If You Have To Explain It, It Isn’t Funny – Laughing Immediately With Merleau-Ponty, Part 2 (Adam Blair)

This the second part of a two-part series. The first part can be found here.

Merleau-Ponty wants to avoid the division of latent and manifest content, instead pointing to the inability to speak as a simple, unified condition. Both the shock of the earthquake and the maternal prohibition caused a refusal of coexistence on the part of the patient—and such a refusal is, literally, a lack of speaking. Merleau-Ponty would agree with psychoanalysis that this “refusal” is not something which is willed or controlled by the young woman.

But where psychoanalysis would put the activity of this refusal into the unconscious, Merleau-Ponty places it into the body, which is the pre-reflective existence of the young woman. It isn’t that the young woman chooses not to speak, nor is it a possibility before her which is then foreclosed by the unconscious. Speaking merely isn’t an option at all for the young woman given the realities of her body and its powers.

Merleau-Ponty collapses the body and existence together into an inseparable, co-conditioned, reciprocal relationship. He writes: “Neither the body nor existence could pass for the original model of the human being. Each one presupposes the other…” [17] The body does not govern existence, just as existence can’t be reduced to the body. As Merleau-Ponty also writes: “existence accomplishes itself in the body.” [18] There is not a refusal to speak and a refusal of coexistence.

The existential refusal of coexistence prompted by the maternal prohibition or the earthquake is accomplished by and exists through a bodily refusal to speak, which is nothing more than a shift in the young woman’s manner of being-in-the-world, in the possibilities that are available to her body, and in the fabric of her world.

Therefore, the relief of my ego is not separated from the humor I find in Atkinson’s droll recitation of “Myprick, so good of you to turn up.” Whereas Freud would posit a bifurcation between the manifest content of my pleasure at this joke and the latent content of repressed libidinal desire, thus introducing a mediating causal sequence to my experience of the humor, for Merleau-Ponty the pleasure found can be present within the body’s presence to its world. I can laugh at Atkinson, not because of an unconscious reason. My body in its living world is such that it is always already amongst possibilities colored by an affective, sexualized haze, thus rendering certain words as that-to-be-laughed-at.

But since this is the possibility of my body-as-concretized-existence, it is immediate. My body is not the objective body of Descartes which can only passively receive vibrations of air and then convert them to sound and then to meaning, but it is a living body which finds meaning in the world. There is not an internal sexual drama of repression which is then realized on the surface through a relieving act. There need not be a location for this repression at all, but it can be found within the very possibilities open to my body and its world at any one moment.

The young woman afflicted with aphonia will never have the whole world explicitly spread out for her since, in terms of her particular illness, there are vast segments of the social world which she is completely closed off from—not due to a refusal, but due to her factual situation. To have a body is to have a situation—a particular perspective upon the other world—and is also therefore to not have other situations, to be restricted from other perspectives.

Since I can speak, I am closed off from the young woman’s aphonic world. Since I speak English and have had the sort of upbringing and biological dispositions I have, my body has certain possibilities laid out before it which don’t find mere vibrations of sound when Atkinson opens his mouth, but they find something that is funny. Each bodily and existential given is necessary to a life, since each one contributes to one’s world.

Here, we can understand, then, how the lived body’s immediate expression of laughter is not a physical or instinctual response to a stimuli, but is an existential expression of bodily immediacy. Whereas Descartes’ objective body also responds through laughter with immediacy, this is due to a purely physiological, stimuli-response system, which itself cannot account for how or why the body laughs at some things and not others; for Descartes, the body laughs as a mechanistic reflex and then the soul (where my “existence” would be found) becomes aware of it.

As we have seen through the example of the girl afflicted with aphonia, my body and my existence are not separated for Merleau-Ponty, but are reciprocal expressions of one another. Therefore I don’t receive sense-data of an objective reality, judge it according to a predetermined criteria for humor, and then decide it is funny and laugh. Instead, my world is always already full of an affective atmosphere, wherein certain phenomena appear to my body, fundamentally, as something-to-be-laughed-at.

