Laughter as a ‘Serious’ Matter: An analysis of laughter’s social captivity and its emancipatory potential by Emma Wilson

“To understand laughter, we must put it back into its natural environment, which is society, and above all we must determine the utility of its function, which is a social one… Laughter must answer to certain requirements of social life in common. It must have asocial signification.”
Henri Bergson Le Rire

“Laughter purifies from dogmatism, from the intolerant and the petrified; it liberates from fanaticism and pedantry, from fear and intimidation, from didacticism, naivete and illusion, from the single meaning, the single level, from sentimentality…Such is the function of laughter in the historical development of culture and literature.”
Mikhail Bakhtin Rabelais and his World

“Una risata vi seppellirà”
(It will be a laugh that buries you)
Italian situationist street slogan

Humour has long been associated with “serious matters”—take for instance, the long and rich history of political satire. Laughter, on the other hand, the embodied act of laughing, has not traditionally shared the same critical reputation. Laughter is commonly considered ancillary to humour, or the comic, a mere effect whose cause is the proper object of our study. An involuntary reaction, spontaneous and embodied, laughter has never seemed to require much analysis. As Henri Bergson observes, “the comic has been looked upon as a mere curiosity in which the mind finds amusement, and laughter itself as a strange, isolated phenomenon, without any bearing on the rest of human activity.” (Bergson 1911, p. 5a) Yet, laughter has occupied a place in much of the history of philosophy and has been discussed—although commonly in passing—by many of its major figures (Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Descartes, Kant, Nietzsche, Bergson, to name a few). The diverse and fragmented nature of philosophical comment on laughter reveals the complexity of the phenomenon—and a closer look at it prompts one to consider taking laughter a little more “seriously.”

Laughter was taken up as a subject fit for philosophical consideration in many Ancient Greek texts, including those of Plato, Aristotle, and the rhetoricians. This “Classical Theory of laughter”, as Quentin Skinner refers to it, suggests that laughter has both a moral and a social function. Not only does the act of laughing at someone help to reprove their vice, it acts on a wider scale as a social corrective—upholding the values and customs of society through deriding (with laughter) those individuals/actions that fail to conform. Aristotle—possibly drawing upon Plato’s declaration in the Republic that laughter is always a reprimand directed at vice and folly—observes that the laughable (“risible”) is that which is shameful, ugly or base (Plato 1930, p. 436; paraphrased in Skinner 2004, p. 3). Restating and elaborating Aristotle’s argument, Cicero points out:

The proper field and as it were the province of laughter is restricted to matters that are in some way either disgraceful or deformed. For the principle if not the sole cause of mirth are those kinds of remarks which note and single out, in a fashion not in itself unseemly, something which is in some way unseemly or disgraceful. (ibid., p. 4)

Laughter was thus taken seriously by the Ancient Greeks. For Plato, Aristotle, and many of their successors, laughter was not simply an involuntary bodily phenomenon—rather, it was an action indelibly entwined with the moral and social lives of individuals.

Philosophers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries went on to broaden the classical definition of laughable to include not only those things one found morally repugnant, ugly, and indecorous—but also those that occurred unexpectedly, or appeared incongruous. René Descartes, in Les passions de L’âme, insisted that laughter was a kind of moderate joy “mixed with an element of hatred or wonderment.” (ibid., p. 14) Wonder, according to Les passions de L’âme, is what occurs when we find something “very different from what we formerly knew or from what we supposed it ought to be.” (Descartes 1985, p. 350) Thus, when we experience a kind of moderate joy mixed with hatred, or a sense of the unexpected or incongruent, then “the result is that we burst into laughter.” (quoted in Skinner 2004, p. 14) In the same decade, Thomas Hobbes declared, in Human Nature, “Whatsoever it be that moveth to laughter, it must be new and unexpected.” (Hobbes 1812, p. 65) Hobbes also retained a very classical view of laughter, characterising it as an act performed in order to denigrate “the infirmityes of others,” in comparison with oneself (ibid., p. 65). According to Hobbes, laughter was inspired in someone by “the apprehension of some deformed thing by another, by comparison whereof they suddenly applaud themselves.” (Skinner 2004, p. 16)

