Monday, May 17, 2010

Morreall, John. Comic Relief: A Comprehensive Philosophy of Humour. Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.

The latest book from a man who has made it one of his academic missions to establish the parameters of the philosophical understanding of humour. The first part of the book summarizes work he has done in the past to collect and name the three central theories of humour: 1) superiority theory, which Morreall describes as seeing humour as anti-social; 2) incongruity theory, which he describes as the view of humour as irrational; and 3) relief theory, which sees humour as a kind of pressure valve that releases social or psychic tension. He adds to these the minority view of Aristotle and Aquinas and, more recently, Robert Latta, which sees humour as playful relaxation.

In "That Mona Lisa Smile: The Aesthetics of Humour," one of the more interesting chapters in the book for the purposes of this work, Morreall describes humour as an aesthetic experience aligning it with the Kantian notion of disinterestedness (or suggesting that the goal of aesthetic humour is disinterested, focused only on providing amusement), adding to his description of the aesthetic of humour the elements of surprise or a shift in perspective, which contribute to its aesthetic appeal or pleasure (70). He distinguishes this from "non-aesthetic" humour on the basis of the motivation behind the joke, with jokes focused on superiority, for instance, falling into the latter category (72). Morreall wants to distinguish humorous amusement from similar kinds of cognitive shifts at work in tragedy, horror, the grotesque or macabre, suggesting, "humorous amusement, by contrast, is by itself a positive state with no negative emotions" (74). He also separates the fantastic or bizarre from humour, citing the Surrealists as an example and suggesting that these elicit cognitive rather than emotional shocks and thus cannot be considered humour. In his effort to delineate a unique kernel that is humour, however, one wonders at the exceptions to these rules: black humour, Holocaust jokes, killing jokes or nervous laughter, and how these would be accounted for in terms of their aesthetic function.

In the chapter, "Laughing at the Wrong Time: The Negative Ethics of Humor," Morreall goes on to describe 8 basic moral objections to humour, which he claims as the most common objections; that it is: insincere, idle, irresponsible, hedonistic, reducing self-control, hostile, anarchistic and foolish. In each case, Morreall cites examples to debunk each claim, though, equally, in each case, some example could be offered in support of the initial objection as well. Overall, however, in his effort to defuse these negative objections, Morreall wants to get past an ethical argument against humour that focuses on its phthonic element (Ronald de Sousa), or malicious attitude (98). Instead, Morreall describes humour as offering a "practical disengagement" (101), in this separating laughter and humour from emotion (101). In support of this division, he writes, "when we want to evoke anger or outrage about some problem, we don't present it in a humorous way, precisely because of the practical disengagement of humour. Satire is not a weapon of revolutionaries" (101). Though unclear on how someone like Swift fits into such a claim, Morreall moves on quickly from this claim to suggest in this context that the negative implications of humour are better viewed as stemming from this practical disengagement. He describes three such negative ethics in the bulk of the chapter: irresponsibility, the blocking of compassion and the promotion of prejudice, each of which is relatively self-explanatory.

In the following chapter, entitled "Having a Good Laugh: the Positive Ethics of Humour," Morreall counters the negative ethics of humour by describing the "intellectual virtues fostered by humour" (112). THeseinclude: fostering open-mindedness and spurring critical thinking (113). Here, he cites Jon Stewart and Bill Mahar (sic) as examples of political satirists who "encourage us to think twice before accepting any political message" (113).

The descriptions Morreall offers of both the negative and positive attributes of humour seem anecdotal and heavily tied to whichever example he chooses to illustrate his point. For instance, humour can be said to promote prejudice when the example cited is Don Imus's "joke" about the Rutgers women's basketball team, but political (perhaps even revolutionary?) when referencing Jon Stewart. While Morreall's work reinforces the idea that critical analysis should be applied to the topic of humour, his approach is largely anecdotal and relies heavily on generalizations that don't hold when applied to a range of examples.

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