Morten Nissen: Joking away embarassment (note 1)
We are in Copenhagen in the spring of 1992. In the course of my collaboration with the social work development project "User service" we have devised an activity that is supposed to realize a psychological as well as methodological self-reflection directly as part of a meaningful activity rather than beside it. A series of weekly meetings are held in a civic canteen "work-fare" project. The meetings are meant to coordinate ongoing practical business and integrate conflict resolution and personal rehabilitation counseling in the same process. The idea is to avoid the stigmatizing and personalizing effects of the specialized context for "therapy", "counseling" etc., yet still to move on from the point where "psychological problems" are simply tabooed; it is hypothesized that some "local cultural" kinds of meaningfulness might provide a "mandate" to deal with psychological problems without stigmatizing.
One fundamental contradiction is that while the "User Service" idea is to substitute socially useful activities for stigmatizing "pedagogical" or "therapeutic" measures to beat the social problem of marginalization, the clients, called "assistants", are still referred individually to the project as a rehabilitation measure in a limited time financed by their welfare office case manager, and that this is the overall most important financial source of the project. The ability of "User Service" to actually design and develop activities that are recognized by all parties as useful in their local culture, and in which "clients" can actually be recruited as "participants", is very variable. Thus, when participants treat each other not as "clients" and "social workers", but simply as "participants", we often do not know whether this is because the project has succeeded, or whether it is a case of "the horney hooker": the (sometimes necessary) tendency to deny the foundation of the interaction in order to realize it.
This series of meetings are meant to both study and attempt to overcome the prevailing dichotomy between stigma and taboo. Towards the end it is increasingly clear that the attempt is failing. This is not the place to investigate the reasons, causes, conditions etc. (Nissen, 1997). But the fact is that at this point, the meetings have become – besides data that document that overall development – a mixture of: 1) a sort of group counseling where the responsible leader of the civic canteen, the social worker, tries to influence the group and work with "the individual in the group"; 2) a kind of uncommitted cooperation meeting where no important decisions are taken, but where some mock discussions can be performed to test reactions; c) a ritual to confirm community and participation ideologically committed to "talking about things" as well as to "democratic leadership".
At the 16th meeting, on April 9th, we are 6 "assistants", a social worker, a researcher and a student of psychology. We sit around a table in a big room, smoking. One of the assistants, Zakis, is Greek; he speaks no Danish and a very poor English, but he is important to the group because he is a qualified cook and the project is trying to move toward more professional ways of working (which is probably one of the problems). He takes part in the meetings by just sitting there, and occasionally bits and pieces are translated to or from him. Another assistant, Nina, has brought her 4-year-old daughter who crawls around under the table and often disturbs, in particular her mother, with loud talk (I get the impression that she is most disturbing when her mother is talking or being addressed or talked about).
