How to build for human life on Mars

We’re going to be building on the Moon this decade — and next will be Mars, says space architect Melodie Yashar. In a visionary talk, she introduces her work designing off-world shelters with autonomous robots and 3D printers and explores how it might help uncover radical solutions to some of the problems troubling humans on Earth today.Read transcript

This talk was presented at an official TED conference. TED’s editors chose to feature it for you.

About the speaker

Melodie Yashar

Space architectSee speaker profile

Melodie Yashar develops construction technologies to allow us to build on the Moon and, one day, Mars.

John Cena sets ‘herculean’ record for most wishes granted to children

US pro-wrestler fulfilled 650 wishes through non-profit that helps children who are gravely sick or dying

John Cena hosts Saturday Night Live in December 2016.
John Cena hosts Saturday Night Live in December 2016. Photograph: Rosalind O’Connor/NBC via Getty Images

Ramon Antonio Vargas

Tue 27 Sep 2022 01.00 EDT (

After vanquishing seemingly countless foes in the ring as well as on the screen, the US pro-wrestler and actor John Cena has notched one more mark on his body count.

He has set the new record for the most wishes granted through the Make-A-Wish Foundation, the non-profit that helps fulfil the wishes of children who are gravely sick or dying, according to a recent press release from Guinness World Records.

Cena achieved the record after granting 650 wishes to kids between the ages of two and 18 whose families contacted Make-A-Wish, said Guinness officials, who verified the tally on 19 July. The Guinness World Records site hailed the effort as “herculean” – no one else has granted more than 200 wishes.

Described by Make-A-Wish as the celebrity whom children most often ask to meet, Cena has sought to strike a humble tone whenever he speaks about his work with the foundation founded in 1982.

“If you ever need me for this ever, I don’t care what I’m doing – I will drop what I’m doing and be involved because I think that’s the coolest thing,” Cena said in a Reuters interview excerpted by the Guinness site.

He has also said: “I just drop everything … If I can offer a fantastic experience, I’ll be first in line to do my part.”

Children who participate in Make-a-Wish can choose to meet a celebrity, go to an event or even present a gift to someone else.

Cena’s visits for the foundation frequently involve him bringing one of the championship belts he’s held during his 20-year career with World Wrestling Entertainment. He mostly also hangs out with them, poses for pictures with them and has been known to sometimes bring them with him in between the wrestling ring’s ropes, the Guinness site noted.

He began working with Make-A-Wish in 2002. Coincidentally, 10 years later, Cena granted the foundation’s 1,000th wish to a fan of his named Cardon.

As a crowd favorite, or “face” in industry parlance, he has reigned as the WWE’s top champion 13 separate times and has collected other less luminous titles from the promotion on a handful of occasions.

The 45-year-old has also spearheaded the WWE’s anti-bullying initiative, which the promotions calls its “Be a Star” campaign.

He translated his prominence in WWE into several high-profile profile roles in action and comedy films, including in 12 Rounds, Trainwreck, the 10th Fast & Furious movie, and The Suicide Squad between 2009 and 2021. He’s also the star of the television series Peacemaker, which is a spinoff from The Suicide Squad movie.

How a Viennese genius (not the one you think) understood penis envy

How a Viennese genius (not the one you think) understood penis envy | Psyche

Bathing (c1910-20) by Helene Funke. Courtesy the British Museum, London

Heba Yosryteaches psychology and philosophy in Cairo, specialising in Arabic literature and philosophy. She is interested in gender studies, metaphysics and language.

Edited by Sam Haselby

27 September 2022 (

I remember the first time I said the word ‘penis’ in a classroom. It was 12 years ago in Cairo. I was a young psychology teacher, not much older than the students I was teaching. I remember the feeling of trepidation that came over me as I uttered the word. The kind that makes your heart pound so loudly, you think everyone can hear. I also remember my students’ reactions as they stared at me in disbelief, not knowing if I actually said what I said. I remember the girls’ blushing and the boys’ muffled gasps. It was as if the word ‘penis’ had dropped the fig leaf to uncover our naked reality. An acknowledgment that we were biological beings, not merely suspended creatures vacillating between presence and an all-encompassing ennui. In a classroom filled with hormonal teenagers, uttering the word ‘penis’ disarmed the air of nonchalance that masked their vulnerability.

