In ‘Wit’s End,’James Geary takes a serious look at humor. Like metaphor, the subject of Geary’s previous book “I Is an Other,” wit often yokes together dissimilar entities to achieve a sudden illumination. Geary devotes several pages to the Russian formalist theory of art as “defamiliarization”: By making the habitual and familiar seem strange, great works open our eyes, blinded by routine, and allow us to see the world afresh. He adds that there’s a simple way for non-artists to achieve such perceptiveness: Go live in a foreign country. Unaccustomed to its ways, you will be compelled to notice, really notice, everything around you. In a related chapter on visual wit, Geary naturally begins with psychology’s favorite critter, the duck-rabbit — a drawing that alternately resembles one animal or the other, depending on how you focus your eyes. From here, he deconstructs some contemporary artworks cleverly based on trompe l’oeil effects. To see clearly, Geary concludes, look askance.
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