Justin E. H. Smith
We may as well start with a joke:
Primatologist to chimpanzee: “Bongo, bring me some food.”
(Bongo brings a pile of stones instead of food, and shows a wide, teeth-bearing grin.)
Alright, perhaps not a joke, really. More a primate proto-joke. However we classify it, though, I believe this report (based on a true story), gives us everything we need to generate a theory of humour. To get there, we will have first to do some propaedeutic work, in order to determine exactly what such a theory ought to explain, as also some metatheoretical work to explain where exactly such a theory fits in relation to other, similar projects.
1. The Funny and the Beautiful
Arthur Danto has noted that every systematic philosopher, whether a refined aesthete or a complete philistine, has at some point taken on the topic of art. One might add that nearly every one of these has included an account of wit, humour, jokes, comedy, or laughter, or some combination of these, within his theory of art and beauty. Why is this? Is gelastics –to borrow a neologism coined by Mary Beard from the Greek ‘gelan’: ‘to laugh’-- a subdomain of aesthetics? Let us consider some of the reasons for holding such a view.
There seems to be a great similarity between the way people talk about the ‘aesthetic stance’ and the way they conceive the ‘sense of humour’. The perception of something as a joke or as a work of art requires a certain stance or perspective. Even if it is hard to say what this will be, it seems that the explanations for the one often serve just as well as accounts for the other. For example, Edward Bullough’s criterion of psychical distance, which would account for the reluctance theatre-goers feel at the thought of getting up to save Desdemona from Othello, seems to function in the same way to provide the moral distancing that enables one to laugh at a cruel joke (and most, perhaps all, jokes are cruel, a point to which we might return later).
The two domains are also alike in that ‘getting it’ seems to require similar mastery in each domain of a vast number of pragmatic factors, including the repertoire of the artist or comedian, the real-worldly circumstances to which the artwork or joke is responding, etc. 'Wit', as opposed to jokes, will generally depend entirely on context, as in the one-liner Danto reports from a dinner party at which Benjamin Disraeli was said to have uttered, upon having his glass of champagne filled, "finally, something warm." This exclamation is, of course, in itself neither funny nor unfunny, and there does not seem to be a precise correlate to it among objects or performances presented as art. These latter seem to be closer to jokes, or to what in Russian are called 'anekdoty', that is, jokes that take the form of very short stories and that are reproducible, like a performance of 'St. James Infirmary', and perhaps also like a presentation of Warhol's Campbells Soup cans, in a variety of social circumstances, though likely with differing degrees of success.
Relatedly, there seems to be a similar range of context dependency in both humour and art, with the unambiguous instances of art and humour depending on clear elaboration of well-known and relatively durable conventions (e.g., putting oil paint on a canvas; commencing a joke with ‘Knock knock...’), and the less clear instances depending on a complex set of contextual factors that will determine whether the thing in question is art or humour, or not. What makes the one funny and the other art is entirely indiscernible in the syntactic or semantic properties of the one, or the perceptual properties of the other.
Both the aesthetic and the gelastic, further, bear an important relationship to the ethical, though one that is difficult to account for adequately. Perhaps revealingly, the exclamations “That’s not funny!” and “That’s not art!” seem often to occur in parallel circumstances, and to conceal straightforward moral outrage under the guise of correcting a category mistake. That is, a blasphemous joke is funny (even if cheaply so) just as surely as a Virgin Mary made out of elephant dung is art (even if bad), and the insistence that it is not only serves to move the denouncer outside of the domain of gelastic or aesthetic judgment altogether.
Both are periodically invoked as playing a redemptive role in a world that would be, in their absence, pure nature, determination, disenchantment, etc. Thus in the twenty-first of his Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man Schiller calls beauty our "second creator," since it is the aesthetic disposition that saves us from "the one-sided compulsion of nature in feeling," and provides "the ultimate gift of humanity, something infinite," namely, freedom. Mutatis mutandis, is this assessment so different from the redemptive power of the Marx Brothers film cited by Woody Allen in Manhattan as the only thing standing between him and death?
