2 July 2005 | Draft
Humour and Play-Fullness
Essential integrative processes in governance, religion and transdisciplinarity
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This exploration is dedicated to a friend, John E Fobes (1919-2005), former Deputy Director-General of UNESCO and co-founder, with Art Buchwald, of the Association for the Promotion of Humour in International Affairs (APHIA).
The following exploration follows from a concern that modern civilization is boring itself to death trying to manage change -- and compensating for its inadequacies with respect to the challenge by indulgence in distractions and substance abuse. There is a need for radical reframing -- of a playful nature. Essentially the argument is that "no play equals no engagement" -- at least of any sustainable form. It was previously developed in relation to climate change (cf Playfully Changing the Prevailing Climate of Opinion: Climate change as focal metaphor of effective global governance, 2005).
Both humour and play are taken "seriously" here in the light of their recognized role in transcending the boundaries constraining innovative change processes in government, religion and transdisciplinarity. Given the marginalization of humour in the patterns of such formal contexts, a dynamic vital to their role in society is endangered -- especially with the increasing tendency towards faith-based governance. The emphasis is placed on the nature of the subtle relationships of higher dimensionality that become apparent through humour -- when otherwise they would tend not to be perceptible. As in any creative process, the emphasis is also placed on the ways of playing with patterning possibilities, rather than being excessively attached to particular patterns.
The potential of the dynamic attitude associated with humour is explored here as a means of sustaining the level of playful engagement in innovative change processes. This is contrasted with the tendency to quench enthusiasm through commitment to inflexible patterns that are increasingly unsustainable. The epistemological challenge of this paradox of detached engagement is seen as usefully modelled by the current challenges of ensuring the containment of plasma in a nuclear fusion reactor as the sustained source of energy for the future [more].
Recognized role of humour in politics, leadership, religion and creativity (Annex)
The current recognition of humour is explored under the following headings in order to provide a context for the subsequent discussion of the potential significance of humour understood as an essential integrative process in governance, religion and transdisciplinarity:
Varieties of humour
The "gods" in various pantheons may be understood as the comprehension by humans of a set of fundamental styles of creativity and destruction. To the extent that they are held to embody fundamental values recognized by humans, they might be described in terms of chaos theory as "strange attractors" (cf Human Values as Strange Attractors: Coevolution of classes of governance principles, 1993). The complex ways in which such "gods" are then experienced as interacting may indeed be described as "playful".
Various deities have traditionally been held to symbolize humour -- indicative of a fundamental creative role it may play in psychocultural insights and especially in the management of cognitive patterns:
Trickster gods play an important role in world myth and religion (see selected bibliography). As documented by Joseph Campbell (The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 1988), they can be liar, cheat, joker and fool -- without pity on their victims. These roles can be understood as challenging existing patterns -- and are therefore understandably problematic where there is undue attachment to such patterns. As shapeshifters, tricksters often disguise themselves in a variety of human or animal forms -- again an indication of their ability to evoke new patterns through undermining those older ones on which there may be excessive dependence. They epitomize disorder and destruction for that reason. Examples of such trickster deities include:
Despite the challenge that they bring to the status quo, trickster gods are also understood to bring humour and joy. Their sense of humour, as for example in the case of the Sumerian god Enki, may break the wrath of other gods -- as with Enlil in the Sumerian pantheon. The trickster is an archetype that has been extensively studied by depth psychologists, following the work of Carl Jung (On the psychology of the Trickster figure, 1956). As both a mythical figure and an inner psychic experience, the trickster embodied the urge for unremitting exposure to privation and torture as well as an approximation to the figure of a saviour -- the negation of the hero archetype, somehow managing to achieve through stupidity what others fail to achieve by concentrated effort. The trickster brings the possibility of transforming the meaningless into the meaningful -- the propensity for enantiodromia (namely transformation into its opposite). Jung saw the trickster as related to the shadow -- a summation of all the inferior and unconscious traits of character.
The detached perspective associated with "laughter of the gods" is widespread, notably in a much-cited phrase of Albert Einstein: "Whoever undertakes to set himself up as a judge of Truth and Knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods." For Homer: "... the laughter of the gods knows no compassion for the weak, no mercy for the afflicted, no sparing of the innocent, no solidarity with the victims.... rings out over the battlefield with its piles of corpses"
In his translation of the The Hymns of Orpheus in 1792, Thomas Taylor -- a neo-Platonist classicist -- provided extensive footnotes. Although considered questionable by contemporary scholars, the result was an influence on successive generations through to the 20th century. With respect to the verse on the "laughter of the gods" (footnote to 221:8, Verse 8), Taylor indicates:
In the Old Testament, it is stated that "He who sits in the heavens shall laugh." (Psalms 2:4). The cause of that heavenly laughter, indicates that same psalm, is that God holds arrogant sinners in derision. This might be understood to point to the humourlessness of patterns of low dimensionality from which the higher order dynamics have been removed -- sin as the loss of a dynamic perspective with which humour is associated? Martin Luther stated: "If the earth is fit for laughter then surely heaven is filled with it. Heaven is the birthplace of laughter."
The notion is to be found with reference to new levels of consciousness, as noted by Lokesh Chandra (The Flesh and Blood of Time, 1996):
Discussing Friedrich Nietzsche, Pierre Klossowski: Nietzsche, polytheism and parody) notes his view of divine laughter as being evoked by what amounts to "presumptuous" imbalance introduced into divine order:
Complementing this dynamic response of the gods to presumptuous imbalance is a recognition of a tendency for the gods to be "bored" with divine equilibirum:
The belief in the "divinity" of distant "gods" has been transformed in modern society:
Humour is much used in reactive response to incongruities, notably in relation to collective initiatives -- especially by authorities -- in their response to challenges in society. Such incongruities may even be seen as ways in which the gods play with humanity in the world they have created -- with reference to the "laughter of the gods" at the inadequacies of human response. Such laughter may even be seen as a call to play.