The agenda requested by one assistant, Lisa, is that we talk about the "tone" between members. Michael, the social worker, introduces the example of Nina having abused Zakis verbally the other day. He tries to engage Zakis, but Zakis simply states that it won’t do any good to discuss things like that. Then Michael – as he often does – turns to Ann, another assistant, his favorite, for support. But Ann says that she does not think there is any problem. And then she says:
|1 (note 3)||Ann||We were all so hard pressed. The meat hadn’t arrived, we had no potatoes, God knew when Michael would show up, and whether he brought potatoes, and what did he bring, you know, and then we had to-- OK, by 9 we go down and buy potatoes, and the meat has to be there, and then we start. And then this came up, and who is to go get those potatoes, you know? That’s all it was, really, it’s all just about a tiny flee (~ a very small and insignificant thing)|
|2||Nina||That flee has really grown--|
|3||Ann||--it really grows big, yeah|
|4||Morten||Well, OK, so that’s one idea about it – that you say it’s all over then, after that half hour, and then it’s over and done with. But that wasn’t what you said, Michael, your opinion is different, then?|
|6||Ann||So what’s your opinion then?|
|7||Morten||You say it’s an expression of a general problem, and it’s about different ways to approve and to object?|
|8||Ann||And we need to get to know each other more than we do|
|9||Lisa||Definitely, that we have to do|
|10||Michael||But did you know Zakis before?|
|11||Ann||No. I didn’t know Nina, either, but I’ve seen through her. I’ve seen through him, too, I have--|
|12||(General laughter. Child asks and Nina answers something inaudible)|
|13||Morten||But Ann, it sounds as if you think it’s wrong to be discussing things like this, like it’s somehow--|
|14||Ann||--I think-- I don’t know, really, I think we’ve got it pretty much under control over there (in the kitchen), we take our turns once in a while, and I suppose it’s our right to do that--|
|15||Morten||--Well, but, Nina said something just before that might be a reason to do it, it was that Nina,--|
|16||Ann||--and Michael gets his, too!|
|17||Morten||--that Nina was about to leave, that she’s been about to leave a few times, and just now (to Nina) you said that the next time someone tells you to bugger off, you will, and you won’t come back. I think that’s a good reason, ‘cause that’s a risk, then, that you’re all facing, it might happen next week, suddenly, and then Nina just isn’t here any more|
|18||Ann||Oh but in that case we’d surely run after her, wouldn’t we, we’d be missing someone to peal the potatoes and the carrots, don’t you see, and take part in washing the dishes, you know, that’s evident, isn’t it. It wasn’t meant like that at all, was it, we’ve got to get to know each other|
|19||Nina||Well, what I meant when I, this Monday, that I said that I’m going now and won’t come back, that was just in my fury|
|20||Morten||You said it today as well, didn’t you?|
|21||Nina||Yes, that’s right, the next time someone says that to me I’m gone|
|22||Michael||So it isn’t in a rage, really|
|24||Nina||It isn’t in a rage|
|25||Michael||That’s something which to think about, then, that I’ve got clearly on my mind, that I do that (note 4)|
|27||Ann||It’s the same, like, when I’m furious and freak out over something….I get the hell out, I walk out and don’t come back!|
|28||Morten||But it wasn’t something that Nina said in a rage just now. It was a quiet discussion, so it’s…I think it sounds like you’re somehow saying that now you’ve more or less got one foot outside or something (the child is very noicy here). At least now you’re concerned whether you’ll stay here, or-- and I think that’s a good reason to talk about it, also, when I think about how it-- in the time since October when we’ve had these meetings, or November, or whatever. And there are some persons who have disappeared one way or the other. And where there’s been a problem, but we haven’t really been able to get into discussing them, and those persons have then gone. I mean, it’s not that,-- one can’t be sure that they can be solved, those problems, by talking about them, as Zakis says, that’s true by the way. But it might be a good reason for talking about them now.|
|29||Ann||Well, we’ll have to do it, then. Get a hold of those problems, shut down the kitchen and the food and everything. Gotta sit down among the pots and pans and say "now’s the time", won’t we|
|31||Lisa||Is it the sun that does it, or what is it, Ann?|
|32||Michael||Or the spring?|
|33||Lisa||I’m deeply shocked!|
|34||(Laughter; the child speaks loudly but still incomprehensively)|
|35||Ann||Yeah but we will have to, won’t we|
|36||Morten||But, I mean, the most important person to judge whether we ought to bring it up must be you, Nina, at least I think it should be--|
|37||Nina||-Oh I don’t bleedin’ know, really--|
|38||Morten||--‘cause it might well be, as Ann says, that there is something about getting wise about each other, and there might be some parts of each other that you don’t understand so well, and that might be a reason why some things can be worked out by talking about it and getting some things out to the surface, but, it’s--|
