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Some years ago I began propounding the theory that all humor is conservative. This thesis was prompted not just by the obvious humorlessness of the Politically Correct Left, but by a series of essays by liberal pundits asking why the Right was having all the fun and by the observation that all of the best comic novels and movies tended to serve conservative ends. It wasn't though until I started reading some of the philosophical writings on the topic of humor -- of which there are surprisingly few -- that I really started to take the idea seriously. What stands out in those writings , and seems to explain why there aren't more, is just how uncomfortable the authors are with where their investigations lead them. Simon Critchley's On Humour is a perfect example of how a rational consideration of humor tends to bring what are generally secular and Leftist thinkers into conflict with their own philosophies.

Mr. Critchley, adopting John Morreall's framework for the historical theories of humor -- which holds that there are basically three: superiority theory; relief theory; and incongruity theory -- explains them thus:
1. In the first theory, represented by Plato, Aristotle, Quintillian and, at the dawn of the modern era, Hobbes, we laugh from feelings of superiority over other people, from "sudaine Glory arising from some suddaine Conception of some Eminency in our selves, by Comparison with the Infirmityes of others, or with our owne formerly". [...]

2. The relief theory emerges in the nineteenth century in the work of Herbert Spencer, where laughter is explained as a release of pent-up nervous energy, but the theory is best known in the version given in Freud's 1905 book Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, where the energy that is relieved and discharged in laughter provides pleasure because it allegedly economizes upon energy that would ordinarily be used to contain or repress psychic activity. [...] 3. The incongruity theory can be traced to Francis Hutcheson's Reflections Upon Laughter from 1750, but is elaborated in related, but distinct, ways in Kant...Schopenhauer and Kirkegaard. As James Russell Lowell writes in 1870, "Humor in its first analysis is a perception of the incongruous". Humour is produced by the experience of a felt incongruity between what we know or expect to be the case, and what actually takes place in the joke, gag, jest or blague...
The "allegedly" in the definition of relief theory is fitting because it is the weakest of the three, never explained with any sufficiency that we need treat it seriously. However, you'll note that both the superiority theory -- with its core assumption that we do not consider ourselves all to be equal -- and the incongruity theory -- with its assumption that there is an underlying order to Creation and that we will recognize when it has been disordered -- are obviously objectionable to the Left with its faith in extreme egalitarianism and a world driven only by random material natural forces. With these as the only three theories that have gained any traction over the centuries, we can understand why humor has been largely ignored by philosopher.

Next Mr. Critchley describes the phenomenology of a joke:
[J]oking is a specific and meaningful practice that the audience and the joke-teller recognize as such. There is a tacit social contract at work here, namely some agreement about the social world in which we find ourselves as the implicit background to the joke. [...] So, in listening to a joke, I am presupposing a social world that is shared, the forms of which the practice of joke-telling is going to play with. Joking is a game that players only play successfully when they both understand and follow the rules.
When you consider the implication there, that joking requires a shared culture, it's easy to see why multiculturalists would likewise hope to ignore the subject of humor.

Despite all this, Mr. Critchley -- himself associated with continental philosophy and the traditions of existentialism, nihilism, deconstructionism, post-modernism, Marxism, psychoanalysis, etc. -- hopes to convince us that humor serves the purposes of the Left:
[I] want to claim that humour is not just comic relief, a transient corporeal affect induced by the raising and extinguishing of tension, of as little social consequence as masturbation, although slightly more acceptable to perform in public. I rather want to claim that what goes on in humour is a form of liberation or elevation that expresses something essential to what [Helmuth] Plessner calls "the humanity of the human". [...] [As a provisional outline of the thought I am after, let me turn to the character of Eddie Waters, the philosopher-comedian from Trevor Griffith's brilliant 1976 piece Comedians,

A real comedian -- that's a daring man. He dares to see what his listeners shy away from, fear to express. And what he sees is a sort of truth about people, about their situation, about what hurts or terrifies them, about what's hard, above all, about what they want. A joke releases the tension, says the unsayable, any joke pretty well. But a true joke, a comedian's joke, has to do more than release tension, it has to liberate the will and the desire, it has to change the situation. [...]

