Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Bergson, Henri. Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic.

Bergson, Henri. Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic. Trans. Cloudesley Brereton and Fred Rothwell. Mineola, NY: Dover, 2005.

Bergson presents humour as an intellectual, rather than emotional or sensual, matter: noting that humour requires an absence of feeling, “a momentary anaesthesia of the heart” (2-3). Bergson suggests that to find humour in a fellow human’s situation it is necessary to regard them without sympathy, and pay no heed to the pain or suffering that may be inflected on them in the course of the humour. He attributes to humour a minor social function: that of gentle reprimand where laughter as a corrective “social nagging” (66) in response to inflexible, ignorant or eccentric behaviour (8-10, 89-98). In Bergson’s account, then, humour begins to carry out a basic social function, yet this is not the political aesthetic proper, because this disciplining function arises at the level of social interaction, rather than any aesthetic aspect of a text. Furthermore, humour here operates not to defamiliarise, but to ensure that unfamiliar or unexpected behaviour is curbed. This is a political function (if not an aesthetic one), but a conservative one.

At the centre of Bergson's theory of humour is an opposition to mechanical forms of being - of speech, of movement, of thought - which humour helps to correct: “the attitudes, gestures, movements of the human body are laughable in exact proportion as that body reminds us of a mere machine” (15). Bodily movements, like gestures, cannot shift and alter as living thoughts do, which is why they are comic, and why imitations are funny – because they treat the body as a machine (16). Things that are similar make us laugh because they are like mass-produced goods which are inherently mechanical (17). We cannot see the rigidity in things we are familiar with though, such as in fashion clothes. There is a distinction between comic de jure and comic de facto (19), we don’t laugh at familiar things because “the continuity of custom having deadened within them the comic quality” (19).

Incongruity does not produce laughter; it just puts us in a situation where we can recognise the rigidity of an aspect (19). There are also things that we see as artificial but that are not, which we experience as funny (20). This is not logical but rather reflects the dreaming of society (20). We laugh at the natural that is mechanically tampered with or that is understood as if it were (21). The ceremonial always contains something of the comic, and becomes comical once they lose the seriousness with which convention endows them (22). We also display our rigidity when we act in a typical way at a time when we should not (23). Materiality when we expect to find vitality is funny (24) as are situations where our attention is called to the bodily over the moral, reminding us of the physical (25). It is comical when the letter (rigid) overcomes the spirit (26) – taking metaphors literally etc. The crystallisation of the mind and the inelasticity of the body go together (28). We laugh when a person gives us the impression of being a thing (28).

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