Chapter 6

Bisociation and Incongruity

1)    [page 172] Reduction of Bharata’s list of determinants of hâsya (humor), exploited individually in dramatic practice, to the single principle of incongruity (vikRti), whereby Abhinava sums them up. Though the orientation of these formulas is primarily practical, they correspond to a definite, comprehensive and coherent “psychology” of humor-and-laughter.

2)    Tickling intimately linked to bisociative perception (even if not wholly reducible to the latter) and may even function as a substitute for the bisociative stimulus (as in Amerindian mythology).

3)    Freud’s reluctance to accept incongruity-type principles of the comic as the unifying principle underlying his own categories. Three principal current objections of behavioral psychology to incongruity-humor theory: (i) incongruity generates humor only when resolved, (ii) may produce reactions other than laughter, (iii) contradicts the S-O-R (stimulus-organism-response) paradigm for it is a binary relation.

4)    Gurdjieff’s theory interpreted in terms of bisociation permits the reintegration of the incongruity-principle into the stimulus-organism-response (S-O-R) model: a bisociated perception is projected back onto the stimulus as a perceived (but not necessarily specifiable) incongruity, which is inter-subjective (if not ‘objective’). Incongruity theories focusing on comic ‘comparison’ of ‘contrast’ fail to win universal acceptance (e.g., Freud’s rejection) because they assimilate the joking-process to the subsequent joke-analysis. The ‘comic comparison’ is only a (bisociative) juxtaposition, for real comparison involves a standard of comparison that reintegrates the opposing fields thus making the ‘clash’ impossible. Incongruity theory is more relevant to literary criticism, the S-O-R model to the psychology of laughter, whereas aesthetics needs an integrated model.

5)    Whereas pure surprise begets curiosity and problem-solving, comic incongruity needing no solution is simply enjoyed. Nevertheless, such surprise (whether pure or mixed with affects like fear) may be a constituent of bisociative laughter. [173>] Surprise may permit the external juxtaposition of incompatible emotions, like fear and love, around a single stimulus rendering it incongruous.

6)    The ‘incongruity’ in incongruity-resolution theory is no incongruity at all, whereas the ‘resolution’ is only the mechanism whereby the real incongruity is brought into play. Criticism of Shultz’s analyses. Evidence of humorous riddles proves that humorous satisfaction is derived not from ‘resolving’ but by re-creating (the bisociated field responsible for) the real incongruity (supported by Rothbart’s findings).

 

 

[174>] James Beattie, while proposing the link between distress and laughter, also focused on the role of incongruity in the genesis of laughter: “Laughter arises from the view of two or more inconsistent, unsuitable, or incongruous parts or circumstances, considered as united in one complex object or assemblage, or as acquiring a sort of mutual relation from the peculiar manner in which the mind takes notice of them” (op. cit., p.348). And “the greater the number of incongruities that are blended in the same assemblage, the more ludicrous it will probably be” (p. 349).

