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Donna M. Goldstein challenges much of what we think we know about the "culture of poverty." Drawing on more than a decade of experience in Brazil, Goldstein provides an intimate portrait of everyday life among the women of the favelas, or urban shantytowns. These women have created absurdist and black-humor storytelling practices in the face of trauma and tragedy. Goldstein helps us to understand that such joking and laughter is part of an emotional aesthetic that defines the sense of frustration and anomie endemic to the political and economic desperation of the shantytown.
The secret source of Humor is not joy but sorrow. There is no humor in heaven. Mark Twain, "Pudd'nhead Wilson's New Calendar"
When I began the research that resulted in this book, I had no idea that I would use humor as one of the consolidating themes of an ethnography seeking to chart the complex intersections among the hierarchies of race, class, gender, and sexuality at work within poverty-stricken communities in Rio de Janeiro. I expected to write about the state and transnational processes shouldering their way into the lives of the urban poor-an insistent phenomenon increasingly insinuating itself into other local contexts, both urban and rural, in Brazil and all over the globe. But rather than locating my research in one of the institutions through which these forces are channeled, mediated, or even challenged (a site of inquiry that would have given me more direct access to these processes), I found myself instead embroiled in the local life of Rio's favelas, or shantytowns, performing a rather old-fashioned role as participant-observer. Here, despite their heavy and direct impact, these state and global processes often seem detached and oddly indirect; they appear most of the time as vague, burdensome shadows, becoming solid and "real" only through the routine and visceral engagements with the embodied effects of power: humiliating encounters with police, standing in line at the emergency room with a deathly sick child, visiting a friend's relative in prison.
In the shantytowns, one gets the almost overwhelming sense that it is not one's place to participate in these processes or engage in dialogue with them. Residents feel largely divorced from these "outside" forces, except as a generalized target of them. These forces originate elsewhere, journey far above and beyond ordinary people, are controlled by and offer opportunity to others, only then finding their end point, their appointed destination, in the lives of the poor through the contemptuous gaze of a police officer or the dismissive gesture of a well-meaning but overworked doctor. It is hard, even for the researcher, not to feel trapped within this particular reality-an existence blinded to the larger workings of these processes that, despite their undeniable daily impact, are strangely diffuse and seemingly well beyond local influence. Indeed, it is almost impossible to escape the naturalized notion that these forces, and the power they bring to bear, simply do not belong to the poor. And on many days, throughout the course of my fieldwork, I felt the same way-that these processes did not belong to me either, even as objects of inquiry. I saw the effects of power everywhere. Its fallout was all around me. Yet I sometimes felt I had come to study the forest, only to get lost in the trees.
Because the residents of these impoverished communities are indeed embedded in structures of power that are often unpredictable and beyond their immediate control, I have been careful to conceal their collective identity through the fictional renaming of their community and by intentionally imprecise reference to the location of the community both on the provided maps and in the text. Additionally, I have masked all individual identities through the use of pseudonyms and the digital alteration of all identifiable faces appearing in the photographs. While all of the people I came to know were enthusiastic about the prospect of having their photographs appear in a published book, I have chosen to fog their expressive and aesthetically pleasing faces to ensure their personal security.
Despite the fact that I was caught up in a community where life was all too clearly hard, everywhere I turned I seemed to hear laughter. I gradually came to realize, first in my gut, later in my head, that there was much more behind the humor than I first realized. This humor was a kind of running commentary about the political and economic structures that made up the context within which the people of Rio's shantytowns made their lives-an indirect dialogue, sometimes critical, often ambivalent, always (at least partially) hidden, about the contradictions of poverty in the midst of late capitalism. It offered an intriguingly subtle window onto the forces that I many times feared I had lost sight of.
