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The Human Condition

Laughter is a Time Machine

Mark Weeks sees the funny side of suspended animation.

In the film The Bucket List, two terminally ill men work on a list of the experiences they’d like to have before they kick the bucket. One of the things they come up with is to have a really good laugh: laughing to the point of tears; a laughter that lets go of everything. Most of us can relate to that: there’s something special, other-worldly about an unrestrained mind-shaking laugh. The weird thing is that if you read through the academic literature on laughter or humour – and there’s quite a lot of it – you get almost no sense at all of why laughter can be such an intense and transforming event. Some of the serious literature on the subject misses the point to such an extent that it’s, well, laughable. This makes humour one of those areas where philosophy can prove its worth beyond doubt. In fact, you could argue – and I’m going to – that there’s a deep reciprocal relationship to be explored here: philosophy takes you to the core of laughter; and laughter takes you to the core of philosophy.

In our attempts to go deeper into laughter we’ve tended to look for dark unconscious motives, from Hobbes claiming that all laughter contains a sense of superiority, to the Freudian notion that there is some naughty content concealed beneath all jokes. The genius of Freud’s tack is that being concealed in the unconscious mind, the motive is beyond access to all but the most sophisticated psycho-detective, in which case, if you don’t accept that it’s there, you’re naïve – a kind of ‘emperor’s new clothes’ logic. But does hidden spite or broken taboo account for a desire for the big joyful laugh? No. Intuitively, they just don’t work: the laughter experience The Bucket List talks about is less like self-assertion or social transgression than self-abandonment. Laughter can be used for ridicule or licensing transgression, but it doesn’t need to be, and quite often, it’s not.

You can try a different perspective, of course: laughter is valuable because it’s good for you. All kinds of evidence about chemicals being activated in the brain to relieve stress and boost your immune system support this line. But again, it doesn’t make much sense of the case at hand. The two men in The Bucket List are terminally ill: as dead men walking, their interest in health benefits is marginal at best. The ‘laughter is the best medicine’ line has been overworked in the past decade or two because we live in cultures where philosophical, political and even social thinking have been subordinated to therapy – to the culture of positive thinking and endless self-help.

To be fair, the obsession with the health benefits of laughing is hardly evil. Neither has this obsession been the vice of many serious scholars who have devoted their academic lives to the study of humour. A common line, particularly among those working in the social sciences, is that humour and laughter are used to create solidarity and peacefully negotiate differences, thus maintaining a certain degree of harmony within groups and across cultures. Again, there is a lot in this, but it tends to focus on the content of everyday joke-telling and on ‘polite laughter’, which is usually milder and sometimes consciously manipulated – a little forced. In other words, the social theory doesn’t tell us about why laughter can be such an extraordinarily joyful event; nor does it credibly explain why we can have this joyful experience even by ourselves. Solitary laughter has been a consistent bugbear of attempts to universalize social theories of laughing.

Without dismissing a certain value in each of these approaches, let’s set off in a different direction – to a different dimension, really – with an apparently innocuous observation attributed to American comedian Milton Berle: “Laughter,” he said, “is an instant vacation.” It’s an apparently offhand remark, but it takes some digesting. What he’s implying is that when we come out of the laugh, we sense somehow that we’ve been away, and we feel better for it. This is something we intuit, but perhaps don’t quite know how to articulate. Unfortunately, we don’t have a good shared vocabulary for dealing with this weird experience. But if we ponder the idea a little it raises a fascinating question, one that philosophy might be in the best position to address – namely, if we’ve been on vacation, where did we go? Clearly Uncle Milty isn’t talking about three days lying on the beach in Ko Samui. We didn’t go anywhere in space, nor even anywhere in our imagination. It’s more like we went somewhere in time, or rather outside it. Laughter is the sound of a hole being torn in the fabric of time. In no time at all, we’re in no time at all. This is what makes a good laugh such a brilliantly distinct and somewhat inexplicable event.

Time Out

That there is something like a mental ‘time out’ in laughter has been remarked by various scholars recently, but it was actually noticed by Immanuel Kant over two centuries ago. It had been noted even before then that incongruity, a sudden strange collision of concepts or of contexts, seemed to be present in all humour. Even now, this is one of the few points in theories of humour that is largely agreed upon, the main point of contention being that while we seem to need a perception of incongruity to generate humour, incongruity alone won’t guarantee a humorous effect, and can generate a variety of other effects such as shock, disgust, disappointment or revelation. So incongruity appears to be a necessary but not a sufficient condition of sincere laughter. And interesting though this debate is, it has distracted us from the key part of Kant’s theory of humour: the temporal aspect, present in Kant’s most quoted line about humour: “Laughter is an affection arising from a strained expectation being suddenly reduced to nothing.” (The Critique of Judgement, 1790.) Confronted with an incongruity more or less out of the blue, our thought processes are derailed, and we laugh to get them back on track. But look at the temporal aspect: it is our expectation that comes to nothing. In other words, our mind is pushing into the future, as it tends to do, with an idea of what’s coming up – and then bang, the train of thought is gone. It’s not just straightforward meaning we lose at the moment we burst into laughter, but the normal temporal movement of our consciousness. We’ve been tricked out of our common mode of being in time. This is why one of the other apparent prerequisites for producing laughter is so-called ‘comic timing.’ The temporal conditions have to be engineered to their own self-destruction; a very subtle process. Some people have that sense of comic timing, some people don’t. In fact, as I’ve learnt from tragi-comic experience as a teacher, the same person can have it sometimes, and at other times it’s gone. I’ll make exactly the same crack that got a huge laugh this morning, but now my timing’s off. No laughter, just a pregnant pause where the laughter was supposed to be. We didn’t get out of time – now we’re left there with time weighing upon us like a giant anvil, me way out there in front, mastermind of an academic disaster.