The principle of incongruity (vikRti) in fact occupies a central place in the definition of hâsya in Sanskrit aesthetics (cf. note 10, chapter VI below, NâTya Zâstra  VI. 49-50). Though Bharata’s enumeration includes a wide variety of determinants (vibhâva) of hâsya, it is incongruity that heads the list and the other vibhâvas (even tickling) can also be reduced to diverse modes of incongruity, mentioned separately in view of their frequent exploitation for hâsya-effects on the practical stage. Whenever Abhinava cites the above definition while discussing hâsya, he does so by merely quoting the first term as referring to incongruity in general as the fundamental source of humor. “And it (hâsya) arises from such vibhâvas as the incongruous attire or ornamentation of [175>] others,1 the perception of shameless deeds,2 inconstancy,3 tickling,4 incoherent talk5 or (physical) deformity,6 [176>] defects7 being represented, etc.”8 Since the NâTya Zâstra is basically a practical treatise for playwrights and for actors, and not a [177>] theoretical work for academic philosophers, its formulations and definitions often lack the particular kind of rigor and precision that the aesthetician (or psychologist) would demand of them. The stress is invariably on the concrete and manipulable elements the theatrical presentation, with theoretical digressions woven around these. Yet the dramatic technique embodied here is based essentially on a definite, comprehensive and coherent psychology of the emotions and their deliberate manipulation of aesthetic (which does not exclude ritual and social) ends, and it is precisely this that permits Abhinavagupta (or ourselves on occasion) to introduce the necessary precisions and explications to the texts, without in any way infringing on the framework and technique of the Sanskrit drama. Just as Abhinava reduces the roles of defects as determinants of hâsya to an extension of the principle of incongruity (vikRti: see note 7 above), a closer examination reveals that indeed all the types of hâsya-vibhâvas cited may be similarly reduced to particular applications of the [178>] principle of incongruity. Thus shamelessness is incongruity with respect to social propriety; inconstancy reveals itself wherever a particular attitude is incongruous with respect tone’s previous or subsequent attitude; incoherent speech juxtaposes terms that are felt to be incompatible or mutually incongruous in a given context; deformity is incongruous with the ideal or normal shape or proportion of the body; and defects are incongruous with respect to the expectations of our norms and this is particularly true of transgressive conduct. Even tickling, which is the most problematic and probably involves a physiological component, comes at an early stage of development to be indissociably associated with incongruity (between the caress and the attack on the tactile level, between familiarity and strangeness in visual perception), so much so that even the mere suggestion of tickling, without actual contact, is sometimes sufficient to elicit smiling, or even laughter.

The principle of incongruity as the focal point of a theory of humor should in itself offer no difficulty to modern psychologists and aestheticians: “Theorists such as Kant (1790), Schopenhauer (1819), Maier (1932) and Koestler (1964) have proposed that the structure of humor is characterized by incongruity. Incongruity is usually defined as a conflict between what is expected and what actually occurs in a joke. It is a concept which accounts well for the most obvious structural feature of jokes, the surprisingness of the punchline.”9 To reduce incongruity to the conflict between [179>] expectation and fact is to offer a too narrow definition of it. Anything that simultaneously evokes opposing emotional reactions, or moving impulses (through empathy), or gives rise to conflicting ideas that cannot be harmonized, is perceived as incongruous. Fred cites several definitions of the comic (or the joke) which are only variations of the incongruity principle, though he himself is unwilling to make it the central and unifying principle underlying his joke-comic-humor categories. Vischer defines joking as the ability to bind into a unity, with surprising rapidity, several ideas which are in fact alien to one another both in their internal content and in the nexus to which they belong.10 For Kraepelin, a joke is “the arbitrary connecting or linking, usually by means of a verbal association, of two ideas which in some way contrast with each other.”11

However, incongruity seems to have raised as many problems and controversies as it has solved in the theorizing of modern psychologists, for some of them insist on treating this incongruity as something that has to be made sense of, to be resolved, before it can produce laughter: “A number of other theorists, including Beattie (1776), Freud (1960), William (1940), Jones (1970), Schultz (1970) and Suls (1972), have argued that incongruity alone is insufficient to account for the structure of humor. They have proposed in various arguments that there exists a second more subtle aspect of jokes which render incongruity [180>] meaningful or appropriate by resolving or explaining it. Within this framework, humor appreciation is conceptualized as a biphasic sequence involving first the discovery of incongruity followed by a resolution of the incongruity. The mechanism of resolution is apparently necessary to distinguish humor from nonsense. Whereas nonsense can be characterized as pure or irresolvable incongruity, humor can be characterized as resolvable or meaningful incongruity” (Schultz, Humor and Laughter, loc. cit.).

