“Why so serious?” in a world of “worlds”

This photo of my mom and me has been the inspiration for an inside joke/refrain in my relationship: “Why so serious?”

In the past couple of weeks I’ve had several conversations with others about jokes, what’s makes something funny, why people think some things are funny (even if they’re not). There’s nothing particularly special about the prevalence of these conversations for me lately given that comedy, jokes, and humor are some of my favorite things to talk about! However, one of the most vulnerable versions of such a conversation involves discussing whether or why some people get my jokes and think I’m funny (or not). Or, from another angle, why so many people throughout my life have deemed me serious and intense. 

Honestly, I’m quite eager to share some of those reflections, but I’m not inclined to share much about myself just yet…again. (I noticed how impersonal my first post was as was I writing it, how I didn’t share much about myself, how I wrote in rhetorical questions (something I tell my students not to do because it’s weak writing)… and I thought, “For it being a post about getting to know people on intimate levels, this doesn’t feel very intimate.” Perhaps you did, too?)

While on some deep level I may still be deflecting or hiding or feeling insecure about sharing my own personal reflections in the way I initially thought would be sooooo eassssssyyyy given the purpose of this project and literally setting it up within the context of feminist friendship, you’ll just have to take my word for it that I’m working through that stuff and intend to do more of that type of writing…eventually. Who would have thought that setting out to do something personal and vulnerable and honest and revealing may create some unexpected hesitations?!?

In the meantime, I’m also acknowledging that this is also intended to be a space for learning and reflection, particularly in ways that share that which informs my understanding of feminist friendship, and I hope to do that by leveraging multiple voices (several of my own and those of others). So, instead of writing about why some people don’t get my jokes and think I’m not funny, right now I want to share pieces of another’s writing to introduce some ideas that I list among “other concepts to know.”

I’m talking about “worlds” and “world”-traveling, which do, in fact, have a connection to the humor question. 

One of my all time favorite essays is “Playfulness, “World”-Travelling, and Loving Perception” by María Lugones. It’s in my top five, and it’s the sort of piece that keeps giving. Every time I read it, it feels insightful in new ways. It’s the sort of piece that encourages you to grow. When you come back to it, yourself a little more grown and new, it seems that it, too, has somehow morphed and changed in subtle ways. It continues to grow with you.

That’s why I keep reading it. That’s why I love teaching with it. 

Lately, in addition to talking about jokes and comedy and humor, I’ve been really attaching to the idea of “worlds” as I reflect on aspects of my own “world” and what it would take to invite readers and friends more into my own “world.”

Lugones means something very specific when she talks about “worlds” – she’s referring to the sort of experiential space that people inhabit with varying degrees of comfort, ease, community, or lack thereof.

Within “worlds” there are norms, practices, language, culture. Importantly, “worlds” are constructed, perhaps by a dominant culture, or by a sub-culture, in a society. “Worlds” can exist side by side or on top of each other, created by or within the same society, but characterized and experienced as entirely different “worlds.”

In other words, our “worlds” can interact and bump up against each other – maybe we travel into each other’s worlds (some people have to, which can make them often feel like “outsiders”), or we fail to travel into each other’s worlds (this, by the way, is a major problem. Those with privilege -who do not have to travel into other “worlds” – can sometimes end up intentionally or unintentionally assuming that their “world” is actually the way of the real world, that it’s how everyone experiences life, and perhaps even that one’s “world” reflects the preferred or only way to live in the world. That is, for instance, how white supremacy works.)

And just as “worlds” are constructed – they also construct us. Sometimes, different “worlds” construct us differently, or we are constructed differently within different “worlds.”

Lugones uses the example of being a playful person to illustrate that in some spaces, in her “world” with her friends, her community, her language and customs, she and others who know her consider her to be playful. However, in other “worlds,” such as places and spaces where she must interact with others who do not see her in her completeness, but rather through their own projections about her and people like her, Lugones is perceived to be quite serious and not playful. 

Personally, experiencing this tension between being seen differently by people in different “worlds” and how that maps on (or not) to how one understands oneself can be very confusing.  

