The leaves are dying, people, but the semester itself refuses to die, sprouting new, snarling dragon-heads of academic minutia like the Hydra of Greek legend just when I think I've finally put the beast down. What to do, in such a situation? Grade the papers, correct the galley proofs, and haul oneself to the meetings? Hardly. My usual plan involves popping on my noise-cancelling headphones and listening to bootlegs of old Mitch Hedberg comedy shows. Maybe it's because of this that I've been thinking a little about the theory of comedy. Or maybe it's that I'm scheduled to speak in February on a panel about wit and contemporary poetry at the Louisville conference on literature since 1900 (Joyelle McSweeney will be there talking about Harryette Mullen, and Mike Theune will have something to say about wit and poetic form, so don't let my presence put you off coming). Whatever the reason, I've been thinking about the nature of humor, and have been having bit of a disagreement with that most unlikely theorist of humor, Thomas Hobbes.
Most people who talk about humor theory seem to break the field down into three different areas: incongruity theory, relief theory, and superiority theory. Incongruity theory is pretty much what you'd expect it to be: the idea that humor comes from strange, unexpected juxtaposition. Kant is one of the bigwigs in this area, claiming, in The Critique of Judgment, "everything that is to excite a lively laugh there must be something absurd (in which the understanding, therefore, can find no satisfaction)." You know this sort of thing: since we’re talking about philosophers, let’s use an example involving that soft-handed tribe: Monty Python’s famous skit involving philosophers playing soccer:
You know: there’s no why to the juxtaposition: it’s just weird, inexplicable, and incongruous, and the understanding, questing for an explanation for the juxtaposition, can find no satisfaction. I’m actually not sure the skit holds up all that well, since between the filming of the skit and our own time there’s been a considerable diminishing of the notion that crossing high-culture with pop-culture involves incongruity. So if you didn’t laugh, you can blame postmodernity. But you get the idea.
Much of Mikhail Bakhtin’s thinking about laughter also involves incongruity, albeit of a somewhat more specific kind: his famous notion (propagated by his best advocates, Peter Stallybrass and Allon White) being the idea of “transcoding” — of juxtaposing the high or sacred with the low or profane, especially when the low and profane involve bodily functions.
Relief theory is probably best exemplified by Freud, who argued that humor involved violating social taboos, giving us a sense of relief by letting us say the unsayable. Lenny Bruce-style profanity falls under this category, as do many gender or ethnicity jokes, which allow the presentation of forbidden stereotypes in the special context of comedy. This sort of thing can, of course, go badly, badly wrong, as it did in Michael Richards’ career-ending n-word gaffe of 2006. It’s because of the potential for it to go so badly wrong that I’m restraining myself from adding a couple of my favorite examples (one ending “but it’s always money with you people” and the other ending “no, man, I never found the head” and both bound to offend someone, that being the nature of taboo-shattering humor).
Thomas Hobbes looks at things differently: the author of Leviathan was the pioneer of the superiority theory of humor, which maintains that comedy and laughter are found in the “sudden glory” we feel when we experience “some sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others.” There are certainly plenty of instances when this is true. I remember taking a bunch of my student on a field trip to Chicago’s Millennium Park (it was for a class on the art and literature of Chicago I was co-teaching with an art prof, and we were doing a unit on public sculpture). A couple of students took advantage of the early-September heat to walk into the reflective pool of Jaume Plensa’s Crown Fountain, a very postmodern, interactive piece of public art that encourages such things. As the first student stood in the pool, she was blasted by one of the small jets of water that suddenly shoot up from the pool, getting pretty wet in the process. Her friend thought this was hysterically funny — and it was, in a very Hobbesian way: suddenly, the observer, in her dryness and prudence, was superior to the soaked friend. Just then, though, the laughing student got doused by one of the cascades that come from above, ending up much wetter than her pal, who hooted in appropriately Hobbesian derision at the fate of her hapless former mocker. The unexpectedly superior position is the position from which we laugh.
