Research and Impact

History student Shalon van Tine uses Warren Zevon to explore the philosophy of humor

Graduate student Shalon van Tine, a Ph.D. in History candidate studying cultural and intellectual history, authored a chapter in a forthcoming book about Warren Zevon and Philosophy, edited by John MacKinnon.

"Warren Zevon is an interesting figure in the history of music. Most people remember his rather corny song 'Werewolves of London' that gets trotted out every Halloween. But his music was much more diverse, and he often dealt with themes that could not be played on the radio, such as rape, murder, drug addition, and suicide," van Tine said.

What made Zevon stand out amongst the other well-known singer-songwriters of his time—and caught van Tine's attention—was his dark sense of humor. Jackson Browne, with whom he collaborated a lot in his earlier years, deemed Zevon’s style “song noir.”

Van Tine's chapter, “Red Noses and Squirting Roses,” which comes from a Zevon song, uses Zevon’s life and music to explore the philosophy of humor.

"I discuss the history of various philosophical approaches to understanding comedy, from Plato to Freud. But I also bring history into the mix, as what we find funny is dependent on our contemporary values," van Tine said.

"Zevon’s macabre sense of humor fit well within the larger milieu of the 1970s, a rather bleak moment in history when Americans experienced compounding political and economic problems. During this period, comedic writers and artists responded to these social ills with a surlier tone and sardonic detachment. So, Zevon’s music not only illustrates these philosophical debates on humor, but it also exemplifies the mood of America in the 1970s," she said.

Van Tine's dual interests in the humanities began when she majored in philosophy as an undergrad and then pursued a master's in the humanities and then another master's in world history.

"I’ve always been interested in how ideas shape our lives. Additionally, I used to teach philosophy courses, such as logic and ethics, and I’ve found that students grasp abstract philosophical concepts better with concrete examples from history, especially if those examples come from pop culture," she said.

"I’ve long been a fan of the Carus Books Popular Culture and Philosophy series, which attempts to bring philosophy to a general audience. Just like with philosophy, I try to make work I do in the field of history accessible to the public," she added.

A cultural history of Generation X

Van Tine is bringing her interests together at Ohio University's College of Arts and Sciences, where many faculty specialize in contemporary history, by studying the cultural history of Generation X with her advisor, Kevin Mattson.

"Generation X is a kind of forgotten middle child wedged between Baby Boomers and Millennials, two generations who get a lot of attention from scholars and the media. Gen Xers, however, often go overlooked. My research looks at the political, social, cultural, and economic phenomena of the 1970s through the 1990s, when Gen Xers were coming of age, to see why this generation developed its unique sensibility," van Tine said.

"One character trait that this generation is known for is its ironic and cynical sense of humor. Of course, this didn’t happen in a vacuum, but was directly connected to historical events and trends. My hope is that my dissertation will clear up some misconceptions about this generation and give Gen Xers the hearing they deserve," she said.

Read more about van Tine on her website.

March 28, 2023
Staff reports