Now I am happy to report that I say ‘penis’ without even batting an eyelash. I even play a little game where I try to anticipate my students’ reactions. I try to guess who will flinch, which boys will instinctively close their parted legs as if the word is an attack on their masculinity, who will blush, and who will try to find this an opportunity for passing thinly veiled sexual innuendo into the conversation. Their reactions are quite telling and, since the course focuses on personality, I find this a great opportunity to peer into theirs. I haven’t been accused of corrupting the youth yet, but you never know!

The discourse centred on male genitalia is usually presented to my class while introducing Sigmund Freud’s psychosexual theory. In this theory, Freud divides human psychic development into stages based on a series of physiological changes. The Phallic stage, which literally means penis stage, is the only time Freud addresses female psychic development in his theory. He states that girls from the age of four to six experience what he calls ‘penis envy’ – when girls wish to become boys.

Having experienced the desire to become a boy during my childhood, I always do a quick poll. I ask my female students how many of them experienced the same desire. I have come to notice that the number of girls who shared my desire has been diminishing over the years.

For Horney, the girls who want to be boys feel that way because of the social restrictions and stigma associated with being a girl

The root of this trans-generational desire is then investigated. Does it emanate from an inherent physiological deficiency that girls experience (ie, Freud’s interpretation) or is it due to cumbersome social forces that impose feelings of inferiority upon young girls? The investigation is usually guided by the theories of the feminist psychologist Karen Horney (1885-1952) contra Freud.

Horney was a prominent psychoanalyst who rose to fame through postulating an antithetical proposition to Freud’s psychosexual theory and particularly to penis envy. She believed that Freud failed to account for the true force underlying penis envy, and rejected his theory. Horney acknowledged that some girls do experience pervasive feelings of inferiority that might amount to a yearning to become boys. Nevertheless, she disagreed with Freud regarding the underlying reasons causing this rift. For Horney, the girls who want to be boys feel that way because of the social restrictions and stigma associated with being a girl. Their desire manifests itself in the embodied male, because he is independent, autonomous and free. Thus, penis envy can be understood as a masked yearning towards freedom in a society that failed to provide the vocabulary of freedom to young girls, so they subsume their aspiration in the societal totem of freedom: ie, boys.

As a woman, I find myself leaning towards Horney’s interpretation more than Freud’s. Perhaps because Horney’s explanation emanates from her experience as someone who suffered from the mere fact that she was a woman.

There is a question that I’ve come to ask my class every single year. How did a psychoanalyst’s life, or certain events in her life, shape her theories? I know that, ultimately, how a person behaved in private shouldn’t have any bearing on their scientific rigour. Yet, in a field like psychology, and especially in personality psychology, a discipline where psychologists claim to have unadulterated insight into the human psyche specifically, and the human condition in general, it becomes difficult to divorce a practitioner’s lived experience from their theoretical paradigm. If we apply this question to Horney, we could hopefully witness the formative experiences that shaped her theories.

Karen Horney in 1953. Photo by Bettmann/Getty

Horney grew up in a household where masculine superiority over the feminine was a heuristic concept grounded in a particular Biblical interpretation. Her father believed that a woman naturally belongs to the private realm. Accordingly, a girl’s education and upbringing should be an effort to domesticate her in preparation for her role as a homemaker. The brilliant and rebellious young Karen found in her father’s denial of her uniqueness ample motivation for her excellence. It is within this static masculine/feminine milieu that Horney pursued her life’s work, trying to provide evidence that femininity was not innately submissive. I would further argue that Horney’s intellectual paradigm wasn’t merely created and guided by the feminine/masculine dichotomy – rather, her views were held captive by it to the extent that she was unable to move beyond it.

Her theories emanate from a matriarchal worldview that privileges warmth and love as the primary indicators of a healthy adult life

Though Horney’s fame is mainly attributed to rejecting penis envy, her psychological corpus extends beyond this theory of Freud’s. Horney studied neurosis extensively, grounding its roots in early childhood interaction with parents. The quality of these interactions, for Horney, shapes self-perception and ultimately our relationship with our selves. She also identified the different neurotic coping mechanisms that can aid psychoanalysts in identifying and helping patients who exhibit this behaviour. Horney’s work sheds light on the importance of early parent/child relations in the construction of a healthy sense of self, beyond the immediate biological necessity and mythological inevitability espoused by Freud. Her theories can be viewed as emanating from a matriarchal worldview that privileges warmth and love as the primary indicators of a healthy adult life. Freud’s theories created a competitive cosmos filled with trials and tribulations where a human being must prove their worth. Horney’s theories created a cosmos where a human being is given, through care, the tools that can enable them to overcome adversity. Whether her intellectual views were practised in her life is another question.