There are of course important differences. For one thing, gelastics is concerned with the ‘ridiculous’ (Aristotle) or the ‘Satanic’ (Hobbes), as opposed to the beautiful and the sublime. It may, however, be a short step ‘from the sublime to the ridiculous’, and it is certainly a short step from the sublime to the tragic (Hume, for example, seems simply to substitute the latter for the former). Our ancient patrimony, moreover, compels us to think of tragedy and comedy as a pair of opposites, even if in recent times we have such hybrids as 'tragicomedies', and even if there is a general sense that even the darkest tragedies should straddle the once-clear boundary with the darkest farce (e.g., the Coen brothers' version of No Country for Old Men). There are probably deep-seated reasons why Aristotle devoted far more energy to accounting for the tragic than for the comic in his Poetics, yet these reasons probably do not flow from the greater philosophical significance of tragedy, but only from its more exalted social status.
Another difference is that there is direct, bodily evidence that one has ‘got’ a joke, while there is no corresponding bodily state signalling that one is perceiving aesthetically at the correct moment. That said, however, theories of humour that take it as a subdomain of moral theory, and as a question of manners, have generally preferred the sort of gentlemanly wit that reacts to instances of humour in an imperceptible, or barely perceptible, way. The Shaftesburian grin is to be preferred to the Rabelaisian guffaw, as Simon Critchley puts it, though Critchley's attempt to assimilate gelastics to morality obscures, I believe, what is philosophically most interesting about it, and indeed what distinguishes it most sharply from other branches of aesthetics. Whether or not one has a taste for the sort of grotesque and bawdy humour that elicits strong bodily reactions, whether or not one thinks the Cynics' practice of filling up on lentils in order to spoil with their flatulence the public lectures of philosophical windbags, it is hard to deny that crude, bodily humour is in fact humour par excellence, while a gentleman's appropriately modulated grin is a sort of compromise, a sort of ceasefire between the comic and the respectable, between the flatulent Cynics and the pompous philosophiser. For where gelastics parts ways with aesthetics, where Woody Allen's redemption is something quite different from Schiller's, has precisely to do with the differing roles of the body in the aesthetic and gelastic experiences. The beautiful provides a way out of the body, while the funny hurls us right back into it. Laughter is generally described in the natural-philosophical tradition as a sort of fermentative 'explosion' in the body, or as an inundation of animal spirits, or, for Descartes, in The Passions of the Soul, as a hydraulic event initiated by a rapid flux in air pressure. It would be difficult to imagine parallel, physiologising accounts of the experience of the beautiful.
2. The Sudden Transformation of a Strained Expectation into Nothing
No one understood these features of gelastics as clearly as Immanuel Kant. Significantly, Kant places humour with music, and both of these very far from the figurative arts with respect to the effects they bring about. For him, music no less than humour belongs to the ‘pleasant’ as opposed to the ‘fine’ arts. In music, there is a sort of ‘play’ of aesthetic ideas, in which a hearer moves "from the sensation of the body to the objects of affects, and then back again, but with redoubled force, to the body." In Section 54 of the Critique of Judgment, a long comment following the 'Comparison of the Fine Arts with One Another', Kant provides an extended comparison of the way in which music and humour bring about their effects:
Music and what provokes laughter [Stoff zum Lachen] are two kinds of play with aesthetic ideas, or even with representations of the understanding, by which, all said and done, nothing is thought. By mere force of change they yet are able to afford lively gratification. This furnishes pretty clear evidence that the quickening effect of both is physical, despite its being excited by ideas of the mind, and that the feeling of health, arising from a movement of the intestines answering to that play, makes up that entire gratification of an animated gathering upon the spirit and refinement of which we set such store. Not any estimate of harmony in tones or flashes of wit, which, with its beauty, serves only as a necessary vehicle, but rather the stimulated vital functions of the body, the affection stirring the intestines and the diaphragm, and, in a word, the feeling of health (of which we are only sensible upon some such provocation) are what constitute the gratification we experience at being able to reach the body through the soul and use the latter as the physician of the former.
Kant is generally held to have offered the most disappointing account of music in the history of philosophy, one that cordons it off to the margins of human society and human experience, while failing to charge it with that mysterian force that Plato gave it in arguing that it is something too powerful to be allowed to be permitted, unregulated, into the Republic. Certainly, the feature of Kant’s philosophy of music that disappoints the most is that, while for us music is supposed to be serious, for him it is of a pair with jokes. But those who are gravely serious about music should bear in mind that, even if he ranked the figurative arts higher than the aural, he does not seem to have known much, or cared much, about either. Kant was likely the greatest thinker ever to tackle the philosophy of art in the absence of any critical sensibility whatsoever for the object of his theorising.
