September 23, 2005

Men show their characters in nothing more clearly than in what they think laughable.
- Goethe

Well before Aristotle, the orthodox western viewpoint has attempted to separate, compartmentalise, and classify the world around us, to identify as "not this, but that": this is edible, that is not. Not until the relatively recent overhaul of taxonomy, with parallel chaos and quantum theories arising across the fields, has it again been considered that something could be "both this and that".

In the act of classification, categories were often associatively assigned a relative value which did not inherently exist: and thus the act of classification also became the act of stratification. To say "not this, but that" gradually became "this is better than that": even though the act of classification itself does not in itself require assignation of value, only of quality. However, it can be very difficult to identify classifying factors without assigning a parallel relative value.

Do we gain more in understanding and in process of understanding by classifying differentiating factors or by identifying shared traits? Is the process of differentiation enhanced by assigning relative value to categories, or is its usefulness as a tool for understanding undermined thereby? Is it still possible to identify and classify something that exists in this group but not in that group without automatically assigning relative value? Me, I think yes: but I know that many others not only don't agree, but don't see any point in identification and classification independent of linked relative value.

Out of observation, identification, and classification arises humour.

Accurate, pointed observation often comes at the expense of those unwilling to acknowledge that particular way of seeing ... or perhaps unwilling to acknowledge that way of seeing, when coming from the person speaking. The joke is a product both of speaker and listener. The same observation becomes good-humoured, dry, insulting, even bitter: depending upon who speaks, how it is said, what is said, and how the audience is willing to take that observation from that specific speaker. (Is it even possible to create true humour that is not at the expense of somebody?) I find at least two possibilities determining differences in perception between speaker and listener, and thus difference as to whether something is in fact found humorous by both:

1) descriptive observation vs. valuation of what has been observed2) insider vs. outsiderThis second might suggest why there seems to be a general willingness to accept personal observation more from a member of the "targeted" group than from someone outside that social group: the distinction between a denizen of a small town poking fun at their own small town foibles (and from within, one is assumed to know what are "just" foibles, as someone watching from outside cannot), as opposed to others making fun of those who live in that small town. The insider's joke is an (occasionally rueful) observation, while the outsider's joke can easily come to be taken as implied criticism or mockery or even thinly-veiled insult as given from a self-perceived position of superiority. In sharp contrast, "own group" observations by one firmly part of the targeted group, however darkly satirical those observations, will often be taken as humorous if at all possible: even when those observations were sometimes not intended as humorous in the slightest. Perhaps it is easier for us to reinterpret the uncomfortable into a "third person anonymous" humorous observation (consider the rant, raised to an art form) than to imagine that level of "own group" criticism or self-bitterness ... and thus, implicitly, to focus that sharp a scalpel at ourselves?

Yet while jokes targeting a particular social group by an outsider to that group can quickly become perceived as thinly-veiled insult regardless of intent. Add to this that not infrequently, the intent seems to be precisely that of elevating oneself at the expense of another social group: a zero-sum game of relative worth where one's own value can only be maintained by diminishing the value of others.

But surely, if one is secure in oneself: there is more than enough inherent personal value to go around?

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