Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Vulnerability over Superiority

If Plato, Kierkegaard, Hobbes and Kant were to enter into a dialogue with one another about humor, it seems unlikely that much laughter would ensue.  The humor theories of these four thinkers range from the fundamentally similar—the ideas of Plato and Hobbes both rest on the laurels of superiority theory—to the radically different—Kierkegaard’s idea of the comic as an anticipated, and thus painless, contradiction directly contrasts Kant’s idea of humor as a consequence of our simplified expectations being thwarted absolutely.  In the grand scope of all things humorous, all the thinkers seem emphatically singular in their definitions; they all seem to describe a very specific mental movement as though it is only means of evoking laughter and gratification.

To me, such staunch singularity on a subject as clearly multifaceted as humor is in itself laughable, but all the theories contain useful insights.  Kant’s idea that the absurd and unexpected evokes the liveliest, most convulsive laughter spoke the most directly to my own sense of humor.  I find that my most organic laughter comes during instances of extreme ridiculousness that occur in everyday life, like seeing the same person an uncanny number of times in a day completely by chance. Call me a blind optimist, but I’m not convinced that all humor rests on the foundation of being at another’s expense.  Plato and Hobbes seem unduly jaded in this respect.

The broad scope demanded by Kolvenbach to promote justice is relevant to the discussion of humor. The well-educated solidarity that he describes may be applied to our own conceptualization of what may rightly be called comic. It may be argued that humor is an inherently social phenomenon born from interplay of action and exchange of dialogue. How then can one expect to gain a working definition of humor by way of concepts rather than contact?  Concepts can only teach you so much. Engagement in the world in the way that Kolvenbach discusses is similar to humorous engagement outside the superiority model—both demand vulnerability in order to be effective. When we open ourselves to the ever-present possibility of laughter, just as when we serve, we are putting ourselves in a vulnerable position of not knowing what to expect. I would argue that adopting this attitude toward humor and service promotes experience that is ultimately the most gratifying and least singular. 

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