Others point out that incongruity may lead to responses other than humor/laughter: “As helpful as the concept of incongruity may be to our developing understanding of laughter and humor, however there remains a major obstacle to the use of incongruity as an explanatory principle: although perception of an incongruous or unexpected event may lead to laughter, perception of an unexpected event may also lead to fear,12 curiosity,13 problem-solving, or concept learning14.”15 Still others, being unable to insert the notion of incongruity within the S-O-R model of behaviorism, have questioned the very existence of jokes as stimuli of humor: “The incongruity property which conventional wisdom insists inheres in ‘jokes’ demands the question: ‘incongruous [181>] with respect to what?’—for incongruity connotes a binary relation. Nonetheless, such a relation, by any reasonable definition of stimulus, can neither be a stimulus nor a set of stimuli. Clearly then, ‘jokes’, conventionally defined, non-exist. To argue otherwise requires such a radical redefinition that the application of the label ‘joke’ to whatever relationship or Gestalt it is which amuses would only generate negative transfer of learning. A pedagogic norm of science would thus be violated; a term ought not to be used in ways contradictory to, or radically divergent from, its originally understood meaning.” (La Fave et al., Humor and Laughter, p.85).

The solution to the last problem raised contains in itself the answers to the other objections and therefore we shall deal with it first. This apparently formidable objection is in fact based on a misconception of the manner in which incongruity is perceived in a particular object or event, and provides us with an opportunity to arrive at a more precise and restricted definition of the term ‘incongruity’ as applied to humor. Incongruity is perfectly compatible with the stimulus-response model of ‘laughter’ (hâsa), provided firstly that incongruity not be defined in terms of purely objective relations (i.e., without the intervention of subjective relations) and secondly that its scope not be restricted to cognitive or ideational features alone but be extended to include the affective and (incipient) motor components of perception. Gurdjieff’s model of laughter, understood in the light of the bisociative theory, allows us to integrate the S-O-R model and the principle of incongruity within a single theory and thereby reveals them to be two complementary aspects, the one dynamic and [182>] the other structural, of the same phenomenon. Though incongruity is in itself not a stimulus, denoting as it does a binary relation, a stimulus may be said to be incongruous when it evokes two mutually contradictory responses (‘yes | no’) in the observer. Since one of these responses is often the normal one associated with the stimulus (e.g., ‘no’ in the case of excrement in scatological jokes), the stimulus (in the case of a set of stimuli) or that aspect of it evoking the opposite and abnormal response may be said to be incongruous. In the comic this opposing impulse may be supplied by some component of the total situation, for example the social valorization of the ritual clown in his handling of disgusting materials; in scatological jokes, the positive affect would be ensured by the ‘bribe’ component of the verbal bisociation. The response evoked by a particular element, and therefore the element itself would be incongruous with respect to the response evoked by the whole, and therefore to the whole. Though this answers the question “with respect to what?” it is clear that there are frequent cases where the components of the incongruity defy resolution into part/whole or figure/background analysis, and in such cases either element may be said to be incongruous with respect to the other. In fact, considering that both ‘yes’ and ‘no’ should be ideally of equal force for bisociative laughter to occur, it may be expected that incongruity would as a rule be mutual.

In this way the opposition between the responses is automatically projected onto the stimulus itself as a perceived incongruity. Truly speaking, it is not an objective incongruity inhering in the [183>] stimulus or itself acting as the stimulus that evokes (the emotion underlying) humor (hâsa), but it is the bisociative effect of the stimulus on the subject that is responsible for its being perceive as incongruous. Since certain stimuli, especially those associated with basic biological instincts like sex, aggression, disgust, fear, etc., evoke more or less identical responses in certain human groups, especially when the latter are subjected to similar cultural conditioning, these stimuli can be easily juxtaposed in standard jokes that invariably provoke laughter in the said group. Since the linguistic structure of the joke corresponds externally to the bisociative structure of the response, there is nothing lost in saying, in accordance with conventional wisdom, that the joke contains an objective incongruity, so long as we do not lose sight of the dynamics involved. Jokes may non-exist objectively but neither are they purely ‘subjective’ for then it would be impossible for a community to share a joke. As is amply demonstrated by the numerous experiments on superiority-theory of humor, subjective factors account rather for the failure of what should otherwise have been a good joke, as when we identify ourselves too much with the butt of the joke (Abhinava makes a similar analysis of subjective individual factors interfering with the realization of rasa in the connoisseur while responding to the aesthetic configuration). Similarly, in art the organization and structure of the aesthetic object, e.g., the poem, corresponds to the connoisseur’s experience of rasa, and so long as it evokes the same rasa in the community of connoisseurs (sahRdayas), there is nothing lost in saying that it is ‘full of rasa’ (rasa-maya). “To say that a value is relative to a subject is not to say that the value is relative in the sense that anybody’s opinion about it [184>] may be as correct as anybody else’s. Or, to say that a value is not objective, is not to say that it is not universal, or valid in relation to all subjects. Some such term as inter-subjective may perhaps be invoked to describe the accent that falls on some universals” (Wimsatt and Brooks, Literary Criticism, p.736). Thus to say that a joke contains an ‘incongruity’ is simply a convenient way of saying that it produces a bisociative effect on the community of listeners who find it funny.

