Laughter: a Tool to Rebel or Conform?

Albert Brenchat reflects on the conference ‘On Laughter’, Institute of Advanced Studies, University College London, 10, 11 and 12 July, 2019.

The Laughing Audience (or A Pleased Audience), by William Hogarth


Is laughter a tool to rebel or to conform? What are the boundaries between ‘laughter’ and ‘humour’? These were the two questions most often raised in the three-day conference ‘On Laughter that took place at the Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS) at University College London on 10, 11 and 12 July 2019. This conference closed a year of research on the theme of ‘Laughter’ at the IAS that has seen discussions on humour, jokes, irony, comedy and satire. Along with my colleagues at UCL, we have attempted to bring in discussions on laughter that trespass the barriers of these linguistic discussions to pay attention to the body, the space of a joke and a laugh.

Feminist theory of the 1980s and 90s has proved to be a wonderful resource for thinking of laughter as a situated social interaction, that is fleshed out in the brains and bodies of the subjects that are laughing and the spaces in between them. I return here to Cixous’ phrase in her essay The Laugh of the Medusa: ‘If she’s a her-she, it’s in order to smash everything, to shatter the framework of institutions, to blow up the law, to break up the “truth” with laughter.’ Blowing and breaking up, smashing things, shattering frameworks… the physicality of these claims is as explicit as situatedness has been – and still is – for feminist theory.

Film still of A Question of Silence (De Stilte Rond Christine M.), (1982) by Marleen Gorris

One of the biggest successes of this conference was the possibility of speaking about laughter on its own, considered as an embodied practice, from many different standpoints. This was not only a result of the careful selection of papers and keynote speakers from very diverse disciplines but also the choice of topics for the conference by its organisers, Dr Alice Rudge and Dr Andrew Dean. Panels were shaped on transdisciplinary themes such as evolution, violence, trouble, hope, uncertainty, despair, memory, sensibility and transgression. The differences between laughter and humour and the rebellious power of these were little by little unfolded over this three-day conference that brought together scholars from neurology, anthropology, geography, political sciences and art history, among others.

The first keynote talk was delivered by Devorah Baum and situated the problem of laughter in the political arena of 2019. Her talk ‘Dear Jokes, whose side are you on? yours sincerely, 2019’ used arguments from literary criticism and the political sciences to express the difficulty to distinguish between the joker and the non-joker ⁠— as well as between a joke and a serious statement ⁠— in today’s digital media.


The first panel explored ideas on ‘Laughter, Evolution and Human Vocalisation’. In the second panel, the intersection of ‘Humour and Violence’ was explored through different variations of black humour that connected laughter to death and oppression. Stephen Forcer and Laura Martin looked at gender-based violence in a community in Sierra Leone. Emily Upson focused on the concept of ‘skeletal humour’, a joyless and dry sort of humour that reduces the comical to its skeleton, metaphorically as humour without laughter, and literally as an expression of a human reaction to death. To better understand this idea, imagine a situation where you found someone dead and did not only feel sorry for them but relieved for being alive, this is a strange and funny feeling close somehow to the comical.

The third panel on ‘Laughing Brains’ attempted to establish universal patterns of laughter-triggering behaviours in the brain through samples of Western normative adults and babies. The latest technological devices to analyse neurological behaviour are similar to clothing and allow, argues Addison Niemeyer, for the study of laughter in babies and adults in everyday spaces. Caspar Addyman’s methodology for analysing babies’ patterns of laughter was, on the other hand, statistical. His international research brought him to the conclusion that babies’ laughter is not only a reaction to something funny but a broad and engaging mode of communication with others. Christine Howes analysed the movements of the bodies of subjects diagnosed with schizophrenia and their family members to establish the extent to which their laughter was different.

‘Troublesome Laughter’, the fourth panel, discussed the multiple meanings of the aesthetics of laughter through human geography, art history, literature and philosophy. Phil Emmerson took the recent US Senate Hearings on Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court in which Professor Christine Ford explained the sexual abuse she had suffered from Kavanaugh in the past. Emmerson explored laughter both as an act of violence from the male members of the commission towards Ford, and as an act of comradeship between these white heterosexual men — Emmerson defined the effect of comradeship through the politics of affect. Katharina Donn, on the other hand, explored laughter as a source of solidarity and poetic forms of cross-species relations through Donna Haraway and Stacy Alaimo’s works on ecocriticism.

