The Copy Plateau


From Puns to Physical Duplicates – A Personal Note


This whole section, consisting of half a dozen parts, is about a major area in the landscape of the human imagination, and how the logic of that area is twisted by humour. But first a personal note, to set the scene, and present the problem in practical terms.


The day I began to see an emerging pattern in the large number of cartoons strewn about my desk, and on the surrounding floor, was a memorable one. But it took a while to get to that point. The problem being that it is easy to get sidetracked along the lines discussed in the section on pigeon holes in my general introduction. What category should I pursue? Animal jokes, puns, kids versus adults, public versus private, desert island jokes or what? Because such colloquial categories inevitably represent the first step in any attempt to classify the subject or twist in a joke, simply because there is no objective set of semantic categories in existence at this point to help us on our way. So it is perfectly natural to have recourse to the verbal categories in our language. In fact, not only are the distinctions in language the obvious starting point, but also, given that they belong to our world of meaning, they may offer us some useful leverage to the underlying patterns that we are looking for. Finally, does the technical vocabulary of the natural sciences offer us anything concrete? Well the problem here is that objective entities become very much the creatures of our imagination once they enter into our subjective world. For example, once a mouse gains a position inside our world of meaning, any objective distinctions about mousehood lose their relevance in favour of our subjective needs and applications. So we only have to think of ‘Tom and Jerry’ cartoons to realise that our scientific categories about species, morphology and phylogeny are almost totally irrelevant to the subjective image of the mouse in this very popular cartoon series. Which means that present day scientific vocabulary is unlikely to give us anything much at all in our search for an objective map of meaning, and our particular search for an entry point into humour.

So when I finally did begin to discern an underlying pattern in the cartoons set out in front of me, based on the idea of ‘physical duplicates’, I was rather cautious. Because I thought this category might turn out to be an artefact of language, rather than a real and fundamental distinction. This concern did in fact turn out to be correct in the outcome, because it was only later, when there were numerous problems of fit between the cartoons and the idea of physical duplicity, that this term revealed its inadvertent ambiguity. At which point, it had to be immediately turned into two quite different physical categories, in order to match the material it was presuming to explain. But to some extent, it is in the making of such mistakes that real progress can be measured. Because in this case, it led to the discovery of two major and, it would seem, fundamental areas of the landscape of meaning. Namely, ‘The ‘Valley of Shadows and Reflections’, and ‘The Copy Plateau’ or, more technically, the relationship between ‘The Image and its Original’, and the relationship between ‘The Copy and its Original’.

But first I must explain why I chose to look at cartoons, rather than say the more normal and common form of the written or told joke. Well, to begin with, cartoons, and especially those without captions, are probably the most international form of humour (aside from slapstick). And this gives the cartoon an advantage over purely verbal jokes, which tend to rely on the language and parochial detail of a particular society for their success. Cartoons are better because more people understand them, and therfore any subsequent insights that come from the analysis of cartoons should have a wider application. 

Secondly, and perhaps even more importantly, cartoons are an eminently practical form of material for study purposes. The thing is, cartoons are just so much easier to recognise, one from the other, when sifting through a large amount of joke material. Simply put, they all have an instantly identifiable ‘face’. So rather than sorting through multiple portions of anonymous text, which is very tedious because each one has to be reread, just to identify it, the sifting process with cartoon humour is fast and effective, because identification of particular examples is so quick and easy. 

Thirdly, cartoons are a good entry point because they focus on the relatively simpler physical dimension of life. In fact, this question of entry point had recently come up in my tutoring of a very bright philosophy postgraduate who had come to Oxford from Spain to further her studies on scientific method. We had been discussing Mendel together (she knew Mendel’s notebooks backwards) and she had reminded me of Mendel’s ‘lucky choice’. ‘Lucky’ because Mendel had investigated just those 7 characteristics of pea plants that effectively inherit in a simple way. And by doing this, he avoided the complex systems (like multiple alleles and polygenes) that would have made his first forays into genetics difficult, or impossible. So, the moral from this example was clear (and it is the basis for how much of science works). Look for the simple stuff first. Because the alternative is to go down deep into the mire, and lose ones way. Consequently, and with this very much in mind, I chose to look at cartoons as my primary example of joke material, because the cartoon favours the visible, and therefore to some extent physically tangible, aspect of our human world. Meaning that there was a good chance that I would not only see the subject of the joke fairly early on, but then that I would also get to grips with it properly, given its material focus. Because a physical identity offers a much easier starting point than say complex of abstractions and values, which is otherwise what most characterises the rest of the human world of meaning.