The temporal dimension is also why the risqué is a favoured material for jokes. The prospect of rude content raises the sense of expectancy Kant was talking about. Moreover, something shocking in the punch line is one way to get the sense of incongruity suddenly: the socially inappropriate, since it’s something we’ve strongly internalized, is quickly perceived as incongruous. The sudden ejaculation of laughter also prevents the joke ‘going too far’ – as a boundary experience, laughter gives us a certain comic licence. We can say things in jest precisely because laughter funnels the steam out of the dangerous train of thought.

Animal Satisfactions

As far as real joy from laughter is concerned, the content of the humour – the meaning – is less important than the temporal effect – the vacation. Any meaning we take away is often little more than a souvenir of the vacation. That sudden, ephemeral dropping out of time is no small thing: our sense of time is one of the key elements that distinguishes us from other aware creatures. We are separated from other creatures by our peculiar sense of past, present and future, which gives us a uniquely enduring sense of self. The pertinent point, as Arthur Schopenhauer pointed out in the nineteenth century, is that this supposedly distinguishing feature of human experience is momentarily sacrificed in laughter. The upside of this, he remarked, is that in that little time-out, we are temporarily freed from our usual human cares – our fears for the future, the mental baggage we carry from the past. So along with Schopenhauer, we can see the reason that laughter achieves its stress-reducing function, and start to understand the special value we accord the experience of laughing with abandon. The causes of our anxieties and psychic wounds may still be there, but as long as we’re outside of our normal experience of time and personal identity, we’re divorced from them. We lose ourselves in laughter, but we gain an enormous freedom. The downside, as far as Schopenhauer was concerned, was that this experience gives us an “animal satisfaction” that is just too easy: being available at any time and any place, this relief from normal human experience is an insult to human nobility, a humiliating regression. Perhaps you’re thinking that seems like an old-fashioned, strait-laced way of thinking – very nineteenth century. True. Still, Schopenhauer was in a sense a very modern thinker. He was no rosy optimist, but he believed that humans were destined – or rather doomed – to an endless striving: a typically modern way of thinking.

As it happens, as we turned into the twentieth century, Henri Bergson, who was regarded as a great philosopher of time, believed that we humans are engaged in a fantastic spiritual process of evolution, and he had a problem with laughter’s little time-out for precisely that reason. Humanity, he claimed to a big popular ovation, is like a wave, accumulating energy from the past in the present in order to hurl itself into a brilliant future. But laughter doesn’t fit. Laughter releases the tension that held past, present and future together in the consciousness of duration (durée) which defines the human psyche. Thus laughter dissipates the psychic energy that holds human time together and pushes it forward. Laughter is in that sense ‘pessimistic’, by which Bergson meant it wasn’t optimistic enough, since it dissipates our restless straining towards the future, letting us fall into the mere animal satisfaction Schopenhauer talked about, which Bergson called ‘unconscious torpor’. But everything in Bergson’s dream of spiritual evolution had to have a purpose, and so he wrote a book trying to fathom how the ‘evil’ of laughter might serve the cosmic human project. Actually, it’s been noted that Le Rire (Laughter, 1911) doesn’t say much about laughter, and a close reading of the book shows he really doesn’t much care for it. His thesis is that laughter is used by society to chastise the behaviour of those not thinking right – those who instead of tensing and pushing themselves into the future, let themselves “slacken in the attention that is due to life” and fall into the mere present.

By making laughter essentially a message to others, Bergson gave it a purpose that pulled it back into time. Yet once again, this theory implies the false idea that we never laugh alone.

Defying Gravity

Around that time Einstein was working on his own theories of space and time. One upshot of them was that when we look at the really big picture, we see we aren’t going anywhere.