There are three main sets of theories regarding humour [more]. these may be described as:
In every domain, the world is faced with fundamental, unresolved incongruity, whether articulated as strategic dilemmas or as the laughable consequences of strategic initiatives. Humour also serves a vital function of bringing into collective awareness the dangerous incongruities that remain unacknowledged in formal discourse (cf Global Strategic Implications of the Unsaid: from myth-making towards a wisdom society, 2003). This is reactive humour.
Even though it has been established that humour is a cognitive tool for dealing with incongruity, there is great irony in the fact that society is as yet unable to develop that humour to reframe fruitfully those strategic dilemmas and contradictions. Humour tends to be used reactively in response to circumstances and not proactively and strategically in order to transform them.
Given the valued role of humour in the domains noted above, what is most curious is the transformation of the creative, playful "meta-process" into the static, stilted forms with which they are commonly associated:
It would seem that there is a fundamental commitment to making the regulatory framework of the world (in which people are expected to live) as boring and alienating as possible -- after those who designed it have had their fun. This might be understood as an emulation of the behaviour of the gods and the humour they supposedly derive from the ability of the ordinary person to live in the world they have created.
This transformation from a dynamic to a static emphasis may be usefully modelled by the operation of fusion reactors. Energy is created if the plasma can be kept out of contact with the materials of the container wall -- to avoid being "quenched". It might be argued that most of humanity experiences society as "quenched".
The argument here is, if humour is so significant to parliamentary debate, why does none of this humour translate, in any way, into the legislation produced by such bodies? Why is the product of such debates so humourless -- inherently boring to many?
This argument is supported from an unsuspected source, namely copyright law. As recorded by Patti Waldmeir (Parody in humourless jeopardy, Financial Times, 27 April 2005):
If the point of law is to tame the state of nature, the point of copyright law, surely, is to make it fun to live there. Copyright law is not just about money -- it is about creating the things that make life worth living. One of those things is parody, a known antidote to modern life. But now US copyright owners seem intent on creating a vast new humour-free zone in America, by pursuing parodists through the courts. Each of the last two presidential elections spawned a big anti-parody lawsuit, but the phenomenon is not just limited to political jokesters: the sense of humour failure on the part of copyright owners has hit literary parodists as well.
During the "Velvet Revolution" in Czechoslovakia in 1989 humour was used to attack the Communist party leadership. Commenting on the humourless British elections of 2005, Ukrainian novelist Andrey Kurkov (Is it time for a British revolution? Guardian, 26 April 2005) argues, in the light of the Ukrainian "Orange Revolution" in 2004-5, that:
Elsewhere (Issues too Important to be Left to Specialists: Selected web resources, 2004) many sectors are identified where the issues are effectively "too serious" to be left to those who claim to deal with them seriously. Is it possible that some of the issues are effectively too important to only be dealt with seriously and that calling upon humour is an important strategic initiative?
The case is often made that politicians and government officials take themselves too seriously. Curiously even the Wall Street Journal has described the US presidents Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter as being utterly humourless [more]. Is this confirmation of the statement by Thomas Hobbes: "They that are intent on great designs have not time to laugh"? Whether the translation of their design into practice is laughable, is another matter.
Dictators and tyrants are typically described as humourless. Conrad Hyers (Holy Laughter, 1969) says, "A common trait of dictators, revolutionaries, and ecclesiastical authoritarians alike is the refusal to laugh at themselves or permit others to laugh at them." In a poem, Volodimir Barabash (Humour can be Divine) goes further, making the point that: "Dictators build their strength upon / The people who are humourless".
As argued by Simon Barnes (The Times, 7 April 1999):
But so much of daily life is organised by the conspiracies of the jokeless: the dehumanisers, those who dread perspective, balance, thought. Lord deliver us from the humourless.... The humourless always win.
In an original form of "action humour", this challenge has been taken seriously by social-philosopher / guerilla-artist Noël Godin through his international pie-throwing network (the "International Patisserie Brigade"). This aims to "assassinate through ridicule all world celebrities who take themselves spectacularly seriously". He notes:
There are a thousand forms of subversion; all of them are interesting, but few, in my opinion, equal the convenience and immediacy of the cream pie.
In the light of opinions of the wise throughout history, is the pretense that humanity can respond effectively to its challenges through seriousness alone to be take seriously? In this light, consider these points from Oscar Wilde:
From such a perspective, it is worth noting the efforts of the Aachen Carnival Celebration Club which has awarded, since 1950, a Medal for Combating Deadly Seriousness, officially designated as "humour in office". In practice this means the relaxed, jovial absence of ponderous gravity. It is a quality that is capable of even bringing out the human traits in the most inveterate bureaucrat. Most of the more than 40 award bearers are politicians, diplomats and lawyers.
Epistemological significance: There is a marked tendency to consider humour in terms of its importance to the relief of tension, to sustaining (challenging) relationships, to maintaining a sense of perspective, to offering a contrast to pessimism, to demonstrating one's humanity, and the like -- or to its positive (or negative) effect on those involved. Such appreciation obscures the existential and epistemological significance of humour celebrated by the Caribbean surrealist philosopher Rene Menil (Refusal of the Shadow: Surrealism and the Caribbean, 1996) in an essay on Humour: Introduction to 1945 -- of which Ralph Dumain states:
He brilliantly stresses the epistemological significance of humor. He explains how humor expresses our highest standards in contrast with our paltry condition, how it affirms our highest ideals while releasing us from the weight of finitude upon our spirits, how it negates mundane actuality by the power of imagination. Sixty years ago, humor was an important part of the spiritual and cultural resistance against fascism. I am convinced it is the only true art of our time; only humor can adequately express the world aesthetically and reflectively in which we live today. [more]
Friedrich Nietzsche held the view that: "we should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once. And we should call every truth false which was not accompanied by at least one laugh." This is echoed by an attitude of neurolinguistic programming according to Robert Dilts (Modeling and Epistemology Too: the art of pragmatic epistemology -- NLP: Cult, Field or Footnote, 1997), namely that an epistemology without a sense a humour is incomplete.