To summarise then, cartoons are generally more international than other forms of humour, and are much easier to sift through than textual jokes. In addition, they are potentially easier to understand and analyse, due to the way they lean towards the physical rather than the more profoundly abstract dimensions of meaning. 

Meanwhile, my chosen place of fieldwork or ‘laboratory’ was simple enough: it was the sitting room carpet. A carpet that rapidly became covered with a host of single frame cartoons from the various magazines available at that time. It was here that, to begin with, I tried heaping examples into categories, such as the animal jokes, and desert island jokes mentioned above. But the problem was there were so many animal jokes (just think of all the Gary Larson cartoons for example), and each of them seemed to deserve a different label. With the result that pretty soon, I had indeed got to the stage of the pigeon holes situation depicted in the previous section. I also tried the other approach, where I chose a formula (for example, ‘All Jokes Are Exaggeration’). To do this, I worked out how to argue and push every example into the exaggeration corner, only to find myself falling into the trap depicted by the sausage machine image. Because by turning all the glorious variety of humour into a formulaic grey pulp, I was completely ignoring both its diversity and its nuance, and creating a travesty of the real nature of humour, in favour of a universal fit rather than the individualised fit that each joke in fact deserved.

Luckily for me, several recognisable and definable areas did seem to be emerging from out of the chaos strewn across my sitting room floor. But a serious problem had also emerged along with them. Because although I was trying to identify both the attack pattern, and the underlying subject of each joke idea as separate entities, it was becoming increasingly obvious that the attack and subject were inextricably linked. Making me realise that I must have been hoping for something rather simpler than this. Namely, that I had assumed that the attack pattern of the joke was what characterised humour best, and therefore that the subject was a separate issue; merely a victim of the twist rather than a fellow conspirator. (A supposition that seemed to fit in with the general consensus in the literature on humour, and for that matter, with the more general ‘kerbstone opinion’). So once this had become clear, it then became clear too that the task was to define the subject just as much as the twist. Well enough that is to then shed light on the attack pattern that played with its logic. But I had an ally in this task. Because it is precisely the twist that silhouettes that logic by interrupting it, thus helping our identification of both the logic, and the identity of the subject behind that logic as well. At least, that was the idea anyway, but the fact remains that when confronted with the wealth of meaning in even a small sample of cartoons, such a principle seems much more like a hope than a fact. So more than anything else, I had to rely on the natural pattern sifting abilities we all possess, along with the familiarity and expert knowledge that we all use in our world of meaning, for any progress to be made.

Gradually then, I became familiar with two areas of this landscape of meaning. Both areas featured physical things or conditions that could be presented easily through the visual medium of the cartoon, whilst being relatively simple and easy to define. They also seemed to be, to a significant extent, culture free, and even possibly ‘planet free’. What is more, one category derived purely from Physical Space (shadows and reflections), and the other, albeit physical, derived from deep inside Social Space, representing several major dimensions of human purpose in its complex natural history. All of which made for a nice contrast that would surely yield further insights.

My hope that the action of the joke was going to reveal the fundamental topography of at least a small part of human meaning was therefore not in vain. Because it turned out that my collection of cartoons did indeed twist the contours of this valley and plateau in a way that neatly silhouetted their underlying logic and meaning. And because the subjects of this humorous play were relatively easy to define, I was able to tease out the underlying logic of the joke mechanism itself. This I had tried to do before, concentrating on the pun, but I had come unstuck repeatedly, mainly due to a problem that we have now considered more closely in the section on why the pun should be avoided as a first step. But this time I had discovered an area that had a logic of its own, and this area was not the result of the chance coincidence of sound or form. Because the area playing with shadows and reflections was clearly based on the underlying and natural laws of the physical universe, and the area playing with 2 and 3 dimensional copies (such as toys, statues, models and fakes), was clearly based on the underlying patterns of purpose within the human universe of meaning. Which meant that I was able to map this meaning in a useful way, charting the way in which humour played with its logic as a vital first step in my path towards mapping the other, more challenging, areas of the human condition. All of which resulted in an understanding of two fundamental areas of meaning and, at the same time, a better understanding of the way in which the joke works to create its humour, whatever the particularities of its target happen to be.

