© Chris Port, Central School of Speech and Drama, 1999.
CHAPTER 1: Introduction. (What are laughter, comedy and humour?).
(Note: This dissertation has been posted in seven instalments)
List of contents
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- What is laughter?
- What is comedy?
- What is humour?
- Aesthetic judgments
- Simple Objectivism (Recognizing the rules of composition).
- Simple Subjectivism (I know what I like but do I need to know why?).
- Simple Relativism (Is one judgment as good or as bad as another?).
- Sophisticated Objectivism (All in the imagination?).
- Sophisticated Subjectivism (Colours and aesthetics - 'seeing red'?).
- Pragmatic Relativism ('Local' truths).
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INSTALMENT 2 of 7
- What is the superiority theory of laughter?
- What is the incongruity theory of laughter?
- What is the psychic release theory of laughter?
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INSTALMENT 3 of 7
- Where in the body is the impulse to laugh located?
- Is there a 'laughter centre' in the human brain?
- Is laughter voluntary or involuntary?
- What philosophical models exist to explain the mind/body axis?
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INSTALMENT 4 of 7
CHAPTER 4: The Lord of Misrule. (Does the inversion of carnival challenge the status quo or reinforce it?).
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INSTALMENT 5 of 7
CHAPTER 5: Humour in the Holocaust? (A case study on Roberto Benigni's film Life is Beautiful, Melampo Cinematografica, Italy 1997; a comparative case study on Laughter! [Auschwitz], Barnes, 1996).
- Life is Beautiful (Melampo Cinematografica, Italy 1997) - A case study.
- Laughter! [Auschwitz] (Barnes, 1996) - A comparative case study.
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INSTALMENT 6 of 7
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INSTALMENT 7 of 7
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CHAPTER 1: Introduction. (What are laughter, comedy and humour?).
We intend to show that:
- the discussion of comedy (text) and humour (production) is ultimately based on the phenomenon of human laughter (reception);
- human laughter is a deterministic ambiguity (being neither completely voluntary nor involuntary);
- human laughter is a necessarily brief interregnum (an interval of disorder between ordered states);
- the disordered states are located in the interstices between the physiological, the psychological and the sociological states of the subject (the ordered states are therefore extrastitial to laughter – that is, not funny in themselves but causing laughter between them);
- laughter's brevity as an interstitial interregnum enfeebles it as a social catalyst or moral corrective;
- laughter's brevity as an interstitial interregnum vitalises it as an authorised transgression and a moral defection;
- because of laughter's deterministic and moral ambiguity, any Grand Unified Theory of Laughter must reconcile the ethical debate of determinism versus free will.
Before developing our trajectory, it would be prudent to specify some of our co-ordinates. In order to do this, we need to clarify some of our terminology. The nebulous subject matter being telescoped is that of laughter. Laughter is in turn both haloed and hazed by the diffuse genres of comedy and the semantics of humour.
A definition of laughter is not as common-sensical as it might first seem. However, for the moment, we will proceed with Frederic Stearns' (1972) neurophysiological definition (excluding reflexive and pathological laughter – that is, tickling and diagnosed brain abnormalities). Stearns defines laughter as 'a psychosomatic response... which may or may not be terminated "voluntarily".' (Stearns, 1972, p.3) and that it is 'an "expiratory" function which is spasmodic and rhythmic.' (Stearns, 1972, p.5).
In essence, the brain responds to a perceptual stimulus (the comic effect or 'text') which in turn affects the breathing in a characteristic way recognised as laughter (the 'reception'). What happens in between is the puzzling phenomenon of humour (the 'production' of meaning).
It is interesting to note Stearns' use of the term 'psychosomatic' which is normally used to describe the physiological symptoms caused by psychological disorders. As will be shown later in Chapter 3 - The Mind/Body Axis, one of the many paradoxes about laughter is that it appears to be a psychological function with the characteristics of a physiological dysfunction. This neurophysiological ambiguity translates into a philosophical concern about laughter's moral ambiguity in its sociological context which is discussed in Chapter 2 - An Incongruity of Theories.
We do not have any precise definition for what constitutes a comic text. The dramatic origins of comic texts first rise to the attention of our modern European heritage from the historical obscurity and murky Dionysian rituals of sixth century B.C. Athens (cf. Norwood, 1931; Lever 1956). There is no clear consensus on the first recognised comic playwright or text. Norwood (1931) proposes Epicharmus 'as the first to concentrate the scattered elements of comedy by many feats of technique' (Norwood, 1931, p.3); Lever (1956) proposes Susarion as 'a practical solution... by accepting an inscription that a man named Susarion invented the first comic chorus' (Lever, 1956, p.2).