If my mind and body are of two different substances, then we must account for how the seen object generates a response within a causal sequence that ends with a laugh. But if the object of my derision is found in a world common to me, then I can engage it without causally distinct layers dividing my laughter from its object. The joke, my “getting it” and my laughter can all happen together. Humor is never an object of thought nor a mechanistic response, but is an existential dimension of my being, with laughter as its expression.

As was mentioned previously, the body’s structure as a reciprocal expression of one’s existence can also account for how one laughs at linguistic and social humor without mediation through concept. It should not come as a surprise that for Merleau-Ponty words are not an objective sense-data (whether written or spoken) which we then use to inaugurate an associational matrix, in order to derive meaning from scribbles and squawks.

This would create the same bifurcations we have been straining against. Rather than words being separate from their meanings with the listener as the glue between the two, “…the name is the essence of the object and resides in it, just like its color or its form.” [19] To be true to my experience is to recognize that I do not encounter a word and then give it meaning; words are always already meaningful for my body. Indeed, the sign and its signification stand in a similar relationship to one another as that of my body and my existence; Merleau-Ponty writes:

…sense is caught in speech, and speech is the external existence of sense… the word and speech must cease to be a manner of designating the object or the thought in order to become the presence of this thought in the sensible world, and not its clothing, but rather its emblem or its body… [S]peech or words carry a primary layer of signification that adheres to them and that gives the thought as a style, as an affective value, or as an existential mimicry, rather than as a conceptual statement. We discover here, beneath the conceptual signification of words, an existential signification that is not simply translated by them, but that inhabits them and is inseparable from them. [20]

Jokes and comic situations founded upon the linguistic dimension can be immediately taken up by the body since it is my living body which engages a “word-body,” as the presence of sense; there need not be any association or conceptual stages between my existence and the sense of the word. It is not my physical body being struck from without and then a soul attending to these sensations to impart meaning upon them, then judging whether these particular sensations are funny or not.

The most common sort of humor that functions on the linguistic level is that of incongruity. Immanuel Kant states the incongruity theory straightforwardly:

Laughter is an affection arising from the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing. This transformation, which is certainly not enjoyable to the understanding, yet indirectly gives it very active enjoyment for a moment. Therefore its cause must consist in the influence of the representation upon the body, and the reflex effect of this upon the mind. [21]

It is in line with our investigation thus far to understand this in terms of an immediate response, and indeed, as one of the body. Kant’s formulation, as we can see, maintains a mediation between the mind and body, where the sensation causes an expectation of the mind to be darted, causing, only then, an indirect enjoyment.

But when the child asks, “what is black and white and re(a)d all over? A newspaper,” I do not laugh at my own self-revision of a sign-signification relationship (if, indeed, I laugh at all), for this would be a mediating step that is not true to experience. I do not, as Kant says, have an affection of my body caused by a darted expectation of the understanding. Instead, I laugh due to the sense found within the sounds themselves—my living body’s existence has made sense of the world in one way and is then shocked by an alternate form of sense-giving, which is still true but in a different register than the body had comported itself to; [22] this shock doesn’t dawn on me as a mentalistic judgment, but is present within my very world due to the depth of the living body’s world. Laughing is never a decision. I don’t hear sounds, which I turn into words, which I judge; I instead am, simply, solicited to laugh. Laughter is not the outcome of an objective cause-effect relationship, but is a sense-filled response, or an existential expression. When I hear a pun, I laugh or I don’t—don’t waste your breath trying to explain it.

Finally, jokes and situations considered humorous due to their participation in the social dimension can also be understood to strike my body without mediation, as Merleau-Ponty agrees with Husserl that subjectivity is intersubjectivity. [23] This will help us to understand how the superiority theory may be functioning, as well as sitcoms and other forms of the comic utilizing social stereotype and expectation. Just as the sense of words are always already present within them due to the structure of reciprocal expression, the presence of the social world is not an abstract system I impose upon the world, but is an existential dimension that my body necessarily exists within. Merleau-Ponty writes:

[T]he social world…[is] not as an object or a sum of objects, but as the permanent field or dimension of existence… Our relation to the social, like our relation to the world, is deeper than every explicit perception and deeper than every judgment. It is just as false to place us within society like an object in the midst of other objects, as it is to put society in us as an object of thought, and the error on both sides consists in treating the social as an object… [24]

The social dimension of my being is always already present for me, and in the sense given by my body. Indeed, it isn’t even present for me, but is through me, and I through it. Therefore, if there is a form of humor which functions according to social categories or expectations, these social facts are not latent properties I must then conceptually apply to new situations, and then respond with laughter.

