If comic amusement is an emotion, could emotions be useful for constructing funnies?

Philosophy professor Noel Carroll defines comic amusement as an emotional state (directed at incongruities), similar to other emotions such as fear and anger (2014:5). This is the subject of some lengthy philosophical debate, so this post will limit itself to briefly outlining the rationale, counterarguments, and possible implementation of using emotion for funnies creations. If you are interested in creative practice ideas, then I recommend skimming A) the rationale and then jumping to C) the application to comics practice. (The reason to include the counterarguments is for further discussion with my supervisor who is unconvinced by the notion that humour is an emotion).

A. Rationale for humour as an emotion:

Chapter 2 of Carroll’s book on ‘Humour’ (2014) focusses on possible reasons for humour as an emotion, which I have simplified below (for a nuanced understanding, I recommend reading the aforementioned chapter) and these include:

1) Both emotions and humour are the response to the perception of something, as humorous or anger-inducing (obviously there are many emotion states, so ‘anger’ is used here as just one example).

2) Both emotions and humour are subject to self-control and manifest on a spectrum of varying degrees.

3) Both emotions and humour are socially contagious (laughter spreads in crowds, as does anger that results in riots).

4) Both emotions and humour proliferate, for example, if you have an angry disposition to a partner, it is easy to discover many reasons to be angry. Similarly, if you have a comic disposition, it is easy to see more comedy in contexts. This sustained comic amusement could develop a comic mood or ‘mindset of levity’ to use Aaker and Bagdonas’ term (2020) to spot the absurd or to find the funny idea.

B. The Counterarguments:

Carroll also details the counter arguments against the notion of amusement as an emotional state, but he disagrees and dismantles each objection.  I’ve added my own ideas to his rebuttals, as there are connections to recent neuroscience and humour research.

1) Objection 1 is that emotions change the body, whereas this is doubtful of humour. Carroll counters this by noting that the resulting ‘levity’ of humour conjures lightness and relaxation, which indicates a change of body state.

It appears axiomatic to me that humour changes the body state in terms of brain chemistry (Graziano Breunig 2016). Laughter releases endorphins and perhaps also releases fewer endorphins in lesser demonstrations of comic amusement such as smiles or quiet solitary chuckles.  This would require further reading into neuroscience to evidence.

2) Objection 2 is that emotions are the result of beliefs that result in behaviour and actions, whereas humour does not necessitate beliefs or lead to changes in behaviour or subsequent actions.

Carroll counters this by noting emotional responses that exist beyond ‘beliefs’ i.e., that we can feel emotions for fictional characters that we know do not exist, and we can also find amusement in the imagined.

To my mind, this counterargument appears a short-sighted assessment of both emotion and humour, as the human being is complex, and it is possible to have emotions that result from the physical and the ineffable. Even with this limited interpretation, it is straightforward to demonstrate that humour can also stem from beliefs that result in behaviour or actions. Comics funnies can represent beliefs and values that change our world with levity. Both zen koans (or cognitive puzzles) and jokes can illustrate false beliefs and dismantle them for us, so we are liberated from these as concerns (see post). For example, The Modern Toss cartoon suggests that perhaps lockdown is not necessarily the problem, 

 

(Reference: @moderntoss 13 March 2021)

 

Equally humour can result in actions, even if these are not as easily and quickly perceived as other emotional responses such as anger that results in violence. In particular, humour can be useful for learning and perceiving the world differently and learning can lead to changes in behaviour and action.  Dr Caspar Addyman’s research on infant development suggests that babies giggle when they have understood something new (2020). He cites an example where babies were shown a toy duck being thrown on the floor and only the babies who giggled copied the action of throwing the duck. This may not be the complicated humour as discussed in humour research, but this is an example of amusement that leads to learning and to action.

This research is also particularly interesting, as infants are not influenced by the sociocultural variables that make the rationale for humour incredibly complex by adulthood – these are multifarious and can include cultural references, likes, dislikes, interests, values, beliefs, personal experiences, and self-identity. Here, comic amusement in the babies indicates simply learning that results in action.

3) Objection 3 is the ‘symmetry argument’ from John Moreall (also a philosopher), which details the resulting symmetry of emotions and target objects, so the lover makes us feel love and the aggressor makes us feel angry. Amusement does not work like this for Moreall, as it is pleasant, and the target is thereby experienced as pleasurable. This remains symmetrical but within limitations of this one possibility of ‘pleasure.’

Carroll counters the symmetry argument by noting that amusement can result from satirical contempt, but the target does not become pleasurable. It seems that both comic amusement and its vast variety of stimuli are rather more complicated than simply ‘pleasure’.

4) Objection 4 is by philosopher Roger Scruton who claims that comic amusement cannot be an emotion because it does not have a formal object for belittlement. For Scruton, humour is about belittlement or ‘attentive demolition’. Carroll notes that Scruton does not effectively demonstrate a case for this (2014: 63). This appears a rather limited (and negative) assessment of humour and many of my comics result from a celebration of people and experiences enjoyed (example – ). In particular, the cartoons that help me remember the wonderful. The two cartoons below are about my personal trainer and far from belittlement, they build him into ‘sensei’ – my wise physical guide with reference to things he says. These may not be ‘funny’ in the way that Scruton intends, but they quietly amuse me and cheer me along,

 

 

 

5) Objection 5 belongs to neo-Jamesian thinking after psychologist William James. This counterargument maintains that it is ‘too cognitive’ for comic amusement to be an emotional state directed at incongruities and this cognitive process separates humour from emotion.