The shape of this humor, its resonance, felt oddly familiar to me. It was Similar-although not identical-to an aesthetic I had experienced before, an echo from long ago. My parents, second-generation immigrants from Russia, began their married lives together in a run-down public housing project in Brooklyn, New York. Many of my childhood recollections include our immediate neighbors and friends who were also Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, some of whom had survived the horrors of the Holocaust. I know that many of them were tough-skinned, touched as they were so indelibly by the direct hand of evil. Yet I remember their dinner parties as particularly loud and boisterous affairs, unabashedly celebratory, their insistent laughter always overpowering those cramped little rooms and seeping under doorways into the dim halls or flowing from the high windows out over the noisy, bustling street. I also had the benefit of having both a father and a grandfather who saw themselves as the inheritors of a great comic tradition. Both were insatiable collectors of humorous stories and jokes, not all of which were considered to be "in good taste." Thus, my childhood was immersed in laughter. This humor, rendered darkly through the glass of their collective experience, masked a certain loss of innocence-and I took their messages about the world, however disguised, as a profound form of truth.
Even now, as I finish writing this book, which I admit has taken far too long, my father cannot resist teasing me with the assertion that he is staying alive just to see the day it is published.
Words Fly Away
When you realize that you are not getting something-a joke, a proverb, a Ceremony-that is particularly meaningful to the natives, you can see where to grasp a foreign system of meaning in order to unravel it. Robert Darnton, "Workers Revolt: The Great Cat Massacre of the Rue Saint-Severin"
The meanings embedded in humor are often elusive, hard to grasp, fugitive. Yet humor and laughter, even when they admittedly baffled me, always incited me to delve deeper. Such laughter became a challenge, an interpretive method for beginning to unravel the complex ways in which people comprehend their own lives and circumstances. Perhaps at times only partially or imperfectly, I found that humor, despite its grinning, Cheshire cat-like nature, nevertheless opened up a window onto the complicated consciousness of lives that were burdened by their place within the racial, class, gender, and sexual hierarchies that inform their social world. Despite the rigidness of these hierarchies and tightly woven webs of power, they were not strong enough to contain this laughter, nor the meanings disguised within it, as it spilled over into my work.
The impoverished women in whose lives I became enmeshed-a largely nonliterate, urban, historically oppressed population-represented examples of contemporary women's popular culture, one that has few direct opportunities for self-expression. Humor provided one of the few vehicles for giving voice to this group of women who have very little access to the public sphere so exalted in theoretical writings about democratic governance. And yet their culture remains elusive, much like-and for many of the same reasons as-historian Peter Burke's (1978) popular culture of early modern Europe: "Popular culture eludes the historian because he is a literate, self-conscious modern man who may find it difficult to comprehend people unlike himself, and also because the evidence for their attitudes and values, hopes and fears is so fragmentary. Much of the popular culture of this period was oral culture, and 'words fly away'" (65)
Women's popular culture in Rio is not only largely oral but also predominantly inaccessible in an obviously public form. We know very little about women's particularized perspective on the world. Burke's assertion that "words fly away" suggests why detailed ethnographic studies may still provide important insights, despite the contention by some that this style of fieldwork-based ethnographic writing has been one of the great conceits of the discipline of anthropology. Even though close to one million out of the ten million residents of the metropolitan region of Rio de Janeiro still live in favelas, there have been very few ethnographic attempts to capture the tenor and context of daily life in these communities or the particular struggle of the women who form their backbone.
Yet, despite the rarity of cultural productions authored by women from the popular classes, Carolina Maria de Jesus, a poor black woman living in a Brazilian favela, was able, in 1960, to publish her personal diary that documented everyday life and her struggle to survive and care for her children within the context of extreme poverty. Throughout two decades, the book, Quarto de Despejo, served to bring the perspective of Brazil's urban poor to the outside world. It became a key text in the fields linking Brazilian studies, studies of human suffering in impoverished communities, and studies based on autobiographical recording and witnessing. But while de Jesus's book has enjoyed an enduring popularity in the international arena, it held a relatively short-lived fame in Brazil itself.
As a North American anthropologist and as a woman, however, I have had the opportunity to share in this perspective through the bawdy laughter of contemporary women with a rich oral tradition, one that remains relatively ignored by the elite classes. Through my experience in Brazil, I became a member, albeit temporarily, of a chorus of "laughing people" (Bakhtin 1984:474)-in this case, a chorus of women and children sharing stories and making each other laugh-a privileged position that provided me an opening into understanding their particular lives, lives informed and constrained by the hierarchies in which they find themselves embedded.
