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Some scholars call the stimulus in humor (what is found funny) the "holy grail of humor studies." Though this is appropriate, it gives the impression that the stimulus question is the only important one. It would be equally if not more useful if "holy grail" referred to both stimulus and response, the two being inherently linked by the way they are defined.
There is a theory that establishes such a link. It is better than any of the ones Carroll mentions, and was introduced in 2011 after 5 years of work. This is probably the best possible view, which holds that all the stimuli of humor are allusions to or direct images of self-deception of superiority in a relatively small character, and that the response is a mental copy of this disposition. The disposition or inner feeling of amusement closely resembles its own object, self-deception of superiority.
The one essence of humor is not "illusory superiority," because that allows for imposed deceptions, whereas those are funny because they allude to self-deception. Just any self-deception of superiority doesn't count as humor, because a serious hero is not ridiculous unless his true stature is disregarded. Outward laughter is an appropriate feature of the kind of delusion found comical. Compared with any previous explanation this one alone covers all categories without a weakness. The world is asked to produce an example of humor of any kind that this idea does not explain, or bring forward any other plausible theory of humor. All other theories are here thoroughly and plainly disproved and the most realistic view given place.
When self-deception is reproachable, it hides something that dissatisfies someone rather than something that truly hurts them. Consequently, an informed reader might say, "if the ridiculous is the failed or dissatisfied, that supports the superiority theory of Hobbes or of Charles R. Gruner." To be amused, however, is not to feel superior per se, but to feel empathy. Superiority does not explain the humor response, which is clearly imitative, and Gruner's theory overlooks most of the content of jokes. The illusory superiority theory is not the "superiority theory."
The incongruity theory is false because it claims that contrasts create humor either directly or by their resolution, always unthematically. The theory uses incongruity either trivially or else in cases where it does not apply. A pratfall could be described as high becoming low but this is trivial. The theory fails to indicate that the humor in great versus small, high versus low really derives from the relation of delusion versus reality. The response to humor is not a pleasure in the sense of a satisfaction in a contrast or in its resolution. An "incongruity theory" can never assert any other idea of humor except that. Instead, the contrasts always are funny by representing delusion, so that the pleasure is first an imitation of the positive and free affect of such delusion. Secondary pleasures of course follow. In every possible case, all this is easy to demonstrate. Therefore the incongruity theory of humor is false and easily displaced by the new theory. The only thing left to do is conduct brain scans to make this indisputable. No other theory is true, either.
A theory of humor must explain humor, not describe it superficially. Incongruity only describes humor superficially while pretending to explain it; therefore it is a false theory. A pratfall represents shallow concern, not just being thwarted, but raised to significance by death. That is to say, the fall disrupts the pretentious character, but it is also hyperbole, signifying a more violent event.
The theory also misapplies incongruity. Every possible sense of the irregular or variant is thrown into one heap, so that the concept not only loses the original meaning, but even has no meaning at all.
Noël Carroll's view of caricatures exhibits these flaws of the incongruity theory. The humor does not consist in the deviation from the person's specific appearance, simply because caricature is not a mere disguise. In fact, the important incongruity in caricature further disproves the theory. Caricature turns the human shape away from the human or adult so that the element of mind ceases to belong to it. But that is anthropomorphism and an image of self-delusion and it explains why animal comparison is a type of caricature.
Noël Carroll endorses mostly the earlier form of incongruity theory. But the newer version is that puns, for example, while having other humorous effects, can create an appropriate incongruity. In other words, a foible or complaint is mentioned, linked to another idea by the double meaning. (If one needs an example, note the entire joke about the piano player and containing the line "do you know your monkey just dipped his balls in my martini?").