|39||Nina||--I don’t bleedin’ know, I haven’t got a damn thing to say, to be frank!|
|40||Morten||But do you feel that now all it takes is the straw and the camel’s back will break?|
|41||Nina||No, I mean, no I wouldn’t say that--|
|42||Morten||--‘cause if it happened three times in one week that someone said ‘bugger off’ to someone else--|
|43||Lisa||Oh, but now I’m just completely at a loss here! What if one of us gets mad and tells you to bugger off?|
|44||Nina||Then I’ll quit!|
|45||Lisa||But, quite honestly, I mean, the rest of us-- I don’t think we should accept that, that if we say something, then you might, if you have a bad day, and you might answer in some way, and you give the- the eye, like if glances could kill, we have to just put up with that, if I tell you to bugger off--|
|46||Nina||--I never said you should do that, --|
|47||--then you just leave?|
|49||Lisa||And the rest of us, we just--|
|50||Nina||Yeah, but I don’t take it the same way you take it, see|
|51||Lisa||I think we’ve been through all this before!|
|52||Morten||What does this remind you of?|
|53||Lisa||Of Susan! I mean, Susan, she just couldn’t take, - she couldn’t take it if you said something wrong, whereas she could really abuse you, and the rest of us just had to listen to that. And she would—if someone talked to her like that she would quit, and she actually did|
What I’d like to focus on, here, is the function of humor. What is it, actually, that Ann does in turns 11, 18, 27, and 29ff.? What does it do to the way the "community" (the conversation) is constituted? What does Lisa’s ironic turn 31 do to Ann’s attempts?
The point of all this is basically to challenge Mick Billig's interesting ideology critique of humor, presented at the Bath conference on Critical Psychology in August 2003. The excerpt here is a sample of humor being used as a interactional / conversational resource and functioning, perhaps (one might ask, bearing Billig's arguments in mind) as either a form of ideological disciplining or rebellious resistance (the first of these two forms being the prime target of Billig's critique). To be more precise: my intention is to get beyond that contrast. And to be fair: Billig, in fact, does see that this contrast is not absolute – that rebellious humor can in fact itself be disciplinary. He explains it with a Modernity theory: since Modernity is itself a breaking-down of all values and universals, being "critical" is precisely to confirm prevailing ideology (the idea comes from critical theory and was also reiterated by Ian Parker in Bath). This way, going beyond the contradiction of discipline with its negative mirror image leads nowhere, and the ideology of a very academic "critical" psychology is confirmed. We can only observe (or, as did Parker, point to a mysterious but very revolutionary wisdom and practice outside of the field we have in common).
Another way to go might be to view humor as creative objectification. This could be a way to oppose reproduction with, not just the negative idea of critique itself, but a positive critique: Rather than seeing social order as being either reproduced or broken down, or both, we might see a plurality of social orders being produced in a proces of objectification. This means that we can do, and that we actually always do, more than observe.
Of course, since discipline is very much about exclusion or contingent inclusion, di9scipline is what we are witnessing here. Nina is in the process of being excluded or excluding herself from this group. Part of this process is that she refuses to take part in a quiet, rational, open etc. discussion, she refuses to be logical and reasonable as part of the group meetings that are ideologically emblematic of the way the civic canteen believes itself to work (the hegemony Michael has established with the help of Morten). Part of it is her problems with aligning family life with work life (e.g. getting boyfriend to babysit), so vividly expressed by her daughter's presence; other parts remain obscure (at this point).
Far from mitigating this state of affairs, the meetings seem to accentuate and highlight them. This becomes clear towards the end of the excerpt (43 ff.). In the final analysis, a round-table discussion coordinating kitchen work and on top of that discussing individual members' affairs is not drawing on and does not provide the "mandate" to address psychosocial problems that are otherwise marginalized or tabooed.
Michael's project of alignment of professional kitchen work with social counseling becomes instead highly normative and hegemonic. In the excerpt, we can see him "usurping" the collective concern for each assistant's well-being into the traditional "responsible-considerations-of-staff" that are fundamentally hidden to clients, but can be revealed at certain points (25); and we get a glimpse of how he uses Ann as a model of good behavior (10). In effect, Michael is working to "return" the group into a more traditional social work format. But he meets resistance, from me, who haven't quite learnt the lesson yet, and from some of the assistants, who seem to have, but who draw a different conclusion (: as little of that counseling stuff as possible) (note 5).
