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order to complete it, the listener must supply an optimal interpretation that is
implicated in error. Now in the case of many jokes “ such as ethnic, racist, or sex-
ist jokes, for example “ those errors often involve morally disturbing stereotypes
of the mental, physical, or behavioral attributes of the comic butt who stands for
an entire social group. Thus, the moralist is worried not only about the moral
statement the joke implies, but also about the effect of encouraging the listener to
produce and embrace the erroneous and morally suspect thoughts that the inter-
pretation of the joke requires.That is, the moralist may be concerned that, among
other things, the very form of cognitive address employed in jokes involving eth-
nic, sexist, and racist material is ethically problematic.
In this regard, Aristotle contended that the most effective rhetorical strategy
was the enthymeme; for by means of this device the orator can draw her conclu-
sions from the audience in such a way that we take them to be our own.36 Hav-
ing come upon the conclusion on our own, it strikes us as all the more
convincing.That is, in this way, the rhetorical structure reinforces the idea. Jokes,
it may be thought, work in this way as well; the audience fills in the interpretation
on its own, even though the interpretation is predetermined.Thus, the danger is
that where the interpretation requires us to operationalize suspect moral thoughts,
such as sexist stereotypes, the very process itself may reinforce the viability of
those thoughts. So what is troubling about a sexist joke is not just its content, but
its form of cognitive address.
However, as noted previously, my theory of jokes obstructs this conclusion. For a
joke-interpretation to “work” requires that the listener not only produce the inter-
pretation but also recognize, at the same time, that it is somehow in error.This recog-
nition is the crux of the humored response. Moreover, racist, ethnic, and sexist jokes
seem to presuppose the wrongness of certain stereotypes in order to be gotten.
But, in rejecting the moralist™s worry, we seem driven to the conclusion that
even a bigot recognizes the error or absurdity of the exaggerated stereotypes pre-
sumed in the interpretations proponed by an ethnic joke. If he did not, his
response to the punch line would not be laughter, but the matter-of-fact
acknowledgment that “yes, that™s just how Irishmen or Poles or Italians or Jews or
African-Americans really are.” But this, in turn, seems to make too many racists
appear too enlightened.
ON JOKES 333

However, we need not be forced to this conclusion. Consider: “How do you
know that an Irishman has been using your personal computer? There™s white-out
on the screen.” Here the mandated interpretation is something like: any Irishman
is so dumb that he can™t use a computer properly, and he even makes corrections
in a way that is ultimately self-defeating. In order to appreciate this as a joke, the
listener has to realize that this is literally false. However, the punch line can also be
construed figuratively.
Much humor rides on figurative language, employing tropes like litotes or
meiosis, and irony. In ethnic and racist jokes involving, for example, stereotypes of
exaggerated stupidity, the presupposed interpretation may function as hyperbole.
This will be the case when the joke is passed for vicious purposes among those
committed to the degradation of persons of another race, sex, class, and so on.
Within such circles, the presupposed interpretation will be understood as exag-
gerated “ and, therefore, literally trafficking in error “ but the exaggeration will be
understood as on the side of truth. The racist speaker will be understood by the
racist listener as saying something stronger than the literal truth warrants, but also
as saying something with the intention that it be corrected so that, though it will
not be taken in its strongest formulation, it will still be taken as a strong statement
that preserves the same initial polarity (say “major league” stupidity) that the
hyperbole did.37 One might imagine the anti-Irish appreciator of the preceding
computer joke saying, after an initial burst of laughter: “Well, the Irish aren™t that
dumb; but they™re really pretty dumb nonetheless.”
Ethnic, racist, and sexist jokes are very often used as insults, and insults cus-
tomarily may take the form of hyperbole. Perhaps few mothers wore combat
boots, but many could not afford Guccis either.Though they are literally and even
intentionally false, hyperboles can figuratively point in the direction of an asser-
tion.38 And when racist jokes are told with racist intent to racist audiences, tellers
and listeners may regard their presuppositions as strictly and literally false “
thereby appreciating them as merely jokes “ while at the same time correcting the
tropological figuration so that it accords with their prejudices.
Thus, if it is agreed that a racist can recognize that the implied interpretation
of a racist joke is literally false “ thereby “getting the joke” “ but also take it figu-
ratively as an instance of hyperbole, then the theory of jokes advanced in the pre-
ceding section need not be taken to be incompatible with the view that racist
jokes can reinforce racist ideology.
It should be noted that I have claimed that racist, ethnic, and sexist jokes are
“very often used as insults.” Here I am allowing what may seem troublesome to
many, namely, that there may be cases where they are not insults.This seems borne
out by the fact that there are many groups, including Jews, the Irish, and African
Americans, who tell jokes about themselves that employ the same exaggerated
stereotypes that outsiders use.39 It seems reasonable to suppose that even if some
of this joking reflects intragroup rivalry and, in some cases, possibly self-hatred,
some of it, at the same time, is indulged without the intention of insulting one™s
own ethnic group.Whether a racist joke is morally charged, then, depends on the
334 ALTERNATIVE TOPICS