In the first place, the paradigm just mentioned has two possible senses in jokes. The standard, accepted version interprets this idea to mean the way we understand jokes, the way we "get" them, resolving an incongruity. It is a very old view, going back to Kant, and cannot be entirely refuted, because it is a permanent part of the humor. But what proponents of the "getting the joke" approach fail to realize, is that this idea is a repetition of the central theme of jokes, and it is extraneous to the main part of their meaning. The true theory of humor, then, assimilates the old "incongruity resolution" theory. Everything falls under the theme of self-interested self-deception or illusory superiority.
Thus the appropriate incongruity should also be seen as sarcasm, directed at a deluded stereotype who is not present in the most ideal form, though there is an actual addressee. Something painful or foolish is exposed obliquely using double meaning as a screen, in the same manner in which we whisper to someone sarcastically. For the many reasons here mentioned, the incongruity theory is discredited and there is no longer any reason to use the term. Though the theory has been debunked before by both Alexander Bain and George Santayana, a more thorough refutation takes those writers into account.
Carroll claims that incongruity explains the humor in double meaning and in violations other than jokes. Violation, either as something so general as to be meaningless, or else as the rule-breaking sense of folly, is not the essence of humor despite philosophers trying to force it to be so. It is useful to have a theory of nonsense humor if jokes exhibit it in the way that Carroll claims, yet they do not.
Carroll argues (like Freud) that some jokes end in nonsense, as a form of tension and release. It is true that the very idea of tension and release creates humor. Carroll and many others are right that this element adds to the power of a joke. But they are wrong to invest much of the humor in it, and they don't have a global theory that explains this and all other types of humor. Tension and release, appearing even in the riddle of the Sphinx, are only part of the cumulative structure of a joke. Humor in such tension and release can only be explained by the "self-interested self-deception theory" of humor, that is, because the disappearance of tension alludes to the putting down of unjustified emotions; and when humor shows the increase of tension, the allusion is to complacency. But it is ambiguity that creates most of the humor in jokes. One might say that Carroll's idea of prolonged nonsense is meant as a sort of false release. But jokes can gain very little from any kind of tension except if they finally make sense. Only then can they refer to the only idea that is humorous on its face: delusion.
Freud too overlooks many double meanings but he does not identify their significance even when he does perceive them. And since he seeks to emphasize tension, nonsense and puzzlement, he, like Carroll, selects a joke as nonsensical when actually he does not understand it. Freud then thinks laughter follows as a response by resembling a dissipation of purpose. One way to refute this view then is to explain all the jokes that are thus misinterpreted. This has already been accomplished in several examples of Freud's.
Carroll introduces the Incongruity Theory before the others (Release/relief and Superiority) and then returns to defend it more closely. This is where he introduces the problem that jokes are so puzzling as to be nonsensical. He then enlists an empty answer to address this pseudo-problem, which might be more easily solved by dropping incongruity as a theory altogether.
Jokes actually don't work by means of nonsense. I will illustrate this point again later with Carroll's cited joke about the Irishman who orders three drinks, one for himself and two for his absent brothers. But here is the one about the plane crash survivor on his island, and his two synagogues.
The lone survivor of an airplane crash is marooned on a deserted island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. After many years, he is rescued by a passing ocean liner. The doctor who examines him says, 'You're in great health, but tell me one thing. Why did you build two synagogues on the island?' The survivor answers: 'The one on the north side of the island is my synagogue. The other one I wouldn't step into.'
Of this joke, Carroll says, "the punchline explains the puzzle of why there are two synagogues on an island with one inhabitant, but it does so at the cost of compounding the absurdity. For the joke invites us to imagine...a man [who] would build a structure for the sole purpose of not entering it. [Thus] the answer itself is an absurdity..." (Carroll 36).
Carroll's reading is similar to that of Freud, in that both thinkers are preoccupied with the surface of what it feels like to hear a joke for the first time -- not an unimportant idea. There is a bit of humor in this, so Carroll is right that the man's answer compounds the absurdity, creating a minor part of the humor. But it is a superficial description of the joke as it is to be explained. It is not the explanation itself.
