venerdì 26 ottobre 2012

Laughing as the most noble and intellectual activity

Yue Minjun

Laugh is normally intended just as a “liberating” act. While the common sense and the dominating discourse invites us to “be serious”, laughing is something to be confined to the private (rarely in public, and just under very particular circumstances; or, and this sounds like a paradox, when the public is included by the private, I will say like this). The common sense considers laughing as something trivial, and at best something with a very marginal relevance. Apparently, indeed, laughing is not a faculty that we can measure, or that we can say we can “make use of it”. According to any imaginary criteria of “usefulness” laughing is of no use.

On the contrary, I claim that laughing is an extremely intellectual activity. And I claim that laughing is very much related with intelligence. But of course, what laughing, and what intelligence? Not the intelligence that we can suppose one could measure with the IQ; instead, it has to do with the intelligence of the speech, meaning that it is a faculty of the listening.

Laughing indicates precisely a subversion of the knowledge, a disruption in the discourse: another scene appears; the original sense is fading; the representation is disrupting, re-vealing Other behind.
Laughing is a sign of sexuality, it is a sign of a radical difference.

Some might say that imagination is needed for laughing. What a paradox then. But laughing, indeed, is the image taken at the extreme; it is what goes behind the image. Laughing is playing with the images and the imaginary. When we say that the signifier (the speech) comes first, we say precisely that the image is first of all acoustic, meaning a product of the speech. We can find a fixation of the image (a fantasy that is always the same, for example), but there is no image that can last forever. This is what the functioning of irony shows.

We have different ways for producing laugh. For example:

Ridiculous: what causes the laugh by being awkward, strange, grotesque or silly
Humor: ingenious way of seeing, interpreting and presenting the reality, highlighting aspects that are unusual, quirky and fun.
Sarcasm: discourse of derision, harsh mockery, caustic, bitter.
Hoax: making fun of someone; jeering at someone, but not as sign of disrespect.
Satire: witty and bitter criticism of the vices, prejudices, weaknesses and human passions.
Caricature: exaggeration of the defects and imperfections of a person, or a situation.
Parody: when a person or action that would imitate another, more noble and worthy, end up resulting instead only a mockery, a poor imitation; also, comic disguise of a composition or serious content.

And we have different ways for representing the world, for writing a story:

Comedy: humorous or satirical in tone and that usually contains a happy resolution of the thematic conflict. Often farcical; the main character might initially not being able to articulate any question, and is constantly mocked by fate, which produces a comic effect. The happy ending usually shows, solves all the misunderstanding and miscomprehensions that sustained the story. Nothing is as it seems.
Drama: "painful affair." Present as great, noisy, even spectacular events. It is normally intended as a serious work. It aims at representing conflicts, and the emotions of the characters (the affects). Prevalence is given to the image, rather than the speech.
Tragedy: narrative of a serious and tragic dissolution of the plot. Unhappy ending: the fears and representations are confirmed. There is a downfall of the character, who surrenders the destiny, the fate. The story never change, there is no room for a different ending.

Each of these representations produces effects through some laughing strategies:

Comedy leads to ridicule through the caricature.
Drama highlights the ridiculous through the satire (which has a veil of sadness. It's the bitter confirmation of reality. It indicates a substantial acceptation of things).
Tragedy is the fixation of the image. Interestingly enough tragedy is the maximum of seriousness. A serious problem generally refers to some tragedy, to something heavy, to something that cannot be changed, something that cannot be repeated. Serious and serial: taken in a series. Tragedy can only turn to comedy through an exaggeration, only through parody.

However, I claim that we call irony is something different, and gives rise to something radically different, something beyond a definable genre of representation. Irony is precisely the eruption of the new over the scene: it is the surprise. The irony of fate occurs on a different register from each of the three above mentioned forms. Some time ago, I argued that through psychoanalysis is possible to shift from tragedy to drama to comedy. I want to add a passage more, and I suggest that when there is openness to the Other, when there's semblant, when there is a dispositif that works, when there is speech, and when there is intelligence, there it is possible to have a radical subversion of the so called reality. There miracles (not in religious meaning) and coincidences occur. 

