Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Operating Table Axiom

Is our need for release a product of our physiology, unconscious psychology, or emotional passions? When reading the arguments by Spencer, Freud and Descartes, I was reminded of one of my sister’s most well-loved axioms about humor: When you put a joke on the operating table, it dies. In other words, when one overanalyzes anything comedic, it will always cease to be funny. It may have been the ‘operating table’ image that called this phrase to mind when I was reading—to me, the thinkers all presented their arguments about laughter in a basely cold and clinical fashion. These analytical essays reinforced the fact that their authors became famous by inspiring not laughter, but thought. Although I found certain ideas of theirs interesting, I ultimately could not help but wonder: if laugher truly is a product of relief or release, how useful is it to subject the process to so much scrutiny?  For something intended to release mental strain, why strain mentally to understand it? 

            In the fourth grade classroom at Govans Elementary where I am a teacher’s aide, the teacher, Mr. Pugh, is a firm believer in allowing his distraction-prone, fidgety students some outlet for release.  One of his new strategies is the reward cup for good behavior.  His rewards are unconventional for the academic setting, including such prizes as standing on chairs and throwing balled-up papers at the teacher for brief 30-second spans of time.  It is pell-mell chaos in that classroom during reward time; the bursts of laughter can likely be heard from a considerable distance down the school halls.  The children’s laughter is clearly meshed with joy and wonderment at their momentary liberation.  It doesn’t seem like scorn and derision are clear motivators—sorry, Descartes—but gratification of our unconscious ‘pleasure principle’ and post-suppression muscle convulsions both seem plausible. 

            The explanation Mr. Pugh gave me of his holistic teaching methodology seems most consistent with Spencer’s theory about laughter and physiology.  Mr. Pugh incorporates energy release into the routine of his students at most every opportunity, knowing the enormous impact of these small allowances on quelling potential fistfights and emotional breakdowns. Spencer maintains that unlike with other motion prompted by a feeling, “movements of the chest and limbs we make when laughing have no object” (104).  But for children, particularly restless ones, the energy release driven by this movement is the object.  Is this so different for adults?  My own body definitely gives me a positive physiological response every time I laugh with genuine feeling, but as Spencer suggests, this may be a product of venting mental energy rather than physical.  

            Ultimately, it still seems superfluous to me to examine in such exacting detail the general process of why we laugh.  True laughter is a good thing, good for us mentally and physically.  I take this as a given, and do not feel that my concept of laughter has benefitted by any of the exhaustive explanations advanced by Spencer, Freud and Descartes.  To me, it seems much more practical to focus on discovering what kinds of humor best promote laughter in the interest of laughing as much as possible.  Maybe some things are not to be questioned, but appreciated at face value. (Clearly I am no philosopher.)  The gratification that comes from laughter seems like something to be cherished rather than put on the operating table for an examination. Leave the procedural stuff to the trained professionals. I just want to laugh! 

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