His sense of humour was equally underdeveloped, as we’ll see. Yet, I want to argue, it is Kant who has given the strongest theoretical account ever offered of the structure and nature of jokes. Kant is the most prominent representative of what has come to be known as the "incongruity theory of humour," according to which instances of humour are generated out of the temporal experience of a mixing of incongruous conceptual categories, a mixing that, as he elegantly puts it, gives rise to "the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing [die plötzliche Verwandlung einer gespannten Erwartung in nichts]." Kant explains: “[W]e laugh, and it gives us a hearty pleasure: not because we find ourselves cleverer than this ignorant person, or because of any other pleasing thing that the understanding allows us to note here, but because our expectation was heightened and suddenly disappeared into nothing."
Does Kant provide an example of what he has in mind? Unfortunately, he does. "An Indian," he relates, "at the table of an Englishman in Surat, seeing a bottle of ale being opened and all the beer, transformed into foam, spill out, displayed his great amazement with many exclamations, and in reply to the Englishman’s question 'What is so amazing here?', answered, 'I’m not amazed that it’s coming out, but by how you got it all in'." (Transcendental Rimshot.) One is tempted to say that the incongruity between the sophistication of Kant’s gelastic theory on the one hand, and his idea of a good joke, on the other, is itself funny. The incongruity inherent in his incongruity theory of humour amounts to an instance and illustration of the theory. The fact that one of the most sophisticated theories of humour in history would be supported by such a weak joke is itself the incongruity.
The incongruity theory is generally contrasted with a number of other theories, of varying degrees of influence. One is Mary Douglas’s anthropological account of humour as the ‘irruption of the body’ into social situations in which it is supposed to remain hidden. Another prominent theory, associated with Freud, has it that humour amounts to a sort of discharge of tension, not so different from the other tics and symptoms of the neurotic patient. The incongruity theory's most important philosophical alternative (at least to the extent that it tends to be proferred by philosophers rather than by anthropologists or psychoanalysts) is the "superiority theory," according to which, as Hobbes explains, “the passion of laughter is nothing else but sudden glory arising from some sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others, or with our own formerly.” The "ludicrous," according to Aristotle, similarly, is "that [which] is a failing or a piece of ugliness which causes no pain of destruction" (Poetics, sections 3 and 7). Going beyond the subject of comedy, in the Rhetoric (II, 12) Aristotle defines wit as "educated insolence." Now it seems that, if there is anything funny about Kant's joke, it is not the Englishman's superiority to the Indian, but rather the experience of superiority it permits us to feel in relation to Kant.
Previous philosophical discussion of gelastics has been muddled by the failure of the commentators to notice that these sundry theories pertain to different aspects of the gelastic event, and thus that it is a futile exercise to attempt to choose between them. The incongruity theory has to do with the semantics of the joke, while the superiority theory has to do with the pragmatics of the joke, and also, likely, with metagelastic considerations. The Freudian relief theory has to do with the individual psychology of the joke’s enjoyer (most likely teller, but perhaps also hearer), while the irruption theory has to do with the social psychology of the group in which the joke is told.
One important thing to note in connection with Kant's account is that he seems to be concerned principally with anekdoty (in German, Scherze), that is to say with Stoff zum Lachen that has an analysable formal structure that unfolds over the course of the joke. Kant is thinking principally of humourous stories with which dinner guests are regaled of a leisurely and pleasant evening. He does not have in mind one-liners such as Disraeli's that would derive their gelastic element entirely from context rather than from their own formal structure. In this respect, Kant is in fact dealing with a variety of literature, however diminished. As Jim Holt recounts, the modern joke shares a common parent with the novel:
During the centuries of Arab conquest, folktales from the Levant, many of them satirical or erotic, made their way through Spain and Italy. An Arab tale about a wife who is pleasured by her lover while her duped husband watches uncomprehendingly from a tree, for instance, is one of several that later show up in Boccaccio’s Decameron. Once in Europe, the folktale began to cleave in two. On the one hand, with the invention of printing and the rise of literacy, it grew longer, filling out into the chivalric romance and, ultimately, the novel. On the other hand, as the pace of urban life quickened, it got shorter in its oral form, shedding details and growing more formulaic as it condensed into the humorous anecdote.
