Thursday, 15 March 2018

On Humour (2018)

From The Philosopher, Volume CVI No. 1 Spring 2018


René Magritte, La Clef des Songes, 1935

So the Essence of Humour is Self-Deception?
Who Are You Kidding?

By Christopher Gontar


Every theory of humour must in some way acknowledge what actually appears in humour, but one sense of such theory should also be concerned with something only inferred. That deduced thing we may call humour’s essence, and though never perceived, it affects us once we see its associated signs. In this essay, I will seek to show that the theory accounting for this object is the theory of what humour is. But as to any theory whose content is all appearance (we will call this ‘appearance-focused’), it is a set of various ideas that are perceived in humour or used in its creation. That practical aspect could be called ‘theory’, but it cannot be a theory of humour’s essence because it omits this very aspect. Instead, it consists of appearances, disregarding their meaning and implication. Such a theory is not informatively descriptive, but is at best prescriptive. Of course, a prescriptive theory of humour describes this or that, but what makes it prescriptive is that humour creation is its sole possible function.

The so-called incongruity theory presents only appearances and only in one broad area of humour are these useful for composition. Consequently, though the incongruity theory has always been universal in intention it is not a theory of the essence, regardless how well it unites all classes. The first, however, and now forgotten version of a theory with the name incongruity was much more uniform than the one known today. The earlier model, of James Beattie, in On Laughter and Ludicrous Composition (1778), treated every kind of humour not as incongruity between one term and another, but as this contrast: that things fit within a scheme while also not fitting. Presently, this context-based approach—which describes a part of humour’s appearance but misses the point of all of it—is mistakenly considered a full explanation of linguistic humour and called appropriate incongruity (for example, see, Elliott Oring’s 1992 book, Jokes and Their Relations). Yet exactly the same theory was applied by Beattie to both linguistic and non-linguistic humour so that, formally, his view looked more universal than incongruity theory as usually known.

Another contemporary author, Tomáš Kulka, proposes a universal theory of incongruity resolution (2007), but apart from Beattie himself there is no known universal ‘appropriate incongruity’ theory. ‘Incongruity resolution’ can obviously be seen as a variant of appropriate incongruity and yet both of these distort the experience of humour by confining it to the cognition of what appears. The problem with this kind of position, moreover, is not that it is about the stimulus and neglects the response—for the response can be known only after one has described what is most important about the stimulus. But to theorise about what appears in humour is not to describe either the full stimulus or response, so that these theories become strictly prescriptive in use. Now, with these appearance-focused methods can be classed ambivalence theories, such as those of Hugh Lafollette or Niall Shanks, of Thomas Veatch, and Peter McGraw—the last known as benign violation. Indeed, an ambivalence theory is hardly more than a response-side extension to the old theory of fitting and not fitting. Though it has prescriptive value, benign violation fails as a descriptive theory because it is very often a theory about the offense of humor rather than humor itself. There is, however, one sense in which benign violation itself is humorous, namely that in any mean or mixture of violence with non-violence, self-deception, the essence of humour, is always evoked. Self-deception is there implied by the pretension to violence, or because acts which cause revulsion and embarrassment always tend to signify immodesty, a sense of self-deception. The linguistic transgression in puns and the like cannot be constitutive of the humour, since many kinds of linguistic error are not humorous. Schopenhauer’s remarks in The World as Will and Representation, finally, conform with the theory of James Beattie, but are applied to linguistic examples, rather than universally.


The term incongruity is particularly useful only as a name for juxtaposed things that may be called ludicrous, and of no use at all, either creative or explanatory, in linguistic humour itself.


Though his was a theory of laughter, Beattie distinguished this as the laughter of humour, and he, not Kant or others, to this day remains the prime exemplar of an incongruity theory of humour. Non-linguistic incongruity is now commonly placed under the former, simpler of those two senses, incongruity between terms rather than the fact that two terms relate differently to a context or frame. The former is at least a much better way to characterise the appearance of non-linguistic humour, and will here be assumed. My first effort will be to examine the incongruity theory where it actually applies, then explain why it has no other notable application and is not universal. It has no value at all. It is not a significant theory of anything, but an egregious misconception that has hindered theory and criticism for centuries and ought to cease to be studied immediately. No current authoritative text credits the alternative so-called relief, or release theory, or the superiority theory, as describing humour in itself, as they are based upon extraneous aspects.

