What Laughs at What? Mary Douglas on Humour

By John C. Brady

Jacob Cornelisz. van Oostsanen (possibly) — “Laughing Fool” — (ca. 1500)

Most recent philosophical investigations of humour take the ‘joke’ as the unit of analysis. This is understandable but regrettable. Understandable because the analysis of jokes offers a seemingly ‘clean’ laboratory. The joke can be isolated and its structure examined with the kind of logical analysis philosophers are extremely comfortable with. Also, because of the transportability of the joke, it makes for funnier books peppered with jokes and their analysis. But, this focus on jokes is regrettable because, well, when was the last time a joke had you in absolute stitches? Jokes have a very rigid and particular structure; when compared to everyday speech (where the humorous often emerges of its own accord) they have the formalism of a game like ‘I spy’. It is unclear, even after we have exhausted the analysis of all possible jokes, how much of what we’ve learned can be extrapolated to the full field of the ‘humorous’. After all, we may have perfectly identified some key structural features, but still be at a loss at what makes a ‘good joke’ — we may just have an accurate yet mute logical formalism that can only tell us about the necessary relationships between parts, but nothing of those parts themselves.

The effects of the over-emphasis on jokes manifest in what’s called the ‘incongruity’ theory of humour: that is, that we laugh when something incongruous ‘jumps up’ and blind sides us (like the surprise in the punchline of a joke). In an article for Aeon last year concerning the laughter of babies, Gina Mireault rightly points out that we don’t laugh at magic tricks, so incongruity simpliciter is not enough (she’s fully assumed the incongruity theory). She points out the standard adaptation: the humour arises when the incongruity is ‘resolved’, thus there is a “a ha!” effect in the humorous. It certainly seems that humour is what Justin E. H. Smith terms “truth revealing”; this is an important part of the puzzle of humour we will return to. But in the simple case of humour being a ‘resolved’ incongruity, we need only look back at a study cited in Mireault’s very own article: five month old babies reliably laugh when a researcher puts a cup on their head. This evidence of baby humour is then used to suggest that infants perhaps can ‘resolve’ incongruities, because, apparently, humour is ‘resolved incongruity’.

But, wait, what is being resolved here with the cup on the head? Of course, we can start spinning interpretations: the baby is all like “that’s a weird hat, I’m confused, oh, wait, it’s a cup! Haha.” Or, if we prefer, “That’s not how you use a cup, oh, wait, I guess it can be! Haha.” Etc etc. The silence of the baby allows us an infinity of ad hoc interpretations for our ‘resolved incongruity’ thesis. This all seems a bit of a stretch, though. We can perform the same operations with a whole host of other theories, such as Hobbes’ “I laugh because I suddenly feel superior to the fool in front of me” (baby thinks ‘look at this idiot, even I know how to use a cup’), Kant’s “a strained expectation dissolves into nothing” (baby thinks ‘oh man, the apple juice is going to go everywhere, oh, wait, it’s empty’), to Bergson’s “something inorganic encrusted on the living” (baby thinks ‘look at that inorganic plastic cup encrusted on this lively researcher, he’s not paying attention and has taken a cup for a hat, very witty…’).

When we are caught in a hermeneutic whirlpool like this, having a surplus of explanations with all of them capable of producing a dizzying surplus of interpretations, it’s usually a sign that we haven’t grasped fully the phenomenon to be interpreted. More data is needed. What kind of data? The temptation is just more jokes and funny scenes (because that’d be fun), but we will just endlessly reproduce our initial surplus in these new cases. We need more data from the initial case. But how to do that? The guy has a cup on his head. That’s all there is to it, right?

In “Do Dogs Laugh?” (1971), Mary Douglas begins by lamenting the then emphasis in communication theory on seeing the body as some kind of signal processor box, encoding and decoding signs for receipt and transmission. She points out for this metaphor to work, we need to envisage a signal box that vibrates, twists, jumps, sputters and sneezes…

The body talks, using all of itself. It does not communicate a signal as much as becomes a signal, or rather, it sits between these states. This body says “nice weather” at the same time as it becomes a body saying “nice weather”, as well as communicating, in its being the way that it is, that this is a way for bodies to be. Here bodies say “nice weather” when there is a blue sky over their heads.

