restricted access The Senses of Humor: Self and Laughter in Modern America (review)
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The Senses of Humor: Self and Laughter in Modern America. By Daniel Wickberg (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998. x plus 267pp.).

Unknown before the second half of the nineteenth century, the “sense of humor” fully emerged by the early twentieth century as a personality trait that was universally recognized as an essential component of a complete person. The rise of the sense of humor, Professor Wickberg argues, answered the strangest and most pressing demand of modern “bureaucratic individualism”: it made possible a self that was capable of not taking itself too seriously. The sense of humor thus arrived as both a tool in fashioning, and a central feature in the makeup of, individuals primed for the requirements of corporate society.

From antiquity through the Middle Ages, according to Wickberg, “humor” referred always to objective entities. Laughter was understood as an unmediated physical reaction to deformed or inferior things that were objectively humorous. Before the 19th century, Wickberg argues, referring to a ‘sense of humor’ would have made no more sense than referring to a ‘sense of temperament’ today. From the 17th century on through, with the rise of individualism as a political prescription and a sociological description, humor was gradually unmoored from its objective correlates and came to be understood as a subjective mental phenomenon, rather than an objective physical one. The 18th century’s proliferation of intuitive faculties of judgment—the sense of morality, the sense of beauty, etc.—paved the way for the coining in the 1840’s of the ‘sense of humor’ as a natural attribute contained within individuals. Nineteenth-century bourgeois sentimentalism stripped humor and laughter of their older associations with superiority, and recast them as markers of sympathy, relief, and ultimately, therapy.

By the turn-of-the-century the sense of humor became the signature attribute of a self that was defined as passive, detached, and consumerist, Wickberg argues. The sense of humor made it possible to smile and glad-hand with genuine sympathetic detachment. The sense of humor allowed people even to stand in a detached perspective from themselves, in order to make sympathetic evaluations of themselves as objective entities. This device, this “sense of humor,” Wickberg argues, helped reconcile the apparently conflicting modern American values of individualism, on the one hand, and compliance to co-operative bureaucratic systems on the other. “The self-objectifying capacity of the sense of humor,” Wickberg writes, “was specific to the individualism of a bureaucratic society; self-objectification removed the conflict between internal and external sources of authority and, in doing so, reconciled the ethic of self-determination with the demands of bureaucratic organization.” (107)

There’s not so much evidence for all that, but Wickberg takes his idea and runs with it through several penetrating chapters on the growing importance of the sense of humor in 19th and 20th century American culture.

The rise of the sense of humor rendered the individual a passive consumer, rather than a producer, of humor. In one of his best chapters, Wickberg analyzes the joke and its circulation as a “commodity form.” Late in the 19th century, the joke became widely accepted as the fundamental unit of humor, much to the chagrin of advocates of an earlier narrative-centered model of humor, like Mark Twain. Humor production was professionalized, with the attendant homogenization [End Page 683] of forms, divisions of labor, and de-skilling of amateur craftsmen. Wickberg shows how vaudeville and later radio stars systematically produced jokes in accordance with what they believed to be the “quasi-literary” form’s objective component parts. Psychologists and sociologists used the same techniques to develop “sense of humor tests” for use in the analysis of personalities.

In the 20th century, the ‘cult of the sense of humor’ found its way into all spheres from which it had been strictly prohibited in the Victorian period, which Wickberg says recognized distinct humorous and serious spheres. In politics, for example, Wickberg argues that while 19th century politicians could never risk being known as humorous, in the 20th century, no politician could succeed without showing that they did not take themselves too seriously...