On Humor, Freud, and Falling Down: Part 1 (of 2)

Update: On June 13, 2015, I received an email from the author of the graffito below. Here is what he said:

Hello!
So I came across your blog and read your post about the photo and what was written on the toilet paper. I really enjoyed what you wrote and your breakdown of it. That is part of the reason I'm contacting you. The other reason is that I'm the one who wrote that on that toilet paper. It was about 3 years ago at an airport in Berlin while some friends and I had a really long layover there. I was kind of drunk sitting on the toilet (if that's too much information I apologize) and I always have a pen on me and somehow I came up with that idea and at the time I honestly had no idea it would get around as much as it did. I posted it on Tumblr and hashtagged a bunch of stuff and a few months later I had gotten a few thousand notes. It's kind of surreal haha but yeah I saw you wanted to find out who did it so here I am. Thank you again for the breakdown on it!

- Mike S.

***

Humor is funny. Analyzing humor is not. In fact, analyzing humor may itself be humor’s opposite. This is an important idea, the seeds of which are in Kierkegaard. We will come back to this later.

For this week’s graffito, I have fellow blogger 99bathroomquotes to thank. However, I don’t know where the above photo was taken; and, believe me, I looked into it! Therefore, if anyone can track, or has tracked, the provenance of this photo, click “Contact” and let me know. I would love to hear from you.

***

What do you notice about this week’s graffito? For one, it’s not written on the wall of the bathroom stall, as most graffiti are. It makes creative use of the less obvious canvases in a bathroom stall. (It’s curious that in the world of graffiti writing on paper is the “less obvious” choice.) It’s also the first graffito we’ve looked at that has made me laugh, out loud. Did you laugh when you read it? Was it funny?

One of these sheets has LSD on it. Good luck.

What makes something funny? Is laughter, as the saying goes, actually the best medicine? Can humor make us better people?

***

Since Aristotle, philosophers have treated the subject of humor. Though only recently, in maybe the last thirty years, have philosophers given humor serious systematic attention. To begin, it’s important to make a distinction—a distinction I purposely elided in the questions posed above: there is a difference between laughter and humor. Failure to observe this distinction at the outset will later on lead to the kind of hairsplitting found in Freud’s Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious.

Philosopher Roger Scruton observes, “It is not laughter, but laughter at or about something, that interests the philosopher.” Asking why someone or something made you laugh will yield so many disparate answers, many of which have more to do with biology than with philosophy. Asking, however, what makes something or someone funny or humorous is a question philosophy is better equipped to answer.

Traditionally, philosophers of humor have identified three different theories of humor: the superiority theory, the relief theory, and the incongruity theory. Though Plato and Aristotle both spoke of superiority being allied with humor, Thomas Hobbes is usually cited as the archetypal superiority theorist. The superiority theory states that humor results from the perception that “in some way we are superior to someone else.”

The relief theory, of which Freud is a proponent, requires a little more explanation. The idea of the relief theory is that “psychic energy,” which would normally be expended in emotional situations (say, in feeling compassion for a man facing capital punishment), is saved in a humorous situation. This saved energy, Freud says, is released as a laugh.

Most contemporary philosophers of humor dismiss these first two theories in favor of the last one, the incongruity theory. The incongruity theory has its clearest expression in Schopenhauer. The theory states that humor “is occasioned by a paradox, and therefore by unexpected subsumption, whether this is expressed in words or in actions.” I will say more about “subsumption” later.

One thing I intend to show in this post is that Freud’s relief theory of humor, while easily and rightly dismissed by contemporary philosophers, has within it the makings of a good incongruity theory.

***

A perfect example of the incongruity theory is this week’s graffito. What paradox does it present? ‘Paradox’ here doesn’t necessarily mean a formal or logical contradiction as much as it means a dialectical unity of opposites. Surprisingly, in discussions of humor, the word “dialectical” is almost never used. Linda Horvay Barnes, one of the few people who uses it, describes dialectical thinking as “a unity of opposites with each part implying the other.” The opposites are inseparably connected. “Dialectical thinking,” she goes on to say, “sets up a problem, examines its inner contradictions, and returns to the dilemma…[r]unning a circular course.”

To the incongruity theorist, then, humor occupies a kind of middle position between the opposites that are at play in the gag. Just like last week’s Liar Paradox, this week’s graffito similarly sets up a tension, a dialectic, between what is said and what is actually true. Is one of the sheets of toilet paper actually soaked in LSD? The humor, if there is humor to be found here, results from holding both answers, yes and no, in our heads simultaneously. This is what Schopenhauer means by ‘subsumption.’ As the dialectic unravels—as we come to learn, maybe through chemical testing, whether or not there is LSD on the toilet paper—so too does the humor.

In Freud, there are traces of dialectical thinking that are valuable for an incongruity theory. In his essay “The ‘Uncanny’,” Freud describes the uncanny as a “class of the frightening,” in which the strange and the familiar are locked in a dialectic. There are, Freud says, certain ideas (like the dead coming back to life) that, as adults, we have either repressed or “surmounted” in favor of more reasonable ideas. However, what happens when these repressed or surmounted ideas—strange, to the extent that we don’t consciously believe them—come to the fore? A dead body, for example, sits up in its coffin. For a moment, until a better explanation obtains, our familiar notion that the dead don’t come back to life is in tension with the strange reality before us. And, as a result, we experience the uncanny.

But would it be wrong to say that the Magritte painting above is humorous? The way Freud speaks of humor in his Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious sounds nearly identical to his description of the uncanny and that moment during which the repressed or surmounted is consciously entertained. “Consciously giving free play,” he says, “to unconscious modes of thought (which have been rejected as faulty) is a means of producing comic pleasure.” In the end, Freud doesn’t make the connection between his dialectic (of familiar and strange) and humor. His premises are useful for an incongruity theory, but some of his conclusions, as we’ve seen, miss the mark.

***