The body communicates information for and from the social system in which it is a part. It should be seen as mediating the social situation in at least three ways. It is itself the field in which a feedback interaction takes place. It is itself available to be given as the proper tender for some of the exchanges which constitute the social situation. And further, it mediates the social structure by itself becoming its image. (Douglas, 1971, p.165)

Human communication is not an act of two inert machines transmitting information to each other, beep-boop-beep. On the contrary, it makes use of the full expressive and motile power of the body. Hand and facial gestures, sure, but even just in speaking hundreds of muscles leap around, coordinating exhalations, swallowing, lip moistening. The signals that emanate from human subjects literally issue forth from a tumultuous orifice.

Jens Frahm/Max Plank Institute for Biophysical Chemistry, MRI of Speech.

So, why aren’t we disgusted to speak and be spoken to? Or, more accurately, how is it that speech always appears as speech (hand gestures and facial expressions and all), and not often confused with the guttural emanations of an orifice (coupled with the bizarre gesticulations and grimaces of a madman)? And, how is it that not every motion of the hand or change of posture is noticed and taken as ‘part of array of signs’, though they sometimes speak in volumes? Douglas’ answer is to hypothesize a kind of screening-out, linked to a variable threshold, with that threshold then being determined by cultural patterning. How does this work? Well, imagine the most the rigid scenario you’ve ever had to be a part of: a funeral, a first date, or awards ceremony, or whatever. In these sorts of cultural practices the threshold is turned low, every small movement, clearing of the throat, sniff, movement of the eye, is taken as significant, as part of the body’s signalling function. The cultural practice establishes a set of patterns for how the body is to move, and sit, and stand, its gait, its gaze, and its voice. Contrast this with a much more ‘relaxed’ cultural practice, drinking in a bar, sitting in a loungeroom, lying on a beach, or whatever. Here the threshold ‘screening out’ the signifying possibilities of the body is raised extremely high. That is, to be in a ‘relaxed’ environment, wherever our culture situates them, is to be in an environment where most of what our bodies do, the way they move and sit and stand and their gazes and gaits and coughs and sneezes will be taken as meaningless noise. Screened-out and unnoticed.

The body is not always under perfect control. A screening process divests uncontrolled noises of meaning. The small hiccups, sneezes, heavy breathing, and throat clearings can and must be screened out as irrelevant noise, not to be treated as part of the bodily channel’s message. There are limits of tolerance. Once the limit is passed, the discourse has to be stopped. (Douglas, 1971, p.167)
These thresholds are set socially. In some social situations it is proper to take cognisance fully of bodily eruptions as part of the symbolising of familiarity and relaxation, in others the thresholds are lowered in response to the need to express formality and social distance. (ibid, p.168)

So far this screening out notion seems trivial, but she means it in a very deep way. We may think that talk of a ‘relaxed’ environment is a metonymic extension of the term ‘relaxed’. Likewise with a ‘relaxed’ work place where one can come in at 10:04am wearing a singlet in the summer. ‘Relax’ properly refers to the loosening of the rigid tension in muscles. But she means to speak of all of these with one brush. A non-relaxed environment, or workplace, is precisely one that calls for the rigidity of muscles, the threshold is low, the bodies signifying potential is unleashed, all movements need to be as precise as an automaton’s.

What’s going on in these different cultural practices, relaxed and rigid, is a difference of demand of articulation. Culture in itself calls upon our bodies to be articulated, to learn precise ways of standing and walking and sitting and speaking and gesturing (and even precise expectations on the degrees of the articulation of speech and gesture). Some spaces/practices within culture call upon our bodies to be articulated extremely precisely, and others allow it to relax into relative inarticulate formlessness. Points exist across this entire spectrum. These regimes of articulation Douglas calls ‘controlling patterns’ and they exist just as much in the stuffy formality of a formal dinner as they do waiting in line at an ATM. Always and everywhere our bodies communicate them by their very becoming patterns of controlled articulation: this is how I stand on a bus, this is how I greet a friend, this is how I prepare the little patch of grass I am about to sit on, this is how I receive a compliment, this is how I sit in a chair, this is how I make small talk. I.e, here is the pattern of controlled movements, gestures, signs and expressions, I make my body do when I am engaging in this practice/function.

