Chapter 3

Laughter and Bisociation

1)    [page 77] Gurdjieff’s theory of the binary structure of laughter (O) elaborated in terms of Koestler’s theory of bisociation or  ‘double association.’

2)    The variable physiognomy of laughter attests the possibility of practically any emotional attitude becoming a constituent of O.

3)    The role of implicitness in generating the ‘cognitive geometry’ of the bisociation is even more indispensable for the evocation and intensification of the corresponding emotional bisociation, which is the focus of ‘humor’ (hâsya) in Indian aesthetics.

4)    The concept of ‘operative fields’ and their affective component.

5)    Koestler’s bisociation is only cognitive: emotion is spilled when its corresponding field is suddenly replaced by an incompatible field. Gurdjieff’s ‘bisociation’ is also emotional: the collision of opposing fields is paralleled by the mutual neutralization of contrary emotions. Reduction of Koestler’s bisociation to a specific mode of Gurdjieff’s, which is more relevant for the Indian conception of hâsya.

6) Gurdjieff’s ‘laughter in the intellectual center’ also accounts, pace Koestler, for bisociative laughter where the operative fields are emotionally neutral.

7)    Unspecifiability of humor due to (i) the selective operators of the bisociated fields being on a lower level of consciousness (even unconscious) than the members of the fields; (ii) discharge of the incipient emotion(s) of the bisociation even before they acquire recognizable specificity. [78]

8)    Universal confusion of humor and laughter justified in terms of the mediating function of the bisociative convulsion (O).

9)    Bisociation permits wholly different ‘senses of humor’ within a single universally valid theory of humor, for the structure remains the same even with variation of emotional content and range of selective operators.

10)                       Reduction of Bergson’s and Freud’s theories to the bisociative model and their re-derivation from the latter. Bergson’s neglect of emotional dynamics of the comic criticized. The quiproquo is the formal dramatic objectification of the bisociative structure. His ‘mechanical/organic’ opposition reduced to clash between appropriate/inappropriate fields. Rebuttal of Bergson’s and Freud’s chief objection to theories of the bisociative type. Bergson’s definition of ‘reciprocal interference of series’ is bisociative.

11)                       Fundamental difference between Freud’s and Gurdjieff’s theories of laughter is that for Freud the energy ‘economized’ (to be discharged) is due to a difference in expenditure, whereas for Gurdjieff the superfluous energy is the sum of opposing expenditures. Freud’s principal objection to bisociation is that he is unable to account for this ‘difference in expenditure’ in terms of it (e.g., in the ‘naïve’).

12)                       Freud’s ‘harmless wit’: those techniques (also found in rhetorical figures) which are common to the ‘dream-work’ and without noticeable emotional charge. Dream-work is funny only when latent dream-thoughts of the unconscious are juxtaposed to the conscious recall of its manifest content; dream-work, unlike joke-work, is never funny in itself. The unconscious in jokes is only one pole of a constitutive bisociation of which the other pole is the conscious. Freud’s extra-comic psychoanalytic bias in privileging jokes distorts his treatment of other categories of the comic.

13)                       Freud’s ‘tendency-wit’: harmless wit + repressed emotional charge (which accounts for the irresistible force behind tendentious laughter). Fore-pleasure principle. Whereas for Freud the superfluous energy discharged as laughter derives from ‘economy’ in expenditure on inhibition, for Koestler it derives from the (not necessarily) repressed emotion of the tendency itself. Gurdjieff’s model implies rather that it is the combined energies of reinforced inhibition and released tendency that are discharged as laughter. Freud’s three conditions for liberation of inhibitory cathexis (as laughter) more simply and consistently derived from Gurdjieff’s bisociative model. Ambiguity/ambivalence of laughter as being simultaneously a rejection of and participation in the (forbidden) tendency. Bergson’s laughter as social corrective irreconcilable with Freud’s laughter as the lifting of internal inhibitions, but both are derivable from the bisociative model which Mary Douglas finds implicit in Freud’s theory. [79]

14)                       Freud’s ‘humor’: discharge of incipient unpleasure. Such incipient pain (alpa-duhkha) is recognized by Abhinava in all forms of determinate laughter, which tends to be borne out by empirical psychology. [80]



Before we go on to distinguish humor from laughter, hâsya from hâsa, it would be useful to examine more closely and formulate the basic mechanisms whereby the stimulus S is able to simultaneously produce two sharply contrasting reactions that constitute the organismic variable O. As this basic process has already been exhaustively analyzed and discussed by Arthur Koestler, in Insight and Outlook, where he sums it up in the term ‘bisociation,’ we shall largely draw upon him in this chapter though our conclusions will differ from him on an important point, where his theory diverges from that outlined by Gurdjieff in the preceding chapter.

That different emotional attitudes can generate or underlie the common response of laughter is evident, even independently of psychological considerations, from the mere physiognomy of the laughter which is determined, among other factors, by “the (variable) emotional background formed by the initial emotional state and by the emotional charge carried by the comic stimulus itself” (Insight and Outlook, p.13). Where one component of O precedes the other (chapter II, point #8), it will determine whether the result is a sardonic, inviting or nervous smile, a jovial, embarrassed or diabolical laugh. [81]

The problem now is to determine how the stimulus S which would normally produce a single unilateral response, positive or negative, is under specific conditions able to produce the ‘bisociative’ response, both positive and negative, responsible for laughter. S produces an exclusively positive or an exclusively negative response depending on its association with a particular context that gives it a singular meaning. But where it is simultaneously associated with two sharply distinct contexts, that confer two mutually contradictory meanings or evaluations upon it, S produces, by virtue of its junctional position, simultaneously a negative and a positive reaction. Koestler has made detailed analyses of numerous jokes and witticisms (standard ones borrowed from Freud, Bergson, Sully, etc.) to demonstrate this ‘cognitive geometry’ inherent in the comic stimulus, and we shall analyze a few later on. But for our purpose it is sufficient here to examine the conclusions of these analyses, and the interested reader may easily look up these examples in Koestler. Bisociation refers to “any mental occurrence simultaneously associated with two habitually incompatible contexts” (Insight and Outlook, p. 37). “Our diagrams all show the same pattern of two unrelated association trains suddenly colliding with each other at a given point.... Generally speaking, what happens at the junction is that a thing is seen in dual light; a mental concept is simultaneously perceived under two different angles.... The junction is a hinge or pivot with two independent thought extensions attached to it. Under normal circumstances the stream of consciousness would follow either one branch or the other, for the two belong to two different systems [82] or planes of mental organization. But the junctional concept behaves in an abnormal way; it is not merely associated to one ideational context: it serves two masters at the same time; it is ‘bi-sociated’ with two independent and mutually exclusive mental fields. The concept of bisociation (dual association) is fundamental to the present book (Insight and Outlook, p. 36). The following joke, borrowed from Freud (Insight and Outlook, p.32), will serve as a fine example for it consists in the simultaneous superposition of several correlated bisociations.

A man about town showed his devotion to a young actress by lavish gifts. Being a respectable girl, she took the first opportunity of discouraging his attentions by telling him that her heart already belonged to another man. “I never aspired as high as that,” was his polite answer.

The apparent simplicity of this witticism conceals a richness of implicit suggestions and the clash of affective undertones released by them. The junction or ‘flash point’ of the bisociation is the word ‘high’ which, as Koestler points out, has a metaphorical meaning in the first, and given, associative context, as opposed to an anatomical meaning in the second suggested context, which has to be reconstructed from a mere hint. ‘High’ taken metaphorically as morally, socially and aesthetically elevated reinforces our impression of the actress as so respectable as to be angelically beyond his reach. Qualifying ‘heart’ it emphasizes the yearning for her love unfortunately already vouchsafed to another. Given the politeness of the answer, we take it as the familiar face-saving device concealing a deep disappointment that tends to provoke our, and the actress’s [83] condescending, sympathy. But even before we can begin to wonder at this all-too-ready admission of defeat, the literal meaning of ‘high’ suddenly pops up and deflates the whole chivalric scene. His interest revealed to have been purely sexual and the angelic figure brutally replaced by the image of a whore. The admission reveals itself to be a lewd proposition: “your can let your heart remain very well where it is, I shall be content with something far inferior.” And the presumed inner disappointment is compensated, even granted her refusal, by the enjoyment of a subtle revenge on her virtue.




