Ah, it was that PhD dissertation that was never written – life intervened. It always does. But things stick with you, and actually kind of gnaw at you – not that anyone reads Jonathan Swift these days. People these days watch Stewart and Colbert, whose satire is pretty much in the tradition of the early-eighteenth century satires of Swift. Someone had to be the first to show how it’s done – this process of saying one thing and clearly meaning something else, and really not meaning the exact opposite. The idea is to suggest that there is a range of other things that might be going on here, or should be going on here – but not to say what those things are at all. The reader, or now the viewer, sees the statement or position or character offered to them as blandly reasonable and not worthy of much of a comment, but then, with only a bit more detail – simply logically extending things – clearly absurd. But then where are you? What is the alternative? But satire is not didactic. Damn, you’ll have to think this out all on your own. And that’s perhaps the point of satire – to make thinking about things, clearly and carefully, unavoidable.
And how do you pull that off? Back in the early seventies, in that graduate English program at the fancy big southern university, amid the magnolias, that seemed something to work into a dissertation. How did Swift pull that off? What were the linguistic mechanisms by which he said one thing, clearly didn’t mean that thing in the slightest, but didn’t really mean the simplistic opposite, but suggested, implicitly, a range of other thoughts? He was suggesting something in his 1729 pamphlet A Modest Proposal – the Irish might ease their economic troubles by selling their children, born into poverty, as food for rich Englishmen. But he didn’t mean that. Of course he didn’t. But the Irish got his message, and so did those rich folks in London, with all their vast land-holdings in Ireland. The fascinating thing might to be to look into what people think they heard, in what Swift didn’t actually say. That would take a lot of digging into the political and cultural world at the time, with side trips into that evaluation of satire and its status at the time. Everyone said that they loved the Roman writers, but were the satires of Juvenal thought to be pretty cool at the time? What was the context here? And those are just the preliminaries. There is the whole issue of how language – where you say what you mean and people know what you mean and thus we can all cooperate and have something like civilization itself – works even better when you say things you clearly don’t mean, and everyone knows it. What’s up with that?
Ah well – the dissertation never got written. But weeknights at eleven it’s Stewart then Colbert, doing the same wink-wink nudge-nudge things Swift used to do. And the sense of it all is clear. I am saying this, and you know I don’t mean it. I mean something else, or many things. But we both know exactly what I mean. But we won’t tell anybody, right? We’re in on it. They’re not. But anyone with a lick of sense knows exactly what we mean.
Of course those who find Stewart and Colbert insufferably smug, or have no clue what the hell they’re up to, say Stewart and Colbert are just being sarcastic. That’s cheap and childish, isn’t it? They should just say what they mean. They should be straight-shooters, like everyone on the conservative evangelical big-business right.
Yes, you can sense the sullenness here, the sullenness of someone who doesn’t get the joke, but someone who knows there was a joke and everyone else is laughing. And maybe much of this, and a bit of Swift, is just sarcasm. The line between sarcasm and satire is vague. Maybe sarcasm is the lazy man’s cheap imitation of satire – not meant to get people thinking, cooperating with you in a bit of intellectual adventure, but just meant to make them feel really stupid. The distinction may be one of intention. Sarcasm may just be a way of being mean. People should say what they mean.
But they don’t. Hardly anyone does. We really have discovered the counterintuitive truth about communicating though language, that it works even better when you say things you clearly don’t mean, and everyone knows it.
Actually, in 1998, John Haiman, of Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, wrote a book about that – Talk Is Cheap: Sarcasm, Alienation, and the Evolution of Language – where he opens with this:
Whatever our social or psychological purposes in being sarcastic, from a purely linguistic or grammatical point of view, we are doing two things at once: we are communicating an ostensible message to our listeners but at the same time we are framing this message with a commentary or metamessage that says something like “I don’t mean this: in fact, I mean the exact opposite.”
This metamessage makes sarcasm seem like a very abstract and quintessentially ”linguistic” activity, for when we engage in it, we are using language to talk not about the world but about itself. Moreover, as there are many other devices available for performing the act of denial or committing verbal aggression, it seems like a needlessly roundabout way of performing this task.
So somethings else is going on here:
Accordingly, we should not be surprised to find that sarcasm correlates with some other kinds of “sophistication” or to find that it is far from universal even among human beings. If language is what defines humanity, then irony and sarcasm may conceivably define a “higher” or “more decadent” type of culture or personality or at least a geographically and temporally restricted use of language to perform verbal aggression or other kinds of work. This idea has occurred to a number of observers of contemporary American culture.