This particular incident was about Zakis telling Nina to "bugger off" (note 6) when she was (rudely) complaining to him that he had been rude when he just threw dirty pots and pans on her table while cooking. Michael wants to establish that this is what "real cooks" do, so this is what Zakis is of course doing, implying that getting used to that is the "job training" here which Nina must accept rather than protest, or protest in a way so that she can be informed that it is she who is wrong. But it is not at all certain – the Morten of 1992 as of 2003 would object – that such "real commercial" standards should apply here. That very uncertainty has been a vital social work resource that has allowed "assistants" to continuously reconstruct standards in inclusive ways in "ideological" opposition to a society that works to exclude some people (later, I have elaborated the idea of ideological interpellation as social work). Further, we learn later that Zakis and Nina are often rude toward each other in unacceptably sexist and racist/xenophobic ways, respectively, and that while Nina's attempts to recruit support for racist attacks on Zakis run into trouble both because of the organization's overall ideology and because Michael is black, Zakis' sexism is being left unnoticed by Michael in spite of complaints not just from Nina, to the point where all the assistants finally go on strike and use one of our last meetings to demand action taken.
In this particular excerpt, Ann tries in several ways to oppose our discussing the issue (note 7). But she cannot say as much, directly, (when asked, 13), for that would constitute her as irrational or outside of this local rational community, like Nina (whereas Zakis can, since he enjoys the priviledge of being a qualified, non-Danish-speaking cook (note 8)). Instead, she tries inconsequential / "harmless" explanations (1,8,14, 18), and statements of "right of privacy" (14: that everything is under control, and we have a right to take turns). She even (27) attempts to return to the "rage" explanation just after it has been explicitly refuted by all speakers, including Nina herself (24), thus trying to establish that even "going and not coming back" should not be read too literally (note 9).
But her primary tactics is humor. Humor is a way of establishing something which is not literal, a doubling of reality, a creation of the merely abstract, a level of "play", and approaching events and issues with or through the screen of that "ideal object" (manipulating the countless relations between participants, "play", and "real life").
In (11) Ann wards off Michael's counterargument (10) against the "getting to know each other" idea which at the same time states that Ann acts morally superior to Nina. The transformation of "knowing" into "seeing through" exaggerates the point and thus playfully diminishes it and at the same time communicates that we can all trust Ann to benevolently understand and mediate. Turning to playfulness itself establishes that here is nothing, really, to worry about, we can all joke about it (by the way, this implication of play is already used by apes who smile to express and elicit non-aggression). And we can joke together: casting herself as the one to be ridiculed, here, helps establish that we are all part of this (it is not about mocking Nina or Zakis).
In (18), too, the humor is a diminutive: the positive need for Nina as potato-pealer and the idea of running after her is playfully performed before returning to the "getting to know" explanation. The playfulness takes the sting out of my recapitulation of Nina's threat and relays it to the level of communication (: there are different ways to "take" things) that makes the ensuing explanation seem feasible. Even when feigned, the message carries inclusion: it is the way one speaks to / about a dear child, avoiding heavy issues but still expressing sympathy or love (rather like: Oh, we can't have you drowning, dear, who would then paint nice drawings to me?).
These two jokes seek to accomplish a reconstitution of our little community in at least two ways:
Lisa's counter-joke (31-33), immediately secunded by Michael (32), is a kind of counter-reconstitution that works in a way very different from my attempts to argue rationally for the need to talk. Lisa ridicules Ann directly (as someone who is shockingly crazy from the first appearance of the pale Danish spring sun), but in a way that continues Ann's own "style". This move seems to turn Ann around, finally, making sure that (29) is interpreted and counts as in (35). It directly argues against Ann's implication that kitchen work and (academic-therapeutic) talk are opposites and exclusives; but it does so humorously: again, it defies interpretation, remains open, and invites to self-mockery.