Text Box: high
Text Box: high
Text Box: (face-saving device)
Text Box: (lewd proposition)
Text Box: (inwardly disappointed)
Text Box: (subtle revenge)
Text Box: (love)
Text Box: (organ)
Text Box: (‘whore’)
Text Box: (angelically divine)
Text Box: actress
Text Box: suitor
Text Box: heart
Text Box: polite answer














Actually one could even discover subtler more general bisociations, underlying all these particular limited bisociations, that account for the deeper appeal of the joke. It is an ironical parody of bourgeois attitudes to romantic love. A woman is supposed to give herself carnally (the inferior part of herself) only as an extra to the [84] suitor who has already won her love (the highest part of her). Here we have a modest suitor who is content with the inferior and, if bourgeois logic were rigorously applied, she ought to have obliged. Taken out of its cultural setting, the humor here would perhaps have lost much of its depth. In any case, all these reverberations are produced as it were simultaneously by the initial bisociative clash between the two meanings of ‘high,’ which by itself can hardly account for the humor. What is essential to the joke is its implicitness, its riddle-like character. The various bisociations are produced by the linking of ‘high’ with all the correlated explicit terms (through the arrows indicated above) of the joke. Yet this linking is possible only through the generation, or reconstruction, of various implicit meanings (in parentheses and which are the meanings of the arrows) by the mind on the receiving end. It is in the process of filling these gaps that the richly variegated emotional reverberations of the joke are produced, and since ‘high’ has two distinct meanings, the two opposing sets of implicit meanings polarize these emotional resonances along the (vertical) line of a fundamental dichotomy. It is this bisociation of the emotional charge that is really responsible for the force behind the joke.

Following Freud,1 Koestler has very much emphasized the role of economy in wit. “To an intelligent audience any joke will sound stale if it is entirely explicit. The true essence of economy is implicitness, which, by the use of hints and [85] allusions in lieu of complete statements, turns the joke to a certain extent into a riddle. By virtue of its implicit wording, the story proceeds in jumps instead of moving along a continuous line, leaving logical gaps and thus forcing thought to race after the words and bridge the gaps by its own effort” (Insight and Outlook, p.31). However, he seems to see the reason for this essential implicitness primarily in the difficulty, often impossibility, of explicitly presenting both the association chains of the bisociation simultaneously; thus elements of both chains will have to be largely hinted or suggested. Though this is certainly true, being necessitated by the temporal linearity of speech, there is a still more important function of suggestion. Even if the opposing meanings could be simultaneously presented explicitly, there is no guarantee that they will arouse the relevant emotional content associated with them forcefully enough, if at all. The re-creative effort involved in filling in the suggested meanings, the attention (Sanskrit: avadhâna) it involves, is also what generates and sustains the emotional content of the joke. “Thus economy is a means of stimulating the associative flow. It makes it impossible for attention to stray; the listener is forced to work out the story for himself by filling in the gaps. But there is another aspect to this technique. By making the listener fill in the gaps, work out the joke for himself, we force him to repeat to a certain extent the process of inventing it; he has to re-create the witticism. Economy is a technique which compels the consumer to a creative effort. It is an essential technique in art as in humor” (Insight and Outlook, p.33).

It is the same as the ‘suggestion’ (dhvani = ‘reverberation’) of the Sanskrit poets (kavi) that [86] obliges their listeners to be ‘connoisseurs’ (sahRdayas). What limits the different associative chains (constituting the suggested meanings) linking the various explicit terms and gives these chains their coherence are certain specific emotional attitudes, organized to form a larger whole constituting the fundamental emotional bisociation. The stimulation of these association chains is at the same time the stimulation in the listener of the emotional attitudes inherent in these constitutive chains. In Indian terminology, the suggested meaning would be categorized as ‘suggested sense subordinated to the expressed meaning’ (guNîbhûta-vyangya) whereas the emotional contents themselves would constitute the ‘suggestion’ of ‘emotion’ (bhâva-) and ‘aesthetic sentiment’ (rasa-dhvani); these emotional contents themselves would be considered the ‘primary meaning’ (mukhyârtha) of the poem or witticism.2 It is a fundamental dictum in Sanskrit poetics that aesthetic emotion can only be suggested and never directly expressed. The role of implicitness is therefore not only to facilitate the creation of cognitive bisociation, but is also indispensable for the emotional dynamics of the bisociative technique.

The coherence that holds together each association chain, formed of suggested meanings linking the different explicit terms, is not necessarily, in fact rarely, a logical coherence but a habitual one. In the process of bisociation the junctional concept is connected simultaneously to two association complexes that are [87] habitually compatible. “Now, ‘habitually incompatible’ does not mean ‘logically incompatible’…. Our association flow is regulated not by logic, but by the habits of thought acquired by past experience. If the flow happens to be logical in stretches, then it is only because the type of association called ‘logical’ has become a habit” (Insight and Outlook, p.37). Here we find it useful to adopt without modification the terminology introduced by Koestler to analyze the behavior of the stimulus of humor in terms of these association complexes. “The concept of bisociation implies the short-circuiting of two separate mental patterns, each of which is self-consistent and structurally homogeneous.... I propose to call such self-consistent and ‘homogeneous’ systems operative fields. Each of these systems or fields is governed by a certain selective rule or structural law, which will be called the selective operator of the field. The mental occurrences which in the individual’s past have appeared in the context of a given operational field will be called members of the field. The term ‘association’ then refers to any mental process within the framework of a given operative field; the term ‘bisociation’ to mental occurrences which are perceived simultaneously as members of two fields” (Insight and Outlook, pp.39-40).3

If the comic stimulus is able [88] to produce the bisociative effect O with such regularity in a particular human community, this is due not so much to some property inherent in the stimulus itself, but because “the same stimulus will elicit entirely different responses of thought and behavior according to what kind of operative field the nervous system is attuned to at the time” (Insight and Outlook, p.43). The operative fields brought into play will be those capable of coherently linking S to the other explicit terms of the presented joke-complex. What should be emphasized here by ourselves is that the selective operators in these cases are as much specific emotional attitudes as the suggested meanings inseparable from these attitudes.

The Emotional Dynamics of Bisociation

“It is of paramount importance (…) to distinguish between these two basic factors of the comic: its logical geometry or pattern, and its emotional tension or charge” (Insight and Outlook, p.20). Koestler has been the first person to distinguish clearly between the cognitive geometry (bisociation ) of the joke and its emotional dynamics. Herbert Spencer’s basic thesis that “emotion tends to beget bodily motion,” which Freud later incorporated in his own theory, “contains an implicit assumption, a hidden axiom, shared by many other theories of the psychology of emotions. It is the assumption that emotional processes have a greater inertia than cognitive the best of my knowledge no school of psychology, not even the Freudian, has explicitly stated this tacit assumption that emotions have a much greater inertia or mass momentum in the direct physical sense [89] than the processes of formal thought. In the present theory of the comic, this fact plays an important part. For when we said that the emotional charge of the narrative is disposed of in the discharge reflex of laughter, we implied that emotion is not suddenly transferable from the field of the narrative to that of the flash, whereas the thought is. Our understanding does jump from the first field to the second, whereas our emotion, incapable of performing the sudden jump, is spilled. This difference in behavior implies that emotion tends to persist in the direction of a straight line, whereas thought can dance about like a matador; in other words, that emotion has a greater mass momentum” (Insight and Outlook, pp.59-60). He finally formulates the relationship between the cognitive bisociation and the emotional dynamics of the comic response as follows: “The abrupt transfer of a train of thought from one operative field to another leads to its separation from its original emotional charge. An idea or situation seen in a sudden new light casts off its affective shadow. This sudden dissociation of intellectual and emotional state, the rupture between knowing and feeling, is a fundamental characteristic of the comic” (Insight and Outlook, p.65).

A comparison with Gurdjieff’s formulation of the bisociative or “yes|no” structure existing correlatively in both the intellectual and emotional centers (and moving/instinctive center), while justifying this distinction between the ideational and the emotive aspects of the comic response, contradicts Koestler’s proposition that simply because thought, in the intellectual center, has suddenly shifted into a second operational field, the original emotional charge, being dissociated from the first field, is [90] spilled as laughter. Koestler’s model implies that

1)    cognitively, the second operational field wholly substitutes itself for the first,

2)    this being sufficient to account for the dissociation of the original charge from the first field, and

3)    the unchecked momentum of this original unidirectional emotion is sufficient to account for the laughter.

Gurdjieff’s model suggests on the contrary that

1)    the second field does not replace but merely juxtaposes itself to the first,

2)    the emotional charge of the first field being dissociated from it only through an opposing charge, and

3)    the opposing momentums of both charges neutralize each other, and it is this mutual checking that releases the laughter.

