Monday, June 18, 2012

Not So Funny

"In the first edition of Roald Dahl’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” the Oompa-Loompas were members of an African tribe displaced by Willy Wonka to the northern industrial hinterland. Not quite so funny anymore that his workers worship him like a god, is it? Or that he keeps them scrupulously isolated from the general population? Or that he pays them in cocoa beans? For the second edition in 1973, Dahl changed the Oompa-Loompas from black pygmies into “rosy-white” creatures with long “golden-brown” hair. The 1971 movie made them orange-skinned with green hair. Loompaland is a complicated place." ("How to Read a Racist Book to Your Children," NYTimes)

Strange* to think that the NYTimes intelligentsia categorizes a fiction which depicts a group of people working in (wage?) slavery as somehow pleasant if they're orange-and-green and magical, but "not so funny anymore" if they're brown-skinned, and African.  (That is, if they're placed in actual history.)  Why should it have been funny to begin with?  The imaginative capacity of genre is such that it makes the symbolic and the imaginative able to stand in for the material, which is why there are so many debates about the "meaning" of whatever comic book adaptation has the box office busy at any given point in the year.  My impression is that official liberal culture sanctions one of two reactions to the politics in & of genre - one is the sort of heartfelt, betcha-didn't-know conscientiousness of this piece linked to above; the other is a kind of j'accuse toward whatever cultural object offends with this "uncovered" or "spotlighted" shortcoming - the equivalent of that Wonder Showzen clip of the kid shouting "That's racist!"

Lest I not be clear for anyone reading this, I'm not even trying to be judgmental so much as descriptive of this tendency; my aim is to sketch out the tendencies of the educated intelligentsia of the imperial center - that which structures the "scripts" we have for cultural debates.  I'm also not trying to be a puritan myself when I ask "why should it have been funny to begin with."  It's a sincere question rather than a rhetorical one.

* No, not really.


JeanRZEJ said...

For all I know, orange skinned humanoid creatures with green hair may hold that the highest end of life is to toil in slave labor for cocoa beans - who am I to presume otherwise? It's only your conservative bias which assumes that the world revolves around your own cultural mores. There may be other green skinned humanoid creatures with green hair who choose to live otherwise, and are not constrained from doing as such. Your culture may place such things as 'happiness' and 'love' theoretically above such other ideals as 'chocolatey goodness', but that's just you. After all, there are some people who feel that productivity is an end to itself, and while I find that this is the most baffling concept imaginable, it is actually closer to embracing slave labor than it is to embracing happiness. The world is a strange place, and, from what I can tell, orange skinned humanoid creatures are strange, at least to me. Perhaps even stranger than the humanoid creation which you cite, this peculiar 'NYTimes'.

What I'm trying to say is - slave labor may not be humanistic, but it may be oompaloompaistic. That's going on a bumper sticker.

David McDougall said...

The paragraph after the excerpt above starts with two very interesting sentences: The first seems on the verge of an analysis that might fit here: "We rewrite the past to serve the needs of the present." The second undercuts this entirely and once again restores as given certain *obviously historical* modes of thinking about the past: "The clarity of history is its great advantage."

Although the author does hint again in the direction of self knowledge with this sentence, later on: "I believe this is the very definition of white liberal guilt: I feel bad but I won’t change my behavior." Indeed.

David McDougall said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ZC said...

JeanRZEJ, orange skinned humoid creatures may indeed hold this as the highest purpose. But they only exist in this realm of fiction, and it is the nature of their existence to which this humanoid (love it!), 'NYTimes' bears a funny relation. Because to speculate seriously on what the orange Oompaloompa "wants" is to submit oneself to genre wholeheartedly - but this think piece is about the blurry line where one can might see the limit of the text or the genre, i.e., it's not about imagination & thought experiments & creativity once the skin color is that of our material world ... but it is as long as the skin color is fantastic.

Dave, I think you're right that there are cracks in the commentary which indicate just how hamstrung this very conscientious liberal bourgeois author is ...

JeanRZEJ said...

In between writing my comment and the present I have been informed that orange skinned green haired humanoids are in fact real, and they are located in the vicinity of the Jersey Shore.

If we are to get back on topic, I guess I agree with your distaste of selective distaste, but I also disagree with the implication of your question, that of universal distaste. This is to say: No matter the skin color, context can cast anything in part in a humorous light. And it can also be cast simultaneously in a humorous and tragic/grotesque/offensive/unconscionable light. Humor cannot merely exist in the absence of unfunniness, otherwise an ever broadening perspective would ensure an ever lessening potential to see humor in anything at all. Contextualization tends to be the most important factor in anything, not content, not fact. I believe I heard a speech once by a man who dreamt of a day when judge our humor not on the color of characters' skin but on the context of their characters' presentation. Or something like that.

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