Thursday, June 1, 2017

Theory of Humor Series, part 2, What is Humor anyway?

There are several background steps one must take before investigating the nature of the humor within A Confederacy of Dunces. The first step in investigating the theory of humor and how it works is to define our subject: what is humor? A different but related question is: what is comedy (which I will write about eventually)? Historically, this second question is often how the subject of humor was touched on at all. For example, Aristotle compared comedy to tragedy, tragedy being the primary subject, and comedy being its inferior opposite. He did not directly address the question of humor, and his concept of it was not well-formed.

Some thinkers over the millennia have limited humor to that which makes us laugh out loud or have some other visible reaction. Several centuries ago, it was considered rude to laugh out loud in polite society, so philosophers railed against humor, even as they might introduce in their writing sly wit that might cause the reader quiet amusement. Indeed, the English word "humor" (or "humour" if you are British) comes from the theory of humors, which claimed that human emotions and mental well-being were controlled by four fluids or humors in the body. The word only narrowed into its current meaning of comic humor in the last couple hundred years. Other thinkers and experimentalists operationally define humor as formal jokes or cartoons, which can be tested easily in the lab, while others have shown that in social groups, most laughing is not a response to anything humorous.

I have found the book called "The Psychology of Humor," by Rod Martin (most recent edition Academic, 2007) to be especially useful and well-written. Martin offers several definitions of humor, and I will cite two of them. First, he offers a quick definition on page one: "[Humor] is essentially a type of mental play involving a light-hearted, non-serious attitude toward ideas and events, [which nevertheless can be used as a tool for serious purposes]." One element of this definition that is important is the concept of play. Many theorists of humor get so involved in the mechanics of the joke that they forget that at its core, humor comes out of playfulness.

Martin then outlines four elements that go to form humor (Martin, 5-9). There is a social context within which humor occurs, namely that of play. We rarely laugh when we are alone, and there are social situations where it is inappropriate. Humor can be used for a serious purpose, such as expressing outrage about hypocrisy, but the humor itself is fundamentally playful. Second, there are cognitive and perceptual processes that function in order for something to be identified as humorous. An event or thought has to trip something in the brain that says, hey, that's funny. Third, there is an emotional aspect of humor. The act of appreciating humor is an emotional state that Martin labels "mirth." While laughter is often associated with the state of enjoying humor, the essence of that enjoyment is the emotional state of mirth. Finally, laughter is an expression of mirth. It is also a social signal, and can positively reinforce the behavior of others (laughing with) or negatively reinforce it (laughing at). Laughter can also be infectious and trigger laughter in others in the group.

So there is the concept of humor that I am using in my exploration of Toole's work. Next month: Incongruity versus disparagement.