The two jokes in (29) ands (31) are, thus, contrary moves in a power struggle. They can be identified as "aggressive" and "disciplinary" humor. Yet they both contain, also, the vital element of interpellation. They show how interpellation, the constitution of subjects-as-participants, works through the exercise of power through discourse, through the recruitment of discourse with which the participant is objectified and subjected while at the same time co-objectifying and co-subjecting. Further, in their very opposition, they testify how ordinary "ideological humor" can be much more differentiated than the contrasting of "disciplinary" with "rebellious" humor seems to imply. There is always more than one "social order", more than one "society / community" at stake, and these dynamics are not adequately grasped with the "critical" opposition of status quo with its transgression. Finally, they demonstrate the inherent productive creativity of humorous objectification: each move is an attempt to reconstitute the community in a new way. The "funny" images of the group sitting idly among pots and pans or of Ann crazed by the spring sun are, (if small-scale) lasting objectifications with which to constitute lasting communities / social orders, crafted to be used and included in the local folklore as klichées and reference points to elicit a confirmatory, constitutive laughter – or further elaborated. (note 13)
Billig, M (2003). Critique of positive humour. Talk given at Conference on Critical Psychology, Bath, August 2003
Goffman, E. (1986). Frame Analysis. An Essay on the Organization of Experience. Boston: North Eastern University Press.
Nissen, M. (1997). Conditions for User Influence in a Social Development Project. Nordiske Udkast, 25, 45-64.
Nissen, M. (1998). Brugerindflydelse og handlesammenhænge i psykosocialt arbejde. Aarhus: Skriftserie fra Center for Sundhed, menneske og Kultur.
Willis, P. (1977). Learning to labour. How working class kids get working class jobs. Aldershot/UK: Gower Press.
Willis, P. (2000). The Ethnographic Imagination. Cambridge: Polity.
Willis, P. (2001). "Tekin' the Piss". In D.Holland & J. Lave (Eds.), History in Person. Enduring Struggles, Contentious Practice, Intimate Identities (pp. 171-216). Santa Fe: School of American Research Press.
(4) Michael is American and his Danish is sometimes a little inadequate (after more than 20 years in Denmark) to the effect that at certain points his utterances are a bit opaque
(5) Some DARG members commented that
Morten is the only actor who seems to have a concern here. There are many
intricacies of action research, this being a deliberate attempt to cross the
boundaries rather than creating special contects for research. Morten is working
to validate in practice an idea that he has participated in construing. But in
general, the agendas are somewhat confusing. This is itself an interesting
feature of these meeetings. Lisa, who requested the theme, can be seen, also,
perhaps, to "use" Morten and Michael for her purposes, and Michael's attempt to
join in on her joke in (32) is his attempts to use her use of him. It is a
feature of the interaction, then, that "what is going on" can be broken down
into non-validatable interpretations about who is using it for which hidden
This in itself makes the interaction resemble counselling or psychotherapy, or, as suggested by Johanna Motzkau later, some of the research groups in the tradition of Kritische Psychologie. The "ideological constitution" of psychotherapy hides itself as collective since the common end (what it is about) is modelling (objectifying) the subjectivity of individual participants (that of clients directly, that of therapists through relegation to supervision). When that is the case, it seems quite OK that it is so "unreal" or "senseless" ( e.g. all we discuss is whether we should discuss etc.), since the actions, reactions, experienced or observed emotions etc. of individual participants, even towards that very senselessness, can always be re-modelled. Incidentally, Johanna's suggestion, further, makes me wonder whether this is in fact why "critical psychologists" tend to allow the game of endless meta-reflections much further than, say, critical sociologists, even to the point of breaking down interaction.