The body is expressing both the social situation at a given moment, and also a particular contribution to that situation. Inevitably, then, since the body is mediating the relevant social structure, it does the work of communicating by becoming an image of the total social situation as perceived, and the acceptable tender in the exchanges which constitute it…
In its role as an image of society, the body’s main scope is to express the relation of the individual to the group. This it does along the dimension from strong to weak control, according to whether the social demands are strong, weak, acceptable or not. From total relaxation to total self-control the body has a wide gamut for expressing this social variable. (ibid)
Garry Winogrand — “New York” — (Circa 1950's)

In “On Jokes”, or alternatively “The Social Control of Cognition — Some Factors in Joke Perception” (1968) Douglas mobilizes this notion of ‘controlling patterns’ to give a full theory of humour.

Ready?

“[A]ny recognisable joke falls into this joke pattern which needs two elements, the juxtaposition of a control against that which is controlled, this juxtaposition being such that the latter triumphs.” (Douglas, 1968, p.365)

(A bit of Kantian strained expectation resolving to nothing here).

Obviously, this needs much unpacking. This is made difficult by the fact that though she commits for the most part to this formulation in spirit, she drifts on the ‘that which is controlled’ element. She variously puts that the second pattern is the one being controlled by the first, and that it is merely ‘hidden’ within/beneath the first, and that it is independent of and extraneous to the first.

The important first thing is that we are dealing with a play of form here. Humour is not all about, deep down, some thing, be that sex or death or power or bodies doin’ what they do. The humorous is a situation structured in a certain way. The ‘control’ here refers us back to all of the cultural articulations of the body, our patterns of activity. The basic sketch is that one of these patterns is subverted by another.

This is perhaps why the ‘formal occasion’ is such a ripe context for comedy. Here the slightest out of place gesture, tone, or exhalation, subverts the controlling pattern that coordinates the movements of all present into rigid attention, yet at the same time emerges as completely possible, merely suppressed.

Formal jokes often (always?) avail themselves of this subversion of a pattern: we’re listening to a story about two guys playing golf who see a funeral procession, only at the punchline to realize we were all along listening to a story about a husband who goes golfing on the day of his wife’s funeral. But Douglas doesn’t want to limit herself to the region of jokes, as they exist here and now. Her anthropological work furnished her with many cases where this simple, dualistic joke analysis seemingly didn’t suffice to fully explain formal ‘jokes’ in myriad other cultures. And of course it shouldn’t: we are dealing here not with a logical structure, or a mere ‘surprise’; to understand this play of patterns we need to know what the patterns in effect, for the joker and their audience, are. Jokes are not just untranslatable because puns speak to the secret madness of speech rumbling under the strict striations of articulated meaning, only demonstrable here by short circuits in the joke’s native language (even though that’s part of it), but the entire context that the joke speaks to only makes sense in terms of the ways of life that are native to where the joke was funny in the first place (by subverting them). That is, a joke alone never gives us enough to understand it, there’s always much more going on outside, around, and underneath, it. Even in the form of the joke itself. We shouldn’t forget that for us now, the forms of particular jokes are often the very cultural pattern being subverted:

Douglas points out that we can only have jokes like this in a culture that is itself tired of jokes. These meta-jokes, when we pay attention to the wider context in which they are uttered, by whom to whom and where and when, are better thought of as ‘pranks’. I get your attention and establish the ritual of the telling of the joke, only to pull a fast one on you and us and our entire joke telling ritual.

From this vantage of looking at formal jokes as a specialized cultural practice within a wider field of bodies modulating their sign emitting functions in various patterns of conscious control, some of these being hilarious, Douglas is well situated to investigate what she calls ‘spontaneous jokes’: moments of wit, sudden instants of hilarity. It is this that is the very stuff of the humorous, with formal joking and ‘comedies’ making use of this more general field as a condition of possibility. People laughed long before the first ‘knock knock’ joke, and long before there were roads for chickens to have motivations for crossing.