This means that even where there is a temporal sequence whereby the second field wholly dislodges the first and the first emotion is to some extent dissociated, it is the clash of the subsiding momentum of this emotion with the increasing momentum of the incipient emotion related to the second field, that releases the surplus emotional energies in the form of laughter.4 The arousal-safety model of laughter proposed by some empiricists, wherein an emotion like fear, having been aroused in an infant and suddenly deprived of its objective cause in the external stimulus, is resolved in laughter, belongs to this category. The most that could be claimed here is that there is a time-lag between the cognitive bisociation and the clash of opposing emotions. But the point at which the laughter is generated is precisely that where [91] the second field is momentarily juxtaposed to the first, even if this slightly precedes the clash of the corresponding opposing emotions. Interpreted in this way, this anomalous variety, which would seem to justify Koestler’s model, takes its more modest place as merely one common category of Gurdjieff’s model, wherein the bisociative structure is not restricted to the intellectual center, but is repeated on the emotional level as well. Gurdjieff’s model implies that there are two opposing emotions, positive and negative, and where the second charge is only subsequently introduced into the joke-structure, it is the sudden projection of the second operative field that generates or tends to generate this opposing charge.

Koestler appears to have arrived at his model by considering those examples of bisociative laughter where the first emotion is evoked and reinforced before the second is suddenly allowed to intrude (see point 8, p.67 above). Since in such cases, the second emotion is discharged as laughter even before it can acquire any recognizable consistency, whereas the first is relatively obvious, it is easy to understand how Koestler could have come to focus all his theoretical attention on the first emotion alone and neglect the second. But his model breaks down in joke-structures where the opposing emotions are generated simultaneously by the bisociation of thought produced by the very last word of the joke. In such cases, it will be impossible for Koestler to show which field replaces which, and which is the (single) emotion that is discharged. It is also inapplicable to comic situations that more or less by-pass the intellectual center and act directly on the [92] emotional center. If in verbal jokes, there is a temporal sequence sometimes between the two charges, this is because the temporal sequence of speech may sometimes make it impossible to project both the operative fields simultaneously. But where the role of the verbal and intellectual factor is minimized, and the comic stimulus simultaneously evokes the two opposing emotions, due to habitual conditioning, in an ambiguous situation, there can be no question of emotion having to follow thought “in making a jump.” Koestler has the merit of putting the emphasis on the emotions even where it is a question of wit, where it has to do with conflicting ideas in the intellectual center (this is our own definition of wit). But its inadequacy becomes apparent when we consider the comic instead, that is, where bisociation is centered directly on the emotions with minimal intervention of thought (our own definition of the comic), as for example in the contradictory emotions evoked by ritual clowning.

Later on, in our chapter VIII on “The Role of Hâsya in Sanskrit Love-Poetry (zRngâra),” we shall enjoy several verses depicting love-scenes, where all the humor consists in our relishing the delicate wavering between two opposing sets of transitory emotions. Koestler would have been compelled to give a different explanation from that he has proposed for witticisms to account for these instances of the comic. The truth is that we perceive the clown in two different and compelling ways at the same time, and the conflicting emotions associated with the opposing visions are spilled as laughter. If emotion associated with an idea has greater “mass momentum” than the idea itself, then it will be reasonable to assume that this emotion can be neutralized only by an opposing emotion and not by a mere shift of ideas, from [93] one operative field to another, unaccompanied by its own quantum of emotion.

But does this necessarily mean that the clash of two opposing perceptual fields or operative fields in the intellectual center, which are both more or less neutral with respect to their emotional content, will not result in bisociative laughter? McGhee proposed that perception of an incongruity in itself only leads to mild amusement, not to vigorous laughter. He proposed that an additional element of sex or aggression is necessary for strong laughter to occur.5 Though some researchers tend to confirm this postulate, Rothbart’s experiments with children on purely incongruous stimuli seem to throw doubt on it.6 She even suggests that “McGhee’s failure to find strong laughter in children’s responses to fairly neutral cartoons may have resulted in part from the highly judgmental task given to children in his studies” (ibid., p.45). McGhee has however clarified that “emotionally salient materials might be expected to result only in higher levels of affect; laughter is not thereby precluded for purely incongruous stimuli” (ibid., p.52, note 1). Instead of insisting, therefore, that only emotionally charged bisociations are productive of the laughter discharge, we may cautiously conclude that, all other factors being the same, it is the emotional intensity of the bisociated fields involved that will determine the magnitude of the laughter. Since [94] the emotional bisociation is as a rule correlated to a perceptual or intellectual one, there is nothing to prevent the a bisociated perception or idea with minimal emotional charge attached to it from providing the outlet for superfluous nervous tension that is not generated by the bisociative stimulus itself, but is already freely available in the organism. In such cases, the stimulus merely provides the occasion for the discharge mechanism, it does not generate and sustain the energies actually expended. For rasa literature, however, which is based on the relishing of various emotional states, it is the emotional aspect of the bisociation, emphasized by Koestler, that is of prime interest.

Gurdjieff’s formulation of the bisociative theory of laughter within the framework of the stimulus-organism-response (S-O-R) model is hence more fundamental, and thus also more extensive/comprehensive, than Koestler’s formulation of the same. Though sketchy, it permits the possibility of bisociative laughter independently of the intervention of an emotional component (‘center’). It also permits (the relishing of) bisociation in the emotional center without there being any necessity of thought being dissociated from emotion; on the contrary, the emotional bisociation (the delicate balance between two opposing emotions) may depend directly for its nourishment on the bisociation of a cognitive field, wherein the opposing ideas are presented simultaneously. We shall examine concrete examples of the latter further on. Gurdjieff’s model also offers, as we shall see, a sound basis for an adequate theory of humor. [95]

The Unspecifiability of Humor

In chapter I, we insisted that a successful theory of humor must not only account satisfactorily, and as simply as possible, for all the complex and often contradictory empirical phenomena related to it, but also account at the same time for the persistency and universality of certain misconceptions regarding it. It should not only clarify the nature of the comic response, it should also explain why so familiar and trivial an experience has nevertheless refused to yield itself to the analytic scrutiny. Above all, it must account for the constant confusion between humor and laughter in laymen and experts alike.

In Gurdjieff’s model of laughter, what is consciously registered by the laugher is the convulsion at O whereas it is wholly unnecessary that the bisociation itself, and even less so its constituent emotions, be the objects of a self-conscious awareness. The laugher may never know what exactly occurs at O though he may know that it always results in an easily recognizable inner convulsion that strikes him as being the same despite the apparent diversity of the situations in which it is produced. It is through the recognition of this familiar convulsion that one establishes for oneself the presence of humor or of the comic in the perception, and often projects this presence into the stimulus itself as a perceived incongruity, though one may be wholly unable to determine what this ‘incongruity’ really consists of. The accomplished humorist is primarily one who has developed the tacit skill of perceiving things in such a way as to evoke this convulsion in himself, or to reorganize the ordinary field of perception in his [96] representation of it to others, so as to evoke this same convulsion in them. But since it is only through the recognition of the convulsion that both he and his admirers are able to gauge his success, the operational skill itself remaining tacit, the humorist may well remain incapable of accounting for his own skill in terms of an adequate theory of humor.7 Nevertheless, any valid theory of humor/laughter must necessarily start from this personally experienced convulsion, which alone will determine the selection of empirical material (jokes, situations, comic figures, etc. for a comparative analysis to reveal their common structural features.

It is precisely this unspecifiable ‘feeling’ that guided Freud in his choice of the extremely rich collection of jokes and other comic materials that he has bequeathed to Koestler and future humor theorists. “This is an opportunity for making a not unimportant admission. We are engaged in investigating the technique of jokes as shown in examples; and we should, therefore, be certain that the examples we have chosen are really genuine jokes. It is the case, however, that in a number of instances we are in doubt whether the particular example ought to be called a joke or not. We have no criterion at our disposal before our investigation has given us one. Linguistic usage is untrustworthy and itself needs to have its justification examined. In coming to our decision we can base ourselves on nothing but a certain ‘feeling,’ which we may interpret as meaning that the decision is made in our judgment [97] in accordance with particular criteria that are not yet accessible to our knowledge…. For the fact is that we do not yet know in what the characteristic of being a joke resides” (Freud, Jokes, p.99). From the beginning till the very end of his analyses, it is this personal ‘feeling’ that remains the ultimate criterion as to whether a particular instance is a joke or not, and the formal criteria invoked are brought in only to justify this feeling by revealing the presence of objective structures associated with and normally held responsible for it. Wherever, as in the case of ‘joking analogies’ (see above, pp.55-56), all the formal criteria of a joke are present but the feeling is conspicuously absent or too vague, it is not this spontaneous, organic, as it were ‘intuitive’ judgment that Freud discredits but it is the formal criteria that Freud declares insufficient or he finds other elements in the instance at hand that neutralize its joke or comic potential. In the case of the ‘joking analogy' for example, he merely distinguishes the automatic “comparison” essential to the definition of the joke from the explicit analogy that may or may not be present in the joke. As we shall see below, it is not at all a question of this ‘feeling’ serving as temporary expedient until we are able to replace it with more ‘scientific’ or ‘empirical’ criteria that will enable us to recognize jokes or the comic without recourse to it. For any attempt to employ such self-conscious analytic [98] procedures of determination necessarily interfere with and render impossible the automatic processes, which are never the focus of our attention, whereby the joke-structure becomes an effective stimulus of bisociative laughter.

