Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Anatomy of a Joke

Describing Meaning and Information
as a Function of Probability

-what makes a joke funny

“Meaning is when stimulus does not fit expectation.”
–Leonard B. Meyers

The funniness of a joke exists within an antecedent-consequent relationship, where expectedness of the consequent (the punchline) is plotted against both the ambiguity/clarity of the antecedent, and the time delay between the antecedent and the consequent.

The longer one waits to hear the punchline, the more possible punchlines one predicts. The longer one waits, then, the higher the probability that they will already have predicted the punchline, or something similar, rendering the joke less effective.

The more unexpected the punchline, the less the probability that one will guess it beforehand. This distance between what we expect, and what we get is what we might call the funniness of the joke.

Note: One can heighten the tension, or draw contrast by modulating the clarity or ambiguity of the antecedent, but this aspect of the dynamics of meaning will differ in a system of iteration, such as knock-knock jokes, or ‘inside’ jokes (internet memes/macro image series’), where one has “heard this joke before”.

For example:
“What happened when Chuck Norris got stabbed in a dark alley?” [antecedent]
“He punched his assailant in the face.” [consequent, highly probable]
--this is a reasonable outcome; it could have been predicted easily
“The knife bled to death.” [consequent, less probable]
--this is unexpected
--note the difference in effect, however, if one is already familiar with Chuck Norris jokes, as it changes the probability of prediction.

-something music 

IN MUSIC, a system of repetition, the interplay between antecedent and consequent is much more developed, but still derives the intensity of its meaning from the modulation of ambiguity/clarity of the antecedent, expectedness of the consequent, and the time delay between the two. Music can act as a very accessible entrypoint into thinking about information and meaning.

-something information network interaction
Ebon Fisher, Media Rituals, 1990-2000?


Meaning is the difference between expectation and actual.”
(Meyers, p9-10)

“If we want to explain this absence of meaning [caused by the cognitive semiotic] and with it the emergence of a specifically human sense of reality, of time, space, and self, we have to assume that human cognition is based upon a very peculiar system of representation (or ‘pattern matching’) which allows us to process what is seen and heard at the same time, both in terms of stable patterns and of global, concrete and necessarily ‘fuzzy’ patterns. This double processing generates a difference between the stable pattern, which corresponds to what we have called memory, on the one hand, and an instable, always changing pattern corresponding to what one could name the ‘here and now’ or the ‘present’, on the other hand. In a conscious human mind the two patterns never merge completely.”
(Cognitive Semiotics, p122)

Deviation requires meaning, or more specifically, active creation of ‘new’ meaning.”
(Meyers, p9-10)

Aside: Between the passages immediately referenced above, we can begin to see the interplay of the past, the present and the future, and how they work to construct our world. Out of the double-processing of the past and the present, we create the present; and out of the simultaneous processing of all possible futures, we create the future. I would interject here furthermore, for there must be something said about the individual vs. the collective. The individual has the most power over the present, and the least over the future. The collective, though it conditions individual behavior (absolutely, though?) and helps to solidify the past (without any say from an independent self?), is largely more responsible for creating the future. Individuals cancel each other as they move forward, each on their own way. You can create your present, you can modify your past, but you cannot create your future, unless, of course, you are not.


Information is measured by the randomness of the choices possible in a given situation.
[does this read as ‘lack of connections’ between the choices?]

If a situation is highly organized and the possible consequents in the pattern process have a high degree of probability, the information (or entropy) is low.
[can this read as a ‘dense network’?]

If, however, the situation is characterized by a high degree of shuffledness so that the consequents are more of less equi-probably, then information (or entropy) is high.
[what is the relationship between network density and entropy?]

(Meyers, p11)


“Both are looking at the world, and what they look at has not changed. But in some area, they see different things and they see them in different relations to one another. […] The transition between competing paradigms [^expectations] cannot be made one step at a time [via the left brain], but forced by logic and neutral experience. Like the gestalt switch, it must occur all-at-once [the right brain] or not at all.”
(Kuhn, p150), (“all-at-once”: Mass Transference Device, p50, p74)


Music, the Arts and Ideas
Leonard B. Meyers, 1967

Cognitive Semiotics
“Dealing with Difference: From cognition to semiotic cognition”, Barend van Heusden
Issue 4 (Spring 2009), pp. 116–132

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
Thomas S. Kuhn, 1962

Mass Transference Device

A.L. Barabasi, 2010

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