The Deceptions of Humor, The Amusement of Lies

by E. John Winner

The basic claim of this essay is that jokes and lies share similar semiotic structures, both originating in play, and both playing upon audience expectations, by effectively creating a fictitious ‘model world’ of signs that reassure the audience that their expectations will be met (or, in a situation of openly comedic performance, that they will be disappointed in an amusing way).  (Indeed, I may go so far as to say that the only difference between a good lie and good joke, is that liars never reveal to the audience that they’re lying.)  I do this by first critiquing a joke relayed by Umberto Eco, and then explicating a brief passage by Eco on semiotics and lying.  In order to press the investigation, I will write in somewhat stronger terms than my source material suggests, because I am trying to establish a framework for interpretation.  A complete theory would need considerably stronger evidence and argumentative finesse than I can provide here.

First, let’s approach at a tangent, which necessarily reveals the basics of what such a theory might account for.  What follows came to me while I was watching an eagle fly.

I should explain:  An eagle fly is a winged insect of a centimeter in length and half as much in width; it has a protruding head with a fly’s myriad eye formations; notable for the manner in which it ceases to flutter its wings on descent and instead, glides to the surface where it lands.

No, I lied, there’s no such animal, at least as far as I’m aware; if it exists, this will come as an amusing surprise.

The nature of lying begins in the joke.  Lying is always a kind of game.  The old shell game run by con-artists on the street, whereby a pea is placed under one of three shells, and an participant audience member gambles money on a choice of which of the shells it might be under.  But – ha ha – it isn’t under any of them, the con-artist has palmed it.  It is a cruel deception, but also a crude joke, presupposing that the participating audience member – the victim of the con, the butt of the joke – has some authority over something the con-artist wants, and from which he or she must be solicited into parting, against his/her better judgment.  So the con can be read as a subversion of the gullible player’s authority, and thus spoofs the sense of agency from which that authority derives.

There are other ways to read this exchange, but they all resolve to a model of deception per se – but also for any joke.   Expectations are established, then disrupted, their grounding assumptions subverted.  Successful deception may have a myriad of rewards; a good joke only laughter.

But which comes first, humor or deception?  Without getting deeply into metaphysics or neuroscience here, I think it’s safe to assume they share a point of origin.  Infants soon learn to use their own behavior to prompt certain responses from their parents, and will sometimes do so in a manner that appears to be testing the reliability of the behavioral prompt.  This is not truly deceptive, but part of the process of learning behavioral communication.  Still, an infant may cry as though hungry, when he or she only desires the closeness of the mother’s body.  But what else is the infant to do?  If the nipple comes along with the body, all the better.  But the infant in that instance may then reveal a nascent sense of humor, playing with the nipple, rather than taking to suck, much to the mother’s annoyance.  Situations such as this are frequently remarked by mothers as, “I don’t know what the baby wants!” [1]  Perhaps, baby wants an eagle fly.

Umberto Eco is now best known as a writer of dense, entertaining, and thoughtful novels.  But he also happens to have written a number of important, well-researched, erudite scholarly texts in the field of semiotics – the study of how humans read the world, and communicate with it, through signs.  Traditionally, the role of the scholarly writer has been to produce texts derivative of research and to postulate conclusions such research might suggest, in a language that is technical and precise, but also reasonably clear, at least to other scholars in the field.  There can be a certain grace to it.  Nonetheless, only the writer of popular literature is allowed the elegance (or brutishness) of wordplay, earned through a kind of stormy love affair with language.  In scholarly writing, communication of ideas matters most; in creative writing, a playful construction of an illusion, using only language, is the imperative.  It was only after achieving success as a novelist (with The Name of the Rose) that Eco allowed himself a certain leeway in writing his scholarly texts with elegance and even wit, which he had first developed stylistically as a contributor to popular journals of cultural criticism in the later ’60s.

I say this, because we will here review a text by Eco, appearing in an earlier scholarly text (Theory of Semiotics) that happens to be an amusing joke, but rather badly told.  It has a real-world aspect (it spoofs confirmation bias in clinical behavioral studies), but removed into a fantasy world of cunning animals, akin to those we find in animated cartoons.