Whilst the observations of the Ancient Greeks and their heirs are fascinating, they remain largely pre-occupied with the cause or object of laughter, neglecting to consider more closely laughing itself. Focussing upon the act of laughing draws attention to the extent of its social and political significance. In other words, if we shift our inquiry from the object of laughter to its objective—from laughter as a reaction, to laughter as an action—what becomes apparent is that laughing functions as a social corrective. What the observations of the Ancient Greeks and their Modern successors make apparent is that laughter manifests itself within society as a kind of maintenance tool—singling out and condemning anything heterogeneous to the values, customs, and expectations of that particular society. Henri Bergson made the following observation in Le Rire: “Laughter is, above all, a corrective. Being intended to humiliate, it must make a painful impression on the person against whom it is directed. By laughter, society avenges itself for the liberties taken with it.” (Bergson 1911, pp. 59b-60b) According to Bergson, laughter’s “natural environment” is society, and it cannot be understood, nor function, without social signification (ibid., pp. 5a-5b). Thus laughter is undeniably a collective, and a political, phenomenon.

Friedrich Nietzsche depicts this phenomenon at work in Thus Spoke Zarathustra when, after a decade of solitude in the mountains, Nietzsche’s messiah descends from the heights in order to share his discoveries with the townspeople. To his dismay, his insights are met with derisive and mocking laughter—“there is ice in their laughter,” he observes (Nietzsche 1995, p. 19). Zarathustra, theÜbermensch—the personification of the socially incongruous, the unpredictable, the “unseemly”—is banished from the marketplace by what he himself might call “the laughter of the herd.” Zarathustra’s experience illustrates the governing role laughter plays within society. As Bergson suggests:

Society will be suspicious of all inelasticity of character, of mind, and even of body, because it is the possible sign of a slumbering activity as well as of an activity with separatist tendencies that inclines to swerve from the common centre round which society gravitates: in short, because it is the sign of an eccentricity. (Bergson 1911, p. 8b)

The uncertainty and/or revelations Zarathustra may have inspired in the minds of the townspeople were thus foreclosed by the bleating laughter of the herd. This form of laughter, deployed as a kind of weapon within society, aims to “convert rigidity into plasticity, to readapt the individual to the whole, in short, to round off the corners wherever they are met with.” (ibid., p. 54a) Due to his rigidity, Zarathustra’s insights were diagnosed by his onlookers as “eccentric” and therefore inappropriate; collective laughter was the shield and the corrective.

Bergson points out, interestingly, in Le Rire that laughter does not take the form of “material repression.” This is because “rigidity” or “eccentricity” is not strictly a material disruption. Instead, laughter operates as a kind of “social gesture” inspired by uneasiness and aimed at restraint (ibid., p. 8b). This observation likens laughter to what Michel Foucault might call a practice or technique of power. As Foucault insists, “power is not an institution, and not a structure; neither is it a certain strength we are endowed with; it is the name that one attributes to a complex strategical relationship in a particular society.” (Foucault 1980, p. 93) In other words, laughter is not alaw or a force intentionally exerted upon an individual or group by some external repressive mechanism. It is a “complex, strategical relationship” manifested within social practices (or “gestures”) and invested with a particular signification (i.e., “indecent,” incongruent, unexpected = comical). Thus, the one who laughs is largely unconscious of the social function she carries out. As Foucault puts it, “People know what they do; they frequently know why they do what they do; but what they don’t know is what what they do does.” (Foucault quoted in Dreyfus and Rabinow 1983, p. 187) Classical theorists of laughter, and their Modern heirs, most certainly pre-occupied themselves with acknowledging, “what they do”—Aristotle famously observed in De partibus animalium “human beings are the only creatures that laugh”—and pursuing “why they do what they do” (paraphrased in Skinner 2004, p. 2). Whilst the issue of what laughing did—what kind of bearing or impact this action had “on the rest of human activity”—remained largely neglected. As such, the dynamic social function laughter performed, and the power it possessed in order to perform this function, were overlooked.