intentions of the teller and the context of reception. Pragmatic considerations of
particular jokes in context determine whether the joke is an insult “ whether its
literal absurdity is to be taken as an indication of a morally obnoxious assertion by
means, for example, of hyperbole.40
In emphasizing the relevance of use and context here, I mean to deny the sim-
ple moralistic view, sketched above, that jokes, even ethnic jokes, are evil simply in
virtue of being some sort of rhetorical machine whose form of cognitive address
automatically reinforces wicked ideas. Whether a joke is evil depends on the
intentions of its teller and the uses its listeners make of it.
Quite clearly, ethnic jokes do not instill beliefs in listeners simply by being
told. When I originally heard the preceding computer joke, it was told about
Newfoundlanders, not about Irishmen. I laughed; I “got the joke.” But it neither
instilled nor reinforced any beliefs I have about that group, for I have no well-
formed beliefs about people from Newfoundland, except, perhaps, that they live
in Canada and people tell jokes about them.
Likewise, I have heard the joke told by people as ignorant as I am about the
inhabitants of Newfoundland to the equally ignorant with successful results.This
prompts me to suspect that it is possible to derive an almost formal pleasure from
ethnic jokes and their ilk that is apart from their derisory potential.The focus of
this formal appreciation may be the way in which the joke, particularly the punch
line, is so perfectly structured to bring about what I earlier referred to as our
change in mental state.
However, the conjecture that ethnic jokes and the like may be formally appre-
ciated does not amount to a license to tell or to laugh at them in any context so
long as one™s intention in telling or laughing is not, in one™s own judgment, con-
nected to derisory hyperbole and the like. Since such jokes can be used to encour-
age racism, sexism, classism, and so on, one should be morally concerned enough
to refrain from telling them in contexts in which they might stoke these senti-
ments; this probably applies to most of the social situations in which we find our-
selves. Of course, it is not just the case that we may not know how our audience
may respond to or use such jokes. In matters like sexism and racism, we may not
know all there is to know about our own hearts as well. Though we may think
that our Irish jokes or Polish jokes do not reflect our beliefs about the Poles or the
Irish, the tides of racism and sexism probably run deeper. It is very likely that our
own intentions and their background conditions are generally obscure in these
matters, in part because what is involved in racism, classism, and sexism is not yet
completely understood. Thus, our own judgment about our intentions in telling
and laughing at racist and sexist jokes may not be reliable. And this supplies us
with further moral reasons against indulging in this type of humor.
I have rejected the simple moralist worry that certain types of jokes may be
evil as a function of rhetorically bringing listeners to entertain certain immoral
ideas in our process of what I call filling-in the joke.This hypothesis conflicts with
my view of what it is to “get a joke”; for I maintain that this requires that the lis-
tener know that the interpretation one uses to solve the joke puzzle be implicated
THE PARADOX JUNK FICTION 335
OF


in error. On the other hand, I do not want to deny that immoral pleasures may be
derived from jokes where, despite the recognition of the literal absurdities or
errors that the joke mandates, the joke can be used “ figuratively, for example “ as
a serviceable means to insult or to dominate another social group. Jokes, that is,
can be immoral in terms of the motives they serve rather than in terms of their
particular structure of cognitive address.41