We may, therefore, conclude with La Fave et al., that it is not incongruity in itself but perceived incongruity that provokes humor: “The presence of incongruity alone appears neither a necessary nor sufficient condition of an adequate humor theory. Since beliefs can prove mistaken, incongruity, if not perceived will fail to be funny; conversely, misperception of an absent incongruity could under some conditions amuse. We have also questioned earlier the assumption that the incongruity is ‘out there’ within some humorous stimulus; and human perception, it seems clear, is in some degree culturally relative. Hence the proper focus in humor theory appears to be not on incongruity per se—rather on incongruity perceived.” (Humor and Laughter, pp.85-86). But in life we often laugh at things and are only subsequently able, if so inclined, to isolate the exact nature of the incongruity involved in conceptual terms. The incongruity itself is in fact not directly perceived, but we simply react to the bisociative effect of the stimulus with laughter, and only subsequently seek to discern the incongruity in the object responsible for this bisociative effect. In other words, though the incongruity must be perceived or, rather, reacted to, this occurs reflexively, [185>] automatically or unconsciously. We become self-consciously aware of the specific mode of operation of the stimulus upon ourselves only when our reactions have assumed a certain degree of specificity and thus become recognizable. In the case of bisociative laughter, the twin opposing reactions cancel each other out at their very inception and, whatever be their specific nature and qualities, we are immediately aware only of our impulse to laugh (the convulsion O), which merely signals the presence of bisociation without elucidating its exact nature and components. Though the incongruity central to the joke or comic event is perceived, it may well remain unspecifiable not only to its enjoyers, but also to its author. We have already discussed this paradoxical aspect, at the same time so familiar and so mysterious, of humor as due to the unspecifiability of the primarily tacit skill of humor-appreciation.

This also explains why those theories which in one way or another seek to reduce the comic effect to the mechanism of contrast have failed to win universal acceptance. The immediately and automatically registered incongruity, constituted by the juxtaposition of two sets of sharply contrasting ideas below the level of our focal awareness, has been assimilated to the subsequent analysis wherein these theorists compare with full critical awareness the contrasting patterns forming the incongruity. It is this confusion of the joking-process and the joke-analysis that has given rise to the favorite definition of joking as “the ability to find similarity between dissimilar things—that is, [186>] hidden similarities,” which Freud and Vischer reject (Freud, Jokes, p.41, where he attributes it to Jean Paul). It is forgotten that such comparison of the contrasting elements during joke-analysis invariably destroys its funniness, i.e., its bisociative effect. “The opportunity for the release of comic pleasure disappears, too, if the attention is focused precisely on the comparison from which the comic may emerge. In such circumstances what would otherwise have the most certain comic effect loses its comic force. A movement or function cannot be comic for a person whose interest is directed to comparing it with a standard which he has clearly before his mind…. The comic process will not bear being hypercathected by attention; it must be able to take its course quite unobserved—in this respect, incidentally, just like jokes…and such processes, which run their course in the preconscious but lack the cathexis of attention with which consciousness is linked, may aptly be given the name of ‘automatic.’ The process of comparing expenditures must remain automatic if it is to produce comic pleasure” (Freud, Jokes, pp. 283-84, cf. p.204ff for jokes).16 From [187>] the viewpoint of the bisociation/incongruity theory, we can maintain that if the ‘comparison’ is automatic, this is because what occurs is not a comparison at all but a mere sharp juxtaposition of contrasting elements. Where there is an element of conscious comparison, as in the joking analogy, Freud himself is let down by his otherwise judicious “feeling.” Though bridged by a link concept the two operative fields remain distinct and incompatible, whereas comparison implies the introduction of a third term of similitude already initiating the process of reintegrating the conflicting fields.

