How is it that we can understand a contextually dependent production such as a joke or an artwork? Indeed, how could it be that an anonymous authorial self could relate to and understand a culture or society from which one is contextually removed? There are at least three approaches to this dilemma:
The first is a naive physical approach, there is a correspondence or actual relation between a word and referent, sign and signified. Art communicates clearly an actual physical depiction, mediated through sense perception, of something physically actual. However, this denies the importance of metaphor in art and communication.
A more common method is to approach art as a work of cultural metaphor or ideology, where our understanding is independent of the artwork. While our understanding is mediated through our sense perceptions, there is no actual one-to-one relation between our ideological interpretation of art and the actual physical work. While this approach affirms the power of metaphor, it runs the risk of dualism with a neat separation between linguistically dependent interpretation and the actual physical world.
A third view states simply that an artwork and our understanding emerges out of the physical world. The meaning of an artwork is greater than the sum of its parts. While an artwork is a working out of ideology and power, it is also more than these. Indeed, metaphor is both depends upon and transcends the physical world.
There is a further complication in the view held by many that if one does not inhabit, or has not inhabited, the same contextually-dependent environment, one cannot rightfully speak or talk on contextually-relevant topics such as art or politics. This view affirms difference and separation of the other from the self, and affirms the unity of the individual contextualized community.
For instance, the Iranian Student News Agency publishes humorous short stories and cartoons on their website on a regular basis. One of the most recent cartoons is of a man sharpening an enormous knife on a grinding stone; the individual has already been stabbed in the back by four smaller knives. The title of this cartoon is “Division.”
Treating this picture as humorous, the size, number, and use of the knives is a source for laughter. The difference between the one large knife which exists as a potential implement of harm and the four smaller knives which have already been used play off of each other:
We can assume that this individual is in conflict with another, the large knife being an implement in an ongoing battle of some kind. We can also assume that our dear knife sharpening individual is a fool. The irony of the situation is that while one has been working on one big plan to stab the other, one has already been stabbed repeatedly. Obsessed with plans to make a victim of the other, one has been victimized oneself. In participating in a game of revenge, drawing lines and making divisive plans, one has already suffered a defeat.
This “message” can be understood independently of the context of contemporary Iran’s sociocultural and geopolitical tensions—although such knowledge could certainly enrich the poignancy of the work.
That is, interpretation does not seem so black & white or exclusive—instead, a question of degree: to what extent would the specific experiences and details of our lives include or exclude us from understanding contextually dependent phenomena such as a work of art or a joke?
Perhaps it is fitting that the answer to this question will also be heavily context-dependent.
Jason Watson is a MA student at the University of Arizona in the School of Middle Eastern and North African Studies. His research interests include Iran, jokes, philosophy, and hermeneutics, with a particular interest in the ironic and uncanny.