The main meaning of this joke is hyperbole. It is a joke of exaggeration, which is understood by the "self-deception" theory as an example of extreme emotion or exaggerated concern. There is abundant evidence. The man is on a deserted island, where there are no people to care about differences in Jewish faith. That is the point of the joke being about a deserted island. Thus the humor consists almost solely in the idea that the religious divisions familiar to the survivor and to all Jews persist when he is alone. There is perhaps another level, wherein the man's beliefs have resulted in the construction of an extra building, as though he were beside himself or had generated without thinking this division within a community that is not there. Thus there is an extra allusion to absence of mind, or to a community that lacks actual bodies. A.J.Sutter has written his review of this book in May 2015. Yet while calling attention to foibles and cultural biases, Sutter does not acknowledge that the humor in such things consists in the element of ambition and delusion, and that these themes ground all the humor in jokes and in all else.
Try this example - what does "I never met a man I didn't like" mean? Is it nonsense, or double meaning? Is the double meaning a mere "violation," and is that what makes it funny? It's far more likely that we respond to an archetype or image of one who evades context, for when we see such double meanings we are affected by that image. Similarly, Groucho Marx says, "These are my principles, and if you don't like them, well, I have others." This might be an often misunderstood joke. Most people hearing this line probably feel that it only expresses the sudden reneging on the initial offering of irreplaceable principles. But although it's there, that's not the main meaning. Groucho really means that the emphasis changes from the word "These" to the word "my." Thus the possessive sense of "my" comes out and becomes dominant because of the punch line. It is the double meaning that is important, though the reneging theme is also there adding to the mix. Even if we thought mere linguistic violation to be funny, shifts of meaning cannot easily be perceived as transgressions at all.
The humor is often partly or entirely in the double meaning or equivocation. Thus Carroll does not know the nature of most jokes because he doesn't know where to look for it. Now, on p. 21 he does mention the humor of ambiguity, as in puns and the like. But like many theorists of a similar view, he chalks this phenomenon up to incongruity. Carroll claims that puns and other double meanings are "incongruous." Thus to misinterpret a sound is, he says, to "violate a conversational protocol" or maxim of some sort, and that's why such examples are funny. Actually, this very old view can be discredited. Many violations similar to the level of violation in misreading language simply aren't funny at all.
Although it is a violation not to pay attention to context or others' intentions, it is more important to note that it is an ethical sort of violation, a kind of self-centeredness. And according to what I think is the best theory (the one that I claim as intellectual property) every example of humor is or alludes to an image of such delusion, and our dispositional response to this stimulus is merely an echo of that image. Thus the "dispositional theory" that Carroll attributes to Jerrold Levinson, for example, only becomes truly important in this sense. It is only an obvious fact that there is such a disposition. The dispositional response does not warrant being called a theory, though I noticed it probably well after Levinson did. And we have probably evolved or developed this response in a psychological sense as an expression of our adjustment to ethical and social norms.
Contrary to Carroll's impression that incongruity only has marginal problems, it is inadequate in every instance. He admits that he is not completely satisfied with what he finds the least problematic view, the Incongruity Theory. And yet he defends it in scores of examples. It is difficult to conclude from this picture what sort of improvement is actually desired. If new theories are actually in the works to improve things, there ought to be clearer knowledge of what form this will take. Anything less is unconvincing.
"The incongruity theory still seems the most promising, because it offers the most informative approach to locating the structure of the intentional object of comic amusement" (48). It does not follow from such success in locating basic features in only some classes, that a concept is very informative. Carroll also mentions that the banishment of fear is a factor that is "added to perceived incongruity in order for the incongruity theory to approach adequacy" (29).
The problem here is not just that incongruity is too general as Carroll himself notes. But he seems unaware of an alternative, already known, that much better explains all that it explains.