“Some time ago I came to be in a state of profound confusion as I experienced myself as both having and not having a particular attribute. I was sure I had the attribute in question and, on the other hand, I was sure that I did not have it. I remain convinced that I both have and do not have this attribute. The attribute is playfulness. I am sure that I am a playful person. On the other hand, I can say, painfully, that I am not a playful person. I am not a playful person in certain worlds. One of the things I did as I became confused was to call my friends, far away people who knew me well, to see whether or not I was playful. Maybe they could help me out of my confusion. They said to me, “Of course you are playful” and they said it with the same conviction that I had about it. Of course I am playful. Those people who were around me said to me, “No, you are not playful. You are a serious woman. You just take everything seriously.” They were just as sure about what they said to me and could offer me every bit of evidence that one could need to conclude that they were right. So I said to myself: “Okay, maybe what’s happening here is that there is an attribute that I do have but there are certain worlds in which I am not at ease and it is because I’m not at ease in those worlds that I don’t have that attribute in those worlds. But what does that mean?” I was worried both about what I meant by “worlds” when I said “in some worlds I do not have the attribute” and what I meant by saying that lack of ease was what led me not to be playful in those worlds. Because you see, if it was just a matter of lack of ease, I could work on it.” 

Lugones, 9. 

Just as society can construct different worlds, different worlds can construct us. And we may play into the ways that we are constructed in different worlds.

“In a “world” some of the inhabitants may not understand or hold the particular construction of them that constructs them in that “world.” So, there may be “worlds” that construct me in ways that I do not even understand. Or it may be that I understand the construction, but do not hold it of myself. I may not accept it as an account of myself, a construction of myself. And yet, I may be animating such a construction.”

Lugones, 10. 

There’s a lot one could analyze and unpack here – what Lugones is talking about could be akin to the effects of stereotypes, or internalized narratives about how certain groups are expected to act based on things like their race, gender, culture (or that and more all together!). This is one thing that makes this concept of “worlds” so illuminating and interesting to me. 

“One can “travel” between these “worlds” and one can inhabit more than one of these “worlds” at the very same time. I think that most of us who are outside the mainstream of, for example, the U.S. dominant construction or organization of life are “world travellers” as a matter of necessity and of survival. It seems to me that inhabiting more than one “world” at the same time and “travelling” between “worlds” is part and parcel of our experience and our situation. One can be at the same time in a “world” that constructs one as stereotypically latin, for example, and in a “world” that constructs one as latin. Being stereotypically latin and being simply latin are different simultaneous constructions of persons that are part of different “worlds.” One animates one or the other or both at the same time without necessarily confusing them, though simultaneous enactment can be confusing if one is not on one’s guard.”

Lugones, 11. 

“Those of us who are “world”-travellers have the distinct experience of being different in different “worlds” and of having the capacity to remember other “worlds” and ourselves in them. We can say “That is me there, and I am happy in that “world.” So, the experience is of being a different person in different “worlds” and yet of having memory of oneself as different without quite having the sense of there being any underlying “I.” So I can say “that is me there and I am so playful in that “world.” I say “That is me in that “world” not because I recognize myself in that person, rather the first person statement is non-inferential. I may well recognize that that person has abilities that I do not have and yet the having or not having of the abilities is always an “I have …” and “I do not have . .. “, i.e. it is always experienced in the first person.”

Lugones, 11. 

While I’m taking some short cuts here, some may say that this is not the most accurate interpretation of what Lugones is describing because it could be taken to assume that there is an “underlying ‘I'” that can be revealed or seen in some places and times more so than in others. This is complicated precisely because Lugones acknowledges that we are actually, literally, constructed differently in different “worlds” so to the point that there is no singular “I” undergirding all of our experiences, but rather, we have multiple selves. And that becomes evident when we “travel” between “worlds.” 

“The shift from being one person to being a different person is what I call “travel.” This shift may not be willful or even conscious, and one may be completely unaware of being different than one is in a different “world,” and may not recognize that one is in a different “world.” Even though the shift can be done willfully, it is not a matter of acting. One does not pose as someone else, one does not pretend to be, for example, someone of a different personality or character or someone who uses space or language differently than the other person. Rather one is someone who has that personality or character or uses space and language in that particular way. The “one” here does not refer to some underlying “I.” One does not experience any underlying “I.”

Lugones, 11. 

Lugones takes some time to explore what it means to “be at ease” in a world. It often entails a type of cultural fluency – being able to move confidently with respect to the norms and language of a particular “world.”

One can also feel “at ease” in a world if they are happy with and accept those norms. In such cases, going along to get along is not a coping mechanism, but rather just the way one lives. This is made all the better when one has a community of friends or family who share bonds of love. When one feels loved by and loves others, they can feel more at ease, at times, even in a hostile “world.”

Finally, one can feel at ease in a “world” when there is a sense of shared history with others – this can show up as having shared cultural capital, things to talk about or use to relate to one another, regardless of if you are humanly bonded through love.

