Dr. Peter G. Marteinson

B.A., M.A, Ph.D. (University of Toronto)

Semiotics of the Comic: Abstract

Comedy’s two functions — merriment and socio-criticism — are explored in terms of social being, which I propose both as the main comic vehicle (e.g. disguise) and the mechanism through which symbols of authority and status (i.e. the identities of obstacle characters) become caricatures of the establishment. A structural analysis of selected plays reveals, in this approach, that the formal structure of comedy may be seen as a sequence of five epistemological states. 1. Situation: a conflict is posited between a hero’s plans and society’s conventions; 2. Invention: by design or through another’s error, the hero’s identity is fragmented into a “true” and one or more “mistaken” interpretations; 3. Illusion: the “competing truths” form the basis on which two opposed camps view the hero in different terms - generating interpretative disjunctions whose cognitive and ontological incongruity provokes laughter and mocks those “duped.” 4. Discovery: the hero’s true identity is revealed, and the play’s comic mechanism is thus brought to an end; 5. Denouement: the audience is delighted the hero’s plans have succeeded, despite his underdog status, by means of social opportunities obtained through the false identity, a fact which compromises the plot’s authority figures, who represent deformed norms destroyed in effigy.

The approach taken is to exploit certain aspects of Wilhelm Dilthey's social science method, thus renewing the semiotic method by adding psychological and anthropological degrees of freedom, in order to attack the problem of comedy, and the related problem of the comic, from three successive viewpoints. A speculative method first examines what appears to be present, from an epistemological standpoint, in comedy. From this analysis, an explicative method is gradually unveiled, to axiomatize and generalize the findings, in order to describe the structures of the comic. Finally, an interpretative method is used to understand the aesthetics of comedy from within the new hypothesis and model of the comic, and from within the ontology built from it.

The theory of the comic constructed in this thesis is called an "ontic-epistemic" model: from a phenomenological perspective, human social perception, as opposed to mere physical perception, is based upon the association of acculturated concepts and constructs (culture) with percepts of factual states of affairs (nature). It is this highly unstable Gestalt that is deliberately put to the test in Comedy; wherever the Gestalt conceived to interpret a social situation is perceived to be in disjunction, the stimulus of laughter is to be found. Thus a new form of incongruity model is developed which, by surpassing Schopenhauer's simpler formula in many respects, finds itself supporting a social and literary science ontology that, like Heidegger's, distinguishes between the ontic nature of kinds of being, which is rather in contradistinction to today's general leanings toward a positivism reminiscent of the natural sciences.

A theory of the comic is posited which attempts to explain the structure and functioning of comedy, and the manner in which the genre, seemingly made to question the fabric of social being, relies upon the ontologically mixed nature of social being both as its explanation of the comic and as its interpretation of the way comedy expressly depicts self-destructing Gestalten of social identity.

Significantly, this study does not rely solely upon discursive argumentation to persuade the reader. Seizing on the hypothesis that the acculturated concepts of social being are both Erlebnisurbilder in Heidegger's sense and intensions in the logical sense, I employ a little-known quantitative pragmatics developed by American philosopher Richard Martin to express the structure of comic events, and of comedy as a whole, in logical terms, a mathematics of the unconscious.

It might be convenient for academic readers to be able to consult here a brief table of arguments which, sequentially, constitute the subject matter of this work:

  • Laughter is a difficult subject that has yet to yield an entirely satisfactory explanation
  • Comedy has not been satisfactorily explained in literary theory
  • The two problems are inherently related
  • Their common impasse is a result of the misapplication of natural science to human science matters
  • The natural science ontology is incomplete and inappropriate for anthropomorphic objects of study
  • A new theory of science is needed which equally treats various notions for truth and falsehood
  • Human cognition naturally functions in an unscientific manner: associating acculturated concepts and biases with percepts of natural states of affairs
  • These complex Gestalten are "accepted" as socio-cultural truth while strictly speaking, they constitute several categories of truth
  • Normal human social cognition is designed to blur these distinctions in categories of truth in order to protect cultural truth from the more easily proven natural truths
  • The comic will be shown to be an instinctive response to an epistemological problem resulting from the "undesirable" realisation that several truth categories operate in social being
  • This hypothesis will be developed into a theory of the comic which describes all stimuli of laughter
  • The theory is sufficiently 'scientific' that one can apply it to any observed socio-cultural phenomenon, e.g. comedy
  • The basis of an aesthetics of comedy are then elaborated

  • Sémiotique du comique [333 pages, PDF, 1040 kb, Ver 3.3, 22/3/2001]
        Table of Illustrations (GIF, PDF)