Courses and lectures

"Stand-Up Form, Stand-Up Digression"

Thursday 21 June 2016: Lecture by John Limon, Williams College, Aarhus University, Foredragssalen (4206-139), Moesgaard.

“Stand-up” comedy is a relatively recent phenomenon—named probably in the 1950s to recognize a newly evolved form of telling jokes on stage in the United States. I argue that the best start on identifying the specific aesthetic form of stand-up is by way of the relationship of comedian and audience: unlike previous forms of joke telling on stage, stand-up comedy dissolves the boundaries between comedian and audience by several means: stand-up comedians often seem to be in street clothing; they seem to be embedded in the same physical and social reality as audiences rather than distanced artificially; they may seem to be talking with their audiences rather than addressing them with planned material. In these ways, stand-up not only evolves out of vaudeville or music hall comedy; it also seems unique or nearly unique among the arts. Julia Kristeva’s term for the psychic state that collapses the distinction of subject and object is “abjection,” and she conceives of abjection in terms of those aspects of the body that are neither subject nor object to us: hair, nails, blood, excrement, the corpse. These are all bodily realities that we’d like to get rid of (by cutting, cleaning, burying) but that keep returning, and of course comedians may deal in such marginal, disgusting, inalienable phenomena. But I am more interested in thinking of the entire stand-up setting in terms of such breakdowns of subjectivity and objectivity, which is why I am concerned with the breakdown of the aesthetic separation of subjective comedians and objective audiences. And on a larger scale, I note that the moment at which stand-up was named in order to identify a new kind of aesthetic or performance phenomenon, the vast majority of stand-up comedians were Jewish Americans, and a new social phenomenon was their suburbanization: the historical moment muddled the distinction of inside and outside “middle America.” My project, then, is to trace the relationship of abjection from psychic to aesthetic to social phenomenon. For the purposes of this paper, the method will be an examination of the talk aspect of stand-up: this is the definitive aspect of stand-up in which the border between inside the act (the planned jokes) and outside the act (talking with the audience) becomes permeable. At that moment, it is impossible to tell what is the linear form of the act and what is informal digression. And at that moment, I’ll argue, the breakdown of the distinction between form and digression implies the breakdown of the distinction between performer and audience implies the breakdown of the distinction of the Jewish comedian (or comedian of any peripheral group) and the mainstream audience

"The Anthropology of Humor"

MA course in anthropology, Aarhus University, Fall Semester 2017. Lecturer: Morten Nielsen

During the fall semester of 2017, I will do an intensive MA course on the anthropology of humor. We start out examining the history of humor studies within the humanities and social sciences and gradually move towards a detailed discussion of the status of humor within anthropology. Here, we focus on humor as an empirical object of study and discuss a number of relevant case and, particularly, the ways in which humor operates to destabilize conventional social and cultural understandings. Based on the insights that we will acquire by discussing these case studies, we end up considering to what extent humor and comedy might be used also as methodological approaches for exploring social life: Hence, could it be that the emphasis on paradoxes and surprises at the heart of, say, political stand-up comedy, might also be used by anthropologists as a way of getting insights about social life in general?