In the classical age, the tragedy was a play with a fated and dramatic ending. According to Aristotle, the tragedy was concerned with how superior people relate to their fate and misfortune, and served to inspire pity and fear in the audience, in order to elicit “catharsis”: emotional purification. In contrast, there was the comedy, in which inferior and weak people commit blunders and make mistakes, but which ends well nonetheless, leading the audience to catharsis through laughter, humor and enjoyment. Since then, comedy and humor have seen a long path of development and the emergence of many new forms, but catharsis remains at the core. In fact, comedy in a wider sense is still invaluable in our time of political polarization, “culture wars”, growing uncertainty, doubt, fear, fake news and post-truth, which requires new ways to reach or maintain consensus, dialogue, intersubjective truth and commonality.
Humor, joking and laughing, serve an evolutionary purpose. Many important skills and lessons are learned by children and young animals through “play”; acquiring knowledge and learning how to comport ourselves and deal with our bodies, others and unforeseen circumstances. Think of the wrestling, playfighting and chasing of children and young primates. Sounds of laughter are important signs that this is harmless and pleasurable play rather than serious aggression or conflict. In a similar way, a smile shows that we don’t have bad intentions: when we smile, our jaws are slack and our breathing is uninhibited, signs of restfulness and relaxation (e.g. we’re not using our jaws to bite). This uninhibited breathing and the slack jaw and mouth muscles transformed into human laughter through primate sounds: from the “ah, ah, ah” of primates to the “ha ha ha” of humans. Evolutionary psychology has also shown that joking and laughing are signs of intelligence and adaptability to new situations.
From this evolutionary basis, humor and joking are important templates for more complex social and cultural norms: they help to alleviate tension when we meet strangers or find ourselves in unfamiliar situations. A well-chosen and well-timed joke can, for example, break the ice on a blind date, while a stranger’s failure to laugh will create a tense situation during a first meeting. Phenomenologically, humor plays with our mental patterns and categories. A situation is perceived as funny when we have a certain expectation but something else happens instead. In his third Critique of Judgment, rationalist Kant posits that humor and jokes are a kind of “mental gymnastics”, with reason being misled and sensations having an immediate effect on our state of mind. This approach resembles the strategy of “stand-up comedy”, as the set-up is the first part of a joke, meant to create expectations and the “punchline” conjures up a different image that defies those expectations. Eventually, this leads the audience to experience catharsis.
These elements of humor and comedy also give them an important social and even political duty: through comedy and humor, we can come to new views, see things in a different light and learn to put them in perspective by laughing about them. “Every joke is a tiny revolution”, George Orwell wrote, showing the disruptive element of humor and comedy. It’s no wonder then, that comedians and humor are often prohibited in repressive regimes, e.g. among many orthodox and puritanical religious groups, humor and laughter are to be avoided at all costs. In China, the meme of Winnie the Pooh supposedly resembling President Xi was banned. On far-right forums, memes are deployed to counter the left, as it is believed that “political correctness” has taken away all the fun and made many topics impossible to discuss in a breezy way. This shows that humor and comedy don’t merely have social and political aspects but are also morally charged, as the line between a joke and an insult, laughter and offense, is thin and fragile. And this brings us to the “dark side” of humor and comedy: as a political force, they necessarily entail a dynamic of inclusion and exclusion. Where there’s laughter, there’s always something or someone the butt of the joke, and this could take the form of “laughing at” people. Laughing at others is an important source of social recognition of groups and individuals (i.e. thymos): the group pointing and laughing is united around the object of laughter and in this light, it’s easy to see why so many comedians are successful in politics: in our postmodern condition which lacks objective truth and widespread social and political consensus, joint laughter is one of the last forms of collectivity and consensus. Online culture and far-right forums show that humor and certain types of jokes can be the epicenter around which broad social and cultural structures are organized. At the same time, the criticism that someone who doesn’t join in on the laughter lacks a sense of humor and is not funny, is one of the last universal insults: a human being without a sense of humor is not a real human being. The only rebuttal against this is to reject the joke in itself but from a different value than its funniness or humoristic quality (e.g. from a political, religious or moral perspective). That’s why many populist leaders who laugh and joke about women (e.g. Bolsonaro) or minorities (e.g. Trump about minorities), dismiss criticism as humorless or “sour” winging and whining. The irony, parody and satire they employ thus make them immune to any criticism directed at them. At the same time, we’re witnessing a movement from which a new structure of feeling and appreciation of comedy and humor is arising, an antidote to cynicism, satire and irony that actively seeks the catharsis that belongs to the genre of comedy. Humor in metamodernism has a high degree of self-referentiality; there is joking and laughter but also a self-conscious search for meaning in humor. And in contrast to the modern inclination to see perspective as absolute or the postmodern reflex of deconstruction and criticism, within metamodernity, reality and perspective coincide.
That’s why humor is so important; new perspectives can be achieved through joking and laughing, and it can take the edge off tense political discussion and debate on divisive themes that involve groups that begrudge each other a smile. But to the metamodern comedian, not every joke is acceptable, rather the intent and the ability to occupy both the position of joker as well as that of the butt of the joke, determine the social quality of humor and comedy.
In this light, internet memes are also part of metamodern humor: there is a high degree of self-referentialiy in the sharing and modification of the original post, they often broach emotional (e.g. depression, loneliness) and political themes, have a high degree of intertextuality and perspectivism with an image and caption, frequently relay a hopeful message with a nihilistic streak, and make abstract ideas relevant to the reader by way of concrete and relatable images. By uniting these apparent contradictions, internet memes embody the metamodern oscillation between sincerity and irony and between perspectives and interpretations. In this way, they tie in with the positive energy of metamodernism, which seeks communion, meaning and catharsis in our times of uncertainty, fear and irony.