There is an old joke according to which two dogs meet in Moscow, one of them very fat and wealthy, the other pathetically emaciated.  The latter asks the former:  ‘How can you find food?’  The former zoosemiotically replies:  ‘That’s easy.  Every day, at noon, I enter the Pavlov Institute and I salivate: Immediately afterwards a conditioned scientist arrives, rings a bell and gives me food.’ [2]

Verbal humor can be very context-dependent; verbal jokes may rely entirely on historical name recognition, as Eco’s does.  Once all memory of the Soviet behavioral scientist Pavlov is lost, the joke will require explanation:  In the early 20th century, in a clinical experiment, Pavlov conditioned a dog to salivate in response to the stimuli of a ringing bell, with the reward of food.  (It helped to perform this experiment every day at the same time, hence the need to specify a specific hour in the joke.)

In the film The Cocoanuts, Groucho Marx sets up a dinner party audience with the remark “…and that reminds me of the joke about the Irishman,” only to deflate their expectations (but reward the movie-viewer’s) with the anti-climactic “gee, I wish I could remember it.”  [3]  Eco’s “old joke” must have been funny once; if only Eco had remembered why.  The scholar of the text we have here, considerably reduces the joke’s humor by remaining true to his scholarly commitments.  The standardized grammar is precisely given; the eating dog must restate Pavlov’s experiment as close to the original as possible (set time, bell, salivation, food, conditioning).  And of course there has to be a professional insider’s comment – the dogs communicate “zoosemiotically,” because we all know that dogs don’t talk.

Frankly, I don’t understand why the fat dog also has to be “wealthy.” Can’t a poor dog deceive the scientists just as well?

The truth is, we don’t need all the information Eco provides us in his joke.  Let dogs talk, for the sake of the joke.  Don’t duplicate the experiment exactly — that’s overly complicated.  And using ‘proper grammar’ in a joke slows the pace of delivery and sounds stilted (unless that effect is part of the humor).  Part of the fun of jokes is their chronic abuse of conventional semiotic codes.

I don’t offer the following version of Eco’s joke because I know it to be funnier than his (although I hope so).  But I would argue that it is closer to the brevity and pace most Americans expect of a joke.

Two dogs meet in Moscow.  One’s very hungry, the other says he eats every day.  The first asks “how?”  “That’s easy,” says the other, “I go to the Pavlov Institute and salivate; they ring a bell and feed me.”

Every joke creates a fantasy world, wherein our expectations are played.  In this particular world, dogs talk.  All we need of the experiment is the bell, the salivation, the feeding (the conditioning is presumed, once the signifier ‘Pavlov’ is recognized, and the presumption is part of the humor).  While this is acceptable English, it borders on poor grammar; a few words less and it’s in fragments.  The whole is only a little more than half as long as Eco’s.

Jokes are allowed to transgress.  Groucho can effectively dupe his dinner party audience, then reveal the duping, and thus mock that audience, precisely because this inverts the social expectations of the context.   Eco’s version of the joke plays it safe; neither scientists not scholars are sufficiently lampooned to make the joke truly amusing.  And jokes require economy of expression.  The con-artist can’t allow the victim time to analyze the game.

Which returns us to our primary consideration.  Both jokes and lies first generate a fantasy context, an alternate reality, which raises expectations in the audience, only to discredit those expectations.  Of course the joke is such, because the audience is made aware of the disappointment in an unexpected way.  A good lie will not be noticed as such by the audience (but the liar knows).

