Michael Barber: Religion and Humor as Emancipating Provinces of Meaning

Religion and Humor as Emancipating Provinces of Meaning Book Cover Religion and Humor as Emancipating Provinces of Meaning
Contributions to Phenomenology, 91
Michael Barber
Springer
2017
Hardcover 96,29 €
XV, 231

Reviewed by: Adrian Razvan Sandru (Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen)

Michael Barber investigates Alfred Schutz’s psychological phenomenology (6) aiming at describing the possibility of emancipation from the stress of everyday life through non-pragmatic regions of meaning. Barber believes that Schutzian phenomenology has the potential of emancipation even though Schutz was weary of committing society to normative determinations and he considered reason to be merely an explanatory instrument in determining the relation between means and ends. Barber grounds the possibility of emancipation in Schutz as follows: 1) the “world of working” – the everyday life of an agent oriented toward pragmatic goals – consists of morally neutral pragmatic situations. At the center of these stands the ego agens as 0-point of all its projects and plans which it needs to master and accomplish. 2) The pragmatical relevances – i.e. the hierarchical ordering of one’s plans and projects – of the ego agens are often confronted with obstacles which may or may not be overcome. 3) The confrontation with higher-level obstacle – such as death, natural phenomena or societal restraints – leads to the ago agens developing pragmatic meta-levels of coping with obstacles and uncertainties such as “the medical industry, massive security measures, or the societal suppression of uncomfortable questions and the development of central myths” (24). Barber argues that such meta-level strategies – meant to defend lower-level pragmatic interests – may lead to pathological needs of mastering the world and exerting one’s control and manifest themselves as “domination of others” or “psychological neuroses”. 4) Relief from such pathologies can be provided by non-pragmatic regions of meaning such as literature, phantasy, dreaming, or theoretical endeavors. 5) These can however also be endangered by the pragmatic anxieties of not reaching one’s goals and thus require grounding in something more. 6) This something more would be, according to Barber, “someone else”, i.e the other embodied in the religious and humorous non-pragmatic provinces of meaning. Drawing and building on Schutz’s “On multiple realities”[1] Barber speaks of religion and humor not just as opposing the world of working but also as provinces of meaning standing in a dialectical relation to everyday life: they can free us from pragmatic anxieties, shed new light on the possibilities of everyday life, and incorporate pragmatic bodily functions essential for communication. Thus, the pragmatic and non-pragmatic are also inter-dependent. Non-pragmatic provinces resist the pragmatic in not being accomplishment-oriented but rely on the latter to manifest themselves in communicative acts.

Barber’s book aims thus not only at reconstructing Schutz’s phenomenology but also at extending it to address the possibility of emancipation. In doing so he hopes to develop an account of non-pragmatic regions of meaning which can communicate and reflect on the pragmatic but also and more importantly address current social, racial, cultural, and psychological issues. In this vein he describes religion and humor as intersubjective experiences which can bridge the conflictual differences afflicting our current society. Barber’s undertaking is remarkable in several aspects: he describes in a Schutzian manner the constitution of the natural attitude; he accepts and further develops Schutz’s extension of this natural attitude through several regions of meaning; building on this he addresses the problem of intersubjectivity in phenomenology and tries to offer several solutions to current societal issues based on it; he addresses the relevancy of religion in a secular world and gives an exhaustive account of humor and its inner workings. Given that Barber relies on Schutz to achieve this I shall first give an account of his reconstruction of the Schutzian philosophy. From this I shall move to discussing in detail the above mentioned aspects of Barber’s book. Even though I appreciate Barber’s attempt I do believe that he runs into some issues discussing the character of religion and of humor as emancipating regions of meaning. This is why I shall also give a short account of the concerns I had reading the book presented here. This shall be followed by a conclusion in which I weigh in once again on the positives and negatives of Barber’s work.