Horney had a troubled relationship with her mother, not to mention her father. If one were to survey Horney’s life, one wouldn’t be able to escape the feeling that she had a sense of compulsion to prove her father wrong through her achievements. Once her father was no longer a factor in her life, she found a worthy opponent for herself in the father of psychoanalysis: ie, Freud.

And don’t get me wrong, I truly believe that Freud’s psychosexual theory fails to provide any allowances for female psychological development. He addresses psychological changes fuelled by biological occurrences – ie, breast feeding, toilet training, puberty – without addressing female biology – ie, pregnancy, menopause, breast feeding – from the other side, and how it can impact women’s psyche, even though most of his patients were women. In that respect, Horney offered a much-needed insight into human development that is anchored within familial connections. Hers was a counter-narrative to the inevitability of the biologically necessitated fixations that were offered by Freud. Ultimately, that care and love are capable of healing what has been damaged, and can pre-emptively prevent damage. Horney created an intimate landscape for development where a relationship between parent and child becomes the initial representation of self and other. Within this matriarchal cosmos that was theoretically thought up by Horney, a child is allowed to make mistakes that are rectified and guided by parental love. It is through this force of love that the child learns that mistakes do not subsume who she is. Horney’s cosmos is founded upon delivering a child from perfectionist or destructive tendencies to a balanced form of self, a real self that holds the core for individual self-realisation and the potential for future success.

Nevertheless, Horney’s personal life was turbulent. She had a series of depressions, an ambivalent relationship to motherhood, and a great many romantic affairs. Her work, her theories were her true passion. And, almost in every work, she mentions Freud. Though it was essential to discuss Freud’s theory, I can’t shake away the notion that her discussion of Freud’s work was an attempt to seek his, or her father’s, validation. This pursuit prevented her from embracing her matriarchal views and living them. Horney was a genius, who I believe trapped herself in a Freudian cosmos instead of living in the one she created herself.


by Caroline Casey

0. Believe nothing, entertain possibilities. Therefore everything hereafter is offered playfully.

1. Imagination lays the tracks for reality to follow.

2. Better to create prophecy than live prediction. What makes us passive is toxic. Predictions make us passive, but prophecy is active co-creation with the Divine.

3. The invisible world would like to help, but spiritual etiquette requires that we ask. Help is always available; operators (and cooperators) are standing by.

4. The only way that the gods know we’re asking for help is through ritual.

5. If something is a problem, make it bigger. If you cook rage into outrage, it takes it from personal tantrum yoga into the realm of useful action.

6. We only possess the power of an insight when we give it expression.

7. Creativity comes from paradox. We aspire to be disciplined wild people who are radical traditionalists.

Caroline Casey is here:

(Contributed by Rob Brezsny)


Humanity’s Fascination with ‘Little Green Men’ Dares Us to Imagine What’s Out There

Why Do We Want to Find Aliens? | Zocalo Public Square • Arizona State University • Smithsonian

Our search for alien life is fueled by wonder, writes astrobiologist Charles Cockell. Courtesy of NASA.


This piece publishes alongside the Zócalo/Experience ASU event “How Should We Prepare for Aliens to Arrive on Earth?” tomorrow, Tuesday, September 27, at 7PM PDT. Register to attend in-person or online here.

The most memorable taxi ride of my life occurred when I stepped into a cab driven by a man named John, back in 2016. We fell into a conversation about our lines of work. He told me how much he enjoyed his job. As a taxi driver, he got to meet the wonderful menagerie of humankind and find out their life stories—and be paid to do it, no less. And I described my day as a working astrobiologist: how I try to use instruments to detect the signs of living things on other planets, either their fossil remains, or the parts of cells that are alive and well today.

At the mention of extraterrestrial life, John glanced at me in the rearview mirror, a glimmer in his eyes. “I wonder,” he mused. “Could there be alien taxi drivers out there?”

At first the notion struck me as bizarre, even slightly ridiculous. But then I realized that it was a sweeping and rather profound question. His inquiry got to the heart of humanity’s undying fascination with “little green men” from the great beyond. Is it inevitable that some chemical soup on a distant world will always make the long and slow trek to becoming an intelligent creature driving a taxi? And why does this fascinate us?

Extraterrestrials have had an enduring pull on humankind for as long as we have been able to envision them. In the 16th century, Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno imagined planets with superior beings, orbiting distant stars. This heresy contributed to him being burned at the stake in 1600 by the Catholic Church. French writer Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle stirred the drawing rooms of 17th century Europe with his Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds, in which, over six moonlit evenings, a French marquise discusses intelligent life on the Moon with a philosopher friend.