As philosophers, Hugh LaFollette and Niall Shanks (Belief and the Basis of Humor, 1993) consider that:
They note that other theorists have offered typologies of humour, typically based on motives for humour or its psychological benefits. They focus rather on identifying "central features of paradigmatic instances of humor -- features which, although perhaps absent from marginal cases, are vividly present in most cases, and certainly present in those which are of crucial interest to philosophers". They consider that building on incongruity theories to be most fruitful. These are all based on the idea that the meaning of a comic text is less important than the collision of meanings, determined by competing interpretative contexts -- termed "matrices" in the comic theory of Arthur Koestler.
LaFollette and Shanks base their argument on the recognition that:
They distinguish between first-order beliefs and beliefs about them:
They see beliefs like points in an "epistemic space" which have complex arrays of connections with other points in that space:
Flickering dynamic: Humour is then dependent on the ability to view a subject matter from multiple perspectives -- provided there is appropriate "psychic distance" or perspective offered by the higher-order beliefs in order to determine "to which patterns of our first order beliefs we currently attend -- and which other patterns might be relevant in that context". LaFollette and Shanks stress:
Most importantly the authors stress the dynamic quality of humour associated with such "flickering":
The dynamic aspect is also stressed by Peter Collins (Humour and Related Experience: Towards an Integral Appreciation, 2005):
Humour in this sense may be understood as a catalyst for the emergence of higher forms of order. It opens the possibility of higher-order questions (cf Engaging with Questions of Higher Order: cognitive vigilance required for higher degrees of twistedness, 2005)
The above theory of LaFollette and Shanks goes beyond that articulated by Arthur Koestler (The Act of Creation, 1963) regarding the "bisociative" pattern underlying all varieties of humour -- namely perceiving a situation or event in two habitually incompatible associative contexts. References to Koestler's insight tend to emphasize the static, structural nature of the link. The relationship indeed causes an abrupt transfer of the train of thought from one framework to another governed by a different logic or "rule of the game". And, owing to their greater inertia and persistence, when certain emotions cannot follow such leaps of thought, discarded by reason, they are worked off along channels of least resistance in laughter. Elsewhere Koestler expressed this as follows:
In an insightful study of the traditional concept of humour (hâsya) in Sanskrit literature, as articulated by Abhinavagupta, Sunthar Visuvalingam (Abhinavagupta's Conception of Humor (hâsya): the aesthetics and semiotics of the Indian clown, 1983) reviews G I Gurdjieff's Theory of Laughter, noting:
The author articulates an understanding of the network of bisociations and a higher-order perspective on them:
In clarifying the role of humour (hâsya) in rule transgresssion, the author further stresses the dynamic of the relationship together with its transcendence of polarization:
LaFollette and Shanks, through their emphasis on "flickering", highlight the nature and context of those dynamics -- and the essential sense of perspective. Such flickering might even be understood as a waking cognitive analogue to rapid eye movement (REM) characteristic of dreaming -- perhaps to be renamed in this case as "Rapid Epistemological Metamorphosis"! This might offer a way of framing the Australian aboriginal understanding of the Dreamtime.
Aspects of this understanding are evident in the study by Mark Weeks (Laughter, desire, and time. Humor, 15-4, 2002, pp. 383-400):
The above description of epistemic space, and the dynamics between belief frameworks with which humour is associated, together provide a context to note some other possible higher dimensional features of this space that may be vital to deriving operational benefits from humour (as discussed subsequently):
Humour may be understood as the playful rearrangement of patterns -- or as associated with that rearrangement. This may be done purely for comic effect -- laughter for its own sake. Whether or not it is "at the expense" of some party, it may fail to construct any new mode or enable any new form of action. It is however possible to envisage a form of humour that would deliberately trigger insight. This is the case with certain traditions of spiritual tales recognized as teaching stories. The question is the extent to which this could be developed for other sectors -- and what kind of insight it could carry.
What forms of humour would trigger and sustain insight into new modes of sustainable development? What pattern language would need to be developed to open this possibility? Should the "goodness of fit" -- the moment of their "clicking into place" -- of the elements of a pattern be in some way associated with humour?
How can humour be used to facilitate the dynamics of interplay between patterns of lower dimensionality? How can it ensure a better "fit" between configurations of such patterns?
It could be argued that, although humour continues to have a vital role in the various sectors identified above (in the Annex), this role is dissociated from that of the sectors themselves. Indeed, as explored elsewhere (Playfully Changing the Prevailing Climate of Opinion: Climate change as focal metaphor of effective global governance, 2005), these sectors may each be characterized as a form of game-playing, accompanied by various types of meta-game. In these terms, humour may then itself be understood as a meta-game:
In each case, humour-playfulness may be used in a defensive response to alternative perspectives. As such it may be part of the dynamic of groupthink [more].
Elsewhere (cf Playfully Changing the Prevailing Climate of Opinion: Climate change as focal metaphor of effective global governance, 2005) the practice of "playing with the rules" (as opposed to "playing within the rules") is discussed in relation to playing "meta-games". A distinction is made between meta-games understood mathematically and meta-games as notably understood (and deplored) in internet gaming. The relationship is also noted of "meta-games" to the "infinite games" so fruitfully explored by James P. Carse (Finite and Infinite Games: a vision of life as play and possibility, 1986).
Radical differences of perspective are a characteristic of society. They may be understood to engender and sustain many of the social problems and the failure to respond effectively to them. They may be valued, in principle, for the fascinating diversity and richness they represent.
These differences are the core material in much entertainment (eg talk shows, dinner speakers, comedians, satirical commentary, cartoons, etc). The differences can indeed be handled with humour, whether or not it is "at the expense" of one of the parties. When the differences are "serious", such humour may however be deemed quite insensitive and inappropriate.
The question is whether humour then has an unexplored potential role to play when dialogue is impossible -- when it is considered to have broken down or become unfruitful (cf Confusion in the Moment of Dialogue, 2004). What kind of humour can be introduced into such situations to increase the dimensionality of the discourse and open up new avenues of communication between the parties?