Alfred Schutz and the World of Working

As Barber explains, Schutz – being influenced by Max Weber, Henri Bergson and Edmund Husserl – grounds his description of everyday life on a stream of consciousness in which present experiences are lived, future ones are anticipated and past ones are mediated by memory. He sees the formation of meaning of this stream of consciousness in a twofold fashion: first, experiences receive meaning via intentionality, i.e. by singling out experiences and reflecting on them; second, by planning in future past tense we can imagine a project, which as a goal provides meaning to any action we undertake. An important step in describing the world of working is the standardization of these meanings through culture. The standardization occurs as both general typification – concepts such as cats, dogs, trees, house etc. – and as personal typification – the ordering of our interests in hierarchical relevances (e.g. I study in order to receive a well payed job). Even though these typifications occur in culture and are thus intrinsically intersubjective – as language typification shows – they also pertain to subjective meanings as they are formed in the personal temporal unfolding of consciousness of each subject. Despite this they present a common pragmatic ground which makes communication possible. Communication and relating to others in general are also determined by our temporal and spatial state. When space and time are shared with another, subjects take part in the unfolding of each other’s stream of consciousness and influence each other’s typifications.[2] When only time is a shared determination the other is only known as a Contemporary based on typifying inferences leading to an ideal-type. Other ideal-types would be Successors and Predecessors. This kind of pre-reflective typisations constitute our social world, which Schutz holds to be dominated by pragmatic relevances, though he does not accept pragmatism as a viable description of everyday world. Instead, he relies on phenomenology and its methods: aiming objects as form of interacting; eidetic variations as determining essences; the epoché as explaining transitions from one finite region of meaning to another. The latter are not to be understood as ontological structures but as coherent domains of experience which we determine as real by inhabiting them. These regions of meaning are spelled out by a shared “cognitive style” determined by six features: 1) a tension of consciousness which is described in a Bergsonian manner as the attention to life needed at accomplishing projects; 2) the epoché as accessing a certain region of meaning; 3) a form of spontaneity which in the world of working describes the pragmatic involvement of the ego agens, i.e. the pragmatic agent engaged in its projects, in the world through bodily actions; 4) “a specific form of experiencing oneself” ( 5) which in the world of working would consist in an undivided and non-reflective subject living in the present of its projects; 5) “a specific form of sociality (as it is experienced in common sense communication)” (5); 6) and lastly temporality. Given that Barber describes the religious and humorous region of meaning by means of these attributes of the cognitive style I shall present his account of religion and humor in the same manner.

Cognitive Style of Religion

