Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Dance of the Dialectic: Humor of Contradictions

Much of the blog discussion thus far has centered on the topic of justice: that we must use humor to incite society to question its choices and policies, and ultimately, do something about them. Many satirical books, movies, and plays cause audiences to laugh, yet audiences then need to consider why they are laughing. In reading thinkers such as Plato, Hobbes and Kant along with writers Mark Twain and Woody Allen, I found it important to look for a common theme. True to the nature of humor itself, the common presence was that of contradictions.

Though Plato considers laughter as “something to be avoided,” he raises the notion that comedy causes “a mixture of pain and pleasure” in his dialogue between Socrates and Protarchus (Plato 10). The feeling of experiencing pain and pleasure at once certainly provokes examination. In the argument, Socrates brings up a distinction introduced in class: that he who is powerful and ignorant is laughed at (a target) because he can defend himself, and may more accurately be considered with contempt, but when the weak become targets, those who laugh are malicious. Hobbes too, views humans as taking part in a constant power struggle. He believes, in essence, that “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” (Hobbes 20). We can conclude that this laughter sparks examination of the self and others, depending on the targets of the jokes.

Yet what examination exactly does humor make us experience? About what does it make us think? Kant discusses the positive aspects of humor and says that this version involves “the talent of being able voluntarily to put oneself into a certain mental disposition, in which everything is judged quite differently from the ordinary method (reversed, in fact), and yet in accordance with certain rational principles in such a frame of mind” (Kant 50). Here, Kant illustrates the notion that humor helps one judge and examine the subject matter in an often counter-intuitive, but still rationally accurate manner. The ability to think in such a way is essential to change, because it is only in this state of mind that we can address absurdities and the aforementioned inevitable power struggles. It also invites the rhetoric needed to discuss such serious questions as raised in calls to action such as King’s Letter and Kolvenbach’s work: “we can no longer pretend that the inequalities and injustices of our world must be borne as part of the inevitable order of things” (Kolvenbach 32). Justice is, then, a project that emanates from rhetoric.

But how are we invited into these frames of mind? How do writers and thinkers use rhetoric to invite us into these conversations? The common theme was present in the reading assignment as a whole, as well as in the specific readings: contradiction. Both Twain and Kierkegaard assert that humor is the product of contradictions. Twain makes a distinction between the comic and the humorous, and argues that in comic stories, the punch-lines are shouted, insulting the audience and making one “want to renounce joking and lead a better life” (Twain 240). Kierkegaard too asserts that this effort in trying to emphasize the pathetic achieves nothing. Yet both artists explain that a grave manner is important for presentation. Twain says that the teller must artfully simulate a position in which he is “innocently unaware that they [incongruities as subject matter] are absurdities,” and Kierkegaard speaks of the dialectic relationship that sparks laughter by its nature (Twain 241).

Ultimately, humor can be used effectively to undermine power, to trample on the powerless, or to open the readers’ eyes to injustices, and hopefully spark action. At its most basic, the heart of humor is in contradictions. Thus, we can search for these contradictions—or “absurdities,” as a few of the philosophers have termed them—in our society and ask ourselves why we laugh at them. Then perhaps the humor can be useful.

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