On the Problem of the Comic

A philosophical study on the Origins of Laughter

Peter Marteinson (Ph.D., University of Toronto) Co-Editor, Applied Semiotics  

B105.C456M373 2006. LEGAS Press, Ottawa, Canada.
ISBN 1-894508-91-2, 224 pp, C$79

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The Ontic-Epistemic Theory of the Comic developed in this book can be summarized as follows: normal human cognition is subjective and anthropomorphic, which is to say people are all but incapable of seeing external reality without re-interpreting it according to their values, beliefs and judgments. We see the world, not through ‘rose coloured glasses,’ but through multi-coloured and ever-changing lenses that we are almost always unaware of – and which modify and even distort our perceptions in various ways according to what our culture teaches us to see in any given situation. So, not only is the selection of facts we perceive in external states of affairs very limited — by various forms of filtering, selections and simplifications — but we also add a great deal of cultural baggage to our perceptions in order to give everything in life a social significance, and a human orientation.

Perception is very nearly always directed and shaped by social considerations, yet it would be impossible even to believe in cultural values, or to live in a society based upon them, if it were obvious to everyone that such socio-cultural institutions were merely arbitrary constructs first dreamt up and later passed down and acculturated into each new generation, without really being there at all. Normal human social cognition thus also serves, as one of its most fundamental and crucial functions, to erase the distinction between the different types of entity that we collectively consider ‘true’ or ‘real.’ The physical object must never appear more credible than, or even distinct from, the mental one. A man’s social status must not seem any less real than his body, and when we mentally associate concepts of status with an actual person we see, for instance, in a policeman’s blue uniform, we must not view this as a disguise, because the social state of being a true officer of the law, a mere mental object, must be inseparable, and indistinguishable, from the individual policeman himself, a real biological organism.

The comic then, that which causes laughter, according to Marteinson's theory, is the perception of an ‘unravelling of the seams’ between external facts, intuitive notions and cultural concepts, all of which are normally levelled and rendered equivalent in anthropomorphic perception. Social being and material fact have different criteria for truth and falsehood, and this is what is revealed by the comic. Laughter, then, is an instinctive reaction to an epistemological checkmate, in particular an event which shatters and fragments perceptions into the different ontic classes of objects that normally comprise them. When this occurs, social reality as we know it momentarily ceases to have the emotional and epistemological value of being real, and the physical world in its cultural poverty is all that is left standing in perception. The cultural intensions the laughing subject had equated with his or her intuitive notions of the concrete state of affairs pass from a high degree of acceptance to a perception of falsehood. Laughter in fact serves to restore normal socio-cognitive perception and to facilitate the forgetting of the comic stimulus. Very frequently, these stimuli involve concepts of social identity, and events that involve the heavy perception of social roles, such as institutional ceremonies and rituals. For this reason, this book considers laughter from the point of view of the ontology of social being.

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Updated 1 April 2009