Influence of Vonnegut's Style of Black Humor on Modern Media Research Paper

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Vonnegut in Cultural History

As a purveyor of American culture Kurt Vonnegut stands in an interesting position: camped on the ground of his socially progressive descendants he hails from the conservative, nostalgic America of the Great Depression, World War II, and the 50s. As such, he represents a bridge between the two worlds of American idealism and human idealism, of modernism and postmodernism, of faith and cynicism. Yet he remains solidly camped on one side, though a generation removed from the contemporaries of that side; a hero of the baby-boomer generation, Vonnegut was already in his late forties when his seminal, anti-war novel, Slaughterhouse Five -- referent to his own experience in World War II -- was hailed as visionary by the anti-war protestors of Vietnam as well as the hippy era at large. Vonnegut is a convert, one whose socio-psychological experience helped to ease the passage of America from the early 20th century into the later, one who taught America how to reflect on itself and cope with what it found therein primarily through the vehicles of satire and black humor; therefore the influence of Vonnegut on American culture must be regarded as transitionary, a bridge between modern America and postmodern America. "As an adolescent, he made my life bearable," (Sullivan, MSNBC) reflects Jon Stewart, a modern day ideological descendant of the 60s liberals who, like Vonnegut, has placed himself in the position of bridging the gap between two generations.Download full Download Microsoft Word File
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TOPIC: Research Paper on Influence of Vonnegut's Style of Black Humor on Modern Media Assignment

The strength of Vonnegut is in his unwavering compassion for humanity despite a deep cynicism about that humanity's worthiness, always his cynicism and compassion are couched in the blackest humor and a fragmentary postmodern approach, devices which Vonnegut used to cope with that cynicism and compassion, and through which he influenced later generations of literature. for, it should seem that the central tenants of the author are in mutual exclusion and create a great tension between them: he does not believe in humanity, but he certainly has loved it. This paper intends to analyze the influence of that tension, in light of Vonnegut's black humor and postmodernism, and the influence which the author's devices, motivations, and style have had on the body of media -- literature specifically -- which postdated him.

Peter Barry, in Beginning Theory, differentiates modernism from postmodernism as such: "In a word, the modernist laments fragmentation while the postmodernist celebrates it," (Barry, p.84). Essential to modernism, for Barry, is a nostalgia for the forms and faith of the past -- of the pre-modern era -- which the modernists look back to wishfully. Modernism, Barry asserts, is strongly ascetic -- for moral and material reasons -- and prefers the courage and goodness of a Charles Dickens character even though it, itself, can only produce the moral ambiguity of James Joyce. Yet the postmodernist looks not back but ahead; the postmodernist has embraced the loss of faith, the materialism, the fragmentation and pastiche, the cynicism of the new era and "celebrates" it. Invariably one is reminded of Warhol's Campbell's Soup images, as vivid a celebration of material, postmodern forms as visually exists. Barry goes on to say, "postmodernism rejects the distinction between 'high' and 'popular' art which was important in modernism," (Barry, p.84), and here is seen a clear connection to Vonnegut and other of his contemporaries, like his close friend Joseph Heller. In Vonnegut slapstick science fiction and black humor is mixed with intelligent social commentary, just as Heller had mixed black humor with social commentary. A more recent example, descendant of this rejection of distinction between art forms, is the graphic novel Watchmen, published in the mid 80s and recently made into a major motion picture. The graphic novel presents deep and often disturbing ideas and commentary on the nature of humanity and free will, but does so in the form of a comic book complete with superheroes, kitschy masks, and bat mobiles. It is high art for the masses, just as Vonnegut's work aimed to be and, so doing, taught literature to be.