The first attribute of the cognitive style addressed by Barber is the tension of consciousness. Barber associates religion with Bergon’s pure memory as release from the tension of everyday life (10; Bergson, 1950). The tension of consciousness is loosened in religion as believers turn over the control over their lives to a transcendent and establish the latter as the absolute value of their system of relevances. By doing this, a certain objective order is ascribed to the world, through which everything is part of a higher order plan.[3] This, the unconditioned objective order which does not blame failure, helps the ego agens cope with the possibility of not achieving its goals. This in turn helps the ego agens have a more relaxed attitude towards its plans and help it better achieve them, without being plagued by anxieties of failure. Thus, the leaping into a non-pragmatic region of meaning can shed new light on the pragmatic and improve one’s engagement in the world by providing relief from the anxieties of the world of working. The transition from one region of meaning to another is achieved via a certain form of epoché. This transition functions in a Husserlian way by opening up new regions of meaning. In religion this is achieved through sacred spaces, times, and rituals. These isolate the individual from everyday life and inscribe one in a religious appresentative state: “the religious epoché displaces one from straightforward engagement with the world, reorients one’s system of coordinates, and alters one’s relevance scheme” (p12). One can however further engage the world both in a pragmatic and in a religious way. Both manners of involvement require a certain spontaneity of the individual. The involvement in the world of working is thought as being purposive, namely determined by the possibility of achieving goals. The assessment of this possibility and the non-reflective involvement of the ego agens rely on the typisation of past actions. Through the passive representation of accomplished past actions the pragmatic subject determines a certain goal as possible. This possibility is embodied in the sentence “I can do that again”. This determines the possibility of any goal starting from the ego agens as the 0-point of every action. In religion, the story differs. In this region of meaning, the transcendent is set as the ultimate goal, independent from us. This relativizes any other pragmatic goal and makes it lower-order. Such relativizing process may soothe personal anxieties regarding the possibility of pragmatic failure. Liberation however requires that we relate properly to the transcendent. The proper way proposed by Barber is absolute giving over to the transcendent which strips the ego agens of its characteristic as 0-point of all action. This stands in close relation to the fourth attribute of the cognitive style, namely the form of experiencing one’s self. In the world of working one understands oneself as the unity of his involvement in the world and as the “0-point of one’s spatiotemporal and social coordinates” (13). In religion one sees one’s entire history as the appresentation of the transcendent. As such one does not see oneself as the sole conductor of one’s life. As such, one’s involvement in the world is relieved from anxiety as one understands failures not as absolute but as inscribed in a certain purposiveness. This departure from an egocentrical world view reflects itself in the fifth attribute – sociability – too. Just as in phantasy one can enter religion alone or with others. Religious experience accentuates though sociability as the temporality of religion allows for the “socializing” with predecessors in a ritual time. The same ritual aspect of religion weakens the self-oriented typifications and strengthens other-oriented ones. As such “religion engenders social responsibility for the others” (14). As it was shown, the temporality of religion also differs from the one of the world of working. In religion time presents a non-linear character in which passed events or moments may be re-actualized as actually present and not just as memories. This allows for a multivectorial time which provides relief from the linear and future-oriented time of the world of working.

