Review of Wit's End: Women's Humor as Rhetorical & Performative Strategy
by Sean Zwagerman 2010; University of Pittsburgh Press
Drew Loewe, St. Edward's University
(Published: December 5, 2011)
Sean Zwagerman's Wit's End avoids the trap of trying to define such polyvalent concepts as wit, irony, and humor comprehensively. Instead, Zwagerman announces that the book's project is to "extend theories of performative language to an assessment of the 'end'—both the goal and limit—of humor as a performative strategy in everyday discourse, as an assertion of intentionality and a force for individual and collective action" (3). To achieve these goals, Zwagerman weaves together strands of thought in fields as diverse as humor, speech-act theory, performativity, and rhetoric, offering close readings of women's humor in examples from American literature. Zwagerman offers both a sensitive critical extension of speech-act theory and fine-grained analyses of women's uses of humor. In doing so, he argues for "the recognition of a greater degree of performative felicity and communicative possibility than is allowed either by early speech-act theory with its narrowed field of focus or by current performativity theories founded upon the logical fallacies and pragmatic failings of the deconstructive turn" (7). Rhetoric scholars examining what Zwagerman calls “the strategic uses of humor” will find that Wit's End moves the field’s conversations on performativity, rhetoric, and gender in productive directions.
Zwagerman resists the common assumption that humor necessarily diminishes an utterance's "serious" content or purpose. He contends that humor can be deployed to "attempt the full range of serious (in the sense of purposeful and sincere) performatives" (3). Despite humor's potential as effective symbolic action, Zwagerman contends that women are often excluded from access to humor’s power or consigned to passive roles, such as audience or target. Moreover, Zwagerman wishes to disrupt any assumption that women's uses of humor are inherently liberatory, transgressive, or socially ameliorative. Instead, he emphasizes that because women's uses of humor (indeed all uses of humor) are highly dependent on the particular speaker, audience, and context, we need to take a fresh look at the question "what can we do with words?" (9).
In the book's first chapter, Zwagerman clears the theoretical ground for his project by reminding readers of J. L. Austin's fundamental distinctions between performative and constantive utterances and among locution, illocution, and perlocutionary force. Zwagerman contends that Austin is concerned mostly with illocution ("the intentional and conventional force of the utterance" (12)) and perlocutionary force (successes, failures, and effects of a speech act in a given context) while Derrida, playing the deconstructive foil, overemphasizes locution (the words of the utterance themselves). Zwagerman chooses the term performatives rather than speech acts because he wants to highlight the contextual, purposeful, and strategic possibilities of women’s humor, with all of the potential for success and failure attendant to symbolic action by often-marginalized rhetors.
Zwagerman, in chapter two, begins to examine how context constrains humor’s potential for resisting or subverting unjust social relations. Drawing on examples from James Thurber, Zora Neale Hurston, and Dorothy Parker, he shows how women's humor operates in these three writers’ works to both resist and to reinforce gendered assumptions about what counts as a serious performative. For example, Thurber's works position women as nonserious, trivial users of language. Complicating Thurber's construction of humor as an exclusively male privilege, Zwagerman contends that Hurston's novel Seraph on the Sewanee shows a glimpse of the potential for women to use humor as a serious performative act. However, as he shows, the ultimate outcome for Hurston's character Arvay is fraught with problems, not the least of which is the potential that a rhetor’s early efforts at performative authority can devolve into domesticated, constrained performative authority. Toleration and accommodation are not necessarily recognitions of full agency. Zwagerman then returns to Thurber's circle in examining Parker's short story "The Waltz." As Zwagerman puts it, Parker "portrays with wit and brevity the dilemma Arvay finds herself in at the end of Seraph on the Sewanee: she knows humor’s performative potential but she knows too the social costs of using it" (74). Parker's story further complicates simplistic understandings of humor as always subversive, liberatory, or leading to identification. Sure, the woman enduring the tedious, clumsy dance has some performative authority because her ironic statements undercut the story’s gendered, conventional events. However, Zwagerman reminds us that the real critique, most of the story, is in her unvoiced thoughts. Thus, the fit of word to world, to use one of Zwagerman's favorite expressions, remains perilous for women who might use humor to assert their position as fully-fledged rhetorical agents.