Less than 100 years later, American astronomer Percival Lowell convinced himself that he could see canals on the surface of Mars; his now-debunked theory held that extraterrestrial engineers who were frantically working to save their cities from the desiccating encroachments of the Martian desert had constructed the waterways. Around the same time, English writer H.G. Wells published The War of the Worlds, about a Martian invasion on Earth. The heady mix of Lowell’s real (and speculated) observations and Wells’ interplanetary malefactors gripped the Victorian mind.

We have many pressing problems on Earth, from environmental challenges to a war in Ukraine. Why, then, do we get so easily distracted by the notion of elusive faraway creatures?

Today, we have far superior telescopes and spacecraft that can explore other worlds up close. We know much, much more about the composition of our solar system, down to the strange frigid methane seas of Saturn’s moon Titan and the details of the brown and red-mottled surface of Jupiter’s ice-encrusted moon Europa. And we’ve yet to find any Martians, or other type of space creature; if we do find life in our own solar system, we now know that it might be nothing more than microbial slime, with which there is no possibility of ever exchanging a word with—let alone hail a ride.

Still, the fascination with alien life has not abated.

Instead of artificial waterways, scientists now look for microscopic ancient fossil remains on Mars, scooping up rocks with vehicles such as NASA’s Perseverance rover, currently meandering across a primordial muddy delta once settled out from the waters of a vast lake. Astronomers also turn powerful telescopes toward distant planets orbiting other stars. The new James Webb Space Telescope, with its superlative powers of detection, can look for gases in those distant planetary atmospheres, such as carbon dioxide. In the future, advances in technology will allow us to search even further for the more difficult-to-detect oxygen gas, that by-product of the sunlight-capturing activity of plants and algae, a potential tell-tale signature of life in the cosmos.

Our popular culture is full of aliens too—from the adorable and vulnerable E.T. to the exquisite predatory malfeasance of Alien. Even the microscopic crystals of the Andromeda Strain, replicating in their insouciant and threatening way, having crashed to Earth in a satellite, managed to grip our attention.

My conversation with John, my taxi driver, got me thinking about why we unquestioningly consider the notion of alien life inherently interesting. When you really think about it, the extent of our excitement remains something of a mystery. We have many pressing problems on Earth, from environmental challenges to a war in Ukraine. Why, then, do we get so easily distracted by the notion of elusive faraway creatures?

Talking to countless people since, I’ve come to the conclusion that this fascination around extraterrestrials can’t be explained by the minutiae and details of the science. Nor is it some hope for companionship from space. None of us is that enthusiastic about being deposited on a desert island, spending the rest of our time in solitude, but I don’t think we worry about whether we might be stuck on desert island Earth.

So, if it has nothing to do with bamboozling us with science, or assuaging our loneliness, why do we want to find aliens?

The only answer I’ve been able to come up with is the ineffable sense of wonder they offer us. It’s a heady mixture of the familiar—the idea of living things, like us, grappling with their situation in the universe and the problems of existence—with the ethereal, the excitement of something unexpected, different, new, maybe a frisson of trepidation.

This may explain why, though we would all prefer an encounter with talkative aliens like you and me, we could also get excited about finding some humble microbes on a planet like Mars, just doing their thing in the dirt, trying to get by in their unconscious unthinking way. They, too, would offer some sort of contact with an unpredictable living entity.

That sense of wonder about what’s “out there” may offer us temporary reprieve from earthly problems, a type of escapism that prevents us being constantly swamped by bad news. And as we can all appreciate the interest in alien life, there may even be something of a coming together of human minds across cultures and nations when we all turn our eyes and minds to places and creatures beyond Earth.

I don’t know if any of us alive today will ever get to witness the exhilaration of humanity’s first contact with aliens. But perhaps we don’t need to. Perhaps the mere thought of creatures out there waiting to be contacted is enough to draw us out of our everyday concerns and fill us with that sense of innocent awe and anticipation of what the universe might teach us.

CHARLES COCKELLis an astrobiologist at the University of Edinburgh. His book, Taxi From Another Planet: Conversations with Drivers About Life in the Universe, was published by Harvard University Press on August 30th.

Laughter is vital

Laughter is vital | Aeon

For philosopher Henri Bergson, laughter solves a serious human conundrum: how to keep our minds and social lives elastic

A Catholic nun and a young Hispanic immigrant in Central Park, New York, 1976. Photo by Richard Kalvar/Magnum

Emily Herring is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Ghent in Belgium. She is the co-editor of The Past, Present, and Future of Integrated History and Philosophy of Science (2019).