In a brief but loaded remark, found in a paper on C. S. Peirce appearing in his The Role of The Reader, Umberto Eco writes:

The self-sufficiency of the universe of content, provided by a given culture, explains why signs can be used in order to lie (and therefore to elaborate ideologies, works of art, and so on).  What Peirce calls signs (which to somebody stand for something else in some respect or capacity) are such just because I can use a representamen in order to send back to a fictitious state of the world.  Even an index can be falsified in order to signify an event which is not detectable and, in fact has never caused its supposed representamen.  Signs can be used in order to lie, for they send back to objects or states of the world only vicariously. [4] [5]

The receiver of a deceptive representing sign — a sign-as-lie — believes he or she is in the world of the represented, when really the world of the sign is but a model world, composed of signs.  The sign-as-lie is given in reference to a catalog of other signs, to the veracity of which the sender is indifferent.  (Some may have found my “eagle fly” lie persuasive because it deployed the language — the catalog, or system of signs — of ‘objectivity’ and scientific measurement, thus generating a possible world of scientific knowledge in which ‘eagle flies’ exist as measurable objects.)  This catalog of signs linked to and re-enforcing the sign-as-lie, if successful, is rich enough to elaborate a ‘possible world,’ and hence the illusion.

In the real world of the late 19th Century in New York City, the Brooklyn Bridge was built using political pressure and government funds, under agreement that government agencies would own and control it, in the interests of the larger number of those who would have to use it or would experience some socio-economic benefit from it.  But in the world of the old con-artist’s sale of the Bridge to tourists, it is privately owned.  This was actually a reasonable assumption at the time and for some decades after, since many bridges were indeed privately owned, including, for instance, the only bridges into New Orleans.  As privately owned, in the model capitalist world of the con, the Bridge could be sold.

Notice that there’s just enough real-world overlap for the con-game to be believable.  If there had been no privately owned bridges at the time, there would have been no contextual information with which to excuse some faith in the con-artist’s offer.  I say “excuse,” because — well, why does the victim of the fall so easily for the con?  Superficially, of course, we say he or she lacks education, perhaps intelligence, certainly necessary information (that’s why it continues on as a joke, long after its usefulness as a con has been exhausted).  But also, a safe inference derived from common American understanding of human nature, is that the victim’s motivation is a desire for a large, recognizable sign of wealth (a big, complicated, human-made object) that can be used to acquire further wealth, through the charge of a toll to cross the bridge.  In other words, the victim, motivated by greed and desire for status, has been setting up him/her self for the con by looking for the easy deal that will prove beneficial at not much cost.  The model world structured by the con is precisely the world the victim wants to live in. [7]

But isn’t that true of worlds of comedy as well?  They model worlds in which we find it safe to laugh with clever pranksters; to laugh at types of gullible innocents; or, if we’re honest enough, to laugh at ourselves.  In the real world study of psychology, Dr. Pavlov’s experiment must be considered critically, but with respect; in the fantasy Moscow of the joke, he’s just a laughable victim of a clever dog’s con.


I have tried to draw out the deep relationship between humor and deception through the generation of model worlds, in which trusted real world signs are manipulated to mislead us into trusting falsifying signs of the model world; perhaps the only way to distinguish the two is by a revelation on the part of the humorist (which we may wait for in vain from the deceiver).  And I hope I have indicated that both humor and deception, playing upon the desires and expectations of their audience, cannot be fully articulated except contextually.


E. John Winner holds a doctorate in English (specialties: rhetoric and literary theory) from SUNY Albany. He taught composition as an adjunct for twelve years; then worked as a Licensed Practical Nurse for twelve years. Health issues led him to a non-stressful office job with a security agency in upstate New York.


[1]  I actually tried to find clinical studies on this, on the internet; what I found was a plethora of sites of mothers complaining about this behavior and wondering what to do about it.  For instance: .

[2]  Umberto Eco, A Theory of Semiotics; Indiana U (1978).  Page reference missing from  the original draft this essay revises and completes.

[3]  The Cocoanuts, Paramount, 1929; directors R. Florey and J. Santley; written by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind (but including improvisations by the Marx Brothers themselves).

[4]  Umberto Eco, The Role of The Reader; Indiana U (1979).  Page 179.

