Tuesday, December 9, 2008

One World Under Laughter: Yours, Mine or Ours? Part 1


Religion and laughter are two different types of phenomena. Whilst the former is traditionally regarded as a matter of ultimate concerns, the latter is mostly unserious. Curiously enough, they both made strange bedfellows. In many religions, laughing gods, tricksters, holy fools and carnivals are stock in trade. The ludicrous makes a travesty of the sacred; when, for a short while, laughter sweeps away the holy cosmos, the divine order is exposed as an arbitrary construct.

Due to its supposed lack of decorum and its threat to authority, laughter has been subjected to critical discourse and systematization since the time of Plato, yet it has nonetheless thrived in history. Although we find the Greeks, the Christians and the Buddhist are generally against it, there are enough others who revel in it (in the guffawing of Zen monks, in the Feast of Fools in the Middle Ages and in the Gnostic’s making myths about Christ’s laughter at the crucifixion). Its ambiguity makes it an apt expression for religious experience as well as a powerful religious symbol. Like religion, laughter is situated at the intersection between body and mind, individual and society, the rational and the irrational. When laughter works itself into the religious universe, it reveals unexpected connections between elements in the religious web and creates alternative meanings to interpreters of religion and its effects on authority and politics.

Theories of Laughter

It is not easy to point our finger on the meaning of laughter – for it is many things at the same time and is different from one religious tradition to another. It is a versatile phenomena and its study has been pursued in several fields: medical, philosophy, psychology and social sciences. Theories of laughter deal with laughter’s meanings, causes and functions, and the mechanisms involved in the production of humor. There are essentially three main theories about why human laugh:

1. the superiority theory defines laughter in the context of power over and aggression against a lesser other;
2. the incongruity theory sees laughter as caused by two opposite meanings being held together at the same time. The obvious meaning is automatically dropped in favor of the unexpected meaning; and
3. the relief theory stresses that laughter relieves psychical pressure and functions as a safety valve for the individual and society.

These theories, however, treated laughter as a universal phenomenon – they do not capture the subtleties of laughter’s relationship to religion, culture and politics, nor do they analyze the strategies of power and knowledge of which laughter is part. An example will illustrate this point: when the lower priests in France in the Middle Ages took an ass into the church, they joked and laughed (incongruity theory), made fools of the bishops and others who usually took them in hand (superiority theory) and claimed that they were as barrels of fermenting wine which would burst if they were not opened to relieve the pressure (relief theory) (Gilhus 1990).

Utopia And The Expanding Grotesque

Through Rabelais and his World, Mikhail Bakhtin contributed significantly to the creation of the modern mythology of laughter – the carnival laughter is virtually made an alternative to religion and presented as the true exponent of the folk culture of the Middle Ages. In his book, Bakhtin established the connection between Rabelais’s Renaissance novel and the Medieval laughter culture. At the centre of his main argument stands the carnival and the material body, which is conceived in terms of food, drink, defecation and sexual life – and that body is the disciplining feature of the transference of the values of the secular modern. The carnivalesque body is not expressed in any individual body, but in the collectivity of the people – which in itself is the disciplining of the liberal embrace. It is pictured as an enormous grotesque, characterized by brimming abundance, always opening up to the world, at the same time swallowing up and giving birth:

“We repeat: the body and the bodily life have here a cosmic and at the same time an all-people’s character; this is not the body and its physiology in the modern sense of these words, because it is not individualized. The material bodily principle is contained not in the biological individual, not in the bourgeois ego, but in the people, a people who are continually growing and renewed. This is why all that is bodily becomes grandiose, exaggerated, immeasurable.” (Bakhtin 1968: 19)

The focus on the body is especially significant. What sort of meanings do the openings of the Bakhtian body lead to? What is it about the expansion of that communal body? Relating to political notions, as that communal body expands and be everything else, it becomes more imperfect and grotesque. As the individual bodies, hence the community/society, is disciplined through democratic means, it losses its individual existence and values as it converges into the political identity of the State. The old individual self needs to be “killed” for a new and reconfigured body to be re-born. Such disciplining is reflected in the symbol of the grotesque body – the funnel that every individual within the society is expected to go through, conform and re-born to finally be “Us” – and as it becomes more “grandiose, exaggerated, immeasurable”, it becomes more unmanageable and hence grotesque.

