Monday, August 27, 2012

Comedy and Existential Cosmicism

In Inkling of an Unembarrassing Postmodern Religion, I suggest that a certain sense of humour is needed to sustain a naturalistic spiritual perspective, one that’s viable despite modern science’s disenchantment of the world. But what is comedy and how is it relevant to existential cosmicism? I’ll address these questions in order.

What is Comedy?

There are several types of comedy, but the relevant one has been explained as an instinctive response to the perception of cognitive incongruity. When a concept is used to make sense of some real situation, but the concept doesn’t fit, there’s pleasure in recognizing and rectifying the disharmony by supplying the appropriate concept. This is the basis of irony, for example. Irony is a discrepancy between intended and literal meaning. For example, suppose a dog owner is worried that his dog will bite people, so he muzzles the dog when walking him, but then during the walk the dog owner is mugged and the dog is rendered useless for defense. The owner intends to protect bystanders and ultimately himself from the repercussions were his dog to harm someone, since he would be responsible. But what the owner effectively does is harm himself, by preventing his dog from attacking someone who should be attacked. (This example is derived from a Sergio Aragones cartoon.) So the owner’s thought about walking his dog, that he’s being a responsible owner for protecting public safety, doesn’t fit the facts of the situation he finds himself in. This sort of story is amusing, because in recognizing the incongruity we see both the mistake and the correct way of thinking about what happens: we recognize the dog owner’s faulty, doomed conception of what he’s doing, and we add the correct conception, which is that by muzzling his dog the owner unknowingly exerts much effort in sabotaging his welfare.

In his book, On the Problem of the Comic, Peter Marteinson develops the Incongruity Theory, explaining that laughter restores the anthropomorphic hallucination of the world, by distracting us from situations that demonstrate the world’s impersonality. Normally, he says, we project social categories onto nature, personifying the world so that we feel comfortable in it, treating the wilderness as society’s mere backyard, as it were. (See Existential Cosmicism and Technology.) The alternative is to worry about whether a horrible mistake has been made in some cosmic boardroom, when creatures like us evolve who are predisposed to seek the comfort of social belonging but who are intelligent enough to discover that they’re surrounded on all sides by alien territories that stretch to infinity, by the entire natural universe outside of our artificial dwellings. (See Curse of Reason and Lovecraftian Horror.)

A humourous situation arises when either natural facts disprove our anthropocentric metaphors, which Marteinson calls a process of Deculturation, or one such metaphor conflicts with another, which he calls Relativization. Returning to the dog owner, by muzzling his dog he assumes he’s surrounded by civilized people who will appreciate his safety precautions, whereas that’s proven to be a presumption by the existence of a parasite who preys on society. The optimistic expectation is rendered dubious by its conflict with natural reality. Relativization would be apparent from the clash between social conventions: in some cultures dogs are pets, whereas in others they’re eaten or used in combat sports. When we appreciate that societies have conflicting conventions for personifying nature, we suspect that our culture is arbitrary and worthless--at least from most foreign perspectives.

Either way, the anthropomorphic view of the world is unsettled. However, laughter rescues us from anxiety by causing us to forget the conflict that threatens the contentment we feel from the childlike enchantments we cast on the world. Laughter returns us to Eden, to a childlike conception of nature in which the self isn’t ruthlessly distinguished from the rest of the world; instead, we project our psychological attributes onto what modern science shows are impersonal forces and processes. As indicated in the Genesis myth, in conceptualizing or “naming” things, we gain power over them in that we lose fear of their otherness by bringing to bear the brain’s power of associative thinking; that is, we metaphorically compare anything in the world to what we’re most comfortable with, namely our conscious selves. When the world shakes us from this dream world, from this mass hallucination or Matrix that sustains our beastly preoccupations with procreation and personal happiness, and thus our enslavement to our genetic program, we’re initially caught between a dark existential reaction and the comedic, reassuring one. We see that our na├»ve personifications of the world falsify natural reality, but instead of succumbing to horror or angst, we immediately reach for the cure: we laugh the fear away.

The staccato beat and the ups and downs of pitch in laughter seem to express the role of comedy in drawing us away from a constant threat. A humourous situation is one in which we’re free to go back and forth between the mystical, scientific, objective view from nowhere, which doesn’t indulge in childish enchantment of nature, and the massively metaphorical perspective with its spillover socialization. The pleasure of laughter is the experience of being easily, cheaply rescued, of feeling invulnerable and in command. The world forces us to doubt the veracity of our anthropomorphic projections, by deviating from our expectations or preferences, and we appreciate the difference between the subjective and objective conceptions, but we restore the subjective one, escaping from the philosophy-induced miseries of living with nature’s inhumanity, with no illusions. We do this by finding humour in the difference between the humanized and the alien worlds; we make fun of the incongruity instead of dispensing with our folk metaphors; we laugh, and the laughter is like the song of the Pied Piper, which leads children back to the cave of ignorance.

Gallows Humour and Existential Cosmicism

The philosophical relevance of this kind of comedy should be clear. Laughter typically distracts us so that we can instinctively reintegrate our anthropocentric metaphors with natural reality. This prevents an outbreak of philosophical awakening. Indeed, the modern, Scientistic Enlightenment is followed by postmodern trivialization and satire. In the postmodern frame of mind, we mock the absurdities and tragedies that follow from science’s demolition of the metaphors that keep us happy and productive, just as on the micro scale, an individual defensively laughs when the undead cosmos, which is the mindlessly creative universe, casts off the mask we hold over its horribly alien face. (See Postmodernism.)