The term incongruity is useful only as a name for juxtaposed things that may be called ludicrous, and of no use at all, either creative or explanatory, in linguistic humour itself. First, consider where it actually applies. It describes the outward appearance of a few closely related examples of humour that occur frequently. As the ludicrous, incongruity is the juxtaposition of the serious with the trivial, or the unfashionable or ill-made thing, typically alone. As the ridiculous, it is the interaction, not mere juxtaposition, of the mind with bodily appetites, and second, any falling or failure. But since the ridiculous is so elementary, the word ‘incongruity’ there serves no creative role. In all these forms, however, the first weakness of incongruity is that its sense of ‘violation’ of patterns does not convey relations of better and worse, and it certainly does not explain the significance of these. Incongruity treats such juxtapositions as inert, leaving us wondering why they have any effect. The last attempt to save the incongruity theory was to assert that humour is either play or pleasure in relation to incongruity, either of which attempt clearly fails.

Now the unfashionable in humour need not be explicitly contrasted with its better counterpart. Dress is humorous whenever it can be seen as though it intends and fails to meet the standards of the viewer, or as work-clothes. The reason in the latter case is that a class difference is evoked, implying self-deception in an interloper. But the unfashionable would only be explicitly juxtaposed if actually set next to something better, surely possible.

Two clashing garments could be used to mean either a failed attempt at a combo, or what is hardly wearable ‘presuming’ that it can ‘hang’ with what is passable or very good. Already we find, prior to fully explaining, that self-deception is the essence of humour, and incongruity only humour’s appearance. The trivial next to the serious makes one of those halves the self-deceived, as we will clarify. As to physical appetite and the mind, the former overpowers the latter in all people, and renders the human self a constant hypocrite. This theme becomes more intense in that a more intellectual person is the more troubled by sensuality, as is the comic hero, Ignatius J. Reilly, in A Confederacy of Dunces (1980). Such a character is particularly driven to deceive themselves. Few things are as instinctively seen, and reproached, as hypocrisy. Yet how it is humorous, by way of self-deception, is only being explained now. The evocation of self-deception by falling or failure is self-evident. As to personal ugliness, the unkind fact is that its humour consists in the same sense as the unfashionable.
A practical joke may surprise by use of incongruous things. But this is not mainly incongruity by violating our expectations in the manner of the unfashionable, though it could be that. The idea of a practical joke is that the victim ultimately represents a self-deceived person. It is true that horrible or fantastic things fit the incongruity theory, and these override humorous feelings and introduce others. But this is because where something could be merely pretentious or offensive it may be more, and what rules this out of the class of humour is a negative condition. Now if tragedy might be invoked by a pictorial juxtaposition between humanity and what is beyond its reach (of course the simplicity of a picture makes it unserious), the kinds of things juxtaposed are not those of humour and comedy. Incongruity, then, cannot be challenged as a description of how a lot of humour looks. But it is no more than that.

The incongruity, however, in the above cases, has no role at all in linguistic humour in itself, but only where it appears in combination with linguistic humour. A theory of ‘appropriate incongruity’, as introduced by Elliott Oring, for example, describes the process of experiencing linguistic humour, but such an explanation is entirely prescriptive in meaning. As mentioned above, this kind of theory closely parallels Beattie’s universal theory, because the relation of partial fit within an assemblage is highly comparable to appropriate incongruity. Here is a typical example of what the theory of appropriate incongruity would explain, or presume to create.Woody Allen said in a monologue:
‘Most of the time I don’t have very much fun. The rest of the time I don’t have any fun at all.’
This is not only linguistic (it is also bathetic), though it is because of language that the punchline is puzzling. But this puzzling quality, where it does obtain, does not have at all the same role as ‘incongruity’ in things or people. Furthermore, what if it did? But then it would be of no creative use since the joke-writer could not look for it. Even if he actually hunted for ambiguities, he would not be on the lookout for puzzlement. And though he knows humour when it comes to him, he does not search for it. Finally, we could only unite the linguistic and thing-based incongruity, if we saw them both as did James Beattie, as partial incongruity. But there is no reason to do that.

