Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Schadenfreude and Contradictions: The Ridiculous

The articles by Plato, Hobbes, Kant, and Kierkegaard take a look at different “theories” of humor. While Plato and Hobbes focus on what is referred to as the “Superiority Theory,” Kant and Kierkegaard explore the “Incongruity Theory.” All take a look at what is comical versus what is not found funny. I found it especially interesting to look at not only the differences in views of humor across nations and centuries but also the striking similarities in how humor was and is viewed.

Plato and Hobbes seem to define humor as a sort of arrogance or superiority of the person from whom laughter or amusement comes. They specifically describe humor as what the German’s call “schadenfreude,” something for which we have no word in English. Both Plato and Hobbes seem to think that many find pleasure at the misfortune of others. Plato describes humor as something that causes both “pain and pleasure,” going on to describe in a very roundabout way how this is so. He explains that humor lies in the ridiculous, which often exists in the misfortune of others. It is malicious to find happiness in another’s misfortune, he establishes, but many are ignorant of themselves or their actions, which in itself is amusing. He uses a confusing conglomeration of ideas to tie together the point that humor incites both pleasure and pain, concluding that the ridiculous gives us pleasure, but this can be malicious therefore causing us pain. Hobbes also views humor as something slightly malicious because, he says, it comes from an idea that we are better than others. He seems to view laughter as a largely selfish activity. He also uses examples of what might be called schadenfreude, noting that laughter occurs when we believe ourselves to be above the target. I think that the idea of a slightly malicious humor through schadenfreude is accurate for any time period. This can extend from slapstick humor to an “I’m-glad-I’m-not-you” complex. Either way, there is some sort of twisted pleasure that arises from other’s pain. We often feel this toward the target of a joke—a delight in being on the other side of it.

Kant and Kierkegaard both take a different tack. Both examine the “Incongruity Theory” of humor, describing humor as a delight in opposites or deception. Immanuel Kant looks at humor as a part of biological health, believing that comic relief stimulates the intestines. He defines humor as a built up expectation that results in nothing. Laughter, first of all, results from absurdity. Second of all, it comes from an activation of expectations that, when released, is built up for nothing. This is the act of enjoying a lighthearted situation because it is not as threatening or dire as it may first seem. The punch line of a joke releases curiosity and tension from that. Søren Kierkegaard defines humor as a delight in contradictions. He gives many examples of this. Contradictions to everyday life or the expected are, in fact, quite amusing. I find sarcasm, satire, and witty opposite to be highly entertaining, and I believe I am right in saying that many share this amusement with me. Sarcasm, a great form of contradiction, saturates American culture today. This is definitely something that has made its way across nations and centuries.

All four writers look to the ridiculous when discussing humor. Perhaps we are amused by the ridiculous when we see our neighbor’s misfortune. Contradictions are more obviously ridiculous, as is the build up of an expectation that will result in nothing. Any definition of humor in some way relates to the ridiculous. Look at clowns. Look at South Park. Look at Stephen Colbert. Perhaps ridiculousness is the umbrella under which all humor falls.

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