, but also in conflict. With such genres, speech begins to envelop context. What before was considered to be a matter of course now becomes a matter of discourse, subject to ongoing, ragged-edged interpretation. As Voloshinov points out, "The form of irony in general is conditioned by a social conflict; it is the encounter in one voice of two incarnate value judgments and their interference with one another."


With these manipulations and transgressions [of the hierarchies of common-sense discourse], nonsense resembles the work of humor, where the notion of play takes on its shades of meaning as "free play" and "the play, or give" of something—its capacity to be stretched and manipulated. Earlier I discussed the "literalizing" of metaphor in nonsense. This process can be seen as the clash of two levels of abstraction, as an intertextual contradiction. Much humor derives from such intertextual contradictions, from the collision of two or more universes of discourse, and the humor of nonsense often comes from the contradictions that arise when the abstract and systematic nature of discourse is brought to the fore—nonsense is humor without a context as well as metaphor without a context.

There are two methods by which humor can present an intertextual contradiction: On the one hand, humor can arise when difference is perceived between universes thought to be compatible. On the other hand, humor can result from similarity perceived between universes thought to be disparate. Puns, for example, are symptomatic of the first type of contradiction. While there is sameness on the aural level there is a splitting into difference on the semantic level. An example of the second method of contradiction—the perception of similarity where there was thought to be difference—can be seen in the humor that depends upon an ongoing historical definition of the "not-human." In cultures where the other is perceived to be the animal, humor will result whenever men act like animals or animals act like men. It is interesting that Bergson’s definition of humor as the mechanical encrusted on the living comes on the heels of the Industrial Revolution.

The structure of humor can be related to the structure of social interaction. The child’s early experience with humor is descriptive. It occurs without frame switching in ordinary discourse and derives its humor from something funny in the described event. The description itself is not funny outside of its content. Thus to a very young child, "Jenny fell down" may be uproariously funny. With early forms of speech play, the phonological component of language is most strongly stressed. This is already a move away from description and towards abstraction, towards attention to the message for its own sake. Language is used as language, and not simply as reference, and thus there is a reframing of discourse as performance, as "not common sense talk," as play. In genres such as riddles and other solicitational routines (like "Knock knock" jokes), there is a progression from description-based performances of the genre to complicated transformations of the generic frame itself. The developmental pattern is often seen to be one of increasing abstraction, of increasing skill with objectifying language. But the child has the ability to deal with metalanguage from the outset of his or her experience in categorizing discourse, and it may be more useful to think of these kinds of speech play as an array of more or less simultaneous possibilities rather than as a developmental pattern. Once the contexts of discourse can be specified, there is already a critique of discourse available to the child.

The objectification of language has to do with play with language. As we move towards abstraction, we can begin to manipulate the conditions and contingencies of social interaction itself. This is the move from an intertextual level based upon common-sense interpretive procedures to the intertextual levels that pack alternative interpretive rules. Because the latter type of texts carry instructions for their own reading, they may be characterized as "ludic" texts, as texts bearing paradoxical messages regarding their own existence. Like play, they increasingly rely on metaphorical thought, and, often humorous, they reveal contradictions in the very processes of interpretation by which they are accomplished. In this they resemble "antilanguages," languages that M. K. Halliday has defined as no one’s mother tongue, but that come into existence through reality-generating conversations that take their identity in contradiction to those of the everyday, and in most cases bourgeois, lifeworld. Antilanguages "create a reality which is inherently an alternative reality, one that is constructed precisely in order to function in alternation."

In terms of the intertextual construct presented in this chapter, ludic genres can be characterized as any genres that involve a transgression of common-sense interpretive procedures either by presenting paradoxes of framing, or by juxtaposing two or more universes of discourse and thereby erasing a common-sense context. Certainly any of these procedures implies and necessitates the others, and each of them is a device for making nonsense out of the common-sense world. In "unpacking" the procedures for making nonsense, I will be concerned with such ludic genres, for the range of ludic genres at its most exaggerated, metaphorical, abstract, and systematic point may be characterized as nonsense. The "content" of nonsense will always shift as a result of the ongoing social process of making common sense. I will be concerned in the remainder of this essay with "how nonsense works," the interpretive procedures that members undertake and accomplish in reading and manufacturing the texts of nonsense.


SOURCE: Stewart, Susan. Nonsense: Aspects of Intertextuality in Folklore and Literature (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989 [orig. 1980]), pp. 20, 37-39. (Footnotes removed.)


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