But why is the ever-present bisociation, responsible for the convulsion, never recognized for what it is, even by those skilled humorists who are nevertheless adept at exploiting its possibilities to the maximum? As we have seen above, the two opposing operative fields responsible for bisociating the comic stimulus are determined by the coming into play of two opposing selective operators, accompanied by their corresponding emotional charges. In the processes constantly going on in us, the selective operators can be either explicitly given (conscious) or more often implicitly given (unconscious, or rather, of a lower level of consciousness). And the latter is generally the case in the experience of the comic or of humor. “The selective operator (or some of its components) which coordinates and systematizes activity usually belongs to a lower level of consciousness than that activity itself. This phenomenon should not be confused with the unconscious distortion of reasoning by repressed emotions or similar Freudian mechanisms… It is generally realized that the processes which regulate visceral activities and acquired manual skill are often impossible to describe verbally. But it is not generally realized that the same relation prevails between the mental skill of reasoning in specific [99] terms and the field operator which defines these terms, without being verbally definable itself…. Associative routine reasoning in the familiar terms of the given field is the application of an empirically acquired manipulative skill in the mental sphere. The implicit rules of these habit manipulations can usually only be made explicit under the analytical microscope of the logician and the semanticist” (Koestler, Insight and Outlook, pp.45-46).

It is in terms of this unspecifiability of the selective operators involved that Koestler goes on to explain why the bisociative structure, though always known in a sense i.e. tacitly, has yet eluded the critical awareness of humorists, theorists and laymen alike. “This is one of the main reasons why the secret of the comic has resisted so many onslaughts in the course of the centuries. The essence of the comic is the bisociation of two operative fields in a junctional concept which is a member of both; it vibrates simultaneously on two different wave-lengths as it were. But frequently the selective operators are partly, or entirely, implicit and unverbalized; hence it is extremely difficult to sort them out, or rather to realize that there are two different patterns entangled, which have to be sorted out. With the pun, or the comic of disguise, this is still relatively easy, but even in a primitive joke (…) the listener only notices that there is something funny about the reasoning, without being able to tell what it is. As the field operators, that is, the respective implications of both narrative and flash, are mostly on a lower level of consciousness than the awareness of the story itself, their clash is merely noticed as a disturbance of the normal flow of associations, without conscious awareness of what the disturbance [100] consists. The virtue of the higher forms of the comic—irony, satire, caricature—lies (…) in just this fact that the bisociative clash disrupts the fields of implicit habits of thought; it exposes to ridicule conventions which were taken for granted; it shows up in the sharp, pitiless light of an alien field what we have unquestioningly accepted in the dim routine of habit” (Insight and Outlook, pp.46-47). As pointed out earlier, the field operators restore the hidden coherence to the explicit narrative and, in doing so, generate the bisociative field around the comic stimulus. Through them, this stimulus now generates the conflicting emotional patterns responsible for the convulsion O. Our subsidiary awareness of these field operators is merged into our focal awareness of the explicit narrative, they are never cognized independently of the effect towards which they contribute. The delicate balance of the bisociative structure of the cognitive aspect of humor/comic is destroyed the moment the attention is focused on the field-operators themselves; this is what explains why this essential structure has eluded the analytic gaze for so long.

Though Freud does not subscribe to the bisociative theory (he never arrived at conceiving it in the first place), he clearly recognized the necessity of attention being displaced to the few salient stepping-stones provided by the joke-content and hence away from the automatic psychic processing that goes on in the deeps to restore coherence. “We have discovered in the condition of distracting the attention a by no means unessential feature of the psychical processes in the hearer of the joke. In connection with this there are still other things that we can [101] understand. Firstly, there is the question why we scarcely ever know what we are laughing at in a joke, though we can discover it by analytic investigation. The laughter is in fact the product of an automatic process which is only made possible by our conscious attention’s being kept away from it” (Jokes, pp.206-07). Yet Freud has stopped short at registering this vital fact without attempting to explain why these crucial processes cannot bear the scrutiny of conscious or critical attention. Later on, he does specify that this process is essentially an “automatic comparison” (see below, pp.185-87, for our criticism), but does not explain why this ‘comparison’ to be comic must be automatic. The bisociative theory has the merit of revealing why it cannot be otherwise. Attention focused on one (set of) operator(s) will necessarily exclude the possible emergence of the opposing (set of) operator(s) rendering bisociation impossible. But attention focused on the bisociated term permits the simultaneous emergence of the mutually exclusive operators that cancel each other out in the funny convulsion even before their presence can be recognized and registered. There is in fact no ‘comparison’ but only a juxtaposition that can develop into a comparison to serve an extra-comic purpose in some cases, like the joking-analogy.

But all this does not yet explain why the two constituent emotions of the bisociation (or one of them) may remain likewise unspecifiable. Not only are the operators which generate the conflicting emotions unspecifiable, because known only subsidiarily, but the emotions themselves neutralize each other at their very incipient stage itself, before they can acquire sufficient [102] consistency to be recognized in their individual specificities. Thus, though present and responsible for the convulsion, they may not be known in themselves (except where one precedes the other and/or remains even when the other has subsided) and subsequently remembered as such. All that is clearly registered and subject to conscious recall is the convulsion itself, in the form “I experienced something funny.” This is not the case with the stimuli of other ‘simple’ emotions where, even in the field-operator is unspecifiable, the emotion itself is clearly recognizable. But when the same stimulus is bisociated, only the convulsion is specifiable, whereas the presence of the above emotion as a constituent of O escapes notice. The comic response is in this way doubly unspecifiable. Still we shall see later on that the technique of Sanskrit rasa-poetry is such that in verses exemplifying hâsya-rasa (‘humor in the emotional center’) as an accessory to the erotic sentiment (zRngâra), both the conflicting emotions are easily distinguishable (because well developed and relishable in themselves) as are the field-operators that generate them (because given in the form of sustained figures of speech). Such examples are ideal for the analysis of the bisociative mechanism, because what is really relished is not so much the pleasurable convulsion but the emotional bisociation itself, responsible for the convulsion. This is what distinguishes hâsya from hâsa, ‘humor’ from ‘laughter.’

We are now in a position to understand why humor and laughter have always been so thoroughly confused with each other. If the structure that constitutes humor is inwardly recognizable only by the convulsion it produces, and if the natural and automatic external [103] manifestation of this convulsion is through the different degrees of laughter, then laughter is rightly the best index of this bisociative structure in both others and in oneself. It is the convulsion at O that bridges humor and laughter. But at the same time it separates them, in the sense that humor may be enjoyable for reasons quite different from the pleasurable discharge of excess energy that constitutes laughter. Though humor and laughter are not mutually exclusive, the enjoyment of the former is not measurable in terms of the magnitude of the latter. The value of laughter is that it reveals the presence of bisociation, but it remains to be understood under what conditions this bisociation can be distinguished as ‘humor.’ If the discharge of excessive emotional energies is irrelevant to the relishing of humor, then it becomes necessary to explain why bisociation in humor results in the minimal discharge of excessive energy; what happens to the ‘mass momentum’ of the emotions involved when they clash? This will be the subject of chapter VII on the “Role of Hâsya in Sanskrit Love-Poetry (zRngâra).” For the present, it is sufficient to conclude that laughter is the best index of the presence of bisociation, to the extent that it can even be charged with signifying functions derived from the bisociative structure, and thus be used as a voluntary medium of communication. In the absence of humor, the emotional bisociation should, under normal circumstances, result in the laughter reflex. Thus though laughter is irrelevant to the aesthetic relish involved in humor, it is nevertheless most pertinent to (the determination of ) the structure of the humor response. [104]

The theory of bisociation also accounts for the extreme variability of humor responsiveness from individual to individual, culture to culture, epoch to epoch, and for the wide range of situations, having apparently little in common with each other, capable of provoking humor in the same individual. “It can be questioned, therefore, that ‘jokes’ have points or inherent incongruities which transcend cultural boundaries…. Nothing is funny to everyone and anything seems potentially funny to someone. Hence (…) the presentation of a ‘joke’ [is] neither a necessary nor sufficient condition of humor…” (La Fave et al, Humor and Laughter, pp.84-85). Since any two opposing emotions can together constitute the bisociative response, and since each emotion can itself be engendered by an innumerable number of operative fields, the basic underlying structure can be evoked in a single individual in a theoretically infinite variety of empirical situations. As the same time, a person can respond to a joke only if he has already in himself the two or more selective operators necessary for generating the two opposing fields to be bisociated. “A person responds only to that type of joke which sets off a train of habit-formed associations, leading to automatic expectations, in his mind” (Insight and Outlook, p.27). In other words, though the bisociative structure of the joke is universally valid, the content of the bisociated fields will be conditioned and limited by local, subjective factors. The comic stimulus S can produce the opposing emotional charges only if the association chains needed to link S with the other explicit terms of the joke are not unfamiliar to the consumer. His society and education must have already deposited in him the necessary selective operators, before they can ensure “the facilitation of [105] the associative flow in the listener’s mind. We saw that this is determined to a large extent by a subjective factor, the audience’s mental habitus. A joke of a given geometrical pattern can be transposed into a number of settings; the most effective of these will be the one which is most familiar to the listener, which represents a ‘relevant stimulus’ to him…. This facilitation depends firstly on the choice of relevant stimuli” (Koestler, Insight and Outlook, p.29). However, the comic stimuli which directly touch fundamental biological drives like sex, aggression or disgust (scatological jokes), minimizing the local cultural elaborations of these themes, can nevertheless have a universal validity, though they may be found crude, childish or ‘uncultured.’ Bisociation allows for different ‘senses of humor’ within a single comprehensive theory of humor.

