Wits End: Women's Humor as Rhetorical and Performative Strategy

Overview

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 ...

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Overview

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.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“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

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822960744
  • Publisher: University of Pittsburgh Press
  • Publication date: 3/28/2010
  • Series: Pitt Comp Literacy Culture Series
  • Edition description: 1
  • Pages: 264
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Sean Zwagerman is assistant professor of English at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii

Introduction 1

1 "Like a Marriage with a Monkey"

An Argument for the Use of Speech-Act Theory in the Analysis of Humor 10

2 Subversive Potential Meets Social Resistance

Women's Humor in Thurber, Hurston, and Parker 42

3 Generally Unhappy

The Deconstruction of Speech Acts and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? 92

4 Comic Relief

A Stand-up Performance by J. L. Austin and the Consequences of Not Getting It 129

5 Failure Revisited and Authority Regained

Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine 172

6 Sisyphus's Punch Line

Intentionality and Wit as Treatment for Postmodern Depression 194

Notes 215

Works Cited 223

Index 229

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