This mild difference of opinion (it is hardly an argument) illustrates the first problem in trying to describe the origins or rules of comedy. We are not looking at the dramaturgical equivalent of a primordial atom. Comedy did not start with the Ancient Greeks (cf. Sandbach, 1977). Theirs is just the cultural event horizon beyond which the resemblances to our modern comic Diaspora break down (or have not been passed on). Instead, we should recognise that the modern concept of comedy is that of a diversity of genres (for example, satire, farce, burlesque, absurdism) sharing overlapping resemblances rather than exemplifying a single textual definition.
Also, rather than trying to argue whether texts meet any comic criteria, we should adopt the Wittgensteinian approach of examining how comic effects are used rather than trying (and probably failing) to show whether these criteria are universal.
As Umberto Eco (1984) concedes in his article on the frames of comic freedom:
'From antiquity to Freud or Bergson, every attempt to define comic seems to be jeopardized by the fact that this is an umbrella term (referring, in a Wittgensteinian jargon, to a network of family resemblances) that gathers together a disturbing ensemble of diverse and not completely homogenous phenomena, such as humour, comedy, grotesque, parody, satire, wit, and so on.' (Eco, 1984, p.1).
Eco (1984) goes on to propose four general characteristics of comedy which are, in essence, inversions and diminutions of the characteristics of tragedy. However, while valid, these generalisations are not sound or universal (nor does Eco claim them to be).
We do not claim that there is no universal criterion for the comic effect, simply that we are not yet able to demonstrate one. Indeed, from a sophisticated pragmatic relativistic perspective, if we give a despairing equivalence to all criteria for the comic effect, we are inadvertently implying the existence of a universal criterion of which all existing theories fall short. It would be contradictory to fail a theory on the grounds that it fails to demonstrate a non-existent criterion.
This may seem to be a case of logical pedantry, but how can any existing theory be criticised for lacking a supposedly non-existent quality? (We will elaborate on this point later in our treatment of humour and aesthetic judgments). However, for the moment we will proceed on the basis that comedy can appear in many guises but always with the intention of producing laughter, whether that laughter be voluntary or involuntary, sentimental or cynical, unrestrained or muted.
We are not concerned with unintentional comic effects (for example, someone accidentally slipping on a banana skin in non-dramatic context) through the rather tautologous expedient that our focus of study is on the implications of how such effects are manipulated in the context of drama (although their resemblance to real-life accidents may often be vital to their comic effect).
Despite the variety of genres and the omission of a single criterion, we can tentatively speculate that comedy is an intended stimulus to laughter and laughter is an intended response even if it appears in the spectator as an involuntary one. This distinction of intentionality then begs questions of taste and judgment which leads us to propose a definition for humour.
Our treatment is here complicated by a contention of theories on aesthetic judgments, the 'rules of taste' which are discussed in a moment. The term humour as in 'good sense of humour' is used to denote an ability to appreciate the qualities of comedy.
While the psychosomatic response of laughter, barring neurophysiological abnormalities, appears to be a ubiquitous human characteristic, and comedy is simply a generic term for the intentional stimulus to laugh, humour relates more to the individual personality of the spectator. It is often used to describe a person's 'state of mind' or 'mood' and has linguistic origins in the concept of four bodily fluids, the 'cardinal humours' of blood, phlegm, choler and melancholy, the proportions of which were reputed to determine an individual's emotional and physical disposition (cf. Martin, 1996). The balance or imbalance of these humours was adapted by the Elizabethan playwright Ben Jonson into a method for the creation of comic characters, not so much a type as a 'simplified and somewhat distorted individual with a typical mania.' (Eliot cited in Barish, 1963, p.18).
We have observed that there is no precise definition for what constitutes a comic text. In addition, we have also observed that humour relates to the state of mind or mood of an individual spectator.
If these observations are valid, how are we to evaluate the semantics of humour? If the comic text is ephemeral and the humorous response is idiosyncratic, how are we to extrapolate a 'production' of meaning let alone arbitrate over questions of good taste?
In order to answer these questions we will need to consider three different (although not necessarily exclusive) modes of aesthetic judgment:
We will now proceed to examine and critique each of these theories in turn before proceeding to their more sophisticated derivatives.
