News+and+politics religion philosophy the cynic librarian: On Irony: Laughing My Way to the Morgue

Saturday, January 14, 2006

On Irony: Laughing My Way to the Morgue

In an article at Yahoo, Gregg Zaroya at USA Today spotlights the Pentagon's chief laughter trainer, retired Army colonel James "Scotty" Scott. He's the Pentagon's point man in a program that trains (aka teaches) people how to laugh in times of emotional distress. He's been hard at work recently, what with military families experiencing anxiety and stress over their loved ones in war.

The Pentagon must be on to something here. What better way to turn on the spigot of emotional release and salve the hurt mortal coil than to chuckle in the face of death and despair? ...

There are several kinds of laughter. One might even make a distinction between humor and comedy. Humor is a wider category than comedy and includes such phenomena as sarcasm, satire, and irony. Comedy itself ranges from the visceral hilarity of bodily functions like farting to the more refined belly-laughs of a Richard Pryor or Robin Williams.

Such neat distinctions, of course, don't mean much in actual practice since comedians like Pryor and Williams can incorporate satire into their repertoire. The objective of all comedy of this form, then becomes a hazing of all pretensions to ethical standards. In this sense, comedy takes on a leveling function and destroys every ethical standard and throws it into the abyss of meaninglessness.

In traditional cultures, this process is often instituted as an order of sacred clowns. These clowns are sacred because they have the right to break every taboo and custom. Sacred clowns are sacred because they see and show that all customs, rules, taboos, and laws have their basis in something other than .human wants and needs--usually human vanity and egotism.

Now, the Pentagon's laugh machine works at a level lower than this. After all, it's the Pentagon, a place where rules, orders, procedures and every other type of regimentation is the order of the day. Instead of the sacred clown’s view of laughter, the Pentagon takes something like the "boiler room" approach to laughter and comedy. That is, there's only so much stress that the human meat machine can withstand, therefore it's got to vent that pent up pressurized stress in some way or other.

Now, no doubt, there's nothing more stressful than death and mayhem--if you choose to look at it in those terms. Yet, the Pentagon's prescription to "laugh" in the face of this despair borders on inanity. This prescription for public health at best seems like a simple call to personal mental hygiene. At worst it evokes an image of a lunatic staring into the abyss of insanity and laughing to him or herself at nothing.

The simplest reason for this is that it does not directly enable the laugher to face the real problem. In fact, it does its best to provide a mechanism to cover up any avenue of facing the real problem. By asking people to laugh at their fears and terrors with inane disregard, to take a smiley-face view of the world for a few seconds, the Pentagon’s laugh regime tells us that in reality it’s all a mechanical process that ultimately can be gotten over if you only release the pressure.

While there’s a semblance of common-sense to this way of seeing human emotions, a little reflection shows how the common-sense view does not cover the entire story. Indeed, the common-sense view here might simply reflect psycho-babble that’s made its way into the popular imagination. The psycho-babble may itself be based not on common-sense but instead on questionable empirical studies.

A higher level of humor is irony. To get a feel for what this is, consider what reading this article about the Pentagon program does. In being reported on and gaining public notice, the program becomes funny itself. But the humor here is not the same as the humor of a belly-laugh. Instead, the humor here is irony. That is, the irony is that someone might think that laughing in the face of personal and communal tragedy might solve anything other than at best a superficial inanity.

Irony brings us closer to truth because it disengages emotionally and intellectually from a given situation, creating a space in which a true and authentic response might be seen... or the lack of any such response, in Socrates' case. What irony does is show us contradiction. Usually the contradiction between reality and the ideal—in the case of the Pentagon’s laugh therapy, the gap appears in the paucity that its prescription could bring anyone closer to an awareness of the meaning fo themselves, their world, or the lives they mourn. The prescription simply does not engage the reality of the despair of those who mourn but are told to “laugh.”

As we progress up the scale of irony, we find its most extreme form in Socrates. Socrates questioned everything and made fun of it. You could never trust Socrates since he’d say he thought you were the wisest person but then he’d destroy every shred of knowledge you might hold to show you that you were the stupidest person in the world. And he didn’t simply do this to show that he was the all-time champ—he said (but can we take him at his word?) that he knew nothing. In fact, his knowing nothing is what drove him like a divine spur in his soul.

Socratic irony sheds all relativities in its search for something above and beyond the safe certainties that most people hide behind. It explodes these certainties not simply out of a desire to destroy—as perhaps nihilists and Romantics and some deconstructionists might see it—but out of a realization that nothing can indeed satisfy the desire for something that is completely different for what I can imagine or think about. Something completely different than what I am, the world is, or anything else in it is. It is this search not for the same but the different that lies at the basis of all human desire—from the search for a mate to the search for new identities or new worlds.

This search opposes the ironist to every social custom and structure that might set itself up as the final and absolute authority in ethics and morality. Since all humans lie to themselves, then how can anyone suppose that they have a monopoly on what’s true? Not only this, what human can truly say that they are human without understanding who they are? But finding this out means finding out what I am not—the absolutely different. Something that is the nothing that defines me but which I will and can never know, because if I know it then it becomes part of who I am.

Soren Kierkegaard once said that what modern Xtianity needs is a second Socrates. Realizing the hypocrisy and comfortable domesticity of the way that Xtian leaders of his time interpreted and lived the message that they preached but did not live, Kierkegaard saw that this Xtianity must be opposed by a new irony that called every institution—religious, political, social, and cultural—into absolute question. Given the modern propensity for crowd think and institutionalization, there is only one thing that can bring humans to their senses. This is an irony that dissolves and strips naked all certainties and power structures into their conniving and base lies.

I ask those who use irony whether they indeed have this desire. Whether they do not sink into a comfortable smirk and pessimistic yodeling in the dark at the thought of death and their own sense of superiority. By the same token, the power mongers who assume that they speak for the divine and believe that they have found the eternal source of right deserve every jibe that cuts them down to size. Their self-righteous smugness must be destroyed by any logical, moral, and poetic means available.

Perhaps then, once the dissolution has finally completed its alchemical transmutation—then and only then will a higher humor replace irony. Then and only then will the true human conundrum actually take shape and humans once again understand their irresolveable uniqueness that binds each to each in a shared vision.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Weren't there laugh machines in Germany during the 1930's? They were a box on the wall, they were wound them up or put a reichsmark in them and they laughed mechanically... an early form of television's canned laughter. Same kind of society in a way... ominous.