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In this chapter, Ulmer presents several elements that are illustrated through the device of the joke, or a comedic surprise. The surprise is echoed in mythology and scientific discovery, and Ulmer makes a point to discuss that the neurological activities in comedy and science are similar. Discussion of the element of surprise that accompanies a joke or a scientific invention opens up the possibility for understanding the task of the subject confronted with an event of meaning making. The operative concept that Ulmer places at the beginning of the chapter, and as the foundation for the surprise that he discusses, is attitude.
Ulmer equates “attitude” with orientation or direction, suggesting that joy and sadness, or “evil” and “virtue,” in Paolo Virno’s example, are products of the same conditions and are determined by attitude (55). Ulmer argues that attitude is “world-creating,” and therefore changing attitude and changing the world are not mutually exclusive. Ulmer suggests that attitude can be examined by examining the “wise fool,” further separating concept avatar and philosophy (56).
Ulmer highlights the element of surprise as a component in the joy/sadness complex that results from attitude. Ulmer introduces the idea of surprise with his example of the 9/11 Commission Report, which Ulmer notes contains an oxymoronic suggestion that preparation for counterterrorism demands that the federal government learn how to bureaucratize imagination (57). Imagination’s goal, according to Ulmer, is to “enhance surprisability” (58).
The surprise, the goal of imagination, is the result of attitude. Surprise is the operative force of a joke, the thing that makes us laugh. The joke sets up parameters and then surprises the listener by subverting the expectations that have already been set up, or by playing off of our expectations by replacing a culturally acceptable association with a countercultural, but equally recognized association. Ulmer uses multiple examples to illustrate the ways in which surprise operates. Ulmer cites as perhaps the original prank the way that Prometheus tricks Zeus, and in response Zeus creates Pandora- who herself is a pharmakon, Ulmer points out (see 59), both gift and curse.
Ulmer then relates a joke to illustrate how the surprise, made possible by attitude, makes the joke funny, or perhaps more accurately, makes the listener laugh. The joke’s set up establishes expectations for the listener, and the punch line upsets those expectations. Ulmer then notes that the process of “getting” a joke is similar to the process of intellectual or scientific discovery. Humorously, Ulmer wonders if the punch line to his joke will go down in history: “Will history record—along with Archimedes’ bath, Newton’s apple, Poincare’s bus—Ulmer’s donkey dong?” (60). The joke itself use “expectation, anticipation, [and] foresight,” which Ulmer identifies as “the powers of prudence we are probing” (60). Thus, prudence—“a guide to the art of decision”—is the attitude that the joke sets up, and the totality of the joke shows flash reason in action. Arthur Koestler describes the operative forces like those in Ulmer’s joke as “bisociation” (61). Koestler, like Ulmer, links the creative process of science with that of comedy. Koestler credits the unconscious with the creative moments, and Ulmer identifies Koestler’s unconscious as the bachelor machine.
Ulmer returns to the discussion of Epimetheus and relates the fault of Epimetheus to Steigler’s idiot. The idiot in modern philosophy is, according to Ulmer, a descendant of Descarte’s “cogito” (65). The “I” in Descarte who pursues truth turns into the idiot who “wants to turn the absurd into the highest power of thought” (Nicholas of Cusa, qtd. in Ulmer 65-6). This leads Ulmer to his “third axis” of electracy, the “I can/not” aspect of attitude (67). Ulmer then presents the idiot as concurrent with Derrida’s subject, whose interminacy, according to Ulmer, navigates the relationship between literacy and electracy. This occurs in the event, in which the subject is confronted with an event of knowledge. The meaning that the subject is asked to determine or not determine is the interface of literacy and electracy. According to Koestler, this encounter is a collision that produces the comedic effect or the inventive moment.
Other sections where jokes are discussedEdit
In Chapter 2, Concept, Ulmer discusses Marcel Duchamp's readymade of the Mona Lisa as a joke, or an implementation of the bachelor machine.
In this chapter, Flash Reason is mentioned briefly but backgrounded through repeated references to the bachelor machine. By equating the operative elements of a joke, Ulmer argues that the process through which the listener receives and understands the joke with the operation of flash reason.
Connections to Additional ReadingsEdit
Ulmer's take on the joke reminds me a bit of Galloway's communication in that a joke, like communication, is "inherently ambiguous; it connects at the same time that it separates, unifies at the same time it differentiates" (125).
Wark might argue that a joke is a type of xenocommunication, or a double sense of communication with what is strange and a concurrent hospitality for the alien. Think about it. Jokes are funny (or not) because of some type of multiple meaning; jokes communicate on more than one "level," if you will. So, when we laugh at jokes, we're essentially showing hospitality (through our laughter) to an alien, or estranged, meaning.