THE PARADOX JUNK FICTION
OF

Perhaps on your way to some academic conference, if you had no papers to grade,
you stopped in the airport gift shop for something to read on the plane.You saw racks
of novels authored by the likes of Mary Higgins Clark, Michael Crichton, John
Grisham, Danielle Steel, Sidney Sheldon, Stephen King, Sue Grafton, Elmore
Leonard, Sara Paretsky, Tom Clancy, and so on. These are the kinds of novels that,
when you lend them to friends, you don™t care, unless you live in Bowling Green,
Ohio, whether you ever get them back.They are mass, popular fictions. In another
era, they would have been called pulp fictions. Following Thomas Roberts,1 I will call
them junk fictions, under which rubric I will also include things like Harlequin
romances; sci-fi, horror, and mystery magazines; comic books; and broadcast narra-
tives on either the radio or TV, as well as commercial movies.
There are a number of interesting philosophical questions that we may ask
about junk fiction.We could, for example, attempt to characterize its essential fea-
tures. However, for the present, I will assume that the preceding examples are
enough to provide you with a rough-and-ready notion of what I am calling junk
fiction, and I will attempt to explore another feature of the phenomenon, namely,
what I call the paradox of junk fiction.
The junk fictions that I have in mind are all narratives. Indeed, their story
dimension is the most important thing about them. Stephen King, for instance,
makes this point by saying that he is primarily a storyteller rather than a writer.
Junk fictions aspire to be page-turners “ the blurb on the cover of Stillwatch by
Mary Higgins Clark says that it is “designed to be read at breathtaking speed” “
and what motivates turning the page so quickly is our interest in what happens
next.We do not dawdle over Clark™s diction as we might over Updike™s nor do we
savor the complexity of her sentence structure, as we do with Virginia Woolf ™s.
Rather, we read for story.
Moreover, junk fictions are the sort of narratives that commentators are wont to
call formulaic. That is, junk fictions generally belong to well-entrenched genres,
which themselves are typified by their possession of an extremely limited repertoire

From: Philosophy and Literature, 18 (October 1994), 225“41.
336 ALTERNATIVE TOPICS

of story-types. For example, as John Cawelti has pointed out, one such recurring
Western narrative is that of the recently pacifist gunfighter, like Shane, who is forced
by circumstances to take up his pistols again, with altogether devastating effect.2
Junk fictions tell these generic stories again and again with minor variations.
Sometimes these variations may be quite clever and unexpected. Agatha Christie
was the master of this; she was able to use the conventions of the mystery genre in
order to “hide” her murderers. In The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, she “secrets” the
murderer in the personage of the narrator; in Ten Little Indians, the murderer is a
“dead man”; while in Murder on the Orient Express, all the suspects did it. In each
of these cases, Christie™s brilliance hinges upon her playing (and preying) upon
conventional expectations.
Nevertheless, even these surprising variations require a well-established back-
ground of narrative forms. That is, in order to appreciate these variations, the
reader must in some sense know the standard story already.And with junk fiction,
it is generally fair to say that in some sense, the reader “ or, at least, the reader who
has read around in the genre before “ knows in rough outline how the story is
likely to go. Readers and/or viewers of Jurassic Park surmised, once the dinosaur
enclosures were described, that in fairly short order the dinosaurs would trample
them down and go on the rampage “ after all, we had already seen or read The
Lost World, King Kong, and their progeny.
So, junk fictions are formulaic. They rehearse certain narrative formats again
and again. And, furthermore, in some very general sense, the audience already
knows the story in question. But this knowledge on the part of the audience pro-
vokes a question, specifically, why if the reader, viewer, or listener already knows
the story is she or he still interested in investing time in reading, hearing, or seeing
it? If you have read one Harlequin romance, it might be argued, you have read
them all.You know how it will turn out. It serves no purpose to read any more of
them. Or, at least, our persistent reading or viewing in familiar genres invites the
question: what sense can we make out of our continued consumption of junk fic-
tions, since it is probably the case that, for most genres of junk fiction, most con-
sumers can be said to know the story antecedently.
There is something paradoxical here. It seems to be undeniably true that people
consume junk fictions for their stories “ that is, that what interests and absorbs con-
sumers of junk fictions are the stories. But it also appears eminently reasonable to
suppose that if people read a certain sort of fiction, such as junk fiction, for their sto-
ries, then knowing these stories already should preclude any interest in the stories.
And yet, at the same time, we must agree that, in the main, consumers of junk fiction
are generally reading fictions whose stories “ or story-types “ they already know. So,
from these three observations, we can derive the conclusion that, though we should
not be interested in junk fictions just because we already know the relevant stories,
recurring narratives are precisely that which interests us in junk fiction.
Moreover, this somewhat contradictory finding calls for an explanation. How
can we be interested in consuming stories that we already know? How is it ratio-
nal? Or, is it simply irrational?3
THE PARADOX JUNK FICTION 337
OF


