A Philosophy of Comedy on Stage and Screen

The main part of this excerpt will look at concrete examples of object dysfunction, largely from within the physical comedy tradition, specifically focusing on comical cases which exemplify what Heidegger identifies as the three modes of the unready-to-hand object. However, before we can get a handle on that phenomenon, I feel it is first necessary to look at the cases of deliberate misuse, or equipmental transgressions. In my view, such misuse makes us aware of the tacit structure that underpins our everyday interactions with objects, the referential context. As such, there is much to be gained from phenomenological analysis of such transgressions, and those insights will hopefully help to frame the inquiry going forward.

Equipmental transgressions

To begin, let us recall a central claim that I made about the object in the last chapter, specifically that it forms part of a referential context in which the hammer relates to the nails, the work bench and a whole contexture of activity surrounding its use. Crucially, the object is not primarily understood in terms of isolable properties, such as mass, but rather in terms of its suitability for the task at hand. So, to recall the structure outlined in the last chapter, we might say that I pick up the Brussels sprout at the dinner table with a fork in order to eat it as a step towards having a nice meal for the sake of satiating my hunger. Now, we need to acknowledge that while this ‘for the sake of’ is an anthropological universal (we all get hungry), the equipment surrounding this ‘for the sake of’ is not. We know of other cultures that use chopsticks, which they are undoubtedly more adept at using than I am. In fact, I recently had to endure the embarrassment of fumbling with chopsticks in a sushi restaurant while the friends eating with me were demonstrating an enviable level of aptitude. In such a circumstance, I would argue it is correct to say that their relationship with the object is fundamentally different to mine – the conversation with my friends fell into the background as I tried to get the two sticks to bend to my will.

Undoubtedly I went through a similar process as a child when my parents were forcing me to use a fork instead of the chubby digits that seemed far more adept at getting the food, but I have no such recollection. When I am using the fork proficiently, as I like to think I do most mealtimes, the whole referential context fades into the background and I can concentrate on my conversation. Object failure and misuse, and the subsequent disclosure of the referential context, is the bread-and-butter of the clowning tradition and I believe that this is exemplified brilliantly by the work of Charlie Chaplin. Let us turn now to The Gold Rush, specifically the thanksgiving scene, which I will proceed to describe in detail.

A title card comes on-screen, which says ‘Thanksgiving Scene’. We see the Tramp pull a shoe out of a pot of boiling water, which he examines and uses a fork to ensure that it is cooked. Big Jim passes him a serving plate and, after removing a little dirt from the plate, the Tramp puts the shoe on there. We briefly see a close-up of the Tramp’s feet, one without a shoe, before returning to the Tramp who places the serving plate with shoe on the table and then he sharpens the knife as one would if about to carve a turkey. He pulls away the shoelaces and puts them on a side plate, and then he separates leather from the sole and puts the leathery part on a separate plate. The Tramp hands the sole with nails to his large companion, who promptly swaps the plates. Big Jim looks at the shoe with disdain. The Tramp nibbles a little bit and then turns to Jim, nodding as if to say ‘it’s not bad’.

Jim looks down at his piece, again with disdain, which contrasts with the Tramp’s attitude towards his meal. Jim reluctantly bites and chews the leather. We return to the Tramp who looks as if he is having a fine meal – he twirls the shoelaces onto his fork like spaghetti before lifting them into his mouth. The Tramp then puts the nails onto a side plate, as one would the bones of a turkey. We come back to Jim, who is reluctant and repulsed, and then return once more to the Tramp who is sucking the ‘meat’ off the ‘bones’ (i.e. leather off the nails). He picks up a bent nail and, after sucking it clean, holds it in his pinky and directs it towards Jim, as if it were a wishbone. Jim ignores him, so he tries to break it himself, which he is unable to do so he places it on the side plate. After the Tramp has a small bout of indigestion, the scene fades out.

Now, it is hopefully clear how the structure outlined previously is applicable to the scene here. We might say that the Tramp prods the shoe at the stove with a fork in order to check its edibility as a step towards eating it for the sake of satiating his hunger. What is incongruous about this scene is the fact that the shoe is in a referential context to which it does not normally belong. This fact is highlighted by the shot of the Tramp’s feet. There are innumerable shots that feature the Tramp’s unreasonably large shoes in the scenes prior to this one, and yet they aren’t really a salient part of the picture. In fact, this is a notable characteristic of his costume – his attire seems so in keeping with his character that it seems appropriate that he should be wearing it even though it is deeply unsuitable for the harsh snowy conditions. By pointing at its absence, the shot of the shoeless foot highlights the usual context in which the shoe is situated and this makes us better positioned to appreciate the incongruity of the meal we are about to witness.

