Pragmatics of performance and the analysis of conversational humor by akimbo


									Pragmatics of performance and the analysis of conversational humor

to appear in 2005 in Humor. Special issue on cognitive humor research ed. by K. Feyaerts

Helga Kotthoff 1. What Grice and his followers contribute to the analysis of humor 2. Privileging alternative maxims and principles 3. An example of conversational humor – norm violations in various levels of meaning 4. Reconstructing inferences 5. Relevance 6. Joint fantasizing 7. Conclusions Abstract
In this paper, I combine pragmatic theorizing with empirical interaction analysis to analyze conversational humor. By taking dialogic structures and the level of performance (utterance formulation, conversational sequencing and emergent genre construction) into consideration, I also hope to offer insights for cognitive linguistics. One key to performance analysis is that utterances always provide information, often called contextualization or framing procedures, on how they should be understood. Pragmatic modeling should take framing procedures and the reconstruction of various forms of knowledge invoked in normal, everyday communication into account to explain inferencing in humorous interaction. In most humorous activities, nonstandardized inferencing forms the core of the humorous potential. It arises either from a sort of script opposition (Attardo 1994) or from playing with formulation standards and expected ways of speaking within conversational sequencing. To frustrate expectations is to invite unusual associations. I distinguish between comical interaction modality (keying and framing) and punchline humor. Both invite listeners to make complex inferences. Besides this, they work with allusions. The listener must draw on life-world knowledge in order to understand the allusions that are central to both sorts of humor. I favor retaining the Gricean cooperation principle and his maxims for the analysis of humor and try to link the Gricean pragmatics of cooperation to performance analysis (framing, keying, layering, contextualization). Clark’s (2004) plea to take into account the distinction between primary and collateral signals is highly suggestive of possible ways to grasp the functioning of emergent humorous interaction. In this paper, I apply pragmatic theories to two examples of emergent conversational humor not belonging to well-known conventional humor genres and consequently hard to classify using conventional folk taxonomies. Using these examples, I show what a pragmatics of

performance can and should contribute to explaining how interlocutors co-construct humor and process various layers of meaning. Only when combined with a performance analysis that takes into account the layering of meaning and social and cultural knowledge can pragmatics explain the joint production of humor. I discuss various types of knowledge that interlocutors rely on in communicating humor.

1. What Grice and his followers contribute to the analysis of humor Below I deal only with those aspects of pragmatic theory which center on inferencing, thus also with the concepts of cooperation and implicature. These concepts were, as is well known, popularized by Paul Grice (1967) in his famous William James lectures. Grice wanted to show the inferential paths that lead us from the said to what the speaker meant (1957 “non-natural meaning”). In his William James lectures, he dealt with approaches that, in his opinion, located too many meaning potentials on the level of word semantics, and he showed the existence of implicatures where no one had previously expected them. Contemporary pragmatics has taken essentially three positions with regard to Grice’s original proposals: – pragmatics of language performance (e.g. Clark, Levinson) – approaches that focus on alternative principles and maxims (R. Lakoff, Leech, Attardo). – ones that rely on one super-maxim of relevance (e.g. Sperber, Wilson) Below I discuss the first two positions in regard to their potential to analyze inferences in humorous interaction. This remains sketchy, however, since both positions are too complex to be dealt with in detail here. My discussion of the third position will be even briefer, but it should not be left out, because it also contains interesting ideas for analyzing humor. For pragmaticists of performance, the special ways to exploit or violate a maxim orientate the participants as to how they could or should cooperate (what sort of discourse is being produced). They tie the Gricean set into the analysis of dialogical action and assume a hierarchy of communication levels (Clark 1996). For Clark (1996: 146) the Gricean maxims are "rules of thumb" which point to the meaning of an utterance only on a very abstract level. In order to describe the production of meaning in concrete sequences, other sorts of knowledge must be referred to (e.g., knowledge of sequencing, stylistic expectations, discursive genres and contextualization procedures) which constitute a collateral system of communication. Speakers make choices not only in what they say, but also in how they say it. Approaches that focus on alternative principles and maxims treat the violation of a maxim as a violation of the cooperation principle. Theorists who want to explain the joint production of meaning with a single supermaxim of relevance will be discussed at the end of the paper. Humorous communication is a difficult test for a pragmatic theory. There is no pragmatic theory that covers all types of humor, and only one deals with humor in particular (Attardo).

In Grice’s model, humor analysis involves particularized conversational implicatures, since a humorous utterance must always be adapted to the current co- and context, and most forms of humor want to be understood by the listener.


