Wednesday, January 20, 2016

A Laughing Matter

I joined social media (Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Tumblr...) to get a better understanding of what other people find funny. Since April 2011 I have since shared thousands of jokes, written countless articles, some purposely absurd, many off topic, others reflective - all with the general intent to explore how information is processed, categorized (as funny or otherwise), and ultimately, how it is utilized by us humans and the algorithms we create. 

Little Miss Fia
Mimics smiles to communicate when she is happy


Cicero best summed up comedy: 

"An indecency decently put 
is the thing we laugh at hardest." 

This is not humor.
(note the cranky, erudite tone)

Throughout history comedy has utilized sarcasm, rudeness, vulgarity, insecurities and other such tactics to elicit laughter, which most often arises from social awkwardness and shame. 

Comedy dates back to Greek, Arabic, and other Levantine erotic tales and foolstories. Scholars of dirty jokes have traced comedy back to folklore, along with myths, proverbs, legends, nursery rhymes, riddles, and superstitions. The subjects explored under the guise of comedy include intercourse, scatology, racism, obscenities, blasphemous jokes, and distasteful, offensive, or otherwise disgusting concepts. 

Although these so-called "jokes" are easily recognizable, comedy should not be confused with humor. Comedy is that which accompanies the rise and fall of civilizations. Its climax being the moment when an individual is made to feel uncomfortable, which does not always coincide with the punchline. 

It is no wonder why Freud is the subject of much comedic material. For a scholar who purported too few words as a definition of a joke, he left the world with plenty of words to fuel one-liners so long as there are individuals attracted to aberrations in social behavior. 

In the Athens of Demosthenes, there was a comedians' club called the Group of Sixty, which met in the Temple of Heracles to trade wisecracks. It is said that Philip of Macedon paid handsomely to have their jokes written down; but the volume, if it ever existed, has been lost. 

On the Roman side, Plautus refers to jestbooks in a couple of his plays, while Suetonius tells us that Melissus, a favorite professor of the emperor Augustus, compiled no fewer than 150 joke anthologies. Despite this, only a single jokebook survives from ancient times: the Philogelos, or "Laughter-Lover," a collection in Greek that was probably put together in the fourth or fifth century A.D. 

It contains 264 items, several of which appear twice, in slightly different form.  Hierocles and Philagrius, its two attributed authors, probably forgot to compare notes. There is scholarly speculation that the Hierocles in question is actually the fifth-century Alexandrian philosopher of that name who was once publicly flogged in Constantinople for paganism, which, as one classicist has observed, "might have given him a taste for mordant wit." 

Mordent wit is not the same as vulgarity, though it does sometimes dip into the galley of stock characters such as the drunk, the miser, the braggart, the attention-starved man or woman, and those difficult to be around individuals with hygiene issues. 

Higher forms of mordent wit involves absent-minded professors and egg heads, similar to today's Hipsters (or as the French call them, bobos, short for "bourgeois bohemians"). 

One might argue that it is biased to associate scholars and professors and the more affluent members of society as representing "higher" forms of wit, but this distinction is made not for socio-economic reasons, but instead for the types life experiences socio-economic privilege brings. 


This blog was originally titled, "Sophy 'softly' Laughing" .. because humor is subtle. It is that nearly indistinguishable element that causes us to laugh with others, and to acknowledge our idiosyncrasies, without scorn, judgment, or bias. 

Humor is akin to the smile of mind you experience when you watch a toddler stumble about as they take those adorable first steps. It is not their stumbling or falling that makes us smile - no one in their right mind wishes harm upon another - it is the recognition of our humanity in another that makes us smile. It is a smile of mind that reminds us we are all human, or more broadly put, that we all coexist in the experience we call existence. 

Scholarly Research
on Humor

Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459) was a secretary to eight popes over a half a century. During the time known as the Western Schism, he traveled throughout Europe in search of lost works of ancient literature. From the dungeons of remote medieval monasteries he rescued precious manuscripts. Had he not laboriously deciphered and copied these rotting manuscripts, they would have been lost into oblivion. Thanks to him we have Lucretius's De Rerum Natura and Quintilian's Instituto Oratoria, as well as many of the orations of Cicero, the architectural writings of Vitruvius, and Apicius's works on cooking. 

Not only was he one of the greatest book-hunters in history, but according to what he left behind, he wielded a wicked pen, satirizing the vices of the clergy (which he shared) and lambasting rival scholars in his Ciceronian Latin. 

In his inventiveness he invented the roman font. As chancellor of the Republic of Florence after his retirement from Curia, he became that city's biographer. Yet, for all his professional accomplishments, Poggio ended up being best know for his book of jokes. 

The Liber Facetiarum, usually called simply the Facetiae, was the first volume of its kind to be published in Europe. In this collection of 273 items - jests, bon mots, puns, and humorous anecdotes - the expansive Arab-Italian novella can be seen turning into the swift facezia

Several of the jests have been traced to tales told by Procen├žal bards in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. But much of it came out of a joke club in the Vatican called the Bugiale - the "fib factory." Here papal scribes would gather at the end of a tedious day spent drafting bulls, dispensations, and encyclicals to shoot the breeze and tell scandalous stories. 