When odd things happen some might say that it is just the “comedy of life”. But to some extent I think that comedy, drama and tragedy are all representations of the world, just with different degrees. They all represent the world, as if the image came first. Even in the case of drama, can we really say that the imaginary is being dissolved and the “happy ending” is the prevalence of the dimension of the speech? Hard to say, it can also be the confirmation of another image, and as such the substitution of a Story with another Story; not something radical, in the end. There is no function of “telling”, there is no openness: just another Story. A bit like psychotherapy: a (supposed) better or more functional story, instead of the previous one (supposed) maladaptive, and painful.

But it is only the irony that states the primacy of the speech over the image, and indeed is able to produce a subversion of reality. (The effect of irony is radical. It is not simply a making fun of the so called reality. It is precisely its disruption. For instance, humor only produces a bitter laugh, with gritted teeth, while irony instead can produce very loud laugh)


martedì 2 ottobre 2012

Let's stress something about the stress

Are you stressed? 

I was giving a tutorial to students, few months ago. I wanted to discuss critically about stress with them, so I gave this brief introduction.
Stress has a very bad name. Normally, it is associated to something negative. And, most important, is it usually considered to be a quality of the object. Indeed, we use to think that something can be stressful, that something is a source of stress: an exam is stressful, a job interview is stressful, a test, or a competition is stressful. And the common sense suggests that we should be able to reduce, to manage the stress. But nobody question what the stress is. And for example: can we imagine a life without stress? What would we do without stress?
I found some definitions of stress, taken from the dictionary. Stress refers to different fields, not only psychology. Stress is for example:

  • The relative force of sound or emphasis given a syllable or word in accordance with a metrical pattern.
  • Accent or a mark representing such emphasis or force.
  • The internal resistance of a body to such an applied force or system of forces.
  • To subject to tension, pressure

So, there are very different definitions, but all recall the force, the emphasis, the pressure, the tension. So, if stress has to do with a force, how can it be negative? Without stress, without force, without emphasis the life would be flat; can we imagine a life without tension? Tension means that there is a direction to something else, it means that there is movement. What would be without tension, or without pressure? The death! That is the only condition of absence of any tension.

But more interesting, if we follow these definitions, is that the stress (when intended as a difficulty) is not caused by the external object (the exam, the test, the interview), but quite on the contrary it is caused by our resistance to it, by our internal resistance!  
What produces the stress is the internal opposition to doing something. Why a resistance? Maybe because we feel an imposition; maybe because we fear to fail; maybe because we perceive the obstacle is too big for us. So the stress has to do with a representation. A representation is for example: “I know what they expect that from me”; or, “I know that I will not pass the exam, because the teacher doesn’t like me”; “I will fail the interview because I am not good enough”. So, we always have many representations, about us and about the others, and this constitutes the greatest internal resistance, because it works opposite to our direction. Many times these kinds of representations are what black us from doing something, even if we would love to. Many times these kinds of representations lead us to fail.
When we are in the representation we are not following our direction, we are not creating a story, we just avoid. We are trapped in our fears, our pre-judices, we are anticipating the defeat. On the opposite, we can most likely reach some results when we stop to fear the fear.

There are some conditions in which most likely we don’t face these problems. Usually children are less stressed, because for them everything is a game, they are playful; even what adults perceive as a problem for kids can be a game; because kids are less likely to interpret, to give meanings, which sometimes is an advantage. And in fact, when we don’t anticipate with the interpretation what will happen (I will fail), when we feel our desire in what we do (when we don’t just take it as a task) we are successful, we are lighter, we proceed feeling that nothing can go wrong. When we cultivate our desire and we are determined about that, it is impossible to fail. Quite on the contrary, stress as commonly intended refers to others’ expectations (that we suppose we have to satisfy). When we don’t ask where is our desire, then most likely we will feel an unsustainable pressure, an unpleasant tension, because the force we feel pushes us in a direction that we don’t like, to somewhere that we don’t want.