These six attributes show how each aspect of everyday life can be reinterpreted in religion in such a manner that the pragmatic is made relative. Paradoxically, exactly this relativizing of the pragmatic reinforces the pragmatic possibility of the ego agens: not afflicted by anxieties, one can better accomplish one’s projects. This overarching pragmatic view can however raise certain questions. These will be addressed in the section to follow.

Intrinsic and Imposed Relevances

As explained shortly above, everyday life is mainly constituted by the pragmatic engagement in the world. This engagement relies on typisations and passive synthesis which standardize behaviors and actions improving the efficacy of pragmatic agency. Based on such standardized action, the ego agens determines the possibility of a future action based on past successful ones and concludes “I can do it again”. By inhabiting the world of working in this way it also posits itself as the 0-point of its actions. Starting from its spatio-temporal and societal coordinates the pragmatic self determines which plans and projects it can accomplish. The plans and projects are in their turn conditioned by one’s intrinsic relevance system: what one wishes to attain. However, the ego agens is also confronted with imposed relevances and obstacles. The confrontation between imposed and intrinsic relevances can give rise to the meta-strategies at mastering the world. These consist in converting the imposed relevances into intrinsic ones manifested as plans and projects which the ego agens carries out. The degree of imposed relevances can however bring about a conflict in the ego agens, which can lead, according to Barber and Schutz, to pathologies such as anxiety or depression: “it is this collision of intrinsic relevances and imposed relevances that prompts us to turn to non-pragmatic finite provinces of meaning like religion and humor” (47). It seems that non-pragmatic regions of meaning are responses to an increased level of anxiety determined by higher-order imposed relevances which cannot be overcome in a pragmatic way: non-pragmatic regions provide relief as the subject renounces control and ceases to act pragmatically. This may relativize the relevance of the pragmatic self and allow for a more relaxed repositioning of the subject in the world-of-working. This description however also presents some difficulties. The starting point in discussing religion and the transcendent is clearly the religious community regarded from a pragmatic standpoint. One gets the feeling, from the beginning of the book, that this entire involvement in religion only occurs because one is stressed and needs relief. The danger of this is to drag the non-pragmatic into the pragmatic as a kind of Feuerbachian response to finitude. Given that Barber states at times that the pragmatic subject re-identifies and sees itself as a new self from the point view of religion, I do not think that he thinks that religion is purely a non-pragmatic tool for the pragmatic. Nevertheless, one does get the feeling that this danger – which is announced in the beginning by Barber – is not dealt enough with and is also not overcome by the communicative dialectics, which Barber proposes as answer to the relation between the pragmatic and the non-pragmatic. The dialectic of communication states that religion not only opposes pragmatic provinces but also makes use of them as communicatory tools. This however does not answer my concern regarding the reduction of religion to pragmatics. A more plausible answer might be the fundamental aspect of the non-pragmatic region of religion explained by Barber as the absolute entrusting of oneself to the transcendent. This absolute entrusting would then eliminate the danger of reduction: even though one is lead to religion by pragmatically induced anxiety, the absolute entrusting ensures that one does not return to the region of pragmatics in the same manner and that therefore one’s relation to the transcendent is not pragmatically determined. Even though this makes clearer how religion interacts with the pragmatic region of meaning without being absorbed in it, it still doesn’t resolve all issues of the religious province of meaning. In the same context of mastering the world Barber says: “we address imposed relevances through all sorts of approaches, from ignoring them, suppressing them, or even developing central myths about the superiority of our own social group” (8.) Here, Barber explains how the pragmatic integrity of a pragmatic community can be defended by mastering strategies relying on a central myth, which can reinforce the mastering identity of said community. Barber does not explain in my opinion how religion avoids acting as a central myth and as such as acting as a hyper-mastering strategy, even when the subjects give themselves completely over to a transcendent. It seems that these issues need be addressed given that we are confronted time and time again with religious fanatism and discrimination. It seems all the more stranger that he does not discuss in detail such issues as he does address it in the case of humor. Barber acknowledges that religion may be seen in a negative way but chooses not to go into detail in this matter. Instead, he states that he deals with an ideal understanding of religion and does point to the necessity of religion being in contact to the theoretical region of meaning for constant revision. I believe that he does not address such issues in depth because he chooses to speak of religion in a universal manner, without differentiating too much between multiple forms of religion. Barber attempts to resolve the problematic of religious variety by ascribing a generic “transcendent” as religious object and appresentation as religious process. In addition to this, he provides several examples of rituals from different religions which match this description. I believe that this is not enough in order to resolve the above mentioned issue and moreover restrains Barber to a generic discourse, which cannot address very specific topics. Furthermore, this generic discourse also neglects the variety of “transcendences” present in different religions. This is for me the overarching problem with Barber’s analysis of religion. One gets the feeling that all forms of religion are constituted by a pragmatic response to an obstacle which relies on a ritualistic process in the name of an absolute power. As such, one could argue that non-pragmatic provinces are constituted by pragmatic ones and for the sake of pragmatic improvement: “Paradoxically, leaping into a province of meaning, in which pragmatic relevances no longer govern, may in some cases be the most pragmatic way of dealing with the difficult-to-control dangers jeopardizing lower-level projects and relevances” (25). This circularity might be problematic as the non-pragmatic provinces would be essentially pragmatically oriented and as such instrumentalized (the other included).