One theorist who did not overlook the power laughter wields was Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche was not idealistic about laughter—he was well aware of the ignorant and dismissive forms it could take (i.e., the “laughter of the herd”). However, he perceived an alternative form of laughter—a “laughter of the height” that, in contrast to the communal bleating of the townspeople, represented “the first sign of a higher psychic life.” Nietzsche felt that laughter had a vital capacity for liberation if it was done correctly. “Laughing Lions must come!” he hailed (Nietzsche 1995, p. 283). He insisted upon the existence of a kind of laughter that—rather than keeping people in their place—expressed freedom, individuality, “and a refusal to bow before the spirit of gravity.” (Kaufmann’s footnote in Nietzsche 1989, p. 231-233) This laughter, defying the social sense of humour forced upon it, would embrace the absurdity of existence with joyous affirmation. Thus Nietzsche, very much concerned with what laughter does, and more importantly, what it could do, endorsed a form of individual laughing that actively liberated oneself from the significations of their social context and fostered a kind of joyful self-overcoming and wisdom. Nietzsche, unlike his predecessors, apprehended the political and personal power laughter possessed. Furthermore, he realised that this power could be harnessed—in the same way that society (the herd) had harnessed it—by a “self-liberating” individual. Laughter’s critical eye could thus be turned upon society itself (its norms, prohibitions and expectations) and provide the individual with both wisdom and emancipation.

Mikhail Bakhtin likewise saw the revolutionary potential of rebellious laughter. For him, emancipatory laughter is embodied—on a social level—in what he calls the “carnivalesque.” Bakhtin, whilst writing in Moscow under Stalin’s regime, focussed upon the social manifestations and the social impact of this kind of alternative, “liberated” laughter. In order to develop his theory of the novel as anantigenre—a constantly self-renewing “parody” of truth, timelessness and totality—Bakhtin draws upon the traditional practices of medieval carnival he found represented within the work of François Rabelais. As Bakhtin saw it:

Carnival celebrated temporary liberation from the prevailing truth and from the established order; it marked the suspension of all hierarchical rank, privileges, norms, and prohibitions. Carnival was the true feast of time, the feast of becoming, change, and renewal. It was hostile to all that was immortalized and completed. (Bakhtin 1984, p. 10)

For Bakhtin, carnival laughter is thus revolutionary. By laughing at the transcendental signifiers of social life—time, hierarchy, history, morality, religion, and truth—carnival momentarily restructures the social order, and with it, the ontology of its inhabitants. In the marketplace, “old truth and authority” is transformed “into a Mardi Gras dummy, a comic monster that the laughing crowd rends to pieces.” (ibid., p. 213) Terry Eagleston describes Bakhtin’s conception of carnival as “a riot of semiosis…a ceaseless practice of travesty and inversion (nose/phallus, face/buttocks, sacred/profane),” that deconstructs images, misreads texts, and collapses binary oppositions (Eagleton 2009, p. 145). During carnival time, subject’s lives are literally turned upside-down and inside-out by laughter. Carnival laughter is transgressive, regenerative, and transformative—it is “the laughter of all the people…it is directed at all and everyone…it is gay, triumphant, and at the same time mocking, deriding. It asserts and denies, buries and revives.” (Bakhtin 1984, p. 11-12)

Thus, carnival laughter turns the mechanism of classical laughter on its head—rendering the sacred profane, the decorous indecent, and the anticipated unexpected. Through utilising the positive, regenerative and creative aspects of laughter, the “carnival spirit” renders the non-laughable laughable and, in so doing, uncovers the absurdity of the social order. Eagleton, in his Towards a Revolutionary Criticism, illustrates the disparity between this festive “play” and the kind of activity that has real revolutionary impact. According to him, “Carnival is so vivaciously celebrated that the necessary political criticism is almost too obvious to make. Carnival, after all, is a licensed affair in every sense, a permissible rupture of hegemony, a contained popular blow-off.” (Eagleton 2009, p. 148) Susan Suleiman, though wary of Eagleton’s resoluteness, makes a key contribution to his critique, conceding that, “if the transgressions of carnival are licensed and “contained” by the dominant culture, then such transgressions are no more than a particularly clever ruse of the Law.” (Suleiman 1990, p. 143) If we look at Bakhtin’s Rabelais and his World, there is much to suggest that carnival is, in fact, a “licensed” affair. As Bakhtin tells us,

Having forbidden laughter in every official sphere of life and ideology, the Middle Ages on the other hand bestowedexceptional privileges of license and lawlessness outside these spheres: in the marketplace, on feast days, in festive recreational literature. And medieval laughter knew how to use these privileges widely. (Bakhtin 1984, pp. 71-72, my emphasis)

Bakhtin readily acknowledges that carnival laughter is a “privilege” bestowed upon the people by the social order. This “revolutionary” laughter is allotted a time, and its place is carefully demarcated “outside of all official strict forms of social relations.” (ibid., 73) The irony of this is that the “transgressive” carnivalesque spirit actually serves to consecrate the foundations of hegemony through acknowledging its own eccentricity and exclusion from “official” or “serious” medieval culture. As a young man, in an apology for the feast of fools, explains, “Wine barrels burst if from time to time we do not open them and let in some air. All of us men are barrels poorly put together…This is why we permit folly on certain days so that we may later return with greater zeal to the service of God.” (quoted in Bakhtin 1984, p. 75) If the masses take pleasure in this temporary humorous diversion, this gratifying “release” of energy, then their desires for material change are effectively placated and unlikely to transgress the boundaries of the wine cellar. Not only will they fail to problematise the boundary between life and laughter, they are likely to protect and bolster this barrier due to the temporary pleasure it affords.

