Humour as a competence inherent in all human beings defies description and its huge variety, forms and faces have always engendered curiosity. For centuries
people have attempted to pinpoint the essence of humour.
The contributors to this volume, however, restrict their study of humour to the written and oral literatures of South Asia. They approach the problems not only
intutively, from their own sense of humour, but go beyond that out of a recognition that humour as 'performance' is culture specific and cannot, therefore, always
be comprehended on the spot. Several contributors cast their work in various theoretical frameworks, particularly theories of humour.
The volume contains a broad spectrum of essays on the subject in modern and pre- modern, in classical and folk, and in written and oral literatures from almost
all corners of the subcontinent. They treat the subject from a multitude of perspectives and offer background of different theories of humour.
With one exception, the contributions have a common characteristic: they deal with material that has not been explored so far in research. These empirical studies
are, therefore, the first step towards a theoretical analysis of humour in South Asia.
The multi-regional coverage of papers opens up potential for comparative research on humour in the literatures and verbal arts of contemporary South Asia.
Christina Oesterheld studied Indology at the Humboldt University, Berlin, where she worked as a research assistant after finishing her studies. She did
her Ph.D. on the contemporary Urdu novelist Qurratulain Hyder. Since 1990 she has been teaching Urdu and Hindi at the South Asia Institute of Heidelberg
University. She has done research on modern Urdu literature and translated Urdu short stories and poetry Into German.
Claus Peter Zoller studied Classical and Modern Indology, and Germanic philology in Tubingen and Heidelberg. He did his Ph.D. in 1980 on the
grammar of a Bhotia language of the Garhwal Himalaya. Then followed fellowships from the DAAD and the DFG for the study of Pahari languages and
Himalayan folk traditions. Between 1985 and 1994 he was representative of the South Asia Institute in New Delhi and assistant professor in Frankfurt and
He then had a two year's fellowship from the DFG for the completion of the habilitation with a postdoctoral thesis on the grammar and poetic style of an oral
version of the Mahabharata from the Garhwal Himalaya. Since 1997 he has been working as a research fellow in the Pakistan-German research project 'Culture
Area Karakorum' on the dialects and oral folk traditions of Indus-Kohistan.
Humour as a competence inherent in all human beings defies description. Its variety of manifestations, in contrast, whether it be on the level of physiological
reactions or psychological dispositions, whether it be in the world of social interaction or in the domain of artistic creation, the countless faces and forms of
humour have always en-gendered curiosity. For centuries they have inspired people to attempt to pinpoint the essence of humour.
Of course, the contributors to this volume are somewhat more modest in their endeavours. Their topic is humour in the written and oral literatures of South
Asia, a problem which they all initially approach intuitively, from their own sense of humour. However they go beyond that. First, they display a 'receptiveness to
foreign phenomena', the recognition that humour as 'performance' is culture specific and therefore not always be comprehended on the spot (cf. Attardo 1994:
213; Apte 1985: 16; Siegel 1989: 200f.). And second, several authors cast their work in various theoretical frameworks, particularly theories of humour.
Humour as a universal competence is not made tangible by the numerous terms (such as joke, quip, derision, irony, satire), concepts, and definitions that crop up
in an immense number of works in which the apparently obvious is illuminated. All of its manifestations, on the other hand, its multitude of cultural
constructions, are invariably a product of history. So, too, is the long history, running parallel to it, of reflection on humour. The term is known to have its origin
in the medieval theory of humours (body fluids). In the usage current in the present-day humanities, however, the theory encompasses a broad chronological and
geographical horizon whose high points are classical Greece, the Renaissance, and the Western modern period. This chronicle begins with Plato and Aristotle and
ends with Freud and Bergson. In-between are the Romans and the Middle Ages. The latter have the status of 'dark ages' 'from the point of view of humor theory'
(Attardo 1994: 33). And what lies beyond this horizon?