Edited by Nigel Warburton

7 July 2020 (

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In a Monty Python sketch from 1970, a cheesy game show host (John Cleese) asks an ill-tempered, racist, uncooperative old lady contestant (Terry Jones) a ludicrously challenging question. The exchange unfolds as follows:

Cleese: What great opponent of Cartesian dualism resists the reduction of psychological phenomena to physical states?
Jones: I don’t know that!
Cleese: Well, have a guess.
Jones: Henri Bergson.
Cleese: Is the correct answer!
Jones: Ooh, that was lucky. I never even heard of him!

The Pythons were well-versed in the history of philosophy (and in the drinking habits of Western philosophers). It therefore didn’t escape them that this particular French philosopher was also the author of a popular essay that focused on a phenomenon all comedians take very seriously: laughter.

Before Bergson, few philosophers had given laughter much thought. The pre-Socratic thinker Democritus was nicknamed the ‘laughing philosopher’ for espousing cheerfulness as a way of life. However, we know more about his thoughts on atomism than on laughter. Similarly, the section of Aristotle’s Poetics that dealt with comedy hasn’t come down to us. Other major thinkers who have offered passing, often humourless, reflections about humour include Thomas Hobbes and René Descartes, who believed that we laugh because we feel superior; Immanuel Kant and Arthur Schopenhauer who argued that comedy stems from a sense of incongruity; and Herbert Spencer and Sigmund Freud who suggested that comedians provide a form of much-needed relief (from, respectively, ‘nervous energy’ and repressed emotions). Bergson was unconvinced by these accounts. He believed that the problem of laughter deserved more than a few well-worded digressions. Although his theory retained elements of the incongruity and superiority theories of humour, it also opened entirely new perspectives on the problem.

The Monty Pythons could safely assume that Bergson’s name would come across as particularly obscure to an anglophone audience – the sketch plays on the incongruity of the old lady plucking this unfamiliar name from the air. However, when Bergson’s Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic (1900) was published, his philosophy was discussed in most intellectual circles and, a few years later, he would become one of the most famous thinkers in the world. Why did a philosopher of such renown deviate from his more traditional and serious philosophical obsessions – the nature of time, memory, perception, free will and the mind-body problem – to focus on the apparently frivolous case-studies of slapstick, vaudeville and word play? And what was there to be gained from such analysis? The topic was a ticklish one. Laughter, wrote Bergson, had ‘a knack of baffling every effort, of slipping away and escaping only to bob up again, a pert challenge flung at philosophic speculation’. It was almost as though there was something unnatural about subjecting one of the most pleasurable and ubiquitous human experiences to dry philosophical speculation. Anyone who has ever had to explain their own joke knows that comedy cannot survive that sort of analysis. As the American authors E B White and Katharine S White put it in 1941:

Humour can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the purely scientific mind.

While his book on laughter is hardly a rib-tickling read, Bergson didn’t wish to adopt the attitude of an anatomist observing a frog’s dead insides. He believed that laughter should be studied as ‘a living thing’ and treated ‘with the respect due to life’. His investigation was therefore more like that of a field zoologist observing frogs in the wild:

we shall not aim at imprisoning the comic spirit within a definition … We shall confine ourselves to watching it grow and expand.

Like all good metaphorical field zoologists, Bergson started his study by familiarising himself with his metaphorical frog’s natural habitat: in other words, the conditions under which laughter is most likely to appear and thrive. Following this method, Bergson arrived at three general observations.

The first one, according to Bergson, was so ‘important’ and ‘simple’ that he was surprised it hadn’t attracted more attention from philosophers: ‘The comic does not exist outside the pale of what is strictly human.’ When Bergson wrote these words, he couldn’t have foreseen that, a century later, through the power of the internet, one of the most popular forms of comedy would be provided by our own pets in the form of viral videos, memes and gifs. But, in a way, he anticipated it in what he wrote about laughter directed at non-humans:

You may laugh at an animal, but only because you have detected in it some human attitude or expression.