Dramatic challenges in this respect are evident in:
It is interesting that the conventional response to failure of dialogue is to increase (by incredible proportions) the investment in security systems and to render suspect, or even to criminalize, any efforts to discover new modes of dialogue. There is a case for seed money to explore ways of reframing such dialogue to draw on the multidimensionality of humour -- especially when the respective parties retain a sense of humour.
The potential of humour-playfulness in such problematic conditions of dialogue is that it can play with possibilities without premature closure -- allowing each to test the boundaries of the other.
Despite the above sensitivity (see Recognized role of humour-playfulness in creativity in Annex), although there are interdisciplinary studies of humour (notably published in the Humor: International Journal of Humor Research), there do not appear to be any studies of the role of humour in facilitating interdisciplinarity or transdisciplinarity.
In introducing a conference, Jill Forster (Linking Thinking, 1996) indicated:
Much educational literature, both general and gifted, recommends that educators encourage students to look for relationships among ideas. Far less of the literature explains specifics for achieving this or its researched need. In both synthesis and analysis one is finding connections, making things relevant, seeing similarities, transferring information from one context to another.
John Paulos (Mathematics and Humor: a study of the logic of humor, 1980) develops a mathematical model of jokes (joke schema) using ideas from catastrophe theory -- seeing laughter as the sign of a "cognitive catastrophe". Of the seven catastrophe types identified by René Thom, this approach uses only the three most elementary catastrophes (fold, cusp, and swallowtail). Paulos argues that a joke-teller uses under-specification to construct an uneven landscape that supports multiple trajectories, and guides the listener on that trajectory which ensures that a surprising discontinuity will be experienced. This metaphor of discontinuity allows incongruity to be modeled via the mathematics of catastrophe theory [more].
Paulos also indicates that "in the spirit of Gödel's theorem (and with considerable looseness), we can state the following: There is no theoretical account of humor that is not itself (on a higher level) somewhat funny and therefore incomplete." (p. 55). There appears to have been little follow-up to this work. A sophisticated exception, using the double cusp, is the work of Robert de Marrais. Ministrations Concerning Silliness, or: Is "Interdisciplinary Thought" an Oxymoron?, Noesis; online journal of the Mega Society, 2001). See also Diederik Aerts et al. (Quantum morphogenesis: a variation on Thom's catastrophe theory).
As a philosopher Peter Rickman (The Philosopher as Joker, Philosophy Now, 1999) clarifies the role of what is perceived as humour amongst philosophers:
The philosopher Paul Feyerabend (Against Method, 1975; Farewell to Reason, 1987; Conquest of Abundance: a tale of abstraction versus the richness of being, 1999) was articulate in his challenge to conventional disciplinary methodology. In a period with increasing need for integrative perspectives using all its epistemological resources, can society afford to depend on rigid disciplinary formalism in achieving a coherent conceptual approach to its condition?
Despite the above sensitivity (see also Recognized role of humour in conventional political processes in Annex), there do not appear to be any studies of "intercultural humour", or "inter-ethnic humour" -- although there is a significant study of a Ghanian inter-tribal relationship (Joseph Yelepuo Wegru. The Dagaaba-Frafra Joking Relationship). There are of course comparative studies of humour between cultures or ethnic groups (cf Christie Davies, Ethnic Humour Around The World: a comparative analysis, 1996) -- but not of humour associated with their interaction. The same tends to be true between political parties and ideologies. Where is the humour than could help to reframe fruitfully the relationship between "right" and "left", between "mainstream" and "alternative", between Israel and Palestine?
Although it is recognized that humour is significant to political processes and parliamentary debate, it is most curious that there is no effort to transform into strategic initiatives the subtle insights made evident by humour. Instead it is those initiatives that themselves have a marked tendency to become laughable on implementation. Additionally it is worth reflecting on the degree to which humour "at the expense" of another party during political processes is translated into dysfunctional strategies "at the expense" of those so framed.
Given the significance of humour to political and parliamentary processes, it is also worth reflecting on the extent to which governance as currently known bears a strong resemblance to a joke that has had to be explained, because those who could have usefully appreciated it do not understand it. In this sense government is a joke "fallen flat". Elsewhere (Aesthetics of Governance in the Year 2490, 1990), in reflecting on the nature of governance in the distant future, great emphasis was placed on the potential role of many of the arts (theatre, dance, song, etc), but not on humour. How then might humour come to play a more significant role in governance?
Part of the challenge lies in the nature of the relationship between the "rules of the game" (as articulated in legislation, directives and proposals) and "playing with the rules". The distinction has been explored elsewhere (cf Playfully Changing the Prevailing Climate of Opinion: Climate change as focal metaphor of effective global governance, 2005) notably in terms of understanding of the role of any meta-game. The processes of the meta-game of governance are obvious in the corridor and back-room manouvering, commenting on the game. This may indeed be facilitated by humour.
The question is whether the quality and nature of the humour, as currently understood, is adequate to the challenge of catalyzing new forms of order that can be appropriately embodied in legislation. The challenge is central to "new thinking" and innovative "paradigm shifts" to reflect the higher dimensionality required to reframe dangerous tendencies to simplistic legislative measures. The challenge has been formally described in the cybernetic Law of Requisite Variety.
The need to explain new legislative measures through appropriate public information programmes -- in a period of radical suspicion of news manipulation -- extends the challenge of governance. A particularly evident difficulty is the complexity and technicity of legislative proposals -- as with the proposed European Constitution. Elsewhere (Structuring Mnemonic Encoding of Development Plans and Ethical Charters using Musical Leitmotivs, 2001) it was proposed that consideration be given to embodying such texts in music and song to increase their memorability and comprehensibility -- and to ensure recognition of systemic links between their parts through aesthetic devices.
Given the current levels of political apathy and alienation, it is worth exploring how humour might be used to similar ends. Many branches of government are required by current media pressures, and the need to justify themselves, to produce press releases. Typically the content has to be severely adapted in their preparation to ensure media use. Typically, despite such efforts, the content is of marginal interest at best to the intended audience -- unless associated with some "human interest" scandal.