As the ‘appropriate incongruity theory’ suggests, the punchline does refer us back to the previous line, which by its ambiguity gives a place to the punchline. In other words, the idiomatic meaning of ‘not having very much fun’ is indeed having no fun, whereas ‘some fun’ is a robotic, literal interpretation. The linguistic part in itself has some humour, not because the absurd meaning is ridiculed, but just because ambiguity is not only an instrument of deception, but a punisher of presumption, a kind of self-deception.

That is important, as it is the real reason puns and the like are inherently humorous. The pun is intrinsically humorous and therefore must allude to something, but that cannot be itself, or jokes. For that possibility takes us in a circle. Linguistic ambiguity must, necessarily, get its intrinsic humour from imagined situations. In the first place, to make linguistic humour is not generally to ridicule language. George Carlin, while not to everyone’s taste, had a monologue about clichés in which he included a few puns. He succeeded in mashing these together, although puns and clichés are completely different in humorous force. “‘Legally drunk.’” Well if it’s legal -- what's the f***in’ problem!? ‘Hey! Leave my friend alone officer, he’s legally drunk!’”

But the self-deception associated with linguistic ambiguity needs to be unpacked: it always signifies a context, even if not present, of social exclusion and therefore self-deception as the presumption to fit in. For instance, in Vietnamese, “cảm ơn,” “thank you,” if the pitch falls where it should instead rise, may be interpreted as “shut up!” The divide, in such cases, of in-group from out-group might result in anger. But what humour here is necessarily implied, even if drowned out by negative emotion, derives from this particular social relation. That condition, always implied by ambiguity, does not obscure the meaning of the pun. Rather, it definitively reveals what ambiguity contributes to any humour. Put another way, the sense in which ambiguity signifies self-deception is like the wet floor and gaping hole in the street signifying a fall, the upturned rake a blow to the head, or a beautiful woman—a rebuff. Though there are jokes where this may be more convincing than others, the theory has a strong case because there is no plausible alternative.

There is another vast category of linguistic humour, namely irony, but this too derives its humour from association with self-deception. All humorous irony not only reserves self-deception as its implicit target, but irony’s essential obliqueness, even if not sarcastic, is humorous only because it points to the lack of awareness of the self-deceived.

The solution to the appearance-focused theory of humour, then, and its lack of insight, is this. The stimulating power of humour extends beyond what appears immediately to the senses. This is not the tautology that we cannot see what we do not see, or that everything has an inside and outside. Rather, humour exerts its effect because it always presents either the image of a person in which we infer self-deception, or else other things or ideas that lead to that association, of a person being self-deceived.

Though this point might elicit further discussion, there is a simple reason why humour’s essence is self-deception rather than passive deception. It is not only because deception of others is but one area of humour; rather, mere gullibility or stupidity are capable of being blameless, and derive their humour from association with self-deception, whereas the converse is never so. Now self-deception could be blameless either out of folly or out of justifiable discomfort. We should, then, define self-deception as lying to oneself to escape unpleasant truth, but where it is blameless for any reason, it cannot be the essence of humour. Phenomenally, however, self-deception consists in a restriction of perception, which is why we associate it so strongly with intoxication. In humour, we infer and imagine self-deception as restricted perception. Self-deception thus finds its place in a peculiar class, in that nothing in nature except mental states, or the infinitesimal or excessively large, cannot in principle be seen. Essences are normally understood to have appearance, but self-deception cannot appear at all. This premise, that the essence of humour lacks appearance, has been the likely cause of most uncertainty about it. One can believe self-deception to be present in others only by a sign or combination associated with it.