The incongruities of humour both speak out of a massive congruence between joke structure and social structure, and speak against those structures by showing that they have no necessity. The anti-rite of the joke shows the sheer contingency or arbitrariness of the social rites in which we engage.
Mr. Critchley risks slipping into incoherence here as he adopts the view that humor, on the one hand, requires for its background a set of shared social structures but that, on the other, it ought to dispose of same. Can it really be the purpose of humor to create a world in which nothing is funny? Is the end of comedy to end comedy?

Even Mr. Critchley realizes he's on thin ice here, prompting his confession that:
[I]t is important to recognize that not all humour is of this type, and most of the best jokes are fairly reactionary or, at best, simply serve to reinforce social consensus. [...]

More egregiously, much humor seeks to confirm the status quo either by denigrating a certain sector of society, as in sexist humour, or by laughing at the alleged stupidity of a social outsider.
Quite. Humor, in practice, exists not to shatter the social consensus but to reinforce it. From a Darwinian perspective this makes perfect sense. Humor is part of a perfect feedback loop, guaranteeing its own survival by fostering the environment in which it thrives.

He comes closer to the mark when he discusses "Laughter's Messianic Power" and acknowledges that:
[I] want to defend a two-fold claim: (i) that the tiny explosions of humour that we call jokes return us to a common, familiar world of shared practices, the background meanings implicit in a culture; and (ii) indicate how those practices might be transformed or perfected, how things might be otherwise. [...] My quibble [with the religious worldview] is the following: [it] invites us to look away from this world towards another in which, in Peter Berger's words, "the limitations of the human condition are miraculously overcome". Humour lets us view the folly of the world by affording us a glimpse of another world, by offering what Berger calls "a signal of transcendence". However, in my view, humour does not redeem us from this world, but returns us to it ineluctably by showing that there is no alternative. [...] [H]umour does not save us from that folly by turning our attention elsewhere...but calls on us to face the folly of the world and change the situation in which we find ourselves.
Well might we point out to Mr. Critchley that nothing more clearly defines the modern rationalist Left from the Right than the belief of the former that humankind is perfectable, was indeed at some distant point perfect before being corrupted by artificial social forces. Behind every murderous tyrant of the 19th and 20th centuries lay the idea that Man is plastic to be hammered into whatever perfect form whichever false prophet chose. Arrayed against this sort of nihilism masquerading as idealism have been the peoples of the Judeo-Christian West, who recognize, along with Eric Hoffer, that:
Free men are aware of the imperfection inherent in human affairs, and they are willing to fight and die for that which is not perfect. They know that basic human problems can have no final solutions, that our freedom, justice, equality, etc. are far from absolute, and that the good life is compounded of half measures, compromises, lesser evils, and gropings toward the perfect. The rejection of approximations and the insistence on absolutes are the manifestation of a nihilism that loathes freedom, tolerance, and equity.
Instructed by the Bible, we are comfortable with the fact that the human condition is indeed loaded with folly. What Mr. Critchley is demanding is that we reject that reality, indeed, reject Reality.

The futility of this rebellion is apparent not just on the utopian political front, where we could descend into pointless partisan argument, but on the physical plane. In discussing the unique duality that humans experience as animals with awareness of themselves as something more, Mr. Critchley notes that:
Humour functions by exploiting the gap between being a body and having a body, between -- let us say -- the physical and metaphysical aspects of being human. What makes us laugh, I would wager, is the return of the physical into the metaphysical, where the pretended tragical sublimity of the human collapses into a comic ridiculousness which is perhaps even more tragic.
Having conceded that to be human is to be comically ridiculous, to whatever degree, then how would one hope to escape the folly of the world? It is certainly not in our power to alter the very nature of human existence. Though that hasn't necessarily stopped folks from trying. Suffice it to say, it seems not too controversial to say that folks who can accept human nature are better adjusted and happier than those who can't. The latter consider life a tragedy. For the former it is, naturally, a comedy.

