restricted access Humor, Literacy and Chicano Culture
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Comparative Literature Studies 40.2 (2003) 112-126

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Humor, Literacy and Trauma in Chicano Culture

Carl Gutiérrez-Jones

For various and complicated reasons, race and ethnic studies in the United States have yet to explore fully the cultural work with humor undertaken by artists of color. Despite growing interest in Mikhail Bakhtin's work on carnivalesque humor, and despite considerable attention devoted to "trickster" figures, the study of multicultural texts has produced readings that invite, yet frequently do not pursue, a sustained treatment of humor and its significance. 1 Given their struggle to win legitimacy for their burgeoning fields, it is understandable that some race and ethnic studies scholars would have second thoughts about committing themselves to terrain that might in itself be used by detractors to declare the frivolity and superficiality of multicultural studies. Lost in this process are the rich ways in which the art builds on a genealogy of critical humor (extending from figures like Cervantes and Erasmus) in order to present searching critiques of western rationalism. 2 I would suggest that race and ethnic studies has developed this complicated relation with humor in part because the cultural and political significance of race and ethnicity has been so intimately tied to the discourse of the law, a discourse that marshals authority and power by striving to speak from a position of transcendent rationality. 3 Understanding that race and ethnic communities have been profoundly invested in legal interpretation and its ramifications, one can see why many politically engaged artists, scholars and audiences might argue that the work of enfranchisement strongly encourages the development of cultural artifacts that adopt a weighty moral seriousness befitting the claims of legally adjudicated injury they describe. In the midst of protracted fights with the courts, a venue in which transparent motives and literal meanings dominate, humor can look like an escape valve, or perhaps a disruptive sideshow. Equating political efficacy with seriousness, a tendency has existed among many [End Page 112] teachers and scholars to read artists of color as practitioners of a realism of victimization, as advocates for causes who have too much to say to fool around with humor in its own right. 4 To the extent that race and ethnicity have been incorporated into the academy as markers for a complicated and extended history of victimization, discussions of the moral implications of this history have fostered heated arguments regarding blame, as well as frequently tendentious calculations in terms of prioritizing competing claims of injury. 5 These circumstances have sometimes made an engagement with the humor in race and ethnic culture appear inappropriate, if not offensive.

The desire to explore the experimental aspects of artistic expression deriving from racialized and ethnic communities has helped temper the bias against humor. Among other things, this focus on experimentation has promoted questions regarding the implicit values that have accompanied the use of particular forms and conventions of expression. 6 Working from the premise that U.S. institutions have manipulated the structure of discourses about race and ethnicity in ways that foster white supremacy, multicultural experimental work has asked the following: what are the forms of discourse that evade or undermine white supremacist presuppositions? 7 While a host of artists and scholars have suggested the ways in which this undermining and evasion are operating in a variety of texts, much remains to be done in terms of knowing under what conditions, and using which interpretive strategies, readers will be most likely to fully discern and engage these experimental practices, especially as regards the use of humor to address race and ethnicity dynamics. 8

Contributing to this project, this essay offers a case study of Chicano culture and the ways in which humor has been used by Chicano artists and critics to rethink both literacy and victimization. In a context in which the meaning of race and ethnicity is profoundly contained by the reading practices codified by the courts, any attempt to rethink injury and its remedy will likely involve a simultaneous engagement with the competing modes of literacy that vie for dominance in U.S. legal...