Instead, these social roles and norms are immediately present in my perceptual field. When Jerry, Elaine, and George from Seinfeld get stuck at the Chinese restaurant waiting for a table, the humor in the situation is not an order of facts. I don’t perceive these images as stimuli and then create associations to the social space of the Chinese restaurant, to the feeling of hunger, to what is permitted and is restricted within public spaces, etc.

Rather, the space I see them exist within is existing already as a space with norms and expectations inscribed as simply present therein—I don’t need to place the social expectations as an associational layer after the fact, but it is already there for my body. Just as an outstretched hand is not a stimuli which I associate to my past life in order to derive the rule of hand-shaking but is present as that-which-is-to-be-shaken, the Chinese restaurant is, itself, richly layered with sociality beyond its mere sense-impression. I am not a disembodied, asocial consciousness which is then inserted into a world wherein I hold my social relationships as objects of thought. Descartes’ objective body requires mediating stages to find a social situation humorous, for a mere bundle of atoms could not find a Chinese restaurant funny—indeed, it doesn’t find a Chinese restaurant at all, but a bundle of sensations to be judged down the line. And, as we have seen, it can’t be Descartes’ disembodied mind which finds it funny, for we cannot imagine how a mind could laugh. [25]

Turning to another aspect of the social, the superiority theory of humor is typically attributed to Thomas Hobbes, not as its creator but as the author of its quintessential formulation: “the passion of laughter is nothing else but sudden glory arising from some sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others, or with our own formerly.” [26] That is, we laugh when we see someone make a fool of themselves, or when we realize our foolishness in the past. The laughter’s meaning is our felt glory at our own superiority over the object of our derision.

Since this laughter is experienced “suddenly,” it follows our claims regarding the social dimension of existence as being present immediately. To help us turn to the notion of superiority within the social dimension, Merleau-Ponty elaborates: “…class is lived concretely prior to being the object of a deliberate will. The social does not at first exist like an object in the first person… [N]ation or class are neither fatalities that subjugate the individual from the outside, nor for that matter values that he posits from within.

They are, rather, modes of coexistence that solicit him.” [27] Just as aphonia is not an object which the girl must establish a relationship to (be it psychological or physical), my own social status is a style of being, rather than a fact external to myself. I do not objectively view someone inferior to myself, make a mental association or judgment, and then produce laughter. Rather, since my body exists within a world that is always already brimming with an atmosphere of social signification, the inferior individual appears to me as something-to-be-laughed-at; the social world solicits my participation in various ways throughout my daily life, and one of these modes of engagement is through derision.

As one final and important note, these various dimensions of our existence are never as separate as this analysis has rendered them. We have seen how the body always already has sexual, affective, linguistic, and social dimensions (as well as indefinitely many more). But all of these are simply present within one and the same world for the body, bound up inextricably to experience.

When Rowan Atkinson takes the stage as headmaster for roll call and exclaims “If you fall asleep Ontop I should be very annoyed”, we must be immediately struck by the incongruity of his language with the social situation, as well as with the affective timbre of his delivery and the relief of sexual tension. We don’t mediate these together in a Kantian apperception, for that would also pull the laughter away from the world and our existence. My body has existential dimensions present simply within its inexhaustible world.

As we have seen in this section, by understanding the body and the world not as inert material but as co-existing concretions—as reciprocal expressions—we can more readily appreciate how our laughter occurs right away. Our body’s world is not an instrumentalizing force nor an associational matrix, but is an inexhaustibly meaningful field. One of the powers of this field is to offer us things-to-laugh-at, and this laughter is never voluntary, but nor is it involuntary; rather, to laugh is to have my individual world’s solicitation realized through the expressivity of my body.