Other Theories of Humor and the Comic

Many well known definitions of the comic tacitly acknowledge this bisociation, as interpreted in the light of Gurdjieff’s theory, without however drawing the necessary conclusion of seeing therein the very essence of the phenomenon. Thomas Carlyle defines humor as “sympathy with the seamy side of things,” where sympathy would correspond to Gurdjieff’s ‘yes’ and ‘seamy’ to his ‘no.’ The inadequacy of this definition is that it appears to exclude the converse: “antipathy to the alluring side of things.” In other words, it appears to make the ‘yes’ a subjective attitude and ‘no’ an objective aspect of the thing, whereas both are equally reactions, however deeply rooted they may be in the human organism. [106]


This is why Bergson’s contrary formulation, that the comic response demands that we suppress our sympathies, appears to be no less true than Carlyle’s formula. There must be, in Bergson’s phrase a “momentary anesthesia of the heart.” Where, as with the crippled man, we cannot suppress our sympathies, there will be no laughter. The writer of comedy realizes this and plays down our sympathy for the individual; he engages our intelligence rather than our emotions and, thus, achieves the necessary anesthesia.8 This has the merit of pointing out that it is impossible to laugh at someone with whom we identify completely. But neither will there be any laughter if “suppression of sympathy” meant mere indifference or antipathy pure and simple; moreover, there is no justification for considering the ‘suppression’ to be purely ‘intellectual’ and the ‘sympathy’ to be wholly ‘emotional.’ What the “playing down of sympathy” implies is a ‘half-sympathy,’ that is, the simultaneous evocation of sympathy and antipathy, of ‘suppression’ and ‘release’ (détente). As we [107] shall see later (pp.318-20), Bergson himself was uncomfortably aware of this sympathetic  pole but, being unable to reconcile it with the pre-eminently social function he attributes to laughter as a corrective of individual behavior that is mechanically deviant, he tries his utmost to minimize this participative pole of the comic perception. In our eyes, it would be inadequate to speak of ‘sympathy’ and ‘suppression’ for they would seem to imply that in the comic bisociation the emotional attitudes are necessarily subject to conscious judgment and control on the part of the laugher. Very often, as in Freud’s category of ‘tendency-wit,’ the joke technique allows the release of normally repressed emotions which are immediately discharged as laughter due to their clash with the reassertion of inhibitions built into us by society (see below, for this reinterpretation of Freud’s category). Here, it is not really a question of conscious ‘sympathy’ but a fleeting, more or less unconscious, identification with the forbidden theme. Similarly, we shall have occasion to analyze some jokes and examples of hâsya-rasa (‘humor’), where the emotional bisociation  is due to our perceiving the same set of comic stimuli through simultaneously identifying ourselves with the mutually contradicting viewpoints of two different protagonists.

This is also the case with the quiproquo which Bergson rightly insists on treating as only a particular instance of “mutual interference of independent series.”9 “We [108] oscillate between the possible meaning and the real meaning; and it is this balancing of our mind between two opposed interpretations that appears first of all in the amusement that the quiproquo gives us. It is understandable that certain philosophers have been especially struck by this balancing, and some have seen the very essence of the comic in a shock, or in the superposition, of two judgments that contradict each other” (Bergson, Rire, p.74). In these cases, it is improper to speak of ‘suppressing’ our sympathies with any one of them, for without this double sympathy there would be no humor: all that happens is that we also sympathize with a conflicting viewpoint and are unable to reconcile the two. To sympathize with a person is only one possible, though common, way of evoking an emotional attitude, but in many comic situations (see chapter IV), the stimulus, often inanimate, directly evokes the opposing emotions without any sympathy or the absence of it being involved. It is because Bergson has wholly ignored such examples of laughter based primarily on the ‘emotional center’ that he has been able to claim that “laughter has no greater enemy than emotion” (op. cit., p.3), whereas this is only true of those emotions not comprised within the bisociated stimulus but deriving from the purely subjective attitude of the recipient (as for example, in the resistance to tendency-jokes directed against oneself or one’s class). ‘Sympathy’ is an appropriate term only where the [109] bisociation depends on partial identification (tanmayîbhavana) with someone else (âzraya).

Though Bergson has analyzed a wide variety of methods for fabricating the comic, he insists on reducing them all to particular instances of “the mechanical impinging on the comic” (du mécanique plaqué sur du vivant).10 An examination of his examples reveals that he uses the terms ‘mechanical’ (or ‘rigidity’) and ‘life’ in a very loose and metaphorical way, for the elements involved turn out to be ‘mechanical’ or ‘alive’ not in themselves but as a function of the context in which they enter into mutual relationship or become combined. ‘Life’ is conceived as the unceasing ever-renewed adaptation to changing circumstances, whereas the ‘mechanical’ is the mere repetition of movements, forms, sentiments, attitudes and so on automatically in a context where they are inappropriate and where a wholly different response or element would have been expected. Since it is the adequacy of the response to the context that determines whether the former is ‘life-like’ or ‘mechanical,’ we see that we are back again to the bisociative theory. For the “mechanical encrusted on life” is none other than an element that is [110] bisociated between the context with which it is normally associated and the present context in which it is inappropriate. Even a truly mechanical response that perfectly fits a situation is never felt to be ‘mechanical’ in Bergson’s sense; and even a highly original and imaginative gesture of non-conformism will be ‘mechanical’ in his sense. If the former is felt to be ‘alive’ and the latter ‘mechanical,’ this is only because our own perceptive and interpretative frameworks function mechanically and are able to make sense of the former with a single operator whereas the latter oscillates between the operator it carries with itself from its original contexts and the conflicting operator supplied by the present context.

For Koestler,  Bergson’s mechanical “rigidity encrusted on life” corresponds to the structural consistence of habit-grown fields of behavior and thought which is a precondition of the bisociative effect; for without a certain ‘rigidity’ of habit, that is, the conservative persisting tendency of these fields, their intersection would lead to no clash” (Insight and Outlook, p.421-22). This structural consistency or ‘rigidity’ applies just as much to the cognitive fields or interpretative frameworks, the emotional patterns associated with them, and the kind of motor reactions felt to be appropriate. What is more, this ‘rigidity’ is applicable to both halves of the bisociated structure.  In Gurdjieff’s terminology, not only would [111] all these functions—intellectual, emotional, moving-instinctive—be mechanical, but the bisociation in all three ‘centers’ can itself be wholly mechanical., instead of a clash between the mechanical and the organic. “Bergson has called down upon himself reproaches for what have impressed some critics as strained manipulation of the facts, the better to make them answer to his specific theory. Even the basic tenet that all laughter springs from the contrast between what is mechanical and what is natural has been criticized as much too narrow and rigid.”11

Bergson’s primary objection against any definition of the comic resembling the bisociative theory is that “even if they were really applicable to all the forms of the comic, (they) would not in the least explain why the comic makes us laugh. How is it, in fact, that this particular logical relation, as soon as perceived, makes us contract, dilate, and shakes us up, whereas all the others leave our body indifferent?” (Rire, p.6). Freud does no more than echo this same objection (see below). Firstly, the question may be turned back on Bergson’s ‘rigidity encrusted on life’ itself, for why should its perception provoke such a reaction, especially when the crucial terms of this formula are themselves used so metaphorically? Secondly, we have seen that Bergson’s pet formula amounts to the reintroduction of the bisociation theory through the back-door, so much so that it in reality relies on the latter for the laughter it provokes. And finally, the bisociative [112] structure is not restricted to a logical relation, it comprises every kind of associative field and extends into our emotional attitudes and physiological mechanisms. Since it is a self-neutralizing structure that does not permit the purposive consumption of the energies it generates and organizes around a given external stimulus, it explains the functions and mechanisms of laughter satisfactorily as the discharge of such superfluous energies. The analysis of the conditions in which laughter is regularly produced reveal the bisociative structures to be operative, whereas Bergson’s ‘rigidity’ and ‘life’ are impossible to isolate empirically, for they refer finally to our modes of perceptual organization.

