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ENGL 705.401
also offered as: COML 705
Tuesday 9-12:00pm


Bergson and Freud baptized modern laughter around 1900. Freud inherited a German Romantic tradition that took Witz as the key: witty knowledge eschews the discursivity of Reason thanks to a short-circuit. Bergson, inheriting a mechanistic account of laughter, rewrote it by spiritualizing it: the clash between machine bodies and the inner creativity of humans is sufficient to generate laughter. Modern laughter in all its manifestations is inhabited by a parallel sadness, which may be due to the fact that if we laugh too much, we cry, a paradoxical phenomenon investigated by Darwin in his last book. These theoretical considerations will lead us to explore a genealogy of ambivalent laughter or dialectical laughter best summed up by Giordano Bruno’s motto “In tristitia hilaris, in hilaritate tristis.” Indeed laughter never appears in isolation, for it is often combined with its opposite, whatever that may be, from tears to screams.

We will begin with the figure of Joker, a political allegory of ambivalence, relayed by Vanessa Place’s disturbing “Rape Jokes” and an essay on “tickling to death” from Cabinet magazine, before sketching a philosophical history of the laughing/crying philosopher. After having explored four theoretical files (Bergson, Freud, Bakhtin and Paolo Virno) with their examples, we will discuss two classical couples: Plato and Aristophanes (The Symposium and The Clouds), Democritus and Heraclitus, whose systematic contrast astonished Montaigne and many others.

Moving on to the idea of laughter as the origin of “theory” elaborated by Hans Blumenberg in The Laughter of the Thracian woman, we will try to find a solution in genre-theory by examining the genre of the tragi-comedy, from Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale to Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Endgame. Other texts that navigate between genres will include Laurence Sterne’s unclassifiable Sentimental Journey, Diderot Rameau’s Nephew read by Hegel in the Phenomenology of Spirit, Georges Bataille’s novels in parallel with his essays. We will ask whether it is true that Kafka is so funny, and will end with Milan Kundera’s The Joke andVitold Gombrowicz’s Ferdydurke, Cosmos and Pornografia. We will not forget to look at film, more specifically second-generation slapstick, paying specific attention to Chaplin’s later masterpieces, Monsieur Verdoux and A King in New York.  


1.     The Physiology of laughter: Darwin, Lessing, La Mettrie, the young Marx. Freud’s economics vs. Bergson’s mechanics.

2.     Mikhail Bakhtin on laughter in Rabelais.

3.     Paolo Virno‘s modelization of the joke.

4.     The Democritus/Heraclitus: their theories and their couple in art and Montaigne’s Essays.  

5.     Diogenes/ Plato Symposium – Philebus, Aristophanes: The Clouds.

6.     Hans Blumenberg’s The Laughter of the Thracian woman.

7.     Shakespeare’s bitter tragi-comedy: The Winter’s Tale.

8.     What happens in Sterne’s Sentimental Journey.

9.     D. Diderot Rameau’s Nephew in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit.

10.  F. Nietzsche and G. Bataille on laughter via Anca Parvulescu.

11.  Kafka’s laughter in The Trial, The Castle and the short stories.

12.  Walter Benjamin/T. W. Adorno on film: slapstick; Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux and A King in NewYork.

12. Beckett’s tragi-comedies, Waiting for Godot and Endgame.

13.  Political or ontological laughter: Milan Kundera’s The Joke vs.Gombrowicz’s Ferdydurke, Cosmos and Pornografia.


fulfills requirements