Success in "locating the structure," is in noticeable tension with incongruity as an "imprecise notion" (37) and "no more than a necessary condition for comic amusement" (28). How is it informative to explain many examples, if only by a necessary condition? Carroll also criticizes incongruity directly on p. 34 and 37. On 34, he grants that incongruity is similar to puzzles (a problem that he then tries to solve), and shortly thereafter on p. 37, it is admitted that incongruity is too general, or does not describe its object informatively. But there is a basic reason for doubts. It is explained here and in a book. Incongruity is only a description of humor, rather than an actual explanation, something that's been said enough times. For Carroll, it is hoped that eventually a supplemental theory will arrive to patch up the problem, "isolate the pertinent recurring variables" and actually vindicate and preserve Incongruity, an implausible prognosis (53). I predict that it will never happen.
One problem with incongruity is that it does not produce a "response side" theory. It has not in 300 years presented a contentful view of what the response to humor is, only the stimulus. The fact is that incongruity by itself is incapable of eliciting in us something like the response to humor. Theorists like John Morreall suggest "pleasure," but this is untenable. For there are pleasures in incongruity that are not humorous. Matthew Hurley has pointed out that relatively "benign" violations are often not funny at all.
All of the qualities of benign violation which would make it appear to be intrinsically humorous, point away from it to a more perfect theme in self-deception. The moral or emotional uncertainty of a situation alludes very effectively to this idea of delusion -- by the pretentiousness or exaggeration of some serious concerns, the deception or self-deception required in order to hide moral or social error, and finally the mockery implicit in competitions or battles which use feigned violence or mental weapons instead of physical ones. The humor in benign violation is a particular or subclass, and derives from another idea and a better theory. That other idea, diminutive delusion or self-deception, is the more universal and does not point toward benign violation.
When I assert that "humor is not a pleasure," I don't mean that it does not include pleasure, but that this does not capture humor, for several reasons. It is too general because pleasurable feeling is too general, and there is no other way to make the notion of satisfaction native or essential to humor except as the escape from reality, and thus delusion or diminutive ambition. A larger scale flawed ambition will pertain to tragedy.
As Victor Raskin once noted in a conference, the response to humor resembles intoxication. But Raskin did not assert, and did not know, why the response to humor is related to intoxication. The relation is plainly that both phenomena evoke not only delusion but a willful, appetitive delusional state. Tickling tends to evoke this state, not merely because it is sensual or sexual, but by the sense of its impropriety. By rapidly and repeatedly approaching sensitive areas, it violates the form of intimacy. This is the best account, though others have been attempted. Tickling is not a "mock attack," and we don't laugh when tickled because of only a bodily impulse. We laugh because we find the IDEA of being tickled an allusion to self-interested self-deception. Therefore laughter is not a reflex in the case of tickling.
A cold beverage, or a cool shower on a very hot day, might be congruous with desires. But they are incongruous with the surrounding heat, while even in that very sense they are pleasant in both the objects and their effects (the hot-cold contrast is desired), but neither, in that sense, is funny. Thus it is not, as Alexander Bain once suggested, that non-humorous incongruity is so easily found to be unpleasant. (In fact, Bain's "snow in May" example even eerily resembles the kind of pleasure just mentioned). A man in a wheelchair winning a track race is quite incongruous as well as inspiring and pleasing in an ethically sound way, and this even answers with the positive version of Bain's "decrepit man under a heavy burden." If the "special Olympics" does not violate actual defunct norms, it follows new norms that would been considered strange long ago. But it has no humor, unless we twist things by an insensitive interpretation.
Humor is not in essence, as Carroll claims, a "deviation from some presupposed norm" (17). Evidently, however, every humorous incongruity violates some norm.
How bizarre it would be, if we really thought that breaking rules, per se, was what the humor in romantic intrepidity, or unlikely love were all about. Who would we resemble, but the romantic fool himself, for whom rules are so all-important? Is that not inapposite? Indeed, I maintain that our sense of humor is a mirroring of folly, but not in this sense.