There has always been some debate about whether Vonnegut is strictly a postmodern author, or whether modern overtones can be found lacing his work. Slaughterhouse Five certainly preserves an element of lamentation; one has the distinct feeling that the author -- as well as Billy Pilgrim the main character -- would wish to not have seen all that he's seen. For Vonnegut what he might wish to un-see would be Dresden, but Billy Pilgrim seems more tortured by his visions of the past and future. Time-travel has destroyed Billy's faith in human free will and thus humanity at large, and Dresden has done the same for Vonnegut. The loss of faith is a modern condition, however, the author's compassion seems stronger in this novel than in his later works -- compare Galapagos wherein "This was a very innocent planet, except for those great big [human] brains," (Galapagos, p.9). Though it wanes in his later years, the very existence of that compassion requires that an attitude of lamentation must be posited.

David Cowart believes that Vonnegut represents a bridge between the modern and postmodern eras (Tally, 2008), and that is the stance which This paper takes. Robert Tally adds, however, that "it is also clear that Vonnegut's work embodies a kind of postmodern sensibility, a fellow-feeling for its place and time, that marks it as postmodern in a recognizable way," (Tally, 2008). Tally gives evidence for Vonnegut's position within the postmodern camp, even though he might be a bridge: first, Vonnegut's disconnection with the past; second, the subversion of time by space in Vonnegut; and, third, the fragmentary and pastiche nature of much of Vonnegut's work (Tally, 2008). It can be added that, as Barry might have it, Vonnegut's characters are not usually concerned with morality so much as practicality, marking him as a postmodern celebrator of the loss of faith rather than a modern lamenter of it. Faith is gone, Vonnegut seems to shout, yet the world turns on. There are no Stephen Dedaluses here, who worry about moral ambiguity, no Robert Jordans either, concerned with doing the right thing. Commonly, Vonnegut's characters seem to be trying to save their own skins. Vonnegut is a transitory element from modernism to postmodernism, yet in camping firmly with the postmodernists, he became an agent of change, a hero of the revolution, rather than a pillar of the past.

The literary heritage of Vonnegut has been both illuminated and clouded by the author's recent death in 2007, since which a slew of authors and media personalities have claimed his literary parentage. John Irving is a good, provable example, having studied under Vonnegut at the University of Iowa (MSNBC, 2007) before Vonnegut had even won much acclaim. Irving's novels lack the fragmentation and collage of postmodernism, however, and are arguably realist. Nonetheless, Irving does incorporate a distant, dry sense of black humor in much of his work and the circumstances of his works are commonly engineered to have the same effect which elements of science fiction often did in Vonnegut. Science fiction in Vonnegut provided absurd or extreme situations through which social situations could better be observed; Cider House Rules is also a novel of extreme situations through which a social situation can be more lucidly examined.

Trey Parker and Matt Stone -- the creators of the popular animated television series South Park -- have also claimed Vonnegut's parentage (MSNBC, 2007), and here the elements are even clearer. Black humor is a staple of South Park as well as the use of absurd, distorted, extreme situations used to highlight and lucidly examine modern social situations. It may also be argued that Vonnegut was one of the pioneers of the device of shock-media: consider that many of his novels include hand drawn images of genitalia, female breasts, etc. And were sometimes banned for these. Also, Vonnegut's ability to use black humor against events like Dresden and the Vietnam War is a form of shock-media. South Park has taken shock media to the highest extreme permissible on network television, and sometimes beyond, and has spawned a number of descendants even raunchier than itself. Consider also Jon Stewart's the Daily Show, which single-handedly revolutionized the news media especially in relation to the South Park generation. Jon Stewart, as quoted above, claims Vonnegut for his own, and makes prolific use of black humor as a vehicle for bringing 'high' politics down to the 'popular' level, just as Vonnegut brought 'high' art down for the masses. This South Park postmodernist approach of making the 'highest' accessible was part of Vonnegut's philosophy -- he was, after all, just a simple American GI with big ideas -- and has proliferated extensively into today's media. A popular show of today, ABC's Lost, is a successful attempt to bring 'high' science fiction as well as 'high' philosophy down to the level of the masses. Accessibility is key: Joyce, for all his power, is hardly accessible to the untutored reader, and Hemingway, with his spare, sublime… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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