Now while the stimulus in humour outwardly signifies self-deception, the response to humour copies this inferred object, mentally. But we take a moment to think of self-deception when we see something humorous. It is not as though we see humour full stop, and are immediately amused. And there are, moreover, three ways this can occur, with respect to what is real and imaginary. In humour that depicts only words or things, self-deception must be imaginary, whereas it could be real when inferred in a person. But it is plainly often insinuated with exaggeration even in an actual person, as is so typical of mockery.

The response to humour does not simply outwardly signify self-deception, but mentally copies its mind; the accompanying theory of laughter, external response, could not be fit in this essay. There can also be a sympathy in the response, but that is separate. The response to humour copies self-deception, once that has been derived from things we actually perceive. For this theory there is overwhelming evidence, and it has no confirmation bias, thus meeting the demand of falsifiability. This is what the response to humour feels like if one considers it closely, all humour represents or alludes to self-deception, and no other explanation is as solid.
In humour, what we will call ridiculous are persons who represent self-deception more directly. But ludicrous things signify it. Linguistic ambiguity, for example, signifies its own power to dupe, even to alienate someone. In one kind of linguistic humour, there is accompanying reference to physical desires and thus to self-deception. The other sort of ludicrousness consists of things. For instance, if a dagger is used as a kitchen knife, the two basic humorous meanings yield much the same result, ultimately. There are two ways of reading this, as:
(1) war in a kitchen, or 
(2) as a kitchen in war.
In either case, violence is used as a sign of self-deception. In the first case, the chef cooking with a weapon gives the impression of an unstable person or a failed warrior, or by appropriating war he unmans it and mocks it. But in the second case, war is shown to be human, and thus again unmanned. We could call ludicrous things ridiculous, but as inanimate things it is best to distinguish them as ludicrous, and consistently.

Now self-deception causes eccentricity, as well as suffering. Clark Griswold’s erotic fantasy on the vacation highway, and Ron Burgundy’s courtship of Miss Corningstone in Anchorman, a 2004 American comedy film and a tongue-in-cheek take on the culture of the 1970s, make us laugh and cringe. While these acts of boldness signify self-deception, their shame gives us empathetic pain (in this context the benign violation theory is put to rest). We should expect that seeing self-deception gives us empathetic pain, indeed whether it is tripped up, or even if it strolls along in deluded bliss. But we do not naturally expect that an empathy is the essential response. But self-deception, which we see as the cause of misfortunes and eccentricity (while the reverse is also true), overtakes us in an imitative form.

They are correct who note that humour relaxes, but they fail to add that the relevant tension comes from fear of judgement, and actual self-deception is the other way of dealing with tension, a potentially ridiculous way. Humour consumption, then, taking in the toxin of self-deception, is almost a homeopathy, because it seems to kill the real self-deception in us. But in truth it does not do that. And neither are our modesty and sociability highly dependent on the threat of ridicule. Rather, humour appreciation, by taking in the small dose of the toxin, signals and celebrates self-honesty, which finally explains humour in terms of socio-biology.

In other words, humour is to actual, full self-deception what a single glass of wine is to, say, a whole bottle. Humour is, then, deeply schizoid, since in reacting to it we merge with the self-deception we regard as shameful. In intoxication by substances, a certain base effect is the same as humour, restriction of external awareness, along with other reactions such as visions or affect. But in humour the source of perception-dimming is less obvious, since it is a mind with self-imposed unawareness. Actual humour presents this image more indirectly as the ludicrous, or more concretely as the ridiculous. There are three steps, a stimulus, an inferred mind, an empathy. With the ludicrous, the second is reached more indirectly. In the ridiculous, which is strictly speaking always a person, these three steps are unmistakable.

About the Author: 
Christopher teaches philosophy as an adjunct professor in Chicago and performs jazz piano. 

Address for correspondance:
Email: <cdgontar@gmail.com>


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