Consider for instance the viral sensation of Grumpy Cat (now sadly deceased). Her perpetual scowl makes us laugh because it is relatably human. The essence of her comedy lies in the fact that she is a humanlike cat. The same goes for inanimate objects that make us laugh. The American vaudeville performer Will Rogers once quipped: ‘An onion can make people cry but there’s never been a vegetable that can make people laugh.’ Enter the internet with its millions of more-or-less safe for work anthropomorphic vegetable content to prove him wrong. According to Bergson, it is possible to laugh at vegetables and nonsentient things, but only on the condition that we are able to detect the human in them:

You may laugh at a hat, but what you are making fun of, in this case, is not the piece of felt or straw, but the shape that men have given it, – the human caprice whose mould it has assumed.

Bergson’s second observation might appear counterintuitive to anyone who has been reduced to tears by a fit of uncontrollable giggles: ‘Laughter has no greater foe than emotion.’ But his point was that certain emotional states – pity, melancholy, rage, fear, etc – make it difficult for us to find the humour in things we might otherwise have laughed at (even anthropomorphic vegetables). We instinctively know that there are situations in which it is best to refrain from laughing. Those who choose to ignore these unspoken rules are immediately sanctioned, as the American comedian Gilbert Gottfried learned the hard way. While most major US late-night comedy shows halted production in the weeks following the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, Gottfried provided a textbook case of a joke being ‘too soon’ during a comedy roast that took place before the month had ended:

I have to leave early tonight, I have a flight to California. I can’t get a direct flight – they said I have to stop at the Empire State Building first.

The comedian later recalled: ‘I don’t think anyone’s lost an audience bigger than I did at that point.’ Bergson would say that the emotional stakes were too high to allow for the ‘momentary anaesthesia of the heart’ that laughter demands. For laughter to occur, we must shift our perspective such that we find ourselves in the position of a ‘disinterested spectator’.

‘Why are obtuse angles so depressed? Because they’re never right’

This is not to say that it’s impossible to laugh in times of hardship. In many cases, humour appears to serve as a coping mechanism in the face of tragedy or misfortune. In 1999, as he was being carried out of his house on a stretcher after a crazed fan stabbed him, the former Beatle George Harrison asked a newly hired employee: ‘So what do you think of the job so far?’ On his death bed, Voltaire allegedly told a priest who was exhorting him to renounce Satan: ‘This is no time for making new enemies.’ Following Bergson’s logic, perhaps in some cases humour is cathartic precisely because it forces us to look at things from a detached perspective.

Finally, laughter ‘appears to stand in need of an echo’, according to Bergson. Evolutionary theorists have hypothesised about the adaptive value of laughter, in particular in the context of social bonding. Laughter might have emerged as a prelinguistic signal of safety or belonging within a group. Laughter and humour continue to play an important role in our various social groups. Most countries, regions and cities share a wide repertoire of jokes at the expense of their neighbours. For example, this Belgian dig at my compatriots, the French: ‘After God created France, he thought it was the most beautiful country in the world. People were going to get jealous, so to make things fair he decided to create the French.’

Jokes need not be nationalistic or even derogatory in nature to facilitate social bonding. Most friends share ‘in-jokes’ that are meant to be understood only within the context of their particular social group, as do certain communities brought together by a football team, political opinions or shared specialist knowledge (‘Why are obtuse angles so depressed? Because they’re never right’). Our laughter ‘is always the laughter of a group’, as Bergson put it. Even in those cases when we are effectively laughing alone, to, or perhaps at ourselves, laughter always presupposes an imagined audience or community.

Bergson’s observations tell us where to find laughter, under which conditions it is possible for laughter to emerge, but they don’t tell us why we laugh. They do nonetheless provide us with important clues. It is no accident that we laugh exclusively at other humans, and that laughter is a communal experience: its purpose, or ‘function’, wrote Bergson, is social. In addition, it isn’t by chance that laughter requires a temporary shutdown of our emotions: though pleasurable, laughter is above all punitive. But what, or whom, is laughter punishing, and how does it do that? To understand Bergson’s reasoning, we need to make a rapid detour to examine his philosophy of life.

Less than a decade after Laughter was published, Bergson had moved on to one of the pressing issues of the day: biological evolution. In his surprise bestseller Creative Evolution (1907), Bergson describes life as an ever-changing, creative (ie, producing entirely new and unpredictable forms) and spontaneous movement. In this sense, life exhibits the opposite of the mechanical tendencies of inert matter characterised by rigidity, predictability and repetitiveness. At the same time, life and matter are inexorably intertwined. Using metaphorical language, Bergson describes life as an ‘effort’, a ‘vital impetus’ constantly striving to break free from its own material constraints through ever more sophisticated evolutionary innovations. However, said Bergson, ‘most often this effort turns short’. Throughout the history of life, organisms that have failed to adapt to environmental challenges have gone extinct. Both at the individual and at the species level, survival has depended on organisms’ ability to demonstrate ‘a certain elasticity’, enough adaptability to find ways around material obstacles.

