Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Too serious

I was thinking, as I rehearsed a lecture, that we think many things are serious, and other things are funny. As a result, humour in the classroom is thought often innapproriate. But perhaps the highest compliment a stand- up comedian can receive is that they are funny and they make you think. In a sense, observational comics like George Carlin and Jerry Seinfeld use humour to begin deconstruct the notional world we live in. They take the first step to rethinking our fundamental assumptions, because they find the absurdities and incongruities that make us laugh, but that thus expose the constructed nature of the world we live in.

I am not saying we have a solipsistic or purely made up or textual(post-modern?) world. I am saying that we experience the measured pace of time as temporality. That is to say, five minutes is excruciatingly short in the arms of a loved one, and excruciatingly long in the line up to use the bathroom. Fourteen seconds is a flash of time during "the little death" but an eternity of dying during a waterboarding. Similarly, the measure of space is interpreted as spaciality. My apartment would seem small to many North Americans, who are used to living in 185 Square meter houses, yet for many Asians, my apartment would seem spacious. Similarly, I am about 168 cm tall- apparently the average height for a human being. I can reach the top shelf, but don't bang my head on low doorways. My son's experience of space is that of a 105cm boy. Much of the architecture and furnishings are too big for him to easily negotiate. Additionally, he is growing quickly, in spurts, so his embodied experience is often one of clumsiness, as his arms, legs and head may suddenly reach farther than his reflexes had accounted for.

This clumsiness, this absurdity, this unheimlich experience makes us laugh. So I argue that we should embrace humour to help unpack social and philosophical constructions that we are surrounded with. The difference between the lecturer and the comedian is two fold, however. The comedian needs only unpack this absurdity that we might laugh. Indeed, many succesful comedians then go on to recontextualise the absurdity so what is funny becomes understandable, so as to stabilise. Jay Leno, arguably the most popular comedic figure in North America, has said that comedy is the cowards way of fighting back. Once you get the laugh, resistance is spent, is the essence of his arguement.

The second difference is that the lecturer must theorise and so explain and recontextualise the phenomena he or she is talking about. This exposes the possibility that the meaning, and hence the significance of a given phenomena, be it social, physical or even abstract(what are the ideas in my head?) can shift or become polysemous.

An example of a polysemous recontextualisation is the biblical commandment"Thou shalt not kill". This dictum is very clear, yet many who claim to be christian also support the death penalty and war. They recontextualise killing from an absolute prohibition into one that is contextualised by who, where and when the killing takes place. But when others argue that abortion constitutes a sovereign right of a woman over her body- to take the most fractious debate over killing in our society, as the debate extends even to whether or not abortion even constitutes killing- we can see how a naive recontextualisation takes place. Part of the lecturer's job is to consciously offer recontextualisations of a phenomena, having "unpacked".

We can unpack humour to say it makes the uncomfortable process of examining the unexamined more acceptable. But as I mentioned, it can help to repack an idea, leaving it's social position intact. at the same time, it can relieve the emotional discomfort, making it possible to grapple with the phenomena as it takes on new and more complex significances.

"If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country."
-E.M. Forster