Laughter and Life: Have a Sense of Humor

From this analysis, we can not only value what laughter renders apparent as a paradigmatic instance of Merleau-Ponty’s lived body, but we can value what each individual laugh has to show us. As the final step in our discussion, by differentiating laughter from other forms of the aesthetic, we can appreciate just how unique it is in its capacity to reveal, and how this revelatory capacity allows us to speak about a “sense of humor.”

Following Bergson in Laughter, the primary difference between the comic and other forms of art can be found in the attentive mode one takes before the aesthetic object. Bergson would agree with Merleau-Ponty that to see a Cézanne painting as it is intended, we need to suspend our usual sense-giving and assume an attentive mode wherein our gaze can wander intensively, according to the painting itself. If I don’t orient my body intentionally in this way, I will see the world according to my current motor-projects, according to my linguistic dimension, etc.—that is, according to my body’s general powers which extend beyond the materiality of the painting. All of these dimensions, as we have seen, are immediately present within my body’s world.

However, I can purposefully suspend them (or at least give priority to one dimension, such as the visual) when engaging “serious” art. To see a Cézanne is to focus one of my powers (sight) on this specific painting. Cézanne doesn’t want us to see simply “a tree” and “blue” (even if these are possibly immediately present for our body) but this tree, in this light, and with this particular consideration of depth and texture. The serious artist, for Bergson and Merleau-Ponty both, deals with the individuals of the world in a specific dimension of our living body’s world. [28] To dive deeply into the visual dimension, I must suspend the other dimensions.

A tragedy, as another form of “serious” art, is about diving into the singular figure of Hamlet, coming to appreciate the complexities of a single life (in the social or psychological dimension, perhaps). There is an active participation on my part to engage the aesthetic object, as I suspend the everyday modes of my body’s comportment to the world; the painting strikes me immediately, as a voluntary immediacy.

While, as we have seen, laughter is immediate just as Cézanne’s impressions are, it always strikes us from without, and not through an intended stance; laughter is an involuntary immediacy. I cannot decide to laugh. This involuntariness is due to the fact that, following Bergson, our laughter comes out of the generalities of our everyday lives. A laugh strikes us when one of our body’s powers has the rug pulled out from under it, and its social or linguistic or psychological world ruptures, or, more often than not, several of them at once. When one of our existential dimensions are undermined, we are made aware of the immediacy between our body and the world, and therefore made aware of the implicit dimension which was present to us, but taken for granted.

There’s a certain irony in the fact that serious art pulls us closer to the world but further away from our everyday—from our individual worlds in which we live the majority of our lives. Laughter has a way of revealing our own worlds to us; the rupture of a chuckle doesn’t pull us out of our world into a meditative stance, as does a Cézanne, but it gives us some distance from our world within it. We could think of a laugh as an existential break from the monotony of the everyday without stepping outside of it; it is a shift within our own world, which then allows us to see our world for what it is.

Cézanne teaches me new ways of seeing, while a word pun uses the sense I already find in the world to use this very activity against itself, a sitcom which embraces a social stereotype embraces the social world I take for granted and shows me what I have been assuming all along, and an embarrassing situation builds up a tension within my affective world and lays it out before me.

This is precisely why our “sense of humor” is so indicative of who we are in general, as individuals. Laughter itself is an expression of our existential dimensions themselves, as it is the site of their self-revelation. If I laugh at Monty Python’s “argument clinic” sketch but my cousin doesn’t, this sense of humor is revelatory of my own world being cultivated in different social and cultural ways than that of my cousin. The meaning of my own laughter tells me something about my life. It shows that we can exist within the same world in certain regards, but that something which is immediately present to me as something-to-be-laughed-at is present to him immediately as something-which-my-weird-cousin-thinks-is-funny-god-what-an-asshole. [29]

Cézanne’s paintings tell me something about vision itself and the visible world. From within the multi-dimensionality of the lived world, however, a laugh tells me something about myself. It is important that both experiences remain immediate, and that is why learning can happen in the first place—the mediating categories of a Cartesian mind predetermine what they will find. The body itself is never predetermined, but “serious” art will always present certain questions, whereas the shock of a laugh is a question to me.