There is something to this. There is a sullen resentment of the folks from New York, like Colbert and Stewart, who think they are so smart, with their jokes that really make no sense at all, at least in the heartland and all. On the other hand, Haiman suggests these folks get used to it, as language itself may be the problem:
As an adolescent learning French, I was fascinated by the French expression for the verb “to mean,” as in “Qu’est-ce que cela veut dire?” (freely, “What does that mean?”; literally, “What does that want to say?”). If you want to say something, after all, why don’t you just come right out and say it? (The etymologies of English “mean” and German “bedeuten” prompt exactly the same question.) I now realize that this apparently pointless gap between “saying” and “meaning” is a necessary part of every language, as it is of every code, and presumably always will be until we evolve telepathy and eliminate the middle man. Moreover, the essence of understanding and interpreting every sign in a code lies in bridging the necessary yet perverse and ornery gap between the signifier and the signified. Another word for this peculiar decoupling in every human language is the design feature of displacement…
And it is that very displacement that is the problem. You read or hear the words, and you know what they mean, and you also know what they really mean – usually something else, or almost always something else. That’s the world we live in.
And in the Smithsonian, Richard Chin covers that word in The Science of Sarcasm – a survey of the current thinking on this matter of saying one thing and meaning another, and still being understood. And he opens referring to an episode of The Simpsons that many of us remember fondly. Springfield’s mad scientist – who sounds a lot like Jerry Lewis in those execrable films of the late fifties – demonstrates his latest creation, a sarcasm detector. And the Comic Book Guy chimes in – “Sarcasm detector? That’s a really useful invention.” And the machine explodes. It’s not that simple.
But Chin notes that scientists are finding that the ability to detect sarcasm might actually be useful – so for the past twenty years linguists and psychologists and neurologists have been studying our ability to perceive sarcastic remarks with the idea of gaining new insights into how the mind works:
Studies have shown that exposure to sarcasm enhances creative problem solving, for instance. Children understand and use sarcasm by the time they get to kindergarten. An inability to understand sarcasm may be an early warning sign of brain disease.
Don’t tell that to all those people who hate Jon Stewart. But maybe they ought to worry:
Sarcasm detection is an essential skill if one is going to function in a modern society dripping with irony. “Our culture in particular is permeated with sarcasm,” says Katherine Rankin, a neuropsychologist at the University of California at San Francisco. “People who don’t understand sarcasm are immediately noticed. They’re not getting it. They’re not socially adept.”
Sarcasm so saturates 21st-century America that according to one study of a database of telephone conversations, 23 percent of the time that the phrase “yeah, right” was used, it was uttered sarcastically. Entire phrases have almost lost their literal meanings because they are so frequently said with a sneer. “Big deal” for example. When’s the last time someone said that to you and meant it sincerely? “My heart bleeds for you” almost always equals “Tell it to someone who cares,” and “Aren’t you special” means you aren’t.
And Chin cites John Haiman contention saying sarcasm is practically the primary language in modern society.
But then, it may be good for us. At least that is what Chin says the latest research shows:
Sarcasm seems to exercise the brain more than sincere statements do. Scientists who have monitored the electrical activity of the brains of test subjects exposed to sarcastic statements have found that brains have to work harder to understand sarcasm.
That extra work may make our brains sharper, according to another study. College students in Israel listened to complaints to a cellphone company’s customer service line. The students were better able to solve problems creatively when the complaints were sarcastic as opposed to just plain angry. Sarcasm “appears to stimulate complex thinking and to attenuate the otherwise negative effects of anger,” according to the study authors.
Well, that was the running joke in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest – where the title actually was the joke. Being earnest is deadly dull, and quite the opposite of being complex and interesting and alive. Even the name was deadly. Cecily could never even marry a man named Earnest, after all.
But Cine notes that there is more to it:
The mental gymnastics needed to perceive sarcasm includes developing a “theory of mind” to see beyond the literal meaning of the words and understand that the speaker may be thinking of something entirely different. A theory of mind allows you to realize that when your brother says “nice job” when you spill the milk, he means just the opposite, the jerk.
Sarcasm keeps you on your toes, fully imagining “the other” so to speak. But then it is also often just nasty:
Sarcastic statements are sort of a true lie. You’re saying something you don’t literally mean, and the communication works as intended only if your listener gets that you’re insincere. Sarcasm has a two-faced quality: it’s both funny and mean. This dual nature has led to contradictory theories on why we use it.
Some language experts suggest sarcasm is used as a sort of gentler insult, a way to tone down criticism with indirectness and humor. “How do you keep this room so neat?” a parent might say to a child, instead of “This room is a sty.”
But others researchers have found that the mocking, smug, superior nature of sarcasm is perceived as more hurtful than a plain-spoken criticism. The Greek root for sarcasm, sarkazein, means to tear flesh like dogs.
In his book, Haiman argues sarcasm might be just part of our quest to be cool, where you’re distancing yourself, making yourself superior. But Haiman also notes the cultural imperative at work. If you’re sincere all the time, you seem naive. No one wants to be naïve.
But Chin notes the research showing sarcasm is also a pretty handy tool:
Most of us go through life expecting things to turn out well, says Penny Pexman, a University of Calgary psychologist who has been studying sarcasm for more than 20 years. Otherwise, no one would plan an outdoor wedding. When things go sour, Pexman says, a sarcastic comment is a way to simultaneously express our expectation as well as our disappointment. When a downpour spoils a picnic and you quip, “We picked a fine day for this,” you’re saying both that you had hoped it would be sunny and you’re upset about the rain.