Admittedly many of the jokes were about rigorous (intimate) exercise and poked fun at the morals of churchmen, but not a word of condemnation was publicly expressed by the Vatican. Perhaps because it was in Latin, and thus "savored" or kept into context by the clerical class without corrupting the morals of the masses (who were illiterate and/or could not read Latin). 

The Facetiae would easily make the modest blush. Is it an example of scholarly exploration into all those things that make us uniquely human or is it an aberration shared across socio-economic classes, an inherent aspect - even if only one aspect - of our humanity we'd rather hide? The answer to this question is up to the Reader to consider.

Poggio is an example of a scholar exposing human aberrations to a very small, erudite audience. While much of what he shared was in jest, his audience, the educated rarely just laughed. It is not surprising that one of his reasons for sharing humor was to highlight less than ethical behavior in a quest for deeper understanding - in the name of scholarly exploration.  

Ancient jests have been shared over and over again. They have been the source of letting go of tension (release theory of humor), they have been the source of social chagrin, that which more cultured people shun, and many other things, including the material for Beatrice, the razor-tongued comedienne of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing. 

The English took what Poggio started and turned the humorous tale into the joke. In the seventeenth century twenty-eight of Hierocles' Philogelos jokes were appended into an edition of his Commentary on the Golden Words of Pythagoras. The jokes soon circulated in print form throughout all of Europe. 

Thanks to the popularity of these jokes, English humor got shorter and punchier. The most popular generation of jokebooks flourishing in the Georgian era were published in Joe Miller's Jests. The book went through so many editions that a "Joe Miller" eventually became associated with "a stale joke." 

Stale or not, these jokes endured, in one form or another. What has remained is the question,

What makes something funny? 

Laughing, literally ...

Men and women change their names for many different reasons. Entertainers change their names all the time, and married women take the names of their husbands. When Facebook shortened my name from Sophy Laughing to Soph Laugh, I kept it.

I legally changed my last name to Laughing to explore first-hand the reactions of others upon hearing the name Laughing. This highlights my pre-existing hypothesis that when people hear positive words they feel more positive. For me the word "laughing" conjures up images of happy, smiling people. 

Colleagues I have known for years react differently. Some applaud me, claiming I am a maverick, and an "out of the box" thinker, some commend me on my bravery, stating what I have done is at great risk to my professional career, and others, well, they either say nothing or tell me that they "don't get it".

Since when did the world get so serious about something as made up as a name?

My LAUGHING EXPERIMENTwhile initially a philosophical exploration into humor (aesthetics), is now as much an exploration of how personal identity changes by virtue of a name change as it is how people identify with positive word association.

Personal Identity
Socially Accepted Name Changes

Personal identity, in philosophical circles, is discussed under the protean term self, with self meaning 'person'. But self is sometimes associated with the immaterial, with spirit, or under the subject of consciousness ... Descartes' ghost in the machine

Outside of philosophy, Who am I?  is one of the most important questions people ask themselves, and others.  We associate identity in relation to gender, socio-economic class, careers, hobbies, interests, beliefs, preferences, and even coffee drinking habits. 

People discuss self identity every day. It is the singularly most discussed philosophical topic in the world, and dates back to ancient times. Every generation discusses their likes and dislikes, which further associates (or disassociates) them from others. Who we are is the question every investigative reporter aims to answer when they probe into the personal lives of celebrities or politicians. 

Everyone is fascinated by the subject of self identity, irrespective of whether they define it in practical or philosophical terms. Personhood and those persistent things that continue to make us 'us' are being questioned every day, and not just against personal habits, life circumstances or life choices, but against artificial intelligence. 

What does it take to classify a robot or manmade object as human? Consciousness? How does one define consciousness? How does one imbue wires and circuits with that intangible force that animates flesh and keeps it from rotting? 

In Plato's Phaedo, it is hope (and fear) that keeps people wanting to believe in existence after death, in eternal self identity.

Does biological death put an eternal end to one's existence? 

Humans do not have the opportunity to answer this question unless they have been declared 'dead' by a medical professional and brought back to life. 

But even a near death experience cannot answer the greatest philosophical question of all time: 

Is there life after death?

Perhaps not in the way in which we currently identify life or self.

Changing one's name, changing one's personal identity, is like a mini-death. 

I associate my name change as getting a two for one lifetime. Two identities for the price of one lifetime.

Philosophical Considerations

One might examine my LAUGHING EXPERIMENT as an experiment as falling under the category of Game Theory. A philosophical approach in decision making explored publicly with a multitude of economic agents, in relation to risk and uncertainty. 

One might relate my LAUGHING EXPERIMENT to epistemology, with how we know things, including ourselves - and truth. Am I the same person or am I a different person because my name is different? Is truth related to reality or perception? 

One might associate my LAUGHING EXPERIMENT with ethics, with those legal systems we have in place that ensure justice. Is an individual justified in making a name change? What would happen if everyone in society changed their name? Is it easier for an unknown person to change their name? If someone has a prominent family name would changing their name diminish their social credibility? 

I am still exploring humor and the nature of self-identity, still exploring what makes others laugh, still exploring that which I consider funny, and if you want to go so far as to make this claim, without a shadow of a doubt, still thinking I'm one of the braver Philosophical Humorists in the world - mostly because I was willing to take make legal my philosophical inquiry. 

That's my story and until I write another one, I'm sticking by it. 

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