This regulated “blow off”—the social sanctioning of carnival—performs, on a social level, the function Sigmund Freud attributes to laughter at the level of the subject. Freud’s “relief theory” of laughter, developed largely in Wit and its Relation to the Unconscious, maintains that “pleasure proceeds from a saving in expenditure of affect.” (Freud 1928, p. 1) According to Freud, responding to a situation with laughter prevents one from having to respond in more complex rational or emotional ways—as such, laughter saves one from having to exert higher levels of psychic expenditure and this “economic gain” induces pleasure. If the masses are permitted to laugh at the iniquity of the social order, if they will gain more pleasure from parodying the King and clergy than exerting the effort it would take to seriously challenge society, then why not simply “laugh it off”? Bakhtin describes the carnivalesque “feast of fools” as an annual “vent for laughter.” (Bakhtin 1984, p. 75) Freud similarly describes the comic as a prevention of expenditure (a vent) in thought, and humour as a prevention of expenditure (a vent) in feeling (Freud 1916, p. 384).

Thus, during carnival, thought and emotion—the two most necessary components of revolutionary activity—are given “the day off” so that people can console their frustration, more immediately and more pleasurably, with laughter. Indeed, Freud later described humour as that moment when the super-ego gives the ego “the day off.” By removing large quantities of cathexis from her ego and transferring it onto her super-ego, the subject is allowed to triumph in the face of adverse reality—“one refuses to undergo suffering, asservates the invincibility of one’s ego against the real world and victoriously upholds the pleasure principle.” (Freud 1928, p. 3) In other words, the subject takes the path of least resistance and serves a pleasurable (perhaps carnivalesque?) illusion rather than attempting to confront the adversity of her real circumstances. However, as Freud importantly points out, she does all this “without quitting the ground of mental sanity.” (ibid.) Unlike the hysteric, who “quits” reality in order to service an illusion, the laugher remains firmly entrenched within the real—she merely insists upon temporarily taking pleasure in “the wounds dealt by the outside world.” (ibid., p. 2) As such, subjectivity is not disrupted, nor is reality challenged, by Freudian laughter. Freud’s laughter provides “relief” and thus prevents psychic disruption in much the same way as carnival prevents social disruption. Laughter, in both of these cases, plays by the rules of the secondary processes, simply shifting cathexis from the ego to the humoured super-ego, from the marketplace to the carnival, in order to maintain subjective and social equilibrium. In this way, subject and society avoid confronting reality in all its adversity—a confrontation that might summon the fluid and undisciplined drives of the primary processes, leading to psychic disruption (neurosis, hysteria) or social and political unrest.

What Freud’s relief theory and Bakhtin’s “blow-off” fail to address is the fact that laughter has real and complex social significance. Freud’s relief theory, pre-occupied with substantiating an economic model of the psychic apparatus, is not interested in laughter beyond its subjective scientific function. Bakhtin, on the other hand, although very much concerned with the social and political aspects of laughter, confines them within the boundaries of sanctioned carnival and thus renders laughter incapable of any real material disruption, that is, any “official” social signification. For both of them, laughter is little more than a pleasurable expenditure of energy.

Despite the frivolity popularly ascribed to laughter, what has remained apparent, from the classical period up until now, is the fact that laughter is very much a social and political phenomenon. A contagious technique of power and a social maintenance tool; laughter has the power to censure and control social practices, and thereby manipulate human consciousness. Although Bakhtin promotes a revolutionary harnessing of laughter pitted against the social order, he fails to realise that this would entail a reharnessing. Bakhtin’s medieval segregation of laughter and seriousness, of carnival and “official” life—“laughter in the middle ages remained outside all official spheres of ideology and outside all official strict forms of social relations”—means that he fails to take laughter “seriously.” (Bakhtin 1984, p. 73) As a consequence, his analysis results in an idealistic simplification of laughter as inherently free, radical, and revolutionary. Bakhtin’s theory of laughter cannot account for the ways in which laughter does infuse and maintain “official” ideology and “strict” social relations and, consequently, he fails to develop an adequate theory of laughter’s revolutionary potential.