What is SAID






Figure 1 (Grice 1969, cited in Levinson 2000: 13) Most humorous activities invite non-standardized inferences as the core of the humor. Their inner dynamic comes from playing with scripts, formulation standards, normal ways of speaking and generic patterns, inviting unusual associations, disappointing expectations, and creating “sense in nonsense,” as Freud called it. There are genres such as the joke or the humorous sketch whose textual construction leads listeners to expect a punchline and guides their comprehension in this direction. The text structure is quite standardized. Within the genre, information is processed in such a way that from the start we expect incongruity and surprise, as well as non-contextualized narrative developments (Kotthoff 1998). These genres place us in a possible world and create a certain distance from the everyday world that we can process. Other humorous activities (for example, parody) evoke additional meaning levels, using framing procedures and drawing heavily on meta-communication. Laughter in speech is an example of this. It does not in a strict sense signal something funny, but rather creates a special form of reading (a special frame or keying) for what is said, in the sense of evoking a funny perspective on it. What is offered can be taken lightly. Thus, comical keying and punchlines are often combined, and humorous discourse and meaningful everyday action are naturally not mutually exclusive. I distinguish between comical keying and punchline humor. Punchlines involve an unexpected switch to another frame triggered by an element that, for example, plays on a linguistic ambiguity to exploit a metaphor. In comical keying topics are perspectivized in a special way. Collateral signals, such as stylistic deviations, laughter, prosodic or mimetic cues, can produce a humorous perspective on the

ongoing activity as another layer of meaning. However, comical keying can as well be produced purely in reception. Let’s take a simple dialogue as an example of punchline humor: He: Your nagging goes right in one ear and out the other. She: That’s because there is nothing in between to stop it. This simple joke (effectively a form of humorous “trumping” in which the speaker’s figurative utterance is taken literally by the hearer as means to undermine the goals of the speaker; see this volume) puts implicatures to work in dialogic sequencing. The first utterance already requires an implicature (metaphors flout maxims) which the second destroys. The clever reply again exploits Grice’s maxim of manner. Not only metaphors, but also such funny reactions can quite conventionally flout maxims. Such reactions can already have completed their journey from generalization to convention. This is not yet the case in the above example, where the implicature of the reply has not yet become a “default” interpretation. Normally, one would react to the implicatum of the first statement by defending oneself against the attack. Here, however, the recipient does not defend herself, but rather “torpedoes” the conventional reading of the metaphor. This “torpedoing” or “trumping” (ibid) of the discourse violates the maxim of manner, since metaphors are normally understood as a whole, and also the maxim of quality, since the woman lacks adequate evidence for what she says. She cooperates in regard to the identification of the speaker’s meaning, and she reacts coherently; she does not, however, cooperate with the man on the level of perlocution, because in arguments we usually pursue contrary goals (see Attardo 1997 on locutionary and perlocutionary cooperation). Nor would that be the case if she had seriously refuted his critique by saying, for example: "I wish that you would take my criticism seriously" or "You are mean." The listener could infer her intentions for all these reactions. So, in all these cases the woman and the man cooperate in Grice’s sense. The implicatures in her reply are built on implicatures in his statement. We have an amalgamation of implicatures. Traditional pragmatics paid no attention to this. The amusing torpedoing of the metaphor invites a further contextual inference regarding the course of her action. She strikes back. For her reply, relevance can be produced, but this demands “extra processing effort” (Sperber&Wilson 1986). What is the reward for the extra effort? At the very least, a sense of defeat on the speaker’s part and a sense of amusement on the hearer’s. There are forms of joking that rest more on stylistic deviation than on punchlines. In this paper, I use two humorous group conversations as test cases to check what a pragmatic theory of joint action can explain. As mentioned previously, implicature is context dependent and not every inference is based on an implicature. Social and cultural factors play a role in humor that is not analyzable in terms of implicature alone. For example, a confessed macho and a feminist would enjoy the joke presented above differently, depending on who had the last word. Numerous psychological experiments have shown that identifications with humorous figures play a role in reception. A joke is funnier if one likes the choice of target, as psychologists have shown (Zillman 1983). I will later analyze examples of emergent humor that do not belong to standard genres. These cooperative negotiations of the comical interaction modality are

neither based on a punchline, nor can they be explained simply by saying that everyone knows the genre conventions. The examples do not fit folk categories, such as jokes or puns. I base my argumentation on the Gricean scheme and will therefore outline it briefly. Since Grice, much has been debated in pragmatics. Robin Lakoff and George Leech thought that politeness contradicts what they had understood as instructions for effective information transmission, since polite acts are often elaborately, indirectly or vaguely formulated. They thus proposed maxims of tactful communication, naming a few other maxims in addition to, or as replacements for, the standard Gricean maxims. In doing so they effectively (mis)understand the Gricean maxims as instructions for optimal communication, which is perhaps not surprising, since Grice indeed formulated them in the guise of instructions: Do a, make b, do not say c, etc.
Maxims of quantity: 1. Make your contribution as informative as is required. 2. Do not make your contribution more informative than is required. Maxims of quality: 1. Do not say what you believe to be false. 2. Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence. Maxim of relation: 1. Be relevant. Maxims of manner: 1. Avoid obscurity of expression. 2. Avoid ambiguity. 3. Be brief. 4. Be orderly. (Grice 1975: 45-46)

