Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch
cbertsch

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No Pun Intended

You know how people will make a pun and then state, "No pun intended"? Well, I've been thinking about the structure of that confession for a long time and have concluded that its usage is really, really interesting. The only way someone can claim that a pun wasn't intended is to recognize that it's there to begin with. In conversation, that recognition usually happens right away, before the speaker moves on to her or his next statement. In that context, the confession serves as a break in the flow of speech, a reminder that the speaker is reflecting on her or his words in the wake of their utterance. But it also seems to confirm that the self-reflexive moment lags behind the moment it comments upon. Because if the speaker were policing her or his statements in advance, the pun would presumably have failed to made the cut.

What are we to make, though, of the same confession in writing? Almost any piece of writing that is made public undergoes some editorial revision. If both the pun and the confession that it wasn't intended remain in the finished product, then, their presence testifies to a decision not to edit them out. Consider this passage from a Pitchfork feature on onetime teen idol Arch Hall Jr.:
Arch Sr. produced The Choppers in 1961 as a starring vehicle (no pun intended) for his 15-year-old son, who rides around in a beaut hot rod as the leader of a local gang that strips abandoned cars and befuddles the police.
I'm fairly certain that this piece received some editorial attention. Yet the confession stands, confusing our perception of intention in the process. For the decision not to edit the confession out has to be regarded as intentional. Indeed, the sort of intention that manifests itself in the editorial process tends to conform much better to the stereotype of the rational actor who deliberates prior to doing than does the sort of intention that manifests itself in the writing process. In short, the person who confesses in writing that there was "no pun intended" is also confessing a desire to make that confession, as well as the decision that follows from it.

I just returned from a music conference where the theme was "Guilty Pleasures." I hope to compose an entry on the experience later this week. For now, though, I want to suggest that puns seem to function as guilty pleasures. Why else would someone bother to make the confession that there was, "No pun intended"? Personally, I believe strongly that the puns we make are intended, even if they tend to slip out a side door of our minds instead of through the foyer of self-reflexive consciousness. Something is doing the intending and it's inside us whether we deny it or not. Whether we want to conflate that agency with the deliberative "I" who enters into legal contracts or not, it seems foolish to pretend that it's not there. Unless, that is, there's some ancillary benefit to making the confession of a lack of intention. As far as I know, though, instances where someone was punished for making an intentional pun have been rare. So why is there such a hurry to disavow our pun-making powers?
Tags: language, theory
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