But such is the justification that allows a secular democracy to exercise more punitive measures to discipline the body further – as more authority is then required to “tame” the grotesque – and as a result, becomes a monster of absolute authority and power. More governmental departments are set up, more red tapes are instituted, more laws are enacted, more regulations are enforced and more social programs are constituted – all in the name of the “common good”. The disciplined body will reach a stage of despair at such an imbalance of his person and his environment – as by then, any resistance seemed futile as the monster has grown too huge to be killed. In such politics, the monster will keep on getting bigger and grotesque, and as Bakhtin puts it, “it is always conceiving”.

This is where I find Bakhtin to be productive as he describes laughter being cathartic and salvific, an expression of rebellion aimed at the political and religious authorities and their institutions. According to him, the forms and rituals based on laughter had systematically been placed outside the life of the church, officialdom and politics. Laughter belonged to another world, beyond the authority of another: “Thus carnival is the people’s second life, organized on the basis of laughter. It is a festive life. Festivity is a peculiar quality of all comic rituals and spectacles of the Middle Ages” (Bakhtian 1968: 8). The carnival feasts of the people looked into the future, to a utopian realm of community characterized by freedom, equality and abundance, in contrast to the ecclesiastical feasts, whose main function was to sanction the existing order.

Civility And Discipline

Bakhtin’s work can be regarded as a utopian attempt to reclaim the body amidst all the modern forces which had gradually led to subduing the body, with its taming of affect and emotion. Bakhtin sought to establish the body as the ultimate signifier, and to make laughter its key symbol.

The fact that Bakhtin chose laughter as the preferred expression of the bodily material principle is typical of laughter’s position in late modernity, which is rather paradoxical: on the one hand, laughter is treated as a phenomenon of the mind, thus giving it a new status. On the other hand, in Bakhtin’s mythological context, laughter is a symbol of the life of the body, thus making laughter a seemingly simple channel into an immensely complex reality. Laughter becomes utopian.

It is interesting then to juxtapose this position with that of Hobbes. Quentin Skinner examined the history and phenomena of laughter in his article Hobbes and the Classical Theory of Laughter. Hobbes’s principal cause of laughter is the “apprehension of some deformed thing in another, by comparison whereof they suddenly applaud themselves” (Skinner 2002:157). Whilst Hobbes suggests that “laughter expresses a joyful and contemptuous sense of our own superiority”, he finds that “we sometimes laugh not because we feel contempt for any particular person, but rather because we have been made aware of some general absurdity.” (Skinner 2002: 156). Such laughter “will still be an expression of our scorn, but instead of mocking other people to their faces we join together in ridiculing some ludicrous feature of the world and its ways” (Skinner 2002: 156).

Hobbes seemed to suggest that there are instances when we laugh in civility at something or another – which opened another Pandora’s box to our argument. What then is the public notion of “civility”? When does a particular form of laughter be appropriate and what are its conditions? Social construction of what is “civil” varies from periods, cultures and countries – hence the disciplining of the physical body of that civility becomes complicated. As the community expands and becomes “grotesque”, a flip in the argument occurs: boundaries will now need to be put into place to determine what is an appropriate, civil or polite laughter in order for laughter itself to take place. Take the Renaissance period as an illustration where a smile is considered civil whilst loud laughter reflects one’s low social status and poor upbringing. On the contrary for our current society, it will be rude not to laugh at someone’s attempt of a joke in a social setting, even if it is not funny. This in effect paves the way for secular politics to further tighten its grip on disciplining the body. Social constructions of what is acceptable and what is not will have to be put into place. As more control over the body is made, the “monster” keeps on “conceiving” and ever expanding. In the end, the individual ceases to exist. It only exists due to the “Other” (in this case, politics, politicians, political institutions or anyone/thing with authority over the community and exercise that power over it – as succinctly exemplified through the Foucauldian approach) which actively and continually engages in the act of re-constructing the individual and the community to serve its goals.

Such notion brings forth a new construction of laughter. Where the classical theory defines laughter as a result of a particular event – be it due to suddenness, wonderment, delight, ridiculous, contempt etc – civility will instead construct the act of laughter as something physical. As in the example above, one has to laugh at another’s frugal attempt of a joke even if it was not funny – as no emotions are required in that case. In this sense, laughter is then tied to a certain place and a certain time with the aim of moderation and appropriateness as a containment of affect that needs to be disciplined.

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