Now one does not have to look to Alexander Bain to provide counterexamples to the Incongruity Theory, though he provided several. He did so without consideration of the possibility of positive cases, and did not resolve the objection that he himself raised. If one cites Bain, it all comes to nothing unless some valid alternative may be proposed.
There are various other cases in which the incongruity theory misidentifies what the relevant incongruity actually is. Birds might perch on the head of a rhinoceros. The incongruity theory would say that the use of the rhino as a perch is incongruity, as is their difference in size. In fact, the latter may be important, but only as a difference of power alluding to ambitious self-deception. But the rhino is being treated as a thing, thus losing its implied mind, while also appearing to have a human-like absentmindedness.
Carroll has had the sense not to mention one other theory, that associated with Tom Veatch or A. Peter McGraw, now the so-called Benign Violation theory. It is not clear, though, that Professor Carroll perceives how frivolous McGraw and Veatch's view is. It confuses an accidental or particular aspect of humor with the essence. But the flavor of the "Incongruity Theory" that Carroll himself adopts is similar to Benign Violation. According to Carroll, the transgressive aspect of incongruity is paramount; it holds that "what is key to comic amusement is a deviation from some presupposed norm." For example, he uses the word "mistake" to characterize the idea of personified or anthropomorphized things or animals (Carroll 19). As I have claimed, it is more likely that anthropomorphism amuses as an image of delusion--something lower taking itself to be, or becoming, something higher and greater than what it really is. And that is just the sense in which Ron Burgundy verbally taunts his dog in the comedy Anchorman. Humor in this taunt has nothing to do with norm-violations about the treatment of an animal qua animal on the part of Ron or us. Rather, it's about the allusion to the dog's hyperbolic privileges, his being elevated to the attributes and comforts of a human.
Carroll does not have a plausible theory for what, as he mentions, "vital interests humor serves" (68 ff). Freud's own psychology can be applied to a better theory of humor than his own, in order to produce a teleology of humor and the comic. Suppose humor stimuli cause an imitative response (in the form of, for example, something like Levinson's inner mental "disposition" toward laughter). The psyche may be expressing its moderation and control over delusion, by internalizing the gestures of delusion through humor and jokes. This is similar, but different from Freud's theory of the matter, in that for him these stimuli, in particular jokes, represented moderated vestiges not of delusion but of closely related childhood play. Carroll, however, considers little or no answer to the purposive question, unless it is in line with the Incongruity Theory. On this point he makes reference to a Marvin Minsky, whose theory of cognitive debugging sounds exactly like that advanced in Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse Engineer the Mind. Does it make sense that Carroll mentions two separate authors, Marvin Minsky and Matthew Hurley (in the bibliography) without noting that their ideas are pretty much identical?
Carroll's traditional explanation also fails in the case of incongruity that is not strictly verbally based. He considers a joke about a priest and abbot who encounter Jesus praying in their own church sanctuary. It is the priest who asks, "What should we do?" to which the abbot answers, which we could take as irony on his part, "Look busy." Carroll holds that, because it is the priest who expresses an everyday kind of worry, it is he who interprets his job in terms of an "earthly" system of behavior or rules. And this amuses by way of incongruity, not just because the two religious reveal themselves to be worried, but because the proposed solution is both superficial as well as derived from worldly affairs. It is a helpful and rich reading, although it is the abbot who ends the joke (Carroll 83). Again, however, incongruity is too vague. A mere mismatching or discrepancy between things, even if they are high and low, or whatever, does not tell us what's going on. If expensive jewelry is soiled, there is incongruity but there is no humor without some other element. That element is a kind of violation or wrong, but a motivated one, not a merely objective one.
