Is it still OK to laugh at our fear of laughing at scary stuff?

Paul Raven @ 29-03-2011

I’m not sure, but I think I’m going to do it anyway. Via SlashDot, CNN reports that some European TV networks are yanking some old Simpsons episodes from the rerun carousel in case the nuclear-disaster related plots upset anyone in light of the Fukushima crisis. (Bonus and presumably unintentional lulz: check the URL for the CNN piece! Nuclear jokes? Ew!)

Look, I’m no expert on humour (understatement of the century, yeah), but I don’t think it takes an expert or a particularly thorough survey to say that a great deal of the stuff we laugh at is funny because we’re afraid of it. This is the root emotion behind unacceptable ‘othering’ humour like racism or sexism (The Other must be mocked, so that we can feel larger and stronger than it!) and disablism (we make tasteless jokes about less able people because, deep down, we’re terrified to think how badly we’d cope with the same disability); such fears divide person from person, and should be erased rather than strengthened.

But fear of disasters, of the world itself? I think that’s a uniting emotion rather than a divisive one; our fragility in the face of chance events is one of the clearest indications that we’re all in the same lifeboat.

To be clear, I’m drawing a distinction between jokes about a specific event (a stand-up comic making light of Fukushima right now would be pretty tasteless, for instance, and making light of the human suffering caused by 9/11 fits in the same bracket) and making jokes about generalised existential risks. There have been nuclear crises before now; if there hadn’t been, jokes about them probably wouldn’t be as prevalent as they are. But does a fresh disaster merit this kneejerk cotton-woolling response? Is there a period after which nuke jokes will become acceptable again, and if so, how long is it? When will it become acceptable to run shows or movies that have images of the World Trade Centre in them, or should we go back and sanitise everything, airbrushing the WTC out of history like the cigarettes of the stars of the silver screen era?

Isn’t humour one of our best ways of coming to terms with the essentially hostile nature of the world we live in? Can we not rely on ourselves and the reactions of others to police the boundaries of taste, or should we leave that to the media companies, whose definitions of taste seem increasingly defined by their need to pander to dwindling audiences defined by political demographics, or to governments (whose political motivations are even clearer than those of the media)?

I ask these questions because I honestly don’t know the answers. I feel instinctively that there’s a difference between making jokes about the suffering of specific individuals and making jokes about the sorts of suffering that might possibly assail any of us at any time… but that’s easy for me to say from the privileged position of having never lost someone close to me through a natural disaster or act of terrorism. But to come at it from the other end, if we start deciding that some risks are too serious or topical to make light of, where does the line get drawn? How many people have to be offended for a joke to be considered tasteless? Just one? A certain percentage?

And what would we have left to laugh at?


Metamanifesto (put it to the test-o)

Paul Raven @ 23-03-2011

Those readers growing tired of my own formless and constantly churning set of ideals and philosophies (or indeed those of their leaders, elected or otherwise) might be considering the assembly of their own manifesto – after all, it seems like everyone who’s anyone has a manifesto these days. Well, help is at hand; these instructions were compiled by Kim Mok [found via This Isn’t Happiness].

The Manifesto Manifesto by Kim Mok

Feel free to publish your results in the comments. Heck, if you come up with a really good one, I might become your first convert… and if that’s not an irresitable inducement to formulating an ironically coherent standpoint on everything, I don’t know what is. 😉

[ Bonus points for anyone who can call out the song reference in the post title without Googling it. ]


Non-Newtonian cats

Paul Raven @ 02-12-2010

I’m out of town today, so I thought I’d pre-post some stuff to keep you all diverted in my absence*. So to start with, here are some observations of quantum tunnelling behaviours in Felis catus:

In my own residence, I and several other party guests personally observed the case of Chloe, a large black Himalayan. Though the extent of the cat’s fur decreased the certainty with which one could specify the cat’s position and momentum (c.f., the Himalyan Uncertainty Principle), and our garage door is only a few inches thick, the tunneling event was no less remarkable in light of her prodigious girth (she weighed 15 pounds, frequently intimidating our German Shepherd into sharing his dinner). The cat was initially observed sleeping in the driveway. When next observed several minutes later, the cat was nowhere to be seen. We opened the garage door, at which point Chloe left the garage, obviously having tunneled through the closed door. We marveled at this phenomenon, and, as we closed the side door to the garage, discussed plans for further study.

Yeah, I know; cats and quantum uncertainty, old gag. But it made me smile, which was excuse enough to post it. Now, I wonder if quantum weirdness can also explain that infuriating way in which cats will suddenly decide to stare intently at a patch of empty air for no discernible reason whatsoever…

[ * Because Futurismic really is that essential to your daily sense of well-being… it’s okay, you can admit it. I promise not to be embarrassed. ]


A potted history of early adopters

Paul Raven @ 25-11-2010

Via pretty much everywhere, a short wry video on early adopters.

[ Advance warning: has been mastered very loud, so crank down your volume settings before playing. ]


The in-jokes from way out

Paul Raven @ 17-09-2010

Today’s XKCD may not be one of the funniest ever, but as is often the way, it’s the not-so-funny ones that tend to get me thinking:

Inside joke - XKCD

And as always, it’s the mouseover text that gets to the real point:

I’ve looked through a few annotated versions of classic books, and it’s shocking how much of what’s in there is basically pop-culture references totally lost on us now.

Now, that’s a pretty ubiquitous aspect of popular culture he’s on about, but I think we can suggest that sf will suffer more strongly than regular mimetic novels from this problem when appraised by the readers of the future. Making sense of, say, Jane Austen’s work demands an understanding of the sociopolitical milieu in which it was written, but imagine trying to read Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl a century from now (assuming, of course, that there’s still someone capable of reading it at that point). To fully grok the story and its commentary, the reader would need to understand not just the historical situation of the Noughties, but also the way the Noughties looked at the future, and (to a perhaps lesser extent) the way in which a work of sf tends to engage in a dialogue with its antecedents and contemporaries.

Of course, that’s partly true of almost any cultural sub-genre. And this here blog will read rather strangely in a century’s time, but (again assuming it’s still around to read, stuffed into a corner of a diamondite teracube in 2110’s equivalent of the Wayback Machine) there’d at least be the links there for context. But that assumes that the links aren’t dead either, of course… and that the reader would be bothered about checking that context. Hmmm. I seem to have just argued my way out of my own hypothesis; maybe Noughties sf in retrospect won’t look any weirder than any of its contemporary media. In fact, thinking about the music videos I’ve seen recently, it might get off quite lightly…

Even so, I quite fancy the job of knocking up hypertext Cliff’s Study Notes-style annotated versions of modern sf novels for the benefit of the cultural anthropologists of the near future… would anyone like to pay me to do that, please?

Related: Douglas Coupland pops in to the New York Times to coin some much-needed neologisms for the near future. I wonder if he has one for marginal book critics who portray popular post-modern authors as self-indulgent cynics?


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