[5]  As simple introduction to semiotics per se, I here reproduce a brief discussion of the relationship between a sign and its object by Charles Sanders Peirce:

Two men are standing on the seashore looking out to sea. One of them says to the other, ‘That vessel there carries no freight at all, but only passengers.’ Now, if the other, himself, sees no vessel, the first information he derives from the remark has for its Object the part of the sea that he does see, and informs him that a person with sharper eyes than his, or more trained in looking for such things, can see a vessel there; and then, that vessel having been thus introduced to his acquaintance, he is prepared to receive the information about it that it carries passengers exclusively. But the sentence as a whole has, for the person supposed, no other Object than that with which it finds him already acquainted. The Objects — for a Sign may have any number of them — may each be a single known existing thing or thing believed formerly to have existed or expected to exist, or a collection of such things, or a known quality or relation or fact, which single Object may be a collection, or whole of parts, or it may have some other mode of being, such as some act permitted whose being does not prevent its negation from being equally permitted, or something of a general nature desired, required, or invariably found under certain general circumstances.  C. S. Peirce, “Signs and their Objects;” Collected Papers Vol. 2, sections 230-232; Harvard (1932).

I chose this for its evident resonance with my discussion here.  Notice, for instance, that, in introducing the communicative use of sign-object relations, Peirce relates the dialog between two men who clearly feel ease in trusting each other.  But what if the one who claims to see the signs is lying?  Or what if he suddenly turns the dialog on its head: ‘Ha ha, no steamship, I was only joking!’  Or for that matter, what if the other man replies, ‘you’re kidding,’ or ‘I don’t believe you.’   We see here the beginning of considerable thinking on a host of matters in communications and social psychology.  (For further reading on semiotics, I suggest a listing of such to be found at Umberto Eco’s website:

[6]  The multiplicity of objects a sign may signify is actually a difficult but all important issue in semiotics, and is the chief reason that semiotics is not reducible to logic (and perhaps, arguably, encompasses it – but that would be a different discussion).  But see my meditation on the significance of the coffee cup at my blog:

[7]  But in this hope for a more profitable world, the Brooklyn Bridge purchaser is doubly victimized.  As former New York governor Al Smith once remarked on the Al Jolson radio show, it was a big disappointment to discover, once the Bridge was finally opened, that all one could do with it was go to Brooklyn.







17 responses to “The Deceptions of Humor, The Amusement of Lies”

  1. mpboyle56

    Interesting comparison, although I have a couple of questions/points. With a joke, is there not often an already established comedic context (e.g. at a comedy show), making the world of the joke vis-a-vis the audience different than a liar’s portrayal (maybe s/t like a cooperative -with the comic- suspension of disbelief)? Also, Harry Frankfurt (of On BS) would disagree that the sender of the lie is indifferent to the lie or its context. That’s one of the distinctions he makes between lying and BSing.

  2. John, intuitively, I think of jokes and lies as very different sorts of things. But I’m not sure how relevant this is, as I am not sure just how to take the fact that they “share similar semiotic structures.” Suppose that is true. How *similar* does that make them, at a more general level?

  3. Arthur Koestler, on presenting a theory of humor (on the way to a theory of creativity), started by joking that laying out a theory of humor was the most humorless thing he could imagine. I believe this is in The Act of Creation, read 40+ years ago.

    Again to my remedial education list, C. S. Peirce — Just listened to “How to Make Our Ideas Clear”; it will take another listen and/or read — also this posting and the disappearing coffee cup but am so far at a loss w.r.t. semiotics.

    Ahh, Harry Frankfurt on BS – that’s another one to get to.

  4. John, none of the links on the Eco website work. Is the site dead?

  5. John

    Stimulating piece. I’m open to the basic idea.

    A general comment: I always felt that semiotics promised more than it delivered (could deliver?). Do you ever have this feeling? It may be just me (wanting certain kinds of answers…).

    You write at one point as though it needs explanation that signs can be used in order to lie. But would it not be rather more surprising – impossible to envisage perhaps – that lying would not be possible.

    Lying (or something very like it) seems to be built into the natural world. Spiders’ webs. Natural camouflage. Eye-like patterns on moths’ wings.

    At a stretch, you could almost see some of these natural phenomena as ‘jokes’. (Although the author of these jokes would appear to have had a very dark sense of humour.)

    But real humour, even slapstick, needs culture of a sort and so more sophisticated systems of signs (beyond the index). And such systems necessarily create a wider space of opportunities for deception.