The title card sets up the frame of reference – we are witnessing a ‘thanksgiving dinner’. However, there is a marked difference in how the two characters relate to this. The Tramp seems absorbed in this fiction – for him the shoe is turkey, the nail is a wishbone and so on. By contrast, Big Jim never stops relating to the shoe as a shoe. His grimaces are indicative of the disgustingness of his meal, and moreover of the desperate low to which he has sunk. The camera cutting between the two men highlights this incongruity – frame of reference 1 (a pleasant thanksgiving feast) is incompatible with frame of reference 2 (two desperately hungry men eating whatever they can). Yet, the Tramp tries to push them together. When Jim refuses to play along, for example when he doesn’t even try to break the wishbone with his companion, he undercuts the ‘illusion’ and highlights the transgression. There is a good reason why we don’t normally eat our shoes – it is deeply unpleasant! Unlike the Tramp, Big Jim seems unprepared to forget that.

The reader might at this point be wondering why we need the Heideggerean concept of referential contexts to understand this phenomenon. After all, everyone can appreciate the unpleasantness of eating shoes. However, my point is deeper than that – I want to claim that in order for the shoe to be ‘reimagined’ as a component of a thanksgiving feast, it needs to be removed from the referential context in which it is normally situated. Moreover, relating to the shoe qua turkey requires that it is integrated with the interlocking practices and equipment surrounding thanksgiving turkeys. While I don’t think it is possible to make this structure wholly explicit, I want to claim that the utility of looking at cases of misuse and failure is that they make this structure salient, whereas normally it is completely unnoticed. Indeed, it needs to be unnoticed in order for us to keep going about our business. As I noted in reference to my unsuccessful attempt to use chopsticks (a case of dysfunction rather than transgression), everything grinds to a halt when it is not. If I am struggling to get the sushi into my mouth, my attention is drawn away from the very interesting discussion about Arts Council funding policy and towards the chopsticks. They almost rise to the status of agents as they seem to thwart the very basic project of eating, and yet one is compelled to keep trying, as it would be unseemly to use one’s fingers and embarrassing to ask for a fork. This failure and its subsequent saliency will be the subject of the next section, which will focus primarily at the object dysfunction, and the three types of failure that Heidegger identifies.

The three types of unreadiness-to-hand

In order to outline the three modes of object dysfunction, it might be worth turning to Hubert Dreyfus, who spends more time unpacking this idea than Heidegger himself and draws out a rather useful table of the various modalities.

In the first column we see ‘availableness’, and while this terminology has not been used before now, the idea should be familiar. When the equipment is functioning smoothly, we are able to be absorbed in the practical activity with which we are engaged. What is important to note is that in this modality there is no subject–object dichotomy and no reflective awareness. I am simply in the world, going about my business being absorbed in the many activities that matter to me. Below that in the table we have the ‘deficient’ modalities. It is only when the object breaks or I engage in a reflective attitude towards it that there is a subject – either ‘self sufficient’, as is the case in pure reflection, or with ‘mental content on a non-mental background’. This is highly atypical, as for the most part I am simply absorbed in the projects with which I am engaged.

However, what is of particular interest to my inquiry are the three sorts of equipmental dysfunctions that Dreyfus outlines. For the sake of clarity, I will use Dreyfus’ terms with the Heideggerean one in brackets. First, there is a malfunction (conspicuous) in which a particular characteristic of the object prevents it from fulfilling its function optimally. The example that Dreyfus uses is the hammer being too heavy, which of course means too heavy for the task at hand. There is a good reason why the phrase ‘use a sledgehammer to crack a walnut’ has negative connotations and what is at stake is not the mass of the object, but rather its suitability for the task. When objects fail in this way, what becomes salient is that characteristic – in this example, the heaviness of the sledgehammer. Similarly, when I lean on an object and it cannot hold my weight, this characteristic of the object comes to the fore – it doesn’t have the strength which I previously assumed and its failure highlights this aspect of it. In this way, we can understand why Heidegger chose to talk of conspicuousness – its opposite, inconspicuousness, is a normal characteristic of a chair. If it is a nice, fully functioning chair, we can just ignore it when we sit down to read or watch television. It is only when it malfunctions that the chair is ‘conspicuous’.

Second, there is ‘temporary breakdown’ (obstinate). When the head falls off the hammer, one has to stop hammering and try to fix it. This failure discloses the whole context of equipment surrounding the activity – the hammer relates to the nails that need hammering, the workbench and ultimately to Dasein’s own project which has been disrupted by this dysfunction.

Finally, there is a permanent breakdown (obtrusive). As Dreyfus’ formulation suggests, there is a relatedness between this sort of failure and the previous variety. One of the crucial differences between the two varieties is our stance. In cases of temporary breakdown the problem is overcome – we either fix the problem or adapt the task. In permanent breakdown, by contrast, the issue is insurmountable, and the most typical response is standing before the problem helplessly. The most obvious example of this in comedy is in Laurel and Hardy – the moments when one of them (usually Hardy) looks helplessly straight at the camera with pleading eyes.4 I will go on to argue that there is another – possibly more delightful – response to this within popular comedy, and that is impotent fury. However, we shouldn’t get distracted by the various permutations, and I feel that at this point I should be explicit in stating that I am not trying to draw out an exhaustive taxonomy of dysfunctions – I find it quite feasible that Heidegger missed one, and the divisions between them are rather fuzzy from the outset.

Taken from A Philosophy of Comedy on Stage and Screen: You Have to be There, published by Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, and available to order here at a 10% discount.