The theoretician of humour Attardo differentiates humour theories according to the field they belong to as well as various epistemological principles on which
they are based (1994: 1). Thus he distinguishes essentialist theories, which seek the fundamental 'mechanisms' of linguistic humour; teleological theories, which
attempt to identify the 'purpose' of humour, that is, why jokes, etc., are told at all; and substantialist theories, which look for recurring 'elements'. The
theoreticians of ancient Greece inquired into concrete psychological contents (1994: 18-26) and therefore belong principally to the last group (as do the ancient
Indian theoreticians [see below]. None the less, Plato's idea that ridicule combines delight with pain represents a prototype of modern ambivalence theories,
which assume the simultaneous occurrence of two different emotional states (Keith- Spiegel 1972); and his emphasis on envy, ridiculousness, and hate can be
seen as a model for modern theories of aggression. Aristotle's concept of laughing at bad imitations is seen as the origin of hostility or superiority theories, and
his statement that humour is 'something bad' is often compared with modern incongruity theories (Attardo 1994: 48), which will occupy us in various ways
Theories of humour can also be linked to specific academic fields. A distinction is drawn between the sociologically and psychologically oriented hostility
theories, centered around concepts like superiority, malice, aggression, derision, disparagement, and so forth (see Raskin 1985: 36-8) and the psychoanalytical
release theories, according to which humour releases tensions or energies or lifts prohibitions. To hostility theories, laughter is a kind of war (Raskin 1985: 21),
for 'in laughing, we show teeth' (Ludovici 1932: 69). The rather teleologically oriented release theories, in contrast, recognize 'that laughter provides relief for
mental, nervous and/or psychic energy and thus ensures homeostasis after a struggle, tension, strain, etc.' (Raskin 1985: 38). Of course, humour and laughter are
not the same thing (Kerbrat-Orecchioni 1981).
In Europe, humour seems to have traditionally been viewed somewhat negatively. Thus, Hobbes describes 'the passion [my italics] of laughter' as 'nothing else
but sudden glory arising from sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others ...' and to Hegel laughter is 'an
expression of self-satisfied shrewdness' (both quotes from Raskin 1985: 36). Even Freud beats this same drum when he describes the function of humour within
the domain of one of his main scientific interests: 'for they [the spheres of sexuality and obscenity] can show human beings in their dependence on bodily needs
(degradation) or they can reveal the physical demands lying beneath the claim of mental love (unmasking)' (cited in Siegel 1989: 10). An entirely different
viewpoint from those exploiting the inferiority-superiority opposition is that of Bachtin, who celebrates 'that happy, liberating, regenerative, that creative
laughter' (1990: 30), which is characterized by 'freedom' (1990: 33).
With this we have reached the theories stemming from literary criticism, which are generally received by Attardo with shades of disparaging irony. Thus he says
(1994: 51) that they are 'resolutely anti-theoretical, uninterested in generalizations applicable to "humor" at large' and 'seem to adopt a "polythetic" view of
comedy'. Taken together, this supposedly yields a mixture of 'psychological ideas ... with genre theory and scattered observations'.
Beside the question of whether humour is mean or liberating (or both?), many also discern a polarity between frivolity and aesthetics. Because humour tends to
ban everything unambiguous, it is not an easy thing to talk about. In the end humour invariably 'unmasks' to a certain extent the one who tells the joke, even
within the scope of a book on humour. There are two strategies for controlling this ambivalent situation. One is to approach the subject by playing the eccentric,
thus to discuss humour humorously, or, like Attardo, to thank his/her spouse for 'marrying me in defiance of common sense' (1994: viii), or to be purposely
ambiguous: 'This is the funniest book I have ever written.. .' (Raskin 1985: xiii). The other strategy is to decidedly distance oneself and follow a path of
'humorous correctness': 'The entire language of the book is hereby declared as non-sexist in intention' (op. cit.: xvii). These and similar strategies are entirely
legitimate, yet they also indirectly reveal that humour means more to us all than what is officially respected, by which I mean 'purely satirical laughter' and
'entertaining laughter' (Bachtin 1990: 30). Whereas the latter is banal, the former is pedantic. Siegel remarks (1989: 65): 'The satirist excuses his hostility
aesthetically by making it funny, he may excuse it morally by insisting that it serves an ethical end, that it somehow changes society for the better, that it has a
As opposed to the literary and linguistic approaches (the latter to be introduced later), anthropological studies of humour are not centered around texts and verbal
humour in the same way. The majority of studies are of sociological or psychological bent. For example, Apte sets forth the following programme for the
investigation of humour (1985: 13-14):
It appears that three elements need to be considered: (I) sources that act as potential stimuli; (2) the cognitive and intellectual activity responsible for the
perception and evaluation of these sources leading to humor experience; and (3) behavioral responses that are expressed as smiling or laughter or both.