Hobbes extends his theory a bit, too, saying that we can feel a “sudden eminency” not only with regard to others, but to our former selves: so, for example, if we were trudging along down a slippery, muddy hill, and suddenly started to slide down, but managed to maintain our balance and arrive quite suddenly at the end of the slippery slope, unsullied and no longer having to trudge tediously on, we’d laugh at our sudden unexpected superiority to our former position.
This is all well and good, but it’s far from exhaustive. I’d like to propose an amendment to the Hobbesian theory, an amendment I’m deriving from two things that happened to my wife, Valerie, yesterday, both of which she found hilarious, and neither of which can quite be accommodated by the Hobbesian theory.
First, there’s the matter of Valerie’s morning commute. She takes the mighty Metra train into Chicago every morning, but yesterday, due to some weird mechanical fiasco, the trains on her line were running very late. She stood in the cold waiting for her train to arrive, but when it did, it didn’t stop. Instead, in some attempt to get the commuter rails back on schedule, it blew by her at incredible speed, actually blowing her hat off her head. This left her late and laughing at her predicament, with an emotion that could best be described as “well, fuck me, then.” Something similar happened later in the day, when she returned home. The sunroom in Stately Archambeau Manor is equipped with old-school blinds, the kind that roll down, and can be a bit temperamental, wanting to roll back up rather than stay where you’ve put them. Valerie took a long time to carefully adjust and balance the blind so it would stay at the exact level she desired. Then, as she turned her back and began to walk away, the blind rolled up at incredible speed, made a kind of Don Martin of Mad Magazine series of sound effects (FWAP FWAP FWAP, among others) and somehow, in defiance of the laws of God and physics, tore itself loose from its bearings, unrolling all the way to the floor like some kind of red carpet laid in front of a visiting dignitary, and finally cut loose from its roll altogether, drifting elegantly to the floor. Shortly thereafter, the wooden roll itself dropped from the window, hitting the ground with a clunk and frightening the cat.
From my perch on the sofa this all seemed quite hilarious, in a strictly Hobbesian way: I hadn’t just invested my time in setting the blind just-so, so I was superior to She Whose Labors Had Come To Naught. But Valerie laughed even harder than I did, once again feeling the humor of “well, fuck me, then.”
So here’s what I think was going on. I think there’s a strange, pseudo-Hobbesian effect that comes into play when we experience a sudden sense of superiority not to someone else, and not to our former selves, but to ourselves in the present moment, a kind of doubled-consciousness. Maybe the best way to get at it is to turn not to Hobbes, but to Jung. Jung argued that one of the ways people deal successfully with difficult situations is to gain a certain detachment from their situation, without losing their sense of being within that situation. Of the emotions produced by problematic situations Jung said “one certainly does feel the affect and is shaken and tormented by it,” but, he continues, “at the same time one is aware of a higher consciousness looking on which prevents one from becoming identical with the effect, a consciousness which regards the affect as an object, and can say ‘I know that I suffer.’” So there’s the part of you that is upset at having fallen on your ass into the mud, with everyone looking on and laughing. But, if you are able to develop a little distance, and not just suffer, but watch yourself suffer, you participate in the same Hobbesian sense of superiority, and laugh along with the giggling observers. Sure, you’re humiliated. But you’re also aware of your humiliated self as if from the outside, and you feel superior to the humiliation even as you experience it: you play a kind of emotional chord, with one note of suffering and one of the “sudden glory” of Hobbesian superiority.
We might call this the “well, fuck me, then” effect. And, as a habitual faller-out-of-hammocks and dropper-of-meatballs-down-the-front-of-my-shirt, I can assure you, developing the doubled consciousness of the “well, fuck me, then” effect is a skill well-worth having. It even got me through the second half of a speech I was giving in front of several hundred people after my glorious academic robes had been shat upon by an errant seagull.