Julia Kristeva, a theorist who consistently appreciates the complex, tenuous and dual nature of signification within society, provides us with an alternative conception of what revolutionary laughter might consist in. Kristeva emphasises the “primitive” nature of laughter—that is, its originary “autonomy” from social signification—in order to stress the tumultuous and complicated nature of its relationship to the Symbolic. Kristeva observes, in Desire in Language, that “children lack a sense of humour,” for “humour presupposes the super-ego and its bewildering;” yet, she maintains, “the simultaneity of laughter with first vocalisations has long been recognised.” (Kristeva 1980, p. 284) According to Kristeva, the maternal or semiotic chora—a site of indistinction between “subject” and “object;” “same” and “other;” “infant” and “mother;” and thus a stage preceding social signification (preceding the mirror stage)—nevertheless relieves and produces laughter (ibid., p. 284). As she explains, “by semiotic, I mean, for example, the child’s echolalia before the appearance of language.” (Kristeva 1996, p. 21) Thus, laughter is a semiotic drive destined to occupy the locus of negativity after the child enters the Symbolic; “negativity is a process that liquefies and dissolves the rational attempt to define and stabilise thought and language through concepts” (Boulous Walker 1998, p. 104).

The ongoing presence of semiotic negativity within the socialised adult causes her subjectivity to unfold in an undulating process, rather than “take place” as a fixed and wilful intentionality. Kristeva stresses the embodied nature of this process with her image of the “body-in-crisis,” where the drives—as chaotic and contradictory somatic phenomena—continually hurl “bursts of black laughter” at the subject who attempts to posit herself as a coherent and unified agent (Kristeva 1980, p. 145). The semiotic, suffusing and rupturing symbolic coherence, causes the subject to experience an ongoing embodied contradiction with the Social. As Michelle Boulous Walker puts it, “It is this negativity that propels the subject, in process, toward its transgressive relation with the symbolic order. It is this negativity that positions and repositions it in ever changing constellations with the symbolic.” (Boulous Walker 1998, p. 107) According to Kristeva’s formulation, semiotic drives, such as laughter, have the potential to radically restructure social relations through urging the body “into an endless play of movement” with the social order (ibid., p. 109). However if, as Kristeva claims, laughter is a “pre-Symbolic” drive—a “carrier” of negativity capable of instigating radical personal and social upheaval—then how is it that laughing, in theory and in practice, seems to primarily serve the interests of the Symbolic order, regulating and upholding its Law?

In Revolution in Poetic Language, Kristeva points out that the drives—as semiotic processes of negativity—are capable of becoming invested with Symbolic signification. As she observes, “At the moment of rejection, a binding, symbolic, ideological and thus positivising component intervenes in order to constitute, within language, the new object produced.” (Kristeva 1984, p. 204) Thus, although laughter may herald a moment of Symbolic rejection, it is likely the Subject will repress the struggle this entails (cf. Kristeva, 1984: 204) by refurnishing the occasion of her laughter with symbolic signification. When this occurs, the negativity of the act is diffused and its significance is inherited by the symbolic order. Thus, the fact that laughter has been employed by the Symbolic as a social corrective does not contradict Kristeva’s observation that laughter originates within maternal chora and subsists as a semiotic drive. It is clearly desirable to invest our drives with symbolic signification, for if this is achieved, then they no longer present a threat to our subjectivity, nor to the systematicities (natural, social, scientific, political) through which we maintain our subjectivity. What Kristeva’s insights challenge is the claim that laughter is a product of the Symbolic—a purely social phenomenon existing solely to maintain the interests of a particular society. Thus, Kristeva helps us to conceive of an “other site” of laughter—one that is not necessarily delineated and determined by the symbolic order. That is, she enables us to see the distinction—realised in different ways by both her and Nietzsche—between laughter as a social mechanism (a reaction provoked and regulated by the significations of society) and laughter as an action in and of itself.

