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Manny Rayner's book reviews

I love reviewing books - have been doing it at Goodreads, but considering moving here.

Currently reading

The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence For Evolution
Richard Dawkins
R in Action
Robert Kabacoff
Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies
Douglas R. Hofstadter
McGee on Food and Cooking: An Encyclopedia of Kitchen Science, History and Culture
Harold McGee
Epistemic Dimensions of Personhood
Simon Evnine
Pattern Recognition and Machine Learning (Information Science and Statistics)
Christopher M. Bishop
Relativity, Thermodynamics and Cosmology
Richard C. Tolman
The Cambridge Handbook of Second Language Acquisition
Julia Herschensohn, Martha Young-Scholten
The Naked Jape: Uncovering the Hidden World of Jokes - Jimmy Carr This is a fun book! A professional comic and his friend, who seems to be some kind of academic type, collaborate to write a treatise on the nature of humour. They've done a good job, and there is at least one joke on every page - a really varied assortment too, ranging from traditional staples (What's brown and sticky?) to sophisticated meta-jokes. Some of the ones I liked most are in my updates.

You can read it for the jokes alone, but I thought the discussion was at least as worthwhile. They look at the subject from many different angles, and go through a bunch of theories about how humour works. One thing they notice is that the arguments any given person presents in favour of a theory seem to say more about them than they do about the theory itself. Their star example is the sexually obsessed Professor Legman (his real name), whose Freudian theory of jokes was based on the hypothesis that they are always about sex. Evidently, sex often features in jokes, but to say they're always about sex does seem to take it way too far. It's a good warning though.

Here are some more of the theories they describe. Perhaps the most popular one comes from that well-known prankster, Immanuel Kant. Kant thought that the essence of the joke is incongruity: you see things one way, then you suddenly flip over to seeing them a different way. Carr and Greaves agree with Kant that this is important, but they point out that incongruity isn't enough on its own: in particular, timing is essential too. All the same, they think that jokes usually involve incongruity in some form.

Another mainstream theory, going back at least as far as Aristotle, is that jokes are about demonstrating superiority. You laugh at people to show that you're better or smarter or something like that. Certainly, Polish jokes and blonde jokes seem to fit the bill - not to mention what's arguably the greatest joke of all time, slipping on a banana-skin and falling flat on your ass. Again, though, it's easy to find jokes where no one is obviously being insulted or degraded.

Yet another theory: jokes are about exercising power. You gain power over people by making them laugh. Servile employees stereotypically laugh at their boss's jokes (they quote studies demonstrating that this really happens). Also, as Woody Allen points out, laughter is a weapon of seduction, so jokes give you sexual power too. Interestingly, they point out that it's mostly in the male-to-female direction. For some reason, men want to make women laugh, but aren't generally as keen on having women make them laugh. One wonders why not.

They look at it from other perspectives as well. Some animals may have a sense of humour: perhaps Aristotle was wrong when he said that man is the animal that laughs. They talk about the cultural roots of humour, in legends of trickster gods (amazing how widespread they are), who are almost always aggressively male, with huge penises. Well, let's face it: even if humour isn't all about sex, penises are funny. And there's a good deal about different kinds of jokes, and about what it's like to be a standup comedian. I'm afraid I was a little disappointed to hear how heavily scripted standup is. I'd thought it was more spontaneous than it turns out to be. There's a nice chapter on the subversive element inherent in jokes.

At the end of the day, they remind us that humour is a strange and wonderful thing. We all know what it is from our own experience, but no one can explain it! It's not for nothing that Raymond Smullyan drew an analogy between humour and mysticism in Planet Without Laughter. And Wittgenstein said that humour isn't a feeling, but a way of looking at the world. As usual for Wittgenstein, a simple but at the same time very deep observation.

Well, as I said, it's fun. Check it out for yourself - it's a quick read! And if you're still wondering what's brown and sticky, the answer is a stick.

So here's a theory that attempts to tie together several of the observations made in this book. As the authors say, humour must be useful in some way, but how? I wonder if it could be part of the mechanism that forces people to adapt to the societal norms around them. If you see someone who's not quite fitting the accepted social pattern, they seem incongruous. Maybe they speak in an odd way, or they are unaware of some of the complex social norms that make up the fabric of society. That incongruity is funny, so we laugh at them. But being laughed at doesn't feel nice. The people who are behaving oddly experience a pressure to conform, and that pressure is created by other people's sense of humour.

It sounds rather horrible, but if we didn't experience pressure to imitate other people's behaviour with great exactness then society wouldn't be possible. In particular, language wouldn't be possible. Everyone these days agrees that language isn't taught in the school-room; it's acquired from the people around you. And, from the abstract point of view, what I like about my hypothesis is that it combines the "incongruity" and "superiority" theories, and possibly also the "power" theory. Once you have enough power to make the people around laugh at the things that you consider funny, you can exert pressure on other people due to their fear of ridicule.

What do you think? Note that if you start laughing hysterically and pointing your finger at my absurd review, I'll be less inclined to argue for it. If you mock it offensively enough, I may even withdraw it. But if you instead make fun of the weird, dumb people who don't like it, I'll start thinking I may have stumbled on something good.

I wrote to Matthew Hurley, one of the authors of Inside Jokes, to ask him what he thought of my theory. Apparently it was suggested by the French philosopher Henri Bergson in 1911. Damn. As usual, nothing new under the sun.