1.2 Relief Theories


This is primarily a psychological theory of humour, most famously associated with Freud, to whom we will presently come. Spencer also discusses release in relation to laughter but his is chiefly a physiological explanation, which sees laughter as the discharge of nervous energy. He gives the example of a stage play in which two lovers have been reconciled; this generates sympathy in the audience when suddenly a young goat appears and sniffs at the lovers, this incongruity (his word, note) causing the audience to laugh. He argues that if there had been no interruption ‘the body of new ideas and feelings next excited would have sufficed to absorb the whole of the liberated nervous energy.’ But the goat’s appearance checks this flow. ‘The excess must therefore discharge itself in some other direction…[and]…there results an efflux through the motor nerves to various classes of the muscles, producing the half-convulsive actions we term laughter’ [1860] (1977:305). It is worth noting here that Lorenz also has something to say on this very point: ‘Most jokes provoke laughter by building up a tension which is then suddenly and unexpectedly exploded’ (1996:153). Gruner’s description of the origin of laughter, as we saw (1.1), follows suit. (Gruner, recall, is primarily an advocate of the superiority theory.) This notion of discharge, as we shall see, plays a central role in Freud’s formulation also, and though Freud is not the original source of relief theory (Monro, for example, first discusses Kline (pp.176-82), and Simon (1985, chapter 8) underlines Freud’s borrowings from Groos), his 1905 text remains the chief contribution in this area and has had significant influence ever since (see below). The bulk of this section will, therefore, deal only with Freud’s theory. What follows is an outline of what are seen as the essentials of his theory and commentaries on them.

Freud states that there is a strong link between the unconscious and both jokes and dreams, and that the latter two employ similar techniques (condensation, displacement) to carry out their ‘joke-work’ and ‘dream-work’ (1991. Chapter 7). As for the material which causes amusement, he distinguishes between jokes (Witz), the comic, and humour. (Certain problems of his text concerning translation and other matters will be considered below in 4.1) All of these are pleasurable as they provide various economies of psychical expenditure: jokes allow economies in expenditure on inhibition and suppression (pp.167-69), the comic on ‘ideation’/thinking (pp.251-2), and humour on emotion (pp.295-7). Most attention is reserved for a treatment of jokes and these he divides into innocent and tendentious (sexual, aggressive, cynical, and absurd). To simplify somewhat, tendentious jokes use the joke-work to evade the censor and give playful and acceptable expression to such otherwise repressed or inhibited emotions in the acceptable form of the joke. The element of play is important and can be better seen in the following developmental schema of the joke.

PLAY
Pleasure from the use of words and thoughts in childhood

JEST
When reason and criticism develop, the pleasure is maintained through jests which acceptably liberate nonsense

NON-TENDENTIOUS JOKES
These give assistance to thoughts and strengthen them against the challenge of critical judgement

TENDENTIOUS JOKES
Come to the help of major sources which are combating suppression by providing the fore-pleasure of laughter which provides new pleasure by lifting suppressions and repressions
(pp.188-9)

Simon notes that Freud’s work has had a significant effect on the study of humour in various disciplines; for example, Wolfenstein’s study of children’s humour (1954), Legman’s study of sexual humour (1968 and 1972), and Douglas’ anthropological writings on jokes (1968) (all in Simon). He also adds: ‘Freud’s work on the comic has had influence well beyond the pychoanalytic community, particularly on comic theorists of literature like Frye, Barber and Bentley, and on experimental psychologists like Hom and O’Connell’ (1985:237). But his ideas have many critics also and it is to some of these we now turn.

Monro focuses on the important feature of ‘psychic economy’. He says Freud never makes it clear whether this term refers to a short cut not normally provided by reason or to a release from inhibition. The problem for Monro is that Freud also uses the term for stages before the inhibiting effect of reason is felt (1954:187). We can add here a further criticism in this area concerning the fore-pleasure/pleasure distinction. In the Freudian scheme of things the fore-pleasure of laughter lifts the suppressions and repressions and thus provides new pleasure. But in order to laugh one must first have understood the tendentious material (‘got the joke’), must therefore have already evaded the censor. That is, must already have overcome the suppressions and repressions before laughing. This view assumes that the suppressions and repressions are the censor (if not, then what is?) and thus sees the problem as one of cognitive/affective sequence (understanding comes before release), something which seems, in this reading of Freud, to be confused in his formulation.

As for the economy provided by this lifting, Freud (1991:166) comments that, for example, the feeling of propriety that prevents us insulting someone directly can be overcome if the insult is expressed in the form of a joke. Indeed, expressing the insult thus can become a source of pleasure (and we will see that this is a significant point in the final analysis in Section 8). Lippitt argues this is not always the case. In some circumstances, even when the butt of the joke feels obliged to join in the pleasure - rather than be seen as lacking a sense of humour – this same butt can be left looking foolish and the joker looking superior. (Here we see a link to the superiority theory, to which we will later return.) That is, such a joking insult can be even more wounding than a direct insult in which the insulter’s behaviour may be socially censored and the insulted person receive sympathy. However, while this may be so in some cases with regard to the social consequences of the joking insult, this might not negate Freud’s point that in the psychical processes in the joker the censor has been overcome in the expression of the insult as a joke. That is, there is release, in the joker at least. The problem here is the social reception of jokes, which will be discussed below in Section 5 and in great detail throughout Section 8. Here we will simply note that social relations can play a significant role in such situations (the joker is aware of social censors, also), as can be seen in Coser’s study of humour in medical situations. Though some of Coser’s conclusions are supportive of Freud – ‘Humor helps to convert hostility and control it, while at the same time permitting its expression’ (1960:95) – a significant finding of her study of humour expression in staff meetings at a mental hospital would provide some evidence to superiority theorists. She concluded: ‘in a hierarchically ordered social structure it [humour] tends to be directed downward’ (p.95), such that ‘[n]ot once was a senior staff member present a target of a junior members’ humor’ (p.85, original emphasis). (Perhaps the key word here is ‘present’. We have already twice had cause to mention humour directed at superiors; it may well be that such humour is more usually expressed when the superior butt is absent.)

Another point with which Lippitt takes issue is the notion of economy. Just as he used nonsense and absurd humour as counter-evidence against superiority theories, saying we can enjoy such plays for themselves, he also uses such kinds of humour against relief theorists. He argues, ‘One of the pleasures of nonsense verse is trying, and failing, to make sense of it.’ (1995b:173). That is, the pleasure here involves expending energy, not saving it.

Theories of Humour>

1.1 Superiority Theories>

1.2 Relief Theories

1.3 Incongruity Theories>

Contents>