  6. mpboyle56,
    I haven’t read Frankfurt’s recent revision, but I did get hold of his original ’86 essay:
    I will be reading this tonight, along with a criticism by Perla and Carifia:

    The notion of the belief of the liar seems tied to the traditional understanding of the lie as a statement. This I think is too narrow. If gestures can communicate, then they can also lie, and often we lie this way without any investment as to the truth of the lie. The ‘poker face’ is by nature a lie in this sense, since it signifies that the bet made can be backed-up, whether it really can or no. But in many instances the player simply doesn’t know the ‘truth’ of that, but is hoping the other players fold before this can be discovered.

    Let me suggest a broader definition, from behavioral researcher, Paul Ekman:

    “In my definition of a lie or deceit (note: Ekman uses the terms interchangeably, as I am wont to do – EJW), then, one person intends to mislead another, doing so deliberately, without prior notification of this purpose, and without having been explicitly asked to do so by the target. (Ekman here references Goffman’s “Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life:” “(T)here is hardly a legitimate everyday vocation or relationship whose performers do not engage in concealed practices which are incompatible with fostered impressions.”). “Telling Lies,” W. W. Norton, 2009, 28.

    As to the question of the ‘comedic context’ – yes, that can be very true. However, in everyday life, do we not draw out joke remarks, bawdy gestures, pranks – wholly unexpectedly (and often unplanned)? The professional is not the rule, but the exception; he or she has merely focused a common social practice in such a way as to amuse us for a given time for payment.

    Well, we are looking at focused practices of more general behaviors here. First, as noted in the quote from Goffman that Ekman gives us, is the need we have to dissimulate in various circumstances for various reason – sometimes for our benefit, sometimes for the benefit of others – but sometimes (and this is crucial here) for no benefit at all, simply to see if we can get away with it, or as a source of amusement. This leads us to the next issue, the unstoppable will of the human to amuse itself through playing on the expectations of others. Mostly (we hope) this is done harmlessly, and we in fact often share these ‘gotcha’ moments in good humor. But that sharing is an ethical choice, it is not necessitated by the structure of the behavior. The liar tells a joke that only the liar can enjoy, because that choice is not made.

    Finally (for now), on a ‘meta’ level, these practices of dissimulation, of falsifying signs that effectively construct alternate worlds, playing upon the worlds we think we are living in, or think we are living in, suggest that much of our sense of reality is somehow fictive in nature. I think I live in the United States of America, but really I’m just living on a particular patch of ground that various signifiers – social, political, legal, scholarly-historical – assure me is part and parcel of the United States; but on another level, really, it’s just dirt.

    Obviously such fictions are important, and we must given them credence to survive. And certainly there is some reality generated by continued use and shared experience. But it helps to remember that they are generated, not by some physical necessity, but by signifying practices over which we have some control.

    I should here correct the issue you raise about the links at Eco’s site. Those links were posted as a mirror for a links list posted through the University of Colorado, Denver, which changed its URL from to Please try: (This is not up to date, and some links will still lead nowhere, but most links seem to be working.)

    Mark English,
    “I always felt that semiotics promised more than it delivered (could deliver?). Do you ever have this feeling?”
    No, actually the reverse. When I first read Eco, I thought, ‘this is kinda interesting;’ but when I studied Peirce, it was ‘oh, wow!’ Remember, at the time (early ’90s) post-structuralism was the big thing; Peirce not only seemed to answer many of the problems post-structuralism raised, but also settled certain problems raised by post-structuralist precursors, like Heidegger or Saussure.

    As a student of semiotics, I’m not a Peircean; Peirce was never interested in a ‘theory of lies.’ And certain social and historical issues led me through the Pragmatist tradition to a little known, but to me important theorist, Morse Peckham. So while Peirce tries to make the case that semiotics can lead to a kind of Realism (in the classical sense), I find it unstoppably moves towards Nominalism.

    Nonetheless, I admit there is often the question, ‘why semiotics?’ Well, consider behaviorist Paul Ekman. He is engaging in what is clearly a semiotic research. But he hasn’t familiarity with semiotics, and can’t deploy the language of semiotics. If he had and could, I suggest his writing would be richer, his research more revealing. Similarly, if more ethologists were trained in zoosemiotics, they might be able to read animal behavior in a richer manner, and make connections between human and (other) animal behavior in a more convincing manner.