Consider the further possibility that, in addition to any press release, each branch of government could be encouraged to produce other communication products. Important messages could be carried by song -- just as advertisers have sought to do for corporate products. More relevant to this theme however is the possibility that they be challenged to embody their current initiative in humour that invites widespread dissemination because of the integrative insight it offers. Trends in this direction are already evident in some safety campaigns -- as well as in political campaigning.
Is there a case for exploring the possibility of a G8 summit requiring that each participant encapsulate their position in some form of humour -- and that the concluding declaration be embodied in humour worthy of dissemination worldwide? Is there not at least a possibility that this might reframe the debate and the strategic dilemmas associated with it? Is this not to be preferred to "serious" proposals which are treated as "laughable" for good reason?
What would such humour seek to achieve beyond communicability? The purpose would be to embody succinctly a message of higher dimensionality and memorability -- that would lend itself to being passed on, with catalytic, multiplier consequences. This potential is a feature of memetic reproduction. The potential of such devices is to some extent evident in famous quotations that are used to enhance the wit and wisdom of political speeches. The question is whether innovative legislative proposals could be carried by humour -- other than as a means for opponents to frame them negatively .
Despite the above sensitivity (see also Recognized need for humour in religion and spiritual development in Annex), there do not appear to be any studies of "interfaith humour" or "interreligious humour" -- possibly for reasons identified by Vassilis Saroglou (Religion and sense of humor: an a priori incompatibility? Theoretical considerations from a psychological perspective, 2002). Again, there are of course comparative studies of humour between religions -- but not of humour associated with their interaction. And there are of course many jokes of the form: "a priest, a rabbi, and a mullah were discussing ...". But where are the jokes reframing the relationship between fundamentalists and those that appear to undermine their faith -- or between "crusaders" and "jihadis"?
As highlighted earlier, humour has a much debated role within some religions. Perhaps the fundamental theological issue is whether deity is to be understood as finding the confict between the religions as "humorous" to any degree or only "serious". In a period with increasing tendencies to "faith-based governance", do anti-humour doctrinal positions imply increasingly humourless governance?
What are the vital cognitive links which humour might activate? As the founder of psychosynthesis, Roberto Assagioli (Smiling Wisdom) argues:
Humour is quite simple and involves uncommon usage or other possibilities within language. Alignment with hearing other components and seeing other possibilities explains aspects of mystic interpretation and understanding equated with madness. People who are crazed or intoxicated make links between disassociated components. They have created links that are not there. The mystic has also created a link between disassociated components and is able to recognise their value. If involved or ensnared by the meaning, they enter a condition of ecstatic involvement or intoxication. If not overly involved, a more detached condition known as sobriety comes into being.
For Sam Keen (Hymns to an Unknown God, 1994):
The deepest spiritual traditions have always recognized that the sacred and the profane, like wisdom and folly, walk arm in arm, and therefore true piety must be seasoned with irreverent laughter.
But, beyond the laughter, what subtler features of subtler humour might support more fruitful interfaith dialogue? The challenge to the rational mind is explored in relation in the following Sufi perspective:
Some mystic traditions use jokes, stories and poetry to express certain ideas. Allowing the bypassing of the normal discriminative thought patterns. The rationality that confines and objectifies the thinking process is the opposite of the intuitive, gestalt mentality that the mystic is attempting to engage, enter and retain. By developing a series of impacts that reinforce certain key ideas, the rational mind is occupied with a surface meaning whilst other concepts are introduced. Thus paradox, unexpectedness, and alternatives to convention are all stressed. That is what makes us laugh.
Peter Collins (Humour and Related Experience: Towards an Integral Appreciation, 2005) reinforces this sense of a relationship between humour and spiritual insight:
Indeed, as I hope to make clear, the underlying nature of humour bears a very close relationship to authentic spiritual understanding. So the proper recognition of the creative capacity of humour is ultimately inseparable from appreciation of the nature of the mystical process itself and can only find fulfilment through pure spiritual attainment.
Is there any possibility of collective enlightenment from interfaith discourse characterized by humour? The comments of M. Conrad Hyers (The Ancient Zen Master as Clown-Figure and Comic Midwife. Philosophy East and West, 1970) suggest possibilities:
In his review of Mel Gibson's controversial movie The Passion of the Christ (Icon Productions, 2004), Gabriel Vahanian (No Christ, No Jesus) refers to the views of André de Peretti (Essai sur l'humour du Christ dans les évangiles. 2004) that "Christ" indeed belongs to the realm of language rather than to that of a rather indecent and self-infatuated history. Humour as a sifting device between the factual and the receiving sides. In keeping with this:
Humor consists in meaning what one does not say and in saying what one does not mean, for example, the plumber exclaiming "Excuse me, Sir" as he enters the bathroom and sees a lady. Jesus' statement "Whoever sees me, sees the Father" is to be seen in the same light. If so, on what grounds are the factual and the receiving sides to be sorted out? .... What, then, is the import of the distinction between factual and receiving sides, especially if humor is to be taken (though with a grain of salt) as some kind of hallmark of language? .... Truth is a fiction, but it is a fiction of language; it is not a remnant of the past, but a harbinger of the future. It does not rely on or lie in history so much as on and in language. As does humor, which loses its salt as soon as the twin realms of the subject and the object are confused with one another simply because one does not and cannot happen without the other. Facts are in and of themselves stubborn. They are mute.
The greatest incongruity in relation to the interfaith context, is the sustained and ofteh violent nature of groups who each claim to be inspired by a beneficient and peace-loving deity. A. Roy Eckardt (Divine Incongruity: comedy and tragedy in a post-Holocaust world, 1992) comments on Reinhold Niebuhr (Humour and Faith, 1946):
The intimate relation between humour and faith is derived from the fact that both deal with the incongruities of our existence. Humour is concerned with the immediate incongruities of life and faith with the ultimate ones. Laughter is our reaction to immediate incongruities and those which do not affect us essentially. Faith is the only possible response to the ultimate incongruities of existence which threaten the very meaning of our life.