Simple objectivism regarding aesthetic judgments on a comic text depends simply upon the observer's recognition of the rules of composition and not on any supposed feelings aroused by them. Indeed, the satisfaction or pleasure experienced by the observer is supposed to arise from their skill in recognition.While the intentions of the comic artist may form a subtext of this recognition, they are simply one of the rules of composition.
As David Cooper (1992) notes:
'Whatever the peculiar causal conditions entering into the creation of art, the artist's intentions being among them, the aesthetic features of the work are themselves independently perceivable. This gives the work a certain critical autonomy.' (Cooper, 1992, p.42).
However, Cooper then goes on to describe a basic problem with simple objectivism. The evaluative force of an aesthetic judgment claims more than that the text possesses certain qualities. It also claims that the text merits attention and thus ascribes a value which is not inherent in the text itself. Where does this value come from? One possible answer is that, while the rules of the text may be objectively observed, the values given to it may arise from a simple subjectivism.
According to simple subjectivism, the aesthetic judgment does not depend upon the rules of composition in the text but in the pleasure or displeasure that perception of the text happens to arouse in the spectator. This implies that one spectator experiencing pleasure and another spectator experiencing displeasure from the same text would not be contradicting each other.
However, as Cooper notes: '... we are normally expected to try to show that the judgment rests upon features which render our response a justifiable one'. (Cooper, 1992, p.244). By what rules, to what indisputable court of taste may we appeal to justify our judgment? Are all aesthetic judgments only relative to each other?
Simple relativism (often referred to as dogmatic or vulgar relativism) proceeds from the rather pessimistic premise that, since we cannot incontrovertibly prove universal standards or values, all standards and values must logically be equally valid (or worthless).
Cooper (1992) argues that this 'anything goes' approach is doubly inconsistent. It self-defeatingly allows for universalist theories and (as noted earlier in our treatment of comedy) also implies the existence of a supposed universal standard of which all aesthetic theories must fall short (cf. Cooper, 1992, p.358).
In Cultural Studies, Inglis (1993) also criticises simple or 'vulgar' relativism for being inconsistent in two respects:
'...(a) assuming its own moral supremacy (which is objectivist) and (b): 'It is pretty well impossible to find a culture which could possibly live in a self-enclosed way; certainly it is theoretically difficult to define what it would look like, let alone whether it would want to stay self-enclosed, given a choice.' (Inglis, 1993, p.134).
It seems then that, in their simple versions, theories of objectivism, subjectivism and relativism are all flawed by their lack of predictability. Objectivism cannot predict values, subjectivism cannot predict judgments and relativism cannot predict anything. It thus remains for us to consider whether a finer, more sophisticated version of one of these theories might be threaded through the eye of our aesthetic needle.
Sophisticated objectivism was developed by the eighteenth-century philosopher Immanuel Kant (1952) in his Critique of Judgment. In some ways, it is a fusion of simple objectivism with simple subjectivism.
While Kant claimed that the judgment of taste demanded agreement from everyone without exception (a simple objectivist viewpoint) he also allowed that the determining factor of such a viewpoint was the feeling of contemplative pleasure or displeasure aroused in the mind of the spectator (a simple subjectivist viewpoint).
Kant linked these two seemingly mutually exclusive viewpoints by giving this paradox the structure of an 'antinomy' (a contradiction existing between two apparently indubitable propositions). The key to understanding how these opposing viewpoints can co-exist is in Kant's emphasis on the 'free play' of the imagination which characterizes aesthetic judgments. In essence, this means that the spectator's imagination is free to introduce concepts which are not inherent in the text and then rationally defend such a judgment by reference to the feelings aroused by these concepts.
Thus, as the twentieth-century philosopher Roger Scruton notes:
'The free play of imagination enables me to bring concepts to bear on an experience that is, in itself, 'free from concepts'. Hence, even though there are no rules of taste, I can still give grounds for my aesthetic judgment. I can give reasons for my pleasure, while focusing on the singularity which is its cause.' (Scruton, 1982, p.85).
An important consequence of Kant's 'free play' of the imagination is that different spectators can only be perceiving the same text in so far as they possess the same faculties of understanding and their imaginations operate identically.
This may explain both the common characteristics of a comic audience and the difficulties involved in exporting a comic text to a different culture. When exposed to a comic stimulus, an audience seems to experience the sharing of a ubiquitous emotion which is, in essence, individualistic. Also, the apparently spontaneous response of laughter amongst a collection of individuals seems to occur in a highly predictable and synchronous manner (dependent upon the comic timing of the text and the performer).
However, due to the ephemeral nature of laughter, it is difficult to refer to any particular feeling to justify one's assessment other than a sophisticated subjectivist perspective of what is pleasurable or displeasurable.