Cognitive Style of Humor

Barber relies on the incongruity theory to describe the intentionality of humor as a non-linear, disturbed one. He argues more precisely that intentionality does not attain its goal as the result of a certain comical event is unexpected: humor breaks away from the expectations of everyday life and does so with a flexibility which allows for laughter. This phenomenological description is, as Barber argues, universal for all humor related phenomena. He also states that the incongruity theory underlines the other two major humor description models: the superiority and the relief theory. In the first case it is argued that one finds something to be funny only as one adopts a superiority stance over that something. In the second description, humor is described as relief of built up tension. Barber argues that in both cases incongruity is first required. The definition of humor is completed later on (151) by two criteria: the first one is that the experience must be enjoyable and it leads to the second, namely that the person experiences the scenario as laughable. I do not know in what degree this really adds to the definition of humor. Incongruity is a powerful argument, but the laughability of humor somehow seems tautological. This concern is resolved later in the book (177) where Barber further explains what laughter and enjoyment actually stand for. Humor detaches itself from the world of working as it has no practical value, instead it only pertains to the enjoyment of incongruities without any other goal. Due to these characteristics it relaxes the restrictions of everyday life by showing that pragmatic relevances can be viewed from another, i.e. comical, perspective. Furthermore, it also has a cathartic function allowing for the venting of tensions in a – ideally – benign way. These last two aspects of humor pertain to the relaxation of the tension of consciousness. Furthermore, incongruities are not rationally interpreted in humor. Instead, they are processed in passive syntheses which surprise the subject with their speed of development. They pertain thus to a certain loosening of the control of the subject and therefore to a loosened tension of consciousness. The transition to these humorous region of meaning is again achieved through an epoché, in this case a comical one. The comical epoché makes apparent the intersubjective nature of humor “perhaps because the humorous province of meaning usually relies on companions, including comedians, who invite others to leap with them into the province” (182). I believe this is one of the most important distinctions to religion. While religion affords a solitary connection with the transcendent and a leap into its region of meaning, humor is conditioned by the immanent other, who has the role of inviting.[4] In short, the transition to the humorous region of meaning relies on the invitation – mediated by body or language cues or specially designated times and spaces such as comedy clubs – of another. The leap in humor often happens in hindsight, when laughter occurs and incongruity is processed in reflection. The enjoyment of this incongruity is the form of the third attribute of the cognitive style, namely the form of spontaneity. Thus, humor relaxes spontaneity as disinterested and purposeless enjoyment. When this enjoyment or when the joke is not fully dedicated to the incongruity and for its own sake then the humorous region of meaning is not achieved. When this is though achieved, one’s experience of oneself – the fourth attribute – changes. The humorous self is a split self as it leaves the pragmatic region in which it is an undivided self, focused on the task at hand and often resorting to formerly developed patterns of behavior. Splitting the self occurs as the comical reveals hidden unconscious actions (such as weird bodily movements) and reorganizes one’s relation to one’s self. This, is explained by Barber through Helmuth Plessner (1970) who calls humans eccentric: “rooted in a body and yet able to take a perspective from outside itself upon itself” (198). Thus, while the pragmatic self thrives in predictability, the humorous self is directed towards incongruity and interruption which diversifies perspective. All this equips humor with a certain flexibility which not only loosens the tension of consciousness and helps the ego agens but also allows for reflection and reassessment of societal conditions. This of course also shapes one’s sociability. The experience of sociability can range from intimacy to aggression. However, when one respects the structure of humor, as Barber argues, humor normally tends towards intimacy, in which a comical community is built and which allows for a flexible ascription of roles: each one of the members can be the joker or the listener. In this community, trust plays an interesting and important role, namely it both determines the possibility of humor – without trust one might be insulted – and is itself determined by humor – trust that is met with trust is also reinforced by humor. The last attribute of the humorous province of meaning is its temporality. Just like phantasy, dreaming, or religion, humor does not deal with objects fixed in time. Instead, it brings a sort of temporal flexibility: it can slow down time, it can rearrange the temporality of a situation by re-assessing it from the viewpoint of incongruity (after the punch-line one reassess a certain temporal process as leading toward the comical climax). However, unlike religion, humor cannot reverse time and it cannot make something past or future present.