In his ‘Comic of Situations,’ Bergson also divides the various ways in which the ‘mechanical’ impinges upon the ‘organic’ to produce laughter into three categories according to the characteristic patterns of the ‘mechanical’: repetition (Rire, pp.55-56, 69-71), inversion (72-73) and reciprocal interference of series (73-77). Though Koestler has ably demolished Bergson’s attempt to reduce everything to the ‘mechanical/organic’ opposition, he notes that the third category above is not really a subdivision but the veritable key to the secret of the comic, despite Bergson’s application of the formula only to the vaudeville type of comedy of errors (Insight and Outlook, p.420). “A situation is always comic when it belongs at the same time to two absolutely independent series of events, such that it can be interpreted simultaneously in two wholly different senses” (Rire, pp.73-74). Substitute associative fields for series and we have the bisociative formula that insists that the common terms must belong simultaneously to two fields that refuse to [113] coalesce harmoniously. Thus, continuing his analysis of the comic equivocation of the quiproquo (see p. 108 above), Bergson adds: “…but this equivocation is not comic in itself; it is so only because it manifests the coincidence of two independent series. The proof of it is that the author has to constantly exercise his ingenuity in bringing back our attention to this double fact, the independence and the coincidence. He ordinarily manages this be ceaselessly renewing the false menace of a dissociation between the two series that coincide” (p.75). This technique cannot be reduced to a ‘mechanical’ elements in a ‘living’ context, because we have to do with the juxtaposition of two ‘living’ contexts. Here Bergson, it seems to us, has answered his own objection to the ‘mutual-contrast’ theory of humor, for it is only where this ‘contrast’ is based on “independence and coincidence” that it produces the bisociative effect of comic incongruity. The distinctiveness of the quiproquo is that the author deliberately and self-consciously exploits this bisociative technique that is tacitly at work in all the diverse forms of the comic.


Freud distinguishes between ‘wit’ (‘jokes’), the ‘comic’ and ‘humor’ and finally summarizes their difference as follows: “The pleasure in jokes has seemed to us to arise from an economy in expenditure upon inhibition, the pleasure in the comic from an economy in expenditure upon ideation (upon cathexis) and the pleasure of humor from an economy in expenditure upon feeling. In all three modes of working of our mental apparatus the pleasure is derived from an economy” (Jokes, p.302). The economized nervous tension, which would otherwise have served concrete practical [114] purposes (artha-kriyâ), represents amounts of redundant energy which are pleasurably discharged in laughter. Spencer’s discharge-theory has in this way been incorporated into both Freud’s and Koestler’s theories, and is also central to Gurdjieff’s. In the Freudian theory, however, there are four distinctly different processes for the four categories of ‘harmless wit’, ‘tendency wit’, ‘comic’ and ‘humor’ whereby the comic stimulus makes such redundant amounts of energy available, whereas for Koestler and Gurdjieff the process is essentially the same for all types of the comic.

Koestler has tried to show that all three modes, and their sub-categories, are reducible to a fundamental bisociative structure. We have already demonstrated this for the comic movement (see chapter I), and Freud himself recognizes its place especially in that variety of the ‘comic’ he labels the ‘naïve’, which he distinguishes from ‘jokes’ only because, unlike the latter it is ‘found’ and not ‘made’ (but cannot the comic too be ‘made’ through the deliberate imitation of others, etc.?), and the person concerned does not have to overcome an inhibition in exhibiting the ‘naïve, unlike the first person (= maker) of the ‘joke’ (see below). “The ‘comparing’ of someone else’s mental process with one’s own corresponds to the ‘psychological contrast’ which we can at last find a place for here, after not knowing what to do with it in jokes. But we differ in our explanation of comic pleasure from many authorities who regard it as arising from the oscillation of attention backwards and forwards between contrasting ideas. A mechanism of pleasure like this would [115] seem incomprehensible to us;12 but we may point out that in a comparison between contrasts a difference in expenditure occurs which, if it is not used for some other purpose, becomes capable of discharge and may thus become a source of pleasure” (Jokes, pp.27-48). It is clear that Freud’s main difficulty is in conceiving how the perception of the comic contrast can make available the “difference in expenditure” which is pleasurably discharged as laughter. This can be easily be answered by interpreting the contrast itself not as an objective stimulus but as merely the objective correlate of the bisociated perception of a given stimulus13 and by maintaining that the energy discharged is the sum of the energies associated with the conflicting fields (since the energies on either side are equally incapable of being employed usefully due to mutual neutralization) and not their difference (see above p.???). This is already in Koestler’s observation that the “difference in expenditure” is primarily qualitative and not quantitative, both quotas being released because of qualitative difference. We shall return to the ‘naïve’ below, as a test case to determine what is really to be understood by the “lifting of inhibition” which, for Freud, provides the energy behind our laughter at a (tendency) ‘joke’.  But the ‘comparison’ underlying all the forms of the ‘comic’ is only an instance of bisociation. [116]

Freud’s ‘harmless wit’ is a verbal or conceptual joke which carries no noticeable aggressive or sexual charge. It operates through various techniques also found in dream-activity: condensation, displacement, sophism, representation of a thing by its opposite, sound affinity, etc. All these procedures represent phylogenetically or ontogenetically earlier modes of thought, and so, according to Freud, the pleasure in harmless wit is derived precisely from this regression to ‘childish’ or unconscious modes of thinking—or, from the relaxing of the normal rational controls, part of whose energy is thus ‘economized’, because it is redundant and can thus be discharged. As the title of Freud’s book reveals, his interest in the phenomenon of jokes was aroused by the recognition of the close similarity between the joke-work and the dream-work (Jokes, pp.231, 130, 31) in their techniques, and not due to any funniness of these techniques when they are lived through in dreams or when the manifest content of the dream is recalled on awakening. It is this extra-comic motivation that had led Freud to isolate and concentrate upon jokes as a special and privileged category of the comic, making incursions into the other categories, which are not determined by these techniques, and even less so by any essential relation to the unconscious, only subsidiarily in order to prop up his basic thesis on the joke-technique. It is only when dream-analysis juxtaposes the latent dream-thoughts it uncovers to the manifest content of the dream that the latter assumes the appearance of a ‘joke’ and, yet, even here Freud is careful to point out that they are not regarded “as successful jokes, but as forced, in some way violating the rules of jokes” because “the dream-work operates by the same methods as jokes, but [117] in its use of them it transgresses the limits that are respected by jokes” (Jokes, p.231, Freud’s emphasis). This is because the literal surface of the joke immediately calls up the conflicting field of allusion to the conscious mind, whereas the corresponding manifest content of the dream requires the mediation of the dream-analysis, with its complicated detours, before the latent dream-thoughts become evident. The mental effort required to make the necessary connections eliminates the possibility of humor.14 Apart from the similarity of the above-mentioned techniques, Freud himself has underlined the several major differences between the joke and the dream (pp.237–38) among which “nothing distinguishes jokes more clearly from all other psychical structures than this double-sidedness and this duplicity in speech” (Jokes, p.230). The displacements crucial to the dream-work “may be altogether absent” from the joke-work, “although jokes too have invariably a task to accomplish of dealing with an inhibition. We can understand the subordinate place taken by displacements in the joke-work when we recall that jokes always have another technique at their command for keeping off inhibition and indeed that we have found nothing more characteristic of them than precisely this technique. For [118] jokes do not, like dreams, create compromises; they do not evade the inhibition, but they insist on maintaining play with words or with nonsense unaltered. They restrict themselves, however, to a choice of occasions in which this play or this nonsense can at the same time appear allowable (in jests) or sensible (in jokes), thanks to the ambiguity of words and the multiplicity of conceptual relations” (Jokes p.230). We see than that this double-sidedness of the joke (its bisociative structure), so fundamental to it, is absent from dreams but common to other forms of the comic. It is this that accounts for the funniness of jokes which can do without the dimension of the unconscious to which Freud attaches so much importance. Freud’s final statement on the issue leaves no doubt that even where the function of the unconscious is active the comic effect is still due to its constituting only one pole of the bisociative structure of which the conscious is the other pole. Of “the two simultaneous methods of viewing things” involved in the joke-appreciation, one “following the hints contained in the joke, passes along the path of thought through the unconscious; the other stays on the surface and views the joke like any other wording that has emerged from the preconscious and become conscious. We should perhaps be justified in representing the pleasure from a joke that is heard as being derived from the difference between these two methods of viewing it” (Jokes p.300; cf. also pp.277-78; as opposed to Freud, and with Koestler, we have stressed the qualitative, not quantitative, character of this “difference”).

