Friday, 25 March 2011

Chris Port Blog #147. Humour in the Holocaust: Does Laughter Relieve Our Suffering or Diminish Our Objections to the Suffering of Others? (2 of 7).

© Chris Port, Central School of Speech and Drama, 1999.


CHAPTER 2: An Incongruity of Theories. (What are the causes of laughter?). 

(Note: This dissertation has been posted in seven instalments)

List of contents

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *


  • 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).

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *


  • What is the superiority theory of laughter?
  • What is the incongruity theory of laughter?
  • What is the psychic release theory of laughter?

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *


  • 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?

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *


*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *


  • Life is Beautiful (Melampo Cinematografica, Italy 1997) - A case study.
  • Laughter! [Auschwitz] (Barnes, 1996) - A comparative case study.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *


  • What is determinism?

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *



*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

CHAPTER 2: An Incongruity of Theories. (What are the causes of laughter?).

In order to explain the relationship between comedy and laughter, we take as our launching point Aristotle's theory of catharsis as detailed in Poetics (Aristotle, 1996) which mainly discusses tragedy. Unfortunately, his subsequent elaboration on comedy (the reputed lost Poetics II) was either never written or has been lost to posterity.

However, we can deduce some characteristics of Aristotle's theories on comedy from his oft-quoted brief precursor in the existing book:

'Comedy represents the worse types of men; worse, however, not in the sense that it embraces any and every kind of badness, but in the sense that the ridiculous is a species of ugliness or badness. For the ridiculous consists in some form of error or ugliness that is not painful or injurious; the comic mask, for example, is distorted and ugly, but causes no pain.' (cited in Kemp, 1998, p.107).

Richard Janko (1984) has attempted to reconstruct Poetics II using the Tractatus Coislinianus, a tenth century manuscript reputed to be a copy of Aristotle's lost writings on comedy and dismissed as a forgery by the nineteenth-century scholar Jacob Bernays (cited in Janko, 1984).

However, we do not wish to be diverted into a scholastic argument over historical authenticity. Instead, it would be more useful to speculate within Aristotle's frames of reference.

Aristotle (1996) held that tragedy was cathartic in that the spectator is purged of anxiety by pity and fear. However, as Peter Berger (1997) asks, did Aristotle believe that there was also a comic catharsis? If so, would it be a purging of pity without fear?

In The Name of the Rose (Eco, 1984), Eco gives credence to the Tractatus as the denouement to his plot. After reviewing tragedy's catharsis through pity and fear he refers to an Aristotelian theory of comic catharsis: 'in inspiring the pleasure of the ridiculous, it arrives at the purification of that passion.' (Eco, 1984, p.468).

However, it is not clear what particular emotions are being purged since 'the pleasure of the ridiculous' does not seem as specific an emotion as pity or fear.

Janko (1984) identifies laughter as one of the emotions to be purged together with the impulse to defy convention and condemn authority [perhaps sociopathic aggression?].

He also invokes Plato's mistrust of theatre and emotions 'both in tragedy and in comedy, namely weeping and laughter' [the latter in our italics]. (Janko, 1984, p.144).

If we accept these conjectures about Aristotle's comic catharsis, then we are implying that laughter is an emotion in itself. This is an important distinction as subsequent European theories of laughter have tended to describe the phenomenon as a by-product of other conflicting emotions such as joy and sorrow, aggression and guilt (cf. Joubert, 1980; Freud, 1976). If this interpretation is correct then it may be that Aristotle simply believed in comedy for laughter's sake while the purgation of anti-social aggression (cf. Freud, 1976) may be a more modern (although logical) extension stemming from Freudian theories of repression and psychic release (cf. Baron, 1977).

However, perhaps the greatest difference of nuance between Aristotelian and modern theories of laughter is Aristotle's contention that comedy is not 'painful or injurious' (Kemp, 1998). It is not clear whether Aristotle was proposing an underlying rule or an overbearing standard.

While he may have been thinking of comedy's appearance in phallic songs, by the first century B.C. we have examples of comedy being used as a weapon of invective. Howard Jacobson (1997) cites the case of the iambic poet Archilochus using the medium of ridicule to make scathing attacks on his enemy Lycambes with the result that the hapless victim, together with his wife and two daughters, hanged themselves out of shame (cited in Jacobson, 1997, p.114). Whether Aristotle would have recognised such invective as comedy is dubious but it does bear a discomforting resemblance to some of our modern theories of laughter (cf. Nelson, 1990).