He is quite justified when he repeatedly emphasizes that humour is culturally determined and that it is impossible to define. It is also this that distinguishes his
from the linguistic theories to be described later, since, unlike them, he does not look for fundamental mechanisms, but rather interprets humour exclusively as a
'culturally shaped individual cognitive experience' (op, cit.: 261). His relativistic position thus does not permit him to make claims as to the fundamental
differences between humour experience and other experiences. In contrast, some of the linguistic theories do just that, clearly distinguishing between humorous
and non-humorous uses of language. The result for Apte is that he, unlike linguistic theories, cannot formulate any universals, but instead summarizes, 'I do not
believe that a global anthropological theory of humor and laughter is possible until many minitheories have been developed' (1985: 265).
The concept of incongruity, important for many linguistic theories, has a long history. In the literature it is common to refer not only to Aristotle but to Kant and
Schopenhauer as well (Raskin 1985: 31; Attardo 1994: 48). Schopenhauer's finding in The World as Will and Representation (as cited in Siegel 1989: 32) runs
In every case, laughter results from nothing but the suddenly perceived incongruity between a concept and the real objects that had just been thought through it in
some relation; and laughter itself is just the expression of this incongruity....All laughter is therefore occasioned by a paradoxical, and hence unexpected
subsumption, it matters not whether this is expressed in words or deeds.
The incongruity theories, which have much in common with the ambivalence theories, 'are based on the mismatch between two ideas in the broadest possible
sense' (Attardo 1994: 48) and therefore appear in a variety of different disciplines and theories. As we will see, they are also known in India. Two elements are
obligatory: incongruity and resolution or justification (see Attardo 1994: 143). It should be noted that the second element, resolution or justification, does not
refer to the dissolution of incongruity, but rather to its 'explanation' or justification, which itself often takes the form of a further incongruity.
According to the above epistemological classification, the following linguistic theories are of essentialist bent-that is, they start with positively identifiable
features that produce humour-and consequently stand in opposition to the new anti-essentialist approaches, the prominent polythetic-prototypical theories (see
Ferro-Luzzi 1986), which are based on Wittgenstein's 'family resemblances'. These assume that in a class of related objects, several objects will share a certain
number of features but it will never be the case that even one feature is common to all the objects. Now, this would mean, in addition to the problem of the
intuitive determination of what belongs to specific classes (all types of humour would share the property of being humorous, after all), that incongruity theories
must permit for there to be forms of humour without the elements incongruity and resolution. As far as I can see, no convincing evidence for this has ever been
The linguistic theories are entirely based on text and language. They are not to be confused with the pragmatic and context-based semiotic approaches of Koestler
and Eco. To the former we can trace the so-called bisociation theory which also stresses incongruity, namely, the simultaneous association of one idea with two
different sets of connotations (Koestler 1964). Attardo distinguishes three models, which actually, however, represent three phases in a uniform line of thought.
All three stress the importance of the elements incongruity and resolution. The first model, which is connected with the name Greimas, is called the Isotopy-
Disjunction Model (Attardo 1994: 62ff.) after Greimas' theory of isotopy. However, Greimas is only peripherally interested in humour and joke, whereby he uses
joke to illustrate how it 'voluntarily showcases the linguistic processes that it uses' (cited in Attardo 1994: 69). By this he means that the joke 'consciously'
creates ambiguity where in normal language use isotopies (repetitions of semes) set up an unambiguous 'totality of meaning' (ibid.). This ambiguity is caused,
according to Greimas and Raskin, by a disjunctor which stops the disambiguation process in speech production (Attardo 1994: 135).
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