Making Interracial Humor Together

  • Michael Barber
Part of the Contributions To Phenomenology book series (CTPH, volume 91)


The presence of thwarted intentionality in humor makes the Incongruity Theory of Humor preferable over the Superiority and Relief Theories. Humor, while involving the thwarting of expectations that has less than serious consequences and that at least inclines an interlocutor to laugh, also depends on an epoché, that is, a formulaic introduction or the humorist’s mischievous smile, and involves a transformation of statements or actions, which might seem only aggressive, for example, in everyday life. A comic exchange with an African-American friend of the author illustrates the features of humor, particularly the “leaping together” into the humorous province of meaning, at a distance from everyday life, and opening the way to the theoretical province of meaning while differing from it. Humor is intersubjective since humorous styles are learned, since humor thrives in the encounter between persons from different cultures, and since it often involves a leap together. Racist humor, often not conducted in face-to-face relationships can be analyzed in terms of the linguistic concepts of “semantics/syntactics” and “pragmatics,” and the author shows why his friend’s humor, which focuses on race, is not racist insofar as in the pragmatic dimension it asserts cultural/racial differences and yet reaches across the racial divide. This friend’s humor reveals the healing potential in freedom that can reconcile oneself to one’s frailty and difference from another and establish a unique intimacy between interlocutors.

Now we shift to another finite province of meaning that Schutz mentions but never develops, namely the sphere of humor. We will find here the trademark of Schutz’s phenomenology: a discussion that makes use of phenomenology’s focus on intentionality, including entire intentional attitudes toward the world, as well as on intersubjectivity. Before analyzing the cognitive style of humor in Chaps.  8 and  9, we will discuss in this section the general meaning of humor and the kind of intersubjective relationships it depends on. We will focus particularly on an example of interracial humor in the United States, especially because this example illustrates the ways in which humor, like religion, affords a liberating potential, especially if one’s companion within the humorous sphere differs from oneself. Interracial and intercultural differences between a European-American, the author, and an African-American friend provide distinctive opportunities for one to see oneself from another perspective rather than beginning with oneself as the 0-point of all coordinates.

The three major theories of humor—Superiority, Relief, and Incongruity depend on the thwarting of intentional expectations, and, consequently the phenomenological account of the incongruity between what is intended and what is actually experienced explains humor best and supports the Incongruity Theory. In addition to thwarting expectations, humor has to do so in a way that evokes amusement, as it can do insofar as it involves no serious harmful consequences to others. Humor also amuses and avoids harm insofar as one adopts a special attitude toward one’s experience through an epoché, usually elicited by the cues of an interlocutor who invites a listener to leap together into the humorous finite province of meaning. This intersubjective character of humor, which encompasses the cultural-historical origins of one’s humor and the dangers and potentials of face-to-face humor, also merits reflection. Finally, this chapter will conclude by explaining how the intimacy that humor creates can heal tensions between different cultural groups and enable participants to be challenged and grow in self-acceptance.


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© Springer International Publishing AG 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Michael Barber
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PhilosophySaint Louis UniversitySaint LouisUSA

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