    Semiotics offers a theoretical tool and a language that can encompass quite a number of research fields, without imposing any bias or injecting any contentious limitations. It remains largely marginalized (except in research on advertising) because it cannot be reduced to any one field (eg. linguistics), and it cannot be properly systematized (because it’s context and history dependent). (Indeed, this latter is the rock upon which Peirce’s own ship crashed.) This by no means makes it irrelevant.

    “But real humour, even slapstick, needs culture of a sort and so more sophisticated systems of signs (beyond the index). And such systems necessarily create a wider space of opportunities for deception.”

    Insightful comment; both humor and deception are very culture-dependent (although there is some evidence that at least slapstick has universal appeal).

  7. “playing upon the worlds we think we are living in, or think we are living in”
    I intended “playing upon the worlds we think we are living in or *want* to be living in” – no intention to deceive, sorry for typo.

  8. Reblogged this on no sign of it and commented:
    The third of three meditations (on my blog) on the problem of lying as integral to social communications, at the always interesting: The Electric Agora. (And thanks to both Dans for publishing it.)

  9. I’m a little confused. You are referring to a subset of jokes, not all jokes, right? Puns and other jokes (like knock, knock jokes) that rely on word play are not deceptive. And I don’t see the deception in Jerry Seinfeld-style observational jokes.

  10. glotzberg,

    I think that a fair point. What I am offering here is a beginning, not a complete theory – which would of course include a proper taxonomy of different kinds of jokes, as it would different kinds of deceptions.

    However, the main point of my essay is the manner in which both deceptions and jokes invite us into what I have called a model world that overlaps the real world but is not identical to it; and which plays upon our expectations and desires. Chico Marx’s infamous “there ain’t no sanity clause” (Santa Claus) not only plays on our expectations concerning the sound of the words, but also generates a world where there is no restriction against signing a contract when not mentally capable of doing so.

    Of course one can carry such analysis too far, and I admit this presents problems worth considering.

  11. My intuitions tell me that our expectations drive not only humor and deception but our meaning forming processes and our behavior in a most general way. Andy Clark has a new book out titled ‘Surfing Uncertainty’ and he has posted some interesting topic essays at The basic idea is that the mind works on a model of prediction, but not just in a passive receptive sense as we are constantly and actively creating our own predictions. He links this to Karl Fristons idea of free energy (Broadix might be interested) whereby it is the novel information that doesn’t fit smoothly with our prior ingrained routines that draws our attention and fuels our response.

    Take a common topic on this blog for example like the idea of beauty and the subjectivity of taste. This makes sense giving that each of our makeups and experiences lead us to filter out different patterns from the noise of information we interact with. I am also reading Frank Wilczek’s book that attempts to link beauty to concepts from physics and other sciences. I know that won’t be popular on this blog (could bring charges of scientism) and I have do issues with the book so far. I think Wilczek puts too much emphasis on the idea of ideal symmetry rather than on the process that includes both symmetry formation, symmetry breaking, and new formation that yeilds new ways of seeing or understanding the world. I’,m still fairly early in the book so I will withhold judgement. I do find this passage on how we might find beauty in auditory information (music) interesting. Wilczek describes Pythagara’s discovery of how the length and tightness of a string yield a mathematical relationship to whether or not two strings will sound good together. He then details the phisiology of how the ear recieves the frequency of the sound wave and the chain of events that lead to neuronal activations. He concludes:

    “When will the combiners produce wrong predictions? That will happen when the primary signals are almost, but not quite, in synch. For then the vibrations will reinforce each other for a few cycles, and the combiners will extrapolate that pattern. They expect it to continue— but it doesn’t! And indeed it is tones that are just slightly off— like C and C#, for example— that sound most painful when played together. If this idea is right, then the basis of harmony is successful prediction in the early stages of perception. (This process of prediction need not, and usually does not, involve conscious attention.) Such success is experienced as pleasure, or beauty. Conversely, unsuccessful prediction is a source of pain, or ugliness. A corollary is that by expanding our experience, and learning, we can come to hear harmonies that were previously hidden to us, and to remove sources of pain.”