Face-to-face Humor

Barber gives an exhaustive account of humor contrasting Schutz’s view with other concurrent theories. The remarkably interesting aspect of the analysis of this region of meaning is its interracial and intercultural potential, as Barber explains it. Intersubjectivity is closely related to the humorous epoché: the very accessing of humor is determined by cues given by another. After the epoché is reached one’s expectations are shattered by the passive synthesis of events developing at a surprising speed. This incongruity re-shapes perspectives bringing to light hidden aspects of experience. Furthermore, as explained above, the very humorous style of an individual is influenced by the passive absorption of different humorous styles from different individuals. This also involves an interracial sensibility to humor: through associative absorbing, a situation – which could otherwise present interracial tensions – can be understood in a more relaxed and comical way. Barber further develops this thought stating that humor can reveal hidden cultural determinations of our behavior, submitting them in a comical way to a reflective process, which could loosen sociocultural preconceptions. This aspect of Barber’s book is interesting insofar as it deals with sensitive social issues through the agency of a more relaxed environment prone to intersubjecivity. Here, however, the idealistic manner of treating different regions of meaning is also felt. Barber often speaks of his African-American friend who through humor makes Barber conscious of his cultural background. This in turn helps Barber better understand himself and relate to his friend. Intercultural or interracial jokes and humor can however also turn into clichés and/or discriminatory typifications, which mediated by humor may appear benign. In the case of humor, Barber does see the danger of racism and discrimination and addresses it in chapter 7.4. Based on Schutz he argues that humor is also the medium of discriminatory typifications of closed groups through which they denigrate the Stranger. As a solution he offers a face-to-face humor, namely a humor based on interpersonal relationships. Face to face, says Barber, the subjects are constantly confronted with each other. This regulates humor insofar as the face-to-face situation forces both teller as well as listener to measure each other’s responses and exchange perspectives. He develops on this with examples of his already mentioned African-American friend. He states that his jokes make Barber aware of cultural differences as well give him insight in the oppression experienced by the African-American community. This opens the way for interracial communication. This account is indeed an interesting alternative to intercultural and interracial approaches but it does have, in my opinion, a weak spot. It remains ideal as it speaks of already friendly relationships in which respect is presupposed. Furthermore, it offers as example the jokes of a person which is described by Barber as kind and always willing to breach racial barriers (166). Based on this, it seems to me that the kindness of the joke teller and his disposition and respect to the other build the basis for non-racist jokes and not the face-to-face situation. The same can be said about another requirement of intersubjective comical community, namely trust. If trust is part of humor from the outset,[5] then humor between parties in tension would not be possible. Furthermore, it strengthens the worry, that Barber bases his analyses of humor on examples of humor within an established relationship of friendship. This question would be answered, if one accepts a common, universal, and underlying trust between all people which can be reinforced by humor and thus improving interracial relations. There is however no argument for such a trust in Barber’s book and its mere presupposition would be problematic.

Conclusion

In conclusion I think that Barber’s handling of humor is more interesting and appealing than his expose on religion. I think the problem with his analysis of religion lies within the fact that he analyses religion as a unitary and uniform concept: he reduces a variety of religions to a system of relevances and a relationship to the transcendent which strips his analysis of specificity and in depth analysis of religious phenomena. On the other hand, humor is treated in its entirety as it is looked at on its own. A further advantage of humor in this book is that it is more universal than religion. Religions each have their own set of rituals and dogmas which I do not think can be reduced to some sort of universal set of relevances. On the other hand, humor is described as flexible and adaptable to each situation. Furthermore, each one of us can relate to a comical phenomenon and as such, humor is universal. I regret not being able to discuss other interesting themes of Barber’s book such as Schutz’s view on passive synthesis and the constitution of the natural attitude, the dialectical nature of the collective and the individual in religion, the relation between the reflexive and the pragmatic self in the world of working and its relation to death, etc. Unfortunately, due to lack of space I had to focus on the main goals of Barber’s book: explaining humor and religion as emancipating regions of meaning. As I have stated, I think the analysis of humor is more precise and clear. Nevertheless, both topics shed light on the possibilities of alternate solutions to intercultural, interracial and psychological issues. This makes Barber’s book worthy to read.

Bibliography

Schutz, Alfred. 1962. On multiple realities. In The problem of social reality, ed. M. Natanson, 207–259. Vol. 1 of Collected Papers. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.

Plessner, Helmuth. 1970. Laughing and crying: A study of the limits of human behavior. Trans. J.S. Churchill and M. Grene. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

Bergson, Henri. 1950. Matter and memory. Trans. N.M. Paul and W.S. Palmer. London/New York: George Allen and Unwin, Ltd./The Macmillan Company.


[1] Barber does not only discuss “On multiple realities”. He provides a detailed historical development of Schutz’ thought. Unfortunately, I am not able to go into detail concerning this historical account due to space restrictions. This aspect of Barber’s book would be nevertheless of great interest for any Schutzian scholar.

[2] This is important in Barber’s account of face-to-face humor.

[3] Barber explains this relation to the transcendent in a Husserlian way, namely by means of appresentation: symbols function as appresentative loci for the divine.

[4] One can of course re-live a past comical event by oneself, but this would also be intersubjective in nature as humor is often associative and reflected in connection to the humorous style of another. Barber refers here to a “passive absorbtion” of other humorous styles which shape the humor region of meaning in an intersubjective manner.

[5] As shown above.

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