To isolate the incongruity involved requires a close and self-conscious scrutiny of the joke-work or comic stimulus and its conceptual analysis, and this procedure might temporarily deprive the joke or stimulus of its funniness. Similarly, the experience of rasa (aesthetic emotion) is an indivisible whole and there is no discrimination between determinants (vibhâva), consequents (anubhâva), and it is only subsequently that the critical analyst isolates these elements and in doing so temporarily destroys the rasa. But once these elements are subsequently reintegrated, the joke or poem is even better and more self-consciously relished. Bearing all this in mind, it is perfectly legitimate to say that incongruity is the essence of humor. Incongruity and stimulus-response analysis are merely the two complementary aspects of a comprehensive theory of humor, the first minimizing reference to the responding subject, whereas the second focuses on the subject’s response to the humorous object or situation. The incongruity principle is more relevant to practical literary criticism in that the latter concentrates on [188>] the art-object (poem, drama, joke) itself that produces a more or less uniform response on the audience or at least a type of audience. Literary criticism is therefore concerned objectivity in art, that is with the ‘trans-subjective’ structures and forms of art. Psychology is naturally more concerned with the laws governing the subject’s or connoisseur’s response, and seeks particularly to account for the occasional breakdown of the mechanism due to subjective factors, and therefore finds the S-O-R model more pertinent. The aesthetician is faced with the task of integrating the two approaches in view of a better understanding of the nature and technique of art in general and humor in particular.

The above conception of incongruity in humor renders easily intelligible why stimuli that normally provoke fear, anger and sexual arousal may, under appropriate conditions already discussed by us under the role of distress in laughter, evoke bisociative laughter instead. In the preceding chapter, we have already distinguished between incongruous events provoking bisociative laughter and unexpected or sudden events causing surprise that triggers off purposive activity characterized by curiosity, problem-solving or concept learning. The second objection mentioned above to the incongruity principle rests partly on a confusion between the two. A sudden unexpected event judged to be dangerous will cause both fear and surprise, though so long as the danger predominates it is the fear that will be more in evidence. But this is in itself of no direct relevance to incongruity-humor theory except where, as in the arousal-safety model already discussed in chapter IV (pp.135-37), [189>] this fearful surprise alternating with pleasure is released as laughter because it constitutes one possible constituent of a bisociated reaction. In the latter case, surprise though a constituent of the perceived incongruity is to be distinguished from the latter which alone is responsible for laughter. Whereas pure surprise leads to curiosity and problem-solving in order to assimilate the strange or unusual stimulus, the comic incongruity is enjoyed for its own sake without there being anything to ‘solve’ really. On the contrary, when those like ourselves begin to crack our heads to find out what lies behind this surprising property a particular joke has of making us laugh, the joke is in the process deprived of all its humor, and we have to recall the entire joke afresh and uncritically in order to recapture the comic pleasure before renewing our analytical onslaught. The comic incongruity is not meant to be solved because even where there is an element of surprise this is not due to lack of comprehension but split comprehension.