For Eckardt, it is in the ontological dimension, in the thrust toward being, that valuable clues towards the nature of humour in relation to faith are to be found -- clues that are possibly of direct relevance to the interfaith challenge. As clues he identifies ten "proto-jokes" from which he considers that all other humour derives:
Given the capacity of some religionists to joke about their own faith, or their condition as believers, there would be greater potential from a situation in which representatives of one religion could find humour in their own situation whilst in dialogue with those of others. What connectivity of higher dimension could such humour offer across the bounds of textual expression?
There is an implicit assumption in the currently fragmented condition of society that the "unreasonable" other parties -- with whom effective dialogue has not proven possible -- have no sense of humour. Or perhaps that their sense of humour is inappropriate, in bad taste, and necessarily to be condemned outright.
It is therefore worth generalizing the challenge and exploring the hypothetical question of extraterrestial humour and the nature of humanity's potential encounter with it (cf Communicating with Aliens: the psychological dimension of dialogue, 2000). The fragmented cultures of the world tend to pride themselves on their particular sense of humour. Is it possible that extraterrestrials would find humanity so unsophisticated in its humour as to be effectively humourless -- even deadly boring -- by galactic standards? Might this aesthetic inadequacy be a reason for their failure to enter into communication? (cf Raymond M. Smullyan. Planet Without Laughter, 1980]. Or are crop circles an effort at extraterrestrial humour?
Is it possible that extraterrestrial humour might be used as a vehicle for forms of complex communication that cannot be carried through the linearity of conventional language? Alternatively, might it be that humour is used (as in the best of French repartie calling for the most vigilance) as a fundamental feature of a dialogical marshal art -- a form of verbal aikido. Aliens may envisage "humour-playfulness space" as a complex analogue to a multidimensional board game along the lines envisaged by Nobel Laureate Herman Hesse (The Glass Bead Game, 1943). Perhaps the galaxy associates "civilization" with views similar to those of Peter Ustinov: "I was irrevocably betrothed to laughter, the sound of which has always seemed to me to be the most civilised music in the world."
Verbal aikido is already recognized as a technique of redirecting a conversation with a difficult person in the direction one wants it to go -- not responding in kind but rather accepting what is heard, blending it into a point that both parties can agree on and then redirecting the energy to find agreement or a better solution (cf Thomas F. Fischer. Verbal Aikido: techniques for managing verbal attacks, 2004).
Again, as "neophytes" would humanity offer the slightest interest to "black belt" galactic interlocuteurs -- given its propensity for what might amount to "stone age" forms of dialogue? Perhaps extraterrestrials recognize that humanity is as yet incapable of protecting itself from galactic-style laughter -- given the insight that: "Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand" (Mark Twain). Humour may well have been developed into a cognitively "deadly" memetic weapon by extraterrestrials -- somewhat as anticipated by the Monty Python Most Deadly Joke in the World. Perhaps, without knowing it, humanity is indeed the greatest joke in the galaxy. Is it possible that there is a galactic "Richter Scale" for the potential impact of a joke on a planetary culture?
More relevant, and far closer to home, are the "aliens" associated with immigration or with the generation gap in many families -- for which humour offers a mode of communication.
-- Pattern A: Four "humours" in the classical
It is instructive to recall that "humour" as currently understood emerged in the West in the 19th century. Prior to that, there was a marked tendency to associate it with the classical understanding of four humours (deriving from Galen) as descriptions of psychological temperaments, particularly as they related to conditions of physical health. As noted by D. Griffith (Ancient Humour. Queen's University, Department of Classics):
Given all the spit, snot, blood, semen, vomit and so on that leeches out of the body, ancient physicians were pretty sure that the body's four elements must all be liquid, so they called them chumoi in Greek or humores in Latin. The latter word is related to our "humid" and "aqueous humour". The four humours are phlegm (... spit), bile (... stomach acid), blood ... and black bile... If you were healthy, you had an equal measure of these four juices, and so a good temper(ament), using that word in the sense of "measure", as in J. S. Bach's Well-tempered Klavier.Griffith notes:
Vestigially, the theory of humours survives in such expressions as: "ill-humoured", "good-humoured", "black with rage", "in a black mood", "yellow with jealousy", "green with envy", "yellow-livered", "red with remorse", and so forth. And we still use "sanguine" or "melancholy" to describe certain temperaments.
The four humours were associated with the classical four elements to give correspondences that can be summarized in the following table [more]
A relationship of the elements and humours to the eight modes of classical Greek music offers further insights into the playful connotations of humour [more]. Such a modal perspective is a feature of Byzantine and Gregorian music [more], as well as of contemporary musical theory [more more].
Taking account of the perspective of various religions, an operating understanding of the relationship between various forms of humour currently recognized can be presented in the following table.
Outer ring: The various forms of humour clustered within this ring are basically those "at the expense" of external others:
The upper-left quadrant might be understood as corresponding to the innocent or non-tendentious humour identified by Freud (1905) in contrast with the tendentious humour of the other quadrants -- being essentially aggressively hostile and/or sexual. With respect to the contrast between humour of the top left and bottom right quadrants, a helpful distinction is made by Argiris Archakis (Constructing identities via humor, 2004). In the first case humour criticizes the "other" behaviour, whereas in the second humour serves as a correction mechanism of in-group behaviour in a rather covert manner. In both cases, the target of humour reinforces the existing bonds among group members, while bringing the evaluative dimension of humour to the surface. According to Francis H Buckley (The Morality of Laughter, 2003) of the two main theories explaining laughter, the Positive Thesis asserts that this is due to feeling superior to the butt of the joke (whether or not this is so), whereas the Normative Thesis assets that those laughing are actually superior to the butt of the joke. In this mode humour enables people to see faults and avoid them, or to note virtues and reinforce them. At best, humour within the outer ring serves a function protective of identity. To some degree humour, especially in the form of a targetted joke, is used as a weapon to that end.
