Sustainability and the Serious Side of Humor

chaplin modern times

Getting back to work in Lexington after a great summer in mine is turning out to be a challenge for my attention neurons. I find it hard to get serious about this blog and the rest of my regular activities. I have begun the fall semester at my retiree's institute of learning in retirement taking two courses: one on comedy in film; the other on contemporary American poetry. Neither requires reflecting deeply on into the dismal state of the immediate world. The film course began with Chaplin’s wonderful Modern Times, followed by Duck Soup, one of the Marx Brothers’s masterpieces.

The Chaplin film, made in 1936 in the depth of the depression, offers a comedic interlude from the sad state of today’s world, but paints the dehumanizing effects of the onset of Henry Ford and Frederick Taylor’s mass production practices and the mechanization of labor in such funny ways that the dark side fades to the background. But the humor aside, I find it a serious critique of the then rapidly growing place for technology in society. The huge machine that the workers were attending to swallows up Chaplin and then one of his assembly line buddies, spitting them out after a tortuous journey through the innards. Chaplin’s job on the line, repetitively tightening two screws on a part of whatever it is that is being made, can’t be turned off after the speed is raised to an impossible to follow level. He is the victim of an eating machine, designed so workers can be fed automatically without leaving their posts, running amok. Chaplin suffers a breakdown when he tries to tighten inappropriate buttons, fire hydrant valves and other bolt-head-like objects. The release from the oppression of technology comes to Chaplin via a relationship with a gamine, played wonderfully by Paulette Goddard. He is able to put behind the always losing battle with machines, and the film ends with an optimistic scene.

I have read definitions of humor than define it as a collision with reality in which the “reality” of the reality sinks in. In humorous moments we become aware that our preconceived picture of the world is so far from the “truth” that we laugh at ourselves, a response to the surprising awareness looming large against our expectations. This form of humor can happen when we are all alone, but is helped alone by comics who help us confront our presuppositions. Chaplin was a master at this. We also watched, Playtime, a film by Jacques Tati, best known for his Mr. Hulot series. I did not find much humor in the film, except for some slapstick scenes. Tati deliberately slowed down the action, making every movement and sound stand out unnaturally. His point is that there is humor in ordinary life experience if we are open to what is really going on all around us. We see life happening through a set of filters that have been constructed on top of our accumulated conscious (and maybe unconscious) experience. Tati was trying to get through these filters and make us see the humor in the way the world actually works.

I began a class session at Marlboro College Graduate School last weekend with a fascinating video clip, showing a hollow mask of Charlie Chaplin (purely coincidental, any hollow mask would do) rotating and showing the front and back sides sequentially. As the back, hollow side comes into view, the face appears, but with the nose pointing outward as in ordinary faces. The explanation given by the person doing this demonstration is that we have only seen faces in a convex sense with the nose pointing out, and that our cognitive system cannot accept an image with the opposite sense.

The biology of cognition developed by Maturana and Varela provides a scientific basis for this. The cognitive system is closed, metaphorically like a hard drive containing a database storing in some “language” all the perceptions we have acquired through our sensory apparatus. Whenever we experience anything, we perform a search, not unlike a Google search, to find a meaningful reference. The one that gets languaged and becomes a conscious experience is the one that rises to the top of the list, again like the way Google works (without paid listings). If the perception is meaningful in the immediate context, the next step might be to draw on a related part of the neural network that constitutes the brain, producing an action that makes sense to all the parties in the context. But when the perception produces a world that appears incongruous within that context, we don’t have a next action ready-at-hand, and fall back on a emotional response, often laughter but also fear or sadness.

This model for human behavior and consciousness differs profoundly from the standard Cartesian model of a computing machine in the brain, always trying to guide our actions to produce the most pleasure or utility. The latter model leads to an image of insatiability and to practices of human beings manipulated to convert that emptiness into unending consumption. Given the way the societies and individuals embed their beliefs and practices in the course of acting on them, our world of today has built its institutions on this model with the unintended consequences of badly damaging the world we count on for survival and also our sense of well-being.

The cognitive model of Maturana and Varela is consistent with the emergence of caring, not needing, behavior as humans grow up. Caring is manifest, first, in recognizing other phenomena as meaningful, that is, having some relationship to the observer, and, second, in acquiring behavioral habits that make that relationship effective and satisfying. Caring, interpreted this way, is the fundamental foundation to explain human being—the experience of living. Institutions built on this premise will be very different from those of today, and, I strongly believe, will grow to underpin the possibility of flourishing, not continue to diminish and degrade that possibility.