Ah, it’s shorthand among friends. Pexman is quoted as saying that there does seem to be truth to the old adage that you tend to tease the ones you love.
But then she could be wrong:
Among strangers, sarcasm use soars if the conversation is via an anonymous computer chat room as opposed to face to face, according to a study by Jeffrey Hancock, a communications professor at Cornell University. This may be because it’s safer to risk some biting humor with someone you’re never going to meet. He also noted that conversations typed on a computer take more time than a face to face discussion. People may use that extra time to construct more complicated ironic statements.
But then, on the other hand, spontaneous kids are quite good at sarcasm too:
Kids pick up the ability to detect sarcasm at a young age. Pexman and her colleagues in Calgary showed children short puppet shows in which one of the puppets made either a literal or a sarcastic statement. The children were asked to put a toy duck in a box if they thought the puppet was being nice. If they thought the puppet was being mean, they were supposed to put a toy shark in a box. Children as young as five were able to detect sarcastic statements quickly.
Pexman said she has encountered children as young as four who say, “Smooth move, mom” at a parent’s mistake. And she says parents who report being sarcastic themselves have kids who are better at understanding sarcasm.
Is that a good thing? Yes, it is. Understanding what is really going on, in spite of what’s being said, is something you want your kid to master. Hemingway once said that what every writer needs is a foolproof, shockproof crap detector. Kids need those too. On the other hand, believe exactly what your parents say to you – every word – and what your teachers say – every word – and the cop on the corner, and your football coach, even in the shower room. No, wait. Damn, this gets complicated.
And we find out that there’s more, the regional variations in sarcasm:
A study that compared college students from upstate New York with students from near Memphis, Tennessee, found that the Northerners were more likely to suggest sarcastic jibes when asked to fill in the dialogue in a hypothetical conversation.
Northerners also were more likely to think sarcasm was funny: 56 percent of Northerners found sarcasm humorous while only 35 percent of Southerners did. The New Yorkers and male students from either location were more likely to describe themselves as sarcastic.
Ah, we live in two nations. And the South is what it is. But then no one may be to blame as it seems that detecting sarcasm can be difficult:
There are a lot of things that can cause our sarcasm detectors to break down, scientists are finding. Conditions including autism, closed head injuries, brain lesions and schizophrenia can interfere with the ability to perceive sarcasm.
Researchers at the University of California at San Francisco, for example, recently found that people with frontotemporal dementia have difficulty detecting sarcasm. Neuropsychologist Katherine Rankin has suggested that a loss of the ability to pick up on sarcasm could be used as an early warning sign to help diagnose the disease. “If someone who has the sensitivity loses it, that’s a bad sign,” Rankin says. “If you suddenly think Stephen Colbert is truly right wing, that’s when I would worry.”
She should worry, as the guys at Ohio State did the study:
This study investigated biased message processing of political satire in The Colbert Report and the influence of political ideology on perceptions of Stephen Colbert. Results indicate that political ideology influences biased processing of ambiguous political messages and source in late-night comedy. Using data from an experiment (N = 332), we found that individual-level political ideology significantly predicted perceptions of Colbert’s political ideology. Additionally, there was no significant difference between the groups in thinking Colbert was funny, but conservatives were more likely to report that Colbert only pretends to be joking and genuinely meant what he said while liberals were more likely to report that Colbert used satire and was not serious when offering political statements. Conservatism also significantly predicted perceptions that Colbert disliked liberalism. Finally, a post hoc analysis revealed that perceptions of Colbert’s political opinions fully mediated the relationship between political ideology and individual-level opinion.
Is this brain damage? To be fair, Rankin was suggesting sudden-onset belief that Stephen Colbert is truly right wing, not a chronic persistent condition. Still, brain damage is brain damage:
Many parts of the brain are involved in processing sarcasm, according to recent brain imaging studies. Rankin has found that the temporal lobes and the parahippocampus are involved in picking up the sarcastic tone of voice. While the left hemisphere of the brain seems to be responsible for interpreting literal statements, the right hemisphere and both frontal lobes seem to be involved in figuring out when the literal statement is intended to mean exactly the opposite, according to a study by researchers at the University of Haifa.
And even some machines are better than Republicans:
It turns out scientists can program a computer to recognize sarcasm. Last year, Hebrew University computer scientists in Jerusalem developed their “Semi-supervised Algorithm for Sarcasm Identification.” The program was able to catch 77 percent of the sarcastic statements in Amazon purchaser comments like “Great for insomniacs” in a book review. The scientists say that a computer that could recognize sarcasm could do a better job of summarizing user opinions in product reviews.
The University of Southern California’s Signal Analysis and Interpretation Laboratory announced in 2006 that their “automatic sarcasm recognizer,” a set of computer algorithms, was able to recognize sarcastic versions of “yeah, right” in recorded telephone conversations more than 80 percent of the time. The researchers suggest that a computerized phone operator that understands sarcasm can be programmed to “get” the joke with “synthetic laughter.”
If only people could get the joke. There’s a dissertation in there somewhere. Yeah, right.