The end of the second day was marked by Morten Kringelbach’s keynote talk ‘The Eudaimonia of Laughter: Perspectives from neuroscience’. Kringelbach presented a comparative study of the effects of different pleasures, as well as laughter, on the brain’s activity. This allowed him to establish patterns of reaction and anticipation to different pleasant stimuli in the brains of Western normative subjects.


The third day saw parallel sessions with a panel on ‘Laughing in Hope and Despair’, another on ‘Sensibilities of Laughter’ and a third on ‘Laughter and Memory’. Andrew Dean presented a reading of Philip Roth’s The Anatomy Lesson. Roth, he suggested, tenders alternative modes of holocaust memorialization, founded less on what he called the ‘tragic sublime’ and more on laughter. Chloe Julius similarly explored holocaust memory in her account of the work of the artist-persona Rosalind Brodsky (Suzanne Treister). The comedy of Brodsky’s time travel — in an attempt to save her parents from the holocaust, she only ends up on the set of Schindler’s List — reimagines the place of the holocaust in Jewish life in Britain.

The third keynote talk of the conference was delivered by Yasmine Musharbash, who presented the complex relation between laughter and weakness through the anthropological study of Warlpiri communities of Central Australia. The ambivalent meaning of the Warlpiri word Miyalu — both ‘stomach’ and ‘space of emotions’ — was presented as an avenue to understand laughter as a fully embodied act. A laughing body is a weak body that cannot defend itself, that opens its mouth and cringes. Following Freud’s theories on laughter, Musharbash unfolded laughter in multiple ways: as a source of pleasure, as a promoter of either social inclusion or exclusion, as a source of cruel mockery and confrontation.

The afternoon saw four panels. The first of these was on ‘Therapeutic Laughter’ where Shudarshana Gupta spoke about the different kinds of laughter that can emerge in the therapeutic encounter. The third panel was on ‘Laughter and Uncertainty’ where the ambivalent value of laughter made particularly manifest. Hannah Fagin analysed the case of the New York feminist group ‘the V-girls’ through  literature on Western feminist thought from the 1980s to the 1990s in order to highlight the rebellious power of women’s laughter to shatter the established institutions from which they have been historically excluded.

The final panel on ‘Transgressive Laughter’ continued the latter discussion on the rebellious power of the aesthetics of laughter. Elisa Padilla celebrated the works of John Waters, and especially those of Hairspray and Pink Flamingos, where queer bodies had a space of visibility, where they were laughed at but also could ‘laugh last’ at those who criticise them. Jahdiel Perez unfolded Nietzsche’s thought to debunk historical prejudices against laughter as an expression contrary to serious thought. Andrei Rogatchevski turned to Stiob, a form of extreme irony developed in Russia at the dawn of the Soviet regime, as a strategy of mockery that could be performed publicly without risk of being prosecuted. Maryam Sikander continued with a powerful analysis of the humour of publications in colonial India. Carolin Zieringer closed with an action of the ‘Free the Nipple Movement’ when a group of women gathered in Brighton during the 2018 football World Cup when England lost to Croatia. English men, bare chested, were intermittently watching the football match and looking at a group of women, bare breasted, who killed their masculine joy through their laughter. Zieringer explained the claims of the group for laughing together as an act of unity.

These latter presentations wrapped up the conference bringing back Baum’s remarks at its opening when she discussed contemporary expressions of humour where it is difficult to distinguish a joker from a non-joker, the dangers and powers of laughter, and the potential of analysing laughter in order to understand social relations. Baum finished her talk with a utopian thought: the capacity to enjoy laughter directed at oneself.


Albert Brenchat is the Events Curator & Communications Officer at the Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS), University College London (UCL). From 2019 he is a CHASE funded PhD student at Birkbeck School of Arts with the project ‘Planning Ecologies of Knowledge’ focusing on the archive of the international consultant Otto Koenigsberger through ecofeminist approaches from the 1970s on.


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