The next step was to try and fit this knowledge and insight into a working model that would help in the creation of new jokes. This had always been the direction and aim of this study – it is one thing to produce what is apparently a satisfactory classification of jokes, and quite another to produce a level of insight that can be tested and found useful in practice. All of which meant that, even though I had now accumulated a certain amount of thinking about copy and image logic, and indeed about the nature of the joke itself, there was going to be no settling down half way along this path. But at the same time, it was becoming increasingly clear that the complexity of even the simplest of jokes was going to make further progress along this path very difficult. A fact that became even clearer as my attempts to create a joke from first principles gathered pace.

The problem is that knowing how jokes work is only the first step in the creation of new examples. This is partly because jokes rely so very much on the nuanced detail and logic of the areas they attack, and it is very hard to map all that nuance systematically. Now we all know that even a small move in time or space will require a change in the fixtures played with by humour – this is a familiar bit of our colloquial knowledge about humour – what we find funny changes from person to person, place to place, year to year, and from one social level to another. But it is also the case that even within a very specific time, group and place, the amount of data needed to understand and get the joke is still impressively large, so that even if we are happy to keep things small, the challenge still seems pretty formidable. Unless, that is, there are areas of humour that reach beyond such limitations…

All of these matters and more will emerge in the practical detail of the study that we make in these two areas of humour that follow. But what also came out of this study for me personally is a fascination and delight with both the nature of humour, and the challenge of its creation in the first place. Along, that is, with a radically new discovery. Because although the whole idea of studying humour was based on the goal of mapping the landscape of meaning, in order to create an objective geography of the human condition, it had always been hard to believe that such an aim was remotely possible. After all, how could such an aim go further than the sophisticated appreciations and critical thought of the best writings in literary criticism? Furthermore, for it to do so, it would have to go so much further than the benchmark set by literary criticism if it was to properly realise its scientific aspirations. Because a science of meaning aims at so much more than literary philosophy. For example, it aims at a body of ideas that fit together with each other inside a greater picture. So in this case, that larger picture is the origins and development of the imagined world inside our heads. Which means that we must look for a fundamental ‘master pattern’ to the many sets of meaning that have emerged on our own home planet (and in intelligent life elsewhere as well). In fact, in just the same fundamental way that the biological sciences have revealed an underlying pattern to the fantastic diversity of natural life that we see here on planet Earth. A task and an aim that surely makes the very idea of a science of meaning a distant goal indeed. Yet here we are, looking at cartoons, and seeing the underlying patterns of meaning in their humour, with forms that are undeniably universal to not only human life, but inevitably true for intelligent life elsewhere as well. Making that first idea of a science of meaning that I had back in Oxford, during a class in the Social Anthropology institute, a sudden and most certain reality, at least to myself. But no more jumping ahead. Let us address the material, to find our way to this point, where we can then address the much greater problem of the master pattern.

One of the two areas that we are about to visit features an entity analagous to the pun, insofar as it makes a physical double of something that otherwise exists already. A double that is entirely the result of human purpose, and which is therefore far from being the result of the sort of chance coincidence of sound or form that we have looked at thus far. Exploring this area of the landscape of meaning then puts us in a good position to look at another area of doubles, which have their physical origin in a world quite outside our own making. But an area of meaning which does have a sensible pattern to its formation (unlike the pun). And once that area has been mapped, it is possible to compare these three doubles – the pun, the copy and the image, and establish their enduring and inevitable existence as a part of the human condition everywhere on this planet. As inevitable to the development of social space as are gravity and matter to physical space and evolution and inheritance to genetic space.

It is to the first of these two areas of this landscape of meaning that we now turn.