Middle ring: The various forms of humour clustered within this ring are those "at one's own expense", "at the expense" of internal (rather than external) "others" -- rather than taking oneself too seriously. It challenges mindsets and constructs of the mindsets generating the humour :
In terms of the study of Argiris Archakis, the emphasis here is on "self-targeting humour" (and its function as a discourse strategy used for identity construction). This can be interpreted as an index of either lack or presence of self-confidence and self-esteem -- an ambivalence that renders it a very effective device for identity construction [more]. Rather than the isolated joke of the outer ring, it is an underlying "sense of humour" that is characteristic of this middle ring.
Central ring: Here the types of humour, separately characteristic of each of the four quadrants, are in dynamic interplay -- perhaps to be understood as associated with laughter of the "salvatory" type (cf Dudley Zuver, Salvation by Laughter, 1933; John Dart, The Laughing Savior, 1976; Peter L Berger, Redeeming Laughter: the comic dimension, 1997). The distinction in the outer rings between "external" and "internal", between "at" and "with", is no longer primary. This interplay might be most fruitfully illustrated metaphorically by the dynamics of the quadrille dance (with five figures, in common time, four couples of dancers being in each set), a musical quartette (especially engaged in improvisation), or the quadrille of four horses and riders performing a series of synchronized movements [more]. These movements illustrate the systemic interweaving of the following dynamics:
In terms of the containment of plasma in the fusion reactor metaphor, and the avoidance of "quenching", these dynamics are associated experientially with dimesnions undetected by the UNDP Human Development Report :
The spirit characteristic of this inner ring may be illustrated by: Gordon W. Allport: "So many tangles in life are ultimately hopeless that we have no appropriate sword other than laughter"; Lin Yutang: "It is important that man dreams, but it is perhaps equally important that he can laugh at his own dreams"; or Hermann Hesse's reference to ultimate humour as "the laughter of the gods." which has no "object " -- being borne of humour that "renounces without renouncing," and "possesses without possessing" (Steppenwolf, 1929). This might be understood as a fifth form of laughter -- distinct from that of each of the four quadrants above.
As a holistic mathematician, Peter Collins (Humour and Related Experience: Towards an Integral Appreciation, 2005) provides useful comments on the emergent insight from the moment-by-moment dynamic of the central ring. In his words:
As Collins makes clear, corresponding to the various forms of humour noted earlier might be equally distinct forms of sorrow or depression -- exemplified by the so-called "dark night of the soul" [more].
An archetype may be understood as the original model of which all other similar persons, objects, or concepts are merely derivative, copied, patterned, or emulated -- of which they are in some manner isomorphs. In the case of depth psychology, archetypes are innate prototypes for ideas, which may subsequently become involved in the interpretation of observed phenomena. For Carl Jung, for example, they are a form of psychological organ, directly analogous to the physical, bodily organs: both being morphological givens for the species; both arising at least partially through evolutionary processes [more]. The principal archetypes distinguished by Jung are: The Self, The Shadow, The Anima, The Animus. These might be understood as a four-fold pattern similar to the tables above. Particular forms of humour might be characteristic of each. The negative destructive form, for example, might well be associated with The Shadow.
Symbolic figures, drawn from modern or ancient myths, constitute more specific archetypes. The deities of a culture may perform archetypal functions. Such archetypes include:
Particular styles of humour might be associated with deities of a particular kind. The Trickster, as noted earlier, performs an ambiguous transformative function (of enantiodromia) associated with that of The Shadow. The Trickster may be constrasted with The Hero. There is an extensive literature thar explores archetypes and personality types -- with which types of humour might then be associated.
An exceptionally insightful articulation of the relationship between different forms of humour is provided by Peter Collins (Humour and Related Experience: Towards an Integral Appreciation, 2005). He distinguishes four humours and relates them to the quadrant schema of Ken Wilber (An Integral Theory of Consciousness, 1997) -- as the diagonals:
For Collins, though all of these types of "humour" are present in typical adult development, they tend to remain separate and somewhat unrelated to each other (as argued above with respect to the middle and outer rings of the earlier table). "Proper appreciation -- and more importantly experience -- of their complementary nature requires the more advanced stages of contemplative spiritual development where all aspects are ultimately harmonised in a continual humour or disposition that is permanently sustainable". It is in this sense that his focus might possibly be understood as an exploration of the dynamics within the "central ring" in the earlier table. A particular strength of his approach is the embodiment of sorrow (or despair) as a feature of the dynamics of humour -- normally understood in a positive sense -- by explicitly relating it to attachment to particular phenomenal forms. Humour then is woven into the dynamics of attachment and detachment.
Collins stresses the relationship between immanence and transcendence in the above pattern. "Through immanence we are enabled to appreciate our humanity (as grounded in the phenomenal world of form). Through transcendence we are correspondingly enabled to go beyond limited appreciation of such humanity through a deepening of spiritual awareness (that is ultimately empty of all phenomenal form)".
Collins distinguishes the four humours as follows:
Collins contrasts his approach with that of Wilber, relating them as follows:
With respect to the dynamics of the humours, Collins notes:
As suggested earlier, it is the quality of the interplay between these humours that acquires greater significance in more mature responses. For Collins: "The essence of this charm is that it combines opposite characteristics in a continuous harmonious manner that always seems appropriate for the occasion". It is effectively the dance between different forms of attachment and detachment.
Reference was made above to the study of John Paulos (Mathematics and Humor: a study of the logic of humor, 1980) that develops a mathematical model of jokes (joke schema) using ideas from Rene Thom's catastrophe theory (see Table F) -- seeing laughter as the sign of a "cognitive catastrophe". Elsewhere (Towards a logico-mathematical formalization of "sin": Fundamental memetic organization of faith-based governance strategies, 2004), the various forms of sin have also been explored as existential catastrophes.
The different forms of "catastrophe" (fold, cusp, swallow tail, butterfly, elliptic, hyperbolic, and parabolic), summarized in the table above, could clarify the dynamics of these relations even further (cf Navigating Alternative Conceptual Realities: clues to the dynamics of enacting new paradigms through movement, 2002). The challenge is to relate "attachment" and "detachment", associated with humour dynamics, to the forms of the catastrophes to which they give rise. To the extent that humour can be understood as a form of progressive "encroachment", further insights from catastrophe theory have been discussed elsewhere ("Catastrophe" as the outcome of encroachment, 2004).