This re-conception of laughter uncovers, beneath its status as socially programmed and reactive, laughter’s active and potentially “revolutionary” origins. It thus apprehends the complex and dual nature of laughter’s relationship to the social. Such an apprehension was at the heart of a radical “harnessing” of laughter prolific in the twentieth century—a “harnessing” realised most emphatically in the realms of art and literature. “Since the renaissance,” Kristeva claims, “the West has laughed only with the enlightenment…or perhaps in the recesses of psychosis.” (Kristeva 1980, p. 181) Kristeva draws an important contrast here between the heterogeneous laughter of the modern avant-garde and the segregated laughters of history (enlightenment satire’s purely symbolic signification on the one hand, and the a-symbolic or purely semiotic ejaculations of the psychotic on the other). In contrast to these discrete experiences, Kristeva outlines a revolutionary practice that straddles and dissolves their distinction. Phillipe Soller’s H, Kristeva insists, “laughs differently.” (ibid.)

Kristeva sees in many figures of the literary avant-garde the unfolding of poetic subjectivity. According to Kristeva, the poetic subject experiences and explores the undulations of the semiotic that pervade “his” subjective process—however, rather than fleeing into psychosis, “he” “aims to invest, within social discourse, the truth of the subject thus put to the test.” (Kristeva 1984, p. 219) This is why Kristeva implores us to “Laugh through saturated-striated meaning, through affirmed-rhythmic identity.” Each voyage into our semiotic tributaries (saturated, rhythmic) requires a symbolic map (meaning, identity); otherwise we run the risk of falling into psychosis, or worse, enlightenment. Whilst Kristeva considers laughter to be phonic, it remains necessarily tied to signification, just as the semiotic remains necessarily tied to the symbolic. Thus, for laughter to be truly revolutionary it must emanate from a subject-in-process; that is, it must both signify and reverberate:

By stating scientific truths about the process of the subject (his discourse, his sexuality) and the tendencies of current historical processes, the text fulfils its ethical function only when it pluralizes, pulverizes, “musicates” these truths, which is to say, on the condition that it develop them to the point of laughter. (ibid., p. 233)

This is not the chastising laughter of the classics, nor is it the cavorting king (the kindly super-ego) of carnival. It is laughter that inhabits the recesses of our selves and the excesses of society—laughter that ricochets, reverberating within our body and throughout society, within our subjectivity and throughout signification. Furthermore, it is laughter that transforms these configurations, and their relation, in the process.

Kristeva insists that, “we do not laugh because of what makes sense or because of what does not.” (Kristeva 1980, p. 182) In both of these cases, our laughter is diffused—locked away in Voltaire’s Candide, or in an insane asylum. Rather,

we laugh because of possible meaning…we laugh at the utterance that is not music, and/or the sexuality that is not a process of consumption…such a laughter is synonymous with musicated enunciation—a space where enunciation and rhythm, positioning and inifinitisation of meaning are inseparable. (ibid.)

Revolutionary laughter is resistant to social and subjective attempts to overlay its signifiance with meaning and order. Unlike the Freudian laugher, permitted momentary pleasure by the super-ego, or Bakhtin’s carnival-goer, whose cavorting is carefully sanctioned and demarcated by the social order; the revolutionary poetic subject laughs “into a void composed of logical, syntactic, and narrative surplus.” (ibid., p. 181) Importantly, this subject does not “quit the ground of mental sanity,” rather, “he” quits the arbitrary distinction between sanity and insanity, “he” laughs at it. In other words, “his” laughter “isn’t caused by a clash between signified values; nor is it caused by the eruption of nonsense within sense;” rather, it is the “arbitrariness of the break establishing meaning” that provokes “his” laughter (ibid., p. 182). What is revolutionary about this is that the liberated subject-in-process, capable of apprehending the arbitrariness of meaning, is also capable of communicating it through social signification—through rebellious laughter. “Laughter of language, laughter of sociality itself.” (ibid.)

