This project began by collecting moments of laughter that were utterly disassociated from humor. I became obsessed with laughs that simply burst forth out of a mouth, weird laughs that were not reactions or responses to comedy or humor. These oddities called attention to themselves by standing to one side of humor, and also to one side of the material text itself. Interrogatingwhy these particular laughs jammed the narrative was the intellectual starting point of this project. These instances of laughter worked as knots or bumps in the text, if you ran over them too fast you were bumped out of the narrative arc and readerly experience, into the lived reality of you and your body holding a book and reading words. I think a formative moment for this project was Nathanael West’s “ha-ha, he said” that added to the uncannily scripted but dangerously unpredictable experience of reading Day of the Locust. West’s refusal (inability?) to represent laughter in the traditional “ha-ha” model revealed the incomprehensibility of laughter, its life outside of representation and in singular performance.
Upon close inspection of a series of laughing moments, I began to see that the rupture of the artifice of the text by this invocation of laughter distracts us from a more fundamental rupture, that of the ontological model of being that traditionally structures Western philosophy. Humor studies uses laughter to fastidiously maintain the subject-object dyad, repeatedly and loudly asserting that laughter works to cleanse and maintain the political subject. Part of this project is to historicize these articulations of “humor” to show how they distort laughter to fit their own political ends. This is a deliberately Foucauldian approach, and I think that his observations of the intersection of power and knowledge map onto the history of laughter, which is continually silenced and contained by the twin structures of humor studies and social etiquette.
This is not an archaeology. The plan is not to recover a suppressed archive of laughter from specific cultural moments in order to write a retrospective of the damage wrought by these perfect crystalline structures of humor studies. Rather than resuscitating forgotten laughter, I seek explosive laughter, laughter that seeks to push through and past the obsession with separation, containment, and essence that dominates Western philosophy and politics. This laughter is experienced by the narrator as horror, and in each case is deeply tied to the problem of the unrepresentable, the inexplicable, and the unknown. Laughter is a kind of body horror. Without our consent, it hijacks the body, and still, after thousands of years of critical attention, we cannot account for its origins. This project does not seek to “know” or “master” laughter, but to encounter it in all its opacity and then ask not what it is,but what it does.