Another example Sigmund Freud noticed already 100 years ago that during war people was less likely to suffer mental diseases, and I wonder that probably was less stressed, because when there is some urgency, something that we cannot postpone, something that we cannot discuss, something that we have to do, then we have no other choice, we cannot make too many reasonings, we simply have to do, and then we do. During war the perception of time changes; during war people may feel that everyday is the last day. This condition might seem unsustainable, but probably at the same time it reliefs from many “stress” that we have today (have to make a career, have to get married and buy a flat that I will pay in 30 years, have to make babies, etc…) Of course if everyday could be the last day, there is no time for thinking like this.
On the other side, I think that is also a common experience for many people, that when we have a deadline we become very productive and we can do everything that we haven’t done before: maybe we can prepare an exam in last 3 days, even if we started to study 1 month before; we multiply our resources when we have no time, when we cannot postpone and think about it too much. 

Stress is something that we experience when we make too many plans, when we reason about something instead of doing it. Stress becomes a negative power when we try to control the process, when we don’t just do what we are called to do, when we are caught in a loop, when we cannot stop thinking.
It is also interesting that psychiatry identifies the “Post traumatic stress disorder”, something that for example affects the militaries after they come back from a war. Interesting is that the stress comes after the war, and not during it. Maybe because people only start thinking about what happened when they come back to the usual life, and only at that point they start making questions (since the American war in Vietnam this is the image that also most of the movies seems to give: the military comes back home after an absurd war, and when he meets his old friends he cannot understand anymore what’s the meaning of life, what’s the right and the wrong, what’s the sense of life, what he should do etc…).

To conclude, stress is not about the situation in itself. The situation, any situation, is not already given, is not already defined, is not the same for all of us. The situation is how we perceive it, how we describe it, so it has to do with our values, our judgement, our word. The obstacle in the end is not just what impedes (hinder) us to reach an objective; quite on the contrary, the obstacle is what only permits, allows something to happen. A deadline is not a limit, a deadline is the precondition for us to do (without deadline we wouldn’t probably do nothing). A deadline is stressful if for example we don’t like the work we have to do, if we don’t understand the meaning of our job, if we have to work for someone we don’t like: if we give the deadline (the obstacle) a specific bad meaning. But otherwise only the obstacle allows us to direct our power, our force, only the obstacle allows us to direct the stress, the pressure.
On the contrary, what if we don’t care of anything? What is the opposite of stress? I think that probably the feeling of boredom is at the opposite of stress, because we get bored when we cannot find our desire in what we do, and we don’t see reasons for doing it. Can we say that getting bored is better or worse than being stressed? I don’t think so; in one case we feel too much pressure above us, in the other case we don’t feel any pressure. In both cases our desire remains in the background
Being stressed and being bored are sometimes simply two expressions of the same problem. Being stressed means being busy with things that we don’t feel ours, and sometimes this is just a strategy for filling a life which otherwise would be too empty, and then boring. But of course the point is not how many activities we have to do. Two hours of a work that we don’t like can be a torture, while sometimes we might enjoy our work so much that we don’t even notice the time passing. The common sense always consider the stress as something we can quantify, calculate, while there is no stress at all when we just follow what we do, when our desire is at work. But when we are caught by some activity our attention is caught, so we are distract from everything else, we are just doing, we are not in the reasoning, in the interpretation; we are in the abstraction.

Stress has to do with interpretation, with representation, that’s why it can change many times during life. So is possible to prevent stress? Is possible to manage the stress? I argue that stress is not to be managed; what we can do with stress is trying to read the stress, trying to see where it leads us. Stress is related to desire. It can indicate that what we do is not related to our desire, for example. But also, clinical experience shows that what we desire the most bring us lots of stress (some people feel much anxieties for something they apparently fear, but secretly desire);
Stress can then be a great resource, it can turn to be something that indicates us the way to follow, how to proceed. Stress can be a signal for us to listen, we don’t have to immediately think of managing the stress or reduce it, stress can tell us much about us. 

(all paintings are from Manet)