Wednesday, January 20, 2010

If Plato's asking the question, LOL is NOT the answer.

Reading these excerpts actually forced me to consider the fact that there are, or were, some who consider laughter and humor less than desirable. The stark contrast between the excerpts from Plato and Hobbes and Kant and Kierkegaard seemed to leave much room for a blatantly empty middle ground.

Most all of these readings caused me to reflect on our last discussion concerning uncomfortable/inappropriate laughter. Plato's belief that "amusement is an emotion in which we tend to lose rational control of ourselves," especially struck me as true: laughing uncomfortably, or inappropriately, can feel wrong and what’s more, it does in fact seem to happen involuntarily. The suddenness of that laughter is what makes it so uncomfortable: as we said in class, we laughed at Hau'foa's description of a man beating his wife and then just as suddenly stopped to ask ourselves why we could ever find such a thing funny. However, to counter Plato’s argument, I would say that being intoxicated with laughter is the least of our worries and is so far from dangerous it’s… well, laughable. Couldn’t we make the case that anger is even more intoxicating and certainly more dangerous than laughter? What about grief? Depression? I don’t know about you, but I have yet to hear of someone robbing a bank because his sense of humor made him so irrational.

For me, Kierkegaard’s argument that “it is… precisely quite as dubious to be pathetic and serious in the wrong place, as it is to laugh in the wrong place,” not only makes perfect sense, but also speaks to the fact that humor, like so many other things, requires a balance. Not everything we see, hear, or experience is humorous, but laughter does balance out the crushing weight of seriousness (especially 21st century seriousness). Laughter is a release, a temporary exemption from all the lengthy, unfunny rationality Plato clearly wants us to suffer through. And while I don’t know whether I totally agree with Kant’s explanation of laughter’s physical effects on the body (organs flipping, really?), I genuinely agree with his argument that laughter quite simply makes a person feel good. Laughter can so often feel like involuntary, but necessary, exercise for the soul. It’s renewing, in a way, because that “strained expectation,” which transforms to nothing, relieves us of the need to analyze, contemplate, etc. We can just laugh, without thought or hesitation, without formulas, or questions and long, complicated answers. For that reason, it seems “it is no more immoral to laugh than it is immoral to weep.”

Hobbes, like Plato, clearly supports the Superiority Theory of humor, but his argument, even more so than Plato’s, left me feeling hollow. Literally. To say that laughter is “nothing else but sudden glory arising from some sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with others…” is to seriously and terribly undermine the compassionate side of human nature. I certainly don’t claim any extensive insight on the full explanation of human nature; I simply have faith in people and their morals (for the most part). Laughter can be jeering, yes. Harsh, certainly. Ill-timed, absolutely. I just do not see it, however, as the product of constant selfishness and inflated egos. Laughter never registers as something akin to an attack on another person. If it did, the motives of every friend I have would require questioning. I do understand Hobbes’ point that “men take heinously to be laughed at…” but, and this is more a musing question than a statement, aren’t the things people laugh at us for usually petty? Insignificant in the grand scheme of things? Idiosyncrasies we ourselves find humorous at times? The point is: we all do stupid things, silly things, things that, as Kierkegaard implies, contradict our usual selves. In those cases, the people laughing “at” you actually do have something to laugh about. That’s not malice or vice, and it doesn’t mean that someone triumphed over someone else (the word “triumph” seems a little strong, right?) It simply means that humor was present in the moment and caught someone’s attention.

Overall, I feel that Kant’s and Kierkegaard’s arguments are closest to my own feelings about humor and its purpose. I found, while reading, that Plato and Hobbes, in condemning laughter, condemned the emotional responses of human beings in general. Rationality and laughter can be balanced: it's all about time and place and, of course, whether or not the joke was funny. Both Plato and Hobbes would have done well to consider that.

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