Lakoff’s and Leech’s ways of reading the maxims as instructions for action were vehemently opposed, among others, by Brown and Levinson (1987) and by Horn (2004, 8):
But neither the Cooperative Principle nor the attendant maxims are designed as prescriptions for ethical actions or as ethnographic observation. A more accurate approximation is to view them as default settings (or presumptions, à la Bach and Harnish 1979), the mutual awareness of which, shared by speech participants, generates the implicatures that lie at the heart of pragmatic enterprise. Only if the speaker is operating, and presumes the hearer is operating, with such principles as default can she expect the hearer to recognize the apparent violation of the maxims as a source of contextual inference [see Grice 1989, Green 1996a, Levinson 2000a for elaboration]. Further, as with presupposition ..., conversational implicature operates through the mechanism of EXPLOITATION. Unlike syntactic and semantic rules, pragmatic principles and conventions do as much work when they are apparently violated – when speaker S counts on hearer H to recognize the apparent violation and to perform the appropriate contextual adjustment – as when they are observed or ostentatiously violated.

In the introduction to the new edition of Politeness (1987), Brown and Levinson discuss approaches that have developed additional maxims for the functioning of politeness, e.g., Leech (1983). Their chief claim: Politeness (and analogously also humor) does not suspend the maxims, but rather presupposes them for their understanding. In polite (and I add again: also in humorous) communication the principle of cooperation is over-fulfilled.

Speakers signal to each other that they want their intentions to be understood and rely on the others to do extra-inference work. Leech, on the other hand, conceptualizes linguistic pragmatics as the study of goaloriented speech behavior that aims at both a “textual rhetoric” and an “interpersonal rhetoric.” For each a maxim set is constituted. Thus, under the rubric “interpersonal rhetoric” is found not only the Gricean cooperation principle with all its maxims, but also a "Politeness Principle" (PP) with the maxims of tact, generosity, of respect, modesty, etc. (1983: 16, 132). Brown and Levinson offer a variety of reasons to resist this line of argumentation. One reason is that we obtain an infinite number of maxims if we introduce a maxim for each discursive frame. A further reason is that politeness is socially regulated in very different ways. There is no general maxim of politeness that underlies all interactions equally. Think merely of the differences in formal and informal situations. The Gricean principles are, however, of a very general nature, even if there are countless deviations from them. They are robust background assumptions of meaning generation in the foreground.1 Uncooperative traits are treated on a deeper level as cooperative ones. If politeness or humor principles had such a status, they would have to display the same degree of robustness (1987: 5). It would be hard to be impolite or not funny. Thus if someone says: “Shut up,” we would have to infer that the speaker has broken the tact maxim, but according to the principles of politeness, we would have to assume that it was still being followed on a deeper level. The main assumption of Grice’s cooperation principle is: No deviation from rational efficiency without a reason. Politeness principles, however, represent a central reason for deviation (1987: 5), humorous entertainment likewise. They are both omnirelevant. Nevertheless, their omni-relevance does not lend them the indicating character of the cooperation principle. Politeness must be communicated; its absence points simply to non-politeness and not to politeness on a deeper level. Also the absence of humor does not point to anything else. This does not mean that impoliteness or humorlessness do not express anything. The indicating character of the absence of politeness and humor is, however, deeply context-bound. It opposes the general validity of an implicature. Inferences in regard to the personality of the impolite or humorless speaker are course made, as well in regard to contextual assumptions, but not ones we could call implicatures (see also Horn 2004). Horn’s and Brown and Levinson’s chief critique is that violations of the maxims should not be seen as special cases, but rather as normal ways of processing meaning. One can violate the maxims more or less flagrantly, exploit them and play them off against each other (flouting). When this happens, the production of meaning is shifted to a deeper level, because speaker and listener still cooperate in some sense. Grice’s goal was to find the essential path from what is said to what is meant. This path is very general, and for an analysis of concrete utterances in context, it is necessary but quite insufficient. The cooperation principle is seen as central, not the maxims themselves, as Grice (1975: 58) himself notes: "... to calculate a conversational implicature is to calculate what has to be supposed in order to preserve the supposition that the Cooperative Principle is being observed ..."


Such a viewpoint is advocated, e.g., by Dressler/Merlini-Barbaresi (1994: 13).

Quantity, quality, relevance and manner can be understood as very general validation criteria with which perception works. Proposals by Brown/Levinson (1987), Clark (1996, 2004), Kotthoff (1996) and Levinson (2000) understand the maxims as heuristics within a system of joint action:
Spontaneous interactive language has its origins in joint activities. When people do things together in cafés, classrooms, and offices, they need to coordinate their individual actions, and they use a variety of communicative acts to achieve that coordination. These constitute the PRIMARY SYSTEM of communication – the official business of their discourse. But communicative acts are themselves joint actions that require coordinating, and people have a special class of communicative acts for this coordination – .... These constitute a COLLATERAL SYSTEM of communication. (Clark 2004, 366)

Clark highlights the jointness of people’s communicative action. Communication with language takes place on many levels. He enriches Grice’s theory by differentiating saying and displaying. (etc.)

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