Another aspect of humor that Mr. Critchley treats honestly even though it undercuts his own wishes is the social cohesion function it serves. As he says:
Humour is a form of cultural insider-knowledge, and might, indeed, be said to function like a linguistic defence mechanism. Its ostensive untranslatability endows native speakers with a palpable sense of their cultural distinctiveness or even superiority. In this sense, having a common sense of humour is like sharing a secret code. [...] We wear our cultural distinctiveness like an insulation layer against the surrounding alien environment.
Now, Mr. Critchley, as you can imagine, objects to the exclusivity and ostracism that must follow from such a function. However, a key consideration here has to be that Western Civilization, or Christendom, is/was a distinct but universal culture. Today some 2 billion people share the inside knowledge that is Christianity and the rest are welcome to access it. Meanwhile, Judaism and Islam are sufficiently similar that they partake of much of that knowledge, especially as regards the fundamentals of Creation and Man's nature. We need not even get down to the question of whether that knowledge is "true" in order to recognize that its non-exclusive quality makes it radically different than the sorts of nationalist/racial cliquishness that Mr. Critchley rightly frets about in regard to ethnic jokes and the like. Consider the degree to which the prior admissions about reality conform to the Biblical worldview and it becomes apparent that humor is rather easily translatable, though some may choose to reject the translation as they reject the reality. [...]
sensus communis, or sociableness. That is to say that a shared sense of humor enables us to communicate socially and underlies our willingness to extend liberty to one another. If this is the case, and if we were right before when we determined that humor depends on a shared culture, then mustn't we also conclude that the sort of universal sociability and liberty that Mr. Critchley presumably would value as much as anyone on the Right, depends on adherence to one universal culture rather than to acceptance of multiculturalism. In fact, mustn't we inevitably conclude that multiculturalism is not only fatal to humor but to sociability and liberty?

Mr. Critchley's book represents a fine introduction to the study of humor and the author is honest enough to acknowledge that he wishes comedy functioned in some way other than pretty nearly every philosopher who's studied it has been forced to conclude it does. But his pious -- or rather, PC -- wish can not make it so.


Grade: (B)



See also:

Simon Critchley Links:

    -Simon Critchley, Professor    -Simon Critchley (University of Essex)
    -Simon Critchley (Wikipedia)
    -EXCERPT: Did you hear the one about the philosopher writing a book on humour? (Simon Critchley, On Humour)
    -ESSAY: Crypto-Schmittianism (Simon Critchley) (PDF)
    -ESSAY: Derrida's Influence on Philosophy and My Work (Simon Critchley, Naked Punch)
    -ESSAY: Black Socrates?: Questioning the philosophical tradition (Simon Critchley, January/February 1995, Radical Philosophy)
    -ESSAY: Philosophy in Germany (Simon Critchley and Axel Honneth, May/June 1998, Radical Philosophy)
    -ESSAY: Demanding Approval: On The Ethics of Alain Badiou (Simon Critchley, Maqy/June 2000, Radical Philosophy)
    -REPLY: Ethics Without Others: reply to Critchley on Badiou's Ethics (Peter Hallward, Radical Philosophy)
    -LECTURE: The Problem of Hegemony (Simon Critchley, Albert Schweitzer Series on Ethics and Politics, spring of 2004, New York University)
    -OBITUARY: Dominique Janicaud, 1937-2002 (Simon Critchley, January/February 2003, Radical Philosophy)
    -OBITUARY: Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995) (Simon Critchley, July/August 1996, Radical Philosophy)
    -ARCHIVES: "simon critchley" (Find Articles)
    -INTERVIEW: Interview: Simon Critchley: Philosopher and author of On Humour (Shirley Dent, December 2002, Culture Wars)
    -INTERVIEW: Simon Critchley: “THE POINT IS NOT TO ABANDON REASON, BUT TO FACE UP TO WHAT REASON HAS BECOME FOR US.â€� (Jill Stauffer, August 2003, The Believer)
    -INTERVIEW: with Simon Critchley (Tom McCarthy, Necronautical Society)
    -INTERVIEW: with Simon Critchley (Mark Thwaite, Ready Steady Book)
    -REVIEW: of On Humour by Simon Critchley (Katarzyna Murawska-Muthesius, Culture Machine)
    -REVIEW: of things merely are: Philosophy in the Poetry of Wallace Stevens by Simon Critchley (Gerald L. Bruns, Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews)

Book-related and General Links:

    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: Humor: Ted Cohen, Professor in Philosophy, the College, the Committee on Art and Design, and the Committee on General Studies in the Humanities, University of Chicago (Philosophy Talk, March 30, 2004, San Francisco's KALW)
    -ESSAY: Tears of Laughter (Christopher Turner, Spring 2005, Cabinet)
    -ESSAY: Humour and the Human: the animal-human interface in the novels of Will Self (Charles Jason Lee, Lancaster University)
    -ESSAY: Where Can The Others Meet?: Gender, Race and Film Comedy (Mark Richardson, Senses of Cinema)