(Lugones uses an example of being with groups who talked about poodle skirts as a shared experience. They didn’t even need to know each other in order to relate to one another through their shared cultural understanding of poodle skirts, whereas Lugones says, “I have been in situations without knowing what poodle skirts…were and I felt so ill at ease because it was not my history.”) Short digression: Perhaps you’re like me and don’t immediately think “ah, yes, poodle skirts!” when trying to come up with examples of “shared history,” but the point is legit. In my “world,” attending college or even graduate school names a shared experience that many people can often use to “connect,” which could very much leave many people feeling ill at ease if that is not part of their experience, if they feel like “outsiders” to my “world” of higher education. Put another way, this notion of “shared history” captures a lot of what’s wrong with standardized tests, because being able to write a short and persuasive essay or answer a word problem in math about poodle skirts is a stupid way to assess skills and aptitudes if people don’t share the same meaning behind “poodle skirt.” 

Now, back to Lugones…

Understanding what it takes to “be at ease” in a “world” is helpful – it might reveal something about us, but it can also reveal something about the “worlds” themselves in light of how they construct us, particularly for those of us who exists “outside” of dominant culture. 

“It may be that in this “world” in which I am so unplayful, I am a different person than in the “world” in which I am playful. Or it may be that the “world” in which I am unplayful is constructed in such a way that I could not be playful in it. I could practice, even though that “world” is constructed in such away that my being playful in it is kind of hard. In describing what I take a “world” to be, I emphasized the first possibility as both the one that is truest to the experience of “outsiders” to the mainstream and as ontologically problematic because the “I” is identified in some sense as one and in some sense as a plurality. I identify myself as myself through memory and I retain myself as different in memory. When I travel from one “world” to another, I have this image, this memory of myself as playful in this other “world.” I can then be in a particular “world” and have a double image of myself as, for example, playful and as not playful. But this is a very familiar and recognizable phenomenon to the outsider to the mainstream in some central cases: when in one “world” I animate, for example, that “world’s” caricature of the person I am in the other “world.” I can have both images of myself and to the extent that I can materialize or animate both images at the same time I become an ambiguous being.”

Lugones, 13.

Lugones does something really wonderful when she puts the pieces together. Although one may feel a lack of ease in certain worlds, it is not because of the lack of ease that one may “show up” as less playful, or, the inverse, be seen as “very serious.” Instead, the tension reveals an issue with the “world” that constructs us in such ways. 

“So I am suggesting that the lack of ease solution cannot be a solution to my problematic case. My problem is not one of lack of ease. I am suggesting that I can understand my confusion about whether I am or am not playful by saying that I am both and that I am different persons in different “worlds” and can remember myself in both as I am in the other. I am a plurality of selves. This is to understand my confusion because it is to come to see it as a piece with much of the rest of my experience as an outsider in some of the “worlds” that I inhabit and of a piece with significant aspects of the experience of non-dominant people in the “worlds” of their dominators. So, though I may not be at ease in the “worlds” in which I am not constructed playful, it is not that I am not playful because I am not at ease. The two are compatible. But lack of playfulness is not caused by lack of ease. Lack of playfulness is not symptomatic of lack of ease but of lack of health. I am not a healthy being in the “worlds” that construct me unplayful.”

Lugones, 14. 

I started by mentioning how I do want to write about my own relationship to jokes, humor, and why people may or may not think I’m funny. I also mentioned that writing about that feels kind of vulnerable, partly  because that would mean opening myself up to be seen or misinterpreted or judged as (*gasp*) not funny.

Obviously, there are connections between being understood as funny and what Lugones describes with respect being constructed as “playful” or “serious,” which I think is why I wanted to introduce these ideas beforehand.

While the rational part of me can understand that it doesn’t really matter if people think I’m not funny, there is more at stake than an ego trip or some latent aspirations to tell jokes and hope that people laugh. What sucks about people thinking you’re not funny is that then people don’t laugh with you. It means that humor, and the inherent playfulness of comedy and laughter, is cut off as a viable way to connect. (There is something here about festivity, playfulness, and creative bonds for resistance that really matters to me here, but that, too, is another post.) 

It also matters to me if people don’t see me as me, if people ascribe qualities to me that do not fit how I experience myself when I am at my best. And if there are limited spaces and places and “worlds” and people with whom I feel like I can be me in a funny way, where I can be constructed in healthy ways, then that says something to me about the necessity of creating and living in those spaces as much as possible. 

So, in the meantime, I wonder:

What do your “worlds” look like?

How do you “show up” (or how are you constructed) differently in different “worlds”?

Who are you when in a “world” where you are at ease?

With whom do you feel like you can play? 


For a retrospective look at my previous (and apparently persistent) angst around philosophy, humor, and how to be playful, check out this post, “Philosophers Can Be Fun(ny), Too!*” It’s not very funny, and a lot has changed since I wrote it (particularly with respect to friends and partners), but part of this journey is to process the process, which means embracing the past for what it was and seeing the value in how we continue to learn and grow. 

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