The everyday and earthly may connote either an unpleasant truth, or else, the very opposite, the everyday as itself a complacent delusion. And yet at the same time, grandeur and anxiety are themselves a form of reality, over which the everyday life is plastered as instead the delusion, the complacency. We can have, therefore, a complete reversal, in which either life or afterlife can function as the delusion or the reality. The incongruity theorist, then, is not remiss in pointing to a recurring dichotomy that dominates the joke and humor. He simply does not note its strange reversals or specific concepts of delusion and reality. In fact, as I show in my book, various images of this kind tend to flip-flop between these two roles of delusion and reality.
Jokes that are meaning-based don't create humor by breaking conventions of language. And contrary to Freud and Carroll, verbal humor does not consist in nonsense. The nonsense theory of this joke class has been defended, yet the search for evidence has been most unsuccessful. And Freud tried very hard to discern exactly how jokes mix sense and nonsense, and he failed. David Hume challenged the world to produce empirical evidence of causal connections, and that didn't happen. Now it seems, perhaps, that Freud with his ability could not discern the double meanings in jokes. He was, however, probably not even looking for them. Freud never wrote another full-length treatment of humor after 1905. Thus he formed his view, before the landscape was transformed by the brilliant equivocations of Groucho Marx, which at any rate are in English (the jokes that begin with "I never forget a face," and with "time flies like an arrow," etc.). Freud had, therefore, that much less material for inspiration and insight. It is not unrealistic that later humorists, including Groucho, have radically augmented what we possess, in terms of humorous content. To Freud's (and Carroll's) theory of jokes (to say nothing of Freud's bizarre taxonomy of its classes) we might apply Occam's Razor. Jokes obviously exhibit double meanings in a vast proportion of cases, while others contain double meanings that are more subtle and harder to detect. If the choice is between the Freud/Carroll position or a double-meaning theory, the latter is much more probable. It is applicable to more cases. And it is more likely that ambiguity is humorous as a reference to implied or potential delusion, rather than as either norm-violation or as nonsense.
After Carroll tries to establish that a logical violation is humorous, he claims that "many other laws than those of logic" are equally applicable to the phenomenon. He proposes that there is a handful of illegalities or legal concepts that involve humor (at the inexplicable exclusion of others). He even mentions an instance of anthropomorphism, calling it a "biological anomaly." "Panels by Francois Boucher show very young children at work in very adult roles." Carroll doesn't seem to realize that children in adult roles fall into the same logical category as any object in a human role. Why would he not perceive the analogy? It is plainly a question of delusion, like anthropomorphism, or personification, and all images of an ambition that is petty and yet vaulting.
Carroll tries to explain a joke about an Irish drinker. As Carroll puts it, humor consists in the fact that the drinker "understands the concept of `being on the wagon' to be consistent with downing two drinks for his brothers, so long as he refrains from tossing one back for himself." Carroll is claiming that we are amused at violations of reasoning, qua violations. But if this were so, then we would seem to be more amused by logical errors. There are several kinds of basic logical fallacies that are not funny at all. Various non-sequiturs, many half-truths, and other errors are usually considered humorless, so that their trace of humor is likely derived from a deeper source. It may be that we are amused by the "circular" quality of other fallacies, or the way they suggest a lack of awareness of reality.
But if humor derives from the corrupt logic of the drinker, it is because unreason resembles self-interested self-deception.
The main meaning of this joke is that alcohol is a pleasure or vice, and any unchecked self-indulgence is seen as a petty overreaching, because pleasure is a shallow desideratum. That is why there is comedy in the surreptitious pursuit of pleasure. This joke thus has an unusually literal quality. It pretty much directly presents an act of deception, though that directness is balanced by the absurdity in the way the drinker "excuses" his drinking.
On page 29, in the context of explaining humor and violence generally, Carroll mentions the idea of a "funny face." He is surely thinking of such things as stretched grins, grimaces, rolling of eyes and wanderings of the tongue. What is felt as humor in these gestures, however, is an attitude of delusion (with particular nuances like desire or frustration). Humor is always a reference to this idea, and our response is to mirror the allusion.