In this way, harmless wit is reduced to a category of bisociation which alone accounts for the comic pleasure. This is not to [119] deny that the childish regression made available by harmless wit is itself a source of pleasure (Jokes pp.227-28, cf. p.178), but the specifically comic pleasure in these innocent jokes is independent of this source and is produced by the juxtaposition, within a single pattern, of a relaxation and a maintenance of control.

While ‘harmless wit’ releases infantile modes of thought, ‘tendentious wit’ releases emotions which are normally repressed, by offering a ‘bribe’ or ‘lure’ to the ‘censor’ through witty techniques expressly identified by Freud with the playful regressions of ‘harmless wit’: in other words, ‘tendentious wit’ is ‘harmless wit’ plus a (mainly repressed) emotional charge. “What Freud calls ‘the technique of harmless wit’ we called the ‘intellectual geometry’ of the joke. What he calls its ‘tendency’ we called its ‘emotional charge’. The emotional dynamics of the joke consists of a component of ‘intellectual satisfaction’ derived from ‘seeing the joke’, plus the discharge of the redundant or liberated emotional charge (or ‘tendency’), plus, sometimes, a nonspecific element of ‘gloating’ (which Freud does not mention)” (Koestler, Insight and Outlook, pp.424-25). Whereas Bergson believed that emotion tends to stifle the comic, it seems on the contrary that the irresistible laughter of tendency jokes owes its compulsiveness to their rootedness in either hostility (aggression) or obscenity (sex), both of which he finds susceptible of being subsumed under a single heading, especially when it is a case of smut, to which he devotes much consideration: “A person who laughs at smut that he hears is [119] laughing as though he were the spectator of an act of sexual aggression” (Jokes p.141, cf. pp.140-49).

Freud explains the manner in which the tendency exploits the joke-envelope, in order to neutralize the repressive force of the inhibition(s) that prevent its expression, through an extension of Fechner’s “principle of aesthetic assistance or intensification.”15 Though the release of such tendencies generates a certain amount of pleasure, this s more than counter-balanced by the determinants of unpleasure involved in such a process due to the inhibitory factors, like feelings of propriety, that we have interiorized in the process of maturation. But to this potential but insufficient source of pleasure, the joke-form adds its own quantum of (comic) pleasure—what Freud calls the “fore-pleasure”16—and the pleasure of the expression of the [120] tendency combined with the pleasure due to the joke proper, of which the tendency is a necessary constituent, is sufficient to overcome the inhibition, which latter being now rendered superfluous is discharged as laughter. Giving in, against our inhibition, to the urge to insult someone would result in subsequent unpleasure if there were not the possibility of deriving a good joke from the content of the insult. “Experiences with tendentious jokes shows that in such circumstances the suppressed purpose can, with the assistance of the pleasure from the joke, gain sufficient strength to overcome the inhibition, which would otherwise be stronger than it. The insult takes place, because the joke is thus made possible. But the enjoyment obtained is not only that produced by the joke: it is incomparably greater. It is so much greater than the pleasure from the joke that we must suppose that the hitherto suppressed purpose has succeeded in making its way through, perhaps without any diminution whatever. It is in such circumstances that the tendentious joke is received with heartiest laughter” (Jokes p.187). From this he derives “the formula for the mode of operation of tendentious jokes. They put themselves at the service of purposes in order that, by means of using the pleasure from jokes as a fore-pleasure, they may produce a new pleasure by lifting suppressions and repressions.” (Jokes p.188).

Though Koestler accepts Freud’s description of the mechanism of tendency-wit, he finds the source of the discharged energy not in the now superfluous inhibitory cathexis but in the emotion released itself which need not have been a ‘repressed’ one: “we regard the ‘emotional charge’ as the direct source of the discharged [121] energy, and consequently need not distinguish between ‘repressed’ and ‘free’ emotions, whereas for Freud the source of the discharged energy is not the redundant emotion itself, but the energy which was previously necessary to repress it—in our opinion a quite unnecessary and unprovable complication” (Insight and Outlook, p.424, note 5). Freud’s theory implies that the repressive mechanism is always functioning in normal times and all that the joking-envelope does is to short-circuit this mechanism releasing the repressive energies, which assumes that the repressive mechanism is not functioning at the time of discharge. It does not explain what becomes of the emotional charge of the ‘tendency’ which is not consumed in purposive self-fulfilling activity. For Koestler, it is the latter that is discharged as superfluous, but he too seems to hold that due to the bisociative technique the ‘repressive’ mechanism is wholly not functioning. In that case, we would have to conclude that the first operative field evokes the forbidden emotion and that the bisociative jump into the second ‘bribe’ field results in the spilling of this emotion. But numerous jokes could be adduced where both fields are simultaneously presented and processed or, as the term ‘bribe/lure’ would seem to imply, where the ‘permitted’ field precedes the ‘forbidden’ field, and Koestler would be at a loss to explain how the forbidden emotion is spilled. This is one important category of comic phenomena where the superiority of Gurdjieff’s model of bisociation over that of Koestler can be easily seen. There is no reason why the repressed emotions should find overt expression as laughter, instead of being expressed in their specific forms as aggression or sex, [123] unless there was a further factor involved. The comic stimulus does not so much ‘release’ the ‘repressed’ emotion as to directly evoke it through one of the operative fields it brings into play. This is why the so-called tendency is often a ‘free’ (and not a ‘repressed’) emotion as Koestler has pointed out, in which case there can be no prior ‘inhibition’ whose ‘lifting’ would provide the necessary energy for the laughter-discharge. The ‘lure’ or the ‘bribe’ is none other than the other operative field that makes the stimulus acceptable, thus allowing the ‘forbidden’ field as well to slip past the ‘sentry’. But at the same time, the share of attention claimed by the ‘permitted’ field and the incompatible emotional attitudes engendered by it check the development of the forbidden tendency, ‘repressing’ the latter, as it were, and it is this clash of opposing emotional charges, both evoked by S, that results in laughter, which is magnified now by the release of the pent-up energies underlying the tendency. The ‘bribe’ then consists in allowing a contrary attitude, evoked by S itself, to neutralize the aroused tendency: the forbidden emotion is both ‘released’ and ‘repressed’ at the same time (the inadequacy and limited applicability of these two terms should now be obvious).

Freud himself seems to have glimpsed this active contribution of the repressive energy to the intensity of laughter but, being unable to reconcile it with the “lifting of inhibition” essential to his theory, he has formulated this insight in a most inadequate way as an optimum but by no means necessary condition for the success of the joke-work. For the cathectic energy (= now superfluous inhibitory energy) to be liberated, Freud lays down the following [124] three conditions in the third person (= hearer of the joke): “(1) It must be ensured that the third person is really making this cathectic expenditure. (2) It is necessary to guard against the cathectic expenditure, when it is liberated, finding some other psychical use instead of offering itself for motor discharge. (3) It cannot but be an advantage if the cathexis which is to be liberated in the third person is intensified beforehand, raised to a greater height. All these aims are served by particular methods of the joke-work, which may be classed together as secondary or auxiliary techniques” (Jokes p.203). It is significant that whereas he meticulously accounts for the manner in which the joke-technique ensures the other necessary conditions he stipulates, he gives no systematic account of how the joke intensifies the inhibitory cathexis before rendering it superfluous; and it is also significant that he finds himself obliged—unwillingly as it were—to invoke theories of the bisociative type in this very context. The methods “which are calculated to increase the quota which obtains for discharge and in that way intensify the effect of the joke (…) also for the most part increase the attention that is paid to the joke, but they make this effect innocuous once more by simultaneously holding it and inhibiting its mobility. Anything that provokes interest and bewilderment works in these two directions—thus, in particular, nonsense, and contradiction, too, the ‘contrast of ideas’ which some authorities have tried to make into the essential characteristic of jokes, but which I can regard only as a means of intensifying their effect” (Jokes p.208; underling ours). He adopts Lipp’s notion of “psychical damming-up” and his observation that [125] “the discharge is the more powerful, the higher was the preceding damming-up. Lipp’s account, it is true, does not relate specifically to jokes but to the comic in general; but we may regard it as most probable that in jokes, too, the discharge of an inhibitory cathexis is similarly increased by the height of the damming-up” (loc. cit.). The immediate problem raised by this last condition, and which Freud does not even mention, is how the joke-mechanism could ensure this biphasic sequence wherein the inhibitory cathexis is firstly increased and subsequently rendered superfluous, two processes which are actually incompatible for, to be increased, it must be the reverse of superfluous and, when superfluous, no purpose is served (except the requirements of Freud’s theory) in its being increased. Graver still is the problem of the source of the energies involved in raising the cathexis: if the “damming-up” is only to provide a greater quota of psychic energy for discharge, would not those processes of the joke-work that divert psychical energy towards effecting this prior “damming-up” necessarily subtract the same quota from those freely available for discharge? In other words, whatever energy is ‘gained’ by the increase of the cathexis would have been already ‘lost’ in bringing this increase about, and it is more relevant to ask what objective insufficiency in his theory led Freud to postulate such a self-defeating mechanism in the first place. The answer to this is evidently Freud’s recognition that in many cases the increase of the inhibitory cathexis was the driving force behind the laughter, which he was unable to reconcile with the unpleasure (or distress) that such reinforcement would attach to the release of the suppressed [126] tendency. In the following chapter, we shall attempt to show instead that such generation of unpleasure, provided it is arrested in the incipient stage, is often an essential constituent of pleasurable laughter.