What are some of our modern theories of laughter?

Nelson (1990) proposes three modern theories of laughter:

  1. Superiority
  2. Incongruity
  3. Psychic Release

We will now proceed to examine and critique each of these theories in turn.

What is the superiority theory of laughter?

The superiority theory of laughter is perhaps best exemplified by the German concept of Schadenfreude, a feeling of joy at another's misfortune. This malicious component of human laughter makes it morally problematic. The seventeenth-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes concluded, with evident distaste, that laughter was symptomatic of his rather pessimistic view of human nature in which life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short:

'... the passion of laughter is nothing else but sudden glory arising from some sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmities of others...' (cited in McMillin, 1973, pp343-344).

The feminist critic Frances Gray (1994) points out that the laughter is not caused by the intrinsic ugliness or stupidity of someone else but by our perception of ourselves as superior. We may conclude from this that there is some innate aggression at work here, but does the laughter defuse the situation or increase the tension?

The behavioural psychologist Glen Wilson (1994) tends to the view that the laughter of superiority is a tension-release mechanism for innate aggression, that 'humour is an arena for the controlled release of impulses that are potentially threatening to civilized society' (Wilson, 1994, p.119). Wilson, then, places the superiority theory of laughter in an almost benign evolutionary context as a means of avoiding actual aggression. He accepts it as'natural' and social behaviour.

Gray (1994), however, is uneasy with attempts to explain laughter as a form of social bonding apropos the following caustic observation:

'This is good news for any woman who finds herself alone in a crowd of drunken men cracking dirty jokes about her, or for a Jew hearing an anti-Semitic joke in Nazi Germany – at least it would be if one could entirely throw off the suspicion that laughter, by the very process of bonding the mockers, actually makes it easier to shoot, or to rape, or to kill by reinforcing the 'otherness' of the Other.' (Gray, 1994, p.25).

The superiority theory of laughter, then, seems to be shrouded in a gloomy view of human nature (at best, we joke instead of killing and, at worst, our joking makes it easier to kill). There may be one small chink of optimism though; our earlier proposition of the brevity of the interregnum of laughter.

Hobbes' 'sudden glory' of our own good fortune in comparison to another's misfortune may soon pass if we are bound to a wheel of fate. What is more, a fatalist is often aware that their good fortune may soon pass. This awareness of the brevity of our superiority (and the suspicion that the roles may one day be reversed) may, to some extent, pre-empt our feelings of guilt. If, indeed, we see it as a brief moral defection from which we can return, with no lasting damage done, where is the harm?

Of course, if we view human relationships less deterministically, say through a Brechtian Marxist perspective, then reversals of fortune are not the result of fate but of foreseeable human actions.

We conclude this line of argument with the worrying objection that the inferior subject of the laughter may not see the phenomenon in transitory terms. If a particular individual, class or ethnic group is singled out as worthy butts of superior laughter on a recurrent basis, they may tend to see the laughter of others not as a brief moral defection but as a recurrent one and therefore permanent. The problem here may be one of aggregation rather than of any one example.

What is the incongruity theory of laughter?

The incongruity theory of laughter was articulated by the nineteenth century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (cited in Nelson, 1990) from earlier ideas of incongruity developed by Immanuel Kant (cited in Berger, 1997). In essence, incongruity occurs when there is a clash of unexpected words or ideas (cf. Gray, 1994).

Schopenhauer (cited in Eagleton, 1989) argued that the ludicrous (or laughable) arises from the sudden perception of something contradictory. Furthermore, this sudden contradiction transforms itself, as Kant put it, from 'a tense expectation into nothing' (Berger, 1997,p.23). The incongruity theory thus describes a form of tension-release (although it is more intellectual and less aggressive than the superiority theory). It is a sudden realisation that something which previously appeared important is, from an incongruous perspective, of little or no importance.

Terry Eagleton (1989) sees incongruity as the undermining of high-minded ideals:

'Humour, in this speciously generalising view, is by and large high words and low meanings, and so like Schopenhauer's own philosophy has an ironic or dialogic structure.' (Eagleton, 1989, p.180).