Still surprise, in certain species of the comic especially those involving the rapid contrast of successive feelings as in the arousal-safety model above, may play a vital and indispensable role in permitting the opposing emotions or visions to be juxtaposed not by any logic or necessity inherent in themselves but by the mere unexpected swiftness of the transition, which is precisely what permits the spilling of gathered momentums of moving or emotional impulses.  When the mischievous lover suddenly pops out of the corner to surprise his approaching beloved hurrying to keep her tryst, her startled expression quickly melts into laughter at [190>] recognition before being wholly swept away by her surging amorous disposition. It is the externally imposed suddenness, with its quota of surprise, that permits fear and amorous pleasure to be momentarily juxtaposed in relation to the same stimulus, thereby releasing bisociative  laughter. Rothbart’s ‘arousal-safety’ model of laughter can in this way be reduced to a particular instance of our own bisociative model. The unexpected emergence of the lover precipitating fear is not a case of incongruity at all until the damsel recognizes her lover with an abrupt change of reaction. The few intervening moments, when the fear has not yet had time to die down and the recognition not fully blossomed into joy, are alone characterized by incongruity for fear is being caused by an inappropriate stimulus, viz. the lover. In this way, the second objection to the incongruity principle in humor is likewise seen to be based on an inadequate and over-wide formulation of incongruity.

The conception of humor as resolvable incongruity is likewise based on a misconception of the role and nature of incongruity in humor. What these theorists label ‘incongruity’ is no incongruity at all in the precise meaning we have just given the term, and what they call ‘resolution’ reveals itself, on closer examination, to be a contingent process facilitating the realization of the bisociative mechanism that defines incongruity. To resolve an incongruity generally presupposes that we focus our attention upon it, consciously comparing the elements that are mutually incongruous to determine how they may be rendered congruous. But since we have already seen, with Freud, that the comic incongruity cannot bear conscious scrutiny if it is to produce its desired effect, we may already immediately suspect that this whole ‘incongruity-resolution’ formula is based on some hidden confusions.

The model example used by Shultz in an experiment with riddles17 whose results are claimed to have confirmed the ‘incongruity-resolution’ formula, reveal this conceptual confusion even more clearly. “The riddle is a form of humor which is somewhere between problem solving and the appreciation of jokes; it is a problem whose solution evokes a great deal of pleasure and humor. The riddle can be viewed as a question followed by a surprising or incongruous answer. The answer is usually too difficult for the recipient to obtain on his own so it is provided by the teller after an appropriate length of time. Once he has been given an incongruous answer, the listener then has the task of figuring out how it really does make sense in terms of the original question. This is equivalent to resolving or explaining the incongruity and thus should evoke pleasure and humor.” (Shultz, Humor and Laughter, p.19). This interpretation of humor appreciation in riddles in terms of “resolution” or “explanation” wholly misconceives the genre. Among other defects, it fails to account for the problem-solving effort before the presentation of the incongruous answer (why “after an appropriate length of time”?), and is unable to relate satisfactorily this effort to [192>] the problem-solving phase subsequent to the ‘incongruity’ perception and preceding ‘resolution’.

The example: “Why did the cookie cry? Because its mother had been a wafer so long.” According Shultz: “The answer at first seems incongruous but it can be quickly resolved by noticing the phonological ambiguity of ‘a wafer’. After initially interpreting this utterance as a ‘type of cookie’, the listener suddenly discovers that it could also be interpreted as ‘away for’.” (loc. cit.). This analysis of the cognitive processing is open to the following objections:

1.     The riddle is funny even when merely heard, instead of being read, in which case there is no reason why “wafer” i.e., the ‘incongruity’ should be processed before “away for” i.e., the ‘resolution’; since they are phonologically the same, the supposed ‘resolution’ could be processed before the ‘incongruity’ or both simultaneously, and yet this does not affect humor appreciation.

2.     The ‘resolution’ eliminates one incongruity, i.e., “wafer,” only to introduce the even greater incongruity of a cookie having a mother. That this second unresolved incongruity is essential for the humor may be verified by substituting “cookie” with “baby”: the incongruity is now completely resolved and without residue, but there is no humor left in the what is now in fact no longer a riddle.

3.     This substitution further focuses on the “incongruity” inherent in the very question itself for we all that cookies do not cry. Shultz’s analysis (loc. cit.) assumes that “one accepts the question’s premise that a cookie can cry” but does not accept (i.e., find congruous) the possibility of its crying because its mother was really a wafer, but again [193>] readily accepts its crying at its mother being away. But all this is quite arbitrary, for on what criteria are we to decide which incongruities are acceptable or granted and which are inadmissible? The substitution of “baby” not only eliminates the residual incongruity between “mother” and “cookie” but also the initial incongruity between “cookie” and “cry”. This would suggest that the initial incongruity inherent in the question is also crucial to the humor.