Carroll objects to this division and suggests that emotional states can also be a response of cognition. This makes sense to me, especially considering previous studies of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for my Diploma in Life Coaching & Mentoring. Founder Aaron Beck’s approach is to help people find ways to better manage emotional responses by rethinking ‘faulty thinking’ for example by overgeneralising (i.e., you always do this / you never listen) or catastrophising (the presentation is going to be a disaster / my friend is late so s/he must be lying in a pool of blood somewhere) (Beck 1988; Boyes 2008).

To finish this section, I would like to make a little nod of agreement to my supervisor that it is not entirely satisfactory to define comic amusement as an emotional state. There appear overlaps between the two, but as emotion is reputedly the fastest neural circuit and primary driver, followed by a mixture of cognition, physiology and behaviour (Positive Group 2020, Shackman and Wager 2019), this perhaps could be usefully harnessed for comics creators. 

I would also like to see philosophers explore this notion with cross disciplinary reference to neuroscience research that illustrates how humour can alter brain chemistry and change emotional and cognitive states (Gibson 2019). If amusement can change emotion and cognition, does this suggest that humour should be considered separately?

To discontinue this lengthy ongoing debate, there are significant reasons for the utility of this definition for the construction of funnies and my own practice to which I will now turn.

C. Application to Creative Practice and Funnies Construction:

Exploring the Emotional Landscape

If emotion is the primary driver, then this is a powerful and authentic place to begin creative practice for creators. Argentinian cartoonist Liniers begins his practice by exploring his emotional landscape and channelling his mood through his cartoon characters and different days embrace different characters. On the dark days, he will murder Olivero the Olive and on lighter days, he will draw his elf characters and embrace whimsy and surrealism, as here,

(Liniers 2014)

It is not axiomatic that these cartoons are based on the creator’s inner world without knowing this back story. My own brief exploration of Liniers’ process has been productive with the creation of the ‘No Mood’ panels while in a disgruntled mood (see Blog post 25) and I would like to continue to explore this and find the time to invent my own characters to exist in my own emotional landscape.

Emotions, amnesia of the heart to cognitive expansion

My current comics practice is limited to daily single panel doodles based on the day’s happenings. The entry below condenses a conversation that I had with my cartoonist mentor, Simone Lia, who suggested that I sat in my ‘own genius’ last summer,

At the time, I found this idea very funny, but have learned to value its wisdom. The idea is that you sit, notice and accept what is happening for you (i.e. emotions, pain, discomfort, or joy) and then expand this to a more objectively considered universal experience. Lia described an email that she received at the time saying that she was ‘a genius’ for one of her cartoons, and she rationalised that in fact she had just managed to describe her truth, which was also a ‘universal truth,’ and resonated as a shared truth for the reader.

 Lia’s approach could also connect to philosopher Henri Bergson’s comic requirement of ‘temporary amnesia of the heart’ (1980), where initially you experience emotion, and then step back to expand this objectivity to the entire human condition. Humour requires this objectivity otherwise one can be gripped by the apparent seriousness of the immediate. This can also be framed in zen terms following Alan Watts description of the human illusion of separateness, which misses ‘that everyone of us is an act, a function, a performance, a manifestation of the entire cosmos’ (Watts 1999). In this way, a cartoon can be a manifestation of Lia’s ‘universal truth,’ the human condition, or the micro in the macro of the entire cosmos. This sounds comically grandiose, but it is interesting to consider that it could be useful to begin with a nugget of personal emotion to forge wider resonant connections and then be condensed into cartoons or funnies.

To simplify in summary, emotion is a useful place to start for creators because it is authentic, visceral and connects potentially to shared relatable human experience.

The rather large unanswered question here is how to channel emotions usefully (and safely) for students into funnies creations. This is a question for future creative practice research and may culminate in many different activities depending on different emotional states.

 

References

Addyman, C (2020) The Laughing Baby: the extraordinary science behind what makes babies happy.London:Unbound

Aaker, J. and Bagdonas, N (2020) Humour, Seriously – Why Humour is a Superpower at Work and in Life. UK: Penguin.

Beck, A. (1988) Love Is Never Enough. London: Penguin.

Bergson, H (1980) Laughter. Baltimore: John Hopkins.

Boyes, C (2008) Cognitive Behavioural Therapy – Think Better. Be Happier. London: Collins.

Carroll, N (2014) Humour – A Very Short Introduction. UK: Oxford University Press.

Gibson, J. M. (2019) An Introduction to the Psychology of Humor. UK: Routledge.

Graziano Breuning, L (2016) Habits of a Happy Brain – Retrain Your Brain to Boost Your Serotonin, Dopamine, Oxytocin and Endorphins Level. Massachusetts: Adams Media.

Liniers (2014) Macanudo. New York: Enchanted Lion Books. 

Shackman, A. J. and Wager, T. D. (2019) ‘The Emotional Brain: Fundamental Questions and Strategies for Future Research’ in Neuroscience Letters, Vol 693, Pp 68-74.

The Positive Group (2020) available at: 

https://www.positivegroup.org (accessed 22.03.2021)

Watts, A. ([1957]1999) The Way of Zen. New York: Knopf Doubleday.