Eagleton's view is that the incongruity theory represents a disconnection between humour and despair 'which lies at the very core of Schopenhauer's disgusted view of humanity' (Eagleton, 1989, p.180). Schopenhauer's incongruous laughter is thus one of ridicule at the preposterous self-importance of humanity in an utterly indifferent universe. Human affairs only have meaning because human beings will it to be so.

Nelson (1990) views the incongruity theory in more optimistic terms. While it is not incompatible with the superiority theory (that of self-aggrandizement) it is not so rooted in malice. Indeed, the incongruent spectator would be more likely to enjoy the belittlement of authority than the suffering of its subjects.

Gray (1994) develops this theme, pondering whether incongruous laughter is a temporary relief from imposed meanings or whether it can be an instrument of social change. She argues that, on the one hand, incongruity may suddenly defamiliarise a political or social system (such as patriarchy) allowing us to consider changing it [reminiscent of the Brechtian verfremdungseffekt] while, on the other hand, it may be a temporary respite 'like Freud's holiday from the rules of logic and repression' [reminiscent of Aristotelian catharsis] (Gray, 1994, p.32).

It could be argued that, taken to its logical conclusion, the incongruity theory would not encourage any true release from authority as any such high-minded ideal would, in its turn, be belittled as a ridiculous misrepresentation of reality reductio ad absurdem, literally reduced to an absurdity. Arguments over the alleged power of comedy (and, in particular, carnival) to change perceptions of the status quo will be addressed more directly in Chapter 4 - The Lord of Misrule.

What is the psychic release theory of laughter?

The American critic James Feibleman (cited in Nelson, 1990) describes the psychic release theory of laughter as 'the arousal... first of terrific fear, then of release, and finally of laughter at the needlessness of the fear' (Nelson, 1990, p.7).

Such a description seems reminiscent of Aristotelian catharsis in tragedy but does not seem particularly relevant, on first inspection, to comedy. By what mechanism does fear in the mind manifest itself as laughter in the body? For such an explanation we should turn to the best known exponent of the psychic release theory and the founder of twentieth-century psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud (1976).

In Jokes and their Relation to the Unconcious (Freud, 1976), Freud transposed many of his ideas in the analysis of dreams and the workings of the unconscious to reveal what he saw as the underlying mechanisms involved in the techniques of jokes (which, for the purposes of our study, we shall regard as synonymous with comic texts) and why we make them. Freud (1976) attempted to explain the psychological process underlying such techniques by the process of reduction which Elliott Oring (1984) explains as 'the minimal transformation of a joke that maintains its underlying thought while destroying its value as a humorous communication' (Oring, 1984, p.6).

Freud identified several joke techniques such as condensation, multiple uses of the same material and double meanings (Freud, 1976, p.76). However, we are not so much concerned with the different genres of joking as the theory underpinning them. In essence, Freud explained jokes as a means of bypassing self-censorship and allowing the expression of thoughts normally repressed by the conventions of society. The key to bypassing censorious repression was brevity (reminiscent of our earlier proposition that laughter is a necessarily brief interregnum) and encapsulated by Freud in his quoting of the Bard: 'Brevity is the body and soul of wit...' (cited in Freud, 1976, p.44).

In order to contextualise Freud's theories we should be mindful of the extrastitial culture of which he was writing. Freud saw European society of the early twentieth-century as subject to various forms of needful repression which required the expenditure of 'psychic energy'. Typically, the thoughts and feelings which were repressed were of a sexual or aggressive nature. In such a context, a joke allows repressed thoughts and feelings to emerge in a socially acceptable disguise. Freud accounted for the suddenly released psychic energy as a discharge in the form of laughter.

Gray (1994) criticises Freud's analysis as being too reliant upon a specific cultural context. She also criticises his metaphor as being 'profoundly reflective of nineteenth-century bourgeoisie in its focus on 'economy in expenditure of energy' (Gray, 1994, p.28).

We will return to some of Freud's theories again in Chapter 3 - The Mind/Body Axis. For the moment, we conclude this chapter by broadening Gray's criticism to a wider observation. All theories about laughter may be inherently flawed by their specific cultural context and choice of metaphor. From such a simple relativistic perspective, it may be the case that even our current theories inform us more about our society's pre-occupations with itself than about the ostensible phenomenon under discussion.

1 comment:

  1. NCBI ROFL: Dying with laughter…literally.
    Discover Magazine, 3 April 2013