(6) Note that "Bugger off" has a more wide non-literal use in English than "skrub af med dig" has in Danish – in Danish it can be used strictly non-literally, but only when accompagnied by very clear markers of friendlyness. Otherwise, of course, it can be taken to mean "not now, please", but in a clumsy, rude way, perhaps like "oh, go away". What Nina does is that she noticeably interprets something strongly that she would be expected to interprete as a minor utterance.
(7) Some DARG participants suggested that Ann can also be seen to establish the groundwork for talking – setting conditions where talk is actually possible, pacifying Nina – pleasing both sides, mediating. The problem with that idea is that her diminishing attempts are directly countered; the issue is talking or not talking about the seriousness of the matter. Still, Ann's joking can be seen as a faint, or even a feigned opposition to Michael and Morten. As long as the opposition can be kept in the humorous version, the non-confrontational line, it is attempted, but when that no longer works, she withdraws. She (implies that) she can only do so much. In fact, then, what she does is she veils the fact that everybody is in the process of getting rid of Nina. So, the function of humor should be seen in conjunction with the function of the seriousness that follows, when Lisa takes over and Ann is silent. Lisa is not so concerned with covering over.
(8)Zakis challenges the talk directly. But we go on to talk about that which Zakis directly stated he wouldn't talk about. This way it's treated as a general problem, rather than something Zakis has special rights over, and we can go on irrespective of Zakis' objection, even if he is present. So it seems to be rude toward Zakis. But behind this is the problem that this very turn allows Zakis to be silent, thus implying that it is all really about Nina.
(9) An objection from the DARG was that iconsistency can be simply politeness – so that maybe Nina isn't inconsistent, any more than is normally permitted: You can be inconsistent if you shift from a polite evasive response to a frank confrontational. Maybe this is Nina's interpretation, and why she thinks she can be illogical, or why she thinks that she can legitimately present herself as having been polite rather than inconsistent. It is another matter, however, whether that interpretation prevails.
(10) In his 1977 cultural study, Willis emphasizes the aggressive aspect, the ridicule, where the "laff" is seen as a form of resistance that middle-class teachers can't grasp, whereas in the 2000 piece, Willis primarily understands "piss-take" as a shop-floor mutual learning ressource that distances workers from taking authority as well as their own suffering too literally. In both cases, it is seen as important that it is a kind of humor that forms part of a working class culture and which is in itself an irreducible cultural form, parallel to, among other things, Willis' own ethnographic writings (see also (Willis, 2000))
(11) This "hardening", as Willis' piss-taking informant calls it, when pressed hard to explain what it's for (Willis, 2001), works contrary, perhaps, to the transference in psychotherapy where it is the therapist's caring identification with the client's "inner child" that leads the client from his erroneous self-conception as mature into the transference relationship (he is interpellated as childish) that he must go through analysis to overcome…
(12) Goffman's notion of "upkeying" (Goffman, 1986) is another approach to what Ann is doing in 11 and 29. Joking may thus be a proto-form of objectification. It is interesting because the sub-human form, captured in Goffman's notion of upkeying, opens to the complexity in a wide variety of "small objectifications" which we must understand as they unfold in relation to the larger ones. Example: Ann's joke is a (defensive, Willis) piss-take which only halfway attempts to transform the big object of "counseling".
(13) In general, both humor and laughter was perceived in the DARG as not necessarily to do with something being funny, but as achieving conversational ends. Further, the two were seen as not independent, e.g., laughter can establish something as funny, and whether something is funny can be used to establish what was meant by laughing etc. I wonder whether we can even go further and say that "what is funny" is itself something of the same kind as the achieving of conversational ends. "Making fun" is the creation of a double frame; the "playfulness frame" serves to regulate social interaction (don't be angry, I am only joking), and, on the specifically human level, it is produced as an objectification that mediates cognition etc. – but as an intrinsically social practice, rather than merely some mental process. Thus, one important point about it is that it is open to interpretation, like any produced object.