These questions were already on Bergson’s mind when he was writing Laughter. He envisioned the comical, and the laughter it provokes, as a sophisticated solution to a particularly human problem. As a product of biological evolution, human societies were also concerned with the struggle between vital and material (or mechanistic) tendencies. Social life, wrote Bergson, requires a ‘delicate adjustment of wills’ and constant ‘reciprocal adaptation’ between the members of the group. Society therefore needs its members to display ‘the greatest possible degree of elasticity and sociability’, and needs to guard itself against ‘a certain rigidity of body, mind and character’. These ossified expressions of human life are, according to Bergson, at the source of the comical, because this is precisely what laughter seeks to correct. Rather than a definition of the comical, Bergson arrived at a ‘leitmotiv’, a common thread uniting various forms of comedy: in general, we laugh at ‘something mechanical encrusted on the living’. A few examples will help illuminate this point.

A man is walking down the street, he slips and falls. Hilarity ensues. Why are benign blunders of this nature almost always funny? According to Bergson, it is the involuntary nature of the action that makes us laugh. Stumbles, gaffes, slipups, bloopers and general clumsiness indicate both a lack of versatility and of awareness: ‘where one would expect to find the wideawake adaptability and the living pliableness of a human being’, we find instead ‘a certain mechanical inelasticity’.

Consider a scene from the classic film Modern Times (1936) in which Charlie Chaplin plays a factory worker subjected to the relentless cadence of an assembly line. Even outside the factory, he continues to erratically tighten imaginary bolts, stuck in the repetitive movement he has been executing all day. In Bergsonian terms, this is funny because we are seeing someone act out deeply engrained habits even though the circumstances demand otherwise. Both in the case of accidental blunders and in carefully choreographed slapstick comedy, we are laughing at figures who lack ‘elasticity’, who are mechanically following a predetermined trajectory and therefore fail to adapt to their surroundings.

This explains why so many action films rely on the trope of the ‘oblivious bystander’ for comic relief: a character (usually wearing headphones) is completely unaware of the incredible event happening just outside their eyeshot: recent examples include a waitress oblivious to a wizarding duel taking place in her café in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (2010) and an office worker who fails to notice a man attempting to scale a building outside her window in Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018). Another recurring figure is the absentminded professor: a character so engrossed in his own thoughts that he forgets to pay attention to his surroundings – for instance, the astronomer in Aesop’s fable who fell into a well while gazing at the night sky, or the eccentric Doc Emmett Brown in the Back to the Future franchise (1985-90). From Aesop to Chaplin (and beyond), characters who lack awareness, both of their surroundings and of themselves, are staples of comedy because they capture what laughter seeks to correct: deficiencies of the ‘elasticity of mind and body’ that ‘enable us to adapt’ to our immediate situation.

Critics gushed that she had reinvented comedy yet one of the funniest scenes of Fleabag is a fart joke

In an iconic scene from the Marx Brothers’ comedy Duck Soup (1933), we see two characters (played by Harpo and Groucho Marx) dressed identically, positioned either side of a missing mirror. To trick Groucho into thinking that he is looking at his own reflection, Harpo copies his every move. According to Bergson, laughter targets cases in which life appears to have lost its vitality and adopts instead the logic of matter and machines. For instance, according to Bergson, in nature, life never truly repeats itself. There will never be two truly identical living beings (even twins don’t share the exact same experiences). Therefore, ‘wherever there is repetition or complete similarity, we always suspect some mechanism’, he writes, and when this repetition takes, in one way or another, a human form, we are (potentially) in the presence of the comical. Both fortuitous resemblance (for instance, the uncanny likeness between the actor Adam Driver and yet another internet cat) and skilful impersonation are funny because they remind us of mechanically produced copies. It is, writes Bergson, ‘this deflection of life towards the mechanical’ that ‘is here the real cause of laughter’.

Photo courtesy Monmouth County SPCA/Afp/Getty

When the English actor, writer and producer Phoebe Waller-Bridge blessed our television screens with a second season of Fleabag in 2019, critics gushed that she had reinvented comedy (notably by introducing a new kind of ‘meta’ fourth-wall breaking). Yet it remains that one of the funniest scenes of the season is a fart joke. According to Bergson, it is not surprising that a lot of comedic devices focus on the body (and bodily functions). The comedic value of body-centred humour (such as toilet humour and sexual innuendo) lies in the fact, said Bergson, that ‘our attention is suddenly recalled from the soul to the body’. The irruption of a bodily function (Bergson imagines a ‘public speaker who sneezes just at the most pathetic moment of his speech’) or a risqué double entendre, focuses our attention on our own material limitations. The body appears as ‘a heavy and cumbersome vesture … which holds down to earth a soul eager to rise aloft’.

