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The Rationality of Laughter: Who laughs

Spinoza argues that the rational man is the man that wants good (freedom, rationality) for others. It is an ethical stance that long have philosophers have tried to forward, but none have succeeded in necessarily establishing, and indeed many dispute the foundation of Spinoza’s assertion. Spinoza’s primary tack is that all virtuous actions are self-serving, yet nothing is more useful to man than man. His contention is that the more empowered we make others, the more use they can be to us. This certainly is core to many Idealistic political movements, that the more we help others, the more corporate they will become, that is, part of our useful whole. But how rational is this? Does this follow from a rational understanding of ourselves and the world. In which way is what benefits me, that which benefits you?

It has been pointed out by some authors (Deleuze, Negri, etc.) that despite the coolness of Spinoza’s more geometrico, Spinoza’s philosophy is a philosophy of joy and affirmation. These words stand though like emblems of abstract positivity, as if only against their abstract opposite sadness and denial. In many ways this move to the conceptual, away from the body, is exactly what Spinoza worked against, for, if the abstract was not connected viscerally to actual experiences, actual emotions, what is felt, it is dead�it is a kind of denial. If we are to take Spinoza’s as a philosophy of Joy, then in joy itself there must be the foundation of the rational itself.

It is customary to take Spinoza’s rationality, indeed all rationality, as a kind of analyticality, a pure, affectless, mathematics of reason, something against emotional or imaginary constructions, but Spinoza seeks to take-up the imaginary and the emotional, within the power of thought itself. If we are to take him seriously, and ask: Is there a rational reason why is what benefits me, that which benefits you? The answer perhaps lies within the primary and most physical example of what Joy is, laughter.

When I laugh, is it rational or irrational that I would want you to laugh as well?. It seems to me that there is a rationality here, a coherence of parts, that defies the cold-clean reduction of rationality to its propositional form, for it seems altogether rational (in a broader, more encompassing sense) that I would want you to laugh. It is something that puts us in consonance.

Now we have of course the most obvious examples of laughter that seem to contradict this, for example when I laugh at someone else, cruelly, taking them as my object of derision. There is present the implied invitation for others to join me in this laughter, all of us pointing our proverbial fingers (one wonders what kind of laughter would not contain at least some of this instinct to be joined in the humor), but the laughter itself seems predicated on someone else (the victim) not laughing. Yet, upon closer inspection, the victim seems not to be imaginatively, or actually, utterly cut off from the humor, for something of this laughter seems to turn upon the conception that the victim “gets it” in some fundamental way (if only as a measure of shame, real or imagined) but does not think it funny.

It is here that Spinoza’s philosophy would suggest that the laughter would somehow be better, would be fundamentally better, would be rationally better, if the victim not only “got it”, but was able to laugh at it as well. We see this “rationality” of course when ethnic comedians make fun of their largely “non-ethnic” audience, which is then able to laugh at itself, and join the laugh. But of course because of the political factors of oppression and hegemony, those with the power are not threatened by such laughter, one might say, they are “free” to laugh. I am not sure, but its seems that there are those in the audience who may very well be teetering between laughter and offense, and a Spinozist might say that in such a predicament, in being able to laugh, they are made freer. Further, if the ratios and realities were reversed, if the victim of the laughter is also a victim in society, does not the laughter change if the victim is still able to laugh, at both himself and the situation? Is there not something unfunny, a limit in the co-joined laughter, if the victim is ultimately unable to laugh? Has not laughter met its horizon?

If we take the most extreme example, for instance a group of Nazi soldiers or KKK members laughing at a brutalized Jew or a Black (one must test the more acute historical examples if one is to understand the “reality” of this thought), there seems a limit here that the victim cannot cross. The victim cannot laugh. But this horizon I believe is exactly the limit of passivity which Spinoza is pointing to; for the Nazis or the KKK, Spinoza would say, even though are laughing, they are not laughing completely, or even, they are laughing sadly. They are acting passively, they are acting against laughter.

This can be seen theoretically if one imagines that the victimized Jew or the Black suddenly began to laugh (perhaps how Tomasso Campanella had begun to chuckle to himself after his torture). Of course such a laughter might be taken as an offense, and lead to “You think this is funny, you think you are one of us, we’ll show you.”, much as a white audience member might refrain from laughter at a black comedian. The subversive question becomes: Is the victim laughing at us? At the situation? Or himself? Yet, it cannot be denied, that at the very first eruption of the laughter, a possibility is opened up, what Spinoza would say is a rational possibility, that for the very second of it, “We” are laughing.

I think here, in the phenomena of laughter, in the pure absurdity of it (for nothing else has a higher reputation for irrationality as laughter does), one finds the rationality of Spinoza, the freedom of affect spread between others. There are no propositional rules for the joke, yet it operates with the power to join. The laugh comes unanticipated, yet invites the benefit of others, and in fact seems dependent upon that possibility. I would say that even in its cruelest aspects, those seemingly dependent upon the diminishment and even destruction of others, its contains the rationality of a possible inclusion, and a kind of compass-setting which directs not only the victim, but also those laughing, towards a greater freedom. Is it not in laughter that we see the rational basis for Spinoza’s belief that what benefits me is that which benefits you?

[written August 3, 2006]