Sophisticated Subjectivism (Colours and aesthetics - 'seeing red'?).
Sophisticated subjectivism was skilfully defended by the eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume (cited in Lenz, 1965). In Of the Standard of Taste, Hume drew an analogy between colour judgments and aesthetic judgments whereby even the subjectivist occurrence of colour in the observer's mind still allows for standards in assessing the appropriateness of particular colour judgments and the capacity of the observer to make such a judgment.
For example, we would be sceptical of the colour judgment of someone who was known to be either blind or colour-blind (although we may derive humour from the incongruity of the situation - see Chapter 2 - An Incongruity of Theories).
It is worth remarking here that it was correct for Hume to attribute the occurrence of colour to subjectivism rather than objectivism. As the twentieth-century philosopher Bertrand Russell (1967) showed in The Problems of Philosophy, we cannot say that objects 'possess' colour. Colour is simply the result of light-waves in one part of the spectrum being reflected off an object and into our eyes while light-waves in another part of the spectrum are absorbed either by the object itself or by the intervening medium. In astronomy, physicists use this technique (known as spectroscopy) to deduce the characteristics of interstellar phenomena. In comedy, however, the reflective occurrence of laughter does not tell us much about the nature of the comic text other than that we find it 'funny' (whatever that might mean).
While there is a relatively uncontentious agreement on colour judgments, this does not so clearly hold true for aesthetic judgments. Even if it did, this would not be equivalent to a claim of universality through out all cultures and periods of history. By its very nature, a subjectivist mode of assessment must allow for the possibility that not all spectators will experience the same feeling at all times.
As Cooper (1992) notes:
'Unlike the objectivist, a defender of subjectivism, including the sophisticated variety, cannot maintain that a judgment, if correctly made, must hold for everyone without exception who judges aesthetically... To those of us whose sensibilities may happen to be governed by totally different principles from the majority's - always a possibility for a subjectivist - the judgments of discriminating spectators within that majority can have no logical force.' (Cooper, 1992, p.245).
The problem with simple or dogmatic relativism was that, in adopting a form of Nietzchean nihilism, it inadvertently implied that there ought to be a set of universal criteria which all aesthetic theories fail to meet. As noted earlier, how can we fail a theory for failing to include a non-existent quality?
By way of contrast, pragmatic relativism does not condemn any one aesthetic judgment for failing to be universal. Nor does it imply that any aesthetic judgments should be universal by giving a despairing, post-modernist equivalence to all judgments. It simply recognises the de facto existence of different aesthetic judgments, not only within a given culture but also between different cultures and periods of history.
While aesthetic judgments are relative to distinct cultural practices, they are not objectivist (they do not demand agreement from everyone) and they are not subjectivist (they can be defended as impersonal, localised 'truths').
The main attraction of pragmatic relativism is that it is an essentially modest theory (it does not assert its supremacy over other useful theories) and allows us to be receptive to competing aesthetic judgments by emphasising their differences rather than their similarities.
The main failing of pragmatic relativism is that, in failing to acknowledge the superiority of any one mode of aesthetic judgment (including itself) it cannot arbitrate between competing judgments.
Therefore, while pragmatic relativism may be useful in discussing the question of taste in humour, it is unable to provide us with any conclusion.
Despite the inherent inconclusiveness of pragmatic relativism, it is a nimble enough perspective to enable us to avoid the logical pitfalls which open up before each of the other perspectives discussed. We will therefore proceed to examine the question of taste using a sophisticated pragmatic relativistic perspective.
- when we use the term comedy we refer to one or more of the generic dramatic types stimulating a humorous response;
- when we use the term laughter we refer to varying degrees of neurophysiological response to a comic effect;
- when we use the term humour we refer to extrapolations of taste and judgment, the qualities of the comic effect.
In other words, comedy is the input, laughter is the output and humour is the import.
Although we have now clarified our terminology (and eluded the need to define what comedy is) we have not yet demonstrated how or why comedy causes laughter. Indeed, such an enterprise may prove to be as elusive as defining comedy itself. As the comic actor W.C. Fields once remarked:
'The funniest thing about comedy is that you never know why people laugh. I know what makes them laugh but trying to get your hands on the why of it is like trying to pick up an eel out of a tub of water.' (cited in Kemp, 1998, p.108).
In Chapter 2 - An Incongruity of Theories we will briefly review and critique some of the main theories seeking to explain the relationship between comedy and laughter, the how and the why of it.