Interestingly, Bergson considers that the same kind of logic applies to wordplay. Much word-based humour consists in taking literally words and phrases we would normally use figuratively (‘I have the heart of a lion, and a lifetime ban from the Toronto zoo’). By subverting the meaning and common usage of words, these jokes reveal what is ‘ready-made’, habitual, and therefore mechanical, about language. In other words, puns and witticisms expose the material limits and the mechanical rigidity of language. Both in the case of the human body and the ‘body’ of language, the rigidity that’s suggested is at odds with the flexibility, malleability and adaptability that life, and especially social life, require of us.

In a rare moment of perspicacity, the male supermodel Derek Zoolander (portrayed by Ben Stiller in the eponymous 2001 comedy) reflects: ‘Did you ever think that maybe there’s more to life than being really, really, really ridiculously good looking?’ For Bergson, vanity is one of the most laughable traits. In the same way that a lack of awareness of one’s material surroundings can result in (often comical) physical injuries, an unhealthy obsession with oneself denotes a lack of awareness of others, which can in turn damage society. This damage is subtle and therefore, he writes, requires a subtle antidote:

vanity, though it is a natural product of social life, is an inconvenience to society, just as certain slight poisons, continually secreted by the human organism, would destroy it in the long run if they were not neutralised by other secretions. Laughter is unceasingly doing work of this kind.

In other words, according to Bergson, laughter serves a social function: its purpose is to gently but firmly correct these socially ‘inconvenient’ attitudes. We laugh at people who are either too eccentric or too inflexible to allow for society to evolve and better itself. It is in this sense that laughter is punitive:

society holds suspended over each individual member, if not the threat of correction, at all events the prospect of a snubbing, which although it is slight, is none the less dreaded. Such must be the function of laughter.

But for Bergson, laughter doesn’t exclusively punish attitudes that we deem reprehensible. Homer Simpson’s morally irreproachable neighbour Ned Flanders is proof that even virtue can be ridiculous when portrayed as a form of mental rigidity. Laughter awakens us to the inelasticity of certain personality traits or behaviours and, in doing so, dissuades us from becoming too settled in our own ways.

Bergson’s critics have complained that his theory of humour is too restrictive, that his repetitive characterisation of the comedic as ‘something mechanical encrusted upon the living’ becomes laughable in its own terms, trying to fit a complex and spontaneous living phenomenon under the same rigid formula. But Bergson claimed that, rather than a clear-cut definition, this formula was a ‘leitmotiv’: representations of mechanised life constitute a common thread in many different forms of comedy. His theory didn’t preclude that we might laugh at things that are not obviously mechanical, nor that the mechanical might not be the only source of laughter. What mattered to Bergson was to understand laughter as a product and a part of life.

By giving comedy the attention it deserved, Bergson opened new perspectives on difficult philosophical questions about the relationship between biology and art, the evolution of human societies, and our own humanity. The philosopher recognised that laughter doesn’t always bring out the best in us – it can be used to mock and degrade others. But at its core, its function is to remind us that to be human is to be alive and free. Bergson’s book on laughter therefore raised the status of a problem that has often been deemed unworthy of serious philosophical study. In Monty Python’s Flying Circus (2008), the film scholar Darl Larsen writes that Bergson’s theory ‘seems to have been an influential work on the Pythons’ because, by proposing a theory of laughter, ‘the respected Bergson elevated the study of comedy to a more academic level, worthy of study in works looking at aesthetics and philosophies of art forms’. In another sketch, Cleese (playing a reporter) is caught on air mid-conversation explaining that he adheres ‘to the Bergsonian idea of laughter as a social sanction against inflexible behaviour’. This was perhaps the Pythons’ way of paying homage to Bergson: despite all its silliness, they too believed that comedy should be taken dead seriously.

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Howard Thurman on what the world needs

“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

– Howard Thurman

Howard Washington Thurman (November 18, 1899 – April 10, 1981) was an American author, philosopher, theologian, mystic, educator, and civil rights leader. As a prominent religious figure, he played a leading role in many social justice movements and organizations of the twentieth century. Wikipedia

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