If Holt's account is correct, then we should approach the joke in roughly the same way we do the haiku, as a particular, extremely distilled and succinct variety of literature, with its own history and evolving rules, rather than as interchangeable with wit. The joke is a literary genre that has as its principle aim the expression of humour, in the same way that landscape painting is an artistic genre that has as its principle aim the portrayal of natural beauty. The incongruity theory has to do with how well jokes fulfill this aim, while the superiority theory has to do with the more straightforwardly moral dimensions of any instance of humour, including wit and jokes.
One might suppose that, if we take seriously the ‘into nothing’ clause of Kant’s definition, while nonetheless loosening our conception of ‘nothing’ to include whatever is lower down on the hierarchy of being than the concept deployed at the beginning of the joke, then we will see that much humour does indeed deploy this structure, and that incongruity in Kant’s sense may not be saying anything so different from Mary Douglas's account. Yet any careful, cross-cultural and trans-historical study of a wide range of jokes will reveal that the incongruous structure by no means always sends us plummeting down from the lofty and divine to the corporeal and profane.
3. Formal Gelastics
We cannot engage in such a study here, but a brief survey of a few jokes, from vastly different times and places, may help us to illustrate the distinctions made so far. To this end, it will help to introduce a bit of formal-gelastical notation:
1. Let '!' signify the point in a joke at which the strained expectation finally snaps.
2. Let '⇓', '=>', and '⇑' signify the direction in the hierarchy of value in which one is hurled as a result of this snapping.
3. Finally, let '∫/' signify the superiority relation.
Let us consider the primate proto-joke with which we began. It seems it may be analysed as follows:
Edible !⇓ inedible
Thus, with respect to its formal structure, the chimpanzee's gesture counts as a joke because it contrasts two incongruous categories, sending us plummeting downward from the relatively lofty category of 'food' into the lowly category of useless, inedible stones. The superiority at work in the joke occurs at a different level, as a relation between the primatologist and the primate.
The headlines in the satirical newspaper The Onion are noteworthy for their condensation of the structure of the joke into the most succinct syntactic form possible. Consider:
Clinton Feels Nation’s Pain, Breasts.
It seems that here with respect to incongruity, we have something like:
Lofty sentiment !⇓ lecherous action,
while with respect to superiority, we have:
Satirical newspaper-∫ / conventional newspapers.
Often, the plunge downward is less clear, as in this classic Soviet 'Vovochka' joke:
Schoolteacher: Vovochka, why are you throwing spit-wads in class?
Vovochka: I’m a class enemy!
What we seem to have, with respect to incongruity, is something like this:
School prank (harmless) !⇓ political treason (serious),
while with respect to superiority, the exaltation of the adolescent antihero over establishment norms is clear:
Vovochka-∫ /class/teacher/political order.
Let us consider another Soviet joke, this time of the Jewish subvariety:
Census-taker: ‘Does Rabinovich live here?’
Rabinovich: ‘I dunno. You call this living?’
It seems that here what we have is motion from a less exalted notion of life to a more exalted one, as also an expression of the superiority of those who have remembered the more exalted notion over the soul-less bureaucrats who believe living just is habitation. Thus:
Living as habitation !⇑ Living as thriving
The irrascible soul-∫ /the soulless bureaucrat.
Or how about this joke from the ancient Greek joke book that has come to be called the Philogelos [Laughter Lover]:
Barber: How would you like your hair cut?
Customer: In silence!
Here what we have is a distinctly philosophical joke, one that trades on the plurivocity of that innocuous word 'how':
One meaning of ‘how’ !=> another meaning of ‘how’,
and also, of course, an amusing instance of a haughty fellow abusing someone of a lower social station:
What, now, of Kant's joke? How is it to be analysed? With respect to superiority, it is clear enough: we have both the superiority of the worldly Englishman over the naive Indian, as well, it seems, as the superiority of the reader over Kant himself, in view of Kant's miserable choice of jokes. But what about the incongruity? Is it simply this:
Foam expanding !⇓ Foam contracting ?
Is it, to speak in contemporary terms, that the Indian has grasped the thermodynamic character of the universe, and is picking out an apparent instance of its violation? If so, then might it not be the Indian who deserves to gloat in his superiority, and not the Englishman? I have no idea. I don't understand the joke, and surely would have been left sitting stone-faced and awkward in the Königsberg parlor where it once had the local sage in stitches.