Chapter three is one of the strongest chapters in Wit’s End. Here, Zwagerman reminds readers that Austin devotes much of How to Do Things With Words to failed or off-target speech acts. Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? provides Zwagerman a chance not only to examine a female character (Martha) who claims a full range of humor’s strategies available to men, but also to examine the liberatory potential of Derrida's brand of deconstruction. In Zwagerman’s view, "the widespread celebration of Derrida's work in the mainstream of critical theory as liberatory and empowering its baffling given his systematic dismantling of linguistic agency" (101-02). Zwagerman contends that the play illustrates, disturbingly, how a Derridean view of language would work in the real world. Using Burke’s sardonic definition of war as a disease of cooperation, he argues convincingly that George and Martha's speech acts destroy any possibility of communion except to keep the hurtful linguistic games going. Zwagerman contends that by the time the play begins, George and Martha's entire relationship has become a failed speech act, including the act of naming (but forbidding the mention of) the baby they cannot actually conceive. For Zwagerman, the play "relentlessly interrogates the authority of intention, the values of communication, and the world-to-word potential of performative language" (125). As he asks, though, what happens after the humor? Though often bitingly funny---the play evokes many surprising, uncomfortable laughs---George and Martha's endless disruptions and subversions of each other have only led them to despair and inaction. For Zwagerman, the play shows that Derridean efforts to explode "context, intentionality, and meaning" (128) leave little basis for social hope or even for celebrating the potential of keeping a conversation going.
In chapter four, Zwagerman re-examines the extended polemical battles between Derrida and John Searle over speech-act theory as a case of (stereotypical) performative male humor. Such humor is hierarchical, dominating, and violent. In the case of these two philosophers, stereotypical male humor resulted in mutual accusations of bad faith misreading, insultingly didactic thrusts and ripostes, and ad hominem attacks. Ironically, argues Zwagerman, had Derrida or Searle been more open to how Austin theorizes and uses humor in How to Do Things With Words, they might have avoided their ugly exchange. As Zwagerman points out, Austin delivered How To Do Things With Words as a series of lectures. The speech situation of a live lecture requires the speaker to use strategies of audience engagement and to build ethos based on shared values. Not surprisingly, lecturers often use humor, including self-deprecating humor, for these purposes. In Zwagerman's view, Austin also used humorous examples to make substantive claims, which goes a long way toward refuting Derrida's position that Austin saw humor as less "serious" (substantive) than other kinds of speech acts or that he was complicit in establishing some sort of oppressive privileging of certain speech acts over others. Zwagerman charges Eve Sedgwick and J. Hillis Miller with having distorted Austin’s context and intention to serve their own polemical projects. The point of revisiting these tendentious old debates, argues Zwagerman, is to reemphasize the importance of context, intention, and agency and to stress that humor offers some (uncertain) hope even without a guarantee that it will be felicitous. Zwagerman asks "how can we move from the unhappy equality of Virginia Woolf to an empowered felicity of difference, parallel to an understanding of humor as different from (and more than) the nonserious, trivial, the hysterical?" (171).
Offering tentative answers to this question, chapter five uses the examples of Lulu Lamartine and Marie Kashpaw from Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine. Both of these characters, in Zwagerman's view, illustrate the potential of humor to re-weave the web of relationships and contexts that can constrain women's agency. For example, Lulu's paradoxically humorous offer to reveal the entire truth in tribal court (thereby exposing the identities of her many married lovers) is unwelcome by the audience, even though the typical speech situation of a courtroom uses the penalty of law to enforce truthfulness. When Lulu refuses the tribe's hasty offer of a monetary settlement and insists that she is not going to move (therefore preventing the tribe from building the degrading Indian souvenir factory on her land), she uses context and her own authority to perform a significant act with real consequences. Similarly, when Marie chooses to replace Nector's letter declaring his love for Lulu under the salt jar instead of the sugar jar, she chooses to always make him wonder whether she read it even after he repents and retrieves the letter. Marie knows that Nector will never ask whether she read it, but she will always have both his doubt and the fact of her continued participation in the marriage as means of asserting her own authority. Zwagerman’s examples throughout the book move from Arvay and the “The Waltz” at one end of a spectrum, through the underworld of Martha, to Lulu and Marie at the other end of the spectrum. Zwagerman concludes that while humor does not provide a guaranteed path to empowered performatives, it does provide the potential for animating authentic choices with real consequences.
In his final chapter, Zwagerman reminds readers that his book has aimed "to disrupt [the] false binary [that humor is nonserious and exceptional] and to show that we can use humor to perform real, sincere speech acts" (201), even as rhetorical action to create a better social world remains a goal always to be more hoped-for than achieved.
Wit's End steers a careful path between a sober recognition of the constraints on women's rhetoric, on the one hand, and the possibilities for meaningful communication and action, on the other. It contributes to knowledge by expanding existing perspectives on the rhetorical (and therefore often “serious”) uses of humor. In addition to its scholarly contributions, Wit's End could inform graduate courses in rhetoric and gender studies --- both for its careful, thorough arguments and as a model for how to write clearly and engagingly, even on difficult theoretical topics. Perhaps in his next book, Zwagerman could move from literary examples to sustained analysis of women's humor in real situations, including in political and social commentary. I, for one, would be interested in seeing how examples of actual discourse complicate or strengthen the conclusions offered here. If Wit's End is any indication, the arrival of such a book would provide another occasion for enhancing our understanding of how humor, rhetoric, and gender intersect.