At the beginning of one of his funniest films, Annie Hall, Woody Allen has a character resembling himself as a boy being taken to see a doctor by his mother because he’s stopped doing his homework. The boy, Alvy, explains that the universe is expanding and that it will eventually explode, in which case there’s really no point in doing homework, or anything for that matter. Allen comes back to this cosmic existential perspective throughout his films. It’s very possible (Bergson and certain motivational speakers notwithstanding) that any notions of ultimate human progress are nothing more than delusions, employed to cover the embarrassing absurdity of our apparently moving through time without knowing a destination. A sense of destiny or purpose regulates society, getting us all to do our homework in the face of cosmic existential meaninglessness. And on the whole, most of us are content, or resigned, to go along with this, despite the repetition and drudgery, and yes, the waste of time – because the potentially awful, or at least bewildering, philosophical implications of Einstein’s discoveries don’t bear too much thinking about.

But what if, like Alvy, you do think about them? What then? Doctor Flicker’s answer was, “The Universe won’t be expanding for billions of years yet, Alvy. We’ve got to try to enjoy ourselves while we’re here, uh? Uh? Ha ha ha ha ha ha!” The doctor, dragging on a cigarette, then coughs, reminding us of his impending death, and ours. The point, both serious and funny, is that even though the end of the universe isn’t going to affect us personally, we’re all facing the end of our own little universes sooner or later, and as time unwinds that end inexorably looms closer. Still, Doctor Flicker’s advice is what Woody Allen seems to have opted for in the long run, and consistently offered up in his movies as he provokes and urges us to laugh. Monty Python covered similar philosophical territory, especially in The Life of Brian and The Meaning of Life.

My point here is that it’s a mistake to see laughter as nothing more than a kind of distraction, a light relief from the stress of life. There is a reason why laughter rears its grinning head at the crucial moments in which we contemplate our inevitable bucket-kicking. The existential dilemma of our inevitable deaths is caused by the way we experience time, as flowing towards the future; and laughter, by puncturing that temporality, can be a profound bodily response to the problem.

The spectacular lightness we feel when we’ve really laughed comes from having the heavy burden of time lifted from our shoulders. Schopenhauer noticed this, but as a modern European he had difficulty viewing this phenomenon as anything more than ephemeral and insignificant. Still, we don’t need to hold with Schopenhauer. I think we post-Freudians can more easily accept that the slack, easily-satisfied side of our being is no more animal and no less important than the ambitiously-driven side. Even if it were, it’s not going to go away. Moreover, laughter’s momentary time-out is not entirely ephemeral: it leaves a trace, maybe for a few minutes or an hour or two, but in some cases the memory can remain for years. If, like Milton Berle, we intuit that we have been ‘away’, we sense that there is an outside beyond our everyday sense of past, present and future tenses as conceived through our experience of duration. So laughter is not just a time-out – it’s a portal into a side of being that we’ve been learning to suppress since childhood. That awareness, however vague and unarticulated, becomes part of our being.

Conscious Torpor

The important thing, I suppose, is to understand that when we drop out of time in laughter, it’s not time away from our real life. Quite the opposite: it’s a return to contact with an ever-present reality of our being, in the same way that three days lying on the beach in Ko Samui might bring us back to the reality of our being as animals, outside of purpose, work, striving. Let me explain, in conclusion, why I think this is important in our present location in space-time.

I grew up in a later generation to Woody Allen, and my mother almost never hassled me about doing my homework; but she did repeat an all-too-familiar line whenever she saw me in the living room flopped down in a bean bag staring at the ceiling: “I don’t care what you do, but do something!” I love my mother, and I’m learning things from her even now; but I’d go so far as to say that this kind of thinking is a prime cause of many of the problems we humans have created for ourselves and other life. Whether it’s Thomas Edison boasting that electric lights would encourage people to sleep less and do more, or Jean-Paul Sartre telling us that we are what we do, or Nike telling us to Just Do It – all these activists have contributed to the absurd hyperactivity that has evolved as definitive of modern culture. First there was the idea of progress – good in itself when allied with moderation and restraint. Then there was the imperative of productivity – doing more in less time – which spread from work into all aspects of our lives. Now there is the tragic attempt to escape all the pressure by losing ourselves utterly in speed and hyperactivity – “accelerating in a void,” as the cultural philosopher Jean Baudrillard put it. The fact is, we could use a little more conscious torpor.

It’s been said, by Sartre among others, that this senseless acceleration is a reaction (or overreaction) to our fear of death. If that’s true, since laughter takes us back to an atemporal part of our being for whom the future and so death doesn’t exist, it can clearly do much more than let us ridicule, tell dirty jokes, cover embarrassment, or relieve a little stress. We all get our share of tragedies, but laughter allows us to look boldly, philosophically, at the big picture. Permitting us to dart in and out of time at any time, laughter allows us to face up to death. Laughter is a little death itself, from which we can revive a sense of wonder at just being alive, and see that since we can’t stop moving but don’t know where we’re going, there is a basic incongruity that renders everything human funny – me, you, even Milton Berle.

© Mark Weeks 2010

Mark Weeks is a Professor at Kyushu University in Japan.

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