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Comedy/humor has long been a fascination here and we've written about it often. But a media mention of this book caught me off-guard, because Ms Parvulescu's topic is one that I had never truly considered: the physicality of laughter. My interest had always been what we find funny and why, not the fact that comedy produces a physical action. So I contacted Penguin Random House and they kindly sent us a review copy. It turns out the book is part of a series--Short Circuits--edited by the philosopher Slavoj Žižek and others--which is concerned with applying Lacanian psychoanalysis to a variety of topics. This sort of Freudian is inevitably nonsensical and the further the text drifts into the less useful it is, but the opening is strong enough to appeal to even the most skeptical layman.

As her subtitle indicates, the author--in a nod to 17th and 18th century philosophers--considers laughter to be one of the passions. Thus she analyzes it as primarily an emotional/physical reaction rather than as a secondary product of an intellectual exercise. Her strongest statement of the case is as follows:
At its most basic, laughter is the rhythmic opening of a mouth. Laughter sonorously opens the mouth, one in a series of orifices of the body and the paradigmatic opening of the face. Laughter is one of the extra-reasonable, animal-like activities of the mouth, alongside eating, breathing, spitting, or kissing. But the laughing mouth is also singular in that its mode of opening is unique. There is no incorporation of an object involved in laughter (as in eating), no expulsion (as in spitting or vomiting), nor a simple combination of the two(as in breathing). Likewise, there is no contact with an other, at least not immediately (as in kissing).

In laughter, the mouth opens, its "inside" touching the "outside," as if it wants to speak or "communicate," and yet what is communicated is only the very opening of the mouth, its gaping.

I'd differ with the notion that the "decision" to laugh is not reasonable (not reasoned) but it's hard to argue against that portrait of how peculiar the physical act of laughing is.

The chapter "The Civilizing of Laughter" is similarly interesting. There she traces how the philosophers of the "passions" sought to domesticate laughter, to convince people that laughing was a form of bad manners: "Only children laugh 'heartily.' The civilizing process has pruned laughter to a moderate size: we laugh moderate, civilized laughs." I would argue here though that the concern of the time was rather less about the physical extravagance of open laughter but about the nature of humor. Sure one wanted children to be "seen and not heard," servants to be unobtrusive, young ladies to be placid, tradesmen to be deferential, etc., but there is an inherent political threat in a hierarchical society when such people indulge in laughter at all if we allow for the superiority theory of humor. What, after all, can these "inherently" inferior peoples be laughing at? Who is it that they are feeling superior to? As I've often argued, we have the reverse situation in our more sensitive times, when folks object to laughter because of the implicit suggestion that some are inferior. Political correctness mitigates against the very concept of humor and stifles the laughter of its adherents.

To be fair, the author cites Quentin Skinner to similar effect when discussing feminism and laughter:
For the rhetoricians, the significance of the fact that laughter is an expression of scorn and contempt is essentially forensic in character. If it is true, they argue, that laughter is the outward manifestation of these particular emotions, one can convert it into a uniquely powerful weapon of moral and political debate."

But an age of moral relativism can not help but be resistant to the use of moral weapons generally, nevermind "scorn and contempt"

Because one can find such nuggets of wisdom throughout, the whole book is worth reading. But it is the opening chapters that are particularly strong and that focus on the physical act of laughing that is eye-opening.


Grade: (B)


See also:

Anca Parvulescu Links:

    -AUTHOR SITE: Anca Parvulescu ?Professor of English (University of Washington in St. Louis)
-BOOK SITE: Laughter (Penguin Random House)
    -BOOK SITE: Laughter (MIT Press)
    -GOOGLE BOOK: Laughter: Notes on a Passion By Anca Parvulescu
    -BOOK SITE: Creolizing the Modern: Transylvania across Empires BY ANCA PARVULESCU AND MANUELA BOATC? (Cornell University Press)
    -ESSAY: Istanbul, Capital of Comparative Literature (Anca Parvulescu, December 2020, MLN)
    -ESSAY: (Dis)Counting Languages Between Hugó Meltzl and Liviu Rebreanu (Anca Parvulescu and Manuela Boatc?, 14 Feb 2020, Journal of World Literature)
    -VIDEO LECTURE: Anca Parvulescu I The Face of the Master (Anca Parvulescu, Goethe-Institut Slowenien)
    -VIDEO: Three Laughs [Dr. Maggie Hennefeld (University of Minnesota), Dr. Danielle Fuentes Morgan (Santa Clara University), and Dr. Anca Parvulescu (Washington University), Core Humanities Speaker Series, Nevada Core Humanities]
    -ESSAY: Parvulescu, Anca (2004) "Beyond Marriage: The Couple," Discourse: Journal for Theoretical Studies in Media and Culture: Vol. 26: Iss. 3, Article 1.
    -ESSAY: Even Laughter? From Laughter in the Magic Theater to the Laughter Assembly Line (Anca Parvulescu, 2017, Critical Inquiry)
    -ESSAY: "So We Will Go Bad": Cheekiness, Laughter, Film (Anca Parvulescu, August 2006, Camera Obscura Feminism Culture and Media Studies)
    -PROFILE: Campus Author: Anca Parvulescu, PhD — Laughter: Notes on a Passion: Parvulescu’s book examines modern laughter (The Source, 11/19/2010, Washington University)
    -PROFILE: Anca Parvulescu’s laughing matter (Michelle Stein, October 9, 2009, Student Life: University of Washington)
    -ESSAY: Why do we laugh? New study considers possible evolutionary reasons behind this very human behaviour (Carlo Valerio Bellieni, September 22, 2022, The Conversation)
    -EXCERPT: Introduction to In the Event of Laughter: Psychoanalysis, Literature and Comedy by Alfie Bown
    -REVIEW: of Laughter: Notes on a Passion by Anca Parvulescu (K.M. Stutman, Journal of Modern Literature)
    -REVIEW: of Laughter: Notes on a Passion by Anca Parvulescu (Don L. F. Nilsen, Studies in American Humor)
    -REVIEW: of Laughter (Margaret Mathias, Humor)
    -REVIEW: of

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