This rebellious laughter, this “laughter of sociality itself,” has been the catalyst and even the substance of many major “revolutions” in western thought and action. Nietzsche stoked the fires of post-modernism when he laughed at History—declaring its Truths nothing but “a storeroom of costumes” to be played with. According to Nietzsche, the only thing for a noble individual to do was to become a “parodist of the world’s history.” The ideal outcome of this being that everything is denied a future except for “laughter itself.” (Nietzsche 1989, p. 133) There is no doubt that many of the great “liberators of thought” also happened to be great laughers. According to Michel de Certeau, Michel Foucault “would roll with laughter…an irrepressible laugh,” whenever he happened upon a new “discovery.” (Certeau 2010, p. 194) Foucault’s insights were granted him by his capacity to “answer to the laughs of history”—its discontinuities, its elusive heterogeneities, and its mocking accidents. According to Certeau, Foucault represented “the philosopher [who], overtaken by laughter, seized by an irony of things equivalent to an illumination, is not the author but the witness of these flashes traversing and transgressing the gridding of discourses effected by established systems of reason.” (ibid.) Not only did his bouts of laughter grant Foucault the liberty to “think otherwise,” he then had to communicate his findings through combining his meticulous historical data with “the laugh of invention”—a joyful, polymorphous and creative laugh; and thus necessarily a revolutionary one (ibid., p. 195). What is important about the laughters of Kristeva, Nietzsche, and Foucault is that they simultaneously liberate and criticise. What these theorists apprehend is that whilst laughter has real political significance within society; it remains, at the same time, heterogeneous to the social order. And it is this “polymorphous perversity” that lends laughter its revolutionary potential.

We must be cautious, however, about too readily exchanging “Vive la révolution” for “Vive le rire,” or “Una risata vi seppellirà” (“It will be a laugh that buries you”, an Italian situationist street slogan). If we return to Terry Eagleton’s critique of Bakhtin in its totality, we see an interesting association being made: carnival is “a contained, popular blow-off as disturbing and relatively ineffectual as a revolutionary work of art.” (Eagleton 2009, p. 148) Is it possible that “revolutionary” avant-garde activity—the groundbreaking artwork, film, literature and philosophy of the past few centuries—is “as ineffectual as” a carnival? Is the social order and/or one’s subjective apparatus, really affected by Marcel Duchamp’s readymades or Barbara T. Smith’s performances? Or has a day at the art gallery become nothing more than a glorified trip to the zoo? These are crucial questions to keep in mind if we wish to liberate laughter from symbolic captivity and harness its revolutionary potential. Of course, it is likely that most people, upon experiencing the work of Henry Miller, Jean-Luc Godard, or Nancy Spero for the first time, deflect the contradiction it arouses by mocking it with derisive laughter…but the work laughs back. Any laughter directed at it becomes laughter shared with it. Herein lies the revolution. For the revolutionary artwork does not blush when laughed at, rather, it embraces this laughter, shares it, amplifies it, and gives it meaning/s.

Perhaps Claude Faraldo’s howling Themroc—whose emancipatory laughter literally shatters capitalist law and order (in film); Hélène Cixous’ laughing Medusa, who heralds the self-signification of the female subject; or Diotima’s laughing refusal to enter into the metaphysical grappling of Socrates, provide us with more direct and explicit instances of affective, revolutionary laughter.

Regardless of who might be the most effective figure of revolutionary laughter, the aim of this paper is to emphasise the complex role laughter plays within society. What I have tried to address is the fact that laughter, far from representing “gay, fanciful, recreational drollery deprived of philosophic content” (Bakhtin 1984, p. 12), performs a very real and potentially dangerous social function. As Bergson pointed out in 1911, “Laughter must answer to certain requirements of social life in common. It must have a socialsignification.” (Bergson 1911, pp. 5a-5b) What remains largely overlooked is the fact that laughter is, often unknowingly, employed as a technique of social correction and manipulation—a technique of power. What the cultivation of revolutionary laughter provides us with is the ability to avoid becoming unwitting administrators of social and subjective uniformity. Revolutionary laughter, with its creative and critical independence, has the power to liberate the individual from the laughing herd. In addition to this, it emancipates the subject from experiencing shame or disapproval for her own eccentricities—she can no longer be laughed at, only laughed with—and propels her into a revolutionary process of infinitely transformable social and subjective possibilities.

Emma Wilson is currently studying her masters in philosophy at UQ. She submitted this piece three years ago as an undergraduate.


Works Cited

Bakhtin, Mikhail 1984, Rabelais and his world, trans. Hélène Iswolsky, Indiana University Press, Indiana.

Bergson, Henri 1911, Laughter: an essay on the meaning of the comic, trans. Cloudesley Brereton and Fred Rothwell, Temple of the Earth Publishing.

Boulous Walker, Michelle 1998, Philosophy and the maternal body: reading silence, Routledge, New York.

Certeau, Michel de 2010, Heterologies: discourse on the other, trans. Brian Massumi, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.

Descartes, René 1985, The philosophical writings of Descartes, vol.1, trans. John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, and Dugald Murdoch, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

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Photo by Luca Upper.
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