Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Humor and Laughter, Science and Satire

While the philosophers we read for our last class focused primarily on humor, on the question of why we find some events funny, the scientists read for today's seminar are also concerned with why we laugh at funny things. Incongruity theory and superiority theory make their requisite appearances, but with the advent of the scientific method and psychology, humor is dissected almost as if it were a corpse.

Descartes describes the different varieties of blood produced by the spleen, one thick and bringing about sadness, the other thin and bringing about joy. Spencer calls previous philosophical theories of laughter “generalization[s] of certain conditions to laughter; and not an explanation of the odd movements which occur under these conditions” (Spencer 99). Spencer even has an explanation for why laughter—and not another bodily function, such as yawning—is our human reaction to released tension, explaining that “the smaller muscles will be moved more readily than the larger” (105). Finally, Freud explores humor's relationship to the id, the ego, and the superego. Freud's psychology, understood by him as a science, is still philosophically relevant and often helpful for literary studies, but didn't withstand the tests of the scientific method over the past century. However, Freud, like the others, relies on some form of release theory.

Voltaire's Candide is related tangentially to these semi-scientific discussions of humor. Descartes' Article 181, “Of the function of laughter in ridicule,” reads like a manual for Voltaire's satiric style: “when we ourselves jest, it is more fitting to abstain from laughter, in order not to seem to be surprised by the things that are said, nor to wonder at the ingenuity we show in inventing them” (Descartes 25). Voltaire doesn't write with punch lines and laugh-out-loud moments; his satire (a precursor to Hau'ofa's) is fairly straightforward, and, at least for me, sometimes needs a second read to convey the depth of its joke.

Perhaps the real humor in Candide comes from the forceful attack of human society—not only religion (which we have already seen in Hau'ofa), but also philosophy and science. As Pangloss attempts to explain the earthquake in Lisbon, he uses philosophy as well as science, chastising the sailor's abuse of reason through his hedonism. In a few paragraphs, Voltaire summarizes the various responses to tragedy—religious explanations, philosophic and scientific explanations, as well as drunken avoidance of reality—and the sailor seems the most sane of any! Voltaire has no time for philosophy or science, only gardens.

Speaking of science, in our last class, we discussed various scientific explanations for laughter. These range from the therapeutic to the evolutionary. The Mayo Clinic website claims that laughter brings relief from stress by increasing oxygen intake (which stimulates endorphins), as well as increasing heart rate and blood pressure (apparently those are good things to increase). In the long-term, laughter increases positive thoughts, which release “neuropeptides” that ward off stress and illness. Within the academy, the MIT Technology Review connects the evolutionary origins of laughter to those of blushing. The theory goes that blushing is the body's disposal method for excess blood that builds up in stressful situations. And laughing? “The channeling of excess cortical excitations to parts of the brain responsible for vocalisation.” Much like blushing, “the social significance of this behaviour is the thing that has evolved, not the activity itself.” Perhaps most interesting here is that modern science seems to be confirming release theory! Spencer puts it most simply: “a large portion of the nervous system was in a state of tension” (Spencer 106f.).

I'm not sure if this makes me want to praise evolutionary theory (as an explanation for every possible human behavior) or if it makes me skeptical. Are these scientists simply descendants of Spencer's pseduo-science, or are they vindicating Spencer's physiological speculations? Just as we laughed at Descartes' description of thick and thin blood, or Spencer's notion of “liberated nerve force,” a century or two from now readers will find humor in our current conceptions of human physiology or in our poor understandings of the human mind, laughing at them just as much as we chuckle at Pangloss' remark that the Lisbon earthquake was caused by a train of sulphur in the earth. The mystery of humor will be taught to seventh grade STEM students in a few diagrams of brain neurons, and late-night comedy will eventually outsourced to another nation's better-educated and lower-paid labor force.

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