Laughing Rats and Biomedical Ironies

In the near future I’ll post a student-led series on humor and neuroanthropology, building off work we’ve done on breast cancer and humor over the past two years. So this had me poking around the web this morning, where I found this video on Jaak Panksepp and his laughing rats.

Panksepp sees laughter as having mammalian roots (Physiology and Behavior pdf), and as being grounded in affective neuroscience (the title of his book). As this informative interview on his intellectual career relates, he has built a bottom-up approach to understanding the brain and mind.

By coincidence, today I also happened to read an excerpt from Cynthia Willett’s forthcoming book, Irony in the Age of Empire: Comic Perspectives on Democracy and Freedom.

Ridicule derives some of its pleasure from waving a flag of superiority over another, This is not a very democratic move for a democratic culture to make… Comedy can be a force for freedom. It can expose to ridicule the ignorance and arrogance of power. But comedy can also augment the same blind arrogance, allowing those with power to eliminate liberties for others. Consider the prevalence of jokes about welfare moms and their crack babies in the 1980s and ‘90s and the dismantling of the welfare state that followed. Laughter can disenfranchise the weak and prop up the powerful. On the other hand, the edgy black humor of stand-up comedians like Richard Pryor or Dave Chappelle, the playfully subversive laughter of queer camp and, perhaps more surprisingly, even the standard fare of romantic Hollywood film comedy can offer a larger vision of freedom than liberalism’s rights talk typically allows…

The value of comedy for freedom is that its attention is focused on the social sphere… Indeed, what the philosopher might otherwise praise as the rational man may come across in comedy as the straight-man if not the blind fool while the Hollywood screwball may turn out to bear much of the comic insight… Abstract discussions of liberal freedom focus too narrowly on the self-enclosed, rational individual. Paradox thought it may be, freedom often finds its happy ending in our social bonds…

A comic ethics of subversion and re-engagement begins from the premise that we are enmeshed in economies histories, and life-dramas not entirely of our own making. Webs of connection place demands upon us. These demands carry a distinct type of normative force that may extend beyond the narrow range of liberalism’s moral concerns. Liberal moral obligations are typically articulated in terms of an “ought,” while the libidinously charged obligations of the come realm appear as those of a “should.”

Besides finding Willett’s analysis fascinating in itself, I immediately saw the relevance to humor in the medical domain. Biomedicine has built its own age of empire. The women we’ve worked with are caught not only in the drama of a life-threatening illness, but in biomedical economies and histories entirely out of their control. Their use of humor was both subversive and affirming, and brought their experiences back to the social sphere, outside the rigid biomedical “oughts” of treatment. Humor helped these women re-engage.

But to return to Panksepp, their laughter also made a difference. It helped them feel something different than the normative dictates of their treatment and the imminent threat to their own life. These embodied feelings brought them much closer to “should,” to the sense that this experience mattered now—laughing together while sharing difficult times.

Laughter and humor, both in the moment, worked their human magic.


Still Panksepp and Willett give us two very different takes on humor, one biological and focused on laughter, one a cultural critique bringing irony to bear on states and liberal politics. Anything more in the middle for the good neuroanthropologist?

Well, John Tierney had an article covering the science of the laughter, followed up by a discussion on gender differences in laughing (including further considerations here on how to explain that “laugh gap”). On the language side, we have William Beeman’s summary article on humor in context.

And for bigger reading, these two books offer a nice interactive brace: Rod Martin’s The Psychology of Humor: An Interactive Approach and Phillip Glenn’s Laughter in Interaction.

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