Women’s Humor as Rhetorical and Performative Strategy
Wit's End is an original perspective on women's use of humor as a performative strategy, seen in works of twentieth-century American literature. Zwagerman argues that women, whose direct, explicit performative speech has been traditionally denied, or not taken seriously, have often turned to humor as a means of communicating with men.
“What's that funny sound?” she asked suddenly. It invariably made him angry when she heard a funny sound. “What funny sound?” he demanded. “You're always hearing funny sounds.” She laughed briefly. “That's what you said when the bearing burned out,” she reminded him. . . . “It sounds like a lot of safety pins being jiggled around in a tumbler.” He snorted. . . . “Nothing gets the matter with a car that sounds like a lot of safety pins. I happen to know that.” “Oh sure,” she said. “You always happen to know everything.” They drove on in silence. . . .
-Excerpt from James Thurber's “A Couple of Hamburgers”
In Wit's End, Sean Zwagerman offers an original perspective on women's use of humor as a performative strategy as seen in works of twentieth-century American literature. He argues that women, whose direct, explicit performative speech has been traditionally denied, or not taken seriously, have often turned to humor as a means of communicating with men.
The book examines both the potential and limits of women's humor as a rhetorical strategy in the writings of James Thurber, Zora Neale Hurston, Dorothy Parker, Edward Albee, Louise Erdrich, and others. For Zwagerman, these texts “talk back” to important arguments in humor studies and speech-act theory. He deconstructs the use of humor in select passages by employing the theories of J. L. Austin, John Searle, Jacques Derrida, Shoshana Felman, J. Hillis Miller, and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. Zwagerman offers arguments both for and against these approaches while advancing new thinking on humor as the “end”-both the goal and limit-of performative strategy, and as a means of expressing a full range of serious purposes.
Zwagerman contends that women's humor is not solely a subversive act, but instead it should be viewed in the total speech situation through context, motives, and intended audience. Not strictly a transgressive influence, women's humor is seen as both a social corrective and a reinforcement of established ideologies. Humor has become an epistemology, an “attitude” or slant on one's relation to society.
Zwagerman seeks to broaden the scope of performativity theory beyond the logical pragmatism of deconstruction and looks to the use of humor in literature as a deliberate stylization of experiences found in real-world social structures, and as a tool for change.
“Intelligent, erudite, and original. Zwagerman provides exactly what he sees as missing: a book that focuses on the performative nature of a kind of humor that can be defined as purely American.”—Regina Barreca, University of Connecticut
“Shrewdly deploying speech-act theory,Wit's End illuminates how gender and humor function in a wide array of texts. Sean Zwagerman's own witty and stylish prose is entertaining as well as insightful. He has produced that rare thing: the immensely pleasurable scholarly book.”—John Schilb, Indiana University
“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.”—Enculturation