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"How to do things with jokes: speech acts in standup comedy" Lecture by Debra Aarons, University of New South Wales, Australia

The visit of Prof. Aarons is organised by Delia Carmela Chiaro from the Department of Interpreting and Translation.

Sep 19, 2017 from 05:00 PM to 07:00 PM

Where Accademia delle Scienze, via Zamboni 31, Bologna

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In his seminal lecture series, How to do things with words (1962), the philosopher John Austin laid out the beginnings of what became Speech Act Theory, and essentially the beginning of the study of linguistic pragmatics. Austin’s basic insight was that in communication, we do not exchange sets of true and false statements about the world, nor do we always speak in full sentences. We use words to do things in the world, not merely to express a state of affairs.

Considering utterances in the context of their use, Austin introduced the concept of Speech Acts. Speech Acts include persuading, apologizing, criticizing, humiliating, complimenting and a host of other intended behaviours. Austin accentuated the idea of speaker intention, on one hand, and hearer’s response to that intention if successfully conveyed, on the other. For example, crucial in grasping the speaker’s intention in uttering the word, “Fire!” is an understanding of the context of utterance. Is it issued by the leader of the execution squad, an usher rushing into a crowded cinema, or someone having swallowed an excruciatingly hot chili pepper? The response of the hearer/s, accordingly, is based on an understanding of the speaker’s intention. Since the publication of How to do things with words, a vast body of scholarship has grown up around Austin’s ideas which, in turn, have been changed, developed, adopted, adapted, challenged and have also taken on lives of their own.

In this lecture, Debra Aarons examines the Speech Acts used by standup comedians as an open-ended set of strategies designed to create a relationship with the audience. Her intention is to place this relationship at the forefront of standup comedy’s social impact, showing how it can generate heightened consciousness of the social and political environment of the time.

To date, not much attention has been paid to standup comedy from the viewpoint of linguistic pragmatics. Using this opportunity, she considers some of the speech acts used in the work of selected standup comedians to analyze the way they determine the relationship of performer and audience. She argues that there is a reciprocal relationship between the licensing of certain speech acts in standup comedy, and the success of these speech acts in shaping the social lives of the audience. In so doing, she explicates the context of these utterances: the time and place in which the speech act is performed; the persona of the speaker; the audience; and, crucially, the speaker’s intention in making the utterance. Finally, she considers the question of whether socially critical standup can have any noticeable effect on the attitudes or behaviour of both live and digitally mediated audiences.