    This also suggests that learning is enhanced when we expose ourselves to enough novelty to stimulate new pattern development but not so much as to be overwhelmed.

    This all may seem a bit off topic but I think it relates to the process EJ was describing in humor production.

    I realize Dan K is a professional of aesthetics and I’m not suggesting science can explain beauty or meaning formation in general. I just thought this might be an example of how science might support or come together with philosophy in a way where they can enhance each other.

    Wilczek, Frank (2015-07-14). A Beautiful Question: Finding Nature’s Deep Design (Kindle Locations 570-576). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

  12. Thomas Jones

    Thanks for a thought provoking essay, E.J. I know hardly anything about semiotics, but the title of your piece where “Deceptions” and “Amusement” seemed to be intentionally reversed suggests the “overlap” idea that you seem intent on exploring here. In addition, you are clearly transparent as to the provisional nature of the piece when you state, “A complete theory would need considerably stronger evidence and argumentative finesse than I can provide here.” Your footnotes and subsequent comments are helpful as well as your subsequent comments, such as to Glotzberg’s excellent observation where you note, “However, the main point of my essay is the manner in which both deceptions and jokes invite us into what I have called a model world that overlaps the real world but is not identical to it; and which plays upon our expectations and desires.”

    Many ideas come to mind in considering this piece, namely, the roles of assumed personae, the acceptance and violation of implied rules of engagement, trust, and participation. Have you given much thought to how this “fictitious ‘model world’ of signs” is employed in artistic pursuits, i.e, the use of metaphor, symbol, and allegory, regardless of the medium?

  13. nannus

    I like the eaglef-lie 😉 – actually, there is something like that in the German language, an “Adlerfliege” (eagle fly), see

  14. nannus

    My previous comment is awaiting moderation. It might be rejected and that depends on whether it is considered, by the moderator, as a lie or a joke (and the degree and kind of sense of humor of the moderator). But indeed, there are semiotic similarities. And this similarity might be very old, it is there among apes already, see

  15. After all the lie is the joke that only the liar is in on — or so (if he is exposed) he may try to convince us. And when we don’t believe something, we reply “You’re joking!” A great illustration just popped up here, #6 (“This guys ability to see through bullshit.”

  16. Thomas Jones,
    ]”Have you given much thought to how this “fictitious ‘model world’ of signs” is employed in artistic pursuits, i.e, the use of metaphor, symbol, and allegory, regardless of the medium?”

    Yes, indeed; and not alone – note the first parenthesis in the second quote from Eco.

    Eco goes further, in his theory of the “Open Text,” to suggest that the strongest texts of fiction in Modernity are those that threaten established grammar itself, which would suggest that they are virtually re-inventing language – a notion I don’t ascribe to, and which I think clearly sunk by Wittgenstein. Nonetheless, all artists, writers or otherwise, are constructing alternate worlds – although, if strong enough, they may effectively reshape the world we live in, as Oscar Wilde suggests. (One of my favorite notable quotes is Picasso’s reply to a viewer who complained that his portrait of Gertrude Stein didn’t ‘look like her;’ “Don’t worry,” he said, “it will.”)

    the moderator’s here are both busy and careful – have patience!

    “Adlerfliege” – I have no emoticons, so – ha ha!

    Well, I’ve read Frankfurt’s original essay, and admit that I sense a philosopher’s pique regarding rhetoric in it – for instance his dismissal of the patriotic speech, which manages to miss all the rhetoric used by it, and its potential meaning for the intended audience. And I am impressed with the criticisms of Perla and Carifia; although I don’t yet buy all of their arguments, I think they are are closer to a richer interpretation of the ‘bullshit’ problem than Frankfurt.

  17. davidlduffy

    I like this, especially when one thinks of the tall story as art form, but it somehow needs to link up with the emotional payoffs – which for a joke would be “sublimated” aggression (when there is a butt), the intrinsic pleasure of puzzle solving (the “pleasant surprise”), and the pleasure of the listeners.