My laughter is revelatory because it indicates to me how my body is responding to its world. Without my conscious interference, my body reveals to me my own affective nervousness, my own conceptual expectations, and my social stereotypes and accepted norms. These facts aren’t hiding beneath my conscious mind within the fabric of some unconscious, precisely because they aren’t facts at all; rather, they are modes of my body’s interacting with its world.

Conclusion

As we have seen, to understand laughter, we must also understand the aesthetic realm of experience, the body’s existential structure, and our engagement with the world. While past theories of humor have attempted to answer the question “why do we laugh?,” I have here attempted to investigate how it is that our laughter can be in the first place—that is, what is the precondition for our body’s immediate expressive capacity for laughter?

This turns out to be a complicated question, due to the wide range of situations wherein laughter occurs. However, I have sought to show how laughter’s immediacy can be understood according to Merleau-Ponty’s characterization of the aesthetic attitude: we aren’t passive observers removed from the world, but instead our body is the reciprocal expression of our existence, rather than the Cartesian objective body, which is always already giving sense to its world.

My body is always within an inexhaustible horizon of possibilities, and when its response to a given situation is laughter, I can become aware of what my own possibilities are. The aspects of myself which I am not conscious of are not latent within me, but are instead powers of my body which I have not yet exercised. Laughter is one way my body can make its powers known to me clearly, since consciousness’ own reflecting cannot exhaustively determine meaning through mediation. Laughter’s immediacy is valuable, as it allows me to know my body. And my body, after all, is me. We may never know precisely why we laugh when we do, but we can know that each chuckle, at the very least, is a sign that we have a sense of humor. And to have a sense of humor is to be engaged with one’s world, to be within a field of inexhaustible dimensions of meaning.

Adam Blair is a PhD student in the philosophy department at State University of New York, Stony Brook.  His areas of interest include phenomenology (especially Merleau-Ponty), aesthetics, philosophy of education and pedagogy, jazz and other music, feminism and post-colonial thought, and film.

Featured image: Yue Minjun. A-maze-ing Laughter. Vancouver, Morton Park. Public domain image.


[17] Merleau-Ponty and Donald A. Landes, Phenomenology of Perception (Abingdon, Oxon New York: Routledge, 2012), 169.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid. 183.

[20] Ibid. 187-8.

[21] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, trans. James Creed Meredith (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1911 [1790]), sec. 54.

[22] There is more to be said on Merleau-Ponty’s notion of the habit-body, and the notion of a perceptual “equilibrium,” as they apply to humor generally and incongruity in particular. We may see a laugh as arising when this equilibrium is thrown off, when my world cannot be rebalanced. But there’s not enough space here to dig further into this possible avenue of inquiry.

[23] Merleau-Ponty and Landes, Phenomenology, 378.

[24] Ibid. 379.

[25] Indeed, to try and argue that bare sensations are delivered to the mind which must then judge them according to certain criteria to determine whether they have humor or not is to already admit that the sensations themselves have more sense than mere material, for the mind must know what to look for in its judgment. But, of course, all of that would be occurring through mediation, anyways.

[26] Thomas Hobbes, Human Nature (London: Printed by T. Newcomb for Francis Bowman of Oxon, 1651), 46.

[27] Merleau-Ponty and Landes, Phenomenology, 380-81.

[28] In other work I more deeply discuss this notion of generality for Merleau-Ponty. When I see a tree in the everyday world and call it simply a “tree,” this is a concept, but there is a way we can render it an immediate sense-giving rather than a sign-signification relationship, by challenging a typical singular-universal relationship in favor of the generality of my body’s horizons. But, unfortunately, I do not have the space to dig more deeply into this here.

[29] Some criticize Merleau-Ponty as a solipsist, assuming that since my world can be immediately different than that of another, then we are forever destined to be closed off from one another. But this is only the case if we begin by accepting the bifurcation between subject and object, as argued for by objective thought. As we saw in “Eye and Mind,” I am of the world through my body, and am therefore never removed in such a way that I could be solipsistically isolated. I am thrown into the world through my body just as my cousin is, and it is the same, shared world with which our bodies grapple.

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