4.     Indeed, when “baby” is substituted, the incongruity of its having a “wafer” for mother is even greater than that of the “cookie” having a “wafer” for mother, and the resolution is even more complete (see point 3 above). Yet there is no humor at all. This is enough to deal a death-blow to the incongruity-resolution formula, for though both have been exaggerated in the remodeled version, the humor has altogether disappeared. On the contrary, in the original “cookie” version which is funny, we now recognize a congruency between “cookie” and “wafer” and may deduce that this congruency together with the incongruent elements is in some way responsible for the joke.

In the light of the bisociation theory, it is easy to understand the mechanism of the humor here and to see what the “resolution” really consists in. We are familiar with this genre of riddle beginning with “Why did…?” as in “why did the elephant sit on the marshmallow?” They are conventionalized stylistic devices inviting us to provide an ingenious comic ‘solution’ by posing an initial incongruity. The function of the “why?” is not to demand a true resolution of a nonsensical incongruity, but a challenge to us to construct as deftly as [194>] possible a bisociative field around the two incompatible elements of the initial incongruity, such that the opposing fields are short-circuited, even while emerging, by a striking common term. During the calculated interval between the posing of the question and the presentation of the incongruous answer, the mind seeks vainly to find some common term between the world of cookies and that of crying and, in the process, activates all possible associative fields which comprise “cookies” on the one hand and “crying” on the other as members. The answer provides two such familiar fields: one of babies crying when the mother is away too long and the other of wafers and cookies belonging to a single category of sweetmeats, and bisociates around the common phonological sequence (a wafer = away for). Far from the incongruous answer being resolved, the initial incongruity of the question has been exploited to produce a bisociative clash around a common term whose opposing impressions the mind finds impossible to harmonize and digest. The energies involved in the effort at comprehension are discharged through the bisociative clash as laughter. The temporal disjunction of question and answer ensures that whatever mental resistance the bisociation may have encountered when presented in the conjoined form (“the cookie cried because…”) is made improbable by the vain intermediate effort by the listener at providing the necessary fields himself: unable to break the deadlock, the mind readily embarks simultaneously upon the opposing association chains, baited by the semblance of a resolution, only to be suddenly flung by its own momentum into the pleasurable convulsion of the clash. We tolerate the essential incongruity of this genre of riddles [195>] precisely because the effort at problem-solving is rewarded not by a satisfactory logical solution but by a surplus of humorous pleasure.

Empirical research has itself questioned the validity of the incongruity-resolution model of humor. Regarding the solution of the third riddle: “Because he didn’t want to fall into the hot chocolate,” Mary K. Rothbart comments: “The ‘solution’ given in the correct answer to the riddle combines our knowledge that (a) that when drowning threatens we will seek refuge on a floating object, and (b) that marshmallows float in cups of hot chocolate into a creative ‘Aha’ experience. Of course, the elephant is sitting on the marshmallow to keep from drowning. Nevertheless, even after ‘solving’ the riddle, we are left with an elephant adrift on a marshmallow, a situation that must surely challenge any knowledge of elephants and hot chocolate we may possess” (Humor and Laughter, p.41). This leads her to conclude that despite possible resolutions, some incongruity should remain for there to be humor: “Thus, although we may resolve one or more incongruities in a joke to understand or ‘get’ the joke, additional incongruities or discrepancies with reality may remain. For laughter to occur, the communication that this is a joke, or this is for fun, thus becomes extremely important. Solving problems in the context of a joke frequently involves solving an incongruity at one level of the joke while suspending our problem-solving faculties at a second level and enjoying the remaining incongruity” (ibid., pp.41-42). But this does not at [196>] all explain why we are unable to enjoy the initial ‘incongruity’ but enjoy only the residual incongruity after the process of ‘resolution’. Nor does it clarify the manner in which our recognition of the humorous intent of the riddle governs or influences the strategies involved in the ‘resolution’. The reason is that the initial data of the riddle constitute only a potential incongruity and the supposed ‘resolution’ is an integral phase of the automated processes responsible for projecting the real incongruity central to the humor. It is precisely because our problem-solving faculties are diverted to resolving the initial incongruity that they are prevented from interfering with the mechanisms which render the bisociative clash inevitable, for the latter occurs unexpectedly at a newly introduced point (“a wafer,” “hot chocolate”). As pointed out while discussing suddenness in surprise, a self-conscious problem-solving attitude focused on the comic incongruity will make the bisociative clash impossible.