In the light of the emphasis in humour studies on the "target" (cf Argiris Archakis.Constructing identities via humor, 2004), a formal approach may be taken to interrelating humorist and target. The method, in its most general form, was first explored by Edward Haskell (Generalization of the structure of Mendeleev's periodic table, 1972) to map pairs of interacting biological species in terms of the nature of their transaction or "game". This gave rise to a "coaction cardioid" discussed elsewhere (Cardioid Attractor Fundamental to Sustainability: 8 transactional games forming the heart of sustainable relationship, 2005). The approach has also been used as the basis for distinguishing "playing" from "gaming" (Playfully Changing the Prevailing Climate of Opinion: Climate change as focal metaphor of effective global governance, 2005). Given its emphasis on dominant and subordinate relationships in system control, its application to humour could take the following form:
Peter Collins (Humour and Related Experience: Towards an Integral Appreciation, 2005) also briefly considers a mathematical treatment of categories of humour from the perspective of holistic mathematics.
As explored in an editorial of The Times of India (Mathematics and the Calculus of Humour. 20 November 2002):
Formal structures, whether institutions, beliefs systems or disciplines, tend to be based on particular patterns. This attachment to particular patterns is to be contrasted with the possible playful rearrangement of patterns (such as those above) that is characteristic of creativity in all its forms. This is best illustrated by the patterns evident in the traditional childrens' kaleidoscope -- now available in a variety of forms as interactive web applets (see: Permadi, Brown, Georg, Zefrank, Plunk, Evergreen, as well as the basis for a 3D variant). Using four changing patterns in an applet, David E. Joyce makes a point pertinent to the identification here of the pattern "most appropriate" to the ordering of varieties of humour: Multifaceted Perspectives: the value of a common stock as viewed by four investors. The visual effects of a traditional kaleidoscope are of course based on a form of visual illusion. How to build structures based on alternative patterns and how to transform into them is of course another matter.
The nature of this "playfulness" has of course been expressed in the mythical interplay between the deities of every pantheon -- in forms adapted for human comprehension. Works such as the Mahabharata are popular celebrations of this interplay. Any analysis of the games that gods play with each other in such contexts offers useful insights.
In considering the relationship of playfulness and humour, Vassilis Saroglou (Religion and sense of humor: an a priori incompatibility? Theoretical considerations from a psychological perspective, 2002) notes:
A previous essay (cf Playfully Changing the Prevailing Climate of Opinion: Climate change as focal metaphor of effective global governance, 2005) explored the role of playfulness in contrast with game-playing -- and the nature of the excitement to which it gave rise. It is this excitement that is also characteristic of the humour associated with playfulness. Such playfulness, like humour, is fundamental to the creative process -- to the tentative appreciation of the significance of any apparently emergent order. The dynamic of both playfulness and humour requires an ability to dissociate from any particular emergent pattern in order to explore others. In this sense both humour and playfulness may be understood as exercises in detachment. As argued by Vassilis Saroglou:
Expressed differently, humour becomes the gateway (or conduit) for insight -- through another dimension -- between dimensionally gated mindsets (cf Dynamically Gated Conceptual Communities: emergent patterns of isolation within knowledge society, 2005). This corresponds to Vassilis Saroglou's argument that from a systemic perspective, humour may be considered as a way to get out of a closed and structured system [more].
The outer and middle ring above might be considered as corresponding to a form of polarization, which is effectively transcended in the playful humour dynamic of the central ring. This matches the observation of Vassilis Saroglou:
Such perspectives, and the nature of the dynamic of the inner ring above, suggest a need to understand how "fullness" has in effect to be "played" in order to emerge, and become active, as a higher form of order in the moment (cf The Isdom of the Wisdom Society: Embodying time as the heartland of humanity, 2003). Musicians have to perform their various roles in order for the coherence of a symphony to emerge. In contrast with the legislative product, perhaps it is how the "fullness" is played in celebration of the cosmic plenum [more] that is the key to the appropriate dynamics of "plenary" assemblies? It is perhaps the associated understanding of a "ground of being" that is missing in reflection on sustainability.
As discussed elsewhere (Knowledge Gardening through Music patterns of coherence for future African management as an alternative to Project Logic, 2000), the epistemological engagement with this ground of being is explored by Antonio de Nicolas (Meditations through the Rg Veda. Shambhala, 1978 ) with respect to the four complementary languages of the Sanskrit Rg Veda:
The dynamic of humour, in its most fundamental sense, is intimately related to this "sacrifice".
The points made above are all suggestive of possibility -- alluding to the potential of how humour might be drawn upon in ways that are either new or neglected in relation to the challenges of the times. Of necessity, in terms of the argument, such possibilities may well not lend themselves to more formal description. The linearity of such description is, according to this argument, of a dimensionality too low to constitute an adequate vehicle for communication purposes. As is well-recognized, if the joke has to be explained the humour loses its essential experiential properties. This points to the possibility that the systemic links vital to the coherence of society may not lend themselves to adequate articulation in formal texts.
A brief checklist may however point to areas for further investigation regarding the higher-dimensional connectivity potentially catalyzed by humour -- and the resulting ability to enable comprehension of patterns of feedback loops vital to sustainability:
Although such topics may appear abstruse, it is worth recalling how much is now made of the highly abstract notion of "image" in presenting political personalities and strategic concepts -- and how much is invested in building and sustaining an appropriate image. Curiously "sustainable development" has no coherent "image" associated with it -- however much it might be said to be a feature of the Zeitgeist. What can be said of the "image" of the future as cultivated by the United Nations or the G8 in their various declarations? What is the carrying capacity of such images?
With respect to the traditional ambitions for a comprehensive "single image" to map the conceptual world, Chris Mullen (Yung-hsien Chen's Images of the Absolute, 2002) notes:
Perhaps the dynamics of humour can provide a higher dimensional template more appropriate to the times than the statics of such a Single Image.
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