(Seriously, reader, and here is a direct address, can you seriously remember a ‘chicken road crossing joke’ that isn’t a meta-play upon the joke form itself (i.e. “to get to the other side”). There must have been some funny (to a kindergarten-aged kid) versions of this joke delivered in a ‘straight way’ for these ‘meta’ versions to exist…)

Douglas sees the humorous working on four levels that apply equally to formal jokes or moments of wit (‘spontaneous’ jokes). The difference is that for formal jokes we establish the social context they need to function by certain, conversational, inaugurating phrases: “Did you hear the one about…” which rest upon us already having this cultural practice of ‘joke-telling’. For spontaneous jokes, the situation itself needs to develop the material; we just discover it ‘set up’ for us by the vagaries of life. Here is some controlling pattern of conduct being subverted by another subverted, or latent, pattern. Thus, the comic ‘genius’ is the one who can discover the latent patterns in the present situation. That is, they perceive the ‘joke’ structure within the situation itself.

The four levels that need to sync up are:

1) The content of the joke or comment relates to the archetypal ‘joke’ structure (patterns subverting controlling patterns)

2) The joke structure analogizes the social structure (the patterns involved are exactly the ones we are in, in this day and age, you and I)

3) This present experience in which the joke enters is presently structured in this way. That is, the joke itself is not ‘about’ a subversion of a cultural pattern, it is this subversion right here and now.

4) Finally, referencing Freud, the ultimate subversion is that of the unconscious against conscious control (‘screening’ glitch — the laughter itself — flattening of hierarchies — loss of bodily control).

She gives the example of a bunch of people trapped in an elevator, one of them being a bishop. In that situation someone could make a joke concerning the bishop’s presence in the predicament (it could even be the bishop) and provided the bishop was willing to join in, and not stick fast to the external hierarchies beyond the elevator, then a little, flat micro-community would be born — a novel pattern: five people trapped in an elevator.

“Your holiness, there’s an intercom here. Do you have the number of the man upstairs?”

In that situation the joke would not have to even be much, because the actual situation itself has already done the work — almost anybody could perceive the ‘joke structure’ latent in the elevator. A little nudge is all this is required for the flattening of hierarchy and the release of a communal bonhomie. Chances are, the ‘punchline’ when later related in an anecdote outside of the peculiar situation of the elevator won’t be strong enough to effect the same change (loss of bodily control in laughter). “I guess you had to be there”.

In fact, humour will seemingly always have this ‘guess you had to be there’ aspect. Even a universally acclaimed joke or quip will suffer from a use-by date and customs controls. I guess you had to be a Spanish peasant in the beginning of the 17th century, says Sancho Panza to the reader after his ‘counting the sheep’ joke. If humour is the actual embodiment of a subversion of a pattern of control by another, and this needs to sync up with what is said, when and where it said, and by whom, in a ladder of ‘analogy’ that stages and deconstructs the particular lived cultural moment, we shouldn’t expect even our best humour to make it very far through history or geography. I don’t know. Shakespeare’s comedic scenes and dialogues are funny, but I can’t shake the feeling that they appear funny to me for reasons that are tightly wed to where I am, and what Shakespeare means to us now. Something about being able to ‘get’ as an adult, through the twisted Elizabethan language, just how dirty the jokes are that, nonetheless, are presented to middle school students who are assumed not to be able to penetrate the language or their own boredom enough to realize what is being intimated. This mirth of mine is no doubt quite different from the 17th century cheap-seat patron of the The Globe Theater… Douglas even points out that the New Testament could be riddled with jokes, albeit ones that we are no longer in the position to ‘get’. The kingdom of heaven compared to a mustard seed?

And if humour is everywhere and always a subversion of the cultural patterning, does it then afford us some glimpse of another way? Does it open us up onto other possibilities of ways of being? Simon Critchley, in his On Humour (2002), makes this kind of argument. So does Alenka Zupančič in her Odd One In (2008). There the argument is that since humour puts us out of joint with the every day, its necessarily subversive, and an indispensably revolutionary tool. It opens us up to some metaphysical truth. Not merely revealing the ‘deep shit we’re in’, but offering possibilities of ways up and over.

It certainly seems that humour reveals something to us that may be of use. Think of the Seinfeld-esque stand up comedian who does nothing but point out the ways in which we do things, highlighting their absurdity purely by merely pointing them out, and for some reason this is hilarious. “What’s the deal with…”. Douglas’ theory tells us why this would be funny: here we all are, controlling ourselves and carrying out these oh-so particular actions in oh-so particular ways, all it takes is someone to draw our attention to them to subvert them; they remain efficacious insofar as we don’t consciously approach them, the second we do we see how funny they are because despite how much effort we expend on ‘getting them right’, they could have been arranged completely differently. Within the stand up performance and our being in its audience, we form a pattern under and outside of the one being presented. For a moment we’re free of it.