This book, then, at its core, is about power relations and how they are experienced by the poor. Humor emerged as one of the organizing themes-but not the central focus-of this study because it is where a particular kind of communication and meaning-making takes place. Humor is a vehicle for expressing sentiments that are difficult to communicate publicly or that point to areas of discontent in social life. The meanings behind laughter reveal both the cracks in the system and the masked or more subtle ways that power is challenged. Humor is one of the fugitive forms of insubordination. Although I could not often see the discontent of these women directly, I found that I could hear it expressed, often meekly, sometimes boldly, through their laughter.
Bitter Truths, Hidden Transcripts
Rabelais, one of the wisest and most learned, as well as the wittiest of men, put on the robe of the all-licensed fool, that he might, like the court-jester, convey bitter truths under the semblance of simple buffoonery. Thomas Love Peacock, "French Comic Romances," in Memoirs of Shelley, and Other Essays and Reviews
Having been raised within a family of homegrown comedians and their fellow New York accomplices, I found it no surprise, when I finally turned formally to the subject of humor, that the literature is filled with references to the place of humor within the Jewish tradition. Freud's classic Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious (1963) claimed that self-critical jokes characterize Jewish popular life, and later theorists, taking this seminal work as a starting point, claimed that humor was often a survivalist response to the vicissitudes of life (Oring 1984; Koller 1988), a perspective referred to as the "Jewish" view of humor (Davis 1995). While it may seem that the popular humor of the characters presented throughout this book displays a similarly survivalist perspective-after all, their humor is inspired within cruel and unusual political and economic circumstances that nevertheless allow them to make fun of the absurdity of their situation-it is also much more than that. It forms part of a shared oppositional aesthetic forged within a class-polarized context.
Countless philosophers, scholars, speculators, theorists, and their various fellow travelers-from Plato to Hegel, Baudelaire to Bergson-have contributed to the map that attempts to chart the multifold roles and difficult landscape of humor. Historian Peter Gay (1993) has pointed out that "the varieties of laughter cover so vast and varied a terrain that they all but frustrate mapping," and that "wit, humor, the comic ... are exceedingly ambiguous in their intentions and their effects, prudent and daring, conformist and rebellious in turn" (369, 373). Yet, despite its paradoxical character, since the turn of the twentieth century (due in large part to the influence of Freud), the idea that behind the subtle and various guises of humor lies an essential aggressiveness has become commonplace.
In the social science literature, this tension between the exercise and control of aggression has taken form as a debate that characterizes humor as either a conservative or a radical social force. One group of scholars describes humor as a kind of homeostatic mechanism that allows for social strains and tensions to be expressed within a group, thus leading to a kind of "escape-valve" analysis. In many of these analyses, humor is perceived ultimately to reinforce the status quo. Indeed, Michael Mulkay (1988) argues that humor is basically impotent in affecting change in the real world, but its analysis is important because it reveals ambiguity, contradiction, paradox, and inconsistency while encouraging multiple interpretations of the world. For Mulkay, the humorous mode is "consistently inconsistent or inconsistently consistent" (219), thereby revealing the multiple realities of the social world more accurately than the serious mode. Mulkay is arguing, ironically, with a classic anthropological perspective set forth by British anthropologist Mary Douglas (1966), who wrote about humor as an anti-rite, seeing in it a potentially disorganizing and revolutionary force.
This once-raging debate has taken a related but more subtle (although no less thorny) shape around questions of resistance within the contemporary discourse. Echoing Douglas's assertion of humor as anti-rite, James Scott (1985), for example, has suggested that humor might be one of the "weapons of the weak." Building on the ideas of E.P.
Excerpted from Laughter Out of Place by Donna M. Goldstein Copyright © 2003 by Donna M. Goldstein. Excerpted by permission.
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List of Illustrations
Introduction: Hard Laughter
1. Laughter "Out of Place"
2. The Aesthetics of Domination:
Class, Culture, and the Lives of Domestic Workers
3. Color-Blind Erotic Democracies, Black Consciousness Politics,
and the Black Cinderellas of Felicidade Eterna
4. No Time for Childhood
5. State Terror, Gangs, and Everyday Violence in Rio de Janeiro
6. Partial Truths, or the Carnivalization of Desire
7. What’s So Funny about Rape?