Despite Shultz’s claim that “a great many verbal jokes have resolutions which depend on general, non-linguistic knowledge” (Humor and Laughter, p.14) and that “the incongruity and resolution theory of humor is not restricted to verbal jokes” for “it has been successfully applied to cartoons,18 children’s jokes19 and [197>] riddles20 (Humor and Laughter, p.14), this challenged by Rothbart’s findings that “children showed greater smiling and laughter and gave higher humor ratings when the incongruities were identified than when they were also explained. In a situation involving pictorial incongruities, problem-solving thus appeared to detract from, rather than enhance, humor appreciation” (Humor and Laughter, p.50). In conclusion, she reserves the incongruity-resolution formula to verbal jokes alone and even there grant it only a limited and qualified applicability: “Incongruity resolution or problem-solving thus appears to play an equivocal role in a humor outcome. In the context of a joke, incongruity resolution may be essential to humor: in other cases, such as the perception of visual incongruities in the present study, resolution may interfere with humor appreciation. Even when problem-solving occurs within a joke, the solution is rarely one that would be adequate to solution of a real-life problem” (Humor and Laughter, p.52). We have tried to show that the role of ‘resolution’ in wit and verbal jokes is merely to circumvent the restrictions on bisociative mechanisms imposed by the inevitable temporal sequence of linguistic expression, and not to ‘solve’ any other problems at all. The ‘resolution’ technique allows ambiguous words, images and concepts to suddenly manifest themselves as bisociative stimuli, even after they have already been communicated in the first part of the joke or riddle. If it were merely necessary for rendering incongruous nonsense meaningful and if it is this that constitutes the essence of humor, then one [198>] should laugh every time one is able to suddenly restore some meaning to an unintelligible passage of Hegel or a corrupt passage of the Abhinavabhârati after hours of perplexity, but in fact one is rewarded rather by a headache than by an abundant surplus of humor.

Rather than resign ourselves to the paradoxical and logically unacceptable situation of a non-humorous incongruity that has to be resolved in order to enjoy a residual but funny incongruity and the consequent problems of having to define the distinction between the two types of incongruity in more fundamental terms to account for their different effects, it would be more scientific to redefine incongruity in such terms, as we have done, that it comprises the role of the alleged ‘resolution’ as well within itself and applies exclusively to the final comic incongruity. Such incongruity can be none other than the objective correlate of the subject’s bisociative response. We may thus conclude once and for all that the three major objections to the incongruity theory of humor become invalid when incongruity is understood in the light of the theory of bisociation. Especially, incongruity is seen to be perfectly compatible with and, in fact, the logical corollary of the S-O-R model of humor, and the two complementary perspectives are implicitly integrated in Abhinavagupta’s conception of humor. This will become evident when we study his equation of ‘rasâbhâsa = hâsya(‘semblance  of aesthetic emotion’ = ‘humor’). But before that it is necessary to understand how he distinguishes hâsya from its worldly counterpart hâsa (between ‘humor’ as an aesthetic experience and its corresponding mundane emotion), which nevertheless serves as the basis of hâsya. [199>] The preceding chapters have provided us with all the essential data and concepts needed for appreciating this disjunction which has no precise counterpart in Western humor theory.


[this concludes chapter VI on “Bisociation and Incongruity”]