This is what I call the paradox of junk fiction.This is rather different from the
paradox that Thomas Roberts addresses in his book An Aesthetics of Junk Fiction.
His question is how can consumers of junk fictions speak so disparagingly of them
while, at the same time, they evidently derive such great enjoyment and pleasure
from them?
And, the paradox of junk fiction should also be distinguished from what I call
the paradox of recidivism, which paradox, in turn, is based on the question of how
to make sense of the phenomenon that people often read or see mystery and sus-
pense fictions more than once, despite the fact that they have already read or seen
them and, therefore, know how they turn out.
The paradox of junk fiction and the paradox of recidivism are clearly related.
The paradox of recidivism inquires into the rationality of consuming particular
fictions “ like the film Vertigo “ again and again, despite our knowledge of the
ending; whereas the paradox of junk fiction is not about particular fictions but
about types or genres.Why persist in reading numerically distinct Conan the Bar-
barian or Tarzan stories, since not only are they always basically the same, but,
more important, the reader in some sense knows this? In what follows, I will
attempt to dissolve the paradox of junk fiction and to explain why it is not irra-
tional for us to read plots whose generic structures we already know.
Of course, one response to the putative paradox of junk fiction would be to
accept the phenomenon as it has been reported so far “ to admit that there is a
paradox here “ and to contend that the existence of that paradox only confirms
once again that people are irrational. They do read for story, and the stories are
monotonously repetitive.This irrational behavior undoubtedly requires an expla-
nation, but the explanation that does the job will not show the consumer of junk
fiction to be embarked upon a rational activity. Rather, his or her paradoxical
behavior is irrational and what explains it is psychoanalysis.
A long-standing psychoanalytic proposal concerning junk fiction is the notion
that junk fiction functions in a way that is analogous to daydreaming. In his clas-
sic essay, “The Relation of the Poet to Day-Dreaming,” Freud explicitly pursues
his analysis by focusing upon the authors of what I call junk fiction, whom he
describes as “the less pretentious writers of romances, novels and stories who are
read all the same by the widest circles of men and women.”4 Freud maintains that
many of their central, recurring narrative motifs can be characterized in terms of
wish-fulfillment.
Heroes in such stories seem to be under special providential protection.
Freud writes, “If at the end of one chapter the hero is left unconscious and
bleeding from severe wounds, I am sure to find him at the beginning of the
next being carefully tended and on the way to recovery; if the first volume ends
in the hero being shipwrecked in a storm at sea, I am certain to hear at the
beginning of the next of his hairbreadth escape.”5 Likewise Freud points out
that in such stories, all the women fall in love with our hero while the distrib-
ution of good guys and bad guys is calculated in accordance with whether they
are or are not the hero™s rivals.
338 ALTERNATIVE TOPICS

In the case of the providential protection of the hero, the reader is thought to

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