Table of Contents:

Postmodern Humour

In postmodern humour the interplay between ambivalence and rhetorical device is significantly altered because of an increased generation of sign-slippage, which curtails the removal of ambivalence, or actively creates more ambivalence. This has consequences when liquid racism appears in postmodern humour. Postmodern humour that uses race, ethnicity and racism sees a mixing of genres that makes ethical interpretation or evaluation more difficult.

Embodied and culturally racist jokes can have a bearing on both serious discourse and the habitus - being to resolve ambiguity - that assists serious discourse in its self-maintenance and perpetuation, and facilitates the existence of contradictory discourse in the habitus. Sign-slippage is an essential trigger between incongruities in joke formation. In postmodern humour, processes of sign- slippage are multiplied, which prevents a dominant interpretation from appearing. In these instances a strong rhetorical interpretation cannot gain a foothold, or if it momentarily does, it soon removed by another meaning, as other meanings attempt to gain a foothold.

In postmodern humour the saturation of slippages and meanings prevent a solid linkage of humorous and serious meaning. Any cumulative rhetorical effects created by a ‘critical mass’ of humour are unlikely to appear. This increased level of sign-slippage may disturb the rhetorical techniques that support the serious. This contrasts sharply with the humour of embodied and cultural racism, where it is the recurring similarity of meaning and relative stability of sign-slippage in a rhetorical device that can successfully resolve ambivalence, which reinforces these discourses. Because of this difference, any rhetorical meaning will only appear momentarily in postmodern humour.

Working through this problematic, racism can still be experienced in one or more of the layers or folds of the genre at the level of the habitus but is often constructed as one element of a dichotomy in media debate. The saturation of meaning in postmodern humour produces no one dominant interpretation, and humour cannot attach itself to, or support, a serious discourse in the same noncontradictory way as other humorous discourses. In postmodern humour, meaning is far too saturated for one ‘true’ meaning to develop and social actors may see more than one meaning.

In the semantic field of postmodern humour, the reactions to humour and to the (even more) ambivalent ‘other’ of humour - which include proteophobia and proteophilia - may be more confused and confusing. As the amount of ambivalence increases around the referents of humour, proteophobia and proteophilia are, theoretically, more likely to be observed around the same humorous object. As the ambivalence of the ‘other’ of postmodern humour increases and expresses numerous race and ethnic signifiers, and invokes various habitus positions, so different social actors can experience ‘opposite’ readings of the same ambivalent ‘other’, and both proteophobic and proteophilic responses are produced as a result. There is then an inability of the rhetorical structure to remove the ambivalence for any fixed period, and although an article of order-building may be modern in appearance and may have originated in modernity, remnants of it may remain or even be replicated in postmodernity. Its status, however, will have changed.


The central importance of the generation of ambivalence in the dominant social formations of modernity and postmodernity, and linked to this, the impact of ambivalence on the race and ethnic discourses that appear in these social formations, has been outlined. We have seen that ambivalence represents Zygmunt Bauman’s ‘alter ego’ of language, or an unavoidable waste product that is inherent as the catalyst and the product of order-building systems. Ambivalence resolution can be conceptualised as a problem and demand that any linguistic, order-building process will be concerned with. In the proceeding chapters, these order-building processes will be shown to draw on humour as a rhetorical device that consumes the ambiguous waste of signification. As the ‘alter ego’ of the serious, humour is used as a mechanism for removing this semantic waste, and so aids serious discourse in its continued existence.

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