Freud’s description of the operation of the first condition above, when read in the light of our critique of his interpretation of the third condition, in fact, expressly contradicts his general position that the joke-work is intended to ‘lift’ the inhibition as a precondition to the release of the tendency. As soon as the third person hears the joke, “the readiness for this inhibition will compulsively or automatically awaken. This readiness for inhibition, which I must regard as a real expenditure, analogous to mobilization in military affairs, will at the same time be recognized as superfluous or too late, and so be discharged in statu nascendi by laughter” (Jokes p.204). This, in terms of “lifting,” would imply that that the tendency is already released but not in the form of laughter, before the now “superfluous” inhibition is released as laughter; an unnecessary complication that raises more problems than it solves. Taken at face value, it simply means that it is not the “lifting” but the reinforcement of the inhibitory energies that is released in statu nascendi as laughter; the cathexis is sustained or even increased but its energies are simultaneously dissociated from it. This is precisely due to the neutralizing effect of the tendency which is likewise released in statu nascendi as laughter (for the tendency may have pre-existed the joke in the first person who invents it, but it is the joke itself that evokes the tendency in the third person). [127]

Whereas Freud has postulated three different auxiliary techniques of the joke-work to account for the three conditions, the bisociative theory is able to account for all three simultaneously in terms of a single structure constituting the essence of the joke. The second condition of the liberated energy not being diverted to other (endopsychic) purposes is emphasized by Freud as being the most important and he attributes it to the immobilization of the nevertheless rapt attention. Jokes “employ the device of distracting attention by putting forward something in the joke’s form of expression which catches it, so that in the meantime the liberation of the inhibitory cathexis and its discharge may be completed without interruption. This aim is already fulfilled by the omissions in the joke’s wording; they offer an incitement to filling up the gaps and in that way succeed in withdrawing the joking process from attention” (Jokes p.205). Since this “filling up the gaps” is what generates the competing fields of the bisociation, the attention is necessarily riveted on the common members which are generally explicit. For if the attention were displaced to the operators of either field, it would render impossible the simultaneous emergence of the opposing field. It is because our awareness of the conflicting operators has to remain subsidiary to our focal awareness of the bisociated terms that jokes must be “easy to understand, as soon as they call for intellectual work which would demand a choice between different paths of thought, they would endanger their effect not only by the unavoidable expenditure of thought but also by the awakening of attention” (Jokes p.205, cf. also p.202). On [128] the physiological plane, this would correspond to our focal awareness of the convulsion O wherein are submerged our subsidiary awareness of our mutually contradictory twin reactions. Since the latter constituted by the “inhibition” and the “tendency,” we can now see why the “inhibition” appears to be both reinforced and “lifted” and why the tendency appears to be both “suppressed” and released. The “inhibitory” effect of the field is due primarily to its simultaneous claim on our attention which checks the development of the tendency in statu nascendi. In such a case, it is the tendency itself that contributes most of the force behind the laughter. But in other cases, there may be in addition a component of active opposition to the tendency involved in the inhibitory field which would then contribute its own quota of emotional energy to the laughter. It is this delicate balance essential to the joke but nevertheless achieved and sustained for the sake of the pleasure it provides that accounts for the inherent ambiguity/ambivalence of our laughter at a forbidden theme. It is never wholly clear whether the driving force behind the laughter is due to one’s participation in the tendency or due to one’s resistance to it or, rather, to both. If laughter at tendency jokes implies the complete lifting of the inhibition, this analysis would no longer be applicable to the laughter produced by the same obscenities, for example, in scatological clowning or in African ‘joking-relationships’. Psychoanalytic approaches to the latter phenomena seek to explain the laughter in terms of the release of the repressed tendencies of a given society. Though this is certainly true, it would go against all that we know of the [129] ethnology of these societies if we were to deny or overlook the shocking, disgusting, embarrassing affects and other such inhibitory reactions brought over from the normal social attitudes into the very mechanism of the laughter. It is not that we dissociate ourselves from the tendencies exhibited by the clown after having participated in them with copious laughter. We (partially) reject the clown in the very act of laughing at him.17 If the inhibition here had been completely lifted and the tendency released through total empathy, it would become unintelligible how laughter could come to be associated with superiority in the laugher and Bergson’s fundamental observation on laughter as a social corrective and Abhinavagupta’s recommendation of such effective use will remain inexplicable. Even Mary Douglas, who confesses that she finds “Freud’s definition of the joke highly satisfactory” and attempts its systematic application to the anthropology of ‘joking relations’, is quick to point out that the complete subversion of the system of controls ends the joke: “The joke is an image of the relaxation of conscious control in favor of the subconscious…. Any recognizable joke falls into this joke pattern which needs two elements, the juxtaposition of a control against that which is controlled, the juxtaposition being such that the latter triumphs. Needless to say, a successful subversion of one form by another completes or end the joke, for it changes the balance of power. It is implicit in the Freudian model that the [130] unconscious does not take over the control system” (Jokes, p. 96). Such an interpretation of Freud in fact does no more than render explicit the bisociative model implicit in his theory, though consciously rejected by him. The bisociative model proposed here is applicable to all forms of the comic involving such tendencies and is not restricted to jokes (M. Douglas herself uses the term ‘joke’ in a sense much wider than Freud’s), and it is able to satisfy not only the conditions laid down by Freud but also other conditions ignored by him and not derivable from his analysis.

Freud’s third category of ‘humor’ is conceived by him as a defense-mechanism of the psyche against incipient unpleasure, excluded from the ‘comic’ and from ‘jokes’, which is converted into pleasurable laughter. As pointed out above, even the unpleasurable affects concomitant with the reinforcement of the inhibition in tendency-jokes or the negative emotions involved in the comic perceived in ritual clowning are essential components of the ensuing laughter. Though Freud finally admits the fundamental role of bisociative mechanisms in the ‘comic’ and in ‘jokes’, he does so only to wholly exclude them from ‘humor’: “In the case of humor the characteristic which we have just brought forward becomes effaced. It is true that we feel humorous pleasure when an emotion is avoided which w should have expected because it usually accompanies the situation, and to that extent humor too comes under the extended concept of the comic of expectation. But with humor it is no longer a question of different methods of viewing the same subject-matter. The fact that the situation is [131] dominated by emotion that is to be avoided, which is of unpleasurable character, puts an end to the possibility of comparing it with the characteristics of the comic and jokes. Humorous displacement is in fact a case of liberated expenditure being used elsewhere—a case which has been shown to be so perilous to a comic effect” (Jokes p.301). Koestler, however, has rightly pointed out that ‘humor’ is “derived from the intersection of the field of bodily ego-experience with a cognitive field of a higher order…from the faculty of seeing oneself from outside—which is an eminently ‘witty’ bisociative discovery (Insight and Outlook p.429), underlining Koestler’s). For Freud, there is no bisociation here because the unpleasure, and the cognitive field that generates it, is thwarted at its very inception through its energies being diverted elsewhere due to some inconsistency in the field; which implies that scarcely any energy is actually expended in negative affect. But we shall argue (chapter IV) that what really happens is that, even while unpleasure is being generated by the said field, it is simultaneously being neutralized by the opposing affect associated with the incompatible field introduced by the inconsistent element of the first field, such that the emotional energies invested in both fields are spilled as laughter. Interpreted in this way, the unpleasure or distress corresponds to the ‘no’ of the bisociation at the emotional level and it is hence difficult to justify the isolation of an entire category from the total realm of the comic solely on the basis of the unpleasure involved. Freud’s ‘sense of humor’ is no more than the gift of spontaneously bisociating some members of a present field that is dominated by [132] distressing affects with another field that is less ego-involving. Since Abhinavagupta recognizes an element of pain, however fleeting and imperceptible, in all determinate (sânusandhâna) forms of laughter, we shall return to this last category in the following chapter devoted to the role of distress in bisociative laughter.

[this concludes chapter III on “Laughter and Bisociation”]