And this seems to jive with the phenomenology too. A good piece of wit, a well told joke, seems to reveal much more than it seemingly purports to. A pregnant basket of further thought seems to bubble up to the surface. “It’s funny because it’s true” feels like it could be said of everything funny. Though it’s hard for us to say what this truth gained consists in.

And it’s this point, that jokes appear to furnish us with some insight which nonetheless remains ineffable, that should make us cautious about just how much hope we should put in humour. Both Critchley and Zupančič, in developing their optimistic, emancipatory view of humour’s potential, have to deal with the many instances where humour seems to be regressive, reactionary, and conservative — preserving the status quo. Unsatisfyingly, they both, when met with this problem, just cleave the field in two: ‘good/real’ humour, and ‘bad/conservative’ humour.

Douglas, however, is in agreement that all humour, by its very nature is necessarily subversive, but she stops much shorter than Critchley and Zupančič in her enthusiasm for what humour could tell us in a positive sense.

“The joke merely affords opportunity for realising that an accepted pattern has no necessity. Its excitement lies in the suggestion that any particular ordering of experience may be arbitrary and subjective. It is frivolous in that it produces no real alternative, only an exhilarating sense of freedom from form in general.” (Douglas, 1968, p.365)

And this, I think is important to keep in mind. Humour, in allowing us to break with patterns of control that make up the stuff of our lives, gives us a window onto the ridiculousness of these very patterns (“this is how I sit in a chair, and this is how I apologize to someone for forgetting their birthday, and this is how we ‘have a party’, this is how we discuss which colour goes with which, and so on and so forth”). They appear ridiculous (as in, ‘things that can be poked fun at’) from this vantage because they show themselves for what they are; arbitrary constellations that nonetheless require so much tension of muscle, so much effort of articulation. It’s true that for the most part the struggle of our lives are struggles within a social space of meaning that a single well placed joke could flatten into absurdity for a moment or two. Not many of us get trapped under a rock in a mountain for 127 hours, or have to outrun a hungry lion. Humour, then, is a vital tool allowing us to ‘slip off’ the sheet within which we are perpetually stitched. But, we shouldn’t get carried away: that is all it does — a pendulum movement, a certain relativistic insight but with no positive alternative offered. Sure, it’s true that perhaps through this pendulumistic motion culture moves and changes, but it cannot be thereby driven, anymore than a vibrating mobile phone squirming its way towards the edge of the table. That is to say, we may need to laugh to change anything but can’t look to our laughter as an end itself. Laughter is not necessarily “good”-natured, because it is ambivalent towards what laughs at what. It’s not for that reason “bad”-natured or foolish either. It’s just a fact that we busy ourselves with so much cultural activity that is always and everywhere a hair’s breadth away from appearing ridiculous. However, once we grasp the absurdity inherent in our forms of life, despite this feeling like some useful insight, we discover we have nowhere else to go. To realize that our practices are arbitrary, and thus absurd, and thus to be done away with, is itself an absurd position: one needs to walk, sit, wave, greet, speak, drink, open, eat. The body requires articulation to pick itself up from the floor. It’s just any particular way of its articulating itself, from the right vantage, is pretty funny if the situation’s right…

About the author: John Brady is a student of philosophy and educator situated in Beijing. He gets most of his reading done in traffic jams. He is also a co-editor of this magazine, by way of full disclosure.

Critchley, S. (2002). On humour. London [etc.]: Routledge.

Douglas, M. (1968). The Social Control of Cognition: Some Factors in Joke Perception. Man, 3(3), 361. doi: 10.2307/2798875

Douglas, M. (1971/2001). Do Dogs Laugh?. In M. Douglas, Implicit Meanings: Selected Essays in Anthropology (2nd ed., pp. 165–169). London: Routledge.

Mireault, G. (2017). Five-month-old babies know what’s funny. Retrieved from https://aeon.co/ideas/five-month-old-babies-know-whats-funny

Zupančič, A. (2008). The odd one in. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.