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Laughter - Notes on a passion

Laughter - Notes on a Passion

by Anca Parvulescu
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2010
208 pp. illus. 30 b/w. Paper, $21.95
ISBN: 978-0-262-51474-3.

Reviewed by Edith Doove
Transtechnology Research, University of Plymouth


Parvelescu's Introduction to the subject of laughter is extremely comprehensive and, at times, somewhat convulsive. The scope of the book ranges from laughing as incantation, the matter of laughing at, passion, the mouth, the last avant-gardes, woman, readening/listening and finally the archive of laughter, and in setting this out the author touches on so many intriguing aspects of laughter that there is an almost irresistible temptation for her to stray into domains that distract from the subject rather than add to it. This is especially the case when she explains the subtitle and the initial framing of the book. Laughter in this book is returned to the passions and while the history of laughter does not necessarily have to be funny, the author has structured the book in such a way that each of the chapters revolve around an anecdote as well as a central figure which turns out to be such a tight corset that it leaves little room for actual laughter.

Parvelescu's main target is to return to the materiality of laughter itself. In this regard the image of a laughing puppet on the cover summarizes its key discussion which is not so much the why and what about of laughter as the how and where. The book comprises of five chapters: on the civilizing of laughter; modernism - or an extravagance of laughter; the philosophical avant-gardes - or the community of laughers; feminism - or "she's beautiful and she's laughing" and finally cinema - or the laughing gas party. It is a narrow spectrum of the topic and can hardly be said to deliver an objective archive of laughter but perhaps that is not the intention, although it immediately draws attention to what is left out. Starting the book with the civilization of laughter this chapter also delivers an extensive overview on how society tried to deal with 'the savage' and kill it so to speak. In the discussion of laughter by the philosophical avant-garde or feminists, the central figures (Bataille and Cixous) connect laughter with death as does the chapter on cinema in which most of the laughter that Parvulescu discusses in this is produced by actors that have died a long time ago.

Perhaps this morbid fascination should be expected since in opening with Nietzsche's, "It is the past - the longest, deepest, hardest of pasts - that seems to surge up whenever we turn serious", Parvulescu of course sets the tone of a book which is very explicitly about laughter in the past tense. As a consequence as an archive of laughter it necessarily lacks the immediate aspects of the actual act of laughter - even in an historic context. This could have been recovered with perhaps a broader brush to include the impact of laughter on art. For example Zurich Dada's highly influential reinstatement of laughter in Modernism (which is discussed in this book mainly in terms of Afro-American culture) about which Hans Richter wrote:

"The unprofessionals and art historians recognised us more by our laughter than by anything we did. Because of our external and internal perceptive powers we were aloof from the world of the petty bourgeois. [...] we laughed to our heart's delight. In this way we destroyed, affronted, ridiculed and laughed. We laughed at everything. We laughed at ourselves, as we did at the kaiser, king, and fatherland, beerbellies, and pacifiers. We took our laughter seriously; it was our very laughter that guaranteed the seriousness of our anti-art activities in our efforts to find ourselves." [1]

This creative insistence on the what, how and effect of laughter is perhaps the 'dog that does not bark' in this book. However fascinating as an (partial) archive of laughter, history (and the medium of the book) Laughter - Notes on Passion apparently leaves no place for actual laughter and that seems almost perverse given the subtitle. But to its great credit it places a key topic on the agenda for those interested in art and culture (and for that matter the sciences and technology) which is that although it is a largely private and apparently unpredictable reaction it has great resonance with where we are and how we view the world as a cultural habitat. Parvelescu says as much in her introduction: "Drawing on its musical overtones, the teacher writes "notes", around which she and her students improvise. Crucial in any note-writing exercise is the interval, the energetic white space between the islands of writing, where the interesting swimming happens." The burst of laughter may have been theorized to death; however, this book definitely inspires to write others on these white spaces and to bring laughter and its determining influences alive.


[1] Hans Richter, Dada : Kunst und Antikunst (Cologne: DuMont, Schauberg, 1964), 66f.]

Last Updated 1 December 2010

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