Why, then, do I say that laughter has a positive role in a viable naturalistic religion, that is, in a religion that doesn’t effectively advocate a retreat to delusion like all exoteric branches of theism? I distinguish between delusion-reinforcing comedy, which is opposed to noble spirituality, and grim, gallows humour, the sort we might imagine displayed at the moment of our species’ extinction as depicted by Olaf Stapledon at the end of Last and First Men. As explained above, the first type of humour soothes our nerves as a prelude to restoring the degrading, childlike viewpoint. But the second type soothes only to permit us to live heroically with the disenchanted outlook. In the first case, comedy is an ignoble lie that distracts to restore a false sense of security, but in the second case comedy is a noble lie that gives the weary cosmicist a break from contemplating cosmic undeadness. The default mindset in bad humour is defined by the mainstream Matrix, by the conventions that re-enchant nature with happy-talk and fantasies of personification, whereas the default mindset in good humour is the humiliating, ethically and aesthetically superior philosophical one that so taxes an outcast, loser, or other omega person that she makes ironic use of irony, laughing wistfully to preserve that which ordinary humour represses, which is the mystical viewpoint.  

Both kinds of humour are means of escaping from the horror of impersonal cosmic reality, but admirable humour requires visceral hostility to delusions and the will to rest from ennobling philosophical contemplation only as needed to return to the burden in the long run. With those philosophical commitments in the background, much light can be made of our existential predicament, and this humour at our expense is like a bagpipes tune played on the field of war, to inspire the troops to face their doom with honour. Grim humour works the same as the ordinary kind, except that instead of numbing us to the mismatch between our mainstream ways of thinking and the world’s manifest inhumanity, grim laughter is bittersweet and reminds us of our mission as creative rebels: to understand our position within the undead god and to artistically make the best of it.  


  1. This topic is fresh on my mind, having recently come off my second viewing of the Coen Brothers' under-appreciated A Serious Man. In case you haven't seen it, I won't give the plot away except to say that they heighten the stakes of the unmasking of impersonal reality by constantly dangling the carrot of the uncanny in front of the protagonist (and by extension, the audience). His world is full of hints and rumors and innuendos which taunt him with the prospect of a providential universe, if only he knew where to look, or whom to ask -- only to see the wisdom of the wise laid low, their pretensions deflated.

    I suppose one other important function of existential comedy is as a psychic signalling mechanism. The writer/musician/artist lets others know that even though we are cosmically alone, we are not humanly alone. The atheist with no one in her social orbit who shares her insights is freed from paroxysms of self-doubt ("I am the only one I know who sees the world in this way. Could I be the one who is mistaken? Horribly, tragically mistaken, even insane?") and given evidence that staring into the abyss without illusion or mediation is an experience the human soul can survive, since others have clearly done so.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts. I have seen A Serious Man. I think the ending's abruptness is effective. As I recall, there's a tornado and then the movie just ends. I take it the tornado symbolizes God's inhuman power. The movie's not fresh in my mind, though: what happens with the chief rabbi? Does he turn out to be a fraud or is his wisdom far beyond the main character's comprehension? I think the chief rabbi gives him very practical advice. But I wonder why you think the movie shows that the wisdom of the wise is laid low. I don't recall that, exactly.

      I suppose you're right about the social potential of existential humour. I'll be doing a blog soon on one of the classic existential cosmicist comedies, the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series.

  2. In classic faerie tale structure, there are three rabbis. The first is the Junior Rabbi with no life experience (basically, a grad student), and so comedy derives from the ridiculous image of this unmarried babyface kid attempting to dispense marital advice to a physics professor in his 40s.

    The second rabbi gives us the tale of the Goy's Teeth. That's one of the examples of the carrot of the uncanny -- an event that surely seems to point to a higher power... except... he's just out of reach, and not returning calls. All he has are bland platitudes about "helping others". ( Rabbi #2 can't help either.

    He desperately seeks out Rabbi Marshak (, surrounded by the paraphernalia of moral, intellectual, and spiritual authority, and has the door closed on him.

    Finally, on the day of his Bar Mitzvah, it's his son who is permitted to drink wisdom straight from the firehose of this man who, in theory, is the closest to divinity in their earthly community. What does he know that the rest of us don't?

    He turns out to be a borderline senile man who quotes Jefferson Airplane and then tells him to "be a good boy". That's it. A millennia-old wisdom tradition can only, at its very, very best, rise to the level of profundity of a pop song that a stoner teen already had on his transistor radio all along.

    I read the tornado as manifesting the inhuman power of "the undead god", as you put it.

  3. Ah yes, now I remember. I wonder whether Marshak's advice to the son is out of place, though. What more advice did the kid need at that stage? I didn't see that scene as casting doubt on Marshak's sanity. All outsider gurus would seem strange from a mainstream perspective.

    Also, is this movie targeting all wisdom traditions or Judaism in particular? I suppose Judaism might be taken to represent them all, but Western and Eastern religions are pretty different. Frankly, my stereotype of the guru is of a Buddhist or Hindu monk, not a rabbi, and I say this coming from a Jewish background.

  4. I'd say it's more a synecdoche for supernatural traditions rather than any sort of targeted attack. You can only squeeze so much into the 1960s midwest. I take "guru" in the broadest possible sense of someone who claims to know something about the meaning of life that you don't, where this alleged expertise comes from tradition, authority, revelation etc.

    I suppose I'm amplifying the cosmicist implications to highlight them for the purposes of discussion. I wouldn't want to put any dogmatic views or grand metaphysical theses in the mouths of the filmmakers. I think the pop song is good advice, but its utility comes from its banality. In addition to comically deflating this guru they've been building up for an hour and half, the positive, uplifting message for the kid is that if you have the ability to aesthetically respond to pop music, you already have access to all the wisdom you can possibly expect.